Interview with Diana Hawkins – Shadows Along the Zambezi

Today’s featured author, my friend Di Hawkins, is not only a helping to get the word out about the desperate  plight of the elephants in Zimbabwe, but has to deal with a crippling disease at the same time. 

Di, first please tell us a little about your writing

Good morning, Trish.
So far, I’ve written a children’s picture book, a number of nonfiction short stories published in Rhodesians Worldwide magazine and a romantic suspense novel. I have a journalism background and confess the switch to fiction writing took some adjustment.

Are you a pantser? (You write by the seat of your pants and the story is all there in your head.) Or are you a plotter? (You prefer to create a plot first?) If you plot, what method do you use?

I wish I could say I’m a pantser, but it took me more than three years to write my first novel because I first needed to work out the plot on paper. Also, because I wanted the story’s background to accurately reflect the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe exactly as it was back in 2008, it entailed my doing quite a bit of research. More than anything, I wanted the elephants and their behaviors in the story to ring true. I therefore also read and thoroughly digested the writings of elephant experts including Cynthia Moss, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Joyce Poole, Delia and Mark Owens, Lawrence Anthony and Dame Daphne Sheldrick.

Do you think it’s important to write a detailed list of your character’s habits, likes, dislikes and family members?

Many authors do this, but for me it is imperative. Back in 1993, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which among other things tends to really mess with one’s short-term memory. I, therefore, created a separate sheet for each of the characters, along with a photo, that detailed their history and personal characteristics to ensure that I kept them true to character throughout the book. I must add I am truly blessed that MS has far from incapacitated me – prescription drugs help with the sometimes debilitating fatigue, and I’m, thankfully, still able to get around on my own two feet with the aid of a walking stick to deal with balance issues.

Wow! A great way to keep your characters consistent and it sounds like you have overcome a lot and are a strong person. Writing in first person, present has been controversial in the past, but now it seems to be the trend for best-selling authors. Do you think it is more powerful than other tenses?

I believe it depends on the story you are writing. In my novel, Shadows along the Zambezi, I used third person limited, which allowed me to tell the story from the perspective of several characters. First person would have been too limiting in this case, I believe.

Tell us about your book. 

Shadows along the Zambezi a romantic suspense novel.  Zimbabwe in 2008 is a land beset by violence and corruption. At the center of the turmoil are Piet van Rooyen and Jessica Brennan, a couple bound together by their love for each other and devotion to protect Africa’s elephants. Fighting for both their love and the safety of the elephants, they are propelled on a perilous journey that pits them against poachers, international ivory traffickers, and corrupt government officials.

Please tell us about your ideal reader – your target market.

Although this book may be categorized as a romance, I trust it will attract readers of both sexes. I’ve noticed a few men posting reviews on the book’s Amazon page, which certainly pleases me. Although I suspect that it will be read by those with ties to Southern Africa, I’m hoping the novel will have worldwide appeal.

Romance writers – romance readers want steamy love scenes. Do you agree? Do you think your book will meet their expectations?

The love scenes I wrote are plenty steamy enough for me, thank you very much! Personally, I don’t read books like Fifty Shades of Gray. This book, in particular is reportedly not only pornographic, but poorly written. Sorry, call me old fashioned.

Yes – there is romance and then there is erotica and they are not the same. Does your book have a message? Please explain.

Yes, it does have a message about Zimbabwe’s poor governance and its lack of any rule of law.  There’s also a message condemning the international trade in ivory and rhino horn and its catastrophic effect on Africa’s elephant and rhino populations.

Even if I hadn’t come from Zimbabwe, I think I would consider this a very important cause and I applaud you for getting the message out. Please choose one character from the book and tell us what he/she would say to you if he/she was to meet you.

I believe Jessica Brennan, a wildlife biologist and doctoral candidate, who was born and raised in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where I live now, would thank me for publicizing the plight of the African elephant.

Did you self-publish or query and hope a publisher would accept your work and how did that work out for you?

Since publishers, nowadays, rarely accept queries from unknown authors, I approached several dozen literary agents, following their submission guidelines very closely. Some sent their rejections promptly, others took their sweet time, and approximately 25 percent of them never did respond.  Since the book’s topic was timely, I felt some urgency to get the book published, so after nine months I decided to go the self-publishing route.

A story I hear over and over, but I do believe the power is shifting out of the hands of traditional publishers and into the hands of the writers. What do you do to promote your writing?

Part of my print-on-demand (POD) publisher’s deal was to make the book available online at many retail booksellers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, as well as other international sites. This included the important U.S. wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor. In addition, iUniverse created a web site and Facebook page to be used to promote the book. My own marketing efforts have included scheduling book signings at local book stores, and because the African elephant is featured in my novel, I have also arranged for a book signing at our local zoo. As a promotional tool, I created a business card with the cover of the book on one side, and on the back, a brief summary of the book, a web link containing an independent book review, a list of online booksellers advertising the book, and lastly its web site. I also use various social media.
Sounds like you’re doing everything you can. What advice do you have for your fellow writers/authors?

Keep writing, be persistent, and never say never. We all dream that our book might one day make it onto the silver screen. Well, I was recently contacted by a South African film producer, who has expressed interest in Shadows along the Zambezi.  At time of writing he was putting together an initial ‘investor topsheet” to send to some key people in his network. “The process,” he said, “is to see if we get any interest and to evaluate the responses. One never knows in this industry – Africa still holds great appeal and right now the plight of  elephants is making world headlines. Perhaps we can capitalise on that.” This of course may never come to pass, but it sounds exciting.

Tell us about your next project.

I have a historical novel in planning stages. It is based on my Scottish grandmother’s solitary 1911 sea voyage to Cape Town in search of her true love. His family had dispatched him to the colonies in order to break up their romance. However, if a Shadows along the Zambezi movie deal materializes, I will more than likely write a follow up to Jessica and Piet van Rooyen’s continuing fight to save Zimbabwe’s elephants.  

Can you give us a good reason to buy your book?

If Africa fascinates you and you love animals, then this book is for you.  Reviewers tell me the first page grabs you and won’t let go, while subsequent pages keep you spellbound, while educating you about the wildlife of Zimbabwe, especially elephants. The love story is just the gravy!

Tell us a little about yourself:

I grew up and was educated in Zimbabwe during the years when the country was still known as Rhodesia. From the time I was in the second grade, pecking out stories on my mother’s old Remington typewriter, I knew I was destined to be a writer. My father was a tobacco farmer who later bred thoroughbred race horses. My mother graduated from Rhodes University in South Africa, but died too young, passing away shortly after my 21st birthday. After high school I shunned the idea of going on to university and instead joined the airlines. For the next seven years, I traveled throughout Europe and the Far East.  Later I moved to the United States, where I attended college, and pursued a career as a journalist. I joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 and became an environmental writer. Following retirement in 2005, I began writing short stories, and published a children’s picture book, Lumpy the ElephantLumpy’spublisher, however, declared bankruptcy and any royalties I might have received from the sales of the book were dust in the wind. I then began writingShadows along the Zambezi, my first novel. I have two brothers in Africa and a sister in Arizona. Today, I reside in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and my husband, Scott, and I have four grown daughters, a son, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. We enjoy traveling, movies, and our favorite TV shows areSurvivor and Amazing Race (in which I hope to catch periodic glimpses of today’s Zimbabwe); National Geographic specials about Africa, Whale Wars,Deadliest CatchBlue BloodsChicago FireNCISVegasNashvilleNASCAR motor racing, and ESPN coverage of the Triple Crown and other important horse races. I am an animal lover and I support wildlife conservation and no-kill shelters for pets and horses.

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

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