A Child called Happiness by Stephan Collishaw ** Review & Author Interview**
It's a privilege to be welcoming Stephen Collishaw to Books, Life and Everything to talk about his writing life and his book, A Child Called Happiness which was published by Legend Press on 17th May 2018. Stephan has agreed to answer some of my questions but before he does, here's a little about the book to whet your appetite.
Three days after arriving in Zimbabwe, Natalie discovers an abandoned newborn baby on a hill near her uncle’s farm. 115 years earlier, the hill was home to the Mazowe village where Chief Tafara governed at a time of great unrest. Faced with taxation, abductions and loss of their land at the hands of the white settlers, Tafara joined forces with the neighbouring villages in what becomes the first of many uprisings.
A Child Called Happiness is a story of hope, resilience and reclamation, proving that the choices made by our ancestors echo for many generations to come.
Welcome Stepan to the blog today. Would you like to start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started as a writer?
I was brought up on a working-class council estate in Nottingham, one of four boys in a fairly rough-and-tumble household. I went to the local comprehensive school and managed to fail all of my O levels. From an early age, though, I had an interest in books and reading. While we were at school, my mother went to university and her books filled the home. Reading had always been important in our house, we didn’t get a television until I was fourteen. When I was a teenager I devoured the novels – George Elliot, Jane Austen, the poetry and letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins (which I was reading as I failed my O levels), the plays of Christopher Marlowe. At the same time, at school, I was introduced to the stories of Guy de Maupassant, which really fired my imagination. I would play truant from school, but rather than smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap cider behind the Co-op, I went to the park and wrote stories. It was when I went to Lithuania, though, in 1995, that I finally found the first story that I needed to write. Writing became, then, a means of exploring a place, a way of understanding something of the history of a city. How things came to happen. My writing was a moral and historical journey of discovery. That first novel, The Last Girl, published by Sceptre in 2003 was my love song to the city I had fallen for.
A Child Called Happiness is set in Zimbabwe. Have you ever visited the country and if so what effect did your visit have on you?
Zimbabwe was the first foreign country I ever visited. I was twenty and had never been abroad when the opportunity came up. It was 1989. I remember the precise moment that the doors to the plane opened and the hot air hit me and I climbed down the stairs and stepped foot on a different continent. It was a magical moment. One of the many magical moments I was to have there. I stayed for just over a month, travelling around the country. Over the next couple of years, I went back again a couple of times, spending a few months out there. The people I met were incredibly generous, opening their homes to me. I stayed in villages in the country and in small township houses. There were some beautiful moments. Staying at a village in the north of the country, I spent the evenings sitting by a fire, roasting peanuts and learning to sing Shona songs. Wandering away from the fire, the night sky was a huge expanse of stars, such as I had never seen before. There were other moments, too, that were not quite as poetic. Zambia, which I also visited, was going through a difficult period; it was the last days of the rule of Kenneth Kaunda and there were bread riots. The roads were obstructed every few miles by armed road blocks, where we would be interrogated at gun point. The townships were unfriendly and there were very visible signs of malnutrition, particularly in the children. In a small town in the east of the country, I was arrested. I was taken down to a dirty police station on the edge of the town with the person I was travelling with, who had more experience travelling in Africa. After a short while, the police released my friend and kept me for questioning. As he was leaving, he bent down and whispered in my ear, ‘If they say they’re going to shoot you in the morning, don’t worry.’ With that he left. I was petrified. For a good couple of hours they kept me there, questioning me. As the sun dropped, I sat outside the back of the police station under armed guard, as some friends negotiated my release. It was a salutary experience. At twenty I had thought I was all grown up. I realised then, that I was not as brave as I thought. It was an incident that inspired one of the scenes in my new novel.
What was the inspiration for your book?
I’ve been wanting to write a novel about Zimbabwe ever since I went there. Indeed, when I started writing one of my first novels I wrote about the country. I gave that novel to my elder brother to read – he’s an artist, and I respect his opinion. He lost the novel. As a novelist I like to unpick the history of place. I see past events as being constantly present, a psycho-geography of a city or a country. Places are never just bricks and mortar, fields and rivers, we imbue places with feelings, significances. History is a spirit that haunts the landscapes we live in, and my writing is in part an exploration of that. The expropriations of farms in Zimbabwe (and in South Africa) is a painful subject. I’ve tried to explore that in this novel.
