Alexandra Fuller is the author of several acclaimed works of non-fiction, including the memoirs Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Her latest book, Leaving Before the Rains Come, which was published last month, details the collapse of her marriage and her relationship with her father. Born in England and raised in southern Africa, Fuller studied at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and has lived in Wyoming since 1994.
Why did you write your new book?
I look around and pay attention to what around me is not being talked about, and then I talk about it with as much humour and honesty as I can. All my books have been that way. So this latest book is the story of arriving at my mid-40s with two children nearly grown, with another child under 10, and of my looking back to a childhood in Zambia and Zimbabwe for answers at how best to cope with the solitary confinement of a 20-year-long marriage in stalemate.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I am not sure this is advice, so much as a philosophy. My father once said to me, "The problem with most people is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having an idea whatsoever how to live." So I suppose it sent me on a mission to figure out how to live, which in turn took me to the philosophers and thinkers, and ultimately to those impulsive radical sages who move societies toward greater environmental and social justice. Like Subcomandante Marcos of Mexico's Zapatista movement who gave us this easy direction: "Abajo y a la izquierda está el corazón." ("The heart lies below and to the left.")
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?
For me, writing is really an agony. I feel as if I have a huge, luminous idea that has the potential to be really profound, and then when I set it down on paper, I find the power of the idea has been hugely weakened in the process of transmission. So I might spend hours – sometimes days – crafting a single sentence, and yet very few people ever ask about that. Mostly I would like people to ask other writers about the craft of their writing, so we could learn from one another. We ask movie directors why they chose to use certain lights and angles and speeds of film, but most of the time we ignore the craft of a writer.
What scares you as a writer, and why?
I think I am like most writers – that one day I will wake up and find that the essentially mysterious inspiration will have left me, and I won't know how to say what it is I want to say at all. And then once you have splattered the page with a few ideas, and sentences, and a story is starting to take shape, I am always terrified I won't have the stamina to carry on. The only process that comes close to the process of writing a whole book, in my experience, is childbirth. There is this moment when you think you can't possibly labour for another moment and that, paradoxically is when you have to push hardest. I guess I am always a bit frightened that the day will come when I don't have it in me to push all the way to the end.
Which book do you think is under-appreciated?
Artful by Ali Smith.