Monday, July 30, 2007

[Interview] Jenny Alexander

Jenny AlexanderJenny Alexander has written over a hundred books for children, among them, Finding Fizz (A & C Black, 2006); Tom, Sid, the Goth and the Ghost (Longman, 2004); and Stranded! (Longman, 2003).

Her non-fiction books include When Your Child is Bullied (Pocket Books, 2006); Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends (Hodder Children's Books, 2003) as well as The 7-day Stress-buster; The 7-day Brain-booster; The 7-day Bully-buster and The 7-day Self-esteem Super-booster (Hodder Children's Books, 2007) which seek to empower children and their families in dealing with issues concerning bullying, self-esteem and self-confidence.

She is also the author of How 2 B Happy (A & C Black, 2006); How to Be a Brilliant Writer (A & C Black, 2005) and Going Up! The No-worries Guide to Secondary School (A & C Black, 2004).

In a recent interview, Jenny Alexander spoke about her writing.

What prompted you to write your first book?

I decided I was going to be a poet when I was about 7 years old -- well, either a poet or an artist. Writing and drawing were my favourite pastimes, a quiet oasis in a very noisy, busy, family -- I was the middle one of four children.

In my teens I stopped writing poetry because learning literature at school convinced me that I didn’t really understand it. Poetry had felt like a natural thing, like talking, but we dissected poems like dead bodies, trying to force them to yield up their secrets, instead of enjoying their music and sensing the shades of meaning in the words.

I wrote a number of adult novels in my late teens and twenties but didn’t really try to find a publisher. Writing at that stage was a way of trying to make sense of my own experience and publishing the stories I was writing then would have felt exposing for both me and my family. I find the current popularity of ‘misery memoirs’ very unsettling and I’m really glad I didn’t freeze my own family within the story I had of them when I was in my turbulent twenties.

What prompted me to write for publication was that I needed a proper job after my last child started full-time school. I sent a lot of material to an agent, including an adult crime novel and several pieces of children’s fiction.

When was this material written?

I wrote them while my youngest child was at playgroup, for a few hours each morning, with the express intention of trying to find an agent and start my writing career. A couple of months after she took me on, she sold my first children’s novel to Hamish Hamilton. It had taken me about two weeks to write the novel. When I got the call I whooped for joy -- it was the most amazing feeling because suddenly a writing career felt completely possible, not just a dream.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

I write all different sorts of books, both fiction and non-fiction for readers aged 4-years-old to adults, as well as magazine articles and the odd poem, so I’d say my biggest influence has been the wonderful British library service. When I left university, almost completely cured of the urge to write anything original at all, I took a job in a branch library where I discovered the absolute joy of reading adventurously.

Why did university have this effect on you?

I studied French with English, so lots of reading analytically. When I wasn’t working, I didn’t read for leisure -- that would have been a busman’s holiday -- and the activity of reading became an intellectual process, which although it is a sort of pleasure, can interfere with the emotional satisfaction of responding to a text on the personal, heart level.

Do you remember some of the books you read when you were working in the library or how you selected them?

I read all the Agatha Christie mysteries, literary fiction, non-fiction of every kind -- pictorial histories of steam railways, royal biographies, practical art and craft books, animal books... and best of all, children’s books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the entire contents of the kinder box, which I fell upon having never possessed any books as a child or belonged to a public library.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I think the decade I spent as a stay-at-home parent has provided the inspiration for a lot of my stories as well as the experience to write non-fiction about life-strategies for children. Virtually everything I write comes out of first-hand experience rather than research -- looking after your rabbit, living on an island, understanding your dreams…

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face and how do you deal with them?

I think writers have pressure these days to keep working to the same formula once they become established. A lot of writers I know feel trapped by that expectation and I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I enjoy the thrill of trying new things, seeing what I can do.

I write different things in my spare time and between contracts and then try to sell them.

How many books have you written so far?

I stopped counting when I passed 100 -- but lots of them are very short.

Of all the books you have written, which was the most difficult to write? Which was the easiest? Why do you think this is so?

The most difficult was How 2 B Happy. It’s a straightforward book based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy and positive psychology but I happened to land the contract just before my marriage broke up.

I had just written a book on bullying and was asked to put together some material on self-esteem. I wasn’t keen on the whole idea of self-esteem, mostly because I thought people often have mad ideas about what good self-esteem constitutes, so I went for happiness instead since I think happy people tend to have good self-esteem anyway. The most difficult thing was feeling authentic writing this book when I was struggling with unhappy feelings about the events unfolding in my life at that time -- but of course, one of the things you need in order to be happy is the pragmatic acceptance that shit happens and sometimes you’re bound to go through gloomy patches. It’s not about being happy all the time, but being buoyant and recovering quickly if you get knocked down.

Researching involved revisiting books like Susan JeffersFeel the Fear and Do It Anyway which served to remind me of exactly what I needed to do for myself as well as for my book.

The easiest was the first one, Miss Fischer’s Jewells (reissued in paperback as Haunting for Beginners) because when I started writing, after putting my ambition on hold for so long, I was completely fuelled by joy. The idea behind the book was a gift -- it just arrived all on its own, and I wrote it a chapter a day, no rewrites, just a bit of tinkering with the text before sending it off.

And what's your latest book about?

I’ve just done a series of children’s non-fiction books called The 7-day Stress-buster; The 7-day Brain-booster; The 7-day Bully-buster and The 7-day Self-esteem Super-booster. The idea for the series came about because my publisher wanted another book on bullying. Her first idea was to do a workbook, so children could do the exercises and tasks I suggest in spaces within the text because, often, with self-help books you race through, intending to do the tasks later and then don’t get around to it.

In the series, I offer a menu of quick tasks for each day, so that children can develop a practice of thinking and behaving in self-affirming ways, not just think about the ideas in the chapter. Modern childhood is nothing like it was for today’s adults -- children have to handle enormous stresses both at school and at home, with fractured families and parents often working all the hours or not working at all, and feeling too stressed themselves to really be there and spend time with their children. I think of myself as an elder in a society which doesn’t really have elders any more, writing the sort of reassuring common sense that grandparents used to be there for when families had more leisure and were less geographically dispersed.

How long did it take you to write the series?

I did the four books in about 7 months. In Great Britain, the first two books were published in January 2007 and the second two in April.

With non-fiction I always find the planning gorgeous, the first draft frustrating and re-drafting satisfying. I think the first draft is hard because you have to find a way of expressing your ideas that is both interesting and accessible, and sometimes that makes my brain hurt.

Which aspects of the work that you put in the series did you enjoy most?

Devising the quizzes and special features. I like the playfulness of quizzes and the extra dimension that comes with writing visually varied types of text.

What sets these four books apart from the other things you have written?

It’s the first series I’ve done.

In what way is it similar?

I’d already written several other life-skills books for 8 to 12-year-olds: Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends; Going up!: The No-worries Guide to Secondary School; How To Be a Brilliant Writer and How 2 B Happy.

What will your next book be about?

My spare-time book is an adult workbook on dreams. I think most dream books are very disappointing because they either comprise stock interpretations which never fit any individual dream or theoretical ideas that distort the way we approach dreams and detract from their power.

I’m [also] putting together material for two fiction series that will hopefully be my next contract. One is for girls aged 9 to 12 years, a favourite age group for me -- the other for boys age 6 years and up. The main difference is that these will be for trade publishers, and since my first few books I’ve only written fiction for educational publishers.

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

Overcoming first my fear of failure and then my fear of success.

How did you get there?

I think I was propelled by this life-long feeling that I was meant to be a writer and the sense of home-coming I felt every time I put pen to paper.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

To enjoy myself and keep pushing back my boundaries by trying new things. Why is it important that I push back boundaries? I’m stumped by this! I just don’t know. I guess I think of writing, like life itself, as a big adventure, and the main business of it is to keep pushing into new areas in order to become the most that you possibly can.

