Interview with Jeanne Willis

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Huw Thomas speaks to Jeanne Willis, author of Shamanka, about all things magic

Jeanne Willis

I’d just start by saying ‘Wow’ to the book. Wow, particularly, to the ending – truly beautiful. I read the final 100 pages in Starbucks, refusing to go home and have tea cos I was gripped and then turned that last page and it did justice to the odyssey that prededed. What a book!

Thrilled and delighted that you like Shamanka. It is my strangest piece by far and I’m still not quite sure how it came to be, but I suspect I have an old trunk lurking in my attic somewhere which contains a goatskin bag that contains… now that would be telling.

Shamanka is unlike any other book I can think of. It doesn’t sit easily in any genre or follow predecessors. What prompted you to gather such a strange collection of ideas together?

You must thank my grandfather for much of this tale. He wasn’t a witch doctor but he was my constant and favourite childhood companion. He possessed a small wooden box with which he would mysteriously make fat pre-decimal pennies disappear before my very wide eyes. He could also make his tie-pins vanish and he could spin plates and speak a smattering of Swaheli which he picked up during the First World War. He also brought back strange relics - miniature ivory scissors in the shape of a bird, carved ebony, necklaces made from hundreds of glass beads made by tribes who are now extinct. So Grandad who appears in various guises in most of my books – is the catalyst for the magic in Shamanka and the benign side of Yafer.

Where, oh where, did those characters spring from? It’s not just Sam (who is great), or Kitty – it’s the list they follow (including Mrs Reafy – my fave) along with people like the Inspector of Miracles, the Blue Barge Brigade and an Orang Utan?

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