SPS-374: Angola in my Heart: Writing a Biography – with Margaret Skea
Margaret Skea was approached as a historical fiction author, to write a biography. In this episode, Margaret gives unique insight into the switch from fiction to reality, and how real people informed the information in her most recent book.
- How Margaret’s writing has been influenced by danger she experienced
- Margaret’s process of researching for her historical dramas
- Margaret’s hesitation towards delving into recent nonfiction
- Trying to meet the subjects of your biography
- The switch from fiction to nonfiction
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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SPS-374: Angola in my Heart: Writing a Biography - with Margaret Skea
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Huey Morgan: On this edition of the self-publishing show.
Margaret Skea: I think everybody in the West should spend a couple of weeks in a third world country because it completely changes your perspective.
Huey Morgan: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, No more barriers.
No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie best seller Mark Dawson and first time author James Black as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the self-publishing show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to the self-publishing show. With me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Mark, a few things to talk about today. We have a really interesting interview, quite moving actually, in places with an author who is a fiction author like most of us, but took on an unusual request to write a biography of a remarkable woman whose name I hope will remember after this interview. She certainly needs to be remembered. That's coming up in a moment.
Couple of things to mention before then. We have decided because Tik-tok is its own thing, it seems to existence only ecosystem. It's moving the needle for so many authors and making such a difference to authors careers. And it's not pay to play, at least not at the moment. Probably will end up like that. But at the moment it is fantastic organic reach for your post, which means that people are getting on, they're getting busy using the platform and selling books through it.
We've decided our Tick for Authors module we're going to make available by itself just for a short period of time. So we had a big webinar on Monday and announced this. We're going to keep it open for about seven days, which means it's got another three days, I think from where we're speaking here on Friday. And if you want to learn all about it, have an opportunity to enroll in that course it is at self-publishing formula dot com.
Forward slash. Tick tock. That's an easy URL to remember, isn't it?
Mark Dawson: Even I can remember that. Yes, absolutely. So, yes. So we an interesting the a very good course. And hopefully, you know, people have been very they'll be very sad for the webinar, which as we record this is actually this evening we're recording on the Monday. So we'll have gone by the time the Friday comes around. But the course the chance to get the course will be, as you say, available for another two or three days.
James Blatch: Also want to show you if you're watching on YouTube, I'll show you my little bracelet. I posted this on Facebook.
Mark Dawson: I saw that. Yes, I did.
James Blatch: This is a little piece of steel, the piece of industrial steel from a plant, which I think it was probably razed to the ground by the Russians in Ukraine. And they're selling the remainder C steel to raise money for the naval drone army to help protect Ukraine from Russian aggression. And this was sent to me by Elton John, who's now got this book.
And I'm going to give an unapologetic plug to called Between Love and Hate the Thin Blue Yellow Line. Good title, True Stories from Ukraine tapping into it today. It's fascinating in first hand. If you want to support Anton, who's doing doing a job in difficult circumstances, probably an understatement over there in Ukraine. Our thoughts with you and everybody else in Ukraine.
But I wear this with pride. I don't know what prices I'm going to wear, this one would think. And certainly it's my kind of carry it off. But industrial still seems like my sort of bracelet.
Mark Dawson: Yes. It's very, you know, very nice. And you had a female email from Anton. I plugged his boat to my mates on Friday as well, and I think a few people were on board that. So that was it's good to help with the help.
James Blatch: We'll all do the same. I mean, this is much smaller than yours, but it's probably a good one for a Ukrainian. Yes.
Mark Dawson: Was it was with me. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That's know good good friends on his service, you know. Well we still quite a ways. So hopefully one day I'll come over to the the the show in London whether it be this year or not. Probably not but you never know. We'll keep our fingers crossed.
James Blatch: Yeah, you never know. We have a blog available today which is about pay per click advertising principles. And we should also mention that SBC Live, the pirate plan no longer in action. So opportunity to spread your payments is going, I'm afraid, but you can still enroll for the self-publishing shout Life. We're approaching the three quarters point, I think, on filling the hall.
Something like that. Two thirds three course around the AM. So we're well on the way, I hope. I mean, it's only just March as it will be when this goes out. It's February as I'm speaking now that we will probably have sold out by the time the the conference comes around. And I know the nearer we get, more people are going to sign up because I understand the people don't necessarily know six months out whether they're going to be available or want to commit to it, But it's going to be a good conference.
Mark, We're going to have a splendid party in the evening. And what have you got lined up? Because you're looking I don't know how much you can announce. You're looking at the schedule. I know some of this stuff is happening.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, not quite ready yet. So I we mentioned below Andrew will be speaking, so looking forward to hearing what she has to say. We've got. Yeah, I'll, I'll keep the powder dry on the rest of it and we'll start to announce as we get a little bit nearer the day. But we've, there's some good things planned and a couple of floors are still going to fill, but I've got some ideas for that to go with.
Amazon last week to chat about some possibilities actually will be with Amazon. This one, unless this one goes out. I'll be in Seattle next week too. I'm giving a about to speak at a on a panel though that I could have a KDP International gathering seven teams from all around the world that go to Seattle to talk about business.
And a couple of authors may included going over there to answer some questions and tell them how things are going. So look forward to that third summer in Seattle that they the first time since the pandemic. So I look forward to that.
James Blatch: Yeah. Talking of KDP around the world, I interviewed this afternoon for podcast to be released in the next couple of weeks, a French author who writes in French, who publishes in French in France.
Mark Dawson: I was that Caroline is.
