853‘s special correspondent MERCURY MAN returns with a tale of an author looking for backing to publish her first novel.
Isn’t it great when someone you know goes for it, whatever it is they go for? The very act adds something to the universe, and the bravery involved is more important than any time-consuming thoughts of success or failure.
Glance at the ghosts of MMs past and you’ll see that in most cases they involve individuals with the guts to go for it – the local lad’s Columbian mission; the local sports reporter who turned to hypnotherapy; the local snapper who turned to writing a murder mystery; the local art gallery that helps the homeless; plus, of course, the local “Myth”.
And here’s another one…
Amelia (AB) Kyazze – a humanitarian worker for most of her life – lives in Lee and her first novel Into the Mouth of the Lion – a bittersweet love story set in war-torn Angola – has just been accepted by the crowdfunding publishers Unbound. The aim now is to get as many supporters as possible.
“Unbound is a new-ish crowdfunding publisher with a good track record recently of award winners and getting quirky, genre-crossing books into the market,” said Amelia.
“I had tried for years to get mainstream publishers interested in my book. Although I had very positive feedback from readers and reviewers, even all the way to the top of some agencies and independent publishers, the book was just a bit too unusual to fit into the little boxes that mainstream publishing likes.
“It is set in Angola, a country that has a fascinating history but not many people know about it. It is a love story about people who break with convention, but it also focusses on the relationship between two sisters, people who have something to hide from each other.
“It is suspenseful, but it doesn’t follow the formulas people expect for a classic crime novel or thriller. So, for this kind of genre-crossing book, I knew I needed an unusual approach.”
Crowdfunding means reaching out to potential readers early, before the book goes to print.
“Supporters get their name in the first edition and also have access to some great prizes and rewards, if they go for higher pledges,” said Amelia.
“In my case, I am offering hand-printed black and white photographs from Angola and other countries where I’ve worked. I also can offer a manuscript development service for aspiring writers, based on my work as a copy editor.
“There are also special deals if you want to buy multiple books, and group discounts for larger orders. But most importantly, crowdfunding lets me reach out to readers now, engage with people, and get people invested in the book’s success.
“Supporters will feel like they are part of something important, something that wouldn’t have happened without them. They are helping to bring a unique book into the world, one that, according to my early readers, is an engaging, pacey read.”
‘Trying to explain Angola was difficult’
Into the Mouth of the Lion is about Lena, a struggling photographer who flies from London to the war-torn highlands of Angola, after hearing the news of a suspicious explosion. She tries to piece together the reasons behind the disappearance of her sister, but she gets entangled in the country’s conflict for minerals and power.
“The book is a love story – actually, stories – crossing conventional lines in a war zone, but it is more than that,” said Amelia.
“It is about working in intense situations and finding the courage to bear witness to abuses. It is about how people can connect and help others in unexpected ways, despite a threatening landscape. The book is ultimately uplifting, although bittersweet.”
Amelia worked in Angola at the time the book is set, 2002. “It was such a dramatic place. I was serving as a writer and photographer for a humanitarian NGO at the time, focussed on water and sanitation.
“Although I had read a lot and was prepared, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. The landscape was so striking, with destroyed buildings and the risk of landmines everywhere, and people’s stories were so incredible. I took hundreds of photographs and filled many notebooks with interviews.
“I had experiences with the humanitarian work that didn’t ft into everyday life: flying in bullet-ridden planes, interviewing refugee women and children, trying to understand the underlying dynamics. Trying to describe it to people in my normal life was difficult. I did the reporting that was needed for work, but somewhere deep inside I knew that I would need to process the work later, in my own way.
“Over the years since, I visited many more places, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Liberia, Zambia, as well as countries all over the world, and I began to make sense of my experiences.”
‘I wanted to live an interesting life’
Amelia’s time in Angola started out as a short story, with the plane flight in Chapter Two. “But over time I knew I needed to give space to find my creative voice, not just my reporter’s voice,” she said. “I went back over my notebooks and photos from that time, and made it into something new. It turned into a full-length novel, with a pacey plot and complex characters, ones that I really enjoyed writing about.”
She started started creative writing in primary school. “We had a really special teacher for Years 5 and 6 who taught us creative techniques in how to closely observe the world.
“She had exercises for us: writing in nature, writing to music, and other simple techniques that I still use today. As I went through school and university, I continued writing creative fiction and non-fiction, even helped found a creative magazine at my university.
“But when I left university I made a conscious decision that I wanted to go out and live an interesting life. I had a sense of purpose that I wanted to work for refugees and people affected by conflict, and then write after I had seen more of the world.
“I worked for almost 20 years for different humanitarian agencies as a writer and policy analyst, so I wrote a lot of non-fiction pieces for years. These ranged from short articles for websites and press releases, to full reports and speeches in front of the UN.
“I didn’t come back to fiction until I was made redundant in 2015. It turned that time into a career break to explore writing fiction from my experiences and my perspective now.”
Amelia has always read widely, particularly when she travelled so much for work. “I loved reading books set in the places where I was travelling,” she said. “This book was probably influenced by John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, a brilliant conspiracy novel set in Kenya.
“I’ve also read a lot of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, and I particularly loved Half of a Yellow Sun, set in Nigeria’s Biafra war. And over the years, I’ve loved Graham Greene, Barbara Kingsolver, Zadie Smith, Penelope Lively, Helen Dunmore, Andrea Levy, William Boyd and others.
“I am drawn to people who write with beautiful language, but also who can keep the suspense and pace of a book going. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of recently published novels, keeping in mind other books and short stories I’m working on set in London and other cities.
“I really enjoyed Diana Evans’ Ordinary People, set in south London, Tangerine by Christine Mangan, set in Tangiers, as well as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, set in Dublin.
‘I’ve worked on a sequel’
Amelia has a few more irons in the fire. “I have worked on a sequel to Into the Mouth of the Lion, but it is not ready for release yet. It is with the same characters, set in 15 years’ time in Paris, with flashbacks to their work in Congo and Darfur [in Sudan] in the 2000s.
“On a different tack, I started a third novel not related to the others, set in 1950s London and today. It is a novel about everyday life in south London, through the perspective of two couples in mixed-race relationships then and now.
“For those who don’t know me, I migrated to this country in 1999, and am married to a Ugandan-British man. It is a gentle book, about immigration and community, how to connect and find a sense of belonging in politically tumultuous times.
“At the same time, I am challenging myself to write at least one short story a month to submit to magazines, to keep my writing fresh and varied. I really enjoy writing. The challenge as always in the juggling act, as I seem to have what they call a ‘portfolio’ career at the moment – author, photographer, editor and freelance consultant for charities.
“Family life and everyday responsibilities take up a lot of my time, but when I have a writing project I have no problem being very focussed. As long as I have at least 45 minutes or more I can just sit down without distractions and make progress.
“I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block, because all my novels have been written in evenings, weekends and on the margins of work and family activities for years. Into the Mouth of the Lion was written around my son’s karate practice; I remember one time writing an intimate scene and praying the kids and other parents weren’t looking over my shoulder at what I was writing!
“For me, I just had to keep a quiet determination to keep going. I have had lots of rejections by now, and some were discouraging, but in the end, I was determined that I wanted to get this novel into the world, and others to follow.
“So I haven’t let anybody stop me! And I have had great encouragement along the way, from friends, family and early readers. And Mercury Man tells me his name will be included among those near the front!”
To help fund Amelia’s book, visit unbound.com/books/into-the-mouth-of-the-lion/.
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