Tag Archives: Fiona Leonard

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.

The Chicken Thief by Fiona Leonard

“He said this was what Independence truly meant.” The son pointed across the valley towards the sun as it crept towards the horizon. “He said that only when you can see tomorrow with nothing in your way, are you truly free.”

The Chicken Thief Cover ImageAlois is a very smart young man. He is also a thief with a talent for hypnotising chickens. On a nighttime thieving expedition he falls into the backyard of a white man who asks him to run an errand for him. A simple one. Just collect a letter. For this Alois will receive $1,000. He never would have thought he would be drawn into political machinations and decades old intrigue threatening the government and his own safety, as well as that of those closest to him.

So, The Chicken Thief is about as different from my usual fare as you can get. Which is great because I’ve noticed that the reviews here are starting to get a bit same-same. There’s only so many artsy dystopian love stories a girl can review before she goes cross-eyed. Given I’m generally not one for thrillers, I’m not sure whether I should be surprised at how much I enjoyed this one or not. Perhaps I should be surprised that I was surprised? In the novel we catch a glimpse of a political struggle drawn out over decades. Parallels with real life abound, a noble, almost sainted, resistance fighter in an African nation is held captive for 25 years. During this time her former allies install themselves in an independent, but hopelessly corrupt and murderous government. Somehow, by coincidence or fate, Alois the chicken thief is drawn into all of this and finds himself remarkably gifted at subterfuge and espionage.

With beer in his hand, Harry would recite them like a rosary – “Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Eritrea, Congo, blah, blah, blah. The roll call of Africa, my friend. Pick a country and I’ll tell you when the war started.” No matter which country he started with, he always left out the big one – Rwanda.

Leonard never names the African country she sets her story in, I assume intentionally. I wasn’t sure if I should read into that the implication that it could be any country; that so many stories of colonisation, corruption and struggle for independence repeat themselves across the continent. Her tale seems to be plucked straight out of Orwell, the new independent government proving to be just as problematic as the last. She treads across multiple layers of gender, race  and power deftly and honestly.

Over the years Alois had learnt that most women wear their good humour boldly like a coloured cloth, all the while carrying their tears stored away like water in a pot and not a drop will fall. Then one day there will be a stone on the path and the next thing you know the pot as broken at your feet and water has gone everywhere. Of course, then there were women who didn’t even both putting the water up there in the first place. They simply threw it straight at you to save time.

Alois has a sense of humour. His wise-cracks serve to lighten the mood; amid political strife life does go on, after all. This is a story with heart, so much heart.  Leonard’s ability to change gear the way she does is quite remarkable, but it also creates an inconsistency of tone that was occasionally jarring. I also found the pacing of the novel to be episodic, each chapter seemed to end like a TV show with a “to be continued…” feeling about it. For some readers that could contribute to “page-turner” momentum but I confess I felt a little like I was being spoon-fed and the story is worth more than that. Curiosity about how this all was going to end was enough to drive me forward, the novel is a grabs you and holds you kind of affair, and the final confrontation really did surprise me. I have to take my hat off to Leonard for thinking so big and unflinchingly about civil war and independence while running it alongside every day life and love. It is a difficult story to tell and that she was able to steer her characters through it and keep them warm-hearted, genuine and often funny is testament to her skill and her light touch.

I have a Q & A with Leonard prepared for tomorrow – come back to read the answers to all the questions you never thought to ask!

I was supplied with a Kindle version by the author. 

The Chicken Thief, Fiona Leonard: three stars.

Read it if: you’re after a political adventure with heart, you need to set foot outside your comfort zone.

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