Your short story ‘The Tree of Life’, in the AusLit charity anthology Humanity: A Short Story Collection, deals with physical danger and struggle for survival. What makes a character’s struggle for survival such an interesting topic for fiction?
Be it the machinations of the mind, the challenges of human relationships or being pitted against nature, I have never read a novel that does not deal with the struggle for survival because that is the way of the journey for every living thing.
Has there ever been a life without physical, mental and emotional struggle? I believe that no one living or dead has been cosseted from that truth. And even now, when few men wake to hunt and few women set off to gather, it is the glorious effect of nature upon humans which sets my juices flowing. Yes, even now, when the might of the natural world seems to be subsumed by the doings of the concrete and material jungles.
In fiction, if the characters triumph over hardship doesn’t that present the possibility that the reader can dare to rise from the armchair and wake up and roar? However, if the characters don’t achieve their goals then that is alright too: readers take solace in knowing they are not alone in having their hopes and dreams overwhelmed by reality.
If it comes to that readers may be attracted to non fiction for the same reasons. Knowing the agonies and ecstasies, the quests, the failures and triumphs of real people offers a kind of voyeuristic comfort to readers.
For me, there is pleasure in reading a satisfying end to suffering. But this doesn’t always mean a happy ending. Either way I have transcended my own situation for a while by peering into the lives and the struggles of fiction characters. And if it is true that writers pen fiction when they want to tell the truth, then I have also come to know the authors who could not have written of the struggle for survival without personal experience.
That’s life. . .
Worldreader.org has the long-term goal of ensuring ebooks are available to all people. For the benefit of readers who have not been to Africa, what practical benefits would you expect from widespread literacy, english fluency and access to the world’s books from childhood in Africa?
Knowledge. Knowledge which leads to action. Learning and literacy liberate the oppressed and hungry, providing access to all things and the ability to communicate across cultures. I have friends in rural Africa who treasure books as the greatest of companions and some who live in grinding poverty have resorted to theft to gain these things. I’ve seen dog-eared tomes of Shakespeare’s plays and the works of Greek philosophers taking pride of place in their humble homes. These people are hungry for information which might improve their families’ lives by giving them tools to conserve their land and manage their livestock and wildlife. Many even dare to dream of achieving scholarly success. And many do.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I read anything – at least for the first few pages. I’m a book junkie. I learned this during periods in the African wilderness when I was deprived of new reading matter. Loved books carried with me fell to bits with use, and I became closely acquainted with the labels on cans of food, Field Guides of mammals and birds – and the Bible.
Back in civilisation? For sheer entertainment I seek adventure novels (none better than Tony Park a fellow Macmillan author), and mystery and suspense fiction ranging from the late, great Agatha Christie who wrote with simplicity and precision, paving the way for modern day authors like Val McDermid, Dean Koontz, Tim Flanagan, Malla Nunn (also from my publishing stable) Stephen King and the gifted writers emerging from Scandinavia. I wish for the gift of many tongues to read those authors in their own languages, for much that is delicious must be lost in translation.
And then there are the modern classics. Hemingway, Isak Dineson, Patrick White and Christina Stead (The Tree of Man and The Man who Loved Children are yearly reads), Cormac MacCarthy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alexander McCall Smith and Nadine Gordimer; with apologies to the myriad, mighty others.
Since writing fiction can be treated as if writing non-fiction,(that is: if characters and events conceived by an author were real, a fictional story would be a non-fiction telling of those events). How has your non-fiction writing helped in preparing you to write fiction?
Writing non fiction requires strict discipline and aching honesty. Time lines, plot and place are set and there can be no divergence from the facts; whereas fiction springs from the imagination without censure (until the editors get it!) or limitations. With this first novel I find that creative thought is coming alive in a way it could not with non fiction (except in my descriptive writing of wildlife and scenery) and that is wonderfully liberating. Yet, without the discipline and lessons I learned writing non fiction the path might have been lined with thorns.
I am also learning it is not possible to write that which one has not experienced in some way. Not for me. The truth will out in fiction as it can never do in non fiction. Why? Because my memoirs are only my interpretation of events and no matter how honest the telling, it is always my view of events. Ask three women on a corner how a crime they witnessed went down. Each will see it differently.
Knowing that makes writing non fiction a burden of responsibility; while in fiction, relentless order and protection of others can be set aside, and when I disappear into the words of the novel I am in tenth heaven – wherever that is. . .
Your two non-fiction books, Silent Footsteps and Ivory Moon, are about the elephants you have worked with in Africa. Have you considered writing a fiction book with elephant characters, and what kinds of things from the real lives of elephants do you think would make compelling stories for fiction?
Yes. I have a short story underway with elephants as the characters. I am reversing the roles of humans and elephants: here, the elephants are judge and jury.
It’s awfully anthropomorphic because I am passionate about the gentle giants and endow them with human sensibilities. Scientific niceties aside, I have lived closely with them and know absolutely that if I could harness some of their fine qualities I would be a Buddha. They offer love, compassion and kindness without expectation, tolerating the presence of humans like me when many of our kind inflict pain and suffering upon them without a second thought. Oh, they can be irritable too and this is an aspect of the feisty matriarch of my short story.
Who is one of your favourite characters from fiction and what makes them stand out for you?
There are many. However, two came to mind at once and both from my favourite short story, The Old Man and the Sea: Santiago, most remembered as “the old man”, and Manolin (the boy). Gentle warriors both, it seems to me the old man has developed humility and acceptance through life experience while the boy was awake to goodness at birth.
And this is also the way of my favourite female character, Precious Ramotswe, of McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. She enchants and is everything I would be. Well, perhaps not as large, but I think her wonderful traditional body needs to be generous to contain her great big heart. . .
What is it about Africa and elephants that you love and makes you want to share them with others through your writing?
Apart from my earlier thoughts, the elephants have taught me how to be fully present in the Now. When I am with them there is nothing other – no thoughts of regret for the yesterdays or wasteful dreams of tomorrow. It’s pure bliss. And fun. They really know how to be happy.
This is also the way with many of my African friends. They laugh and sing and dance without restriction, despite hardship beyond the reckoning of my Australian tribe. Although their lives are materially poor they have enviable spiritual wealth.
Southern Africa itself is my second home. Its call hounds me and when I return to the wilderness and sit beside a waterhole in the company of marvellous creatures my heart sings. I want to share that with readers.
If you could go on your ideal 2 day fiction writing workshop next weekend, what would that involve?
What a lovely dream to contemplate swapping ideas with fellow authors in a tranquil location where the only sound is bird song and the air is clean. Helen Garner, Val McDermid, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and Isak Dineson would offer their secrets in seminars, and Sir David Attenborough would sit beside me at the candle lit table for dinner and conversation. Two days would be way too short!
What is next for your writing, and do you have any firm plans for more fiction on the way?
I am writing what my publishers call “a spiritual thriller”. Correction: my characters are writing this novel, for since the opening sentence they have dictated the terms and when I abscond from the keyboard they shout insults until there is no choice – even though personal circumstances make this difficult just now.
There is a character named Spike. He’s a demanding muse. From his seat on my shoulder he harangues me to leap out of bed at 3am and tell his story. But I know he is a part of me unexpressed to date, yet deep within, and I am loving his wicked ways. Growing him on paper is magical and he is free to express his thoughts as my real life companions could not do in my memoirs.
More on Sally Henderson and her writing can be found at www.sallyhenderson.com.au.
The Australian Literature Review