Simon Fenton is an author and photographer based in Senegal. His work has featured in many newspapers but ‘Squirting Milk at Chameleons’ is his first published book. Intrigued by his journey and his motivation, we decided to interview him to find out more.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Simon Fenton, a 44 year old Englishman living in southern Senegal. After university I went travelling across Asia. I managed to land a job with an international agricultural company and ended up farming in Vietnam for four years, before returning to the UK to do the whole mortgage, commuting, marriage thing. When that all went pear shaped there was only one thing for it: I had to cross the Sahara by any means possible.
I eventually arrived in Senegal and fell in love – with both the country and with Khady who’s now the mother to our two sons, Gulliver and Alfie. We live in a small village and she very much lives her life in the local mystic African tradition. As well as writing, Khady and I run a small guesthouse and lead tours of the region.
If you could describe the storyline of your latest novel to someone in just a few sentences how would you entice someone to want to read it?
I pitched my book to the publisher as a kind of “Year in Provence” or “Driving over lemons” as if written by Bear Grylls, with snakes, machetes and witch doctors. It’s a year in my life with flashbacks to my journey across the desert and to the crazy snake wine dreams that forced me to leave my homeland. One year to the day before my son was born Khady and I were in a horrific bus crash – afterwards a shaman told us we’d have a child. I’d only just met her but it came true. I go on to meet men that can cut open their own abdomens and a man that urinates a snake, I dance with forest spirits, have a curse placed upon me and encounter a genie – me, a rational scientist. It sounds like a novel but it’s all true.
When and why did you begin writing?
I hadn’t really written much beyond college work and business reports until I arrived in Senegal four years ago. I’d always wanted to write a book but although I had a lot of anecdotes I had no overriding story to form a strong narrative so I decided that a blog would be a good place to practise my story telling. I was really nervous about putting my work into the ether but I quickly had some decent feedback. Like most bloggers, it started as an online diary for friends and family back home. I was also trying to sell my photos to magazines but had more success with the accompanying articles. That gave me the confidence to continue and then to approach publishers when I did have a book to write.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love telling my stories and writing allows me to hone them – I tend to ramble in conversation! In a similar way to photography, writing makes me pay more attention to the world around me. I’m always noticing the details and thinking of the story.
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never really had writers block. Weird stuff just seems to happen on a daily basis in West Africa and I just have to try and remember everything. Although I’m relatively active on the web trying to promote the book and my blog, that is very hard without it taking over your life – especially when I’m subject to daily power cuts and internet slower than I had in Vietnam during the mid nineties.
What inspires you to write?
Just life unfolding around me. I think I’ve always been good at noticing oddities, beauty in desolate places, characters and so on. Senegal gives me such a rich tapestry of life I can’t fail to be inspired to capture it. Although I’ve been there for four years I’m always seeing things with new eyes as I spend a lot of time guiding and talking to travellers fresh to the country.
When working on a new book, what is the first thing you do?
With my current book, I read back through my diaries and then sorted the relevant stories into a narrative – getting the structure right took a while as I didn’t want it to be chronological. Then I basically bashed the story out and then simplified it as much as possible, without losing my voice or (hopefully) the humour. I have an idea for a thriller novel and so will undertake some research on my travels in coming months.
Which Writers do you admire and can you name a favourite book?
I read a fair bit and in terms of novels I’ve recently been enjoying William Boyd, Iain Banks and Tom Robbins. My favourite travel writers include Redmond O’Hanlon, Peter Mathiesson and Tim Butcher. O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey is perhaps my favourite book about Africa – he perfectly captures the characters and the conversations I encounter on a daily basis.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
When I was living in Vietnam I read a book about someone traveling in that country. When I told a friend that I’d had better experiences and could have written a book he responded “but you didn’t, did you?” So that’s my advice – don’t think about it too much, just write the book. The process of working with a professional editor was invaluable as well – I thought the book was good enough four months before we finished. She kept pushing and challenging me in ways I never would have done on my own.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m currently on a short visit to the UK for my book launch. Straight afterwards I’m heading to Spain and back down across the Sahara to Senegal, via Morocco and Mauritania. I can’t wait to see my family and then of course I’ll be thinking about a sequel – the further adventures of an accidental African. As I said, I also have an idea for a thriller set in West Africa and the journey back is for research. I’m leading guests on tours to Guinea and eastern Senegal later in the year, so I’m keeping busy.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
My guesthouse is the perfect spot to come and write a book! Feel free to get in touch and come on down.
If you would like find out more about Simon check out his blog and website below:
To buy my book, read my blog or to view my photos, please visit: http://www.anaccidentalafrican.com/
If you’d like to visit and stay in our guesthouse: http://thelittlebaobab.com/
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Simon for taking part in our New Authors Series.