James Blatch: She's Caroline and she's doing six figures. I mean she does to be fair, have 60 books out. She writes prolifically. She sits down for an hour and writes taps out 5000 words, but she uses Amazon ads. And the ecosystem over there is more limited that I have access to a lot of things that we have. Yet all that stuff will be rolled out.
But she also said it's kind of helped by the intransigence here in France. A bit of antique P.A. Amazon did exist, so the few authors who are doing it are doing well from it. It's a smaller market. I mean, all her books are in the top 100, easily in the top 100 in France. But she actually.
Mark Dawson: Knows 60.
James Blatch: Not well. All the ones are correct somewhere. But she also.
Mark Dawson: Thinks actually they would be a pretty boring job. Now I she's doing well I had a chap she was put in touch with me by the the the head of KDP in France in Spain because she's planning a conference and wanted to talk to me about our experience with the London conference. I mean they've guangchang and she, you know, she's, she's really nice and is doing really well in France.
And it did kind of give me the kick in the pants again to look at French translations because I've been so concentrated on Germany, places like France, Italy and Spain. It was it ties in with what better Andre and I have been talking about in terms of success of better seeing in those countries. And I'm kind of thinking I might circle back and look at I'm getting the middle two books, at least the first three into French.
But it is, you know, it's not cheap. I've got some quotes from French translators and these are the way I did it with Germany's to find because like, I don't speak German and I just read much French. Yes, we get a little bit of French, but no one enough to tell whether translation is good. So my way of converting them is to see who they've worked for before.
So I've found translators who work for James Pattison and our Paula Hawkins and all all kinds of well-known authors. And then I approached them and they will come back. But the thing is, they're not cheap undecided. They they you know, they they're very good translators, but they won't be cheap. So I think I'm probably looking at about €20,000 for three books.
So that's not something I'm going to do on a whim. I've got to think about it and try work out how long it takes me to make that back. You know, I'll probably give you a go.
James Blatch: Yeah. I mean, it's it is a smaller market. It's only going one way. Of course it's growing. It's growing.
Mark Dawson: Oh, Chris is so yeah. It's all remarkably they, none of the French they read and there are about 55 million of them so you know, some you know from don't I have a probably bigger them bigger than the UK I guess. Yeah. We'll say you know.
James Blatch: A bigger because I'm noticing a bigger population big land mass but yes.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah but what I thought was the end of the question going through people's minds is okay so, so Caroline actually publishes under Jupyter as a first name, but yeah, she's French and writing in French and therefore is it particularly so? But actually she appears American as far as the eye can see. She's changed her name, her pen name to deliberately sound more American, and she often gets emails from French instead in English to her.
James Blatch: I think that she's American because she writes open fantasy in the whole show. And so this thing, that sort of area.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: She thinks it's a better fit and she thinks in France they kind of it's snobbish about in that genre French rice is her take on it so the signs there are that for people like yourself writing thrillers that would be a market you could penetrate. She didn't think military science fiction or probably Cold War thrillers would necessarily do as well in France, which I understand, but romance definitely, and a mainstream for this.
Mark Dawson: Yes. All comparative in their marriages. Well, is the there's kind of huge honors. But, you know, even if it is half a million people be like military spouses and they still have many people in my bio book, which is still a pretty junky audience. So, you know.
James Blatch: Yeah, I mean, I'm still too early in my career not making up to.
Mark Dawson: To, Oh, yeah.
James Blatch: You lost in translation. You are it's.
Mark Dawson: Not necessarily.
James Blatch: Audio books as well I'm.
Mark Dawson: Investigation yes Agnes so I would looking at audio there and then translations.
James Blatch: But I have had about to publish probably about two to the figures at the end of months tomorrow, day after tomorrow I think I will have three months in a row of making between £808,000.
Mark Dawson: That's great and that's pretty good.
James Blatch: Yeah, I included a book launch.
Mark Dawson: This doesn't it doesn't matter.
James Blatch: And I've been picked up for a monthly day, which I know you're not massive about monthly days, but they've worked for me in the past with final flight and I've got one starting tomorrow for the 1st of March on Wednesday. Hopes I shall push. Right. Okay, enough of that preamble banter, as we call it. We are coming on to our interview.
So interview actually with Margaret skier. So some of you might know Margaret Martin and her. She is based in Scotland actually, I think originally born in Northern Ireland. I read in her notes, but she writes her own historical fiction but was asked to write a biography. So that's essentially what this is about, making that that approach, that difference.
But it turned into a very, very interesting discussion about the subject matter of her biography. So let's hear from Margaret and Mark and I will be back for a chat.
Huey Morgan: This is the self-publishing show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Margaret Skeel, welcome to the self-publishing show. How are you?
Margaret Skea: I'm fine, thank you. Nice to speak to you. James.
James Blatch: So we're speaking to you. I'm in England. You're in Scotland. It's always you know, it's one of my most asked questions as Americans say, what? What's the country where do you say you come from? And it's actually quite a complicated answer, isn't it? Because they're all countries. And the only UK, I think probably is a UN country. I would never say necessarily.
I come from England, I'm Great Britain. Most people in Wales and Scotland, although they do say they come from Scotland and it's I don't really know how to unpick it for foreigners.
Margaret Skea: And I would yeah, I'm not sure. I would probably say I come from the UK.
James Blatch: Yeah of course it then gets you then gets quite political because some people would say that. And there you go. I was as a BBC reporter, I always asked people, particularly in Ireland and particularly Northern Ireland, which I know is where you were born and brought up. So if you're speaking to someone from Northern Ireland as a journalist, it was very important to say to them, How would you like me to describe you?
