Interview: Fiona Leonard, author of ‘The Chicken Thief’
Fiona Leonard has had a storied career as a writer in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, an international politics and trade consultant, a blogger and most recently, as a fiction writer. Her latest offering is The Chicken Thief. Alois is a simple chicken thief with few prospects until he is offered a chance to make some easy money and everything changes. Set in an unnamed southern African country, the novel features intrigue, political unrest and power struggles, as well as family ties and friendships that transcend generations.
We were lucky enough to ask Fiona a few questions about the Chicken Thief in between her bouts of time in Ghana, England and everywhere in between.
The Chicken Thief is a really fun read despite some pretty heavy issues – for example, Alois’ family is quite poor, and he gets tangled up in quite a political struggle and finds himself aiding an old war hero. Is that mixture of heavier themes but relatively light-hearted writing something you intended to tackle?
To be completely honest it never occurred to me that this was a ‘fun’ book or that there was such a strong vein of humour running through it until I started getting feedback from readers. I know that seems odd, but I felt it was more serious. It’s probably good that it worked out that way because I don’t know if I could have intentionally written a ‘fun’ book. I think it would have felt forced. My intention though was always to create very human characters who were ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary situations. While there is a certain way that you would like to think you would cope in a situation, the reality is that you aren’t ever as focused, or incredibly organised as you would like to be. You get through the situation as best you can. Alois, in particular, is like that. What he does achieve always seems to come as a bit of a surprise to him.
Can you tell us a bit about how the idea for the Chicken Thief came about – was it about war heroes and politics first, or about a boy stealing chickens, or did the two concepts always go together in your head?
When I’m writing I tend to spend a lot of time asking ‘what if?’ I read about people or events and mull over the possibility of how things would have been different if one or two elements had changed. What would have happened in South Africa, for example, if Nelson Mandela had never been released from prison? So the idea of Gabriel returning was probably one of the first elements to the story. With Alois, I had the name and I also had the concept of hypnotising chickens – something that really appealed to my warped sense of humour. If you go to youtube and google ‘hypnotising chickens’ you will find all sorts of very odd clips! (Apparently Al Gore is a chicken hypnotiser of note!) So I had the idea of a character who was very ordinary in some ways, but also had these rather odd skills. He’s also very much a character who lives on the fringes of society, dropping into the lives of a range of people from different classes and colours. I wanted him to have that mobility so that he could weave his way through the lives of a range of different people.
Are there any inspirations (real world or literary) behind the characters of Alois and Gabriel?
None of my characters are based specifically on one person, however, there are elements that are drawn from a range of different people – some I’ve known, some I’ve read about. Those elements could be as small, however, as seeing someone wearing a particular pair of trousers, and thinking, ‘yes, that’s exactly what Gabriel would wear’. Or seeing a mannerism that gives me an idea for a whole character trait. My brain tends to run at random tangents, so I’ll see something and then go off at an odd right angle. If I were to explain the inspiration for certain elements, they would probably make no sense!
A large chunk of popular books are dominated by white characters, whereas Alois is a young black man. Was it particularly difficult to write from such a different perspective?
I am a huge supporter of diversity in literature. I think it’s critical that authors write a range of characters whether that’s colour, orientation, gender, age etc. The reality is that you will never know what it’s like being that person, so you have to find a way in. For me, that’s finding a commonality of experience and emotion. I know what it’s like to be scared, or fall in love, or feel like I’ve made a total mess of something, so that’s what I bring to the character. From there you just have to rely on research to give nuance and authenticity. That may come from reading, or watching films, or simply listening to people talk.
A lot of authors don’t write more diverse characters saying they don’t want to get it “wrong”. Were you worried about that, or do you think that is just an excuse?
I totally understand that concern, but really, do authors have a choice? Unless you are going to only write books about people the same age, gender and demographic as yourself, then you have to put yourself in someone else’s head. I sometimes wonder whether people were asking Jane Austen whether she really had the credentials to put herself in Mr Darcy’s head!
I think race though is one of those areas that makes people nervous. We accept that an author will write different genders and ages, but there is still a reluctance to cross cultural barriers. Personally though, I think we need more books that explore a range of cultures. Our society is becoming so multicultural we need to be able to read books that explore different ethnic and cultural experiences. Should we see more books by African writers? Absolutely. Should we see more books written about Africa? Absolutely. According to the 2006 census, there are almost a quarter of a million people living in Australia who were born in Africa. Imagine living somewhere and never being able to find books that feature even one person that shares your ethnic background. We’ve come a long way with fiction set in an Asian context, likewise I hope we are opening the door to more fiction set in Africa.
Your bio is terribly inspiring and you’ve tackled many different types of writing. Do you think your fiction is affected by your experience in different types of writing?
I don’t know if the type of writing is necessarily as much of a factor as just writing, and writing a lot. You need to be writing a lot, writing regularly and getting feedback on it. I read a lot and I try to write a lot – I’ve just logged my 800th blog on my website – and I think that has been an incredibly valuable experience. When I finished writing The Chicken Thief, a writer whose advice I greatly value, urged me to start work on the second. At the time it seemed silly to write another, when I had no idea whether the first would ever see the light of day, but it was good advice. I wrote the second and am putting the finishing touches on the third in the series at the moment. I can really see how writing three books has been good for my writing.
You’re currently living in Ghana – is there a strong writing community there as in Melbourne?
Ghana has a very small literary community. Illiteracy is high – around 60% – which translates into both a limited number of writers and readers. As a consequence there is a very limited book buying culture. It is rare for people to give books as gifts, and you almost never see anyone reading in public. A friend was introduced to someone and that person said ‘Oh, I know you! You’re the one I see reading on the bus!’ It’s such a rare occurrence, people who do read stand out.
That said, Ghana’s creative community, across all disciplines, is incredibly supportive. People attend each other’s events and there is an amazing sense of generosity and encouragement. The creative community is really driving innovation, and they are some of the most upbeat and positive people I’ve met. They are really looking to foster social change and bring about advancement for all levels of society. I am constantly in awe of them and proud to have had the chance to know many of them.
Can you recommend any local Ghanaian or other African writers?
My favourite Ghanaian author is Nii Ayikwei Parkes who wrote a wonderful detective novel, Tail of the Blue Bird. It is not only a great read, but also an innovative style. I’ve been so pleased to see him winning awards for that novel. At the other end of the continent, one of my new favourite authors is Lauren Beukes. Her novel Shining Girls, scared the living daylights out of me! It’s a fantastic read, as is her first Zoo City.