Sunday, May 03, 2015

6 Minutes with Ruth Fifield

Winter is well on its way, which usually means more time in bed, reading books - for me, at least. I was delighted to receive a copy of The Postmaster's Mistress a few months ago and had to share it.

Written by South African author Ruth Fifield, this book is essentially a biography. Ruth lives on the south coast of KwaZulu Natal, where she met and struck up a friendship with the book's subject Elena Jennings aka The Postmaster's Mistress. After hearing a few of her anecdotes, it didn't take long to realise that Elena's life story, which includes living through WWII, Italian fascism and the rise and fall of Apartheid, needed to be told. Ruth started writing it down, spending many hours interviewing her (over tons of alcohol) and conducting extensive research. The result is an entertaining, well-written, informative read.

Elena is spunky, opinionated, hilarious and has lived through so much - and I have a great appreciation for the fact that someone had the courage and wisdom to tackle her enormous story.

I had the opportunity to ask Ruth a few questions after I finished reading it:

How did you and Elena become friends?

I nervously introduced myself to Elena wanting to hear her local stories, and knew immediately I had nothing to worry about: in her heavy accent she launched into a tirade about her fascist neighbour and what she was going to do to him! By way of contrast, she was delighted at the idea of chatting about the town’s history.

What made you decide to write a book about her?

It wasn't really a conscious decision. I found myself increasingly immersed in her European history and its wider significance. Only when Elena asked what we were doing, did we realise that we were attempting to write a book.

How does Elena feel - now that the book is out?

I couldn't have asked for a better reaction: she laughed and wept. She says that now that it is done she’s ready to depart this life.

The book is packed with so much history, tell me about the research.

It took me eight years. No wacky research methods were used, but I am amazed at how bits of information pop up in conversations, old books, magazines and TV programmes at the moment one is dealing with a particular issue.

I would have dismissed this book, assuming that it's targeted at a much older reader, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. What has the response from younger readers been like?

As an English teacher, I find a strong cross-over to history, especially in literature lessons, and always try to give a simple context. I think this principle overflowed into the book. Although I wasn't aiming the book at teenagers, I have had a surprisingly positive response from a number of my brighter pupils. I have to confess that this is probably, in large part, because they think it’s quite ‘cool’ that their teacher has written a book.

Writing your first book is not easy. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Just believe in your story and do it! Don’t think too far ahead about the difficulties of finding a conventional publisher, copyrighting, etc. There are lots of ways and means of making a book happen.

Are you planning to write another book?

Yes, but I think it’s too big for me. It covers three generations of the same family from 1806 to 1945, all of whom were intimately involved in crucial moments of South African history.

The Postmaster's Mistress is available at a number of great online bookstore. Buy yourself a copy and thank me later - it's great Winter reading.