Mar 31, 2012

5 Questions with @SanjidaOConnell, A Novelist who Loves Animals

1. Can you describe yourself in 3 words?

Energetic, enthusiastic, focused.

2. As a child, I'm sure you wanted to be something exciting when you grew up. We all did. Have any of your childhood dreams come true?

When I was five I remember standing in the long grass in our garden in Nigeria surrounded by insects whirring thinking, ‘I want to be a zoologist when I grow up’ - but I was a bit too scared of the bugs to venture any further!

 I trained as a zoologist (I studied chimpanzees for my PhD). All of my books either have animals in – Theory of Mind has chimps, Angel Bird has magpies – or feature the natural world: in The Naked Name of Love Joseph travels to Outer Mongolia to find a rare white lily and debates about evolution.

When I worked as a wildlife TV presenter for the BBC I got to travel round the British Isles looking at and talking about animals.

But as for being a proper zoologist, frankly I don’t have the patience to sit still all day, the fortitude to put up with deprivation, like no coffee and being a bit cold, and my maths is abysmal.

I always wanted to be a novelist too and luckily I got to do a bit of book writing as well.

3. What's the difference between a writer and a hack?

A hack always makes me picture Jeffrey Archer standing at one end of an attic full of student writers churning out copy in the literary equivalent of a sweat shop.

Someone who spits out their words rather fast and somewhat unfeelingly: I think if you produce work too quickly, you lose time for reflection, editing and crafting. Revising a novel always reminds of the last stage in throwing a pot, where you smooth and smooth the clay.

4. Should writers (of any kind) read more fiction or non-fiction?

I read that Alan Titchmarsh doesn’t like reading novels. If it’s true, it’s pretty astounding. Surely all writers should read?

Whether we’re writing non-fiction or fiction, we all need to do research, which requires reading factual books.

As for fiction, it can help both novelists and non-fiction writers hone their craft and see how a good narrative works. Once you’re actually immersed in writing your novel though, it might be better not to read books in the same genre in case you either get accused of plagiarism if you inadvertently pick up ideas and phrases, or become despondent about your own, as yet, unfinished work.

5. What's your favorite word, and what can you tell us about it?

I overuse ‘brilliant’ in real life. In my novels, I like ‘riven’. It can mean coming together or being torn asunder, it’s onomatopoeic and, as I have synaesthesia, I see the word’s colour as an appropriately marbled mixture of granite and slate.

[I am not synesthetic, but I imagine it must sometimes feel like this. - JMB]
Painting by Lee Harvey Roswell

Dr Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love and Sugar Island (John Murray).

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