Today readers we have a special treat! Jo-Anne Richards has stopped by to tell us a little about her novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken and life in general. Please help me in welcoming this lovely author.
Hello Jo-Anne! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Why don’t you start off by telling us a little about The Innocence of Roast Chicken?
I see The Innocence of Roast Chicken as the search for self and hope regained. It tells the story of a young girl’s loss of innocence in a time of great turmoil in South Africa.
It’s a story that explores the nature of hope, and how the past can impinge upon the present. It’s about a child, who has nothing but hope, and the adult she becomes, who believes herself to be incapable of it. It follows her attempts to come to terms with her past so that she can live in the present.
As her country experiences its time of greatest hope, Kate has lost faith in salvation – by politics or people. She is forced to relive her past or face losing everything. One Christmas, on an Eastern Cape farm, she was brought face to face with the brutal realities that change her forever.
She experiences a lyrical, barefoot childhood of watermelon, warring anthills and go-karts. But conflicts seethe beneath the idyll. A sense of impending horror builds and, in the growing darkness, men gather to exact their own form of revenge.
Don’t forget readers, there is a tantalizing teaser at the bottom of the interview you will want to check out!
How did you come up with the concept of The Innocence of Roast Chicken?
I was lucky to have experienced a wild, free childhood, barefoot and on a bicycle, in the Eastern Cape. That province of South Africa is still my heartland, and there’s a little of it in all my books. This was my first book (re-issued this year), and it sat inside me for a long time before I had the courage to write the first word.
I think part of the concept had to do with trying to express something of that time and place. The nature of hope has also fascinated me, having lived through extremes of hope and hopelessness. We never plod along from day to day. I live in a nation which is always in euphoria or despair.
Through Kate the child, and the adult she becomes, I wanted to explore this tendency to swing between extremes. I suppose, in the end, it’s a plea for balance.
I was also lucky to be able to spend some time on a farm, as a child. That farm seemed perfect, imbued with everything that was wild and free. But I grew to learn that it wasn’t really perfect at all, since it existed within a structure of great injustice.
Mine was a more gradual loss of innocence. I decided to demonstrate Kati’s as sudden and brutal.
The denouement – the thing that happens to change Kati’s life – is real. I didn’t make it up. But I didn’t experience it. As a young journalist, I covered a court case in which those tragic events were described. When I came to write this book, I drew on that.
What a way to honor the victim and all she has struggled to overcome.
The way the story flashes between the present and the past gives this a certain air of mystery and anticipation. Did you plan on doing this from the beginning?
Yes, I suppose I did. I love using restraint in my writing in order to keep people guessing. It’s important to me to draw readers on, by making them want to know what happens. In this book, I wanted there to be a building sense of menace, of darkness gathering.
But when I write, a lot of that happens intuitively. I write first, and then say: “Oh yes, well of course I meant to do that.” I often get more analytical in the rewrite. In my first draft, I like to let things flow.
Kati seems to push and push and push to the point of breaking her husband. Is Kati based on anyone you know?
No, she’s not at all. If anything, I’m (personality-wise) much closer to Kati the child. But I wanted, in her two selves, the extremes of hope.
While I’m the most optimistic person alive, I often have a little self (just a voice really) who sits on my shoulder and comments on things. I suppose I drew on this goblin within myself to create the adult Kati. I quite enjoyed writing her, because I do hope she’s quite funny.
In an odd way, her husband Joe needs her. He’s almost too hopeful to survive in such an intense place. He’s bound to be crushed and disillusioned. He needs her balancing cynicism. In the end, she shows she loves him. She realizes she has to go back and face what happened to her, if she’s to save him, and not lose him altogether.
Is there something about the 1960’s time period that had you setting this book during that time frame?
Well, it was a time of great turmoil in South Africa. There was great injustice, and a building sense of anger and resistance to that injustice. It was also a time that gave little hope to the majority of South Africa’s people. So, the child lives in a time that lacks hope, while the adult lives through a time of the country’s greatest jubilation and euphoria.
What is your next writing project coming up?