And they would either say, I'm Irish, fine, say you're Irish, or they say I'm Northern Irish, but you do not want to make an assumption because that would get you into trouble. We should just reflect on that for a second.
Margaret, you were there during the Troubles, as we called it. These are RTÉ violence campaigns and so much I remember from my childhood very vividly. What was that like for you?
Margaret Skea: Well, it was a different normality. I when I came across to Scotland first to university, I don't think people understood how different our kind of upbringing had been because we went out every day hoping, expecting to come home. Yeah, but you always knew at the back of your mind that maybe today you wouldn't. Maybe you'd be caught up in a bowl and that would be it.
And thinking about afterwards, I thought actually it was probably much worse for our parents seeing us go out and go to Belfast to go shopping or you got on a bus or whatever, and there was always the potential you'd be caught up in a war.
James Blatch: Yeah, because this is a small place. Northern Ireland, and particularly where the population centers are, makes it a very small place. And you never that far away from stuff happening.
Margaret Skea: No, you're not. And, and a lot of it was so random. Yeah. You know, you just couldn't depend on not getting caught up in a bomb and it was just there in the back of your mind all the time, though. You just thought of it as normal. In fact, when I came over to Scotland first and went down Princes Street and went to go into British stores, I think I and I walked in through the door and went like this, expecting to be searched.
Right. So and there happened to be a security guy just inside the door. And they kind of looked at me as if I had, I don't know, heads or something, you know.
James Blatch: Do you think that inspired that sort of atmosphere that you were brought up in, inspired your writing or led to your writing in any way?
Margaret Skea: I think so. Everything I've written in one way or another has been to do with conflict and I think emotionally that's what I understand most. It's an absolutely everything I write because I think emotionally that's what I understand and what I knew. And when I first started writing, I think it was inevitable that I would pick a Scottish pick, which was 400 years earlier, 500 years earlier, 400 years earlier.
But that made it kind of safe to write about. Yeah, in a way that I couldn't have written about Ulster. No, because it was just too close. Yes. Yeah.
James Blatch: And it is one of those things that we I don't romanticize is the right word, but the longer we go from a conflict, it becomes something we can talk about. Like we talk about Agincourt and it sounds quite romantic. The reality of action coal would have been disgusting and brutal, you know, bows and arrows. And and the reality as much as you talk about, but it's just one of those things, isn't it, The further we get.
And I suppose for our generation or my generation, the Second World War is like that. It's not it's you know, I remember I'm 56 now, would you believe. And my parents, they had friends who'd been through the Second World War fighting, you know, that they they were around us. And my dad, I remember my dad won't say, well, my mum said some people had a good war and some people had a bad was.
It was a real thing. And some people didn't come away unscarred from it. But for my kids, the Second World War is it's in the textbook. It's not anything that they could touch, just they veteran veterans would be someone wheeled in to their school on a special occasion. But I yeah that's already happening. But then anyway again that's a that's a by and well let's talk a bit about your right before we get on to what I know we're going to talk about.
Let's talk a bit about your fiction writing and how that started. So historical. Is it historical romance markers?
Margaret Skea: Absolutely not. An Now, maybe I shouldn't be quite so definite that, but it's not. I don't know that I could write a romance in any form. Actually, it started off really because I was doing research into Ulster-scots and therefore I was looking at the plantation period and I was looking at some of the families that had come across to Ulster during the plantation and, you know, the kind of books that have this much text and this much footnotes on every page.
Yeah, it was.
James Blatch: Reference books. Yeah.
Margaret Skea: Yeah. One of those reference books in the middle of the footnotes, I find this a reference to a massacre that take place in 1586 and that just kind of lodged in my head. And when I came to the point of deciding to write a novel, I put this little note of a massacre. And I thought, Yes, I think that's what I'll write about.
So that was the start of the Scottish trilogy, and I discovered that the massacre was noted on both sides, both clans, and it was actually quite well known in America, a little not so well known over here. And then I decided that for one of the families particularly started out with that wrote 70,000 words, decided the truth was constraining me rather more than I wanted it to.
So I did 67,000 words and started again with a fictional character and family dropped in the middle of that clan feud. So it's told from the perspective of the fictional family. Everybody else in the book is real. Okay.
James Blatch: And so you describe it as as historical fiction, obviously. But would you would is it Saga? Is it drama? I mean, how would you watch genre? Would you describe it as.
Margaret Skea: Probably say drama, though strictly speak on Amazon? It's called a saga. Saga I would call it. I would call it a family drama, really, because I follow that family story. All the kind of key points of the feud. Yeah. And yes, there's violence and thuggery and murder and mayhem and and so on, but there's also a lot of family bits in it.
And it's all really about the impact of living within conflict and within a context, a conflict context and the sort of impact that has on families, on relationships, on personal integrity.
James Blatch: Yeah. So we often talk about people read books to help them navigate life. And if you understand that, it helps you write the book. But of course, what we as authors now is we actually write books to help us navigate life. I certainly the case my case, I write books based around my parents experience. I think to try and get a bit closer to them and I'm who I am and it sounds like something similar going on with you.
Margaret Working out, working out how to deal with conflict in a way is what you're doing in the process.
Margaret Skea: I think so, yeah. The sort of other side of it was we had we had been fostering and we had two children that were moved quite suddenly and it was, it wasn't a good move and it was like a bereavement. And so everything came into place. Up to that point. I'd written short stories, which you can do in between times, you know, and between life and so on.
And when the children went in the same month, the job that I had, the government started that the organization. So all of a sudden I had no children, no work and basically an empty house during the day. And my husband kind of said, you've always said you write a novel, why don't you just do it night? Well, so I did it.
