No one ever expects to actually know a writer. Well, not a good writer anyway. Writers are faraway people who sit in some distant land penning novels surrounded by the mists of secrecy. A writer is not your next door neighbour, nor your colleague at work or your customer buying a litre of milk and a loaf of bread.
As part of our African Literature as Creative Enterprise series, Brian Jones and Jane Morris of amaBooks talk to Bryony Rheam whose short stories they have published quite a few.
Last year Kadoma, Zimbabwe-born Bryony travelled north-west to Abeokuta, Nigeria to talk about her This September Sun [Get your copy] at the Ake Festival, one of Africa’s largest literary events. Two and a half years before that, back in May 2012, this novel by a well-travelled Zimbabwean — currently residing close to the border with DRC in Solwezi, Zambia — topped the Amazon Kindle sales and is now an A level set book for schools in Zimbabwe.
Here is how Bryony Rheam describes her experience of work on the novel, Zimbabwe being gripped by a complete economic and political chaos at the time:
Researching the past, even if it is only the 1940s is not as easy in Zimbabwe as it may be in a place like Britain.
..and marketing it at a literary event almost a decade afterwards:
What I found was that many people bought my book after hearing me discuss it.
Your debut novel This September Sun has done well, being chosen as a set book for 'A' level study in Zimbabwe and selling well as an ebook in the United Kingdom. But you are still working as a teacher. Do you think it is possible for a Zimbabwean novel writer to make a living from writing while being based in Africa, or is moving to the United Kingdom or the US to promote your work the only option?
From what I gather, it is also difficult to be a full-time writer in a country such as the UK. I don’t think it is necessary to actually move countries; it’s really a question of getting my work on the market. In some ways, that may be easier from Africa where there is less competition. However, I have discovered that connections are very important in the writing world and these may be easier to find in more cosmopolitan places such as London.
What is the biggest barrier to your writing?
Having to have another job is definitely a barrier because it is so time-consuming.
We have noticed that a number of African writers are diversifying into genres such as sci-fi and romance. What is you view on this?
I think it is great. The African venture into different genres is long overdue. Many people feel that African literature is a little boring or stuck on the same old themes. They don’t see themselves reflected in the writing so I feel more people in Africa would read African novels if the themes were diversified.
In the past year, you have been a participant in the Caine Prize workshop in Zimbabwe and in the Ake Festival in Nigeria. Has either of these raised your profile as a writer? Are there ways in which such events could be improved to help raise your profile, and help sell your writing?
Yes, I think being invited to both these events has helped raise my profile as a writer. They are good ways to network and meet other writers. If your name comes up a couple of times, people remember it and it might make them reach for your book the next time they see it on sale, thinking ‘Oh, I’ve heard about her.’ I think being invited to these events has also made people in my more immediate environment sit up and take notice of me. The students I teach were quite impressed, although some of them thought I was going to Nigeria to star in a Nollywood movie!
There are a number of new writing prizes being introduced on the African continent. Do you see this as a positive development?
Yes, I think the prize money helps authors to be self-sufficient and dedicate themselves to their writing. It also elevates the art of writing above the norm. I suppose there is a danger that these prizes will become too commonplace, but I think we are a long way from that at the moment!
Do you think that collaborations between writers from different regions of Africa help to promote an awareness of common interests and experiences?
Definitely. It’s great to meet writers from all over Africa and exchange stories and experiences. I think many writers face the same challenges within the publishing industry. For example, many writers feel the West expects a type of story from Africa. For black writers it may be one of poverty and hunger; white writers are usually confined to memoir and nostalgia. [See report citing similar stereotyping in Darwin, Australia’s northernmost city]
What writers would you consider have influenced your writing?
I love Virginia Woolf and F Scott Fitzgerald for their flowery, descriptive prose. It’s so beautiful and engrossing and I’d love to be able to write like that. I also love Agatha Christie, who is completely different in her style of writing. She concentrates much more on plot. I like the puzzles that she creates and trying to outwit her. An author can be very manipulative, which I like. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a good example of that.
What is the last book you read?
I recently finished The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I was given for my birthday last year. It is Agatha Christie’s first novel and quite different to her later ones. At this stage I think she still belonged to the late Victorian age – the novel has echoes of Conan Doyle. Christie was a prolific writer who ushered in the modern crime novel as we know it today.
Who is your favourite fictional character and why?
It’s definitely Nick, the narrator in The Great Gatsby. I was in love with him by the end of the novel! Why? He is perceptive and sensitive and he sticks by Gatsby when everyone else deserts him. While there are many Daisys and Toms, and even Gatsbys, there aren’t many Nicks in this world!
What are working on at the moment?
I am currently working on a crime novel which is set in Bulawayo at the present time. An affluent white woman is murdered in her home and various characters are drawn into the investigation for different reasons. I’d like to think of it as a philosophical detective story. Each character has some problem that they have to come to terms with or work through. It’s been great writing it and I have learnt a lot about the process of writing a crime novel.
This September Sun can be bought from:
African Books Collective, USA
Best Books, Bulawayo
Best Books, Harare
Blackstone Books, Harare
Book Cafe, Harare
Clarkes, Cape Town
Indaba Book Cafe, Bulawayo
Independent Publishers Group, USA
National Gallery, Bulawayo
National Gallery, Harare
Parthian Books, UK
Renaissance Wellbeing Clinic, Ndola, Zambia
The Figtree Cafe in Kabwe, Zambia, the birthplace of the South African best-selling novelist Wilbur Smith
Thurbas, Victoria Falls
W H Smith, UK