Q&A with Angela Meadon author of Strong Medicine
Angela Meadon, a past creative writing participant launches her book on 25 August. To celebrate we asked her some questions about her writing and publishing process.
How long did this book gestate for?
It’s always hard to say exactly when the idea for a novel first occurs to me. Every good story is a delicate blend of all our creative influences, whether that is other books, our environment, the people around us, or great TV.
Strong Medicine itself came out of research I did, about five years ago, into human body part trafficking for a sceptical blog I used to write, as well as discussions with my American friend about the similarities and stark differences between our cultures.
And, of course, I love writing dark fiction, so putting the two together with a healthy dose of my deepest fear (losing my children). I’d say that once I decided to actually write this novel, I let it stew in my brain for about three months before I actually sat down to write it.
How clear an image of your novel did you have in your head before you began?
I’ve always been a ‘pantser’, what George RR Martin calls a ‘gardener’. Someone who plants the seeds of an idea and watches it grow.
However, with Strong Medicine I felt I couldn’t just wing it. This is a story that deserves telling properly. Once I’d done all the research and character planning I wanted to for the novel, I wrote precise outline highlighting the key plot elements and main turning points of the novel.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell this story from both sides of the kidnapping, the mother’s and the witchdoctor’s. And, I had a firm idea of how to present each viewpoint.
At what stage did you do your research and how did you weave it in to your story without it showing?
As I mentioned earlier, I spent some time researching the topic of human body part trafficking a few years ago. The practise struck a deep chord within me. Once I decided to write this novel, I spent months searching for every last documented case, interview, research article, and survivor account that I could get my hands on. I spoke to people who had either experienced an attack first-hand or knew someone who had.
Now, all of that research gets fictionalised. Exaggerated in some cases, combined with fictional elements in others. As real as human body part harvesting is, this is a story, not intended to be taken as fact.
I present the research in a variety of ways: through the viewpoint characters’ experiences in the novel, through introductory blurb at the beginnings of some chapters, and through the very removed dialogue in the interview transcripts.
If you think of your novel as a painting, the research is both the invisible outline which holds the entire work together, and the highlights that give depth and texture to the art. You have to use it sparingly, and make it feel organic. You don’t want the reader to feel like you’re slapping them in the face with a wet paint roller.
What surprised you about how the story unfolded as you wrote it?
The biggest surprise was how much I came to see the antagonist’s point of view as valid. He does horrendous things, but he does them for what he considers to be very good reasons. He’s a very bad man, but also a doting grandfather and respected head of the family who takes his bright grandson under his wing to keep him out of trouble with the rebels at school.
I guess, in some respects, I came to love this character while simultaneously loathing his actions and feeling nauseated every time I put him on the page.
What motivated the decision to use interview transcriptions for some of the chapters?
The biggest factor behind this decision was that I wanted to tell the story of someone who abducts and mutilates people without doing it in a narrative form. It’s really, really dark territory and I needed to give myself some distance from it. I found that putting it at arm’s length and reducing it to only dialogue (with subtle verbal hints at how the characters react to certain events during those interviews) gave me the space I needed to tell the story I wanted to.
Can you describe your writing/editing process?
With Strong Medicine I spent more time than usual on planning. Then I jumped right in and wrote the first draft from start to finish without allowing myself to go back and edit anything during the draft. I try to stop one writing session in the middle of a paragraph or scene, then I make a few rough notes of where I wanted to go next. That means I don’t have to spend 15 minutes at the start of my next session getting back into the train of thought.
Once I’ve finished the first draft, I print it out and do a serious structural edit, making sure every scene is necessary and in the right part of the novel.
Then I rewrite and edit until there is nothing else I can find to fix. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, just that I don’t have the skills to make it better (yet). That’s when I send it to beta readers for their feedback, use what I like and discard the rest.
Repeat until I can’t think of any changes that would make it better. Once I reach that point, I’m done with it.
Excerpt from Strong Medicine
My pulse throbbed under my skin as Johan walked through the thigh-high veld grass and stopped beside Koos. He looked down, nodded and shrugged. It was a rolling of the shoulders that spoke of defeat and terrible weight.
Oh God, what had they found?
Johan recognized it. Whatever it was that lay in the dry grass. He turned and looked at me, his mouth down-turned and his eyes wide despite the glare of the sun. He bent down so that only the dark ring of hair around the back of his head was visible.
I took a few hesitant steps forward. I would have to find out what lay there eventually. They would stop me if it was truly awful. Surely they would?
The spiky seed heads of the tall grass caught at my pants, a thousand plaintive fingers trying to hold me back. Brittle stalks crunched beneath my shoes as I took tentative steps forward.