As a teenager, Fiona took two career aptitude tests. The first said she was unemployable, the second returned only one result – coroner. She decided to ignore both (and give up taking aptitude tests) and instead became in turn, an Australian diplomat, foreign and trade policy consultant, freelance writer, theatre producer, blogger, home schooler and author (and sometimes several of these at once). She has a gypsy soul that has carried her across over twenty countries on four continents, including one year long adventure driving across the USA and Canada with her husband, daughter and the dog. She now lives in Ghana.
GEOSI READS: Where and when did you get the idea to write The Chicken Thief?
I started writing the novel in 2005 when I was living in Perth, Western Australia, but a lot of the ideas, characters and events had been bubbling away in my head for years. I stumbled upon the trick of hypnotizing chickens once on youtube and the idea of a thief who could hypnotise chickens seemed to evolve before me.
GR: Did you intentionally set out to write about the political situation in Southern Africa?
Yes, but I wanted to place current events in the context of historical events and also throw in some ‘what ifs?’ What if one of the war heroes from the Independence movement suddenly reappeared? How would the country react? What would be the ramifications? How would that person feel?
GR: Why Southern Africa?
Over the space of three years (1996-1998) I travelled regularly through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia, and also visited South Africa, Botswana and Malawi. By the time I left, southern Africa was well and truly under my skin.
GR: You decided not to name the specific place in Southern Africa where the story takes place which I thought was clever on your part. Are there any strings attached to this decision?
In my head I know exactly where the novel is set, and I know what specific locations look like, however, I wanted the reader to come to the novel without prejudice, especially for the character of the President. I didn’t want the reader to assume that my President and the President of the real country were meant to be one and the same. It also gives me the flexibility to play with language. For example, Alois has a tendency to use proverbs as a way to process the world around him. While the proverbs I use are all actual African proverbs, I draw them from across the continent and not just one country.
GR: So, ehm.., would you mind sharing with us where exactly the novel is set?
No, but thanks for asking!
GR: In relation to your hero – Alois – do you think it was pure honest decision that made him to quit his job at the Finance Ministry? Are there people like Alois in real life who will quit stealing from government coffers to stealing chickens?
Alois’ decision to quit the Ministry is indicative of his struggle to really understand what he wants from the world. He knew in his heart that he was just not meant to be a public servant but he didn’t know what else he could do. He has a unique skill with chickens and so out of desperation he falls back on that. I confess that this part was a bit autobiographical (the quitting a public service job, not stealing chickens!). For me, leaving the public service was absolutely the right thing to do, but I felt guilty about giving up a “good” job and I struggled for a long time trying to work out what to do next.
GR: In the general view of the story, should we then conclude that Alois is Fiona or Fiona Alois?
No, Alois is very much his own man, but I’m always looking for ways to bring true to life experiences or emotions to my characters and if I occasionally have to plunder my own life, then so be it!
GR: I am curious to know where you grabbed that name from – Alois – I mean.
As I said, when it comes to authors, nothing is sacred; we will steal ideas from anywhere! I am a big fan of Zimbabwe’s Tumbuka Dance Company and I took the name from one of their dancers/choreographers, Alois Magwenya. It’s a name I’ve always liked the look and sound of. It’s also an unusual name and doesn’t tie the character to a particular country.
GR: You portray mainly male characters who take up the helm of affairs in your story. I am wondering the effect it would have had on your story if Alois was a woman?
That’s an interesting question. I really can’t imagine Alois as a woman. I think for a woman to be a thief in that way, she would have to have a completely different personality. It would have to have been a much more conscious decision and I suspect she would need to have a much clearer outlook on life, and perhaps be a much stronger person. Alois really is finding his way. I would be sad too if Alois was a woman, because the love of his life – Rose – is such a special character for me. I couldn’t imagine losing her.
GR: I thought so too – thus – in relation to Rose! You did really create a special character out of her. How special is she to you?
Rose was only intended to be a very peripheral character, but she evolved into a much more central character. I mentioned recently on my Facebook page that in the course of writing the sequel I had killed off one of my characters and there was a flurry of concern that something might have happened to Rose. It seems she appeals to a lot of people.
I should note for the record that Rose doesn’t die in the sequel. To the contrary she’s once again demanding more air time.
GR: You self-published The Chicken Thief. Have you been able to reach out to a wider audience?
Yes, I have sold books on five continents which has been wonderful. It’s a lot of work marketing your own book, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.
GR: Considering the outlets – Smashwords, kindle, etcetera – by which you market your books, you seem to be a firm enthusiast of e-books or say technology? Is that the case?
Yes, definitely. As a reader, while I love bookstores, I also love the convenience of being able to buy books quickly and easily. And it’s an exciting time to be an author. E-book technology has given authors an incredible capacity to get their work out into the world. This is especially the case for authors in smaller markets like Ghana, for example, where I currently live. One of my big motivations for self-publishing was to show other authors that it is possible to put your work in front of readers without having to wait for someone to give you permission.
GR: You have travelled widely across the length and breadth of several countries. From your experiences of each of the countries you’ve been to, are you optimistic about the political situation on the African continent?
I think it’s impossible to generalize about the continent. Each country faces individual challenges and has a rich and complicated context. What I would say is that I am continually impressed by the optimistic Africans I meet. It seems an odd thing to say, but I think the global economic crisis has been good for Africa, because it has forced people to question whether they will actually be better off “abroad”. They are looking twice at the opportunities that are offered in their own countries, and more importantly, what they have to offer those countries. I love meeting people who are carving out niches for themselves, particularly in the creative industries. I think too there is a greater level of popular engagement in political affairs. Events over the last couple of years have shown both the importance of being engaged in the political process and also shown the power of ordinary people to influence governments.
GR: Most writers have a specific ritual they cling to in the process of writing – while some may never let go a particular pencil they admire, others like to have coffee or water around before they’re able to write well. In your case, do you cling to any particular ritual?
No, I don’t have a particular ritual, except perhaps that I do all my plotting using pencil and paper and I love Moleskine notebooks. I’m not sure why, but they feel right.
On a slow writing day I might say that my most common ritual is procrastination…
GR: Among the so many occupations you’ve indulged in is blogging. How does blogging life differ from writing books?
Blogging and novels are two completely different experiences for me. I find writing books so much easier, because it’s all coming out of my head and it doesn’t have to be right! My novels are like a secret world that only I have access to! Blogging is something that I struggle with a lot of the time. I enjoy it but I also worry about what I should write, and who I should be writing for and will anybody want to read it? That said, there’s something about blogging that keeps me coming back. And I like being around other bloggers. They bring a fresh perspective to the world and are incredibly generous with their creativity and support.
GR: What next are your fans to expect from you?
I’m currently working on my second draft of the sequel to The Chicken Thief. Alois and I have had some disagreements about how things should play out, but I think we’re gradually coming to an agreement and hopefully it will be out by the end of the year
GR: On a lighter note, what advice do you have for somebody thinking of quitting his/her government post to stealing books in the libraries and bookshops?
Haha! I would never encourage people to steal books! Authors need to eat and pay bills too! That said, I’m a great advocate of doing what you love. You owe it to your soul. I will always be eternally grateful to Alois, and Gabriel and even the President, for leading me from my old world into one that gives me such immense pleasure.