I actively seek it out when I head to a bookstore because I love a coming of age tale more than ANY other book. I also generally want to be BFFs with most YA fiction writers because…well, they’re freakin’ cool. Gemma Birss is no acceptation. G-friend is too cool for freakin’ school. Having lived in Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Japan, India and France, and mixing up a juicy concoction of careers as an air hostess, artist, film maker and radio DJ, Gemma Birss is now a writer and illustrator, yoga teacher and deputy editor of Prediction magazine in London. See? Freakin’ cool, right?
Gemma’s book, Gift, tells the story of Chipo who finds herself in rural Zimbabwe with no memory of who she is. In a spiritual coming-of-age adventure that involves witchdoctors, demons, snakes, crocodiles and magic, Chipo makes some amazing friends, meets some fascinating characters, and after discovering the dark truth of her hidden identity, comes to realise who she really is.
Come meet Gemma, she’s awesome. Fact.
Your new book is called Gift – tell us about it, Miss G…
It’s all very mysterious – this little girl called Chipo (which means Gift) has lost her memory and her voice. She goes on a mad adventure through the African bush, hooking up with freaky witch doctors, ancestral spirits, sly old crocodiles, magic spells and enigmatic snakes on a journey to find out who she is and where her voice has gone. It’s pretty pulse-racy and edge-of-your-seaty… and ultimately feel-goody. It was given the stamp of approval by the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Awards, too, which makes it even more feel-goody!
How did this book go from idea in your head to hold-in-your-hand reality?
The story I had in my head was really different to the one that ended up in the book. I had a nebulous idea about what was going to happen, so, lacking the patience to plot it all out beforehand, I sat down at my laptop and let it tell itself. The story unfolded as I wrote it – I had no clue what was going to happen next, and I just had to keep writing to find out… It was like laying a really exciting egg. I wasn’t sure if it was an ostrich egg, crocodile egg or dinosaur egg. It turned out to be a Kinder Surprise! Can you get a better egg than that?!
It’s set in Zimbabwe, with witch doctors and crocodiles, did you get to go there to do lots of research or do you have witchdoctors on speed dial?
I was lucky enough to grow up in Zimbabwe. I lived there from when I was a wee mite right up until I went to university in South Africa. We learnt Shona – the Zimbabwean language – at school. I can remember all the wild animal names, but that’s about it. I have the smell of it, the land, the people, the sensations in my blood, though. I hope I’ve captured these things in my book.
How did you begin writing this book?
I gave up my job, sat down at my laptop and started tapping away. I was living off lentils for a while, but it was worth it. Life’s too short to be pedalling out a humdrum nine-to-five existence… there are too many wonderful dreams to be getting on with!
What’s your writing process?
There are two essentials: A laptop and a cup of Earl Grey.
Any good luck charms or talismen?
I wish I could say I had a pair of lucky writing pants, but my talisman is just a cup of tea.
Do you have any unique to you rituals or connection processes?
I practice yoga and meditation – usually Kundalini yoga, but sometimes Hatha, depending on how I’m feeling. While I was writing Gift, I was into my morning chanting – getting up at the crack of dawn to belt out my mantra for 31 minutes each day like a total fruit loop. Much to the consternation of my sleeping housemates. They said they quite liked it though. Chanting is good for the flow of expression and it is oh so powerful. It knocks my socks off every time.
What is your absolute truth?
Everything that we think we want to be, we are already. I love that. It means you can let go of it all.
What inspires you, gives you pleasure?
I am a crochet queen, even though the only thing I know how to make is a granny square – I’m currently making a the biggest granny square in the world. It just goes on and on, and I don’t have the heart to end it. When I’m not working my wool, I’m drawing, painting, making dahl and practising yoga with my man. I love love love teaching yoga, too – seeing the rosy gleam on everyones’ faces after a yoga class always makes me gooey inside. And I seriously heart sheep in fields.
What does a Miss G self care regime look like? What do you do to make sure you shine like a superstar?
I’ve recently gotten into my oils. I’m one for basking in the goodness of any oil I can get my hands on – argan, coconut, avo, flax seed, macadamia – on my food, on my skin and in my hair. That makes me, quite literally, the shiniest lass this side of the sun. Otherwise I do lots of yoga, eat lots of avocados and make sure I get in at least a dozen giggles a day.
What’s your mantra for living and loving life?
Everything is perfect, just as it is!
You’re an editrix for Prediction magazine too, what do you love most about your job and has it helped with being a writer-girl?
It’s the best job in the world! It has always been my dream to write all day, and that’s what I do. It means I have to be super disciplined about focusing on my own work, though, but at the moment I’m illustrating books rather than writing them (I illustrated Gift and did the cover design, too) I’m working on illustrating a gorgeous series of angel picture books for children, written by Prediction’s uber talented editor, Alexandra Wenman. They’re coming out soooooon so watch this space!
Quick fire round – what’s your favourite…
Place to hang out: Snuggling in bed with my man. There is always time for more snuggles.
Movie: Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away
City: Tokyo. It’s hilarious!
Book: Tom Robbins rocks the universal kasbah. Villa Incognito is my uber favourite.
Website: Lisa, you know I heart your sassyology.com above all the rest (love you, Miss G!)
Magazine: Prediction definitely has my heart!