Friday, April 10, 2009

[Interview] Petina Gappah

Zimbabwean lawyer and author Petina Gappah has been writing from an early age.

Some of her work has been published in anthologies that include Laughing Now (Weaver Press, 2008), Women Writing Zimbabwe (Weaver Press, 2008) and One World: A global anthology of short stories (New Internationalist, 2009) .

Her debut collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly (Faber and Faber, April 2009) has been described as "a stunning portrait of a country in chaotic meltdown".

In this email interview, Petina Gappah talks about her concerns as a writer.

When did you start writing?

Like most writers, I started writing as a child.

I was not, however, as precocious as some that I have read about who started writing at age 5 or 3 or even before they were born. I started writing at about 10 or 11, and my first published anything was a story in the St. Dominic’s Secondary School magazine when I was 14.

I started writing seriously in May 2006. I joined the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, a story I posted there caught the attention of an editor at the online journal Per Contra, I entered some stories in competitions, I did well in one competition, and when I was sufficiently confident, I looked for an agent who looked for a publisher on my behalf.

Becoming a published writer was not so much a decision as it was the consequence of my writing.

How would you describe your writing?

I write literary fiction. There are various kinds of writing within this broad genre, for instance, I recently came across the term hysterical realism, which I thought was a wonderfully apt description for a certain type of contemporary fiction. I will leave it to critics and others to further categorise my writing within literary fiction, but I am disappointed to say it is not hysterical realism.

Which authors influenced you most?

I never really know how to answer the question about influences, so I will say I have enjoyed reading many writers, and have been influenced by any number you can think of in different ways, from David Lodge to Charles Mungoshi, from J. M. Coetzee to Ian McEwan, from Toni Morrison to Paul Auster.

What writers write is as important to me as how writers live, the writers that I am trying to emulate are those who manage to combine writing with a full time, unrelated occupation, writers like John Mortimer who very sadly died recently, and P. D. James.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Most of what I write is based on something that happened to me, to someone I know, or something I overheard or read.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern, which is probably not as lofty as this question assumes, is to write every day, to finish whatever I am working on at the time, and to find time and space for the next bit of writing.

As I have a full time job as a lawyer, and I also have a young son, my biggest challenge is to find time to write. The solution I have found is to sleep as little as I possibly can.

Do you write everyday?

I try to write every morning before I go to work, I stop when I have to get my son up and prepare him and myself for school and work.

I work directly on my computer, sometimes transcribing from notebooks. When I revise, I find it easier to do so in longhand.

How many books have you written so far?

I have written one book, An Elegy for Easterly, which is published by Faber in April 2009 in the U. K. and Commonwealth and June 2009 in the United States.

It will also be published in France, Finland, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

Easterly is a short story collection about what it has meant to be a Zimbabwean in recent times, it attempts to particularize through the stories of ordinary people what it has meant, on a day-to-day basis, to be part of a crisis that has gripped the attention of the world.

How long did it take you to write the book? And, how did you find a publisher for it?

I wrote the stories over a period of about one and a half years. They were written at different times, I had no idea I was writing a book, I was busy working on my novel. Then my wonderful agent Clare sent out the stories together with some chapters of the novel, Lee Brackstone and Mitzi Angel, two editors at Faber absolutely loved them, so the decision was made to go with them before the novel.

Why Faber? When they made the offer, I had no hesitation. In fact, I felt more than a little dizzy at the prospect of being a Faber author: Faber is just about the last of the great independent literary houses.

I received a very warm welcome from Stephen Page, Faber’s publisher, and the whole team has just been absolutely fantastic. The most wonderful thing about being published by Faber has been working with my two editors who are both committed, gifted and brilliant. If my stories hummed before, they sing operatic arias now.

The only disadvantage is that Faber is the house of T. S. Eliot and William Golding, of Ted Hughes and Ezra Pound, of Paul Auster and Orhan Pamuk. To paraphrase Stephen Page, the weight of the ghosts of Faber’s past is more than a little daunting. I can only hope that I will not disappoint.

What sets An Elegy for Easterly apart from other things you've written?

This is the first book that I have published, so unlike the other “novels” and book ideas in my head, notebooks or computer, it is word made solid, corporeal, concrete.

What will the next one be about?

My next book is called The Book of Memory. If all goes well, it will be published in August 2010. It is set in Salisbury/Harare between 1960 and 2000.

That is as much as I will say as I do not want to jinx it by waxing lyrical prematurely. The last novel I talked about enthusiastically died from all the exposure.

Who is your target audience?

I do not have a target audience. My work is for anyone who enjoys reading.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I would say it is being published by Faber. Oh, and being read, and approved, by J. M. Coetzee. That is a huge achievement.

Related resources:
Get your copy of An Elegy for Easterly at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

Possibly related books:

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Related article:

[Interview] Zvisinei Sandi, Conversations with Writers, March 15, 2009

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