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Sally Andrew Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sally Andrew

Sally Andrew

An interview with Sally Andrew

Sally Andrew discusses the inspiration behind her first novel, Recipes for Love and Murder.

First of all, congratulations! Your debut novel, Recipes for Love and Murder, will be published in at least twelve languages, across five continents. What does it feel like to receive such an enthusiastic response to your work?

Thank you! When a dream-wave crashes onto the shore of my reality, it is hard to find words that don't sound corny or trite. I am delighted, and filled with huge gratitude. And I'm overwhelmed and still find it hard to believe. I am half-expecting to discover it is all an elaborate email scam. Is this real or part of the scam?

How did the idea for the book originate?

It is usually hard to say, but in this instance, I remember writing down the seeds of an idea while sitting under a camel-thorn tree in the Brandberg, Namibia.

My partner Bowen Boshier (who is a wilderness artist) and I head off in his Landrover each year to spend some months camping in remote wilderness areas in southern Africa. We steep ourselves in our surrounds and in our creativity. I usually find that during such a trip, a kernel of a story takes root.

On that particular trip to the Brandberg, I had a close shave with a leopard. I was intrigued by a distant cave that I wanted to explore. I set off alone on a long march across the veld and clambered over and between giant boulders to reach it. At the mouth of the cave was the carcass of a huge kudu. I knew this was a sign to turn back, but I could not. I wanted to be inside that cave. As I stepped in, I heard a low growl from the shadows. I ran like a rabbit back to camp.

I didn't venture out of the shade of the camel-thorn tree for a few days. This comfortable distance from the leopard somehow encouraged a closer relationship with my laptop and it was here I developed the outline for Recipes for Love and Murder.

I wanted to write about love. It intrigues me, and I think is the ultimate act of bravery, braver (and perhaps even more foolish) than walking into leopard caves. But I find romance-books a bit boring. I enjoy the old style murder mysteries (e.g. Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Erle Stanley Gardner) and I love the way that food can 'transport' a reader (e.g. the way Andreas Camilleri uses food to take us to Sicily).

I thought an advice column would be a fun way to explore the theme of love, in a variety of flavours. And it also has potential for humor. I wanted a lovable character who was down-to-earth but also a bit quirky. And I wanted to write something feel-good and funny.

Out of all these ideas and inspirations, grew Tannie Maria... I tore myself away from my cosy classic favourites and studied the contemporary crime books that seemed to be selling very well. I noted that most of them were fast-paced and full of icky violence and disturbed sex. And not much beauty. I immerse myself in the books I write; I live them and breathe them. I did not want to create a world that I would not enjoy living in myself. So I let go of trying to write what would sell, and just wrote what I enjoyed. (I must add, however, that McCall Smith's wonderful books did give me hope that there was some market for slow-paced, life-affirming books!) We'd moved to live on a nature reserve in the Klein Karoo and I fell deeply in love with this area. So, of course, I set my books here. I also really enjoy the small towns nearby to where I live, particularly Ladismith. The friendliness and realness of this small town is something that grounds my writing too.

Did writing Recipes for Love and Murder involve special research or travel?

In terms of travel: as mentioned above, the book is steeped in my surrounding natural environment and the small Karoo town of Ladismith nearby. I moved from Cape Town to the Klein Karoo a few years before writing the book. The biggest research for me was the food aspect. I do enjoy cooking and eating, but I am no expert and I had never read a recipe book. I knew very little about the traditional Afrikaans cooking that is Tannie Maria's specialty. To begin with, I thought I could develop recipes by reading books. For example, I studied the milk tart recipes in a number of very old recipe books and combined them into one uber-melktert recipe that I was convinced would be the best milk tart of all time. I gave this recipe to a chef to test out. It was a disaster. It was so revolting that the only thing to do with it was to make a pie-in-the face video with it. See: I then enlisted the aid of numerous amateur and professional chefs to create and test the best possible versions of Tannie Maria recipes. We had some fun tasting parties, and selected the recipes that were moan-out-loud delicious. I think the book has benefitted from my initial cooking ignorance because it meant that I had to study the field really deeply and not just include my own family recipes.

