Corlie Roux’s farm life in South Africa is not easy: the Transvaal is beautiful, but it is also a harsh place where the heat can be so intense that the very raindrops sizzle. When her beloved father dies, she is left with a mother who is as devoted to her sons as she is cruel to her daughter. Despite this, Corlie finds solace in her friend, Sipho, and in Africa itself and in the stories she conjures for her brothers.
But Corlie’s world is about to vanish: the British are invading and driving Boer families like hers from their farms. Some escape into the bush to fight the enemy. The unlucky ones are rounded up and sent to internment camps.
Will Corlie’s resilience and devotion to her country sustain her through the suffering and squalor she finds in the camp at Kroonstad? That may depend on a soldier from faraway Canada and on inner resources Corlie never dreamed she had….
20 Writerly Questions for Trilby Kent
1. How would you summarize your new book in one sentence?
A 12-year-old girl struggles for survival through the darkest days of the Anglo-Boer War.
2. How long did it take you to write this book?
About two months to write, but another few months on either side to research and edit.
3. How did you choose your characters’ names?
I love the surname ‘Roux’, which makes me think of the colour red and, by association, courage — so that seemed a natural fit for Corlie. I honestly can’t remember planning or choosing her first name for any particular reason other than that it worked nicely with Roux! Malachi Byrne was a leftover name from another project that I’d started a few years ago and never finished, so I thought I’d give him a second shot at life. And many years ago I read a newspaper article about a three-year-old boy named Sipho who had wandered out of his home and somehow managed to survive for several days in the African bush before being found, totally unharmed. The name has stuck with me ever since.
4. How many drafts did you go through?
With this book, just two drafts — but followed by several rounds of edits and copy-edits.
5. Who was the first person to read your manuscript?
My friend and fellow children’s author, Leila Rasheed.
6. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?
I think I’d want the children (Corlie, her younger brother, Gert, and her friend, Sipho) to be played by unknown actors, and preferably native South Africans. Tilda Swinton would be brilliant as Corlie’s mother, and James McAvoy would do nicely as Corporal Byrne…
7. What’s your favourite city in the world?
Besides London, where I currently live, I think it would have to be Rome (for the history and culture) or Cape Town (for the weather and outstanding natural beauty).
8. Did you always want to be a writer?
No — when I was a kid, I wanted to be a vet. Then I wanted to be a playwright. For a while I was sensible enough to consider journalism or academia as a more responsible ‘career path’ than writing fiction, but that flirtation with sanity passed. Now, I think that one day I’d like to be a teacher.
9. What was your very first story about? When did you write it?
My very first story was a thinly veiled rip-off of Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers. I typed it on my mother’s typewriter and stapled the pages together myself. I think I must have been about seven at the time.
10. What was your favourite book as a kid?
Anything that featured hapless orphans and Victorian workhouses (I must have read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase a hundred times) or the Second World War (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Sky is Falling, etc.). I also went through a serious Sherlock Holmes phase that lasted right through middle school.
11. If you could be any character from any book, who would you be?
I’d quite like to be my namesake, Trilby, from the eponymous novel by George du Maurier — for the first half of the book, at least.
12. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?
Crikey — too many to name! I’d love to produce a work as epic in scale and concept as The Alexandria Quartet, or as succinctly effective as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Failing that, it would probably be something a bit bonkers: Daemon in Lithuania, perhaps, or Gormenghast.
13. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?
I imagine that Colette would have been good for a laugh. I think I’d want to know about her experiences during the German occupation — particularly how she managed to hide her Jewish husband in their attic throughout the entire war without getting caught.
14. How do you organize your library?
Fiction, non-fiction (history), other non-fiction (criticism, travel guides, etc.), biography. There’s a special shelf in my study for a rotation of my very favourite titles, which acts as a little shrine of inspiration. At the moment Flannery O’Connor and William Maxwell are sitting there together.
15. What’s on your nightstand right now?
A stack of to-read books (two short story collections, six novels), a pair of 1930s silver knife rests shaped like greyhounds, a card from a friend, some porcupine quills and a few waxflower stems in an apothecary bottle.
16. Where is your favorite place to write?
In my study, but only when there’s no one else at home.
17. Do you have any writing rituals?
Not conscious ones, although I do have all sorts of clever procrastination tricks — it’s amazing how the very moment I’m supposed to start writing a tricky section I’ll be suddenly overcome by a burning desire to empty the dishwasher or clean the bathroom. I try to finish each day halfway through a scene, so that when I start up again the following morning I already have something to work with.
18. When do you write best, morning or night?
19. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
Brilliant reading recommendations, because there’s no better inspiration than a really good book.
20. What is the best advice someone could give a writer?
Read, read, read: you can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. Also, don’t be afraid to fail: at least if you’ve written a few rubbish paragraphs, that’s something that you can edit and improve on — but you can’t edit a blank page. Finally, cultivate patience, and stay humble.