Interview with Mason Cranswick, author of Blood Lily
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Interview with Mason Cranswick, author of Blood Lily
Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (08/10)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview
Mason Cranswick, who is here to talk about his new book “Blood Lily.”
Mason Cranswick was born and raised in Zimbabwe. He received an MBA from Cambridge University, (Magdalene College) in 1995. Prior to that he qualified as a Chartered Accountant in the UK, after obtaining a degree in commerce from Rhodes University, South Africa. A career in investment banking has taken him around the world—from London, Tokyo, and New York to Singapore during the Asian currency crisis of the late ’90s. A keen sportsman, he played international rugby for Zimbabwe Schools in 1984 and, as an amateur boxer, was a Cambridge University Blue and captain in 1994/95. He now lives in Cape Town.
Tyler: Welcome, Mason. I’m excited to talk to you today about “Blood Lily.” To begin, I think that’s quite a striking title. Will you tell us what it refers to?
Mason: Hi, Tyler. Yes, the Blood Lily is a stunning Zimbabwean plant. As a child growing up in Zimbabwe, I remember their crimson puff-ball blooms exploding into color in the summer months. They are a powerful symbol of regeneration in the book…while the futility of the Rhodesian war and the waste of Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe are transient, the land is forever.
Tyler: Will you tell us about the two main characters, the two boys around whom the story centers?
Mason: Simba is a black boy, his mother being the maid for Scott’s white family on the farm. Quiet, intelligent, perceptive, Simba broods over not being allowed to attend the same schools, restaurants, and hospitals as his white friends. His moods are dark, dangerous….
Scott, Simba’s boyhood friend, is a loyal, likeable young man. As his tragic journey unfolds he slowly begins to question the beliefs of the world he grew up in.
Tyler: What made you decide to tell the story of two boys from such different cultural and racial backgrounds?
Mason: One of the more fascinating aspects of the country’s history is the interaction between the whites and the local black Shona and Ndebele population and the role this had in the country’s history. Through the eyes of Scott, and his relationship with Simba, the book examines both sides’ views on race and the war. I have tried to present all perspectives fairly, without moralizing.
Tyler: Mason, I know this is a huge question to ask, but could you briefly tell us how both sides views on race and war differ? It may seem obvious, but then again, perhaps it’s best that you tell us so we don’t assume anything.
Mason: Rhodesia was run by a white minority government up until 1979. Both white and black soldiers fought alongside each other in the Rhodesian army against guerilla forces led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Most of us white Rhodesians regarded these guerillas as terrorists. To many countries in the world, however, and indeed for part of the black population, they were freedom fighters (fighting for the rights of the black people, such as the right to vote). When fully representative elections were held in 1980, Mugabe won a landslide victory. As a young white Rhodesian/Zimbabwean I was shocked at the ease with which Mugabe won…I had no idea of the extent of Mugabe and Nkomo’s support. It was only then that many of us whites realized that most of the black population must have supported Mugabe and Nkomo during the war.
Tyler: Who are some of the other main characters and what are their roles in the novel?
Mason: I enjoyed creating and writing the character for Scott’s Mother, Mary. In this male-dominated world, she plays a background role for most of the book, but steps powerfully into the forefront when her family’s existence is under threat from Mugabe’s war veterans. Many readers have written and told me how fond they became of the characters in the book like Scott’s Mother and how much they missed them when they finished the book.
I’ve also had great feedback from so many readers on Scott’s two friends from his childhood and army...Conway and Bruce, fine young men, ready to take on the world. It seems like people really connect with those characters—they are the sort of guys you would have known from your own childhood which makes it all the more poignant when the plot ultimately takes them in a tragic direction….
Tyler: Will you tell us a little about the civil war in Rhodesia and the recent history of Zimbabwe since they are probably largely unknown to most readers in the U.S.?
Mason: Yes, I’d be happy to Tyler. Cecil John
Rhodes sent the first pioneers into Rhodesia in 1890, raising the
British flag in Salisbury in September that year.
In 1965, Ian Smith declared independence (UDI) from Britain. Smith, an ex Spitfire Pilot in the Second World War, established a white minority government which ruled Rhodesia for nearly fifteen years. Our family lived on the neighboring farm to Mr. Smith…he was a very popular figure in the local community.
There was opposition to the white-run government and a violent guerilla campaign was initiated by guerillas led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. The bush-war intensified into a bloody campaign in the late ’70s.
Pressure from the rest of world, particularly South Africa on whom Rhodesia depended for basic necessities such as fuel, forced Smith into talks with the guerillas, and in 1980, open elections were held in which the entire population was allowed to vote.
