Monday, April 25, 2011

The Chicken Thief - Satima chats with author Fiona Leonard

Fiona, you've decided to self-publish The Chicken Thief, despite the fact that many people who've read and enjoyed it feel it's more than worthy of mainstream publication. Can you tell us why you've elected to go down this route?

My first motivation was related to timing. The traditional publication route would have meant that even with a dream run, this novel would not have hit the shelves for another 18 months to two years. One of the central themes of The Chicken Thief is the story of a southern African dictator desperately clinging to power at a time when his country is demanding economic and political change – not unlike events currently unfolding in Africa and the Middle East. In countries like Egypt we've been given such an incredible insight into the struggle for democracy and I think having that real world context brings an extra dimension to the reading of this novel.
Secondly, I wanted to prove that it could be done in order to encourage other authors to also give it a go. I'm currently based in Ghana, West Africa. For many authors here, the international market is a distant and daunting prospect. I wanted to show that authors can find readers world-wide regardless of where they live.
Finally, it's probably got a lot to do with impatience! I don't enjoy the process of pitching to publishing houses - especially not all the waiting in between! I write to be read. While I thoroughly enjoy the act of getting a story down of paper, what motivates me to keep writing is the point of connection between that story and another person. I have been blogging for several years now and one of the things I enjoy most about that is the response from readers – love that fact that people read what I write and are then inspired in the comments to tell their own stories. I got a great email the other day from a woman who has been reading the novel. She detailed which parts made her cry and when she laughed out loud. As a writer, that is a wonderful gift – to know that a reader has connected with what you've written.
There are many ways to self-publish these days, including outfits such as Smashwords; sites attached to conventional publishers such as Create Space and a wide range of "vanity publishers". What method of self-publishing have you selected for The Chicken Thief, and why?

I'm e-publishing straight to Kindle through Amazon for the very simple reason that I want to put it front and centre of one of the largest global book distribution methods. I want it to be easy to find, easy to buy and easy to give! The Amazon people have made it incredibly simple for authors to publish and I admire them for it.
Living in Ghana, I am painfully aware of the cost-impediments to shipping hard copy books around the world. I love the fact that my blog is read by people the world over and I want my novel to be equally as accessible. Besides, carrying a large inventory of stock when you're self-publishing is a huge risk. This way I can sell a million copies or ten and my outlay is still the same.
I'm also mindful of the environmental impact of publishing. In coming months I will be offering a print-on-demand hard copy edition of the novel which seems to be a good compromise that allows people to literally get their hands on a copy while also going some way towards minimising the environmental footprint.
Self publishing, especially in the realm of electronic publication, is gradually finding wider acceptance, perhaps largely because of the success of certain authors such as Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking. Yet there remain huge problems in regard to publicity and distribution. What do you foresee as the future for authors who decide to go it alone?

I don't see it in terms of "problems". Independent publishing is no different from any small business. You develop a product, you hone it until it is the best it can be, you study the market, find your niche and promote your product. I think writers have been trained to believe that the only way to enter the market is with someone else leading the way, and that's no longer the case. The thing is though, that writers who go the independent publishing route now need to be entrepreneurs – we're story tellers and story sellers! We need to believe in our creations, take responsibility for quality control and be prepared to do the research and leg work to help take it to market.
We are incredibly lucky though. We're coming to the market at a time when there are phenomenal resources available online that provide how-to information on every stage of the process. Plus it's getting easier and easier to find the people you need to help turn you pile of printed pages into a published novel. The reality is that not every writer wants to be an entrepreneur, and that's fine. There will always be a 'publishing house' model in some form to support authors. But for those authors who enjoy the selling side, that option is now open to them.
Do you think there is a market, world-wide, for books set in Africa?

Definitely. In the past there seems to have been an assumption, particularly in the US, that readers don't want to read anything that isn't set in their own backyards. However, I think if you grow up in a country outside the UK or US — in countries where the local publishing industries are relatively small — you know that this just isn't true. And there are plenty of books that have shown they can be successful in foreign markets. I doubt many readers would have had the chance to read a book set in Sweden before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came along and yet millions of people seemed to cope with the experience!
As for Africa, the reading population has repeatedly demonstrated that they are willing to embrace African settings - Alexander McCall Smith showed that readers would embrace a detective story set in Botswana, Abraham Verghese opened doors to a hospital in Ethiopia and readers happily followed John Le Carre in search of corrupt pharmaceutical companies in Kenya. Then there are of course the many wonderful Africa writers, writing about Africa who have achieved incredible success both at home and abroad — Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie, Ben Okri, JM Coetzee, Chinua Achebe — to name but a few. A friend recently shared a list of the top 120 books about Africa by African authors and it's a distinguished list.
I think there is a market, world-wide, for well-written, well-told stories. Where they are set is of secondary concern.
What's it like, being a 39 year-old white, Australian woman trapped in the body of a 25 year-old black, African man? In writing The Chicken Thief, you had to see the world through a very different pair of eyes. How did that work for you and your character, Alois?

There is no way I can ever hope to understand what it's like being a 25 year old African male. I can read widely, research, watch movies, learn about experiences and context, but the best I can ever hope for is a rough approximation. What I do understand intimately is what it's like to be afraid, or to feel like you've let people down, or to be desperately in love with someone that you're sure will never be interested in you, or to have wild dreams that you hope will come true. My focus has been on making that dimension of Alois as real as possible and giving him a strong and authentic voice to convey those emotions.
Funnily enough, while many of the central characters are men, I still think of The Chicken Thief as a book about women. Alois very much defines himself in relation to the women around him. To him, the women in his life are a frustrating and confusing bunch that he struggles to understand. Their mutual admiration and loyalty, however, provide the foundations for his life.
It took you a few years, on and off, to bring Alois's story out. You really must love the character to have stuck with him for so long! How did you discover the "Alois within" and why are you so drawn to him?

I absolve Alois of all responsibility for the delays in finishing this novel! The fact that it's taken me six years to write was largely due to the fact that I've been afraid to admit that writing novels is the form of writing I love most. For the most part, I've tried to pretend that writing novels was  a hobby. Last year I finally accepted that it was the form of writing that I was most passionate about, and I created the opportunity to really devote myself to it. 
I always get a bit nervous talking about my characters because people eventually notice that I refer to them as I would to real people! I find creating a character is more a process of discovery than creation. I wish I could remember where the idea for Alois as a chicken thief came from. I can easily trace the origins of all the other characters and yet Alois seems to have just appeared! I've enjoyed watching Alois unfold and grow as a character. I relate very strongly to his desire for freedom, his desire not to conform, and his fears that following an unconventional path will result in him letting down everyone that he loves.
We at Egoboo wish Fiona Leonard the very best of luck with The Chicken Thief. If you'd like to purchase The Chicken Thief,look here. Amazon will let you read a sample on your Kindle for PC, so you can try before you buy!

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