Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Ian Hamilton

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Ian Hamilton

Ian Hamilton's Ava Lee is not the usual detective character. She's tiny, she's a woman, she's a lesbian and she's a forensic accountant. But that unexpected blend has proved a winning formula; the five books in the series have been wildly popular, with fans waiting anxiously for each new adventure.

Luckily for her fans, Ava has returned in a sixth mystery, The Two Sisters of Borneo (House of Anansi), which finds her in Hong Kong, the Netherlands and, of course, Borneo.

Today Ian speaks to Open Book about spending time with Ava, his own extensive travel background and where his diminutive heroine is heading next.

Open Book:

Tell us about your newest book, The Two Sisters of Borneo

Ian Hamilton:

In many ways, The Two Sisters is the most complex and emotional book in the series. It is the 6th book and the seeds of large parts of the plot were planted as far back as the 2nd book, and then nurtured in following books. I always envisioned Ava's life and her relationships deepening and gradually unfolding. The Two Sisters finally fully explores and brings to an end one of the most important relationships in her life; at the same, it introduces a new character who perhaps will fill the void.

There are financial misdeeds that take place, and Ava goes on the hunt for the money and the villains, but this part of the plot is almost secondary to the more personal core of the book.


If you were to describe Ava to a friend, what would you say? What is it like to spend so much time with one character?


I think of Ava as the quintessential young Canadian woman of the 21st century. She's multi-cultural, well-educated, tough-minded, practical, a social liberal, and is entirely comfortable in her own skin. Ethically, she believes in the paramountcy of the greater good and that, along with complete loyalty to friends and family, drives her forward. It is my view that women exactly like Ava should be running the world, and will be doing that within the next fifteen years or so.

And I love spending time with her, especially as she becomes more and more challenged and the various shades and nuances of her personality come to light. I feel some days that I'm just an observer, or maybe a recorder is a better description. I can see her in my head, but I don't feel I have that much control over where she's going. She is her own force of nature and I feel privileged to be a part of her world.


Has your own extensive travel background affected your writing process? Have you staken out locations for future instalments?


Almost subconsciously at the beginning of the series I found myself writing about places that I had travelled to — the first book encompassed Thailand, Trinidad, Guyana and the BVI among other places. And I just kept it up. Over the last 30 years, I think I've been to about 50 different countries so I have a large pool to draw from. Frankly, I would be uncomfortable writing about places I hadn't visited because I think it would extremely difficult to give the reader a real sense of place. It is the small details — the potholes in Guyana, the dogfish factory in northern Denmark, that harbour in Surabaya — that can only be provided by having been there.

As for future installments, I'm going to try to do more of the same. The 7th book, The King of Shanghai, is set mainly in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The 8th will move from Toronto to Amsterdam to Antwerp to Shanghai and finally to Singapore. The 9th will be in Nanjing and Shanghai and the 10th in London and Milan.


How did you approach creating the Chinese aspects (culture and family dynamics) of the series?


I didn't approach it in any structured, researched way. I spent about 20 years travelling and doing business in Asia. I've been to fifteen of the seventeen Chinese provinces, and I've spent many long periods of time in Hong Kong. I was fascinated by the culture and the history and read many books on the subjects. I also developed friendships there, and was exposed to various aspects of the culture and family structure. Lastly, I asked a lot of questions that my friends were polite enough to answer.

One of the satisfying things to me about the series has been the response from the Chinese-Canadian community. I was a bit nervous about being accused of appropriation, and about making mistakes in how I represented culture and family. My concern was misplaced. The community has been very supportive and kind, and I'm constantly being told that I have accurately captured the family dynamic.


What are you reading these days? If you could recommend one decent read, what would it be?


I have just finished re-reading In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. It was published as a travel memoir - a genre I like - but reads quite like a novel. This isn't that surprising since it was later discovered that Chatwin invented many parts of it. It is a terrific read in any event, as is his other slim novel, The Vicerory of Ouidah.

And if travel memories are anyone's thing, I highly recommend Norman Lewis. His Naples '44, The World The World and I Came I Saw are all superb.


What are you working on now?


I am rather anxiously waiting to get the line edit of the 7th Ava Lee book, The King of Shanghai. Meanwhile, I'm writing the 8th — with the working title of The Pastor's Wife of Singapore (although I'm not convinced I like it). Ava's life takes some dramatic turns in these books and I'm anxious to see how they are received.


Ian Hamiltonis the author of seven novels in the Ava Lee series, including The Water Rat of Wanchai, which was the winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Ian lives in Burlington, Ontario with his wife Lorraine. He has four children and seven grandchildren.

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