You have also written a number of books on bullying. What motivated these books and how much of a problem, for young people and for children, do you think bullying is?

One of my children was bullied at school and I discovered that all the advice available to him and to me, as a parent, was useless. The latest ChildLine research found that 5 to 10 percent of children will suffer prolonged bullying at school no matter what interventions staff make or how good the school is. These kids tend to be different in some way -- exceptionally bright or attractive, physically or mentally less-able, or not fitting into gender stereotypes, for example -- but it could equally be some poor child who had suffered a bereavement or family break-up, fallen foul of bullies at a vulnerable moment and then got overwhelmed by it, enabling a pattern to set in.

It seemed to me that those kids and their families needed strategies for surviving and not being damaged by the experience through learning skills such as how to handle anxiety and self-doubt. The added bonus is that emotionally robust people make less satisfying targets for bullying, so toughening up is also the best chance for getting the bullying to stop.

I think unkindness, envy and so on are part of human nature, so bullying will always exist, but the fashion for mocking, practical-joke-style humour in the media is certainly making it worse because it blurs the lines about what is acceptable and makes children feel it’s cool and funny to humiliate other people.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

[Interview] Sammie Ward

Sammie WardSammie Ward is an author and a publisher.

Her short stories have appeared in magazines and e-zines that include Black Romance, Jive and True Confessions as well as Timbooktu and Nubian Chronicles.

In September 2004, she formed Lady Leo Publishing and subsequently published In The Name of Love; Love To Behold; Seven Days, and It’s In The Rhythm.

In June 2005, her debut novel, In The Name of Love was voted “Best New Drama & Fiction of the Year” by the Disilgold Literary National Association (DLNA) and in 2006, she earned a YOUnity Guild Award for New Romance Author of the Year.

What motivated you to start writing?

I consider myself a romantic person. Who doesn't want romance in their life or enjoy a good romantic novel or movie? It's a wonderful genre to write about. I love it. I grew up reading. I must have read every Silhouette/Harlequin romance novel I could get my hands on. I loved those books. I always thought I could also write one such book, but never considered it seriously until years later. I was out of work. To keep myself busy while looking for a job, I began to write.

I'm published as a fiction and nonfiction writer. In fiction, I write romance, but my novel, Seven Days is a romantic suspense. In nonfiction, I've published numerous health articles in various magazines.

I consider myself a cross-over writer. I write stories and articles that affect everyone from all ethnic groups and backgrounds. Whether it's a love story or a health article, anyone can relate to it.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

Rochelle Alers, I love her books. Francis Ray: Beautiful person, awesome romance author. Both women write with such passion that it draws you into their books and they have a great eye for detail. Of course I can't forget my family who has stood behind me, pushing me.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

To write a good, moving stories readers will enjoy. That's what authors do; we're storytellers. We want everyone to enjoy those stories. When a reader puts the book down, we want them to be affected by our words, to be moved by our words.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I find myself adding or relating to some of my life experiences in my novels or short stories. Of course the name is changed to protect the innocent, and its given a different twist.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Finances. I publish my novels through my own company, Lady Leo Publishing, therefore money is sometimes a challenge. When you're your own company, you are the writer, publicist, editor. You are the face, therefore you're responsible for getting your works out to the public.

How do you deal with these challenges?

I learn to juggle the two. I put myself on a schedule, dividing time between taking care of the business, and writing.

I have written five books so far. Four of them are novels and one is a novella: In The Name of Love (Lady Leo Publishing, 2005); Love To Behold (Lady Leo Publishing, 2005); Seven Days (Lady Leo Publishing, 2005); It's in the Rhythm (Lady Leo Publishing, 2006) and Lace & Honor which is due in October 2007.

Do you write everyday?

Yes. I try to spend between four or five hours a day or whenever the urge hits me.

What is Lace & Honor about and how long did it take you to write it?

My latest book, Lace & Honor tells the story of Sergeant Kayla Perry, Specialist Marissa Poe, and Elizabeth Shupe. Female soldiers and friends assigned to Delta Company 32nd Combat Support Hospital (32nd CSH).

The three women deal with relationships, life, love, ups and downs associated with the army while on the verge of deployment.

It took me about a year to write the novel and it's also going to be published through my company, Lady Leo Publishing.

Which aspects of the work that you put into Lace & Honor did you find most difficult?

Writing about the trials and tribulation of each of the women as it related to the military. A former female soldier myself I know firsthand what it means to juggle being a soldier, girlfriend, mother, and wife. It's not easy.

Which did you enjoy most?

Putting the female soldiers out there. To show that female soldiers go through a lot. But at the end of the day, they love being able to represent our contry and do it with pride and dignity, regardless of what's going on in their lives.

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?

The story is told from a more intimate point of view. With real life problems, real life ups and downs that female soldiers go through.

It's similar to my other books because I wanted to show that no matter what you're going through in life, at the end of the day you can rise above it.

What will your next book be about?

My next book is Stroke of Midnight. It's a sequel to Seven Days. It's part of a series, featuring former CID Agent, Victor Sexton. It will be release in 2008.

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

My novella, Love To Behold was recently picked up by Lavender Isis Press and will be reprinted in May 2007. In June 2006, I was recognized as one of the Literary Divas, in Heather Covington best-selling, Literary Divas: The top 100+ African American Women in Literary Fiction. Also, I was named Best New Romance Writer of 2006 by the DLNA (Disilgold Literary National Association).

How did you get there?

The novella, Love To Behold was rejected by the publishing company that requested me to write it. I published it through my own company, Lady Leo Publishing, and it sold very well. To have the book picked up by another publisher is awesome, making all of the hard work pay off. Being recognized as a Literary Diva and being on the same pages as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Terry McMillan is just mind blowing. I was speechless when I found out I was included in the book. I formed my own publishing company because no one accepted my work and now to be recognized for my effort is very satisfying.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

[Interview] Sandi Kahn Shelton

Sandi Kahn SheltonSandi Kahn Shelton is a journalist and the author. Her books include the novels, A Piece of Normal and What Comes After Crazy as well as the non-fiction humorous books about parenting, You Might As Well Laugh: Because Crying Will Only Smear Your Mascara; Sleeping through the Night and Other Lies and Preschool Confidential.

In addition to these books, Shelton has written an award-winning humor column for the New Haven Register newspaper in Connecticut, and for ten years was the “Wit’s End” columnist for Working Mother magazine. Her work has also appeared in magazines, that include Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Salon, and Reader's Digest.

She is currently working on a third novel.

In a recent interview, Sandi Kahn Shelton spoke about her writing.

How would you describe the genre in which you do most of your writing?

Women’s fiction, I guess, is the closest way to describe it.

My stories tend to be about relationships and the perils and power of domestic life.

Who is your target audience?

I’m always pleased when men tell me that they read my novels and like them, but I suppose I’m really writing material that traditionally interests women.

What motivated you to start writing in this genre?

I’m not sure I remember choosing a genre, as much as having the stories and characters choose me. For me, the way it happens is that a character starts telling me a story and then very slowly, I catch on to what’s going on and end up writing it down. But I think I tend to get stories about families because I think that that’s where there’s a lot of power and drama.

It’s our family members who often cause us the most angst, as well as teach us everything we need to know about love and forgiveness.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

There are lots of writers who influence me. My characters tend to see life in a kind of humorous way, and in that I’ve been influenced by old-fashioned writers like Shirley Jackson, Elinor Lipman, Jean Kerr, and a whole motley crew of women who write about families and angst and love. I adore Anne Tyler and Alice Munro, Elizabeth Berg, Anne Lamott, and so many others who have taught me how to tell stories and how to show characters developing and growing.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Each novel seems to have its own set of concerns, I find. Just when you get one solved, a new novel shows up and it has a whole new bunch of problems you have to solve.

