Today I have the wonderfully talented Julia Ibbotson sitting round my pool talking about her latest book, Drumbeats. This book has location and time that will immediately pull you in to the story.
Your latest novel, Drumbeats in set in the 1960s in West Africa, what made you choose this period and location?
Well, Pauline, I find the mid-1960s fascinating (as I think you do too!), the music, culture, fashions and so on, and I wanted to reflect this in my book. It was a time, despite all the stuff about drugs and free love, when actually folks were a lot more innocent than today in many ways. And it was a time when ordinary young people, especially women, (my main character Jess is eighteen) were just starting to feel they could be independent and strong and feisty, and make things happen, like men had always done. I guess it was for many people the start of feminism and the first generation where women could travel, go to university, have careers, and be brave. I set the story in Ghana, West Africa, because it is somewhere I know (I did live and work there myself) and I know that 1965-66 was a time of unrest across Africa, a time of a number of government overthrows, coups d’états, dictators ousted, so I could use the dramatic events as a backdrop to Jess’s story. I found Ghana to be a place of almost magical fascination, and to Jess at that time Africa would have seemed very exotic, very different from her stifling home in England. So it was the place she chose to escape to. I wanted, in my novel, to try to evoke the vibrant colours, noises, smells and tastes of Africa. These senses are intense, especially through the eyes of a young woman from a repressed puritanical English background in the 1960s. I hope that I’ve created a strong sense of time and place and that the reader can transport themselves there as they read Jess’s story. I wanted to write a romance but one with something for readers to think about, and with drama, danger and tragedy too. I liked the idea of a rite of passage novel, a young woman finding her way in life.
Drumbeats is the first in a trilogy can you tell more about what readers can expect in the future
The rest of the trilogy follows Jess’s story on from where Drumbeats ends. She is back in England and now has other issues to face. The next novel is called Walking in the Rain and the title is from a 10cc song (The Things we do for Love) which although it was written in 1976 became very popular in the 1980s which is when most of the story is set, although there are flashbacks to past events that build up to the crux of the story, and it seemed to evoke the period and the experiences that Jess was having at that time. Again I wanted to recreate a specific time and place. The final novel in the trilogy is called Before I Die, which isn’t a morbid story about dying at all, but about Jess’s bucket list and how she goes about challenging herself to tick them all off. I haven’t entirely planned this one out yet but I think it’ll be set around the millennium which again is a time of drama and change, and Jess is at the crossroads of her life.
Does this book have anything to do with your own past or experiences?
I think that most novels are in some way a reflection of a writer’s own experiences, or of those around her, albeit in a creative context. If things are truly meaningful to you, then you can write more authentically, I feel. Sometimes it’s about being in touch with the “human condition”, universal human experiences, and reflecting those; things that other people may empathise with, and feel “oh yes, I know what that’s like!” In some ways I sometimes think that there is quite a fine line between creativity and reality! But Drumbeats is a novel, a work of fiction, not an autobiography, although based on some of the experiences I had myself in Ghana. I myself, like Jess, was teaching and nursing there in the African bush villages a few years ago, and I did get involved in some pretty hairy events. Many of the joys, horrors and tragedies were based on things I witnessed first-hand.
What research did you have to undertake to write Drumbeats
Loads! OK, I had been there so I had a feel for the place, but I had to research what was really happening in 1965-6, in England and in Ghana, West Africa. I researched the music, the books, the important events. I listened to a lot of music (Ghanaian highlife, classical and 60s pop) because there’s a lot of music involved in the story. And because Jess goes on a trek to Timbuktu in Mali and to what was called Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) I had to research those places too. It was a time of a number of coups d’états in the area so I needed to get a real feel for what might have happened in that time and place. I also used the internet, of course, Wikipedia, many texts, letters, memoirs of the time, photographs, and more recent books about Ghana.
Tell us a little about you and what made you decide to become a published author.
I’ve always loved writing (and reading) and can’t remember a time when I wasn’t scribbling stories – really ever since I could hold a pencil in my little fist. I wrote my first full length novel when I was ten although it was long since consigned to the manuscript graveyard. The latest novel I’ve just sent to my American publisher was originally written when I was at school, revived at university and then rewritten recently when I’d blown off all the dust. I found it hidden away in the cupboard gathering dust when we moved to a new house and it just kept calling out to me – and of course I hate things going to waste. It’s a children’s book, a new departure for me, and it’s called S.C.A.R.S (which stands for something but I’m not allowed to tell, you have to read it to find out!) and is about a boy who slips through a tear in the universe into a fantasy medieval world. I always wanted to be a published author but I guess I was diverted from my course by the need to earn a living, be a professional and pay the bills, so I became a teacher and thence a university lecturer. I have written and published many academic works, research papers and so on, in the course of my career, but came back to creative writing a few years ago when I started to have a little more time to sit in front of a hot computer keyboard and get lost in a different world.
And finally when can we expect the next book in this trilogy?
Walking in the Rain is due summer 2015, so if you enjoy Drumbeats look out for it; it’ll be available (like Drumbeats) in paperback and ebook on Amazon. I’m hoping that I can get my act together to have the last of the trilogy (Before I Die) on the shelves by summer 2016.
Drumbeats is the first novel in a trilogy and follows 18 year old English student Jess through her gap year in West Africa. It's a rite of passage novel set in the mid-1960s when Jess flees her stifling home background for freedom to become a volunteer teacher and nurse in the Ghanaian bush. Apprehensively, she leaves her first real romantic love behind in the UK, but will she be able to sustain the bond while she is away? With the idealism of youth, she hopes to find out who she really is, and do some good in the world, but little does she realize what, in reality, she will find that year: joys, horrors and tragedy. She must find her way on her own and learn what fate has in store for her, as she becomes embroiled in the poverty and turmoil of a small war-torn African nation under a controversial dictatorship. Jess must face the dangers of both civil war and unexpected romance. Can she escape her past? And why do the drumbeats haunt her dreams?
Julia Ibbotson and her husband have four children and live in a renovated Victorian rectory in the heart of the English countryside, complete with orchard, kitchen garden and too far many moles and wild rabbits for her liking. Their life in the rectory is depicted in The Old Rectory: Escape to a Country Kitchen, an award-winning memoir complete with recipes to feed the soul. She is an author and academic, and loves choral singing, reading, walking, swimming, sailing, gardening and cooking.