James Blatch: Jeremy asking how long you'd had the children for or foster.
Margaret Skea: Those particular children we'd had for four years. Gosh.
James Blatch: Yeah. You don't really think about the aspect of it. I mean, that's. That's hard. Okay, So that was the background to you writing your first novel and obviously that was your husband had spotted there was a there was a budding writer in there trying to get out and you carried over that says it's quite a common thing. Now.
I think to be more fictitious with with nonfiction, Almost every TV series you see now, which is based on a true story in the old days, based on true. So it's largely true. And they've just played a little bit with some of the scenes they didn't understand, whereas now they very often say some, you know, they put something jokey at the beginning and say some of this might even have happened and they very deliberately depart from.
But the idea, I think, is to try and tell the spirit of what happens whilst not be constrained by facts and figures.
Margaret Skea: Yeah, I mean in terms of the real people and where they were and what they did, I've tried to keep as close to that as I possibly could, but looking at it through the perspective of a fictional family gave me so much freedom to examine both sides of the conflict. But also a fictional person can get things wrong.
And that's actually very freeing. Yes. Yeah. What? So what era was this?
James Blatch: So the 1600s is this or.
Margaret Skea: 1586? The first book started in 1586, went to 1592. The second book jumped and was just eight months of 1597. Oh, that was because I wanted to focus a on the siege of Army because it was really quite interesting. It was siege warfare and B, the great Scottish witch hunt, the 5097 Wow, I wanted to marry those up.
And then the third book is 1598 to 1600.
James Blatch: They sound like fantastic errors to write about.
Margaret Skea: They were great fun and it actually, I don't know if I should tell you this or not, but one of my friends, when he read the first book, sent me an email and said, I thought you were a nice person. Why did you write this massacre?
James Blatch: Yeah, he Sometimes I have to explore the dark side of life, don't you? And how, how the sales gone, how they how are they been received.
Margaret Skea: The being received very well. I mean they're not stellar sales. I'm not Mark Dawson territory I know but pre-pandemic I was at the stage having to pay some tax. Okay. So you know, that's that's fine. Yeah. And yeah, I mean I, I haven't actually got around to doing the marketing. I'm not saying.
James Blatch: We should say he started that didn't you. I mean these were traditionally published and then you got your rights back gradually. So I think you've got your, I think for your notes you gave me your fully D now both e-book imprint book.
Margaret Skea: I am for all my fiction yeah yeah. And I want to stay that way and I do intend to stop marketing.
James Blatch: Margaret you need to start marketing at some point.
Margaret Skea: I'm I know I need to start in marketing because, I mean, up until this point, I've done a lot at events. Yeah, speaking events and actually craft fairs are brilliant. I sell a lot of paperbacks at craft fairs because generally I'm the only person there. So anybody who comes in and is interested in books, bingo.
James Blatch: There you go. You've got it all to yourself. That's good tip. I think that what would work particularly well for for historical romance, historical fiction is, like I said, the R word again.
Margaret Skea: Okay.
James Blatch: Let's let's move on.
So you are now embarking on a nonfiction book about Angola. And surprise, surprise, there are some conflicts involved in this as well. But let's look at low. Yeah, you've got to tell me the story of how this came about.
Margaret Skea: Well, it's actually a it was a mission organization who had channeled funds to this lady who was a missionary in Angola for 34 years. She wasn't salaried, so it was just us. People in the UK sent gifts. They were passed on to her via this mission organization. And and she went out when she was she was on the cusp of being of joining the England Torquay squad.
She was also a teacher at the time and when she really felt well, she felt a call of God actually to go to Angola. And so she gave up the ambition, she gave up the teaching, and she went and I was she died prematurely of breast cancer in 2017. And so the mission organization thought that her story was was a really interesting and inspiring one.
And so they contacted me and said, Would I consider writing a biography? And I've never written a biography before. The closest I'd come was writing a sort of reimagined story of Martin Luther and his wife. I did that for they for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But that was very much I mean, it was well researched. I don't go to Germany to do the research and so on, but basically it was fictionalized and I was writing about people who'd been dead for 500 years and really very different things.
This lady, her brothers are all still alive. Most of her friends are still alive or colleagues are still alive. I'd never met her. I'd never been in Africa. So it was quite a daunting prospect to try and do a genre I had not worked in before in an area I'd never been, and about someone whom so many people had memories of her and knew her very well.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's a lot of pressure.
Margaret Skea: Yeah.
James Blatch: I'm not not, I suppose fundamentally dissimilar to the first 70,000 words you, you wrote, which were you hope based fairly factually. But like you say, those people are centuries dead. And I'm frankly, there aren't that many people who'd be able to read that book and say, well, I think she's got something wrong here, a few university professors, but this is a very different case.
So how have you gone about it?
Margaret Skea: I wanted to go to Angola straight away. Soon as they asked me, and then it struck. So it took me four attempts to get to Angola. So like spooked flights canceled, flights booked, flights canceled events. So I had to start without going to Angola, and that was quite difficult. But I did have access to most of the letters she'd written in those 34 years and some personal letters, stuff that her family gave me.
And so I, I spent a lot of time I wrote a chronological account from her letters. I did a lot of read a lot of journalistic accounts of the war, because the war was you know, it started in full flow two years after she got there. And that was the next 20 years or so. Yeah.
James Blatch: Most of the late eighties was the Angolan war.
Margaret Skea: And the the civil war began. And and so the last in 1984, right? I mean, but it had I mean, it was already difficult before that. When she first went right, it was still the tail end of the War of Independence. Right. Of Portugal. Yeah. So, in fact, they had 40 years of war on which she was there for over 20 of them.
