Monday, 2 October 2017

Interview with Apple Gidley

My guest today is Apple Gidley, well-travelled author of the newly released book, Fireburn.

Hi Apple, thank you for joining us here on Just Books.
Would you like to kick off the interview by telling us about yourself and your background?
My nomadic existence, which began when I was a month old, took me from London, England, with my Australian mother to Nigeria where we joined my British father. We moved a number of times within the country for the next six years before a brief spell in England, then to Asia for the next ten years. Australia was my home during term time for seven years, with home time spent in Malaysia or Papua New Guinea with my parents. England for college, then back to PNG where I worked for 18 months, followed by another stint in London. I met my future husband in PNG where he was a VSO (Voluntary Service Oversees), the UK precursor to the US Peace Corps. We continued a global life in the Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand and Singapore (twice each), Scotland, Equatorial Guinea and the USA, which has been the longest I have lived in any country. I currently divide my time between Houston, Texas and St Croix in the US Virgin Islands.
Visa restrictions limited my work opportunities in some places and so I held various volunteer positions, oftentimes around writing and editing newsletters and magazines. One such role was editing the Far Eastern Region Magazine for the Cheshire Homes - homes for the physically disabled residents from ten Asian countries. Another was as British Honorary Consul in Equatorial Guinea, which involved writing on geo-political issues regarding the country.
About six years ago I was a key note speaker at a Families in Global Transition conference and afterwards it was suggested by various people that I write my stories down. My first book, Expat Life Slice by Slice, a memoir, was born!
From that I gained the confidence to bring out some of the short stories I have written over the years, then I started writing travel articles and now here I am getting my first novel published. All very exciting, and terrifying!

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be braver - I have always loved writing but didn’t have the confidence to take myself seriously.

What gets your creative juices flowing?
Sometimes a snippet of news, or an overheard conversation - airports are brilliant for surreptitious eavesdropping and before I know it my imagination has taken over. The number of innocent travelers I’ve turned into murderers and ne’er do wells is quite shocking!
The idea for Fireburn came to me when I attended a Transfer Day ceremony in 2013. Officials were speaking about the upcoming centennial in 2017 of the transfer from Denmark to US ownership. I thought what fun it would be research the period leading to that handover. During my research I came across the worker rebellion known as Fireburn and that was it - the seed of a novel.

Your new novel, FIREBURN is Historical fiction... What draws you to Historical fiction?
History has always fascinated me - I believe in order to embrace the future we have to know our past, and so combined with my love of travel and different cultures, historical fiction set in different parts of the world seems to come naturally.
The short stories I write are both historical and current but still tend to be global.

Can you tell us a little bit about FIREBURN? Maybe a short excerpt..
Sure, I’d be happy to. Fireburn tells the story of brief but bloody period of Caribbean history - a worker rebellion known as Fireburn in 1878, 30 years after emancipation - when Denmark owned what is now the US Virgin Islands. It tells of a young Anglo-Danish woman, Anna Clausen, returning to the island after ten years in England to find her beloved father ailing and the sugar plantation in shambles.
Despite the decline in the sugar industry Anna is determined to retain Anna’s Fancy but must first win the trust of her field workers, of Sampson the foreman, and the grudging respect of Emiline the cook and local weed woman.
The unwelcome lust of one man and forbidden love for another makes Anna’s return to Saint Croix even more turbulent, and Anna weathers personal heartache as she faces the conventions of the day and confronts the hostility of the predominantly white male landowners.
Excerpt from Chapter 1:

…..The sails sighed with relief at having made it once again safely into port. Beyond the bustle on the wharf, Anna saw the Dannebrog stretching from the flagpole at Fort Christiansvaern, red and white fabric rigid in the easterly wind, and felt the old familiar tug of loyalties between Britain and Denmark—a feeling that had subsided over the years in England. Her reverie was broken by Ivy, sweating and pink-faced from packing her mistress’s final trunk, looking wide-eyed at a lighter being rowed out to the brig.

“Oh no, m’lady. I’m not gettin’ in that.”

“It’s perfectly safe. Come, Ivy, I shall go first,” Anna said looking at the palefaced young woman, hoping boats would be the only thing to dent her maid’s usual stoicism. She climbed down and found a spot amongst a swelter of bodies and boxes on the lighter, tucked skirts firmly under her knees and watched her maid, cheeks clenched as if she’d eaten a sour plum, inching down hand over tentative hand until she slipped onto a coil of ropes. Anna patted the space next to her on the bench and opened her parasol, shading them both from the stinging glare of the afternoon sun.

One other woman disembarked. The smell of matted wool lifted off the middleaged matron’s dun-coloured, serge ensemble. She was rejoining her husband on his plantation after a year in England during which, she had told anyone who would listen, she had pined for the warmth, if not the natives. Anna had determined to avoid the patronising woman at all costs once ashore. A few men were leaving the vessel, some to work on plantations as foremen, others to try their fortunes in commerce. Glancing around the crowded lighter, Anna wondered how many would adjust to a tropical life. The remaining passengers would leave the brig in Charlotte Amalie on Saint Thomas, the Danish West Indies’ capital since 1871.

The snap of shipped oars accompanied yells towards bare-chested men, black and white, lining the wharf waiting to catch the curling ropes. Piles of goods ready to be rowed out to vessels in the harbour created roadblocks along the seafront. Dust rose in slow eddies as hooves and feet shuffled under heavy loads, each, whether donkey, ox or man, intent on getting rid of the burden carried.

A bone thin cat, teats hanging low, slunk towards a tray of fish balanced on an upended barrel. The fish, mouths and fins long still, were getting cheaper by the minute as the sun turned their once shimmering scales a flat, dead grey. A grimy, bare foot emerging from beneath a hem weighed down with sea-scum kicked the cat away. Frizzy curls peaked around the colourful scarf, at odds with the drab twill of the woman’s dress, and bounced with indignation as she spat a rough curse at the darting animal.

