Interview with author Joanna Tenkorang by Victoria Gisondi

Hi Joanna. Firstly, let me thank you for having entrusted me with the reading and review of your wonderful book! I really did enjoy the characters and the story. I had the pleasure of reading your science fiction book Attack on Planet Falrus, which is a story about the adventures of a boy, his friend and a robot and their quest to save their world from tyranny. Without giving too much away, what else would you tell the readers about this book?

Attack on Planet Falrus, although was written for children, is probably more likely to be appreciated by the older children amongst us, or those of us who never grew up! It is all about the utopia I sometimes wish this world to be, and ended up effectively creating in my head. It is my secret home, a great place to be! That is not to say it is a place free of problems - it is a nice mix of utopia and 'normal life' where the central theme is family life, a sense of community, and importantly, a sense of order and social cohesion which is key to the happy and carefree life there, and a national spirit similar to the 'blitz' mentality of Great Britain during the second world war, all seen through the eyes of a child. I wanted to impart the kind of values I would love to live by, in my own life, in this book, to create a world of shared goals and a desire to help those less fortunate than ourselves (as illustrated by the 'relationship' between the Falrusians and the 'District' people). In short, alongside the exciting adventures of my young heroes as they get themselves embroiled in the biggest challenge of their young lives, this book's running theme is also the depiction of an innocent era, perhaps a bygone one?

Your biography mentions that you are a physician and author but I'm sure your readers would like to know more about you personally. Could you introduce us to yourself and tell us more about you? Where do you live? Family? Hobbies? Likes and dislikes?

Yes, I am a physician, a cardiologist by profession, but my first love was writing. I was born in Ghana and brought up a little there, in Togo and Nigeria and in England. I now live in Switzerland, as I work here. My parents were both academics, teaching french and history in a university, so books were all around me from the start. I didn't just want to read them, I wanted to write them! Apart from writing, my other big passion is cycling. I love the freedom and the sense of abandon that I get when faced with the open road. It's that 'me against the road' feeling. And often, I have no definite plan as to where I will go. Cycling has taken me to some interesting places, for example, the North cape (I cycled from Tromso in Northern Norway all the way, ie almost 400 miles, over 6 days to the North Cape 10 years ago), Holland and all through Great Britain as I cycled the 1000 miles from the Southwest tip of England all the way to the Northeast tip of Scotland in 12 gruelling days (ouch, that was painful especially over the mountains of Scotland, still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it). I love thai food and learning languages, but I am not the biggest fan of vegetables (please don't tell my Mum!)

Have you always written? Is this your first published book?

I started writing when I was six. Although this book was first written when I was 17, I didn't have the time to develop the story until recently, due to my studies and eventually my job over the years. Yes, this is the first of my stories to be published.

What can you tell us about your own faith journey that lead you to where you are now?

My mother is a staunch Catholic. So it was inevitable that I was going to be at least raised Catholic. Like most people, I probably took my faith for granted, but over the years, it has definitely helped me. I believe that it is a good thing to have a faith, whatever that may be. The Catholic faith is not a bad one to have, contrary to widespread propaganda, despite all the issues the Church has faced in recent times. That's a personal opinion based on my own life experiences. As one matures, one realises that there is more to life than meets the eye. In the end, faith, or religion is more logical than science, even though on the face of it, the reverse may seem true. Apologies for the cryptic answer!

I noticed you incorporated your Catholic faith in the books but not overtly. Why did you feel it was important to infuse the culture on Falrus as well as past Line Desimak as a Catholic culture?

That was actually not intentional. It just so happens that in my idea of utopia, some sort of faith is central to the existence of life. It just so happens that the catholic faith is the faith that I know well. So it made sense to incorporate this into the book. I do know a little of other faiths, but not enough to feel confident to, for example, accord these to characters in the book. Interestingly, people from other faiths who have read the book remarked it was nice to have that aspect to the storyline.

The Demba family was very realistic. I loved Giren and Square especially. Are any of the characters based on real life experiences or family members?

Yes, each character in the Demba family and indeed most of the characters in the book are a mix of people I know, their personalities, mannerisms, quirks and idiosyncrasies. My ultimate fear right now is to get a call at midnight from a family member to say, 'Ah, it's suddenly hit me! So-and-so in your book is actually me, isn't it?' Then I would have to fess up (smile). Giren is a lot like me when I was a child. I had a friend like Square at school. I think most people have a friend like Square at school - you know, the really clever kid who seemed to ooze intelligence and that you were secretly jealous of (smile). The tyrants of the OLD World are not completely fictional to me. The military coups of the 80's in West Africa helped to shape my imagination, but when I lived through it, it was very real. Anyone who has lived through a military regime would immediately identify with the people of the OLD World. It is an extremely terrifying experience.

There was a lot of science lingo that went over my head in the book, but was quite fascinating, like how life beyond Desimak is older than the Big Bang. Can you share more with your readers about your thoughts on the origins of the universe in general? Could there be life older than the Big Bang?