James Blatch: And for.
Margaret Skea: Me, I was.
James Blatch: Trying to go back into my memory banks a little bit here, but it was a bit of a proxy war, one of those Cold War proxy wars. Was it the Communist versus American supported? Was it that was that Angola on and well.
Margaret Skea: Just to quite a large extent, yes. Yes and no. There was the MPLA, there was the Pele, and there was UNITA.
James Blatch: I you know, UNITA.
Margaret Skea: And but the Cubans were there. Yeah, the South Africans were involved. The Russians were involved. And at the start of the war, the government party was communist. And yeah, it was it was called a forgotten Angola's forgotten war. Really, because it was all sorts of outside. People were feeding into it in terms of ammunition and support and so on.
But it was a civil war primarily between the MPLA and the UNITA. Yeah, it was it was pretty horrific. It was a.
James Blatch: Horrible I do remember that a very violent, bloody conflict with child chaw child soldiers on probably both sides.
Margaret Skea: Yes. All my soldiers who were 12 or 14 too, had been kind of captured from their villages and put in the army. And some of the people I spoke to talked about when they'd been teenagers and say they'd been in a church service on a Sunday or something, and they heard a vehicle outside, they would jump out the windows and run away into the bush because they were sure they were going to be captured and taken into one or other of the arms.
James Blatch: Gosh, how awful. So you you've got this period to research as well, I suppose, is the because they're going to be back surround in context for the life that you're writing about. So that's quite a tall order. You're a bit of an Angolan expert now.
Margaret Skea: Well, I think I know quite a bit about it now. I had several fabulous journalistic accounts of the war, and one was by Carl Maier or one was by Judith Matloff, and they were both excellent, excellent books, and particularly the mayor. One focused on not so much the battles, but on the impact on individual people. Yeah, and that was really, really useful.
But nevertheless, I didn't want to write it that way and I wanted to be on the ground first, but I didn't have any choice, so I did all the written research first and I made two accounts, one chronological, one thematic, and then eventually in June, I got to Angola itself. And then it was a case of trying to patch together the notes that I had with what I found on the ground and with lots of interviews of people who knew Ruth.
It worked with her who'd been taught by her as children and so on.
James Blatch: So. So I don't mean imagine this you land finally you land in Luanda, I guess is the capital, isn't it. My my pub quiz knowledge.
And where do you go? What was your first what was the first thing you wanted to say?
Margaret Skea: Well, the first thing would have been if I could have got out and learned it quickly, actually. But sadly, the internal flights are such that I couldn't I had to stay for two days in Luanda and it was horrible. Absolutely horrible. I went to the flat that Ruth Hadley had gone to first on her arrival around 40 years earlier.
And I looked out of the window and as far as the eye could see, almost was chanty dwellings with no sanitation, water, just fragments of buildings, just miles of them. And in the distance, way, way behind them was the parliament building, which looked as if it should have been in Washington, D.C. And the disparity between, you know, the very small minority of very wealthy people and the abject poverty of the rest of the population was just ghastly.
Luanda has a population of about 10 million. Wow. 9 million of those live in chanty dwellings. Oh, that's just yeah. So as soon as I could, I got a flight up to the interior, to the village where one of the one, the schools that had built. She ended up after the war building for schools in rural areas. And I went to the village where one of those schools were was that was where I was based for the rest of the time.
James Blatch: Right. And there were people there who remember Ruth?
Margaret Skea: Yes. I spoke to so many people who remembered remember, even just wandering through the village and speaking to some of the teenagers who would have been primary school children when she first spoke to her school or people in their twenties, whatever. And they all remember tourists and they all talked about children. They all had great stories to tell about her.
Some good, some not so good.
James Blatch: Yeah. Okay. And that's that becomes, I suppose, the flesh on on the bone, because you're at that point, you've got outlines worked out from letters and as you say, timelines. Is this where the book got filled out for you or the proper themes came in?
Margaret Skea: Yes, it was when I talked to people and discovered what was important to them, and that's when I was able to kind of focus and decide, right. These are the different chapters that I'm going to have in the book. And I introduce each chapter actually with a brace and Chokwe.
James Blatch: Okay, So turquoise, the tribe, the tribal area. I suppose you're in the. Yes. Yeah. Okay.
Margaret Skea: She was she was in Chokwe Land and she spoke Chokwe like a native and she said herself towards the end of her time there that actually she thought in Chokwe and it was quite hard when she came back to the UK on a visit to try and think in English again. Yeah, she was so, she was so immersed in the culture and the everything that was was going around.
People thought of her as a joke.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's amazing. And you say that not everything was positive, which like I mean, like, really is so, so does that become a tense or problematic area Because you're writing this for the charity.
Margaret Skea: And it wasn't problematic for the charity. I was given a completely free hand. I wrote this and and one of the things I actually say in the foreword, I mean, she was a missionary. And, you know, I wrote in the foreword that if if you were a person of faith, you might think a missionary was someone super spiritual.
If you were a person of faith, you might just think she was crazy to have gone there and stayed there right through the war and everything. But she was neither of those things. She was just an ordinary person.
But it was what could be done through her if she kind of completely surrendered herself to that work, which she did. But everybody makes mistakes. And one of the things that really I find very moving, one of the interviews, one of the mistakes she made at one point she'd been going home to visit one of the people who worked for she'd asked someone who was one of the other missionaries that was staying, and this is his salary paid up to him while I'm away.
But she'd given the wrong figure, so it was twice as much as she normally paid. And so this other person happily paid him double the salary while Ruth was away. And then she came back and she gave him his normal salary. And then he protested and said, you know, but I've been being paid such and such. And he reported that she kind of blew up at him and he reported that he felt like a thief.