Mugabe won the elections, and for a time Zimbabwe was regarded as a success story…the breadbasket of Africa. Then in the late 1990s, the country started to unravel. Mugabe sent his troops to the Congo…the country simply could not absorb this cost of over a million dollars a day. Then Mugabe lost a referendum…he blamed the white farmers for campaigning against him. His vengeance was swift, and soon his thugs were on the farms threatening and removing the farmers. Zimbabwe’s continuing decline, thereafter, is well documented.
Today Mugabe still holds the balance of power in a coalition government.
Tyler: Can you explain why Smith formed a government independent of Britain? Was he in revolt to Britain? And other than the government becoming local, did the change make any difference to most people in Zimbabwe? Is it a case where they might as well have been under British rule still?
Mason: In the 1960s Rhodesia, like many of Britain’s other colonies, wanted independence. But the British would only grant them independence if they agreed to black majority rule. Ian Smith didn’t believe this was in the best interests of the country and defiantly declared independence from Britain in 1965. This put Britain in a tricky situation to enforce as the British regarded many Rhodesians as their own flesh and blood…Ian Smith, himself, had been in the Royal Air Force. So the British and most of the countries in the world, with the notable exception of South Africa, imposed sanctions on Rhodesia. To answer your next question…I suppose you are right—for the black majority, not a lot would have changed for them, after Smith’s declaration of independence.
Tyler: What about your book do you think will appeal to an American audience or to audiences in any place outside Africa?
Mason: Above all, it’s a gripping read which
captures this fascinating chapter in the country’s history. It has
already been very well received across the globe, including America.
Americans might even compare this story with the Vietnam experience…the psychological damage to some soldiers, the contradictions, the brutality, the futility of war….Some ex-Vietnam soldiers participated in the Rhodesian bush-war, including one of Scott’s officers in the book, so Blood Lily is definitely a story that will resonate with Americans.
Tyler: Will you tell us a little about your own life growing up in Zimbabwe and how it influenced your writing this story?
Mason: I grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe which provides the setting for my fictional tale. As described in the book, the bush was incredibly beautiful. Three years ago I visited the farm. The house was broken down, squatters and litter everywhere—it was a complete mess and very sad. Then I visited another farm we had lived on earlier. It had been deserted since the 1980s and the bush had completely taken over…completely wild and untouched; it was magnificent. That encouraged me to develop one of the key themes of the book which is about the enduring quality of land.
Tyler: Would you say then the land or the country is a character in the book in a sense? Can you expand a bit more about how the theme is depicted in the book?
Mason: That’s an interesting point you make, Tyler. Yes, the land and bush is a powerful feature of, and almost a character in the story. In the early stages of the book, the beauty of the land is aligned with the energy and optimism of the youthful Scott. Later, when in 2009, the boys return to their farm, it is in ruin depicting the waste and ruin of current Zimbabwe. So many readers have told me of their great sadness at this point…how they’d grown to love the farm and were devastated to see it in ruin. In the final scene, the land again plays a crucial role, but I won’t spoil the story for readers by giving any more detail.
Tyler: Beyond the plot and
characters, reviewers have been struck by your descriptions of the
land, the beautiful Zimbabwean bushveld and the wildlife. Did you
consciously invest time and creativity into the descriptions and what
about them do you feel was significant in relation to the overall
Mason: One of the most striking and positive features of our lovely country is the beautiful bushveld and wildlife. As a result I have made the bush and animals integral to the story. For example:
The Blood Lilies bursting into flower, the Flying Ants swarming into the skies represent hope and regeneration; The Crows and the Ichithamuzi tree representing ominous foreboding.
Many of the animals and pets in the story were taken from real life…my uncle had a pet kudu (an antelope) on which the kudu in the book, Shoko, was based. The Ichithamuzi tree means “destroyer of homes,” in the local Ndebele language. My parents and grandparents would never cut down an Ichithamuzi tree under any circumstances. There were many stories about families who had chopped down Ichithamuzi trees…none of them had happy endings.
Tyler: Mason, is there one scene in the book that particularly resonates with you or that you think is central to the story—perhaps a scene you most enjoyed writing?
Mason: There is a very powerful scene in the book where the two boys confront each other on the banks of the River Cam, in Cambridge, England…the readers, who up until now have been told the story through the eyes of Scott, are suddenly forced to question the credibility of everything they have been told….
Tyler: Mason, I understand you live in South Africa today, a country which here in America is more familiar to us than Zimbabwe—at least we are familiar with the term “apartheid” and Nelson Mandela is a household name here. Can you tell us a little bit about how South Africa’s story is different from Zimbabwe’s so we Americans don’t just assume they are both similar because both were European colonies?
