“Have your say”
This is my pal Kirstan and former neighbour! Very proud to know her – she is a wonderful talent, blends the magic of true imagination in grounded realism but never loses the sense or wonder of love.
This is your debut novel, how would you describe it?
Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop is an upbeat, hopeful and empathetic look at life, love and politics in a small town – with the heroine a 40-year-old woman forced to give up her dreams when her marriage turned sour, and the hero, a wise barber who has loved her for 20 years.
What was your inspiration for the novel?
Doña Nicanora is loosely based on someone I knew while doing field work in Bolivia for my PhD. I was made the godmother of a child – which you are if you spend any time in South America – and the mother’s name was Nicanora. At one point she had a stall in the market selling bowler hats and she always mourned having lost it. I thought it was a lovely motivation for an impractical dream and it started an idea about an unconventional love story with characters who were not in the first flush of youth.
Is the setting in Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop somewhere you visited when you were in South America?
Valle de la Virgen – a town only accessible by a terrible road that discourages tourism – is an amalgamation of several places I visited. I wanted somewhere inaccessible because I did a lot of field work in very small rural places and I always wondered what people made of these foreigners turning up. I was interested in how they perceived outsiders.
Your novel has a mysterious silent stranger – dubbed the gringito, is he based on yourself?
The gringito’s arrival in Valle de la Virgen causes a stir in the sleepy backwater and was inspired by my own reception in numerous remote outposts. One reason I didn’t give the gringito a voice was I wanted to see him from the other perspective. To tell a story about small town relationships and lives, and the knock on effect of an outsider in a remote place.
Kirstan you are an anthropologist, how does this effect the way you go about writing?
As a social anthropologist, I have worked in Africa, Asia and Latin America, collecting stories from people to understand their cultural background and perspective on the world. This is an ideal starting point for a novelist to create characters who inhabit different worlds. The job of the anthropologist is to see the world from other people’s point of view and when you get into that other world view, it often turns things on their head. What seems obvious in one culture looks entirely different from another.
How did you get into writing?
I loved the field work for my PhD, meeting different characters and getting their stories but I realised I didn’t want to be writing about it in an academic way. The week after I got back, I signed up for a creative writing course which helped kickstart me into writing.
Full author listing
Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Karin Slaughter and many more share their personal writing experience with you in our Q&As. Take a look!