And then he said, but when she realized that the mistake was hers, she came back and apologized and paid and said she was going to pay him the double salary from now on. And what he said to me that I found really moving was he said, I was stunned that a white person could come and admit the mistake and say they were sorry.
And for him, actually, the apology was more important than the money. It had raised his esteem enormously. But I, I just felt it's so sad that this sort of hangover from colonialism was still there. Yeah, but on the other hand, it was possible to get over that if you behave properly to people and just thought of people as people, regardless of whether they were white or black or or whatever.
But that was the most moving thing of all right. And I asked for his permission to put that in the book because I thought it was quite important. That was probably one of the biggest mistakes she made that the lot.
James Blatch: Of echoes of Karen Blixen here. Do you think the Who wrote a book about Africa?
Yeah, and her time in Nairobi and she's somebody else because there's always this accusation of white savior complex. Isn't that an effect, which is a sort of modern way of looking back at it? But this idea that a white person parachutes into a remote area in Africa and saves everybody, which is another form of colonialism, and yet the reality of people like Karen Blixen, by the sounds of it, Ruth, there is people just trying to do something good, immersing their life in it.
And both of those people became completely immersed in their environment and left. Yeah, by the sounds of a legacy. I mean, I've been to Nairobi, I've been to Karen Blixen's house, which is still there, and they they are very fond of her. The locally there's not there's not the kind of feeling about white savior complex there that I felt anyway feels to me it's sort of thing we talk about in Europe.
Margaret Skea: Yeah, it was interesting actually. Every single young man and woman actually. But I spoke to more young men and women as it happened. The very first thing they said when I said, What can you say about this? The very first thing they said was she was our mother. Hmm. Wow. And, I mean, they just yeah, they absolutely loved her.
And they said, really, she should have been buried here because she's one of us. She wouldn't she wouldn't have wanted that in a sense, because she would have been afraid that maybe they would have turned her grave into a shrine or something. And yeah.
James Blatch: How much she found out about her personality. That's a hint there. Was she a humble person? Was she a authoritarian obviously running an organization, getting things done does require a certain amount of authority.
Margaret Skea: It requires a certain amount of authority. She would have been. It was actually quite interesting when I researched her childhood and her background, which I didn't write about except very occasional references. So much of it paralleled me in terms of the kind of personality she was. She was a practical joker. She was a she was physically she was a lot stronger than I'd have been, actually.
She was extremely sporty. She was extremely competitive. And and and she was very forthright and the Kiwis were very forthright. So that kind of matched, you know, they would be very forthright to her. She'd be very forthright to that. But she was also very strong and determined. And so she didn't allow anybody to walk over her. And that didn't matter whether it was a government official or whether it was a UNITA, you know, somebody high up in UNITA in the camp, soldiers, authorities, whatever, she didn't allow them to walk over.
She just stood her ground and said, this is this is what's happening. But she wasn't authoritarian in the sense of trying to tell you what to do, you know, except in the sense that there'd been so many years, particularly in the UNITA held areas where they'd been absolutely no spiritual input at all. So she find a whole villages where people had zero idea and biblical terms.
So she did teach from that point of view, people who wanted to learn. Yeah, right. And there were about there are about 400 young men who are in positions in the churches as a result. Right. Of her of her teaching. But she she was very she came alongside them. She didn't stand over them. Yeah. And a lot of the boys who ended up, you know, running church and so on.
First of all, spent a lot of time in her yard playing table tennis and pool and and computer games, Gameboys and stuff like that that she brought out for them and and and football. She loved to play football with them and and because they spent so much time at that level with her, then it led to her being able to teach them and then being willing to receive that teaching.
James Blatch: Is there much left of her in that area now? There are nameplates anyway. I mean, there's a whole area of Nairobi called Karen after Karen Blixen. Is there anything equivalent?
Margaret Skea: There's your name, there's no name plates, but there are the schools, right, that she built at the end of the war. And local people said to her, please teach our children, because they've had 40 years of no, no schooling, no education. And most of the population were illiterate and so they said, please teach our children. And the first thing she had to do was physically build schools and oversee the building process.
And she had a few run ins with with the guys that were doing the building for one reason or another. And but she built for schools in rural in the rural and rural area. And those three of those schools are still running. And one of them was recognized at the time as the best school in the area because she also trained the teacher how to teach.
Yeah, very important and very important. And it wasn't in their culture at all actually, to interact with the kids and some of those teachers said to me that they find it hugely difficult the way she wanted them to teach when they started, but when they saw the results with the kids, then they really got into it. And that school is still the most well regarded school in the whole region.
Yeah, and she wouldn't have wanted it to be called the Ruth Hadley School or anything like that.
James Blatch: Right. So I suppose if we're going to say if you want to be find a judgment about whether you think this is, you know, white savior, complex or not. The basic way of looking at it is what impact,
what difference would it have made had she not had Ruth Hadley not arrived in that area of Angola in the nineties?
I guess she arrived 82.
Margaret Skea: Oh.
James Blatch: Oh, it's early to say of course. Yes. Yes. That said and not been there but you've been on the ground there and seen the lasting positive impact of her influence.
Margaret Skea: The literacy is very definitely a positive impact. Also, a lot of the women said that she taught them how to play with their children, which again had not been part of their culture. And so that's really important. And the churches in that area, they had a huge, huge, huge bursary fund just not long before she fell ill, actually, at which she was a kind of keynote person at it, because they said that everything they knew about the Bible came from her and more importantly, everything they knew about trying to live the way the Bible said they should live came from her.
