Tuesday, November 17, 2015

In Conversation with Dinah Jefferies

Dinah Jefferies was just back from the Bewdley Book Week when she joined me for a short conversation on her latest novel, The Tea Planter's Wife. The conversation wasn’t all about just books and writing since I asked her about all the lovely things she saw in Sri Lanka.

1. Your second book, The Tea Planter's Wife was released this September 3rd. Are you as excited as you were when you published your first book The Separation, in 2014? How has the writing journey been so far?

If anything it has been more exciting this time, partly because I understand more about the publishing process, and partly because the book has been chosen for the Richard & Judy Autumn Book Club here in the UK. It’s very prestigious and means the book will be seen by a lot of people.

When The Tea Planter's Wife made it to the Richard and Judy Book Club
 2.  When and how did you start writing? How did you arrive at the idea of writing a book?

I was living in a tiny mountain village in Northern Andalusia, Spain. It was too hot outside, so while confined indoors, I used the time to write. I’d always loved reading and had been thinking about an idea I’d had for some time. I didn’t expect to fall in love with writing, nor the success I’ve subsequently had.

 3. Could you introduce The Tea Planter's Wife to my readers?

The novel is set on a tea plantation beside a misty lake in 1920s Ceylon. It’s almost the end of the colonial era and all the certainties of British life are changing. 19 year old Gwendolyn Hooper is the new bride of the owner, Laurence, a wealthy and charming widower. But her idyllic dreams of marriage are shaken by echoes from the past – an old trunk of musty dresses, a hidden gravestone in the grounds, and locked doors. Her new husband seems haunted by the past and refuses to talk about them. On the night Gwen suddenly goes into labour, with Laurence away from the house, she is presented with a terrible choice; one she feels she must make without her husband’s knowledge. Can she keep such a powerful secret? If not, can Laurence possibly forgive what she has done? As all the secrets unfold, her marriage to Laurence is threatened, as is the old colonial lifestyle.

4. The Tea Planter's Wife is set in 1920’s in Sri Lanka when it was a British colony and was called Ceylon. How did you choose the setting? What is it that inspired you to write The Tea Planter’s Wife?

My late mother-in-law was born in India and I was born in Malaysia so there had always been that colonial link. I listened to recordings of real tea planters speaking about life back then and was both shocked and intrigued by their attitude of entitlement. The idea of using a secret for the heart of my story had been in my head for a while. So then it was just a question of choosing a location. I looked on the map and saw the lovely pearl drop that is Sri Lanka. Decision made.

5. You stayed at The Galleface Hotel in Colombo & Ceylon Tea trails to do some research for the book. How much of research goes into your writing in general? Could you tell me briefly about the modus operandi of your research?

I read, watch films, look at YouTube. It’s total immersion and I visit the country if I can. I also stayed at Ceylon Tea Trails, in a restored tea planter’s bungalow beside a lake in the central hills. It was very nearly the setting I had already envisaged for the book and I learnt a lot from talking to a tea planter there. We were treated to a taste of the old colonial lifestyle; they were so privileged and lived lives of such luxury. At the same time when girls like Gwen married men who made their fortunes out in the colonies they also faced danger, disease, monsoon and drought. Nothing they’d ever have seen in England. They also had to deal with the simmering and understandable resentment of locals who had been subjected to British racism.

Castlereigh Lake from Tea Trail Bungalow
6. Sri Lanka is one place I would really love to visit sometime. How was your experience as you made way through the island, learning about the place and it’s people? I am especially interested in their cuisine.

It was so beautiful that I made sure my book came alive with flashing fireflies and cicadas singing at night. I didn’t want to leave, though when I did, it was by canoe as a cyclone had washed the road away. As for the food I remember Egg hoppers – strange thin biscuit cups with an egg inside. Also Buffalo curd – a wonderfully thick yogurt which you ate with jaggery – a syrup I’d never heard of before. The first draft of my book was already written and, as I didn’t have long in the country, I had to focus on the locations I knew I would be using. I’d love to go back for longer one day.

7. The Tea Planter's Wife has a curious offering of Sinhalese customs and vocabulary. How did you learn about the local customs and their names ?

While I stayed at Tea Trails I read many books in their extensive library, books I’d never have come across back in the UK. Most of the detail came from them.

