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Looking for Evelyn – Maggie Ritchie’s evocative new novel

By on June 20, 2017

Childhood memories of life in Africa have proved a powerful inspiration for Glasgow author and journalist Maggie Ritchie in her second novel Looking For Evelyn, which is published on Thursday (June 22), writes Ginny Clark.

Looking For Evelyn is the story of journalist Chrissie Doherty who returns to southern Africa to track down Evelyn Fielding, who had been at the centre of an explosive scandal involving a traditional colonial officer and a gifted black African artist.

LFE_CoverThe women uncover the secrets that shattered a remote expatriate outpost in the Zambian bush in the 1970s, as Looking For Evelyn switches from the 1990s to the recent past amid a backdrop of political turmoil and post-colonial race relations.

Maggie was four when her family moved to Zambia in 1969, and lived there for several years while her father worked for the British Council. This was during a period of serious political unrest that had continued after Zambia gained independence in 1964. For Maggie, her sister and brothers, however, this was a carefree time as they played with their friends in the heat and the dust of the African bush.

She said: “Like most children, I was colour blind. I was friends with all the local children at the primary school I attended and never gave race a second thought. I still don’t. But I do remember little things, whispered conversations or the occasional look from perhaps an older person in the local town and now I understand.”

Amid those happy memories, half-remembered childhood thoughts remained just beneath the surface for Maggie, who started writing fiction while studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.

“It was going back to those early experiences that helped her to explore the issues at the centre of her evocative and enthralling story, Looking For Evelyn.

Maggie Ritchie with her brother Iain as a young girl  in Zambia “The novel started life as a short story in the form of a memoir of a single night in Zambia,” said Maggie.

“I packed lots of vivid memories and half-memories into that dreamy account. The short story was published in New Writing Scotland and my tutors at Glasgow University encouraged me to expand it into a novel.

“I decided that, rather than write a memoir, I would use my memories and my feelings about Africa as the setting for the novel. At first I tried to avoid issues of prejudice and racism, but it was impossible and I had to examine my own feelings and beliefs carefully, as well as talk to people who had lived and worked in Zambia in the 1970s about the prevailing mood.”

For Maggie, married to Mike and with an 11-year-old son Adam, the process of writing can also involve looking at life experiences from a different perspective – as becoming a parent can too …

“I’ve always been more aware of what my mother went through travelling around the world with four children, as she was mostly a stay-at-home mum and we saw lots of her,” said Maggie. “My dad’s work was more of a mystery growing up as he was away most of the day. It was fascinating interviewing them both for the novel as they told me things I wasn’t aware of.

“As a writer you do sift through your memories, panning for gold – hopefully – but you also simply use your imagination to invent characters and situations and places that are alien to your own experience.

Maggie Ritchie first communion Zambia 1971 -   FREE TO USE UGC MSN“Becoming a parent has enriched my life and given me a new perspective on children and parenthood. It has also made me aware how quickly time passes and that I’d better get on with the next novel. Books take a long time to write and rewrite, and a long time to go through the publishing and editing process.

“I’m halfway through writing the first draft of my third novel – an historical one set in Glasgow and China – so I’ll finish that in between the day job as a journalist and my family commitments. I also have ideas for three other novels jostling for place in my mind but they will have to wait their turn.”

Maggie admits this particular journey back through childhood memories prompted more ideas for her as a writer and she added: “Yes, it has. I’d like to write a novel set in Venezuela, where I spent my teenage years, a coming-of-age novel. I have the seeds of a plot in my mind!”

Maggie Ritchie started writing fiction while studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. She won the Curtis Brown Award for her debut novel Paris Kiss in 2012 during her course and was runner up for the Sceptre Prize 2012, and long-listed for the Mslexia First Novel Competition.

Looking For Evelyn will be published on June 22, 2017 by Saraband priced £8.99.

Pictures: Maggie; Aged seven with her brother Iain and, first communion in Zambia.


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