So it was very practical. Yeah. It wasn't just, you know, theology. There was theology, but it wasn't just theology was how to put what the Bible said into practice. And and they said made a huge that their churches wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for her. And two things which are really important. One was the literacy, but the other thing was the medical and humanitarian need.
And witchcraft is still a problem area. Yeah, very, very big problem. And from, from her point of view she said people are it's it's the fear of witchcraft actually. And she said, you know, people are not going to be freed from the fear of witchcraft unless you give them medicines, unless you can show them that there is another way to be to be healed from TB or malaria or dysentery or whatever it happens to be.
And and she was very focused on the fact that you had to have that twin ideal where you gave them an alternative to the fear that they were living under. Yeah. And, and I fully I think was quite powerful. Yeah.
James Blatch: From afar is something else I've seen firsthand. So in a previous life, did some PR work or video work for a pharmaceutical company which was dropping in using containers to drop in pharmacies into very rural parts of Africa, mainly gone when Uganda and that witchcraft thing I remember very clearly and when I first went down there, you know, doing interviews and filming and stuff, I remember thinking, well, it's part of culture, you know, take a step back.
And this guy was, no, it's a toxic, horrible thing. The witchcraft, it preys on people. It gives people a sense of power over victims as abuse going on through. He had nothing good to say about the witchcraft and the witch doctors who sprung up around, but they were in the rural areas where you right where there were no medical other medical alternatives.
But yes, that was a that's a really interesting thing.
Margaret Skea: She wrote. She one of her letters. She mentioned one particular story, and this was 2006. So it's not, you know.
James Blatch: Yeah, I was there.
Margaret Skea: A long time, about.
James Blatch: A.
Margaret Skea: Long time ago where a guy had TB and they got him into hospital. And after a week his family came and took him out of hospital and took him to the Diviner and said, Who has made Tamil because part of their culture is that somebody is responsible. And the Diviner said it's the grandmother and the uncle, and they beat the grandmother to death and poisoned uncle.
Yeah. And then the witch doctor said, Well, he's going to die in three days. And he did. And it was just this tragic, tragic loss of life because had he stayed in hospital.
James Blatch: He would have been cured in the community.
Margaret Skea: His grandma and uncle would still have been alive. And what really shocked her was some of the people she knew and his family, their attitude was, well, you know, we've rid society of two assassins. What's the problem? Yeah. And she spent it's a huge, huge.
James Blatch: Thing that doesn't need some stirring and intervention then. Yeah. Okay. So. So Ruth became ill while she was in Angola.
Margaret Skea: She and she found a lump in her breast in December 2016. And there was I, and for most of the time she was there, she had no real medical backup in the area at all. They had the clinic that they were running with basic medicines and things, but there was no doctor. And so she came home for an assessment and within a couple of weeks they said to her, This is a very, very aggressive cancer.
We'll try chemo, we'll try radiotherapy, and I will see. But I think she knew that first visit, that it was going to kill her. But she hoped that the interventions would give her enough time to go back one more time just to tidy, tidy up loose ends, make sure that everything was handed over to the Angolans to carry on the work themselves.
Leave it in good order. But six months later, she was dead. She never got back.
James Blatch: And your book.
Margaret Skea: And.
James Blatch: Margaret's. Where is that now? There it is.
Margaret Skea: There any? Well, there is.
James Blatch: So if you're watching on YouTube, if you're most people don't. But it's Angola in my heart. A picture of the country, the African context and a picture of.
Margaret Skea: Robin.
James Blatch: In the middle. Yeah, looking quite young, probably when she was first out there.
Margaret Skea: When she was first there. Yeah. And it it was launched officially on last Wednesday and it is on Kindle. It's in paperback from the charity, but it's also on Kindle. And there will be paperback on Amazon coming soon once they get there. Self-fulfillment a bit more to date.
James Blatch: And how does it feel having written so much fiction and then to write a nonfiction, how do you feel that went?
Margaret Skea: It was pretty challenging and it was challenging on two counts, actually. It was challenging just to write it. It was three times, I guess, because it was challenging the way in which I had to approach the research and what to leave. I looked for in I mean, it could have been that thick, but the the mission organization wanted it to be that book.
So I'm not used to writing in books. My last fiction one was 138,000. So that's kind of you know, this one is obviously an awful lot less than that. So that was a challenge. It was also a challenge actually reading about somebody who had caught themselves up for other people completely, selflessly. And that was a challenge in itself.
And going to Angola was a challenge, seeing the countryside, seeing how the people lived. And I think I didn't come out of it yet as peaceful life last year because I'd only just come back. But I think everybody in the West should spend a couple of weeks in a third world country because it completely changes your perspective.
James Blatch: Yeah, we get a bit cozy that with our lives here, we have no idea how some people wake up and face every day.
Margaret Skea: Absolutely no idea at and don't think that I don't think that will ever leave me actually. Right.
James Blatch: And if people purchased this book, presumably they're supporting the charity, Margaret.
Margaret Skea: They are, yes. And they're supporting the work, the school work and so on right there. Yeah.
James Blatch: So that's I'm going to read My Heart by Margaret Skipper, if you want to, to support. That's a great thing to do. MARGARET One of the things we do OSPF, is it's just financial, but a friend of mine runs a charity in Tanzania, right in the rural part of Tanzania, and does a similar thing where they use the state schools, but they pay for children to go through and they pay for teachers.
So they're trying to get as many children educated as possible, which is the best way out of. So we I think we're up to our eighth child. We've put through school since we started. We're not all the way through school, but eighth child into school. And we get their school reports and pitches every year, which is a lovely, lovely thing.
