LONDON–In the first of our rather short series on great summer reads she-files.com interviewed British fiction writer Jennifer McVeigh. Her first book “The Fever Tree” (2014) was an historical novel about the diamond trade in southern Africa in the late 19th century. Her second novel “Leopard at the Door”—which was first published in the U.S. last autumn and had just come out in the U.K. this month— is a sweeping work set in the 1950s in Kenya, when British colonial rule was starting to unravel and the Mau Mau Uprising was heating up, one of the bloodiest independence movements that took place across the African continent in a post-World War II landscape.
Ms. McVeigh, who has a degree in English literature from the University of Oxford and worked in film and television before beginning a career in book publishing, lives in London with her husband and three young children, but has travelled extensively across southern and eastern Africa; through her various trips across bush she got inspiration for her first two novels. She spoke with Ginanne Brownell Mitic about her motivations for writing historical fiction and some very useful advice for writers. EXCERPTS:
BROWNELL MITIC: Where did you get the idea for your most recent book “Leopard at the Door”?
MCVEIGH: I have always loved African literature and when I was 12 years old my father took me on a riding safari in Kenya with a man called Tristan Voorspuy, who recently died. It was an extraordinary trip, galloping horses through herds of zebras and at the end of a hot day, swimming the horses in these big dams. I fell in love with the whole romance of east Africa. And then at Oxford I read lot of post-colonial literature, like Hemingway and Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa.” But the whole European vision of east Africa and the stories that dominate with smiling black Africans bringing you your tea in the morning is completely rotten at its core. I did not want to write another “Happy Valley” book about white farmers and aristocrats on land that was not their own. So I was sitting on it for a while but did not know how to come at it.
So how did it finally happen?
A friend of my father’s –who had read the “The Fever Tree”— emailed me and said, “I have this thing I want to give you.” And he met me in Piccadilly Circus and handed me this old battered red canvas suitcase and on the front of it was written, “To be opened after my death.” And it was from his grandmother, he had been born in the Laikipia [a county in Kenya], and his grandmother had been a rather famous author called Genesta Hamilton. She lived out there and she had associated with all the greats in Kenya at the time in terms of the white scene. And I opened the suitcase up on the way home on the train, and inside were all these wonderful photographs of Africa that I love: elephants and lionesses, and amazing houses in Rift Valley. And then amid them all, were all these terribly brutal photographs of people who had been cut up and killed, butchered; African men, children, photos you cannot even imagine. And then photos of white families affected by the Mau Mau as well, and I knew nothing about it. So it set me off on a massive journey of discovery and I started reading as much as I could about Mau Mau.
How has the African landscape inspired your writing?
My husband and I did an amazing drive through Namibia that inspired “The Fever Tree.” It is a vast place and we free camped every night, went all the way to [the border] of Angola. So interior is similar. And cool drive to Cape Town to The Karoo. And for “Leopard at the Door,” [they were from] trips I made to Kenya. For our honeymoon, we rented a Land Rover, stocked up on stuff and just drove through the Maasai Mara, Lake Victoria and the western Serengeti and was a mind blowing trip. We had no guns, no butler serving us drinks. I love to cook and we had a little fridge. We just pulled up on the banks of Mara and there was a hippo blowing out water, it was the most insanely beautiful spot. And we started getting food out, and suddenly, all these male baboons came over. It was very wild and quite remote, which is what I wanted.
Tell me about your life before becoming a writer.
After Oxford, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, which my really great friends said was a bad idea and they were right. I was a really hopeless journalist. But I did work in film and TV for a bit, I worked for BBC films and I was a researcher. So I have that background. And then I worked for Penguin in the rights department, imputing contract in the database. And it was miserable, they will tell you, always that there is no way to move from rights to editorial, and the idea that someone could write a book would be literally the most ridiculous, laughable thing ever. Then I moved over to a small literary agency and they were great. I loved working on the editorial side editing manuscripts. Then I left and I thought [writing] would be easy yet I was terrified that I did not have a job. I had this repetitive dream, where I was standing outside my old office and I would call out to the window and they would say, “don’t worry we have found somebody else and they are much better than you.” It took me two and a half years to write a book and have it published.
Do you plot your books out before you begin?
When you write an article, you need that spark of magic that brings the piece together and makes it sing. But when you write a book, it does not happen in one day or one week. It takes such a long time. The process is like running a marathon versus sprinting. It helps when writing a book, to know what genre you are writing. So I suppose with the second book it was much easier because I already knew my voice, like the area I was writing in and I wanted to write this political historical fiction.
So how do you write?
I need to get 25,000 words down before I start analysing or criticizing or questioning what I am doing. Until you have 25,000 words down, it can be so easy to just tear things up, and you find yourself starting over and over and over again and never making progress. So you have to get a good chunk down, get your characters down and just write, write, write and then you have something to work with. A mould with bits and pieces. I am a practical person and I like to think that I would set up to write a book that I would know what would happen in the beginning, the middle and the end and I would map out the structure ahead of time. But despite the fact that I enjoy structure, my books were not mapped out.
Do you write every day?
I have three young children so life is super busy. When I am in the writing process, the goal is 1000 words a day and do the research before that. In the best possible scenario, I would research and still force myself to write 1000 words a day, even if it was a little snapshot, a different part of the story. Because all the material you write is useful. If you started writing according to the merit of what you had achieved, you just would never get anywhere.
Photos courtesy Penguin/Random House: 1) British book cover; 2) Jennifer McVeigh