In A Foreign Country
Ghana in 1976 with a baby and a suitcase
An interview with Hilary Shepherd
Today I would like to welcome to the blog fellow Honno author, Hilary Shepherd, whose second novel ‘In a Foreign Country’, set in Ghana, was published in March, and is currently in the Amazon Kindle summer sale.
I was 23 when I went to Ghana with a baby and one suitcase in 1976. All these years later the experience remains vivid, for the simple reason that I’ve never been back, nor have I ever been anywhere else quite like it.
There is an upside for a writer, writing about distant places, as authors like Peter Ackroyd have observed. However exacting it is to re-immerse yourself in faraway sounds, smells and colours, you don’t have so many decisions to make about what to include and what to leave out because the setting has been pre-edited by the limits of your memory. All you have to do is bring remembered detail to life. And because you are revisiting a place in your head, the detail that does come back is exciting, heart-rending, revitalising. That’s a pretty useful starting place for telling any story!
As for the plot, I had written already about the trials and tribulations of living in the Sudan with a young family in my first novel and I wanted to write about somebody who thoroughly enjoys Ghana, however challenging she finds it. My character, Anne, is just out of university, keen to put her anthropological studies to good use at the same time as getting to know the father she has hardly seen since she was small. He has been working in Tamale for many years. Like him, she loves the place at once and decides to stay. And like him, she then falls in love awkwardly, perhaps unforgivably, with someone she finds there.
I didn’t want to write about northern Ghana outside the rainy season I experienced because the dry season is so different, so something had to happen to Anne within the same short time-scale of seven months. Hospitals I knew a bit about, having spent an unscheduled day in one in Tamale. I threw in some of my maternal experience in scenes with a secondary character, and drew on a brief trip we made to Burkino Faso, and horse-riding in Kumasi. But schools and teaching, which is where Anne gets to know her priest – that bit I had to shamelessly invent. After all, we’ve all been there, at some stage. It just needs a bit of imagination to go back as a teacher and in a West African setting.
As for the priest himself, a friend once told me the merest outline of something experienced by someone she knew, which has fascinated me ever since. What happens to a charismatic man if his life outgrows the framework he imposed upon himself long ago? And if you find yourself emotionally implicated, should you keep away or should you stay?
I’m not living in Ghana inside my head anymore. The book I’m currently working on is set in Spain in the aftermath of the Civil War. Writing historical novels is another foreign country in itself.
Currently just 99p in the Kindle Summer Sale, you can get your copy HERE
Even in your father’s house you can feel like an outsider…
Recently graduated, Anne is in Ghana for the first time. Her father, Dick, has been working up country for an NGO since his daughter was a small child. They no longer really know each other.
A few days into her six-month stay, the houseboy Moses returns
from a trip. As the weeks pass, Anne has a growing feeling that she’s surplus to requirements. Dick is grumpy and distant; Moses distinctly put out at her continued presence. She finds respite teaching eager young pupils at a local Catholic school. Then, out of the blue, a terrible accident changes everything.
In its aftermath, Anne’s closeness to a priest in trouble with his superiors at the Mission, reaches a tipping point that endangers them both.
Praise for In a Foreign Country
“intelligent, subtle and sensitive… I was conscious throughout of the author’s deft control and understatement. Less was definitely more, and what she chose to omit, as well as what she included, made it a much greater book… a thought-provoking, absorbing and rewarding read, which I highly recommended.”
Debbie Young (Debbie Young’s Writing Life)
“Will leave you thinking about the characters after you put it down, and wanting more as you read the last words…[Shepherd’s future as an author looks bright]”
After a lifetime of organic farming, and more recently making windows and stairs in oak for a living – and kitchens in all sorts of woods – Hilary Shepherd published her first novel with Honno in 2012. ‘Animated Baggage’ is set in the Sudan, where she lived with her young family for two years during the 80s. It is a wasp-on-the-wall view of the world of international aid but sadly is no longer in print. Earlier this year Honno published her second book. ‘In A Foreign Country’ follows a young English woman as she arrives in Ghana, where nothing is quite as she expects it to be, including the hidden faces of love.
Hilary is married to Nick and they live on a wild Welsh hillside where they spend a lot of time pushing rocks about. They also spend time in Spain, in a remote mountain village in the Maestrazgo, where the book she is working on now is set.
You can follow Hilary on Facebook: