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Novel set in Burma (plus author Q & A)

21st May 2014

Return to Mandalay by Rosanna Ley, novel set in Burma (and Dorset).

A book of well over 500 pages that passes like a dream. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is gorgeously evoked, and in such colourful terms that it had me wanting to drop everything and book myself on the next plane. I too wanted to walk across the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, savour the smells of hot Sandalwood, visit the places described and enjoy the refractive light on the Mogok and pigeon-blood rubies that are all part of the story….

1782067620.01.ZTZZZZZZBut this is a country that has had a very difficult history and is only just emerging; and Eva, the main character, has to weave her way through the intricacies that are modern day Myanmar. Eva is asked by her employers in Bristol to head out to Myanmar and supervise the export of chosen antique artefacts. At her Grandfather’s request, she packs into her bags a beautiful, single chinthe, given to him during his time in the Far East leading up to WW2, when the country was Burma. He asks her to match it up with its other half (they invariably come in pairs and serve as guardians outside pagodas). It is her quest to do so that forms the main storyline, and she thereby discovers so much more of her Grandfather’s history and life. Add romance and intrigue, international skulduggery and food, flavours and feel of the country, all combined with a gripping read – a book that makes for a wonderful combination that will truly allow you to wallow in a beautiful part of the world.

We are so pleased that the author, Rosanna Ley, kindly agreed to answer some of the questions we were dying to ask, so I will hand over to her. Enjoy!

TF: In Return to Mandalay, Burma is a character in its own right. How did you do your research for the book?

RL: Firstly I did a lot of reading around. This is how I tend to begin and it involves reading fictional novels set in Burma (such as ‘The Glass Palace’ by Amitav Ghosh) reading non-fiction (in this case I had an old book about Steel Brothers’ work in Burma which had belonged to my late mother-in-law and this was very useful) and information from the Internet.

Then I visited the country in November 2012 with my husband who has family there. We went to Yangon, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Llwin, Bagan and in fact everywhere that features in my novel! We also visited The National Museum in Yangon, home to many of the splendid jewels and riches of the Burmese Royal dynasties, such as carpets of woven silver, golden goblets encrusted with rubies and the original glass bed from the Royal Palace, as I knew these would feature prominently in the story. By visiting the country it is possible to experience all the flavours and feel all the sensations you need to write about. And to imagine your characters living there in the past and present.

TF: What was your experience of Myanmar/Burma?

RL: The country is beginning to ‘open out’ politically and socially and starting to welcome tourists of all nationalities. More hotels are being built to accommodate these although when we visited many were full and some travellers were even staying in monasteries.

The people (mostly Buddhists) are very warm and friendly and love to talk about Britain (especially Manchester United!) and their own Aung San Suu Kyi whom they adore. On the steps to the pagodas children are already trying to sell crayoned fans, melon-seed bracelets and home-made cards – and who can blame them when they are so poor? In Yangon, the heat is what hits you first, of course. We arrived at 6.30 a.m. and already the Burmese were using umbrellas as sunshades!

The cities (Yangon and Mandalay) are busy and noisy and it’s important to get away from the centres and explore some of the countryside which is much more rural and where you will see people working in paddy fields, picking peanuts and ploughing with buffalo, for example. In Inwa you must travel by horse and cart or bicycle as there are no cars and it is truly like going back in time. There are also many stunning pagodas (golden temples) to visit, the best of which is the Shwedagon in Yangon. The colonial architecture here was important for my story of Lawrence who came to Burma in the late 1930s and much – including the lively street markets like the one where Lawrence first meets Maya – is unchanged. Sadly, the Royal Palace in Mandalay was destroyed in the war, but has been re-constructed and contains a lot of important artefacts and old photographs of the final Burmese dynasties. You can travel along the River Irriwaddy as we did from Mandalay to Bagan where there are hundreds of temples, some ruined, some retaining their former glory.

Burma is a very special experience in many different ways.

TF: Chinthes (little leogryphs that come in pairs and guard the pagodas) are central to the narrative. What inspired you to choose these for such a prominent part in the book?

RL: Given that one element of the book involved a very special love story, I was inspired to use chinthes because they come in pairs, guarding the temples as you say. Any pair can be separated; this can be an evocative idea – twins separated at birth, lovers separated through war and so on… As a personal note, my late father in law served in the Chindits during the Second World War and Chindits got their name from chinthes, I believe. At home we also have a small collection of chinthes from his days in Burma. They mean a lot to us.

TF: Eva is a lovely character, easy to connect with. She has a very strong sense of ethics when it comes to the export of national treasures. What led you to incorporate this angle into the book?

RL: Thank you. I’m glad you like Eva. Integral to her character is that she possesses integrity. Her job and her studies (and her grandfather’s upbringing) have taught her to value authenticity and to be ethical. I wanted her to experience some conflict in Burma though and had the idea that if her loyalties to her grandfather and to the company she works for could conflict in some way, it would be interesting to see how she deals with it. In the event, her loyalty to her newfound Burmese friends is also brought into the mix!

TF: The storyline has something for everyone, intrigue, mystery, relationships and they all come together really well. When you plan a book, do you have the storyline in mind or does it evolve as you write?

RL: Thank you again and I’m glad that this worked. The answer to your question is ‘both’. I do have a plan in mind and I work on this quite a bit before I start writing. The plan needs to have legs. After that it generally evolves as I’m writing as well – sometimes going in a different direction than I originally intended. That’s fine. It helps to have a plan so that you feel you’re going somewhere, but it’s also good, in my opinion, to be flexible enough to recognise where you need to develop/ go off on a tangent/ change something, because something else works better.

TF: What is your next project and where will it be set?

RL: My next novel has the working title ‘The Saffron Trail’ and is set in Dorset and Morocco, with a bit of US and Paris thrown in!

TF: How did you first get into writing and what advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

RL: I began writing poetry as a child and later (in my twenties) I started aiming for publication with short stories and articles. I think I always liked telling stories and that hasn’t changed, but it takes a long time to learn the techniques necessary in order to write a decent novel.

My advice for aspiring novelists would be to keep writing and never give up; to not just write about what you know but also about what you want to explore and discover; to keep thinking about your reader and to have fun.

TF: Judging by your other books (detailed below) you love to travel and share the experience of other countries. What are your favourite places to visit?

RL: My favourite country to visit is definitely Italy, especially the West coast, the Cinque Terre and the Bay of Poets, and cities such as Florence and Rome. But I am enjoying visiting other countries for my books and this has brought me different experiences which I value hugely. My next big trip will be to Cuba next February, so expect a book set there in due course!

Thank you to Rosanna for sharing her thoughts! You can connect with Rosanna via her website and Twitter. Two other books by Rosanna for you to enjoy:


The Villa set in Sicily


Bay of Secrets set in Dorset, Barcelona and Fuerteventura








Tina for the TripFiction Team

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