In a Land of Paper Gods is the debut novel from Rebecca Mackenzie, a writer, poet and performer. Set in China in 1941, in follows the story of a young girl called Etta, and her dorm mates, during the Second World War:
Jiangxi Province, China, 1941. Atop the fabled mountain of Lushan perches a boarding school for the children of British missionaries. While her parents pursue their calling, ten-year-old Henrietta S. Robertson discovers that she has been singled out by the Lord.
As Japanese invaders draw closer, Etta and her dorm mates retreat into a world where boundaries between make believe and reality become dangerously blurred. So begins a remarkable journey, through a mystical landscape and to the heart of a war.
I’m still half-way through reading it, and I am currently enjoying the subtle touch of magic; Mackenzie’s writing reminds me of some of my favourite books growing up. Etta, the main character, has a sense of Elizabeth from The Naughtiest Girl in the School and George from The Famous Five (both by Enid Blyton) in her. She’s young, feisty and mischievous, but with a good heart and bold aspiration.
That does not mean to say this is a children’s book – I have a sense of dread concerning the future of Etta and her friends; coming of age in the middle of a war without your parents doesn’t sound like a fun ride.
I will, of course, write a full review once I am finished. In the meantime, enjoy this Q+A with the author herself – Rebecca Mackenzie:
Congratulations on your first novel! What inspired you to write In a Land of Paper Gods?
Thank you! I spent my childhood in Thailand, Malaysia and India and wanted to write about the experience of growing up between two cultures. My parents’ missionary organization was founded in China; it’s a place I loved to hear stories about as a child, and as such struck me as a compelling setting for a new story. As for the period in which this story unfolded, the Second World War, a particularly turbulent time in both China and the mission’s history, very quickly presented itself. What would being a missionary child in this place at that time be like I wondered?
How much of the story is based on real life/true events?
In the writing of the book, I discovered more about mission schools. One school was taken into an interment camp where lessons and dormitory life continued to function until the end of the war, when the camp was liberated by American airmen. The children were then repatriated to England, Australia and Canada, and there united with their parents, some of whom the children had not seen for seven or eight years. I wondered what the experience of such an extended separation during a war would have been like, and the bones of this wondering made it into the story.
How long did it take you to write? How did you deal with writers block?
I haven’t found the idea of writer’s block helpful to me as a writer – by imagining it, it seems to me that I might be giving substance to an idea that might not in fact be there. There were certainly good days and bad days. I suppose bad days are when things aren’t flowing. To find a sense of flow again, I would go running and on returning, sit down at my desk, set a word limit and write very quickly. The momentum of these two activities helped me fling myself in the novel’s current once again.
What advice would you give to yet-unpublished writers and authors?
A very helpful piece of advice given to me was that if you keep turning up to the page, and writing each day, then something will happen. It has to.
Who are your favourite authors, and why?
I love Marilynne Robinson for the beauty and power of her stories. They open up the wonder and strangeness of being human in this passing world. The writer Anne Carson inspires me not only with a finely tuned recording of the sensual and emotional experience of life, but with her experimentation in language. She has a way of making words leap, scuttle, glow; she dismantles my normal way of perceiving and in doing so, gets at the thingy-ness of life. I find that thrilling.
Now that you’ve published your first novel, what’s next for you?
I am writing another novel.
You heard it here first, folks! We can expect more from Mackenzie and her writing (yay!). For those wanting to read more about In a Land of Paper Gods, catch up with the rest of the blog tour – or buy the book!