I guess overall, I’d have to say my main concern is showing characters who are true to life, and to me that means living both in humor and poignancy. I think that real life is both funny and sad, and I want to write characters that live in that fullness.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I’m from the South, and in my family, telling stories was almost the main thing we did. I remember sitting out on the porch at the old lake house and just listening to my aunts and uncles and grandparents making each other laugh so hard we all practically needed oxygen. If you couldn’t tell a story -- well, then, you got put in charge of making drinks and had to go sit on the sidelines where people felt sorry for you. So I learned early on that to tell a story and make people laugh was pretty important. Yet at the same time, I knew that my family was damaged and broken in the ways that so many families are: there were untimely deaths, alcoholism, divorces, betrayals -- and so what I also learned out there on that porch was that stories and laughter can transcend those ordinary dangers of being human and help us survive.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Oh, I think I struggle with all the possible demons: impatience and frustration, with procrastination and fear of not being able to say everything I want to say. I am lazy and ungrateful a lot of the time. Like most writers I know, I forget to trust the material and the characters, to let things unfold in their own time.

When I’m working on a book, it never fails but that I get my best stuff when I’m either sleeping or driving or in the shower, never when I’m sitting poised at the keyboard waiting for words… and I often find myself lying awake on a winter night at 3:14 a.m., thinking, “Do I have to get out of bed and write this down? Can’t I at least try to just remember it in the morning?”

How do you deal with these challenges?

Yikes, sometimes not very well at all, I’m afraid.

Over time, I’ve had to learn to just turn off the part of my brain that wants to jump in and judge and edit, and just remind myself how much fun it is just to be able to have a life that includes creating these characters and stories on the page.

I have a little mantra that I tell myself: “The work is what heals,” and so when my little hamster mind is freaking out about deadlines or publicity or not-enough-time, if I can just get myself to ease back into the story, I always feel restored. Some days go better than others, of course. And the answer to do-I-have-to-get-out-of-bed is, "Yes, you do."

How many books have you written so far?

I’ll list them in reverse order, if you don’t mind.

A Piece of Normal, Shaye Areheart (division of Random House), hardcover 2006; paperback 2007. This is the funny, poignant story of two estranged sisters -- one a very together, hip advice columnist and the other a runaway punk rocker -- who have to figure out what it means to forgive their quirky pasts and embrace the craziness and chaos that can lead them to both to love and grace and healing. (This makes it sound like it’s full of harps and angels -- actually, they spend much of the book fighting and making up, and one of them betrays the other one so hard that it still makes my head reel when I think of it.)

What Comes After Crazy, Shaye Areheart, hardcover 2005, paperback 2006. This is the story of Maz Lombard, who was raised by a larger-than-life, multiply-married fortune teller -- and who has grown up with no skills for managing ordinary life or even knowing for sure what normal life is. When her husband takes up with the kids’ daycare teacher and walks out, leaving her alone with two daughters, Maz has to learn how to trust herself and find out for herself which risks are worth taking.

And now for nonfiction:

Preschool Confidential, St. Martin’s Press, 2001. This is a humor book about raising toddlers and keeping your sanity. (Out of print.)

Sleeping Through the Night…and Other Lies, St. Martin’s Press, hardcover 1999, paperback 2000. Another humor book about parenting, this time about raising babies. It boasts of being the only book about parenting that offers no viable advice that has ever helped anybody, unless you count the sentence that says, “Try to muddle through as best as you can.” (Hardcover is out of print.)

You Might As Well Laugh...Because Crying Will Only Smear Your Mascara, St. Martin’s Press paperback, 1999. (This book was originally published by Bancroft Press under the title, You Might As Well Laugh: Surviving the Joys of Parenthood, in 1997.) It’s a collection of humor columns I wrote for the newspaper where I work in my day job, the New Haven Register, many of which appeared in Working Mother magazine.

Do you write everyday?

I do write every day. I’m actually on deadline now for my third novel, which is due in a few minutes. So I am currently spending every available second (and some that really should be spent cooking, bathing and sleeping) writing and writing and writing, wrapping up the tail ends of the plot, and yes, pulling my hair out.

I think I spend about 25 hours a day on my novel, but a lot of that time is technically spent checking my email, googling members of my kindergarten class to see if any of them became axe murderers, and re-reading my horoscope to see if I will, in fact, ever finish this novel.

What is your latest book about?

The latest published book, A Piece of Normal, is about these sisters who have to learn to trust each other again, after being apart for 10 years in which they hated each other. One of them is stable and still lives in the childhood beach house where the two of them were raised; she’s so “together” and conscientious that, although she’s divorced, she won’t let herself find a new lover until she finds somebody to fix up with her ex-husband. When her hell-raising little sister comes back home after years on the road with a punk rock band, both their worlds are thrown into turmoil as they discover some long-held family secrets and have to cope with a betrayal that threatens to drive them apart forever.

I had ten months to write this book -- after taking seventeen years to write the first novel. I was stunned when I got my contract and discovered that it had a clause in there, saying I would deliver another novel so soon. I mean, I was grateful that such faith had been placed in me, but I did call up my agent and say, “Did I ever say or do anything that indicated I could write a novel in ten months’ time? Because I know that I cannot!” In fact, though, what I discovered was that I could write a novel when I knew that that was my main priority. After all, I could only work on my first novel when none of my three children needed me, when there wasn’t a carpool anywhere in America that needed a driver, or a kid that wanted consultation on a diorama.

It was actually wonderful to be told that, “We’re expecting a novel from you soon, so go in there and write it!” Certain things fell automatically into place for me. Let’s just say I got me some priorities straight.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most

I was working on the book so intently that I had to say no to lots of other extraneous things that I also enjoyed doing: going for walks with friends, talking on the phone, mindless reading of the entire Internet. My life seemed to revolve around the book for several months, and I had to learn a new way of being disciplined.

Which did you enjoy most?

It’s funny, but the thing that was the most difficult was also the thing I enjoyed the most. Cutting back on things that didn’t matter so much gave me a clarity of purpose, and kept my mind right inside the limits of the book I was creating. Because I was working on it so constantly, I didn’t have to constantly re-read it in order to find my place. As all writers know, one of the dangers of working on a long project is that you re-read it so many times that you grow quite sick of your own prose, and get discouraged with how flat it starts to sound, and that index finger starts itching for the “Delete” key. The less time you spend re-reading obsessively, the better off you are.

What sets A Piece of Normal apart from the other things you have written?

This book has characters who are almost opposite in temperament. One sister thinks she has her life all together, while the younger one is flaky and spontaneous and takes breathtaking risks.

I had never attempted before to write about two people with such different personalities and yet understand and appreciate the strengths of each of them without judging them, or asking the reader to judge them. Although, as the “together” sister in my own family, my sympathies naturally resided with the stable one, I discovered as I was writing that I actually adored the flaky one more, and I came to see how such a personality is formed.

In what way is A Piece of Normal similar to the other books you have written?

In both of my novels, there’s a character who ultimately has to decide how she is going to move forward in her life.

I once read the statement, “Forgiveness is giving up the hope of having had a different past.” And that is the state of mind that both of my main characters have had to come to. Can they give up that hope and learn to accept and even appreciate what the past has given them, or will they just keep trying to slam the door on it and walk away?

What will your next book be about?

I’m so excited about the book I’m writing right now, because for the first time, it’s a love story. Although the characters in my other novels do try to find love, mostly they’re looking for healing. In this new book (which I am tentatively calling Kissing Games of the World), two people who never would have met in a million years are thrown together because of weird circumstances, and although they are filled with fear and prejudice and damaged hearts, they take the leap of falling in love.

