Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer
with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University, and the University of
Zimbabwe. Her short fiction and essays have been published in eight
countries. She lives with her son Kush in Geneva, where she works as
counsel in an international organisation that provides legal aid on
international trade law to developing countries. She is currently
completing The Book of
Memory, her first novel.
with Petina Gappah
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Petina Gappah: I wrote the first story in May 2006, it was the first short story I had ever written, I called it Something Nice
from London. That story's surprising success encouraged to write more short stories. My third story did well in the
SA PEN competition judged by JM Coetzee. I wrote more and more stories, until I had about 22 stories in something like
one and a half years.
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
PG: I did not have a collection in mind at all, especially because very early on in my writing career, someone pretty high
up in publishing had told me that there was no interest in story collections. So I wrote stories as a way of flexing
my writing muscle, and to find my "voice", with no thought of collecting them in a single volume, until my agent Claire
Paterson, at the time we were looking for publishers for my novel, suggested putting them together in a single
manuscript. I was stunned when Faber offered to publish them. This went against all that I had heard about publishers'
loathing of short stories.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
PG: I initially wanted 15 of the stories that I had written to be included. My American editor Mitzi Angel did not like
one of the stories, and in the end, I agreed with her that it was rather weak. I also took out another that I thought
was poor. That left us with 13. I then took out yet another one, and replaced it with a new story, the last story in
the book. It was a story that I had always wanted to write, and I wrote it in one week flat so that it could be
included. The order that I wanted initially had been a chronological one, I wanted to start with the stories that were
set before independence and continue on until the present day. My rather lofty idea then was that the main character
in the collection was the country of Zimbabwe itself, and I wanted the reader to see it grow or regress through each
story. But that approach was too artificial, too forced, and in the end, the stories simply fell into place on the
basis of which one I managed to finish editing first.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
PG: It means getting lost, getting completely immersed, in a world that is more real than my real world.
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
I write for one particular person. If he likes something, then I know that I have nailed it, and I know that others
will like it too. He is my Jillsy Sloper.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection,
anything at all?
PG: What colour were SisiJenny's dress and shoes?
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
PG: More than a little strange, and not a little thrilling. What is really strange is that it will also be read in at
least 7 different languages.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
PG: I am writing my first novel, called The Book of Memory. I am also working on a new short story that I hope will be
the best thing that I have written so far.
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
PG: I recently reread Yiyun Li's superlative A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which is one of the best collections of
short fiction that I have read by a contemporary writer. And Christopher Hope's The Garden of Bad Dreams, which was
weird and wonderful and very funny. I also read and enjoyed Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.