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Tuesday 19 March 2019

Marissa De Luna talks with Radmila May


Marissa de Luna is an author with a passion for travel and adventure. Marissa grew up in Goa before she moved to Oxford where she now lives.
But her time spent in Goa has always been an inspiration to her. On a recent trip there, in awe of the tranquility and charm of the rural villages, she conceived the idea of Detective Chupplejeep.
Jackpot Jetty is the third book in the Chupplejeep mystery series set in rural Goa, although Marissa is the author of six books.

Radmila: Tell us about your background and your early life.
Marissa: I was born in England and when I was 8 my parents decided to move to Goa for a more relaxed pace of life. Growing up in Goa was great. I loved it there and learnt so much about a different culture to the one I had known in England. School in Goa finished at lunchtime but to make up for the shorter days we had lessons on a Saturday. Goa wasn’t as built up as it is now and where we lived there was a huge sense of community – everyone looked out for each other, so we had a freedom there that we never really enjoyed in England. We moved back to England as a family when I was a teenager, but all our school holidays were spent there. Our long summer holidays were spent enjoying the Goan monsoons and we soaked up the winter sun at Christmas.  Even though I live in England now I try to visit Goa at least once a year.  Goa will always have a special place in my heart.

Radmila: When did you decide to start writing and why?
Marissa: I started writing in 2008. I was in my late twenties and I had taken a career break to travel with my husband.  After travelling around the world for ten months or so we came back to Oxford. It wasn’t the best time to return as England was in the middle of a recession. My parents and sister lived in Goa at the time and I decided to go back there for a couple of months before I started looking for a job in England.  I had always wanted to write but never really had the courage or time to do so. Having some time out at home in Goa I formulated the idea for what would become my first novel – Goa Traffic.

When I returned to England I started working full time, but once you start writing it’s difficult to stop and so I wrote when I could – snatching an hour here and there to get my thoughts down. It was tough but I was
determined, and it set the tone for what soon became a lifestyle for me. I have never looked back.

Radmila: And how have your background and your pre-writing experiences affected what you write, in particular your decision to set your Inspector Chupplejeep stories in Goa?
Marissa: Describing the generosity of the people of Goa, the colourful markets and the wild beach parties which Goa is infamous for is what inspired my first novel, Goa Traffic.  Having lived in England and Goa I felt that I could explore the marriage of the east and west that seems to work so well in Goa, which is unlike any of the other states in India.  Goa has been westernised and drinking alcohol, gambling and beach parties are tolerated here unlike in many of the other states. This tolerance along with its long luxurious beaches has made Goa the party capital of India and attracts thousands of tourists every year.  

I have to admit that up until a few years ago I felt a bit jaded by what was happening in Goa and what it had become, but after a few visits to the villages, my love for Goa was renewed afresh.  The soul of Goa has been preserved here in the old colonial houses and white-washed churches – where the pace of life is slower, but hard earned. Gandhi said, ‘India lives in its villages,’ and it is the villages in Goa that inspired the Chupplejeep series.  The Chupplejeep series is set in one of the local sleepy villages which is very different to my first book which explored the well-known party capital of Goa.  My father grew up in one of the villages and I visited his ancestral home there. His house and the village gave me the idea for my series. By using rural Goa as the setting the reader gets to explore the local cultural nuances and the behaviour of people going back to a simpler way of living. The reader also gets to explore themes in a different cultural context, for example, how people perceive adultery, murder and so forth.

Radmila:  Goa was originally a Portuguese colony and remained so until fairly recently. Would you say that this differentiates Goa from the rest of India? In what way?
Marissa: The legacy of the former Portuguese colony is visible everywhere in Goa. Many Goans speak Portuguese and of course with the Portuguese rule came a mass conversion of the Goan people from Hinduism to Christianity. There are some beautiful churches in Goa that you don’t get in the other Indian states. The Portuguese influence is truly reflected in the architecture, which is so different from the rest of India. There are beautiful whitewashed churches and homes with pillared porches and iron railings which provide a real insight into the rich heritage of Goa.  And of course, the Portuguese rule westernised Goa and this is what really differentiates it from the rest of India. The culture and the food are very different from the rest of India.