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

Keeping at it day after day. Learning that I don’t have to be afraid of just letting myself go, that the words and ideas will come, that I can trust myself to tell the story if I take enough deep breaths and keep myself hydrated with enough iced tea.

How did you get there?

Three ways -- okay, four: Through luck and hard work; through encouragement from other people when I needed it most; through fear of having to actually put on panty hose every day and go off and find a paying job behind a desk;[and through being given deadlines and being too scared of my agent and editor not to meet them.

Related books:


Monday, July 23, 2007

[Interview] Valerie Tagwira

Valerie Tagwira is a Zimbabwean medical doctor, an author and a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Her debut novel, The Uncertainty of Hope is set in the densely populated suburb of Mbare, Harare, and explores the complex lives of Onai Moyo -- a market woman and mother of three children -- and her best friend, Katy Nguni -- a vendor and black-market currency dealer. The novel gives an insight into the challenges faced by a wide cross section of Zimbabwe, where life expectancy has dropped to 37, possibly the lowest in the world.

In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina, the government's controversial urban slum clearance program, created over half a million internally displaced persons and destroyed the livelihoods of close to 10 percent of the population. Eighty percent of the country's population is unemployed.

In this interview, Valerie Tagwira talks about the concerns that influenced her novel:

What would you say The Uncertainty of Hope is about?

It is a novel set in contemporary Zimbabwe. It looks at poverty, homelessness, H.I.V./AIDS, domestic violence, and a host of other socioeconomic challenges of the day. It is also a story about surviving against the odds and, hopefully, gives an insight into the intricacies of contemporary Zimbabwe with respect to how people are trying to survive.

When I initially started thinking about writing, I had a desire to do something different… something creative, and because I'm something of a "mild feminist" at heart, I always knew that I would write something featuring strong female characters. Writing about contemporary Zimbabwe was a natural choice because I am very much attached to "home" and I travel back quite frequently. At each visit, it strikes me how the living standards are deteriorating, and at each visit, I never imagine that things can get any worse, but they do, and people still survive. I was particularly concerned about how women deal with the challenges that are thrust upon them.

When I started writing the book, being a woman was my motivation, but I also had a strong interest in socioeconomic, developmental, and health-related issues that affect women. I wanted to highlight the plight of the disadvantaged in modern day Zimbabwe… the poor. This encompasses the homeless, be they adults or street children, the unemployed, and all the employed and ex-middle classes who are now living below the poverty datum line. It includes everyone who cannot afford basic necessities like food, clothing, education, and access to healthcare…

Among the disadvantaged in Zimbabwe, are there groups that are more vulnerable than others?

In each of the groups I've mentioned, I think women (and the girl-child) are worse off than their male counterparts.

What is life like for these women and children?

Extremely difficult.

They have been disempowered, and have very little or no means with which to make their lives better. The issues discussed in the novel have touched most people either directly or indirectly because there is now so much poverty in Zimbabwe.

To me, it feels as if most things are collapsing, be it industry, the health system, or the education system… you name it, it's going… deteriorating. Even the judicial system is struggling. The current political situation and the country's negative publicity certainly don't help. All these have the combined effect of making life very difficult for the people.

Also, women are more likely to be unemployed, less educated, and less in control of their lives because of cultural and biological reasons, all of which makes them even more vulnerable. The collapsing health system in Zimbabwe has placed an even bigger burden on women, who are naturally expected to be caregivers. For example, childbearing necessitates the provision of obstetric services which, for the greater proportion of women, are now out of reach, even at a very basic level. I can see a situation where pregnancy and childbirth are soon going to be gratuitously risky. In addition to this, women's role as caregivers now brings with it the extra burden of looking after family and friends with H.I.V./AIDS.

Is there a solution?

In my opinion, this is where the uncertainty about the future of Zimbabweans lies. If a solution is ever to come, I don't know when it will be or how it will come. What I'm sure of is that drastic changes have to take place in order for the lives of ordinary people to improve.

What can/should be done to improve the lives of women and children in Zimbabwe?

Empowerment through education, employment creation, affirmative action where possible (as long as this does not lower standards), and generally making resources available to the population.

This can be effected by government leaders as they are the ones in charge of policy-making processes and allocating funds to various sectors.

I must also say it was heartening to see the Domestic Violence Act come into being in 2006. To me, this was a demonstration of an awareness of the significance of domestic violence and its negative effects. It will go a long way toward protecting the rights of women and children. They are affected to a greater extent than men, who are more likely to be perpetrators of violence and abuse. The women's coalition which campaigned for the bill had representatives from women with different political and social affiliations. This provided a window of hope that if women can come together to pursue a common goal, they can bring about positive changes in a patriarchal society which tends to put men's interests before those of women and children.

N.G.O.'s and the donor community also have the capacity to complement government efforts aimed at improving the lives of women and children. And at grassroots level, communities do have a duty of care toward the next disadvantaged person. As the core unit of society, the family setup has a very important role to play as well.

Which aspects of the work that you put into The Uncertainty of Hope did you find most difficult?

The novel is quite long, and for each of the characters, I had to maintain consistency throughout, taking into account various interpersonal relationships.

I did find that a challenge. I don't know if I got it right. I suppose I will be able to tell from how the novel is received.

What did you enjoy most?

Working with my editor.

I was able to participate in the editing process, which was a great learning experience. Basically, this involved checking the manuscript for errors, consistency, language, etc. Being in medicine for so long and not reading as much as I did when I was younger made me feel that my English had gone rusty so this was a great opportunity to "revise" language skills as well.

How did you decide on a publisher?

I didn't decide on a publisher as such. I heard about Weaver Press from my cousin and I rang them to ask about manuscript submission.

I was very fortunate to have my manuscript accepted, and to have Irene Staunton as my editor. She is very supportive and serious about the work she does.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

My parents. They were teachers, and I was always surrounded by books from a very early age. I developed a love for books because of their influence.

I read anything that I could get my hands on. This included the Benny and Betty series, the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene, volumes of fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Catherine Cookson, [Charles] Mungoshi, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi [wa Thiong'o] (and many more). My favorite Shona novels were: Pafunge, Ziva Kwawakabva, Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva, Rurimi Inyoka, and Maidei. The list goes on and on…

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My biggest challenge is how to juggle family life, my medical career, and still find enough time to work on my writing. My career makes it impossible for me to have enough time to write as much as I would like to.

How do you deal with this?

When I have to write, I just make sure that I set aside time to do so, which might mean giving up some leisure time. I enjoy writing so much that I don't mind terribly when I have to give up something else in order to write.

While I was working on the novel, I tried to make time for about three writing sessions per week. Each session was at least three hours during the week and much longer, with short breaks, during weekends, and involved expanding the manuscript, rewriting, checking for mistakes, inconsistencies, the usual… and later, working with the editor to shape the story into something worthy of being called a novel.

What will your next book be about?

I recently came across some disturbing U.N. statistics on child abuse in Zimbabwe. I would like to find out more about this sometime in the future and see if I can write a book which looks at that theme.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Several years ago… sometime in my late twenties. I can't remember the exact age.

It was one of those vague ideas that kept crossing my mind time and again. However, because of work and study, I never seemed to have the time to settle down and commit myself to writing. I only started working on my novel earnestly toward the end of 2005, when I made a conscious decision to start working and get on with it, instead of daydreaming about being a writer one day.

I think I worked really hard once I started. It took me about ten months to complete the manuscript.

This article was first published by

Related article:

Jennifer Armstrong [Interview], Conversations with Writers, September 27, 2009

Friday, July 20, 2007

[Interview_2] Tabitha Suzuma

Tabitha Suzuma's first novel, A Note of Madness tells the story of a teenage musical genius struggling with manic depression. The novel has received a lot of critical attention from newspapers, magazines and websites that include The Guardian,, Cherwell, Medical Humanities, CMIS and Write Away.