Let's talk more about Tannie Maria and how you came to create such an interesting female-and fifty something-protagonist. An agony aunt for the Klein Karoo Gazette, she provides common-sense advice, but the most important remedies she offers are recipes. Cooking is her passion and perhaps also her salvation. And then she gets swept up in a murder investigation when one of her letter-writers is killed. Why is she so determined to seek justice for the victim personally when she has no investigative experience and could easily leave matters to the police?

The murdered woman was abused by her husband. Maria identifies with her as she had experienced abuse from her own late husband. Maria also feels responsible because the woman wrote to her, asking for help.

Maria is a caring woman who believes in justice, and she is spurred on by the passionate investigative journalist, Jessie, who believes that the police may not handle the case adequately. But on a deeper level Maria's quest to find the murderer is also the journey of her own healing.

She used to be a 'scared rabbit, afraid of her own shadow' in the headlights of a car (after the abuse of her late husband), but through her adventures, she confronts her fears, becoming stronger and braver, perhaps even brave enough to love...

The novel is filled with strong women characters who take action, including Tannie's Mary-Poppins-type editor, Hattie, and the feisty investigative journalist, Jessie. Did you want to make a point about agency? About friendship? About sisterhood?

I was not consciously making a point. But, of course, a small group of motivated, sharp, passionate women can change the world. (Or at least catch one evil murderer in one small town.)

You mentioned above that you set out to write a "feel-good and funny" mystery and while you've certainly succeeded in doing that, you also manage to incorporate serious themes, particularly spousal abuse, in a manner that feels completely organic. Was that a difficult balancing act for you?

I guess I have been steeped in the serious issues much of my life. I was involved in educational work around abused woman, counseled families of detainees and prisoners, participated in a revolution (of sorts) that overthrew an apartheid government, and then spent some years campaigning around climate and other environmental action. South Africa has amongst the worst track record of violence against women. Three women a day are murdered by their partners.

I was an activist around these issues for a number of decades, to the point where I got burnt out.

I know the serious problems are there, embedded into life, and I couldn't whitewash them out of my stories.

But writing this book entailed taking something of a break from all 'the issues'. I gave myself a license just to have fun, to do what I loved, to take pleasure in writing. There are some serious issues in the book because life is full of them. The world is in a dire state politically, economically and environmentally.

My focus in this book, however, is on celebrating the cool part of being human. This includes the power we have to heal and transform ourselves and society. But also just our ability to eat, love and laugh.

In many ways this is a story of second chances. The Tannie Maria that we meet at the beginning of Recipes for Love and Murder undergoes some significant changes in the pages that follow. Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about her journey of healing, empowerment, and self-discovery?

Maria develops her inner powers through action in the world. Her pursuit of justice and her growing ability to love put her at risk - physically - but emotionally they make her strong.

Part of her evolution involves a man, Henk Kannemeyer, the tall detective with the chestnut moustache, and their budding romance. She is cautious after surviving an unhappy marriage; opening her heart is no easy task. Why are these two so well suited?

Despite the antagonisms they initially experience, Henk and Maria have a number of things in common. They are both lonely, but cautious about love. Henk lost a wife under painful circumstances, and is afraid to lose again. They are experienced adults (in their 50's), not spring chickens, and they have few romantic illusions. They are grounded, and not dazzled by superficial things. They both have a love of justice. And perhaps most importantly, they both appreciate a good meal! (She more on the cooking side, with him on the eating side)

The Klein Karoo feels like a character itself. Can you tell us more about this special place?

'Klein' means 'small' (in Afrikaans), and 'Karoo' means 'place of thirst' (in a bushman language). (Further North is the Groot Karoo -meaning 'big place of thirst'). The Klein Karoo is semi-arid, but full of life. When there is rain, every living thing responds instantly with joy.

I have lived in the Klein Karoo for about six years now. There are many places I have stayed for much longer, yet that mudbrick house I live in gives me a greater sense of home than any other. The Karoo gives me a peace that settles right into my bones. The water that I drink from the stream flows through me, right down to my toes.