Radmila: Especially the food, which I note is particularly important to Chupplejeep and his on-off fiancée Christabel?
Marissa: Yes, Goan food is largely influenced by the 451 years of Portuguese rule. Dishes like bacalao (salted cod) and caldo verde (spinach and potato soup) are typically Portuguese, sometimes with an added Goan twist. Even the Alphonso Mango, which Goans know and love, is named after Afonso de Albuquerque, the founder of the Portuguese empire in the East. Goans do love their food and Christabel and Chupplejeep are no different, so there are lots of references to local delicacies such as soropatel and sannas (spicy pork curry and steamed rice cakes) in my Chupplejeep novels. And Chupplejeep is fond of the local drink feni made from the cashew fruit. I want readers to really be able to escape when they read my books, describing the fragrance and taste of the food as well as the warm sunny climate of Goa captivates the senses and transports the reader to somewhere exotic.

Radmila: Inspector Chupplejeep clearly sees himself as another Hercule Poirot (complete with moustache). Are there other writers who you would say have influenced your writing?
Marissa: Like most authors I love reading and tend to read thrillers and romantic suspense. Before I started writing Under the Coconut Tree, which was the first in the Chupplejeep Mystery series, I read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger which won the Booker prize. Adiga’s insight into the class divide in India really struck a chord with me and made me want to explore this in my writing. Alexander McCall Smith is another author whose writing I really enjoy. His Ladies’ No.1 Detective series is in the same cosy crime genre as the Chupplejeep Mysteries and has definitely inspired my writing. 

Radmila: Would you say that your Chupplejeep stories reflect life in Goa? I have noted that the picture you present of Goa is not altogether as idyllic as the travel posters and brochures would have us believe. There is poverty, corruption, undue use of political pressure, and gangsterism. In fact, Chupplejeep’s refusal to accept bribes is not only rare but adversely affects his career in the police. Does this reflect the state of things in Goa?
Marissa: The beaches and infamous party scene has been synonymous with the small state of Goa since the sixties, but rural Goa or the real Goa, as locals often refer to it as, often gets overlooked. Whilst tourists spend their days on sandy stretches that go on for miles in Baga and Palolem, locals in traditional stone houses and Portuguese style villas go about their daily lives. Village life, away from Touristville, often centres around gricultural responsibilities. Tending to the paddy fields and caring for livestock are the main money earners with traditional earthenware handicrafts coming in a close second. But it’s not just all hard work in the villages. You’ll often see locals unwinding each day with a glass of locally brewed cashew feni or aarak, enjoyed with a plate of freshly fried fish. And regular pastimes include playing carom and gossiping with friends, sitting on dusty porches watching their future generations at play. I am keen to reflect this daily life in the Chupplejeep Mysteries.

There is of course poverty and some corruption as there is in most developing countries. In India there is a law that police cannot take a confession from a perpetrator because of the history of police beating confessions out of a person. So any admission of guilt needs to be done through the legal system.  Someone who may confess at the scene of the crime will have a chance to change their mind later, with justifiable cause. The police are already starting on the back foot!  In saying that the Chupplejeep novels are works of fiction and there are many officers within the Indian and Goan state police force who work relentlessly to bring justice. Chupplejeep’s world dramatizes some negative aspects of the police force in India to create tension.

Radmila: There are Christians, Hinduism and Sikhs in Goa. Relations seem, on the whole, to be good. Would you say that this is so?
Marissa: To use a cliché, Goa is a melting pot of different religions. Goans accept and appreciate the differences between various beliefs allowing people with alternate religions to live side by side. There are some tensions when it comes to inter-faith marriages as I touched on in Under the Coconut Tree but this is not as prevalent in society as it once was.

