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Paula Leyden

As a child

I was born in Nyeri, a town in the Kenyan highlands very close to the slopes of Mount Kenya and left there when I was four. We moved around a lot while we lived there, and I was very small, so my memories of Kenya are a little blurred around the edges. Luckily we carried on visiting there for many years after we left so I got to know the country as an older child. A beautiful country filled with kind people, I feel privileged to have been born there. When we left there, we stopped off in Johannesburg, South Africa for nine months, just long enough for my younger sister to be born, then we headed up to Zambia. The rest of my childhood was spent there, mainly in the town of Lusaka. If I had been shown millions of families and asked which one I would like to join, I would have chosen mine and feel very lucky that that is where I ended up. And, if I had been shown the world and asked, ‘now where would you like to grow up?’ I would have chosen Zambia. My memories of childhood, many of which have found their merry way into my writing, are warm, barefoot, peaceful, curious and loving. I have my mum and dad to thank for that and could not have asked for more. My primary schooling was all in Lusaka but then my older sister and I spent some years at boarding school in England. It seemed a strange and foreign place to me as a child, and I never got used to the fact that the sun spent a lot of its time hiding behind clouds. I always loved the feeling of stepping out of the aeroplane back into the warm air of Zambia. When I was fifteen we moved to South Africa as that is where my dad’s work took him. South Africa, in 1973, was a shocking place to arrive into, especially after Zambia. And I think it was the contrast between Zambia and South Africa that led me into politics and into many years of trying to get rid of the system of Apartheid that destroyed the lives of millions of people.

As an adult

I spent a lot of my adult life in South Africa. I studied in Durban and then in Cape Town and my working life was varied. One of my children was once asked in class, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and her answer was, ‘I’d like to be all sorts of different things, like my mum.’ That about sums it up. I taught in the Cape and in Johannesburg for a good few years, and while my teaching subjects were English and History I sometimes filled in where there were gaps in the staff – so one year I taught maths, another year PE and one year Geography. Teaching Maths was interesting because I had always liked it but had forgotten most of what I had learned in school and I think that was a help because I had to relearn it which made it easy to teach – and even easier to understand pupils who had difficulty with the subject. During those years I also worked for Rape Crisis, and for youth organisations in Cape Town and in Johannesburg. Once I stopped teaching I started working for a human rights organisation called Lawyers for Human Rights and worked on trying to end the death penalty in South Africa. It is a good feeling to have worked on a campaign to end something and to have succeeded. South Africa no longer hangs people, and it used to be one of the top five countries on the world for executions – the other countries on that list are all still there: The US, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. During that time I also worked for the release of political prisoners, an end to detention without trial and an end to torture – all of which were about one thing: an end to Apartheid. I feel good too have played a tiny role in that struggle. I didn’t write stories during that time at all – I am not sure why, but I think it was because I was too busy. Just before South Africa became a democracy I had my first children, twin girls called Amy and Christie, and two years later I was blessed with a third daughter, Kate. They are now sixteen and fourteen and bring me enormous joy and happiness (hopefully they’re not reading this, I don’t want them to get too pleased with themselves!). In 2003 we moved to Ireland, to a farm in Kilkenny, and that is where we are now living with my partner Tom O’Neill (who writes wonderful stories in between doing a hundred other things) and his two children, Aisling and Maurice. I feel doubly blessed to have my own children and then two more on top. My life here in Ireland is very different to my life in Africa, I breed horses and write stories. My only failing in breeding horses is that I love them so much I can never bear to part with them, so I am not running a very good business!

As an artist

I started thinking about writing fiction when I moved to Ireland. I think this was because Ireland is a country filled with tales and story tellers, and also because I found myself with more time. I had done a lot of writing before that but none of it was fiction – it was all to do with the work I was doing. I joined a class in Dublin called Write that Novel, it was taught by Siobhan Parkinson, a wonderful writer and the kind of writing teacher I like – she did not spend too much time asking us to explore our inner feelings, she taught us the tools of the trade and for that I am extremely grateful. Some of us in that class then formed a writers group and we have been meeting every couple of weeks since then for almost five years. We call ourselves The Crab Apples Writers Group but not because we’re crabby…. we hope. They are a wonderful group. In 2007 I sent my first novel to Sophie Hicks, an agent in London, and to my surprise she took me on. No offence to other agents (!), but I think Sophie is the best agent in the world – and it was she who found me a home in Walker Books. My own children grew up on Walker Books and I am delighted to have my first book published by them. I write at home and wish I could say I sit down each morning and write one thousand words, but I don’t. Some days I write three thousand, some days two hundred and some days none. I love to write and I get my ideas from all over the place - my dreams, my nightmares, my life and the people around me. My father told us stories of his life when we were small, and he has told my children the same stories. He called them The Bong Bird stories and they were set in India, Burma and Kenya, all places he lived in. One of the stories he told us was about a man who was good with snakes, and it was that which gave me the idea for Ifwafwa in Butterfly Heart. I write about Africa because I gained so much from living there, from the people and the beauty of the land: it taught me a lot of what I know.

Things you didn't know about Paula Leyden

  1. I was born all tangled up in a knot – my poor mum!
  2. I hypnotised myself to stop eating chocolate – otherwise I would eat two or three bars a day.
  3. I set off the fire alarm at boarding school to get out of a Double Physics class. I am not proud of that and wish I had paid more attention to Physics.
  4. I am allergic to cats and horses – and breed horses.
  5. At boarding school I sat for eight hours in front of a plate of liver refusing to eat it. I was eleven. The nuns eventually gave up and sent me to bed. The thought of eating animal innards makes me feel ill.
  6. I hate cruelty and smugness.
  7. The furthest I have sleepwalked is about half a mile.
  8. I can neither draw nor sing, but I can do other things so don’t mind too much.
  9. I have been told I am very stubborn, but refuse to believe it.
  10. I am extremely content in my life, but wish we lived in a kinder world.

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