For Books’ Sake Talks To: Andrea Eames

16th Feb 2012

For Books' Sake Talks To: Andrea Eames

Her second novel, The White Shadow, was published at the beginning of the month by Harvill Secker.

It follows the life of Tinashe, a boy growing up in a late 1960’s rural Rhodesia, exploring the themes of colonialism and white superiority, and the effects these have on the children’s lives.

Here she talks to us about the process of writing the difficult second novel, inspiration, and her memories of living in Zimbabwe:

FBS: The Cry of the Go-Away Bird was a beautiful book. Was The White Shadow a ‘difficult second novel’, or did it come easily to you?

It was most definitely a Difficult Second Novel. In a way, it was my first real novel – completely and utterly imagined – because for Cry I could borrow so much from my own life and experiences.

It was still fictional, of course, but much less of a stretch. The White Shadow was very difficult because so much of it was outside of my own experience.

It required a lot more research, a lot more consideration and an awful lot more nights spent lying awake and worrying. It was a stretch for me. Which is good!

FBS: What were your influences in perfecting your writing style?

I hope I continue to learn with each book. I’m so new to this profession, and I love that I have so far to go. It’s exciting.

I have mentioned this before, but The Bone People by Keri Hulme has always been a huge influence on me. I love vivid, rich writing, but I also love writing that is deft, spare and focused.

Jeffrey Eugenides and Doris Lessing are perennial favourites. I have also found The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long, which I picked up in London when Cry came out, to be a really exciting and inspiring source of writing wisdom.

I have a minor addiction to books about writing – I find it very comforting to know that I’m not alone in my neuroses and struggles!

FBS: Your books feature the lives of teenagers. Would you classify them as Young Adult yourself?

You know, it’s tricky. I think here in the States they may well be classified as YA, because books such as Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief were marketed that way here.

I know, however, that my books so far – particularly The White Shadow – deal with situations that might not be considered appropriate for teenagers (depending on your point of view).

I would be loath to recommend them to parents of teenagers unless I knew they would be comfortable with their kids reading that kind of subject matter. It’s not for everyone.

The teenage years were a very vivid time in my life, and so I find it very comfortable to revisit a teenage voice and perspective. There is an immediacy and rawness to the way in which you perceive the world as a teenager that I love (and the book I’m writing at the moment is in a teenage voice as well).

FBS: There is a lot going on during the time The White Shadow is set, how did you choose when to set the story?

I didn’t set out to write a book set in that time period – in fact, I didn’t set out to write this book at all, but Tinashe just started talking! As I wrote his story, his background came into focus and I realised when it should be set.

It is a fictionalised version of a very complicated period in Zimbabwe’s history, but it throws Tinashe and Hazvinei’s own struggles into relief.

FBS: The White Shadow is the story of a boy’s coming of age, as opposed to a girl’s. Was this more challenging for you to write?

Yes. Not just because of Tinashe’s gender, but also because of his culture. It was an enormous challenge, and something with which I took great care. The sound of his voice was very clear to me, however, and that helped a great deal.

FBS: The world of the spirits is never far away for Tinashe. To what extent have the oral traditions of Africa influenced you?

I feel like the spirit world and the ‘real’ world are very close together and exist in parallel. I am so interested in myths, folk beliefs and magic, and I am very grateful that I grew up in a place that celebrated these things and treated them matter-of-factly. I don’t think I will ever write a story that completely neglects these elements.

FBS: Hazvinei is a fascinating, but, in my opinion, slightly repellent character whose life completely falls apart in the last half of the novel. Was her downfall hard to write?

She is certainly simultaneously mesmerising and horrible. Tinashe certainly thinks so! But she is also a product of her time, her family and her gender role in both. There is an inevitability to the way her life turns out that made it easier to write.

I think there is never any doubt as to whether she will continue her downward spiral; the question is whether she will drag Tinashe down with her.

FBS: There is thirty years between The White Shadow and The Cry of the Go Away Bird. Do you think that Tinashe would recognise Elise’s life? What role would there be for a man like Tinashe in modern Zimbabwe?

I like to imagine Tinashe as eventually getting that higher education that he so badly wanted, and becoming a successful man in the new Zimbabwe.

I think he would be surprised that people like Elise’s family could still live in the manner in which they lived, especially after Independence. I also think he would be hugely saddened at the way the country’s high hopes for change post-1980 have turned out – but that he would play a role in the recovery.

FBS: Are you planning on more books set in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe? Or will they feature another of the myriad of fascinating places you’ve lived in?

We all have our own knots to untangle, and the knots in my head are all to do with Zimbabwe. I have a lot of unfinished business there, emotionally, and I seem to need to worry and gnaw at it.

I don’t know if I will ever manage to resolve anything – every answer I think I find spawns more questions, more grey areas and more stories that I want to explore.

I have a lot of family history to revisit, too, and I would love to go back even further into Zimbabwe’s past in a future book.

FBS: I know you love your vintage fashion, does the same go for what you’re reading, or do you prefer your books to be slightly older than your dresses?

I love clothes with a good story, no matter how old they are – and I can say the same about novels!

To find out more about Andrea and her work, be sure to check out our reviews of The Cry of the Go Away Bird and The White Shadow.

Jess Haigh