Maggie Ritchie's Looking for Evelyn is shortlisted for 2018 Best Published Novel. A freelance journalist and author, Maggie was born in India and grew up in Zambia, Spain and Venezuela before settling in Scotland with her husband and their son. Here, she discusses her novel in the first of our Meet the Author series:
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered Looking for Evelyn an adventure story before being shortlisted?
Maggie: I devoured adventure books as a child and loved H Rider Haggard, R L Stevenson, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. They usually involved a group of intrepid explorers travelling to exotic jungles, to the bottom of the sea or to far-flung islands to find some kind of mysterious lost treasure and encountering and overcoming danger on the way.
Before being shortlisted for this prize, I hadn’t considered Looking for Evelyn an adventure story but now I realise it certainly has an exotic setting that the main characters – who share a brave sense of adventure and curiosity about the world – boldly explore. And they encounter danger in the form of witchcraft, superstition, racism and misogyny. The treasure they seek is not the gold statue of a forgotten god but something more ephemeral – one character seeks answers to a childhood trauma and the other to escape failure and boredom. And just like Rider Haggard’s brave explorers, they go on a quest to Africa and, like their Victorian counterparts, end up finding a different kind of treasure.
WNSF: Looking for Evelyn has such a strong sense of place. What role does research play in your writing? How did you make it feel so authentic?
Maggie: I drew heavily on my childhood in Southern Africa for the setting and many of the incidents in Looking for Evelyn. My family lived in the Zambian bush in the early 1970s, not long after the country became independent. I still vividly recall the smells, colours and sounds of my childhood, and the different people who were in my life: local children who were my friends, the terrifying witchdoctor, Boer farmers, missionary priests, white British settlers and, of course, my own parents and brothers and sister.
As a child I was aware there were racial tensions and political unease but only as a vague, threatening background to an otherwise carefree, adventurous existence. In order to fill in the gaps, I interviewed people who had worked and lived in Zambia: my father, formerly of the British Council, my mother, a missionary priest, a former BBC East Africa correspondent, and a friend who grew up in Zambia and her mother, who ran the Lusaka Club. I also read a fascinating memoir of a colonial officer, books on traditional African beliefs, and modern histories of Zambia about independence and beyond.
WNSF: Are there any books or authors that have influenced you as a writer?
Maggie: I’ve always enjoyed books where a momentous or dramatic event is partly shown from a child’s perspective. It’s tricky to pull it off, as you also need that child’s adult self to look back and interpret what went on. Harper Lee is the master in To Kill a Mockingbird but Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, L P Harley’s The Go Between, and Sidonie Colette’s Claudine novels were also influential.
WNSF: What has been your toughest criticism as a writer? And your greatest compliment?
Maggie: Any criticism is tough but if it’s constructive it can make a novel so much better so I like to take it on the chin before the novel is published. If a character is declared silly or two-dimensional, that’s a major problem and creates a big headache. I found two of the main male characters suffered from this in early drafts but once I’d dug into them more and worked much harder they became rounded and much more believable. Compliments are harder to remember! People who liked Looking for Evelyn said they could imagine they were in Africa. I’m glad I was able to convey my love for the continent.
The winner of this year's Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at a special ceremony in London on 20th September 2018.