A Note of Madness, which is now available in both hardcover and paperback, was also shortlisted in the 2006 NASEN & TES Special Educational Needs Book Award.

Suzuma spoke about what she has been working on since making her debut as an author, in May last year:

How would you say you have you been received so far?

A Note of Madness came out in paperback this February and I am hoping it will sell well because its sequel, A Song for Jennah, will only be published next year if sales figures are high. And as soon as I get the green light from Random House -- with luck by August -- I will start work on the third book in the A Note of Madness trilogy. It will be about Flynn and Jennah post-university making their way on the classical concert circuit.

My second novel is coming out in May and has already received some great reviews. It's called From Where I Stand and is a psychological thriller about a deeply disturbed teenager trying to track down his mother's killer. I have a fourth book under contract with Random House: Without Looking Back, about a family on the run.

In the last interview we had, you spoke about wanting to venture into writing books for adults. How is this going?

At the moment, Random House want to build me as an author and so they are only publishing one of my books each year. This, in part, prompted my decision to branch out into adult fiction. It's not easy making a living on one book a year. Another reason I wanted to write for adults was because most of the fan mail I received for A Note of Madness (which is set at university) has been from older teenagers and adults of all ages. Nonetheless, I do plan to keep writing for teenagers too.

I have just finished my first novel for adults, Maya which is based on a relationship between a father and his young daughter. It's about a man who loses everything. It's about letting go. It took me seven months to write.

My agent is sending it out to publishers at the moment. It does mean starting out from scratch in a way, which is a bit daunting, because my current editor only publishes books for young adults.

I have recently started work on my second novel for adults which aims to be another psychological thriller. It will be based on the idea that the people closest to us are not always who they seem to be.

Perhaps we could also talk about the writing process itself. What do you start with? And how do you proceed from there?

I start with a character, or an idea. With A Note of Madness, I was trudging through the snow one winter in Helsinki, listening to Rachmaninov on my iPod. That's when the character of Flynn came to me: a Finnish concert pianist suffering from bipolar disorder. I was severely depressed at the time (hence my choice of holiday destination), and everything sort of fell into place. Flynn became very real to me, more so than the people around me, a character born out of my passion for classical music and my fascination with the link between mental illness and the artistic genius. I came home from my tour of Scandinavia and instantly started writing, without any plan or any real idea of where the story was going. Things just came to me as I wrote, and I wrote as much for myself as for anyone else.

With my second book, From Where I Stand, the process was a little different. I had secured the contract for book one, so this time I was writing to be published. I deliberately moved away from the first book and chose to write something more plot-driven, with a twist at the end; yet still retaining the psychological slant. This second book was much harder to write because I knew it was going to be read -- at least by my editor if no-one else -- so it was a struggle not to feel self-conscious. There was suddenly a lot more at stake: I had something to lose, and I knew A Note of Madness was going to be a tough act to follow.

Other writers have said they find starting a story to be the most difficult part of the writing process. How similar or different is your own experience?

The starting point of a story comes to me quite easily -- it's the rest which is hard! A scene appears before me, I see it in my mind's eye, as vivid as watching a film. A chair in a psychiatrist's office; a teenager standing at the window waiting to be taken to his new foster family... The starting point is always obvious, somehow.

I try to write plans, but I'm not very good at it! I always start off with a very real sense of my main character -- I make sure that I know that character really well before I write the first word. I will also have a general idea of the outline of the story, kind of like a rough charcoal sketch. As I write, I fill in the detail and ideas come to me as I go along. Often the characters seem to take over, and starts pulling in directions I had not previously thought about. I'll go with them, and sometimes this results in a very different book from the one I set out to write. But it also means that the end result is almost always richer and fuller than the idea I started with.

Sometimes, however, things do go awry. You take a wrong turn, and suddenly you find yourself writing a scene which doesn't work, or which is taking you in a direction that doesn't fit with the rest of the book. Then I will have to backtrack -- find the point at which the story changed, and see if you can bring it back on course. That can be really frustrating: suddenly realising that the intensive labour of the last few weeks was all in vain. But it's all part of the writing process: often you have to explore different avenues before you find the one which feels right.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

Related books:


Related articles:

Tabitha Suzuma [Interview_1], Conversations with Writers, April 30, 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

[Interview] H. Nigel Thomas

Canadian author H. Nigel Thomas was a teacher in St. Vincent, his home island, before moving to Montreal where he taught English and French in high school and elementary school. For the past 18 years, he has been working as professor of U.S. Literature at Université Laval in Quebec City.

His books include Why We Write: Conversations with African Canadian Poets & Novelists (TSAR Publications, 2006) which features interviews with 15 African Canadian writers and From Folklore to Fiction: Folk Heroes and Rituals in the Black American Novel which appeared in Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, Number 118 (Greenwood Press, 1988).

He has written three novels: Return to Arcadia (forthcoming, TSAR Publications, Fall 2007); Behind the Face of Winter ( TSAR Publications, 2001) and Spirits in the Dark (House of Anansi Press, 1993 and Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series, 1994) which was a finalist for the 1994 QSPELL/Hugh MacClennan Fiction Award.

In addition to these five books, Nigel Thomas is also the author of Moving Through Darkness (Afo Enterprises, 2000), a poetry volume, and How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow? (Afo Enterprises, 1996), a collection of critically acclaimed short stories set in the Caribbean which explore interpersonal relationships.

In a recent interview, Nigel Thomas spoke about his concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Quite late. In my adolescence, I wrote sketches and directed them principally to raise money for the indigent fund of the Methodist Church to which I belonged. These were short plays. People paid to see them performed. No social welfare system existed in St. Vincent then. The churches that people belonged to aided those who were in need. This was the purpose of the indigent fund. The money thus collected went into the indigent fund.

One of the sketches I thought was significant, but I never saw myself as a writer then, nor did I wish to be a writer then.

I began writing poetry at age 28 and found that I had to do so every day for a period of over four years.

What would you say you were trying to achieve through the poetry?

Wordsworth defines poetry as emotions recollected in tranquillity. What caused the intense emotions that required shaping into poetry, I do not know. Perhaps it was the deep sense of exile that I felt. There certainly was a deeply felt angst that poetry relieved.

I wrote about one's place in the universe, about identity, about injustice, about the lessons inherent in nature. I recall a few lines from a poem written in the second year: "Would I have thought that at 29/ My life would be an autumn Vine?" . . . "But we must roll our stones/ And roll them all alone/ And find in art the solace that dogs do in their bones." I think that was the sort of tone found in those early poems. I've published few of them.

"What was I trying to achieve?" Finding language, metre, symbols and metaphors to embody what I was feeling. Robert Graves refers to this as the pearl the oyster creates to coat the grain of sand in its flesh.

I was already in my mid-thirties when I turned to fiction, largely because plots filled my head and I could not fall asleep. In a manner of speaking, it was easier to write than fall asleep.

How would you describe the genre in which you do most of your writing?

Now most of my writing is prose fiction. It seems to lend itself better to the issues my psyche predisposes me to explore.

Which issues are these? And why do you think they are this dominant?

They are no different from the ones that interested me when I began writing poetry. It's only the form that's different. My last novel, Behind the Face of Winter, follows a youngster from about age five in the Caribbean through high school and university in Canada. I wanted to show via fiction some of what I know about the Black immigrant experience as it affects Black children in high school in Montreal (I taught in the school system in Montreal for 12 years). My next novel, Return to Arcadia, forthcoming in autumn, explores a mixed-race man's quest for sanity as he tries to cast off the burdens bequeathed by his colonial heritage.

