Another writer who wandered in Africa: Tanya Shaffer

September 21, 2009

You probably know by now that I read travel memoirs compulsively, particularly those by women traveling alone. One of my favorites is Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa.

So I was particularly pleased to connect with the author, Tanya Shaffer. And she’s with us today! Welcome, Tanya.

I'm focusing on weaving a thread through my book, a theme that ties it all together. What's the theme for your book, and how did you discover it? Was it obvious from the outset?

More than half the chapters in Somebody’s Heart is Burning were originally published independently, as stories, although I knew that I'd eventually like to put them together into a book. When I first sent the manuscript around to agents, it was more like a story collection loosely interlinked with fragments of emails and letters. (I was fictionalizing, incidentally – email had not yet become ubiquitous when I was in Africa.) The wonderful agent I ended up working with, Richard Parks, told me he didn't feel confident he'd be able to sell it as a story collection, but that he would like to work with me if I could rework it into a single narrative.

I therefore went back and inserted the through-line of the relationship back home throughout the stories. In some stories it was a few paragraphs, in some just a single sentence, but I made sure it was enough to keep it alive throughout. That was for narrative continuity, which is a bit different than thematic continuity.

In terms of themes, several themes emerged over the course of the writing. Two of the primary ones have to do with friendship and spirituality, and with those too I went through the whole manuscript tracking them, looking at where I began and where I ended and ticking off the intermediate steps along the way. Life, of course, is not so linear, as I say in the book, but art, even creative non-fiction, has to be.

2. It's been a few years since your book was written in 2003. Where has your career taken you since then?

Since then I've been focusing on my work as a playwright and a mother. The birth of my first son in 2003 (same year as my book – my most productive year yet!) changed my life a lot. For the time being, I don't travel the way I used to. I knew that would be the case, so there are no regrets. I sowed a lot of wanderlust oats before I had kids and I'll no doubt sow some more as they get a bit older, but for now, my traveling life is a lot safer and more planned than it once was.

I have continued to write plays. I had an amazing production in 2005 of “Baby Taj,” a play I wrote based on a trip I took to India a couple of years before my son was born. An acting edition of that play will be published in the coming year. Since then I've been working on a musical loosely inspired by the life of the Buddha. It's a long-term project, but I'm working with a fabulous composer and I hope to see a production within the next couple of years. A long while back I started another book, and some day I imagine I'll finish it. The last one took nine years of stop and go, so I have precedent for returning to projects after lengthy breaks.

3. Obviously people (like me) are still buying your book. What are sales like five years after publication? Do you still actively promote the book? Do you see any royalties?

Five years after publication I have not seen any royalties past my initial advance, nor has it yet sold out the first printing. It is, however, still in print, and sales continue to trickle in. My agent tells me that, although the numbers are not so impressive, the fact that it continues to sell five years later is a good thing. And about once a month I get an email from a reader – some of them from remote parts of the globe – so that tells me it's out there and people are reading it. Individual chapters also continue to appear in anthologies – another one will come out this year – which is great.

4. You've written about your travels not only for this book, but also for plays, essays and articles. (Correct me if I'm wrong here.) Do you ever find it difficult to explain places and cultures that are so different from our own? What do you keep in mind as you write for readers who probably haven't visited these countries?

I don't try to explain anything, I just try to share the experience and let the reader draw his/her own conclusions. I try to write non-fiction as if it were fiction, showing and not telling, focusing on what the characters say and do to reveal who they are both individually and as part of a larger culture. The interplay between cultures, which is what fascinates me, is best shown by the interactions between the “me” character (yes, I do think of myself as a character) and the other characters, rather than by any explanation I could come up with.

When people of different cultural and economic backgrounds try to understand each other, so many things happen. Misunderstandings can be comic and tragic at the same time. Moments of deep connection can become minor miracles that reveal our collective humanity. Much of the time, though, the dynamics shift very subtly from moment to moment, encompassing many different elements of who we are, with ambiguous results which leave behind a trace of sadness. That's what fascinates me most, I think, and what I try to capture in the stories, simply in the set of the characters' bodies and the sounds of their voices.


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    0 Replies to “Another writer who wandered in Africa: Tanya Shaffer”

    • Karen Walker says:

      This is a wonderful interview. Thank you both. I especially related to the question about sales after 5 years. I, too, am reveling in the emails I am receiving from people all over who have somehow found my book. It means more than money ever could.

    • Jennifer says:

      What a wonderful interview! Thank you both. I enjoy reading travel memoirs and narratives and have contemplated jotting down the tales of my own travels. You’re right, misunderstandings cross-cultures can most definitely be comic!


    • Ami says:

      Yet another great interview. Thanks to you both. I found the information about sales and the time it took to produce the book to be especially interesting. Sounds like another one to put on my To-Read list!

    • jessiecarty says:

      another great interview 🙂
      so glad the sales are still going after 5 years.
      only problem with reading these interviews is my to buy list keeps growing!

    • Helen Ginger says:

      Very interesting interview. I’m drawn by the fact that she continues to write plays – and on such interesting topics!

      Straight From Hel

    • Thanks for the interesting interview with Tanya, Alexis. I like this discussion about narrative continuity and thematic continuity. That’s got to be a useful concept for memoir writers as well as fiction writers who put together a “novel in stories.”

    • Enid Wilson says:

      I love to travel too but have only written factual travel piece. It is interesting to hear Tanya talking about fictionalising travel. Thanks for the great interview.

      Bargain with the Devil

    • I enjoyed this interview very much. Your idea that you don’t try to explain anything, but try to share the experience makes such sense. I’ll keep that in mind if I should one day decide to write about some of my travel expereinces.

    • Karen Brees says:

      Great interview and really helpful. Finding the theme to tie everything together can be the toughest part of the process.

    • This interview struck such a chord…

      I traveled solo across Africa (and Asia and parts of the rest of the world) for three years in the mid-90s when the web wasn’t what it is today and email was just starting. I wrote what ‘might’ be considered a blog today – a monthly electronic newsletter to friends and family.

      For a long time I thought of trying to compile this into a book – I’m still thinking about it. Instead I started a website for women who travel solo but the book idea is still lurking somewhere. There’s just something different about a byline on a book cover…

      If I ever get my hands on a copy I’ll review it in my book reviews section… great interview!

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