[Interview] Paula Leyden

Paula Leyden was born in Kenya and grew up in Zambia. She spent most of her adult life in South Africa. Currently, she lives in Ireland.

She made her debut as an author with the publication of The Butterfly Heart (Walker Books, 2011).

In this interview, Paula Leyden talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing fiction late in life – when I moved to Ireland eight years ago. Before that my writing experience had been mainly in the field of human rights, more agitational and reporting kind of writing.

Once I had decided that I would like to try my hand at fiction I registered for a course called Write That Novel. It was run by Siobhán Parkinson, now our Children’s Laureate.

I found it extremely useful as it was a very practical course focussing on things like plotting, character development, dialogue, pace etc.

While on that course I did an exercise that then turned into my first novel (written before The Butterfly Heart and not yet published) for children. Once the course finished (it was a part-time course, two hours a week for three months) some of the students in the group felt they would like to continue meeting as a writer’s group – and we have been meeting since then for the past five years. We call ourselves The Crab Apple group.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I am writing various things.

My first book and the sequel to it are for children aged 10 upwards, these are the ones published by Walker Books. If I was to categorise them I suppose they would be part fiction, part fantasy and part adventure. The first one addresses a serious issue, that of child marriage, but I hope not in a pedagogic fashion. I would not like to read a book that hectored me so I see no reason to write one.

I have also written a couple of adult books (not yet published) one set on Death Row in South Africa under Apartheid, and the other also set in South Africa which, in some way, deals with a sense of belonging and apartness.

Who is your target audience?

I do not write for a target audience – I write and if the story ends up (as with the Butterfly Heart) appealing to children, then so be it. I have, however, had a lot of very good feedback from adults who have read it, so I like to think it has crossover appeal.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

There are authors whose writing I love – but I am not sure whether they have influenced me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barbara Kingsolver, Elmore Leonard, Williams Carlos Williams, Aesop’s Fables and folk tales mainly from Southern Africa that I have read and re-read. The writing of these has been largely a re-telling of stories handed down through the ages, so no one writer could be identified here.

And have your own personal experiences influenced your writing in any way?

Every part of my life has influenced my writing.

I was born in Kenya and then grew up in Zambia, then lived my adult life in South Africa – bits and pieces of all of these places are in my writing.

My childhood, my observations of people, being a mother, my working life – every little bit of me goes into my writing. I am sure everyone who writes is like that – we live and we learn, in every sense of the word.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern is to make sure that I always am the best that I can be. To be true to myself and what I know. Never to slip into lazy habits or assume anything. To keep disciplined – because that is what you have to keep if you are to make progress. Without discipline you may as well fold up the computer, or throw away the pencil!

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

My challenge, now that we’re on the subject, is discipline. Each book that I write, my discipline improves (I think ...)

Do you write everyday?

I write most days and in the morning. If I am on a deadline I can write later but I find my brain is freshest in the early morning.

I have a room in our home in which I write, which is a privilege. I start each writing session where I ended, if I am in the first draft. However I have a horrible tendency when editing to go back to the start each time – then I end up with a tightly edited first section and a scrabbled second section! I am trying to cure myself of that.

How many books have you written so far?

I have written six books – but only The Butterfly Heart is published. The sequel will come out next year – no title yet.

The Butterfly Heart was published by Walker Books UK on March 3, this year, it was endorsed by Amnesty International.

I have also had a short story published in a Jack and Jill Foundation book, and a short story published in African Writing.

What would you say The Butterfly Heart is about?

My latest book is The Butterfly Heart – it is set in Zambia and is told through two voices, Ifwafa and elderly man who has a magical way with snakes, and Bul-Boo, a young girl. It follows Bul Boo and her twins sister Madillo’s efforts to save their friend Winifred from being married off to a much older man. To do this they seek help from their friend Ifwafwa.

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

I am represented by a wonderful agent, Sophie Hicks of Ed Victor Ltd. In London. And it was Sophie who secured a publishing deal with Walker Books for me for The Butterfly Heart and its sequel.

Walker Books have been absolutely fantastic to deal with and I am extremely happy to be published by them.

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

I didn’t really find it difficult once I got started. My usual difficulty is in plotting – not in writing. I work from character, and find that characters come easily to me. So I usually write with little idea of where the characters will take me, which has both advantages and disadvantages. But once I have a general idea then the writing comes easily.

I enjoy the feeling I get when I feel I am getting on top of the story, when it almost feels as though it will write itself.

What sets The Butterfly Heart apart from other things you've written?

Probably the magical realism element within it. And I love that that emerged in this story.

What will your next book be about?

The next one follows Bul-Boo and Madillo into another adventure – but this time the main narrator will be Fred, their next door neighbour.

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

Being accepted onto Sophie Hick’s books and signing with Walker Books! It led to me being published.

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