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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Annette Allen is half English, half Norwegian, and she spent much of her childhood in Ethiopia and South Africa. She enjoys writing and has won awards for her corporate communications work, but Annette has always dreamt of helping the very poor. The Ethiopian Odyssey is her first book and some profits from the book will go to help provide water in Ethiopia.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Ethiopian Odyssey?
Anette Allen: In 1995, I made my mind up I wanted to become a writer, and write about our common humanity, rather than the differences which so many prefer to focus on. I also wanted to donate half the proceeds from book sales to help the very poor. I began by writing some poetry, then some prose but was stuck on the idea for the first book. I’m also very spiritual and have the most amazing dreams which come true – a real gift! So, I used my strong faith and dreams to guide me: in April 2000, I dreamt I was back in the foothills of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, talking to an Ethiopian couple about poverty and drought. Mid-conversation I bent down to feel the dry topsoil and knew – beyond all doubt – that I was there to help provide water. With that thought the dream faded. So, I had my subject matter – a friends reunited story to find nine former classmates from my schooldays – and the cause: providing water by donating almost half of the royalties to help WaterAid in Ethiopia.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
AA: I wrote as I went along, as the book is as much about the journey as my classmates – and my dreams too! All in all, about six months. And a month to rewrite half the book, following the editor’s comments!
MT: Tell us a little about your own schooldays in Ethiopa Annette?
AA: I was the only English girl in the class and the youngest. Nazareth School was a very good Catholic girls school, and the top in the country (which I only realised afterwards). We were taught in English apart from Amharic lessons – the teachers were strict, but the education was the best I ever had. There were seven different nationalities in the class, and lunchtimes were a real treat, with lots of different food. Two of my classmates were Emperor Haile Selassie’s grand daughters: Mary and Sihin Asfaw Wossen, and another classmate was Hiruth Girma, the daughter of Ethiopia’s current President! I was only there for two years though, and left in July 1964.
MT: How difficult was it going about self-publishing your book?
AA: I had a literary agent, who loved the story, but when she saw I was determined to include my dreams and some aspects of my faith in the book, she dropped it. Every publisher told me it would never sell, but I’d made a promise to the Nazareth headteacher, Sister Weynemariam, and Marta Asrat (the first classmate I met in March 2004) who was the school secretary, that I’d launch it there in 2006. It cost me more self-publishing, but I’m proud of the layout and every word. And I kept my promise – the President turned up to the event, and it made the front page news of the newspapers and the TV news the next day too!
MT: Has the book achieved all that you would have wished?
AA: It’s very early days, as it’s only available online from next week. But I’ve loved giving talks about it, and doing book signings. People are so touched about the odyssey that many have been in tears when they’ve spoken to me. I’ve also been interviewed by radio stations and newspapers, which has been great fun. Most of all though, I long for the sales which will bring the water to Mamali and his family – a Muslim family whom I write about in the book, who live in south east Ethiopia.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
AA: Straight onto the PC, from my notebooks! Straight off, and then edited for sense and clarity the next day. With non-fiction, every interview was double-checked and approved by the people concerned, and there’s lots of academic references for those who want to know more, at the end of each relevant chapter.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing and travelling?
AA: I do interim corporate communications work – I’m always writing, in one way or another! I love helping people see the connections between their job and the ‘big picture’ – a bit like my book, which shows readers the connections between us all.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
AA: I always saw my readers as people from 14-100, interested in the power of dreams, and what happens to your life when you decide to follow your calling. I hope the Odyssey will inspire a few to make their dreams come true, and help give the very poor a hand-up in the process.
MT: What are you working on now?
AA: I’m tracking down my remaining classmates (I’ve found 24 out of 38) and planning to include those willing to share their life stories in volume II. Oh, and to feature a new photo of us as we are today, taken on the same school steps, on the front cover!
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
AA: Alexander McCall Smith, for his humour and gentleness. Paul Theroux for his wonderful travel writing. I felt that if I could emulate both, I could be onto a winning formula – I want my readers to feel they’re sitting beside me as these amazing events and connections happen along the journey.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
AA: Listen to your heart, and write about what you’re passionate about. Don’t let anyone deter you, because if you have the creative urge, you’ve just got to let it flow. Write as much for yourself as for your readers.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
AA: Perhaps living your life with love is a little odd these days, but I’ve found enormous freedom in what I’ve done, and would like to share this with others. And when you set out with a dream in your heart, the kindness of strangers is overwhelming!
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