Angela Briggs of Cover 2 Cover Books Interviews Bontle Senne, Author of the Shadow Chaser series
In a previous interview you’ve said that wearing glasses and reading got you bullied at school, which is why standing up to bullying is one of the themes in your books – but what has reading done for you?
An easier question to answer would be what reading hasn’t done for me. I consider my love of reading to be the thing that changed the trajectory of my life. I was born in Soweto, the daughter of two nurses and the granddaughter of two domestic workers. My mother is an inspiration for working her way to being a powerhouse in corporate South Africa but I would not have been able to make the most of the opportunities she worked to get me if I hadn’t loved stories. Stories were a gateway drug to novels, novels to poetry and philosophy textbooks, textbooks led to newspapers and opinion pieces. I could go on but I think the point I’m making is clear: I have built my life on a stack of books.
What are you reading at the moment?
On audiobook, I’m “reading” Margret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’. On Kindle, I just finished ‘All the Bright Places’ by Jennifer Niven. In print, I am mostly reading speculative fiction for some of the local literary festivals where I am chairing panels. I just started ‘South’ by Frank Owen (aka Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer).
Fantasy adventure (the genre that you write) is sometimes seen as popular with children, but not so much with their parents – What would you say to parents who worry that there is something bad or scary about the genre?
There are too many real life, actual dangers for you to be worried about. Nothing a child can experience in my books can really hurt them but it could keep them away from real harm. Numerous studies are also clear that fiction in general has a strong positive effect on a child’s educational outcomes and ability to empathize with others. So given these clear, proven benefits of reading and reading fiction – what’s really scary about it?
What does writing a series give you, and your readers, that a stand-alone book doesn’t?
Friends that you can keep coming back to and having adventures with and keep learning from. I hardly ever re-read books. Once I’ve had the experience, I’ve had it. A series keeps learning and changing with you. New experiences with the same characters can be a lot of fun.
If you could give your younger writer self some encouragement, what would it be?
Yes, everything you write is terrible. No, it’s not the end of the world. Keep writing anyway. You’ll get better.
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
I would care less about my English mark. I cared a lot about what teachers thought of my writing in school. I thought it would impact how good a writer I would become in the future and maybe it did but, in my mind, their opinions were the only ones that mattered to me, I considered them my editors. I didn’t realise that actual editors invest much more of themselves in their feedback and input. That they aren’t grading you – it’s not a pass or a fail. It’s more like they are helping you keep a promise to your readers – to tell the most authentic story you can and re-write it as many times as you need to, to make it great. Teachers never made me re-write anything.
You draw on mythology from all over Africa in your books. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Research for book 2 involved re-watching every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and reading a lot of academic texts on monsters and rituals across the continent. I also try to ask adults about the supernatural stories that their grandmothers told them as children. When I was media fellow of Golden Baobab in 2014, I wrote about the sense of loss I felt at the stories about my culture and (supernatural) heritage that my grandmother never shared with me because they seemed to have no place in my formal or informal education in her mind. I’m still pretty bleak about it.
I spent 6 months in Sierra Leone last year so there was also a fair bit of trying to understand what local myths I could dig up and rework into Lake of Memories. I wasn’t very successful. As it turns out, many in Sierra Leone are incredibly superstitious and viewed chatting to me about terrible, dark, and maybe magical things as highly inappropriate.
For Book 3, I was in Nigeria for 2 months so that influenced the kind of monsters I wanted to write. I love the way Nigerians speak, they have such a colourful use of language and a change of tone or inflection here or there can totally change the meaning of a word, even in the same context. I really wanted a character like that who was that colourful and unpredictable so my research focused on trying to get the right kind of mythical creature with the right kind of temperament for the story I wanted to tell.
Apart from being fabulous to read, your work is about making an African heritage come alive for children. What are your thoughts around getting local books to readers?
I’ve never been one to buy into the “Africans don’t want to read” hype. I’m not saying that there isn’t a huge challenge for trade publishers and booksellers in South Africa. There is, of course. But the absence of relevant, engaging, local and accessible literature is something that is improving pretty slowly. My former life at Puku Children’s Literature Foundation taught me that parents are especially hungry for those kind of books for their children. What surprised me when Shadow Chasers came out was how hungry kids are for that change. I spoke to 5 year olds at Kingsmead Book Fair, shooting apologetic looks at their parents for the nightmares I was afraid I was causing. I spoke to matrics in their last year of school and trying to do everything they could to get me to keep reading to them and postpone going back to class as part of Franschhoek Literary Festival. I spoke at St Dominics School for the Deaf aided by an incredible sigh language interpreter for the fill school and their teachers. Every time I was amazed by how children of different ages got caught up in the story, how they begged me to keep reading, how they stampeded their librarian to find out when they would have the book. Part of it must have been the novelty – a story set in a township, an adventure between a taxi owner’s boss and the orphan who lives on her dad’s property, a girl who doesn’t care that she’s not pretty and a mystery that spans back generations. And let’s not forget about the supernatural elements …Things that go bump in the night are as much a part of our heritage as art, music, language and I was glad to discover that kids think so too.
How do you feel about your relationship with your characters now that you are busy with Book 3? What’s the title, and what can your readers expect?
I feel like I know my characters much better now. I actually find myself laughing at loud about some of the things Nom says and does. It sounds weird because, logically, I wrote it so how am I laughing at what is essentially my own joke? She is my creation so how can she surprise me? I am still not sure of the answer to that but somehow I keep finding out new things about these people that supposedly live in my head. Nom, Zee, Rosy, and the new characters introduced in book 3 feel closer to friends you love but don’t see that often than figments of my imagination.
Book 3 is called Flame of Truth and as the penultimate book in the series, it is the start of the epic final battle between the Shadow Chasers and the Army of Shadows. Nom, Zee, and Rosy are building their own army, in a sense, in this book.
Last year, after publishing Lake of Memories, you said that you felt successful already, having got your two book babies out in the world. Apparently there was a lot in interest in your books at the 2017 Bologna Book Fair – how does entering a world market sound to you?
All I ever wanted was to have my book-babies out in the world for children to read and enjoy. I wanted to write about and be able to travel the world and talk about other people’s books and I’ve done a fair bit of that too in the last 5 years. But the more practical part of me also recognizes that being able to financially support myself entirely as a writer is the ultimate literary success – and one that not many African writers get to experience unfortunately. If entering the world market helps me reach more children and entrench African children’s literature in the global kidlit ecosystem, I am all for it.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
With a full time day job and an actual life, I think sitting down to write when you would rather be sleeping or eating ice-cream for breakfast in front of the TV is always going to be a bit of a drag. That being said: I find that after I have written anything, I feel great. It’s the sitting down, opening my laptop, ignoring Twitter and staying awake part that I find exhausting. The having to write part is exhausting. The having written part is fun.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I have heard many writers say that they have a great idea of a book or a great story to tell. That may be true. But if it’s not on the page, it doesn’t exist. The key is to write everything down. The trap is imaging that thinking about it or dreaming about it or talking about it alone will make your book real.