I have written three books since I first wrote Innocence. My last book was My Brother’s Book (Picador 2008)
I am just finishing a manuscript, which I hope (please hold thumbs) will be out next year. It’s about a mother who struggles with her feelings for a difficult child, about a murder, and about the kind of assumptions we all make, which are so often wrong.
Your bio states that you are a journalist as well as a novelist and a teacher of creative writing. What is it about writing that gives you this much passion for the art?
Well, it’s a good think I’m a writer, because I’m pretty useless at just about everything else.
I adore teaching creative writing. It allows me to use what I’ve learnt through my own mistakes, and build on that by researching what other more fabulous writers say. We have a number of online writing courses, in which we promise to expose our own vulnerabilities, and to be honest, but always kind.
So…how did it all come about?
“A writer?” my mother said. “Don’t be silly. Do something sensible.”
So I studied journalism, and spent a few intensely exciting years as a journalist during the height of South Africa’s turmoil. I was so lucky to experience that – the sense of doing something important, covering stories that made a real difference. Not many people get that chance.
I knew many special, brave people, who would do anything to get our story out there. Journalists faced jail, were threatened, and got in real danger – some were detained, and some died. If you want to get some sense of what it was like at that time, The Bang Bang Club has just been released as a movie, based on the memoir by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva. It’s about people I worked with and loved.
But in the end, I am more of a writer than a gung-ho journalist. I have always had an obsession with creating images with words. I am a writer. That defines who I am.
You have been short-listed for the M-Net Book Prize. Can you tell us what this means?
At the time, that was South Africa’s premier literary award for fiction, so it was the greatest honor for me to be short-listed for my first novel.
You were also nominated for a Literary Award. Congratulations on that one. What exactly is the Impac International Dublin Literary Award?
This is an international literary award for works of “high literary merit” in the English language. I was thrilled to be nominated for Innocence.
You have written quite a few novels and short stories. What genres have you written? Any that you have not written that you would like to? Any genres that you would not want to even attempt to write?
I believe my books are referred to as “literary fiction”. Essentially though, all my books are about people – about ordinary people and how they respond to our extraordinary backdrop.
I believe that writing is a seeking to understand, rather than a way of forcing other people to understand what we think we already know. So I don’t write parables. My books have no good guys and bad guys. I try to grapple with the way we live, our flaws, the way to handle ourselves and our issues in society.
I’m not a snob about genre. I think there’s no style or genre without merit – to read or to write. I often intend to write in a different style, but have only done so with short stories. In the end, perhaps I’m drawn to write in a certain way. We’ll see…
You have also co-written a genetic manual. How are you able to wear so many different “hats”?
I got drawn into working with patient/parent groups because of being close to someone with a genetic disorder. I grew fascinated by aspects of genetic work, and found that my writing could do some good. We live in a country where many people don’t speak English as a first language, and where many people are not within reach of even primary health care.
I have worked closely with health professionals, writing manuals in plain language that anyone can understand.
I see myself as deeply fortunate to live in such a special country, where it’s so easy to make a real difference. I believe it’s the key to happiness – being able to do something that might change people’s lives. What more could you ask, really.
You hold the national chair for the South Africans. Can you explain what that all entails?
I’m the national chair of the Southern African Inherited Disorders Association (SAIDA.
Vast areas of South Africa have little or no primary healthcare – let alone primary genetic health care.
In response to this critical shortage, SAIDA, a patient-parent group, has been forced to pick up the slack.
SAIDA drives the agenda of primary genetic health care and prevention from the bottom up. We believe that we are the only country in the world where a lay organization has taken on this role, because the health services cannot.
In partnership with the Wits University Department of Human Genetics, and with the support of the Department of Health, SAIDA has developed training programmers for clinic and hospital nurses and members of the community in support roles.
With extremely limited funding, SAIDA has trained 378 nurses in both urban and rural areas. Many of these have provided basic medical expertise to poorly serviced, under-resourced areas in some of the poorest regions of the country.
