We are pleased to bring you this interview with A.J. Walkley, author and self-proclaimed fighter for social justice, discussing her book Vuto, which is currently on Kickstarter, her experiences in East Africa in the Peace Corps; and her writing journey. Pleased too that this is her second contribution on our site. – The Editors, Rachel and Anora.
AJ, where did you get the idea for this book, Vuto?
While I was there, I became aware of several customs that I had never heard of before, like wife inheritance – if a husband dies and leaves his wife, she is “inherited” by a male member of his family as an additional wife.
One of the strangest traditions from my Western point of view was the two-week rule associated with births. When a woman in a Malawian village gives birth, she must care for her child for its first two weeks without the assistance of her husband. If the child dies during that period of time, the father will never acknowledge that he had a child at all.
This custom formed the basis of the plot of my book, Vuto. The title character has already buried two children by herself, and we meet her when she’s giving birth to her third. Like the first two, this daughter also dies before that two-week mark. Vuto refuses to bow to tradition any longer, overcome with the grief of yet another loss, she forces her husband to acknowledge the baby. This leads to Vuto’s banishment.
Peace Corps volunteer Samantha Brennan takes Vuto in, and when Vuto’s husband learns that she has not truly left the village limits, he comes to Samantha’s home in the night. Samantha fights to protect Vuto and kills Vuto’s husband in the process. The two women go on the run from the village and the Peace Corps, facing many struggles along the way.
Why was this story important for you to write?
In many ways, this story has been percolating in my mind ever since I returned from the Peace Corps about six years ago.
I have always wanted to write a novel that was a testament to my experience in Malawi, as well as to the cultural differences that can be difficult for volunteers to understand and adjust to in a foreign country.
It wasn’t until National Novel Writing Month 2011 that the story started to flesh itself out in my mind. I started with a working title – Ending at the Start – and thought about what that might mean. I’ve tackled the fraught topic of abortion in my novel Choice, and while that title lends itself to that meaning, that subject wasn’t something I wanted to write another book about. I had an epiphany where I recalled one of my most vivid memories during my Peace Corps service: the moment when I witnessed a teenager in the village give birth to her second child and that I learned about the “two-week rule.” I knew then that I had to go back to Malawi with my third novel.
What challenges did you have in writing it?
While the majority of this story came out quite organically, there were two primary challenges I faced: 1) using the Malawian language of Chichewa within the text and 2) making sure all of my cultural references were accurate.
One of the first ways I connected with Malawi and the Malawian people when I got to the country was by learning the language. This being the case, I knew I wanted to weave Chichewan vocabulary throughout this novel.
It was also essential that the customs I referred to were verified. I reached out to former Peace Corps volunteers I served with as beta readers for my novel to make sure that both of those two facets were precise.
While these challenges are specific to this novel, I cannot recommend having a solid team of beta readers more to any other writer looking to publish. Throughout all of my novels to date, I have always had at least 10 people read my manuscript prior to giving it to a professional editor to edit for publication. Some of these readers are fans of the type of book I’ve written, while others have never read such novels; some have a personal connection to the subject matter; some have no connection whatsoever – I always have a wide breadth of readers to make sure the final product is just as it should be.
What was your greatest surprise in the writing?
At certain points in the writing of Vuto, I was really surprised by the ease with which some of the words, scenes and plot points came to me. Very rarely do I think about having a muse, but during the writing of this novel specifically, it sometimes felt like there was someone else in my head telling me what to write and my hands were simply the vehicles for getting the words on the page. It’s such an incredible feeling to have! That experience made me feel like this is a book that needs to get out there and read.
What is your mission as a writer?
My ultimate mission is to make readers think – sometimes even rethink a subject or a situation that they might have very strong feelings about already.
I like difficult and controversial subject matters, like abortion (Choice), LGBT+ issues (Queer Greer) and women’s rights the world over (Vuto). No doubt tackling such subjects will likely lead to criticism down the line, but I’m not aiming to please everyone, just to make them think!
Why did you decide to use Kickstarter?
I have been reading a lot about Kickstarter projects recently. I love creative collaboration and Kickstarter is the epitome of just that.
Since Vuto is complete, I want to get it into the hands of my fans and other readers. Unfortunately, I do not have the funds at this time to do so myself. I have a great relationship with many of my fans online and I thought it would be an amazing experience to collaborate with them to get this book out there. I love the reward incentives that Kickstarter campaigns utilize and wanted to give back to those fans and future readers with the rewards I offer.
Unlike some projects that have a high threshold for their first reward, everyone can donate from $1 on up. I think this is important, because I want everyone who is interested to be able to contribute. So far, the experience has been a bit stressful, but well worth it.
It looks like you’ve done quite well – 80% or so so far on your goal. How does that feel?
Actually, my initial goal of $3,000 has already been exceeded – which is a nearly indescribable feeling! I am more grateful than I can truly express for all of my backers. The fact that, to date, nearly 130 people believe in me and this book is truly humbling. I’ve now set another goal to get to $4,500 by the end date of May 9th in order to be able to create a book trailer and marketing materials to get Vuto the exposure it needs upon publication. If the goal is reached or exceeded by that deadline, I will film myself making a traditional Malawian meal to share with all of my backers.
What would you share with other writers about when and how to use Kickstarter?
I have so many tips to share! To keep it short and sweet, here are my top five:
- Keep your Kickstarter to 30 days or less to instill a sense of urgency in potential backers.
- Reaching out personally to friends, family and readers is where 75-90% of your funding will come from.
- Reach out to blogs and blog yourself.
- Utilize hashtags that speak to the content of your book and reach out to those on Twitter using those hashtags.
- Introduce mini-rewards at the two- and three-week marks to keep up your project’s momentum during the inevitable mid-project slump.
Can you share with us how your writing career is changing your life; the ways that it has strengthened you and taken you places you didn’t anticipate?
I cannot imagine my life without writing.
Even if I still need a day job to pay the bills, I am a writer – an author – at the end of the day.
That is the identity I hold that keeps getting me out of bed every morning. Every time I put a new piece of writing out into the world, I am always paid back two-fold in the comments I get from readers who usually thank me for speaking out about topics they really needed to discuss but couldn’t put it into words themselves. Those comments are worth more to me than any paycheck.
Sometimes the critics break through, but that is to be expected anytime you put yourself out there.
In some ways, the critics teach me a lot – how to remain calm and measured in my replies to those who disagree with me, as well as how to let certain comments go in one ear and out the other.
I have always tended to be a sensitive person – which helps in my writing, but when you get out there with your words, a thick skin is a must. My skin gets thicker with every criticism, which is a good thing.
This past year when I was publicizing my book Queer Greer, I was able to speak at several events that really heartened me, including PFLAG meetings, the Models of Pride Conference and Families in the Desert put on by the Family Equality Council. I met with wonderful people spanning several generations, all of whom felt a connection to my writing. So often, the life of a writer can be fairly solitary. I am so fortunate to have these opportunities to get out and interact with readers. I look forward to more of the same in the future as I promote Vuto and more novels down the line.
A.J. Walkley is the author of three books, with two available on Amazon. Interested in supporting Vuto? Donate to Walkley’s Kickstarter. Follow Walkley on Twitter, and check out her pieces in The Huffington Post, and view her videos. A.J. has previously contributed to Women Writers, Women Books, in a piece about Queer Greer.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Featuring Women Writers on WWWB 2013 - Women Writers, Women Books | December 30, 2013