Mason: South Africa, which lies to the south of Zimbabwe, is a spectacular country as you would have seen in the recent World Cup. It is larger than Zimbabwe with a population of about 49 million compared with Zimbabwe’s population of about 12 million. Zimbabwe was ruled by a white minority government until 1979, South Africa until 1994, when Mandela came to power. South Africa never experienced the same level of military conflict as Zimbabwe. Since the late 1990s, Zimbabwe has witnessed a steep decline, while South Africa has been relatively stable and is currently in good health, as evidenced by the magnificent job it did in hosting the World Cup.
Tyler: Overall, what did you find most difficult about writing “Blood Lily”?
Mason: My career in the financial world was fast-paced, exciting, with lots of people around me all the time. Writing a book is solitary and I had to shut myself away to write, which was very difficult. Also, the level of work and detail required for research—the bush, the war, everything—was extraordinary.
Tyler: Mason, I mentioned that you were involved in boxing when I introduced you. I assume your own experiences influenced your writing of these scenes. It’s not easy to describe fight scenes and action. Did you find it challenging to put it into words?
Mason: Probably the easiest part of writing the whole book were the boxing scenes. I made the main character fit my own personal stature (short) so I could easily describe the fight scenes from my personal experience. One of the most dramatic scenes in the book, where Scott collapses, is taken from personal experience. He is knocked out cold and to everyone it appears he has lost, until we discover….
Tyler: Was it easier or more difficult to write about boxing than to craft the battle scenes in the novel?
Mason: It was much easier to describe the boxing. I found the battle scenes more difficult as I was not part of the Rhodesian war—I was still a young child at the time. But I worked very closely with and got a lot of input from family, friends, and senior officers who were involved in the actual military raids that took place.
Tyler: The events you describe take place during a period when you were growing up. Why at this point in your life did you feel the need to tell this story? Did you need distance from that time period before it could be told?
Mason: The story is fictional but based on real events, real events that had a profound effect on all our lives…that are still vivid in the minds of the people who lived in that period. Now is a good time to explore it all…I suppose it begs the question and a sad one too—after all the conflict, what have we ended up with—a country in ruin?
Tyler: That’s a perfect transition into my next question. How is the legacy of colonialism viewed in Zimbabwe today? Did the British bring with them anything that has helped the country progress, or would the Zimbabwe people have been better off if the British never came?
Mason: In fairness to the British and white settlers, they created an impressive infrastructure in Rhodesia which is still there today in current Zimbabwe. While less money would have been spent on the black schools than the white schools, the standard of education in Rhodesia for black Rhodesians was still very high. My mother taught for many years at an excellent black school, which turned out many outstanding students.
Tyler: Have you been pleased by the responses you’ve received from critics and readers so far, and have any of the responses surprised you?
Mason: Very pleased, in fact thrilled by the responses. People have thoroughly engaged with the book and have wanted me to know that. I have had hundreds of emails, telephone calls, and letters from people who have wanted to share their own experiences with me or just wanted me to know how the book has affected them. It has been quite a journey.
Tyler: What is the ultimate impact you hope your novel will make upon readers?
Mason: Firstly, I’ve written it in a way that people will enjoy. It’s a page turner that most people seem to have read overnight! If they enjoy it, then all the themes that I touch on: the waste, the ruin…will sink in, get talked about, and shared. So that the world, on a big scale, can appreciate the injustices which have occurred in Zimbabwe since the late 1990s and do something about it. It is very sad to see this beautiful country being destroyed and the rest of the world perhaps not even aware that it is happening. Also, I would like to leave readers with a sense of the beauty of the land…and that no matter the prevailing waste and destruction, the land will always come back.
Tyler: What are the injustices taking place in Zimbabwe since the late 1990s that you mention above?
Mason: Zimbabwe has steadily deteriorated since the late 1990s. Headlines emanating from Zimbabwe include the violent removal of farmers from farmlands, political violence and oppression, the intimidation during the elections, widespread poverty and unemployment, and the economy now in tatters.
Tyler: Thank you for the privilege of interviewing you today, Mason. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about “Blood Lily”?
Mason: Thank you Tyler. Please check out my website: www.bloodlily.co.za. In the front of the website it has all the buttons if you want to buy the book. Also, as you can see on www.bloodlily.co.za/charity.htm the book supports a fantastic cause…Zimbabwean pensioners who have suffered as result of the situation in Zimbabwe.
Tyler: That’s great, Mason. I wish you continued success with the book and with educating readers about Zimbabwe’s past and present.