Q: Why did you decide to set your novel in Zimbabwe just after independence?
A: The book is set just after independence for two reasons. Firstly, because it was a very uncertain and precarious time for the people of Zimbabwe. Many were wondering what might happen next, having once lived in a time of inequality between the races and suddenly finding – after a long and brutal war – that the minority white government was no longer in power. A large proportion of white people even left the country, fearing there might be reprisals. As it happened, there was no ‘flood of revenge’ and it was a relatively harmonious time.
The second reason the book is set at this time is because I was in the country then, and witnessed much of the fear and uncertainty with my own eyes and ears.
Q: Was it your first attempt at writing a book?
A: I’ve written a few books before this one, though they were a very different class of book. Nor were they quite good enough to be published. I never think of these as a waste of time, though, as writing is all about practice and improvement!
Q: How did it come to be published?
A: The first thing to do was to find an agent, as finding a publisher without one is a near-impossible task. That said, it can be incredible difficult to find an agent these days, not least because of the amount of people trying to find their way to becoming published.
I sent out prospective letters, opening chapters and a synopsis to about a hundred literary agents – from the seventy-odd responses I got, about ten were suitably interested to want to read the full manuscript, though only one decided to take me on as a client. As I said, there are a lot of people sending such submissions, it can be a daunting task to find someone as an aspiring author. Patience is definitely needed.
Once my agent had taken me on board, she set about talking to publishing contacts she has. One (at Andersen Press), I’m glad to say, loved the book as much as she did, and here we are today.
Q: Who were your literary models?
A: As a child I read everything, though especially loved the escape which Roald Dahl gave me with his books. As a teenager, I fed myself a not-so-healthy diet of horror, with such authors as Stephen King and James Herbert. As an adult, I have an eclectic taste – from David Mitchell (I admire his style) to the more pacy style of such authors as Robert Harris (I enjoyed his novel Fatherland immensely). I find myself reading a lot of non-fiction, too, such as Paul Theroux’s travel books.
Whatever I read, I look for two key elements above all else – good writing and a believable story.
Q: What were the hardest bits?
A: Getting stuck happens a lot when writing – usually because of the uncertainty about what happens next, or about how a character might develop. When writer’s block happens I find the best thing to do is to stop trying to actually write the story and plan a way through instead. I rarely sit back and simply wait for inspiration, because I personally find that nothing comes from doing nothing. That said, a break can sometimes be what the doctor ordered – on rare occasions ideas still form when I give the illusion of doing something else!
Q: What are you most pleased with?
A: Once I’d finished Out of Shadows and read it back, I was particularly pleased with how more seemingly minor elements of the story really enhanced the story as a whole – I wasn’t always sure how the sub-plots might work out as I was writing, but I think they worked out quite well.
Q: Is the novel autobiographical?
A: The characters and events are all fictional, so I’m reluctant to say yes – Robert Jacklin is not Jason Wallace, even though we both went to a new boarding school in a new Zimbabwe at the same time. That said, elements of how the school ran are similar to what we experienced.
Many people who have read the book have asked if I hated my schooling in Zimbabwe, and I always stress the answer to that is no. I loved my time at school – my school was (and still is) excellent. The school in the book is deliberately menacing in places so as to add to the tension of the story.
Q: The novel is very bleak. What are your feelings, hopes about the future of Zimbabwe?
A: It is bleak, written over a period when Zimbabwe was in the news seemingly all the time for the wrong reasons. The events that have transpired there are incredibly upsetting, not least because the lives of so many in that country – black and white – have been put under immense strain and hardship for no other reason than, I believe, personal greed on the part of the government. I’m always optimistic and believe that everything will come around in the end; however, I can’t quite see that happening in the near future, at least not while the current rulers are in power. One day, though… I hope.
Out of Shadows
Jason Wallace, Andersen, 320pp, 978 1 84939 048 4, £6.99 pbk