Mary de Sousa is an ex-journalist who has lived in Cyprus, Spain, Pakistan and Cuba. She has written a children’s novel, ‘The Halfie-Halfie Girl’, a magical detective novel set in India and Ireland. She is currently working on a novel, ‘Half an Hour from Pakistan’, about a British couple whose attempts to ‘do good’ end in disaster. She lives in Paris.
In conversation with The Missing Slate’s Fiction Editor, Casey Harding, Mary de Sousa continues our Author of the Month series with her thoughts about her time spent working for an aid agency, how ‘the human and very sincere wish to help’ can lead to so many problems, and her transition from journalist to fiction writer.
As a former journalist do you feel that your fiction ends up drawing more strongly from stories that you have encountered or does it allow you to delve more into imagined scenarios?
I think I am a very nosy person and that drew me both to journalism and to writing fiction. I’ve never lifted an entire story and turned it into fiction but I have always registered and stored snippets of things people say or do and that can then send me down a million different story paths.
For example with my first novel, ‘The Halfie-Halfie Girl’, the seed was sown when I was taken for the first time to see the grave of my Indian grandmother and she had exactly the same name as me. I knew she had that name but seeing it on a grave set me off thinking about death and time travel and what it would be like to meet your own father and mother when they were young.
With ‘Half an Hour from Pakistan’ the story is definitely rooted in my time and experiences there, but most of what happens to the main two characters is fictitious.
The idea for the story grew from living in an expat milieu in Pakistan and getting a look at the aid machine up close. I began to ask myself a lot of questions about the human and very sincere wish to help others and how that can often go wrong. I also wanted to write about motherhood in a society where there is great pressure to bear children and where being a childless woman, whether by choice or not, is far from easy. I was influenced too by stories of celebrities who travel the world hoovering up poor children. It seems obvious that their lives will be better but will they really?
More concretely, I drew on the time I worked for an aid organization during the 2005 earthquake where whole towns disappeared overnight and tens of thousands of people’s lives were thrown into chaos. There was a lot of fearful talk about orphaned children being taken by fundamentalists or by people who would exploit them for work as prostitutes or camel jockeys. There were documented cases of women turning up in hospitals pretending to be a child’s relative. There were also cases of children being given up as orphans because their families were no longer able to cope and others believed to be genuine orphans who had simply become unattached from their families.
I never heard of a foreigner taking a child but on the ground it looked to me like it would have been relatively easy to do that in the first chaotic days especially if you looked like an aid worker.
I did actually spend time accompanying a celebrity on a fundraising mission and visiting feeding stations for underweight children.
Aside from the earthquake I knew of foreigners adopting Pakistani children with relative ease. I was interested in the fact that in Islam you can’t really adopt a child because it doesn’t have your blood but that breastfeeding can establish an important link. While I was there, I heard that organizations that arrange adoptions often say the abandoned children, the majority of whom are girls, are ‘Christian’ to get around that problem.
In my story I tried to weave these strands – misguided philanthropy and the need for a child – together.
The story comes from an earlier version of the book I am finishing, ‘Half an Hour from Pakistan’, which is about an idealistic British couple who set off to make the world better and whose lives fall apart spectacularly over the course of a year in Islamabad.
Why did you move from journalism into fiction writing?
I had always wanted to write but I started working straight after college and just kept on and that’s a hard mindset to leave behind. It has taken me a long time to believe that writing for myself is a legitimate way to spend the day.
When I left England and began a life of travelling with my partner, also a journalist, I kept a diary but I still hunted down jobs (fabulous, great and awful) in each country we moved to. It was only in Pakistan that time, space and a feeling of ‘it’s now or never’ came together enough for me to try my hand. I have had the luxury of being supported but I still find it very hard to find a balance between writing and regular paid work.
Also I was never truly interested in the accuracy and scoop stuff of journalism (just as well for everyone I got out!). I only ever got really excited and engaged when it came to feature writing where you could spend time understanding someone and had more space and creative freedom to present the story. I was and am fascinated by people and why they do what they do. However, as I know now, all that is a long way from writing a novel. I have had to learn and unlearn many things about the construction of a story. I have had to fight with my internal editor to let me get something down on the page and learn how to keep on writing beyond feature length! Most interestingly for me, I have had to free myself from feeling that something completely rooted in fact is more truthful than something which comes from my imagination. When you have been trained as a journalist where every detail is to be sourced and checked and verified there is a strange exhilaration to be had from sitting down and inventing.
Tell me about ‘The Halfie-Halfie Girl’ and your experience writing a children’s novel. How is the process the same or different from writing an adult novel?
‘The Halfie-Halfie Girl’ is the story of a mixed race child (Indian-Irish like me) whose parents have divorced and who feels like she doesn’t really belong anywhere. Through a bit of magic and some old photos she manages to travel back in time to meet her mother and father when they were young and find out what went wrong with her family. It’s about wanting to be like everyone else until you realize that not only does it not matter that you are different but that there might actually be advantages to it. I sometimes feel I am annoyingly hardwired to see both sides of any story.
About the process, I’m not sure it really is different but that might be because I was aiming for the Young Adult market. Also, when it comes to style, whoever I am writing for, I always try for clear and clean and strong. Maybe the biggest difference would be that I made more attempt to win over and entertain my reader in the children’s book. I expect adult readers to be more sophisticated in finding their way around the world of a novel. There is more, perhaps, that can be unsaid.
Finally, what is currently in the works? How is work going on ‘Half an Hour from Pakistan’?
The book has taken a million twists and turns, been put on hold for paid work, and lost and gained thousands of words but I feel that I am coming to a real end now. I feel like I have really only started to learn how to put a book together this time around. The idea has stayed the same: to tell the story of two nice, good people in a world they don’t understand, who make terrible mistakes.
What is cooking is a black comedy set in a fictional island that will look a lot like Cuba, which I am itching to get started on. I am also thinking about another children’s story set in a world where all young people are micro-chipped and there is no intimacy or freedom. It would start on the day that the young hero dislodges the chip in an accident.