The nature reserve we stay on is about 320 km from Cape Town, and 50 km from Ladismith (where the Tannie Maria story is set). The Klein Karoo is the area of real overlap between my and Tannie Maria's worlds. Although she lives just outside Ladismith, the town is small, the area is rural, and retains many wilderness areas. So Tannie Maria and I share the same ancient trees, birds, frogs, jackals, expanses of veld, and low koppies (small rocky hills). If you climb to the top of a koppie you can see forever in every direction.

Besides the exotic terrain, the book also provides a fascinating glimpse for outsiders of a post-Mandela South Africa. What do you hope the novel illuminates about your country and its current state of affairs?

I was part of the movement that fought very hard to overthrow the apartheid government. We achieved an enormous victory and we had very high hopes. But racism, sexism and class exploitation do not die out overnight, in fact they may never die.

And in my opinion, our current government is not meeting the progressive ideals that the liberation movement fought for. Poverty continues, and many of our leaders seem more interested in lining their own pockets than taking care of the people.

Not much of this detail is illuminated in my novel. However, I do feel my book contains a message of hope: that suggests that despite problems from the past and present, when good people work together, justice can prevail.

If you had to pick a couple of favorite Tannie Maria dishes what would they be?

Ooh. All the Tannie Maria recipes are moan-out-loud delicious. Favorites depend on the mood and the occasion. I supply a few of my favorite South African Karoo dishes in the back of the novel. I think that maybe now is the time for the "Mechanic's Chocolate Mousse Cake." As well as "Tannie Kuruman's Milk Tart." This traditional Dutch recipe comes from my friend Martin Mossmer's great-great-grandmother Ouma Ali Visser.

Is there a message you hope to impart to readers? What can we all learn from the Tannie Maria's of the world?

Tannie Maria is teaching me many things. Lessons about justice, love and food.

Messages in the book include:

"Do the right thing."
"Stay grounded."
"Take a risk, and step through our fears"
"Food and friends (and food with friends) really matter."
"In fighting for justice (and standing up for others) we can heal ourselves."

But I guess if I had to reduce Tannie Maria's lessons to one sentence, I would say the message is: "Open your heart."

How long have you been at work on this book?

Although aspects of it have been simmering for many years, it was about three years of focused (but part-time) writing before I submitted the manuscript. It went through at least 10 drafts from its first inception to the final product you now read.

You're involved with something called 'Wild Writing' which you have done at fairs and restaurants over the years. Members of the public are given this offer: "I'll write for two minutes on any subject of your choice." The person donates a small amount of money to a chosen charity and walks away with a small scroll wrapped up in a ribbon. How do these encounters stoke your creativity? Or is it the opportunity to share your gift with others that fuels you?

The process of publishing means there is a long gap and an elaborate obstacle course between when I write something and when you can read it. With wild writing there is no gap at all. It all happens in that moment.

Wild writing creates a feeling of standing in a stream of creative flow. It is a wonderful opportunity to write something very specific and personal for a reader. Something that flows immediately into their own lives. It is an open-hearted activity, a pure kind of giving, without judgment or obstacles. So in answer to your question, it is the giving that fuels the receiving of creative energy.

You're currently writing a follow-up novel for which you are looking for the best cheesecake recipe in the world. How's the search going?

Not only must the comfort-giving flavour be perfect, but also the texture of the cheesecake must be just right. When you put it in your mouth 'it eats itself' (as Tannie Maria says). I suspect it will be a baked and not a chilled cheesecake, and may contain lemon rind and juice.

But I am open to all ideas.

Can you leave us with any hints about what's next for Tannie Maria and friends?

The next book is Tannie Maria and The Satanic Mechanic. It has a cast of wacky characters, and some more delicious recipes (including an out-of-this-world Venus chocolate cake). It is a murder mystery, but it also explores themes of love, healing, and sex.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Satanic Mechanic jacket Recipes for Love and Murder jacket
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