Apple Gidley has lived all over the world, has taught English, sold SCUBA gear and negotiated British nationals out of jail when she was the British honorary consul in Equatorial Guinea. Her writing is powered by a fierce interest in the history of the many cultures she’s lived in and her latest novel, Have You Eaten Rice Today, brings to life Malaya in the 1950s.
My first question has to be: how do you get someone out of jail?
By getting to the police station before the person had been processed. No one likes paperwork.
The jungle drums worked fast in Malabo. I grew to dread the words ‘Apple, we’ve got a situation’. Charges were invariably trumped up, with the aim of getting a bribe – not something I ever paid. I think it helped that I’m a woman. I smiled a lot. Reminded the jailer-in-charge that it would be a terrible pity for the press in Britain to hear of Mr Smith being jailed for taking photographs of kids playing soccer, because the minister would look bad. It was blarney really, and I never showed how nervous I actually felt. The adrenaline would keep me going until it was all over, then I’d shake.
Maybe that’s why I don’t get anxious facing a roomful of people. Public speaking is not nearly as scary as dealing with one crabby man with a gun.
And that’s how you became a published writer, isn’t it?
A number of years ago I was a keynote speaker at a conference for families in global transition. It seemed to go well, and people suggested I write the stories down. It became my book Expat Life Slice by Slice.
You’ve continued to write, with another memoir collection and several novels. What has helped you become the writer you are now?
Reading. Reading. Reading. All styles, most genres, though I don’t like horror. And eavesdropping, for dialogue.
Who are the important people in your writing life?
My husband. He is a tough but fair critic. I’ve had to learn to listen. And I’m incredibly fortunate to have a group of five trusted people around the world who are my first readers. Also, I run the Writers’ Circle of St Croix in the Virgin Islands and am hugely supported by them.
I have also had fabulous editors, from whom I have learned so much. I don’t think they get enough credit for pushing us to be better.
How do you refill the well?
Fortunately the well hasn’t run dry yet. If I get stuck on something, I’ll walk the dog or weed the garden – anything rather than clean the house. Since I decided to try my hand at writing, I try to write every day. I get pissy when I can’t.
Where is home?
Wherever I happen to be hanging my hat. Currently St Croix. I suppose I’m a chameleon in that I’m adaptable. My life has been peripatetic, both as a child and an adult. I’ve always been up for trying somewhere new, something different. And you don’t know what you can achieve until you try something a little scary. There are a couple of places I would rather not live again but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to experience them.
What jobs have you done besides writing (and jail negotiations)?
When I married and we went abroad, I knew a career wasn’t on the cards. I feel immense gratitude that I was able to be at home, wherever that was, with my children but I also always became involved in the community. And I’ve been fortunate to pick up work in most places, if there weren’t visa restrictions.
I edited a magazine for Cheshire Homes for disabled people (Far Eastern Region) while living in Singapore and Thailand. It was a humbling experience. Any bad day I had paled into nothingness compared with the challenges faced by these disabled people. But that did not stop me haranguing them if they didn’t deliver an article they had promised me. My sticking to deadlines perhaps gave people a sense of normalcy.
I ran my own interior design business in Scotland. I preferred commercial work to residential, where we got tetchy exchanges between spouses. Then I sold SCUBA equipment in Texas. That’s a great leveller. No one looks good with a regulator in their mouth.
You are so right. Consider the Bond movies…
When we knew we were heading to West Africa I took a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in case the chance came along to teach English.
While there I wrote geopolitical reports for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which I enjoyed. I suppose it was there I started to consider writing as a possible job.
Your novels are historical fiction, Fireburn, Transfer and Have You Eaten Rice Today?, which is your most recent. What’s the appeal for you of historical fiction?
History has always fascinated me. I went to boarding school in Australia and I’ve never forgiven them for not allowing me to study both ancient and modern history. Instead I had to choose a science, which didn’t interest me at all. Anyway, for the writer, historical fiction involves diving deep into a period – not just the story events but the back story, the dress, the food, the manners, the way people spoke, the way people moved around. It’s fabulous.