Grunts and swearing filled the air as men, rivulets of sweat streaking their faces and naked backs, heaved goods up from drays. Hogsheads, giant vats of rum and sacks of sugar crowded for position, some bursting, sending golden granulated arcs across the wharf. In the cool of the foot-thick walls of the Scale House, each was unloaded, weighed and recorded by a behatted white man, dressed in white. Only after merchants and planters, or their agents, climbed the steps of the nearby customs house where another official collected the relevant taxes, was the cargo loaded onto ships leaving for Europe and America……

What do you enjoy most about writing?
I thoroughly enjoy the research but find I have to be firm with myself otherwise each book would be a thousand pages - trying to fit the entire history of a country into one novel!
And I love writing the first draft - it’s exciting to see the characters take over. I even enjoy editing my own work, then the first revision from a professional editor because I learn such a lot. Second, third, fourth and so - those edits get a bit tedious.

Who or what has helped you become a better writer over time?
Books have always surrounded me, and as a child we lived in countries that did not have television so reading and games like Scrabble were always encouraged. My father was an erudite man and in order to try and win an argument I needed an ever-increasing arsenal of words. Reading is such a wonderful escape from the world, and have you ever noticed how people are far more reluctant to interrupt if you are reading than if you are looking at a screen?
Then practice and more practice, and eventually you start to put sentences together which are moderately entertaining and intelligent. I started writing seriously about ten years ago and when I read stories and articles I wrote then, I cringe. I still have a long, long way to go!

How important are names to you, in your books? Do you choose them based on liking the way they sound or their meaning?
Names are very important, and because I write historical fiction they must be appropriate to the period. In Fireburn, I found a number of the names from old slave records, and census data.
I know when I’m reading a book, I find it irritating if I can’t actually pronounce the name easily so I try to bear that in mind as well - Celtic names are always tricky for me. 

Tell us a bit about your previous book, Expat Life: Slice by Slice, and how readers can get their hands on it.
Expat Life Slice by Slice is a memoir - each slice (12 chapters) covers a different aspect of expatriate living from childhood, education, work, our parents dying whilst we are abroad and so on.
It is available on the ubiquitous Amazon.

Who designed your book covers?
Graham Booth from CreationBooth has designed both books. I’ve never met him but he is wonderful and listens to my ideas then somehow manages to improve upon them. - Tell him I sent you!

Do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process?
Absolutely! I’m not a fan of horror - I’m far too easily scared - so if a cover shows fangs, dripping blood and a decomposing skull I won’t even pick it up.
Danica David, a Crucian artist, painted the cover for Fireburn, and I am in awe. She read a synopsis of the book, asked me about one of my favourite characters and created the most wonderful piece of art, which I think will intrigue the browser.

What can we expect from you in the future?
I have started work on a sequel to Fireburn which will take the characters through to the actual transfer of the islands from Denmark to American ownership. It has a working title of Transfer of the Crown, which is rather exciting. Lots of research, and this book will have chapters based in Copenhagen, London and New York as well as St Croix.
Then I want to write a book which has been bubbling for years - set in the jungles of Malaya during the Emergency of the 1950s.

Walk us through a day in the life of Apple...
At the moment my day is dictated by the peeing needs of a puppy. Up at sixish, tea and toast with the newspaper. After I’ve done as much of the crossword as I can manage without cheating, I sit down at my computer. If it’s the start of a story or book I sometimes have to make myself go out and take a break - and I’m finding puppy walking is a great way to find answers to plot problems. I tend to work through until my husband gets home from work, but if he’s travelling I can sit at my desk until all hours. The day passes through cups of tea, coffee, more tea then wine! 

...and when it’s time to relax! What do you do?
Pour a glass of wine, or a bourbon, put on some music (if I’m at home, I write in silence) and enjoy the evening with my husband.
If I’m travelling, it’s the wandering around the back streets of towns and cities, where real people live real lives, that I enjoy the most. Of course seeing the ‘sights’ is wonderful but it’s talking to people that allows one a glimpse of a country and culture.

Which writers inspire you?
The ones who take me somewhere away from my normal milieu - writers like William Boyd, Tan Twan Eng, Pico Iyer - I have a very long list. And I love Dickens for his language, and Jane Austen for her observations.

What is your biggest fear?
Not living long enough to get all the books written - I should have started earlier!

In a perfect world where you could cast your book for a movie, who would you pick for your main characters?
Fireburn would have to be filmed on St Croix - all the sets and backdrops are already made! And my absolute dream cast would be:
  • Anna - Kate Winslet, though she might have to shed a few years
  • Sampson - Idris Elba, perfect as is
  • Ivy - Emma Watson, in a red wig
  • Emiline - Akosua Busia, the Ghanaian actress, but she wold have to look plain
  • Isabel - Penelope Cruz, perfect
  • Carl Pedersen - who is a real bastard would be wonderfully portrayed by Jeremy Irons

If you were ever stranded on a deserted island what would you miss and which three books would you take along?
My husband - he’s very practical and could build a shelter and make a fire so I could have a coconut husk filled with tea!
My books would be The Global Soul by Pico Iyer, the OED and The Nation’s Favourite Poems, edited by Griff Rhys Jones - it really does have all my favourite verse.

Do you have any regrets?
I think most regrets are foolish, a bit like regretting old lovers - as long as they were decent people, but if I admitted to one, regret that is, it would be that I did not start writing 30 years ago. I’d still be learning but I’d be a bit further along the curve.

Congratulations on the release of Fireburn, Apple, and thank you ever so much for an interesting interview.

Find out more about Apple Gidley and her books
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