Meet Alexandra Fuller
We talk to the author of: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Scribbling the Cat, and The Legend of Colton H. Bryant.
Alexandra Fuller says she wanted to write ‘as soon as I could hold a pencil’. Telling stories – her own and other people’s – propelled her into non-fiction, beginning with her memoir of her African childhood, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, followed by Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier and her latest, a hybrid of biography, eco-politics and poetic tribute, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. Set in Wyoming, where Fuller now lives with her husband and three children, the book traces the all-too-brief life of an engaging ‘redneck’, Colton Bryant, whom we first meet as a bullied eight-year-old shaking off cries of ‘retard’ with the mantra, ‘Mind Over Matter. I don’t mind so it don’t matter.’
Wyoming is tough, and the gritty poetry of place is rendered beautifully. Colton is an engaging mix of toughness, fire and innocence – but on the oil rigs, where production is everything and safety not a concern, he’s ‘just another redneck’. This drove Fuller to write the book. ‘Wyoming not only has the highest rate of worker fatalities in the nation, but we also have the highest percentage of rig deaths, and oil and gas companies in Wyoming are protected from lawsuits brought by maimed rednecks or the families of dead or maimed rednecks,’ Fuller explains. ‘The fines imposed on drilling companies for safety violations are pathetic.’ It’s this passion for people, environment and accurate observation that has made Fuller one of the most risk-taking writers around.
‘I felt like a traitor…’
Charting the often agonising experiences of her family’s years in then Rhodesia, Malawi and Zambia, Fuller has an unflinching gaze and an uncompromising way with language. Her family was hardly overjoyed by the revelations, but she regards Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight as a loving memorial – which, in a sense, it is, despite the frailties uncovered. ‘I felt like a traitor to my family, the people who had raised me,’ she confesses. ‘It was awful. I think it hurt my mother terribly, and I never intended to hurt her, and I think it embarrassed my father and sister. I’m glad i did it – but I don’t think I would have done it if I’d known what the consequences would be.’
On writing The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is the result of Fuller’s working closely with Colton’s parents, Bill and Kaylee, and the rest of his family. She says she initially intended to write a book about the oil boom in Wyoming and its social consequences (Wyoming also has one of the highest suicide rates in the US), but Colton became the focal point. ‘Kaylee and Bill started to tell me about Colton, how he had been born going 70 miles an hour in a 1976 Ford thunderbird and how he had been in a rush ever since. There were all the Colton stories, these truly incredible, made-for-a-book stories – and I think fairly soon I realised that I wanted to write about Colton and no one else,’ she says.
Though Colton’s fate is hardly unique, he is anything but a statistic. Fuller makes you fall in love with him – his gentleness, his quirky cowboy sayings, his old-fashioned uprightness. It’s a loving portrait of a soul crushed by the heartlessness of what Fuller calls ‘America’s violent and unsustainable energy policy…’. ‘I wanted [the book] to read like a novel, so that people actually felt Colton in their hearts, and felt the pain of losing him,’ she says.
The result is an authentic portrait of a part of a community Fuller says is not far removed from the white Zimbabweans who raised her – ‘tough, hospitable, sometimes closed-minded, pragmatic, self-defeating, suspicious of change and utterly attached to land and place. ‘Maybe it just shows you that people who live in remote places, love land and are frightened of change aren’t so dissimilar from one continent to the next,’ she concludes.