Underlying the premise of everything I write is the notion that life is constant negotiation. We may do it passively sometimes by absenting ourselves from active confrontation and consequently deprive ourselves of the fruits of such confrontation (conversely we may avoid the resulting wounds), or we may jump into the fray. What underlies such choices make for interesting speculation and hence fiction.

What motivated you to start writing in this genre?

I vaguely recall that in the early eighties I despaired over what I was not reading in works produced by West Indian writers. Earl Lovelace was the exception. Something told me I had to begin writing that sort of work -- works that focused on African Diasporic identities.

You see, we in the Caribbean had been brought up in a culture of self-hate. It was necessary to explore, (not merely through history -- history does not engage us with the same emotional depth) through characters, the impact of this on our psyches and to imply ways by which we might exorcise it. Prose fiction was the ideal genre for this. The theatre would have been even better, but I’m predisposed to being solitary, and the sort of atmosphere in which plays are born is anathema to what I am.

How are you defining this "culture of self-hate"?

Africa in the Caribbean in which I grew up symbolized savagery. The word Zulu in my village had the same virulence as cannibal. As my protagonist in Spirits in the Dark notes, to call someone African was to challenge him or her to a fight.

Clearly, if we despised Africa and Africans we hated ourselves. It's tantamount to disowning one's mother. This came about via Christianity, which equated Blackness with sin and savagery. But it's also true that we were ashamed of slavery. My father believed that we were the descendants of Ham (Noah's cursed son). The implication, then, is that God had ordained us for servitude. Spirits in the Dark puts such self-hate onto the threshing floor.

I have continued the theme to a lesser extent in Behind the Face of Winter to show in part the evolution that has taken place. I continue the theme as well in Return to Arcadia.

How and why is it that people in the Caribbean accept this teaching?

We were too weak to challenge it. We were a hostage society. Opinions that differed from the colonizers' were severely punished. Promotions meant parroting the colonizer's beliefs and expressing a preference for his culture.

Why is it important to exorcise it?

The reason is self evident. Hatred of one's self is profoundly debilitating. It goes to the core of one's self-worth. Who should do the exorcising? Educators, artists, the purveyors of the various media -- everyone with the power to influence public opinion.

How does self-hate manifest itself in the Caribbean?

Today, there is very little overt verbal expression of such self-hate. We have come a long way, thanks to Bob Marley, Chalkdust, etc. (musicians); and to writers like George Lamming, Earl Lovelace, Louise Bennett, etc. We are also able to read works that hitherto had been proscribed. West Indian history came into the curriculum my last year in high school. I had no Caribbean authors on my high school curriculum. Today the exact opposite is true.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

African American writers primarily: the greats: Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Toni Morrison; and two unknowns: Toni Cade Bambara and Leon Forrest; African writers: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Alex LaGuma; North American First Nations Writers: Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, James Welch and N. Scott Momaday. The only Caribbean writer who influenced me -- and it was a profound influence -- was Earl Lovelace.

Some showed me how to shape a novel. Others showed me how powerful a banal notion could become once it's transformed into fiction. I also saw the tremendous amount of knowledge I gained from their books, hence I came to believe that fiction could be intellectually enlightening.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

An important dictum for writers is: write about what you know. It doesn’t mean adhering slavishly to facts but rather employing facts as tools for further imaginary exploration. In other words, facts are the screwdrivers to tighten or unscrew the imagination as well as the containers to fill with whatever the imagination produces. For example, it is difficult to find in any of my fiction my own personal experiences. The settings, however much reconstructed, are real and the obsessions that get explored are my own.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

To listen to my muse and resist the pressures of the marketplace. I write largely because reality’s surface is for me hardly more than a mask. What’s worth knowing is beneath it. I’m not saying that I discover anything. All I do is try to uncover. I think that the biggest beneficiary of my writing is myself. Self-knowledge is something I’ve gained from my writing much as we discover our fears in our dreams.

Who would you say is your target audience?

In all honesty, it would be anyone who reads my writing. I think, however, that since I’m of Caribbean origin and write out of that sensibility, West Indians and Diasporic Africans are likely to be the readers best able to appreciate the issues I explore.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Finding metaphors that my audience and I share. I am not a consumer of popular culture, so I’m cut off from the source where the overwhelming majority of today’s population find its psychic nourishment and cultural references.

To you, what is popular culture? And, in what ways are you cut off from it?

Popular music: rap, hip-hop, dancehall, etc.; televisions programmes; fashion shows, etc. I'm cut off in the sense that I gain far more nourishment from other sources. It's a question of how I'm predisposed to spending my time. I would have to consume a great deal of popular culture to get a small measure of intellectual food. I prefer to go to the sources where an abundance is more likely.

Do you write everyday?

Now that I am no longer bogged down by university teaching, I spend a few hours each day. When I was a university professor I wrote chiefly in late spring and summer. I chose to retire early so that I would have time to write.

What will your next book be about?

Return to Arcadia will be about the process of attaining psychological wholeness after enduring a sullying childhood. I've worked on it in spurts over a seven-year period, almost exclusively during the summer months.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

[Interview] M. D. Benoit

Canadian author, M.D. Benoit is on a virtual book tour to promote her upcoming alternate reality novel, Synergy.

The tour started on March 28 and will run until April 11.

During this period, ten blogs will host M.D. Benoit for a day to discuss Synergy, its themes and characters. Some blogs will also feature interviews with the author and reviews of the book. On her own blog, Life’s Weirder than Fiction, M.D. Benoit will announce where she will be that day, as well as talk a bit about her host.

Synergy’s Virtual Book Tour will culminate with a Virtual Book Launch, on April 14 and 15.

In an email interview which took place between February 21 and March 30, 2007, M.D. Benoit spoke about the tour and about her writing.

How many books have you written so far?

I’m currently working on my seventh, but I have two books currently published and one which will come out in March 2007. All three are published by Zumaya Publications.

The first one, Metered Space, was published in 2004. It is the first book in the Jack Meter Case Files series. Jack Meter, a Private Investigator from Ottawa, Canada, is hired by aliens to recover a stolen device a megalomaniac wants to use to conquer the universe. In Meter Made, Jack teams up with a beautiful intergalactic agent to investigate parallel universes.

In Synergy, a man who can travel people’s memories and a woman who has visions team up to find the cure for a horrifying genetic disease. In doing so, they may have found the ultimate genetic weapon.

How long did it take you to write Synergy?

Synergy took me two and a half years to write. Six months of research went into it. When I started, I knew very little about genetic engineering, so I had to take a crash course. The story is about gene modification and warfare, but it’s also about the relationship between two hurt people. Torver Lockwood is scarred emotionally, Demetria Greyson is disfigured. He uses people’s innermost secrets against them; she is unwaveringly honest. The question is: does the end justify the means? Is saving one child worth unleashing a dangerous weapon?

What did you find most difficult when you were working on the novel?

The genetics, of course. As I was writing the book, new developments in the field occurred almost every month. I had to keep up-to-date constantly. For instance, before the beginning of mapping the human genome, the speculation was that we had a minimum of 100,000 genes. When they finished the map, the count was 30,000.

What did you enjoy most?

My biggest thrill is always writing the first draft. Everything else after that is hard work.

How are you promoting the book?

I’ll have a physical book launch, of course, but with the last ones I held, I found I could reach just a very small portion of the population. So I’ve decided to hold a virtual book launch and book tour. Bloggers will host my book tour, as if I were stopping in a different city every day.

The book launch will happen in a virtual pub on my website. Visitors will be able to watch a video about the book, read the first chapter, participate in a contest to win a signed copy of one of my other books, read reviews, read all about my blog hosts during the book tour, buy Synergy, and chat with me.

What is a virtual book tour? And, how did you select the blogs who will be hosting you and your novel?