Have You Eaten Rice Today? is an enigma. The title is thoughtful, but the blurb copy describes it as ‘intense, drama driven and suspenseful’. What pulls the two aspects together?
Have You Eaten Rice Today? is a salutation used throughout Asia – a kind of ‘how’s it going?’ The timeframe of the novel is the early 1950s in Malaya when communists fueled general disgruntlement at the slowness of Britain to grant independence, merdeka. The communist terrorists had camps deep in the jungle where discipline was rigid, discomfort enormous and food scarce. Hunger drove many to surrender. It’s a story of misunderstandings and love in this violent period.
In your memoir collection Crucian Fusion, Essays, Interviews, Stories you mix fact and fiction, which can be tricky as readers usually prefer one or the other. How did you decide what to fictionalise and what to keep as truth? What boundaries about this did you set? How did you bring it all together in one work?
Interesting question! You’re right, people do usually prefer fact or fiction but I wrote Crucian Fusion as a thank you to St Croix, the island that has embraced me.
I’ve been writing the essays since I arrived here in 2013 – a diary of events and day-to-day happenings. Then, because I’m nosey, I wanted to learn people’s stories – and everyone has one – so I made a list of people, some of whom I knew in passing, who I would like to know more about. I ended up with eight conversations, which was such a privilege for me, particularly as one chap I spoke to has since died.
The short stories are pure self-indulgence. Three are historical. One brought to light a little-known piece of Crucian history – indentured labourers were shipped from India in the 1860s, a shortlived experiment that cost a lot in human misery and life.
Across all your books, are there recurrent themes and curiosities?
Actually, curiosity lurks in all my books. Without it I don’t think you can travel well. The meshing of cultures, the crossing of bridges literally and metaphorically. Love, death…. you know, all the usual stuff.
In the book I’m currently working on, dementia is a stream, particularly the effect on the spouse. It was also a theme in Transfer, now I think about it, but not up front. I think to suffer from Alzheimer’s, where you are still aware of life, must be the most Godawful thing for all concerned.
What do you like to read?
Historical fiction, of course! Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, Abraham Verghese, although I guess Cutting for Stone only just scrapes in as historical. All genres really. And absolutely anything by the Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey. I’ve just finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which was terrific.
Also, travel essays – particularly ones that border on philosophical. I love the way Bruce Chatwin wrote – The Anatomy of Restlessness truly spoke to me. As does anything by Pico Iyer – The Global Soul is chockfull of wonderful essays.
What are you working on next?
So here I am touting historical fiction but my WIP is a contemporary novel set in Venice. In my naiveté I believed there would be less research and it would be a faster book to write. Wrong! But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. Another month and it should be ready for beta readers. Maybe.
Some quick and perhaps frivolous questions…
Rice or bread?
With a book titled Have You Eaten Rice Today? and considering a large portion of my life has been spent in Asia – it has to be bread. I’m kidding. Rice.
Early mornings or late nights?
Late nights with a glass of bourbon, or wine.
Planes, boats or wheels?
Oh, that’s not a fair question. Planes, though maybe not so much now. Airlines seem to have gone out of their way to make the experience cramped and harried unless you’re up front. Although the exhilaration as you land somewhere new is still thrilling.
Boats because some of my best holidays have been sailing in the Caribbean or along the Dalmatian coast with our adult kids.
Wheels, because I love to drive. Especially on my own. That sense of freedom when no one knows where you are. When my children were little we lived in Thailand, and my husband was often away, so I’d bundle them into the car and we’d take off. Wonderful adventures before cellphones could track your every move. I miss that sometimes.
And you didn’t ask about trains….
By all means, give me trains.
I really love trains. A sense of distance, really going somewhere and seeing the scenery as you clickety-clack along the tracks. Europe is great for trains. Maybe it’ll be trains that get me back across the Atlantic.
What’s on your desk?
Clutter. But it’s my clutter and I know where everything is.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.