The Tea Planter's Wife
Nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper is newly married to a rich and charming widower, eager to join him on his tea plantation, determined to be the perfect wife and mother. But life in Ceylon is not what Gwen expected. The plantation workers are resentful, the neighbours treacherous. And there are clues to the past - a dusty trunk of dresses, an overgrown gravestone in the grounds - that her husband refuses to discuss. Just as Gwen finds her feet, disaster strikes. She faces a terrible choice, hiding the truth from almost everyone, but a secret this big can't stay buried forever . . .

8. By using many vernacular words from the native language of the place you’re story is set in, you add a special element of curiosity which I’m sure your readers must really love.What do you think about it? Does it fascinate you too, as a reader when you read such books?

Yes of course. When you write a book like this it has to feel authentic. Accuracy and authenticity are not the same thing. When you translate historical events or periods into fiction you need a flavour of the past, not information dumps, so vernacular expressions do help.

9. Books satisfy our curiosity about places and that’s also why I’m fascinated by your book. How responsible did you feel about documenting the culture of Sri Lanka in your book and presenting it to your readers in other parts of the world?

The Tea Planter's Wife is a work of fiction, not a travel book. I like to unravel a slice of history and knit my characters in. I try to ensure the details are as correct as I can, but ultimately it’s about an imagined world and a vanished age. The 1920s is a period only just within living memory, but the white tea-planters with their wives and their whole colonial-era society are gone. I knew something of colonial attitudes from being brought up in Malaysia, so it wasn’t too big a jump.But the fiction always has to take precedence and if history has to be shifted a little then so be it. If I was writing non-fiction then that would be different.

10. I’m sure you must’ve read some books set in Sri Lanka as part of your research or at least for your own fascination with the place. Sri Lankan writers like Ondaatje and Wickramasinghe have written beautifully about Sri Lanka and offered insights into the life in the island. What do you think about Sri Lankan Literature and Sri Lankan writing in English?

I didn’t read a lot of fiction but I read plenty of history and some memoirs. Although I know of both these writers, I prefer not to read much fiction. It’s too easy to be influenced without realising you have been. When you’re trying to write a book a year there’s really very little time to read for pleasure.

11. Could you tell me about your first book, The Separation ?

It’s set in Malaya during the 1950s. A state of Emergency had been declared and the mother in the story is searching for her two missing daughters through dangerous war-torn jungle. It’s a life-changing catastrophe as her world suddenly becomes a living nightmare. Not knowing what has happened to your child must be the worst thing a parent would ever have to face and, though she doesn’t know they have been abducted by their father, the reader does. It’s dual narrative and I drew on my childhood in Malaya and the shock of coming to live to in England aged nine.

The Separation
What happens when a mother and her daughters are separated, and who do they become when they believe it might be forever?
Malaya 1955. It’s the eve of the Cartwright family’s departure from Malaya. Eleven-year-old Emma can’t understand why they’re leaving without their mother, or why her taciturn father is refusing to answer her questions.
Returning from a visit to a friend sick with polio, Emma’s mother, Lydia, arrives home to an empty house ─ there’s no sign of her husband Alec, her daughters, or even the servants. The telephone line is dead. Acting on information from Alec’s boss, Lydia embarks on a dangerous journey across civil-war-torn Malaya to find her family.
The Separation is a heart-wrenching page-turner, set in 1950s Malaya and post-war England.

12. The Tea Planter's Wife is the story of a young woman’s determined journey through love, motherhood and loss. Am I right if I say that loss is a recurring theme in your books?

My teenage son was killed in an accident some years ago, so I guess you could say it has been a theme in these two books.

13. What are you currently working on ?

The third book will be ‘The Silk Merchant's Daughter’ set in Vietnam during the French War in the 1950s and due to be published in summer 2016. My next stop will be Rajasthan in the New Year. I can’t wait and am so excited that I shall finally visit India. My husband has Indian ancestry so this is a big deal for both of us. I think book four will take longer than a year as it won’t be a colonial story but an Indian one and I will have a great deal to learn.

The Silk Merchant's Daughter
1952, French Indochina. Since her mother's death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule - and her own family's involvement shocks her to the core...
Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she's always dreamed of. But who can she trust in this world where no one is what they seem?
The Silk Merchant's Daughter is a captivating tale of dark secrets, sisterly rivalry and love against the odds, enchantingly set in colonial era Vietnam.

14. As an accomplished writer, what advice would you like to give aspiring writers?

Keep learning. Keep writing. Read a lot. There are no shortcuts.

Dinah Jefferies is a British novelist, short story and article writer. Join her readers club and follow her on Facebook and Twitter for updates on her writing.
Thanks a lot for taking out your precious time for the interview. It was nice talking to you, Dinah.