Using the virtual world is a new phenomenon that grew with the advent of virtual communities and blogs. Even the large publishers have little money to spend on book tours for midlist or emerging authors, so the writers themselves have had to be creative. Doing a virtual book tour and launch seemed a good solution: your audience is larger and as varied as possible.

For the book tour, I’ve approached ten blog owners, from writers to fans to reviewers, who can do whatever they want on the day I visit: an interview, a review of the book, a Q&A using the comments portion of the blog; the sky is the limit. I tried to ask a variety of blog owners so that the visitors won’t all be the same ones from one blog to the next. The only criterion: they have to like to read.

How would you describe the genre in which you do most of your writing?

Alternate reality fits better for my books than science fiction or mystery, or the new term, weird fiction. I explore possibilities, but the basis of the stories is always grounded in the concrete.

Who is your target audience?

With my series The Jack Meter Case Files, which is a mix of alternate reality and mystery, the target audience would be those who enjoy whimsical writing. Jack Meter is a Private Investigator who gets his cases from aliens. With Synergy, the novel coming out in March 2007, my audience would be those who are able to suspend their disbelief and come along for the ride. The novel is about gene modification and genetic warfare.

What motivated you to start writing in this genre?

I really didn’t have any choice in the matter. Those are the stories coming out of my brain. I love reading literary fiction, for instance, but when I try to write in that genre, the writing comes out as stilted and trite. What usually pops into my head are strange stories, and those are the ones I need to tell.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

Hmm. I’d say the first one I remember with awe is my father. He wasn’t a writer, but an incredible storyteller. Every night for years, when we were growing up, he would tell us a story. Of course, my two brothers and I were the protagonists. There was always a dark forest, alien beings, caves and bats, witches, keypads to press that led to strange, dangerous worlds. We had to overcome many obstacles, and the story lasted for weeks. I learned the skill of cliffhangers from him.

What sets the Synergy apart from the other things you have written?

It is much more serious in tone. The Jack Meter Case Files are lighthearted, even though I explore some difficult issues. My protagonist is somewhat based on Sam Spade, so there’s a tinge of “roman noir” to them. Synergy explores some deeper issues about our right to our genetic information, and of the role of ethical behavior in research. It doesn’t proselytize or moralize, simply asks the questions. It’s up to the reader to come up with his/her own answers.

In what way is it similar?

I’ve always been fascinated with time, and that theme recurs throughout all my books. Another theme is water, or its flow. Looking back, it also appears in all my books.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

That my readers enjoy my stories. If I can make them smile, shiver, or hold their breath, if I can keep them fascinated until the end, I’ll have done my job.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Even when I was young, I was very different from the others. I have a quirky sense of humour few people understand; I have a sense of the ridiculous, and my brain works almost twenty-four hours a day (I suffer from chronic insomnia). I’ve always been somewhat of a recluse, preferring books to friends. A ten, I had already read many Nobel prize writers. I started school at four and a half, so I was always “off”. I’d say that gave me the perfect makeup to be a writer. I can spend weeks without seeing no one else than mys husband and my cat, and I’m quite happy with that.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Not becoming stale as a writer. It’s easy to fall into a comfortable rhythm, a style that is easy because it’s well known. However, that way you end up with cookie-cutter prose.

How do you deal with these challenges?

I try to find a new challenge in every book I write and tackle it in a new way.

Do you write everyday?

I write five days a week, sometimes six. I’ll usually start around 8:30 or 9 am, write until 11 am, have lunch and a bit of a read, then write until 2 pm.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always written, from awful poetry to short stories, but I dabbled more than anything. It was a dream of mine to be a “real” writer. Unfortunately, life interfered -- I had to earn money, I had really stressful jobs, and I couldn’t switch gears when it was time to do some serious writing. Then a good friend died at 42. I decided life was too short, too uncertain, to do something you hated, to stomp on your dreams. It took me a year to prepare my exit from the workforce, and our income was reduced dramatically, but I began writing full-time. That was 12 years ago, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

What will your next book be about?

The next one will be another Jack Meter, Meter Destiny, where Jack gets involved with Gods of the Greek Mythology. Then there’s the next in the genetic engineering trio, Catalyst, about human cloning farms.

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

Getting published. English is not my mother tongue. I learned to speak it when I was twenty-one. I’ve always had a fascination with languages, but I find that getting published is an affirmation that I am able to master this extremely difficult language.

How did you do it?

I read a lot, often with the dictionary beside me. In addition, a very good friend of mine, Peggy Loyer, has been my copy editor for as long as I’ve written. I learned much from her over the years. I would not be were I am without her. I also owe my success to my husband, Daniel, who believes in me more than I believe in myself. He has been a stalwart promoter of my work and has propped my flagging optimism over and over. He is also my biggest fan.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

[Interview] Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza

Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza is one of the most exciting emerging voices in Zimbabwean literature.

His short stories have appeared in anthologies such as A Roof to Repair (College Press, 2000), Writing Still (Weaver Press, 2003), Writing Now (Weaver Press, 2005) and Creatures Great and Small (Mambo Press, 2006).

A number of his short stories have also been published in national newspapers and magazines that include The Sunday Mail, the Sunday Mirror and Moto.

In a recent interview, Stanley Mupfudza spoke about his writing.

Do you think newspapers and magazines in Zimbabwe are giving enough space to creative writers?

The Sunday Mail no longer has space for creative writing. The Sunday Mirror had it because of my own initiative. Many magazines have become defunct in Zimbabwe, so it is no longer a question of magazines giving space to creative writers, but that creative writers no longer have media through which to express themselves.

How would you describe the current situation in Zimbabwe? What do you think caused it? Is there a solution?

Political and economic stagnation. Political arrogance, national self-disbelief, sanctions... As a nation, we failed to consolidate the gains of independence, to create a solid foundation on which we could go forward as a nation. Instead, we became mimic men.

A solution is inevitable, but it is difficult to see how soon. There is lack of unity of purpose, a failure by people from different walks of life to come together for the good of Zimbabwe. You see, politicians come and go, as do parties, but Zimbabwe remains. This country that lies between the Zambezi and Limpopo is a special place; so special that it is the only one South of the Sahara that has anything as spectacular as Great Zimbabwe. There is the Great Dyke. Now diamonds are being discovered in Marange. The potential is massive. Look at the Zimbabweans who go abroad and do well -- they are in key positions. We are currently beggars on a beach of gold -- but six years after everyone had written us off, we are still here and that fascinates me as a writer. Some think Zimbabweans are docile people. I think they are simply resilient. Historically, the white settlers were taken by surprise when the 1896/7 uprisings came. They had thought the people docile, too.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Spiritual regeneration, the triumph of the underdog, humanity's resilience, justice, freedom... Conformism has always riled me. Going through life, I noticed that those people who are usually overlooked, cast out, mocked etc., have their own stories to tell, stories that more often than not add value to human experience. I am a sucker for stories about overcoming adversity, triumph against all odds, succeeding when everyone has written off success... My father had to resort to the old custom of kutema hugariri -- you know, where a husband to be had to go and live with his in-laws and offer his labour, ploughing, building, etc. as a way of paying lobola -- then became a truck driver, until one day he was able to set up his own store at Nyangavi Township in Guruve -- he sent his brothers to school, raised six children...

I am concerned with questions of identity. For a long time I wandered through the mazes of our own Zimbabwean condition -- western education, acculturation -- looking for a centre. I even dabbled in Eastern philosophy, always felt on the outside of mainstream society. Then I started delving into our own religion, history and mythology. One of my short stories is called "The Lost Songs" which is about a singer who repudiates his past, his rural family and gets lost in the seedy life of the city, pop music... Then one day he forgets all the lyrics to his songs... Things begin to fall apart around him, his so-called friends abandon him... Then he makes the journey back home, to his mother where he reconnects with his family history and he discovers an ancient mbira which was passed down from generation to generation in his family and through mbira music he finds his place in the scheme of things.