Without giving away the plot, can you tell us a bit about A Child Called Happiness?
A Child Called Happiness opens with the discovery of a child on a granite outcrop of rock above the Drew farm in northern Zimbabwe. Natalie, the young woman who discovers the baby, has gone to stay with her uncle, the owner of the farm, running from her own problems back in London. But things are far from peaceful at Drew’s farm. The authorities are keen to get their hands on the land and a stand-off with the local War Veterans seems increasingly inevitable. Meanwhile a second story winds alongside the first. It’s 1894 and Tafara has just taken over the land in the upper Mazowe Valley from his father, but white incursions into the area are becoming more regular and tensions are rising. Tafara must decide how to respond when his cattle are exterminated by the new white authorities.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and which the most difficult?
I love researching my novels. My first novel was set in Vilnius, the second in Afghanistan and my third in northern Poland while this one has been set in Zimbabwe. Each deal with the history of the places they are set in. Its not enough to know, though, about the grand sweep of historical events, it’s also important to try to understand the small detail of life: what people ate, how they dressed, what they read, what music they listened to. I love reading around subjects and looking at photographs, where they’re available, examining the detail of everyday objects. The difficulty is ensuring none of that research is at all apparent to the reader. It should be part of the tapestry of the background of the writing, a confident, textured backdrop that compliments but does not distract from the main events. It’s also hard to know when to stop doing the research. It can be a great distraction, particularly in the internet age, to ensure that every single detail is checked. Knowing when to say it’s not important is key to actually getting a novel written.
You work as a teacher. Do your pupils know that you are a published author and are you ever tempted to talk to them about your writing?
My students know that I write, how they react to that is diverse and often amusing (the assumption that as a published writer I should be rich and not have to work as a teacher, is pretty universal). I try to encourage as much writing and reading in school as possible. The students I work with are not necessarily from backgrounds where books are common at home, or where reading is part of the culture and today’s knowledge-heavy curriculum, and the pressure for ‘results’ often squeezes creativity out of school life – fighting against that is incredibly important. I like to get other writers in to school whenever possible, helping students to develop their confidence in finding their own creative voice. Where students have gone on to take their writing seriously, publishing and performing their poetry and stories, it’s been a great source of pride.
Finally do you have you any projects you can share?
I’m writing another novel now, though it’s developing at an agonisingly slow pace. Partly that is because I also run a small press which is wonderful but takes up a huge amount of my time. My project, Noir Press, aims to bring some of the best writing from the Baltic states to an English audience. So far, we have published a number of great novels by some top Lithuanian writers, including the world-renowned Jewish-Lithuanian writer Grigory Kanovich. Our new book by the Lithuanian-Ukrainian writer Jaroslavas Melnikas is just being finalised; we’ll be launching it with the writer at the Lowdham Books Festival at the end of June and at Ukrainian House in London on July 1st. Details of this project is at www.noirpress.co.uk
Thanks you so much, Stephan , for those fascinating answers.
This is a book which crackles with atmosphere and its descriptive writing captures the feel of Zimbabwe and life in Africa. It melds together the present day story of Natalie's visit to Zimbabwe with that of 1894 when the white incursions were threatening to take over the land from the native inhabitants.
The story explores issues from Zimbabwe's history which were painful to live through. You can feel the heat of the country in this evocative writing and there are some emotional moments which seem to be seared into the landscape. It can be a painful read at times but ultimately rewarding. The author makes it clear that ultimately there are no winners in the situation and both sides feel they have an entitlement. Being displaced from the land which their ancestors farmed and lived in is a feeling which is not easily brushed off. It is imprinted within a person.
In short: Desperation and the heat of Africa fill this atmospheric writing.
About the Author
Stephan Collishaw was brought up on a Nottingham council estate and failed all of his O-levels. His first novel The Last Girl (2003) was chosen by the Independent on Sunday as one of its Novels of the Year. His brother is the renowned artist, Mat Collishaw. Stephan now works as a teacher in Nottingham, having also lived and worked abroad in Lithuania and Mallorca.
Follow Stephan here: Twitter
Book links: Amazon UK
Thanks to Stephan Collishaw and Imogen Harris of Legend Press for a copy of the book and a palce on the tour.
Check out the rest of the tour!