With more funding, we could do so much more. It’s very important work and I’m intensely proud of it. In developing countries, more than 6% of children are born with a birth defect of some kind – many of them preventable. That’s a huge and tragic number. Some 90% of all birth defects occur in developing countries. This is obviously a passionate topic for you. Congratulations that you are able to help in the ways you do!
Do you have any social networks that you belong to?
I’m on Facebook. I tweet, although I’m pretty new to it. It still makes me feel a bit self-conscious. And I’ve got a blog or two on www.allaboutwritingcourses.com
Now I have just a couple of fun questions for you.
Can you tell me something quirky about yourself? Maybe something no one else knows?
Hmm, I have an aging bull terrier, whom I adore. And my step-dog is a Labrador, who came to live with us when my partner got custody. Perhaps that’s not quirky enough.
Every morning when I was growing up, I went for an early morning swim in the sea with my father – around 5am. He taught me to body surf; we walked along the tide-line and had a cup of coffee as the sun rose. Then we’d have a quick shower and I’d pull on my school clothes in the car. If we had time, usually over a weekend, we’d drive through the harbor to see what ships had come in overnight. My dad would start conversations with seamen from all over the world and we sometimes got invited onboard.
Wow! That sounds like one heck of a memory to cherish.
And lastly…I enjoy knitting. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t really reveal this in public, but there are so many gorgeous yarns and great new designers, that knitting is no longer for people who have no life.)
Nah…it sounds soothing. Sometimes it is nice to just relax and enjoy the world while you do something you love.
I’m so much in my own head that I can grow very tired of myself. I find it very satisfying to create something tangible and tactile. I like to stop and admire what has emerged, sigh gently and congratulate myself on my brilliance. But then I notice a mistake and have to unpick. (Knitting can be very humbling. Rather like writing.)
If you were to be described as a flavor of coffee which flavor would it be and why?
I like to think I’m a rich, exotic blend – quite rare and fine. But at heart I’m a down to earth girl from a small town. So you’ll probably find that most people would think of me as very vanilla.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my sometimes quirky questions. I had so much fun getting to know you.
Thank you; it was fun for me too.
Without further ado readers, here is the snippet of The Innocence of Roast Chicken:
Tick Tick Tick
On my knee I held King Solomon's Mines, a refuge from this place and this Christmas time. This Christmas which had seemed the same, but was now slightly askew. Just a little out of kilter, stirring the unease in my throat, the anxiety in the prickles around my hairline.
I hadn't turned a page for a great many ticks. I was unwilling to let go of the house as if my vigilance, late though it was, gave me some control over the hovering demons and fluttering of unnamed darkness.
In the midst of the silent house, I had to stretch my senses outward to be aware of anything but the quiet and the clock. Desultory chickens clucked in the drowsy afternoon and somewhere far away - maybe the boys' huts - I could hear children singing. Every now and then I caught the ominous grate of the generator.
Tick Tick Tick
Allan Quatermain again began to ride the afternoon, but inexpertly, falling off and drifting out of my mind's eye. Each time it sucked more of my energy to pull him back into my consciousness and force him on his journey again. I sighed and tugged my eyes back on to the page...
What was it that roused us?
What was it that brought me sharply back to this place, and this time? It seemed the house grew tense around me - its bricks creaking with taut alertness, its floors stretched to high-strung rigidity. I heard no sound from the bedrooms, but I believed in that instant that everyone was awake. It seemed to me that we were waiting - for the inevitable, the predestined. For God's finishing of what He had begun with us that day, that holiday.
A wind had begun to blow, one of those rough, East Cape winds that begin suddenly and buffet the morning's heat from the afternoon. I could hear it shushing through the trees and beating at the roof which creaked in its coarse hands. It would be a dirty wind, the kind which swept dust into your eyes and grit-layered your hair. A window slammed; it must have been in our bedroom. The screen door, battered open with a drawn-out skree-ee, slammed shut again with a powerful skree-ee-bang.
Well? What did you think? I hope it has made you want to take a bite out of this book yourself. Until next time, read tons of books and enjoy some luscious coffee!