In Zimbabwe right now, many claim to be Christians, but n'angas (traditional healers) are doing roaring business. There are stories of about people using the arcane in order to become rich, to gain political power -- there is the belief in the avenging spirit, ngozi... How can one take all these concepts so that they become leit motifs in one's writing? How does one deliberately borrow from symbols of drought, rain, hunger etc. that have been used by Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera and others, and talk about current conditions? Can one take folklore figures, transpose them to contemporary society and write a children's story that will appeal to a techno-generation kid? I grapple with all these questions because our culture and history are rich and the struggle is to make use of it all to come up with universal stories which are, however, rooted in the particular.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face? And how do you deal with them?

Getting published. Having a PC or laptop of my own -- priced out of reach down here.

Irene Staunton and Weaver Press have been highly exceptional in promoting emerging Zimbabwean writers. Her two anthologies, Writing Still and Writing Now have done a lot to create that excitement but I have been around for quite a long time. Back in 2000, when I tried to get a manuscript published, I was told that publishing houses had put publishing fiction on hold for about four years since the economic conditions were bad. Well, they are worse now and school textbooks have a ready market. Zimbabweans would rather buy DVDs, bread and butter, than books.

When I was an undergraduate student, I had a second, probably fourth-hand typewriter, that I had bought from a used goods shop in Harare. I always wrote my work long hand before typing it out. That process became a process of revising, editing and re-conceptualisation. I was a high school teacher from 1994 to 2001. When the school where I taught introduced computers, I took advantage of that and began to type my stories at school, whenever I got the opportunity, saving them on disks. When I worked as a copy writer in an advertising agency, I took advantage of that, too.

Same now... when you are not at work, you can't really sit down and do your final drafts, and when you are at work, you do not always have the time. Something suffers in the process. You might write long hand, make notes, and so on but there are times when in the middle of the night, or just before dawn, an idea crystallises... but you have to wait until you get to work.

How have your own personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

At one stage writing saved my life. I wrote in order to stay sane, to make sense of who I was, to assert myself. When I was doing my A' levels, I wrote almost every day. I kept a journal where I poured out all my fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams. I always felt the odd one out. I was reserved and saw the world differently. I began to write fiction as a way of self-assertion. It helped tame my personal demons. It helped me face the Furies that were tormenting me.

The same, too, when I was an undergraduate student. In my second year back in 1992, I went through another crisis period. This had more to do with Literature and Socialism, a course I was doing then. I began to question the value of literature and poetry in a world full of wars, hunger and things like that... One day I recited a poem in First Street as part of a Marechera commemoration. One old man was more fascinated by my dreadlocks than my art. It all felt futile. I toyed with the idea of dropping out of university and joining the armed wing of the ANC and help my Azanian brethren fight for liberation.

How did you resolve this conflict?

I sat with an occidental student friend from the States who genuinely loved my writing and told her about my dilemma. She told me that art, literature was important. She had come to Africa thanks to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. After that talk, I went back to writing relentlessly and was saved once again.

Over the years, I lost two brothers and a sister and I became self- destructive. Dealing with the pain of loss, coming to terms with it all, was only possible through my art.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

One can only speak of specific influences at a given time. For example, there was a period of pulp fiction addiction, when Stephen King, Robert Ludlum and similar writers ruled the roost. Thomas Hardy, Shelley and Wordsworth at A-level. College years, Marechera, Jack Kerouac and others… but I have always tended to read, read and read and certain elements of style or vision would create a lasting impression and in the journey to find a personal voice, I tended to interlope, borrowing, grafting and so on.

Do you write everyday?

I am an undisciplined writer. I sometimes wait for inspiration to write. Yet, an idea can gestate inside my head for a long time and when I eventually sit down, the story, poem or essay is completely formed. I think right now I am suffering from a writer's block, actually -- I haven't written original fiction in a long while. I am not even coming up with ideas and concepts. I know I am going through a phase, where I am trying to come to terms with my current profession and personal life. I want to write a novel, a television script and a play.

It's important that I get involved in a creative project, because that is what I do and what I am -- I write. I am a writer.

One of your short stories is about the conflict between religion and rationality. How did the story come about?

"Faith" is about a man called Faith who is seen by some as a lunatic, and a prophet by others. The story is set just before the turn of the millennium, with Faith preaching that the end of the world is nigh. It is told from the perspective of a sceptical teacher, whose wife and child become converts. It took me between three to six months to write the story and it was going to appear in an anthology which we were expecting to come out around August, which has writings from across Africa. Things, however, seem to have stalled.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the story did you find most difficult?

The quasi-religious aspects, making them read and feel real, without being contrived. I wanted the reader to able to immerse himself or herself in the story and enjoy it, without batting an eyelid.

I have become fascinated by our folklore, myths, history and spirituality -- the challenge has been how incorporate this into my fiction and enrich it.

What do you think is the source of this fascination? How much space do you think folklore, myths and spirituality take in your own life and in contemporary life in Zimbabwe?

They have become the prism through which I view, process life. They help me shape my identity, offer me dimensions that hitherto had been hidden to me. They offer me a refreshing look at the world, a wealth that many have ceased to be recognised and yet can be very useful. People are always looking for crutches in order to survive, and I am fascinated by how these work or fail to work, and what people do or fail to do as a result of the beliefs and values they resort to or discard. Look at what the Latin American writers like Isabel Allende in The House of Spirits have accomplished. Magic realism can be a tool that might help us inject a fresh feel and voice to Zimbabwean literature.

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

Being still alive today and being able to respond to these questions.

Why is this?

Sometimes, the worst possible threats to ourselves come from us. Losing the will to live, not caring how one lives or dies. Perhaps there is a romantic notion of the artist underlying it all... fuelled by the desire to die young. One bad thing about dying young is that it comes too early...There is nothing romantic about death, while life itself is full of so many possibilities. My first brother to die died in 1998, while the second died in 2000. My young sister died in 2002. My sister's death was the most difficult of all to deal with. We were very close.

How did you deal with the pain and the loss?

One night, after a long hard day of vodka-fuelled boozing, I hit someone with a beer bottle in a nightclub. There was so much blood everywhere. I was mobbed and beaten up by his friends and thieves and nearly died. I was taken to the local police station and locked up in a cell with hardcore criminals, people from the underside of our society. These were habitual criminals, and I listened to their stories, each one had a different story to tell and no one, according to them, was really guilty. Through it all, a question kept nagging me: Is this as good as it gets?

I realised that I deserved more and that the potential I had could not end up in such a place -- there was no glory in that, in dying early.

In 2003, my then partner gave birth to a pre-term boy. She was seven months pregnant when he decided to come into the world. There were scary moments when he was confined to the intensive care unit. Then he developed jaundice, and the doctors were on strike, so you had medical students experimenting with treatments. The most amazing thing about it all was how this kid fought. He didn't want to die, he refused to die. It was truly amazing that a pre-term child, barely weeks old could show such a tremendous will to live. It was a trying period for me but through his struggle and triumph, I began to appreciate the value of my own life, and because he lived, I learnt to appreciate what it meant to live for someone other than yourself.

You have also talked about finding a centre. Where would you say your centre lies?

My centre revolves around knowing who I am, what I want out of life and going through life informed by a core set of values that enable me to value life, the gifts that we come with into this world and what we ought to do with them. Before me, there have been others of my line, who have made their contributions, even though they remain unknown and unsung, and I am part of that contribution.

My grandfather was a great hunter, drummer, mbira player and dancer, and the arts course through my blood. Skidrow was boozing and not caring what tomorrow brought, getting off, was taking charge of my life, creating a sense of purpose and focus...Whatever it is I do, I believe I should do it with passion and to the best of my ability, so that I leave a mark.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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