Radmila: Family dynamics are crucial in the Chupplejeep stories. Would you say that in real-life Goan society they are equally crucial?
Marissa: Family is definitely important to Goans. Children generally live in the family home until they marry and Goans are brought up to have a huge amount of respect for their parents and relatives. Families tend to be close too which means family members like interfering in each others lives, and Goans can be opinionated when it comes to family matters which always makes for a good storyline. Schools finish at lunchtime as I mentioned earlier and many businesses and shops close for the afternoon siesta allowing people to go home and have lunch with their families. Holidays like Christmas and Easter are always family events.

Radmila: You have also written a number of other novels. Do they fall into a particular genre? Are they all set in India?
Marissa: My first and fourth novels (Goa Traffic and Poison in the Water) are romantic suspense novels and my second – The Bittersweet Vine is a psychological thriller. Only Goa Traffic is set in India and explores Goa from the viewpoint of a tourist who falls in love, but her love affair has catastrophic consequences when she realises the man she is in love with is hiding a dark secret. The Bittersweet Vine is set entirely in England and tells the story of a young woman who is betrayed by those around her.  Poison in the Water is set between the bright lights of Hong Kong, glamourous London and travellers’ Thailand. In this novel I drew on my travelling experiences and the glimpse I had into the lives of the rich to create a story of love and deceit.

Radmila: You are self-published. What led you to make the decision to make it alone? And I love your publishing name – Lost Button. How did you come to that name?
Marissa: I self-published my first book. I had sent it out to various agents and publishers but after several rejections my impatience got the better of me and I decided to self-publish. Looking back, I have mixed feelings about that decision. My writing skills were limited, and I still had a lot to learn about the craft. Self-publishing Goa Traffic was a steep learning curve, but the novel was commercially successful and was even an Amazon bestseller at one point and so it did teach me that I could do it on my own and that perhaps my writing wasn’t so bad!

My second and fourth novels were picked up by independent publishing companies which was a different experience again. Having this experience opened doors for me such as membership to the Crime Writers’ Association. When it came to the Chupplejeep Mystery series I decided to self-publish these titles. Not only is this route more lucrative for me, but I have 100% control over what I write, how it is edited and the jacket design. I can also set my own deadlines which is helpful now that I have a two-year-old and a part-time job to juggle. Self-publishing, for me, is ultimately more rewarding, but it is hard work and you are responsible for everything! Moving forward I will continue to self-publish but I am likely to approach publishers for the new cosy crime series I am working on. The publishing industry is changing and now there are reputable digital publishers and imprints that don’t require an agent but provide some support for authors especially when it comes to marketing, which I think sometimes is the biggest challenge for authors.  

For my publishing name I wanted something that reflected the independence of a self-published author as well as the solitude of going it along and taking that leap into the big world of publishing. A world that is often dominated by multinationals making the self-publisher sometimes feel insignificant. The name Lost Button captured these feelings for me.

Radmila: There will obviously be more stories about Inspector Chupplejeep. Will he sort out his tangled relationship with Christabel? And his relationship with his parents and his coming to terms with his childhood?
Marissa: I have plans for two more Chupplejeep books and in the next book (working title - Murder in the Monsoon) we will see him finally making a commitment to Christabel. Although, it won’t all be plain sailing for our detective – it never is when it comes to his personal life. Christabel, being Christabel, will set herself a new challenge and want Chupplejeep’s full commitment. Will he be able to acquiesce to her demands? You’ll have to wait and see!  I also want to explore Chupplejeep’s childhood and his relationship with his parents. My readers now know his character quite well so it’s important to add another dimension to his character by looking into his past.

Radmila. This is all really interesting. Thank you so much, Marissa.

Chupplejeep Mystery Series
Under the Coconut Tree
The Body on the Bath
Jackpot Jetty
Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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