(Smile) I love this question, because I am by no means an expert on the Big Bang. This is one aspect of the book which is truly fictional. Space and nuclear physics was one of my favourite subjects at school, and as a teenager I was fascinated by atoms, neutrons, planets and galaxies, that sort of thing. Hence the original idea for the book. To answer your questions, I am as much a fan of the Darwin's theory of evolution as the biblical story of the Creation, with Adam and Eve. In some way, I do not see why these two theories cannot co-exist in a unifying way, i.e. that Darwin is right, but the origin of his complex life forms have to have been created by a divine entity, i.e. God. To my simple mind, there need not be a conflict. The answer to your second question is that no-one really knows. Which is why it is great to fictionize it. It cannot be proved wrong!

What was the inspiration for this story?

The context to the inception of this book is this: Picture a 17 year old, bored after finishing high school exams, waiting to find out if a medical school place is in the offing. Head full of science and an overactive imagination to boot, with a history of writing stories for hours just for the pleasure of putting pen to paper, and six weeks of time to kill with no definite plans for a holiday or any other organised activity (far too impoverished for that!), it was only a matter of time before this kid was going to write a story about life on an unheard-of planet. For self-entertainment. Just for the sheer fun of it. Some might say I needed to get out more, indeed to get a life! But I had so much fun developing the characters and having fun with the science part, it was the best six weeks of my life (well, up to that point!) Then I had more fun recently, 'tidying' up the story, rewriting a few parts and getting it ready for publication. I relived the pleasure, reacquainting myself with my 'secret people'. In short, by that age, I had my own ideas about what the perfect world should look like, and I wanted it to document that somehow, make a snapshot of my thoughts. I was inspired by the need to create something nice, initially for myself, and then to be shared with others. Some do it with music, I like to do it with writing.

Would you say Professor Potty could be a Christ figure in the story or is that reading too much into it?

Wow, I honestly never saw it from that point of view. It is an interesting connection to make, but not one I had in mind when I was writing the book, I must admit! My take on Professor Potty is that kind of 'big brother' or young (perhaps unmarried) uncle who can get down to the level of a child and interact with them as such. I had several Professor Potty figures in my life growing up. Quite why I chose a robot to fulfill this role for the kids in this book, I cannot really explain: I guess the robot was always going to be central to the story, and some sort of adult figure was required to 'help' the kids, so it made sense to use the robot in this way! I guess this relationship between a child or children and a non-human adult is not unique to my an example I could cite that between the Terminator and Edward Furlong's character, John Connor. It was a beautiful friendship, bordering on a father-son relationship, don't you think? Especially in this case given that John Connor was indeed fatherless (and actually, vrtually motherless for much of his life too).

I would call your genre science fiction geared towards children. Why did you pick this age group? Have you written any stories for adults?

Again, interesting and actually insightful question. It may well be purely because I was a 'child' myself when I first wrote this book. I have also written fiction for adults, in my adult life. I do however prefer to write for children. It is that refusal to grow up, I guess, the eternal desire to entertain first the child within, and then other (real) children. I love the innocence associated with childhood, and I guess this is my way of preserving it for myself and others.

At one point in the story, Giren is conflicted on whether to tell his father about his "adventure" or keep it between Square and himself. Why do you think Giren chose what he did and is there a lesson in this for children?

To answer this question, I would ask anyone reading this to revert to their own childhood. Remember the feeling od wanting to do something for yourself, rather than asking anyone else, least of all an adult, and least of all your parent for help? Remember the need for independence? We have all done this in one way or another. I love that 'us against them' attitude children sometimes adopt against grown ups. It is fearless, it is noble, and it is natural. As an adult now, I react with an 'Ahhh, bless' when I see it in action. It is part of growing up. It is a necessary step before adulthood. It is being stubborn, obstinate and sometimes naive. But as Frank Sinatra reflected in his famous song, it is a good feeling to know that 'I did it my way'. That little decision Giren took was my way of saluting all our little friends who choose to do something (hopefully good and not naughty), their way. In many ways, it is an ode to adventurous children of which I was one. It's what childhood is all about.  It is also why I chose that particular acknowledgement at the start of the book.

Life beyond Desimak is a place of tyranny and oppression, but Falrus is a place of freedom. Is there any reason for this?

As is often the case in life, where there is good, in another part, there is evil, unfortunately. It's like yin and yang. To fully appreciate the (almost) perfect life in Falrus, I feel one has to feel the pain of the District people. But even there, it's not all about pain and suffering. They are wonderful people, with goodwill and kind hearts. They too are people just like the Falrusian people, but who just happen to find themselves in a tricky situation. In many ways, what happened to the District people could have happened to anyone, even the Falrusians. One never knows, in this life.

When can we expect the second book in the series?

Not very long. I shall let you into a secret. It is now finished! Just watch this space for the release date in the next year, I hope.

Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?

Yes! Another cryptic answer coming up: in the book I am careful not to give a physical description of any of the characters...but I was persuaded to 'introduce' them on the cover. That let the cat out of the bag about what the sequel is all about. Confused? All will be revealed in a year...(smile)

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Copyright 2010 Victoria Gisondi