The African Book Review hosted a live interview with Fiona Leonard, author of The Chicken Thief on Saturday, July 5th. Here’s a condensed version of our interview, filled with Fiona’s playlist of African songs she listens to when writing, the inspiration behind The Chicken Thief and her plans for her next books.
FIONA: Hi @AfricanBkReview thanks so much for suggesting this! Yes, I’m in Accra, Ghana. I’ve been here for almost 5 years.
ABR: I know you’ve travelled around the world a bit. How did you land in Ghana?
FIONA: My husband is Ghanaian (& Filipino). We’d been travelling for a year in the US & Canada and decided to…come to Ghana and spend some time here with his family. We originally thought it would only be for a year or so, but then we stuck around! It’s been a very creative 5 years for us
ABR: Especially with you just publishing a book! Tell us a bit about The Chicken Thief.
FIONA: It tells the story of a young thief who accidentally rescues a war hero who has been held prisoner for 25 years. That sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to bring down the entire government
ABR: I think that’s what captured my attention when I first read the book, the intersection of harmless chicken and serious politics. I suspect there’s a funny anecdote behind why Alois (the main character) steals chickens? Why chickens?
FIONA: One day when you have time Google ‘how to hypnotise chickens.’ I found it by accident and it really appealed to me. I loved the idea of someone who could do that. (Apparently Al Gore is a chicken hypnotizer of note!)
ABR: Wait what! I was a bit mind-blown by all the chicken-stealing details! And they’re all real? That’s awesome.
FIONA: Well, I can’t say I actually tested them, but everything I’ve read and watched suggest it’s possible!
ABR: So what was it like doing research for The Chicken Thief?
FIONA: I lived in Zimbabwe for 3 years and travelled a lot in the region. I read widely especially about liberation struggles so that was a big part of it. And a lot came from talking to friends and people who had lived through those times. Plus the Internet is a godsend to writers!
ABR: Did that play a role in why it’s set in Africa?
FIONA: Definitely! There were so many stories I wanted to capture in some way.
ABR: What was it like, getting people to talk about the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe? Was it difficult? Or were people open?
FIONA: No, people talked about it. And there are great films like Flame, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa (amongst many others) plus all the fascinating works out of South Africa. My story is all fiction though. It’s not a rendering of any particular event or person.
ABR: Fiction sometimes is able to capture the truths that nonfiction can’t. It reminds me of Juan Gelman and Ariel Dorfman, who wrote poems and stories during the Dirty War and disappearances in Argentina and Chile. It sometimes gets to the heart of an issue the way other sources can’t. Did that influence setting the novel in an unnamed African country?
FIONA: I left the country ambiguous, because I didn’t want people to bring preconceptions to the story, especially because the President is a character. I didn’t want people thinking ‘oh she means Mandela’ etc. He could be any one of many. It gives the reader power over the story. Reading should be a dynamic exchange, if you wanted to read this as a story about the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and someone else (reads it as a story about) Mozambique that’s fine with me!
ABR: Going back to Alois, I loved all the complexities he embodies. What ultimately, does he want?
FIONA: I’ve always felt this was a book about independence, both what it means for a country and for an individual. Alois is searching for that independence, finding his place out of the shadow of his father in particular and working out what he has to contribute to the world.
ABR: All your characters have a great sense of wanting to be more or do more for their country. Was it fun creating each character?
FIONA: Yes, I have a soft spot for them all. My family think I’m insane because I talk about the characters as if they are real, which of course they are. And they seem to resonate with readers. I mentioned on Facebook one day that I was thinking about killing one of them in book 2 and there was an outcry as people discussed who it couldn’t be!
ABR: I’m joining that outcry! Also, there’s going to be a second book? That’s exciting! What’s your writing regimen? Do you do anything to get you in the mood to write?
FIONA: Yes, the second book is finished and I’m a chapter and a half away from finishing the third. I try to write every day, 1000 – 1500 words. I have a playlist to fallback on when I can’t get my head into the write space. There’s a nice unintentional misspelling! I meant right space, but write space is true too!
ABR: SHARE? Please?
FIONA: Well, if there’s ever a movie, this is what I want over the credits! (Gabriel by Lamb) I also love Kenyan musician Ayub Ogada. One from Mozambique And some Oliver Mutukudzi from Zimbabwe, oh and the part when Alois first meets Gabriel? This is what I was listening to when I was writing.
ABR: Let’s talk books. I know you’ve been reading a book a week for a while. Do you have any favorite African books/ authors?
FIONA: My favorite contemporary author is South African Lauren Beukes, her book Shining Girls scared me witless! Zoo City is also great. Nii Ayikwei Parkes turned Ghanaian writing on its head and has opened the door for a new wave of writers. Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera also transformed the way I think about writing. I love her books, she had such a lyrical voice. Binyavanga Wainaina is probably one of the most courageous writers on the continent, challenging stereotypes and preconceptions.
ABR: To wrap up, what were your favorite moments of writing The Chicken Thief?
FIONA: I finished The Chicken Thief with the help of National Novel Writing Month. It was 30 days of inspiration and perspiration during which I wrote 50,000ww. It proved I could really write when I focused and there were days when I really felt like it flowed easily. Those days are special. Persistence really is the best tool any writer can have in their toolkit.
Can I also say what a pleasure it was working with Penguin Books South Africa? They took my creation and made it so much better and I adore the cover!
An agent told me that ‘books about Africa don’t sell’. I want people to appreciate that you can pick up a book written about any country/continent and find a shared humanity. That people the world over share hopes and aspirations.
And I want people to have a great ‘can’t put down’ reading experience! (Those are my favorites!)
ABR: I’m very glad you (and every other person writing about Africa) proved that agent wrong!
This has been great! Thanks Fiona for agreeing to chat about The Chicken Thief. Everyone, I highly recommend grabbing a copy, its an amazing read!
Fiona Leonard has a gypsy soul that has carried her across twenty-five countries on five continents, including one year long adventure driving across the USA and Canada with her husband, daughter and the dog. Her love of Africa was forged during a three year posting to Zimbabwe. She now lives in Ghana, West Africa. She blogs at A Fork In the Road.