It is a pleasure to warmly welcome Denise Leith to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews for A Tea Break with Mrs B, a short form author interview series. To help celebrate the release of The Night Letters we sat down for a chat. Thanks Denise!
What is your drink of choice as we sit down for a chat about your new book?
I know this is boring, but I only ever drink water or a cup of tea before interviews (I might say something stupid). Afterward, depending how I feel and what time of day it is, I might have a prosecco diluted with mineral water, or if I’m really wanting to celebrate, I’ll have a mojito or two or three.
Can you give us an overview of your writing career to date?
I had to learn to write while at university for essays and found I loved the process. When I did my PhD, I found I loved the discipline of researching and writing and couldn’t wait to get to my desk. Having my first book published (a rewrite of my thesis The Politics of Power) was a real thrill. About six months later, while researching for a lecture, I had one of those ‘moments’ and wondered why journalists and photojournalists would go off to cover war and what were the personal costs of that? I then began researching these people. It didn’t take long to realise there was a book that needed to be written. I contact the best and often the most correspondents and photojournalists at the time and asked if I could talk to them about their lives. To my great surprise all but two agreed to interviews. I spent three months travelling the world finding them and spending time with them. It was an extraordinary experience, both challenging and precious. The book, Bearing Witness, is the result of those interviews.
About six months after it was released, I had no idea what my next book would be (by then I knew I wanted to keep writing books). One morning, apropos of nothing, I decided to clean out the old files from my computer and found a file simply titled ‘Book’, which was really a strange name for a document. When I opened it up, I realised that it was the description of a dream I’d written down many months before and forgot about. In the dream I am standing in a supermarket aisle, so lost and confused in my life that I couldn’t move forward. I suspect the dream was reflective of where I was at the time, but the scene really began to fire my imagination and I began to expand on the scene. I found I was writing virtually non-stop. I couldn’t go anywhere without thinking of what to write…jotting down notes and conversations in my head. I remember on Christmas Day my husband driving the family down to my parents’ home for Christmas and I was sitting in the front of the car writing. I simply could not stop. It took about three weeks for the novel to be finished. It then took me three years of rewrites to learn how to write fiction. That book is What Remains and while a lot of people think it is autobiographical it is not.
Can you tell us what inspired the creation of your new book, The Night Letters?
It began as a sequel to What Remains (my first novel), but I also wanted it to be about what I had discovered during my time researching the Rwandan genocide and from two trips to that country interviewing the killers, survivors and those who saved them. I found the book really hard to write and it took a long time because essentially, I was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It was the author, Michael Robotham, who’s a good friend, who read the manuscript and told me I was trying to write two books in one and I needed to work out which one I really wanted to write. I threw away about a third of the book (everything to do with Rwanda) and focused the book on Afghanistan. It was only then that the characters began to come alive and the writing flowed.
What was the research process like for The Night Letters and what sources did you use?
I began by reading everything I could about life in Afghanistan. Then I watched videos, including people’s homemade YouTube videos in Afghanistan. For example, if I wanted to write a scene of someone driving in Kabul, I could find a video of someone doing exactly that. It’s pretty easy these days to imagine yourself in a place you’ve never been because there is so much on the web: photos, stories, videos.
While I was writing and researching, I found an organisation called the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Through the AWWF published authors, poets or journalists volunteered to mentor women writers living in Afghanistan to give them a voice. I have always believed in the idea of giving something back and so I began mentoring women in Afghanistan through this project. I honestly don’t think I’ve used anything from their stories, but during my time working with them my admiration for the women of Afghanistan rose. They are not those shrinking, seemingly cowered or frightened women we see hidden under burqa’s or hijabs. The women I got to know were extraordinarily strong, determined, outspoken, gutsy. I’m sure getting to know these women coloured my story. I wanted my readers to know them and to appreciate how strong they were and how far they had come. I wanted to challenge the stereotypes we see on TV and through a book of fiction give them a voice.
What are the main themes present in The Night Letters?
That Afghans are the same as all of us. They want and need the same things. They are not the ‘other’ or strangers to us. This is one of the main themes.
I wanted to help people care about Afghan women, how far they have come and how much they have to lose if/when the Taliban come back in power.
It is also about bacha bazi, a form of paedophilia practiced in Afghanistan that the government and western powers have done little or nothing to confront. Like paedophilia everywhere no one wants to know about it, meanwhile young boys’ lives in Afghanistan are being destroyed every day as those in authority (including Western troops) turn a blind eye.
Where did the inspiration for the character of Sofia come from?
Good question. I can’t answer that because I don’t know. She created herself.
What is one thing that you really hope readers will take away from the experience of reading The Night Letters?
An interest in what happens to the people of Afghanistan, especially the women. I would also like pressure to be applied to the government to do confront bacha bazi and hold the men who keep these boys accountable.
What writers have inspired you along the way to publication?
The writers that have inspired me are the who write magically. Those whose words – and the way they use them – take my breath away. I love reading a sentence, and then feeling the need to stop and read it again because it was so beautiful. I’m interested in how writers use words.
I am also inspired by writers who can tell a damn good story that has me laying on the lounge reading until I’m finished and then wishing the book had not ended.
How has your writing process been affected by COVID-19?
I’ve hardly been writing. Like most writers I earn very little, but with COVID another venture I have been involved in has taken off and it has taken all my time. I actually resent it, but it puts food on the table and pays the bills, whereas writing never has. I can make more in a week of this other venture than I do for six years of writing. That’s sad.
What book or books do you recommend that I add to my reading pile?
Oh, that’s easy. These are the books I love above all others.
- David Malouf, An Imaginary Life – his imagination and imagery moved me to the core
- Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire – her perfection in writing
- Hannah Kent, Burial Rights – how can someone describe snow for hundreds of pages and still make me want to keep reading
- Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North – the magic of his words
- Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things – her ability to drill down to the core of women
- Rian Malan – My Traitor’s Heart – how he stepped away from all that was familiar and opened his soul
- Brian Keenan – An Evil Cradling – to write virtually a whole book about being in isolation and make it a page turner
- Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance – for everything
- And anything of Michael Robotham
What are you working on writing wise at present?
I am 1/3 of the way through a book I love. It’s about a woman (mother and wife) who walks into the Australian Embassy in Lima after being missing for 2 years. It’s a mystery and a thriller.
I’m also excited about another novel, based on the Welsh witch Rhiannon, that is tapping at the door wanting to be written.
What surprises me about my writing career is that all my books are so different. I like that. There’s no real formula of story.
Thank you for the lovely tea break and chat Denise. Congratulations on the release of The Night Letters.
For five years, Australian doctor Sofia Raso has lived in Kabul’s vibrant Shaahir Square, working with Dr Jabril Aziz to support the local women. She knows that living peacefully in Kabul requires following two simple rules: keep a low profile; and keep out of local affairs.
Yet when threatening night letters from the Taliban taunt the town, and young boys disappear from Jamal Mina, Kabul’s largest slum, Sofia can no longer remain silent. While the square is encased by fear, an elegant former warlord proves an unlikely ally, and a former lover re-emerges with a warning. As the search for the boys intensifies, and Sofia feels herself being drawn back into a love affair she thought had ended, it soon becomes clear that answers will bring a heavy price.
Gripping and evocative, The Night Letters takes you to the heart of Kabul in a story of secrets, friendship and love in all its imperfect guises.
The Night Letters by Denise Leith was published on 7th October 2020 by Ventura Press. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Connect with Denise here: