Petina Gappah: ‘I was a lawyer, but I forced myself to write before I went to work’

y ideal writing day involves getting up at five in the morning. I feed my two dogs, jack russell–maltese crosses, then do my daily 40 minutes of yoga on the veranda of my cottage overlooking the Bvumba mountains in the east of Zimbabwe. I then go to my study and sit at my desk, a walnut Victorian library table. My favourite artists – Gareth Nyandoro, Misheck Masamvu, Helen Teede and Portia Zvavahera – hang on the walls. I listen to Thomas Mapfumo, Verdi and the Bhundu Boys. On good days, when the writing is firing, I will have produced one or two thousand words by lunch time. I break to walk the dogs in the hills.

This day is a complete fantasy. The dogs and the art are real, but I own neither a cottage in the Bvumba, nor a walnut Victorian library table: it does exist though, for the last six years it has been on sale at an antique shop I have passed on the way to the Bvumba, waiting for me to afford it.

If things go well, one day this may be my writing day. For now, each of the three books I have written came out of different routines. Until June, I worked full time as an international lawyer in Geneva: I had to balance my writing with the real world of work. My first book, An Elegy for Easterly, was a collection of stories that sprung from a mini-life crisis. I had written all my life, I had just never shown anyone what I wrote, until 2006. That year, I woke up one day and panicked that, at 35, I might never achieve my dream of becoming a published author. So I forced myself to wake up early and write before I went to work. About 18 months later, I had a complete manuscript. I followed the same routine with my most recent book, Rotten Row, another story collection. For two years, between February 2014 and March 2016, I wrote in the mornings, went to work, then came back home and edited what I had written earlier.

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The book that came between these two, a novel called The Book of Memory, was a messier affair. It took me six years to write, and part of that came from the absence of routine. I decided while I was writing it to move from Switzerland to Zimbabwe for three years. But without the routine I had established in Geneva, I found that I simply could not write. There was time in front of me, you see, so much time, time to spare, time to waste. To fill the time, I ended up working on a project to rebuild the Harare city library. But because no day in Zimbabwe was ever predictable, I found it impossible to establish a proper working pattern.

Stricken by guilt, I would sometimes take a week off and drive outside Harare to write. I fell in love with the east of Zimbabwe, a part of the country I had not known as a child. One of the best weeks of my writing life was spent at the Tanganda tea estate in Chipinge. In the morning, I ran through the tea plants, greeting the pickers who had risen long before I had, then I went back my cottage to write, then napped, then wrote again. In the evening, I sat on the veranda watching the sun sink over the rows and rows of tea. It was bliss.

In June this year I left my job, and Geneva, for good. Tempting as it was to move back to Harare, I knew that if I went back, I would probably involve myself in something likely to consume me as much as the library had. But the novel I am working on now requires a relentless single-mindedness. It is my white whale, the only novel I wanted to write – I saved my first version of this book on a floppy disk. Having served my apprenticeship, I am now ready to take it on fully. So I am not moving back to Harare, but to Berlin, where I will be an artist-in-residence.

I have promised myself that once I can write this novel, I will find that cottage in the Bvumba, and make it my home. And all writers will be welcome to visit. Particularly those who love dogs.

• Rotten Row by Petina Gappah is published by Faber.This article was published by The Guardian

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