Africa . . . a place many consider an exotic destination filled with hot weather, beautiful plains and an abundance of wildlife. But if you’re a widowed school teacher ready for a fresh start, the African continent might not be the destination you thought it was. In Wendy Unsworth’s mysterious novel, The Palaver Tree, readers follow main character Ellie Hathaway to a small village where danger lurks, as well as a man who might not be the leader he claims to be.
Interviewer: Christy Campbell
Tell us how long you’ve been writing.
‘Always’ is the answer that I usually give to this question. It’s quite correct. I have been writing things down, poems, stories and diaries for almost as long as I have been able to write! I wrote two novels many years ago but it is the third, The Palaver Tree, that I finally published in 2012.
How did the ideas for your novels come about?
The idea for The Palaver Tree came together from two personal interests. I lived in Central Africa for thirteen years, in Nairobi, Kenya and Ndola, Zambia. The experience of being immersed into that part of the world has had a huge influence on many aspects of my life. I wanted to incorporate some of those experiences into my first novel. I combined this with a deep and ongoing interest in how ordinary people react, adapt and triumph when faced with very extraordinary circumstances. This is what I am interested in exploring in my novels. I am constantly amazed by news stories and biographies about such people and like to create characters and challenge them!
My second novel, Beneathwood, grew in my mind as I was finishing The Palaver Tree. I became curious about a minor character in that novel who was seen in her small village as rather a busybody and a gossip. I sensed that these opinions were possibly unfair, that something very sad had happened in her past… and that her secret was about to catch up with her! Beneathwood is almost ready for publication and I am now also working on a third novel in the Berriwood Series.
Is it difficult to write in two very different genres?
I don’t think so, in fact, for me, I think it works writing in two genres because they are so different. I have a children’s series that is so far removed from my adult novels, that they really do give me a ‘rest’ as I switch between them! When I have been writing one type of book and need to distance myself from the manuscript for a while, I always look forward to getting reacquainted with the other genre!
Where do your characters originate from?
In my Berriwood Series, all the protagonists are (or will be) the inhabitants of a fictional Cornish village. I have lived in a Cornish village myself so I suppose some ideas came from there though I will hasten to add that no characters were based on any actual person! I had the idea for my children’s main character, Kellie Culpepper, a long time ago and wrote some notes about her. She and her crackpot family had formed quite fully in my mind before I began the writing process.
How do you feel about the premise that characters can take on a life of their own?
They do, at least for me. A character starts off usually as just a first name and a few rough details about their looks and present life within the book. Later come past life, family, motivations and expectations. Very often a character will pull me up sharply and remind me that they would never do or say a certain thing and then I re – read and revise until we are both satisfied! I imagine many authors have similar experiences and I can’t really envisage getting to know a character sufficiently if it was always a one sided conversation!
Do you already know how the story will end when you start writing?
Er…. Not exactly, but I have a good idea. At the end of The Palaver Tree there was something I knew had to happen but it was only as I got close to the end of the first draft that I knew how!
What have you learned since publishing your first book?
That if you are like me and didn’t do your homework, writing a first book takes place in a blissful state of ignorance! There is no burden of thoughts about how to launch the book, how to get reviews and get noticed, which websites you should have a presence on or if you should blog.
Of course, this is not at all clever from a marketing standpoint but it does make the creation of that first book a pure writing experience and that, in itself, is something to savor.
How do you feel about the way self-publishing has taken such a bite out of traditional publishing?
Marvelous. Great. And such an opportunity for new authors. Like many Indies I attempted the traditional route and it was so disappointing to realize how hard it would be to get anyone to ever read the full manuscript, let alone comment on it. Self-publishing has given new authors (and some already traditionally published) the chance to break out and ask readers themselves if they like their work. Now it is the responsibility of Indies to make their work the best that it can be and then shout about it!
Does your writing affect your choice of reading?
Not much. I do read more in the genres that I write, simply because I like them, but I also read quite a range of other genres. If the synopsis grabs me I will download to my kindle but I never download just because a book is cheap or free. Everything that goes on to my device is something I intend to read.
What projects are you working on now?
I am editing my second novel in the Berriwood series. In this story, ‘Beneathwood‘, the house that gives the book its name, has been inherited by Gordon Carroll and his wife Beryl. There is a lot of work to be done but Gordon takes on the renovation as a retirement project. The Carroll’s daughter, Olivia is opposed to her parents keeping the house. She always hated the place and even more so after finding batty old Auntie Edith dead in there. When the Carroll’s finally do move in things immediately start to go wrong and Olivia is convinced that the house is to blame! The third Berriwood novel is outlined with a working title of The Quiet Hours.
I am also working on the draft of the third book in the Come-alive Cottage series for children. I don’t have a title yet but in this story Aunt Kitty (the witch who is also sometimes a cat) goes missing and Kellie Culpepper must come to the rescue again!
Who is your literary hero if you had to feature one in your next novel?
One of my favorite characters has to be Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’. His transformation from the most formidable miser to jolly philanthropist is amazing! I don’t think I could ever feature him, though.
I maybe could feature Paul Sheldon, the writer in ‘Misery‘ by Stephen King. Paul is unfortunate enough to crash his car on a remote road in heavy snow but that is only the beginning of his problems. His rescuer, Annie Wilkes, is more dangerous than any snowstorm! Paul is such a resilient character that I am sure I could find a place for him.
Where can readers learn more about you?