Once Upon A Thousands Hills: An Interview With Wendy Skorupski

Wendy Skorupski is an English/Polish novelist behind the novel ‘Once Upon a Thousand Hills’ that was released in February. For starters, it is important to note that the novel isn’t your usual read about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

She met with The New Times’ Bryan Kimenyi and she explains a lot about the novel and what motivated her to come up with the novel.

Tell us about yourself

I have an English mother and a Polish father. I had an international upbringing in Cyprus, Austria and England. I have lived in Poland for the last 25 years, but English is my first language. I am a Board member of the British International Schools of Krakow and Wroclaw. I have always been passionate about literature, and have written several other novels. However, Once Upon a Thousand Hills is my first published novel. 

Where were you when the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi happened?

I was living in Warsaw with my family, working at an international School. I remember watching the news broadcasts from that entire period in horror. 

You’ve been to Rwanda before, were you here to research about your novel?

No, I came to Rwanda, together with my husband Tim and daughter Ellie, because we had become fascinated by Ellie’s school history studies about Rwanda. The more we read about this fascinating country, the more we wanted to see it for ourselves. So one day we just decided: let’s go!

What inspired you to write this novel?

It was a combination of things. As a writer of fiction, I’m always in search of an interesting theme and a gripping storyline that will both interest and move the reader. 

So once I ‘fell in love’ with Rwanda – with its breath-taking beauty, its welcoming people, its fascinating history and its tragic genocide – I decided to write a fictional story that would have a factual backdrop, thereby subtly drawing people in and educating them about Rwanda. 

  • Wendy Skorupski‘s novel explores the love affair between an English woman and Rwandan man in London
Your novel tends to have a lot of facts about the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi but you tell me it is also a love story. How did you come up with this idea?

I wanted to write something that would be accessible to the general public, not just for academics or people who already know about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. 

I wanted to educate people in the West who know very little about what happened here in 1994. Believe it or not, a lot of the younger generation haven’t even heard about Rwanda! That makes me so angry; it makes me burn with sorrow for this brave country that the whole world SHOULD know about. 

So I thought to myself, if I write a punchy, sexy love story that is a real page-turner, then that will be a subtle way of pulling the reader into the full depths of my story as it gradually unfolds. Let’s face it, lots of people love a good romance!  

So I made my story about a young, light-hearted English woman, Naomi, who meets a Rwandan genocide survivor, John Paul, who was orphaned as a young teenager and brought up in London. At the beginning of my novel Naomi knows next to nothing about Rwanda, but this gradually changes as the storyline progresses. When she starts volunteering at a Refugee Centre in London where John Paul works, she gradually starts to find out more and more about his country, the genocide, and what happened to him. Therefore, the reader also finds out more and more, through the twists and turns of my novel.

Needless to say, it is not long before she falls in love with the handsome Rwandan! But it is not an easy love, because John Paul is cool and distant. He lives for his work alone, and is unable to feel true love for a woman due to the traumatised memories from his past. He finds Naomi very silly and irritating at first, just as she finds him very arrogant and unfriendly – so at first they blatantly dislike each other! It is only when Naomi gets more involved in her refugee work that John Paul begins to see a deeper side to her, and then they BOTH truly fall for each other. But there is a twist near the end – something to do with John Paul’s past in the Genocide – that threatens to ruin their relationship.

But I’m not telling you what it is – you’ll just have to read the novel to find out what happens in the end!

Do you think this could be the novel for foreigners who haven’t visited Rwanda?

Absolutely! If someone in England or America, for instance, reads my novel and likes it, I am sure it will inspire them to find out more about Rwanda and then visit the country for themselves. I have already had several readers who have written to me to tell me that they could not put my novel down once they got into it, and that it urged them to look Rwanda up on the internet to find out more about the Genocide. That was exactly my aim – and so far it seems that I am succeeding.

  • Wendy having a good time with game rangers
As a writer, do you think authors all over the world are doing enough to prevent atrocities like the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi?

A lot of factual books and survivor accounts have been written about the Genocide – but I don’t think enough fictional stories have been written. Fiction is a GREAT way of educating people who can’t be bothered to read heavy, detailed history books, or who find survivor accounts too personal. Through fiction, such as in my novel, the reader is gradually drawn into the action and characters – whether the book is a love story or a thriller or any other genre – and therefore he/she is educated by the means of a gripping, page-turning story that just can’t be put down! Then, when the reader has finished the last page, they will inevitably be more educated about the subject than before they came across the novel. And hopefully, they will be inspired to read more about it. 

How important is literature in fighting Genocide denial?

Books are very important, but the fight against Genocide denial is mainly the responsibility of schools. Young people MUST be taught about genocide in high schools – not just the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, but all over the world – in order to grow up into responsible adults who will fight against the continuation of such horrors worldwide. More text books specifically aimed at teenagers and very young people should be written on this subject. 

How long did it take you to write this book? 

About two years. I started writing it after my last visit to Rwanda in October 2016. I did a lot of research first. 

Where can one get this book? 

On Amazon – either or .It can be purchased as an eBook or a paperback. 

  • Wendy hands over her book to the Governor of Northern Province
Any last advice to authors especially those who want to write books about the 1994 Genocide against Tutsis?

As I’ve already said, we need more fiction on the subject and more school books for teenagers. There are already a lot of academic books, but not enough easy-reading ones. 

Should we expect more literature from you on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi?

That depends on how well my novel does. If it is a success and lots of people read it – and hopefully like it – then yes, I intend to write a sequel in the near future. So the story of Naomi and John Paul, and their combined love for Rwanda, will continue …

How do you see post-Genocide Rwanda?

I am hugely impressed. I already read a lot about Rwanda before I first came here in 2016, so I knew that President Paul Kagame had pulled the country out of the devastation of 1994 and transformed it into a safe, clean, welcoming place that is developing faster than most other countries. 

But to be here in person, and see the development for myself, is deeply impressive and moving. Of course more work still needs to be done, but I trust the President and his government to keep working on various aspects of the country and its people. I trust him to be the right man to lead the country into an even better future. But for now, the Rwanda of 2019 is already a wonderful and hugely impressive place to be!

Any parting words?

Please read my book! I would LOVE to  hear the opinions of Rwandans, though I am also a little nervous about what they might have to say …  In summary, whether they like my novel or not, I hope you will all remember that it was written out of a true love for your country!

Bryan Kimenyi is a journalist at The New Times and contributing writer to the WEEKENDER, with an interest in society, sports, and social media.

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