But education, that's what she that was Ruth's primary role there. And yes, you know, we can have medicine and everything else, but education is it's a bit like the old, say, old proverb about teaching somebody to fish, isn't it? Rather giving them a bit of food. Wonderful.
Margaret Skea: She one of the things that she was she was very good at knowing and recognizing in people and sort of pointing them in the right direction to the kind of studying they should do, the kind of job they should do, and and giving them responsibility and, you know, kind of saying to them, look, you're good at this, so let's focus on this.
That probably comes from her teaching background, I guess, now. But yeah, the we're just on her. Her name was always to work herself out of a job.
James Blatch: Right.
Margaret Skea: And it was interesting, but she had time to do a lot of the work before she knew she was ill and she'd seen and Goldens taking it all in and carrying it forward. Right. Which is always what she wanted to happen.
James Blatch: Well, Margaret, thank you very much indeed for sharing. That's been an incredible journey. I'm going to use the word this interview, listening to it unfold. And yeah, I'm intrigued to read more. So goes on onto my TBR. The book, So well done for writing it and and doing that. And I'm guessing it wasn't a big payday for you.
This was something you did mainly for the charity. Yeah.
Margaret Skea: Yes. Yeah. And they are actually they're going to translate into Portuguese because Portuguese is the national language of Angola. But they're also going to have it translated into Chokwe. Wow. So that the local people there will be no pay day at all. I think that that will be sponsored. And then the people in Chokwe Land will be able to to read it and and remember.
Yeah. You know, but they do remember. They do remember very, very clearly. And yeah, I mean it's I think most of all, I think it was a privilege. And then I'll go back to fiction and which will be a lot easier, but I'll probably go back to fiction, probably with a slightly different perspective than I have before. Yeah, Tricky.
Yeah, Tricky too. Tricky to tricky to sit in comfortable surroundings.
James Blatch: It's changed you a bit more than.
Margaret Skea: It has a chance. I'm still in contact with them with some of the folk out there. They're how I am supposed to be helping Derek Bush and that by text message. And I'm keeping up a little bit of Chokwe, which I learned some of when I was like.
James Blatch: We would definitely have to go back because there's not many other places I think.
Margaret Skea: That speak to that. Probably not, probably not. But yes, it was a privilege. I think that as well as being a challenge and yes, it has changed.
Huey Morgan: This is the self-publishing show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: There we go. Really interesting. I really enjoyed that chat with Margaret Skill and learning about Ruth Hadley, a name we should remember very, very out of Africa like story, but somebody who just rolled their sleeves up and dedicated her life and a very poor part of the world and go to war torn poor part. But most of our life, most of our lives, Mark, that place has been where I remember in the eighties, a battleground between the USSR and America, sort of proxy war, those proxy wars and a lot of child soldiers and all that stuff happening there.
So Ruth Hadley working through that amazingly and then being taken away through breast cancer far too young, but was a great thing to do. Our Griffey Mark, I mean, it's a different type of I read biography slightly obsessively. I'm always reading nonfiction biography. And there is a trick to writing a narrative, a gripping, compelling narrative, rather than just a series of kind of research and dates.
And there's a lot of very good biographical writers around these days, but I suspect not an easy thing to get right now.
Mark Dawson: I definitely rise here and go to interviews subject with with her. Your first year of your the biography is going to be about sides There's tons of different and then it's going to be correct as well so it's not officially going to is all going to be checked. I checked while depends if you ever grew up and if you read the Prince Harry biography wasn't particularly well, a fact checked.
But yes, it's it's probably, well, a great idea. I love reading biographies. Just just as much as you do, but it wouldn't be saying I would think about writing.
James Blatch: Yeah. I don't think as a kid I never would have read a biography. But I think the advent in the 2000s of people like Claire Tomalin who wrote the piece, Barbara Fay and Dava Sobel, who wrote Longitude about Harrison, those books which were gripping page turning narratives whilst being a biography. And there's a brilliant one if you're into politics called The Lion and the Unicorn about Disraeli and Gladstone.
It's one of my favorite biographies. Again, what's interesting about that is you're reading about 19th century politics and it's like literally day to day to day Westminster, childish, immature, silly. Someone tries, think things do and don't change. You think they're all a bit more. I mean, that's that was a bit more staid he got run circles around by Disraeli and shenanigans but that really is a tangent.
Okay thank you very much indeed to Margaret for sharing that with us and good luck with that book. I know. So I know some of you will go out and buy that just to support. And I've already done that. Of course you don't have to, but it's a nice thing to do. Don't forget you have a few more days if you want to buy the tick tock course Tick tock for authors, which is an in-depth hand-hold thing advanced through basic through to advance of how to use tick tock platform to sell your books, not just simply be on there, but to really funnel your energy and effort in the right place to sell books.
You can get that course for a couple more days. Only then it goes back into ads for authors. If you go to self-publishing formula dot com forward slash tick tock and that's Mark.
Margaret Skea: Is that.
Mark Dawson: Good. I want to say.
James Blatch: Have a nice flight to Seattle.
Mark Dawson: Oh yeah well Vegas first of all then I'll be here transiting Vegas.
James Blatch: You'll be broke by the time we finish.
Mark Dawson: Then it's entirely possible with.
James Blatch: Yeah, okay. Will enjoy that. Enjoy that trip and we'll look forward to hearing about your, your Amazonian expedition.
Mark Dawson: And I. So you do that? Very good.
Margaret Skea: Yeah. Okay.
James Blatch: All right. Otherwise, we'd say it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye. Goodbye.
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