Author Q&A: Fiona Leonard

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Fiona Leonard

Fiona Leonard’s recent novel The Chicken Thief was originally self published and later picked up by Penguin South Africa. I reviewed it here. The novel is being released in Australia this week or you can grab a copy here. Leonard came to authorship via a varied career in foreign affairs, as a writer and world traveler.  She was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book for us.

What genre do you consider The Chicken Thief? There’s a lot going on in it and it seems at times to be comedic, romantic and political. Where would you place it in a book shop?

I have always considered it to be a political thriller.

Did you include all of those elements consciously?

I didn’t set out to include a comedic thread, in fact, I hadn’t really noticed that until readers started pointing it out! I think those threads are a product of ordinary people being placed in extraordinary situations. Alois, the main character is just trying to get by in life – he has a girl he really likes, he has family and community, and he’s trying to make money – the political issues are thrust upon him and he is just trying to hold it all together.

I liked your unflinching approach to race and gender in the novel. I particularly like it towards the end when Gabriel doesn’t want to travel in a foreign car, but acquiesces because the diplomat it belonged to was not white. Did you find it difficult to navigate these issues? 

Living in southern Africa, and now being in Ghana, in West Africa, those issues are at the forefront of discussions you have on a daily basis. In countries like Australia, it’s easy to not have to deal with race on a daily basis; to be oblivious to it. In an African context, you would have to live a sheltered life to not be confronted by it regularly. What I have tried to do is to show that those issues are complex and not easily resolved, that people have strong views on both sides. I’ve also made a point to have positives and negatives on both sides. The struggle for Independence (against a white colonial power) is a central theme, and yet two of the key sympathetic characters are also white.

Alois seems quite lost with regard to women which I confess to finding a little frustrating. Is that really how young men think? 

I think in an African context there is a greater separation between men and women. There can be a more traditional view about how the sexes should interrelate – what’s the domain of men and what is for women – and in some families, that translates into more conservative dynamics. Alois is a naiive young guy, he’s just not someone who sits around and reads magazines discussing how women think, and he doesn’t have a lot of contact on his own with young women. He’s trying to do the right thing and find his way and that’s not always sophisticated or worldly.
I use African proverbs a lot in order to shape the way Alois sees the world. He’s been brought up in a family whose ethos is very much grounded in a traditional perspective that is to an extent idealistic and perhaps even a bit unrealistic. One of Alois’ journeys through this book and into the subsequent two novels, is working out how much of his family’s perspective, should define his own outlook.

You quite pointedly did not name an African country for the story to be set in, can you explain that decision a little?

I didn’t want people to come to this story with preconceived ideas about who the characters are or how they relate to specific events, especially because the President is a point of view character. In my head, I know very clearly where it’s set, but I want the reader to have the luxury of just taking the story as it is and placing the people and events in a broader context.

Ironically too, although it’s set in an African country, one of the political elements is based entirely on an Australian political event!

Finally, tell me a little bit about your favourite character to write – what makes him/her tick and why they’re your favourite. Or is that like asking you to name a favourite child?

While none of my characters are based on real people, each of them draws elements from people I’ve met or known, so I have a soft spot for them all. Not surprisingly I feel very close to Alois, especially now that we’ve been together across three books (I’m currently finalising the third book in this series). Gabriel too is a character I like a lot, particularly because the character is one that is both an idealised notion of what a war hero should be like, but also very human, with vulnerabilities that are a product of years of complex experiences.

About Rachel Watts

I am a writer from Perth, Western Australia. My speculative fiction novella Survival will be released in early 2018. View all posts by Rachel Watts

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