The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

Anima: An extraordinary life plotted out in numbers

Tuesday, 15 January 2019, 09:01 Last update: about 2 years ago

Acclaimed author Antoinette Borg speaks to The Malta Independent on Sunday about her latest offering, Anima, the story of a 15-year-old Maths prodigy who lives on patterns, rules and diagrams. Anima sees life in figures but, as Borg explains, it’s not all about maths: it’s a mystery adventure on the surface but deeper down it’s also about the cruelty of dementia, the meaning of identity and the power of stories

Merlin Publishers has just published your third novel, Amina. Who is Amina? 

Amina is a 15-year-old orphan who lives in a children's home. She has a passion for mathematics and has just been selected to take part in Malta's first-ever maths camp. Amina is going through some tough personal troubles right now, but is looking forward to her camp experience and hopes she will be able to make new friends while practising the subject she loves. Well, she's in for a stormy ride...


Is that geometry on the cover? Don't tell us this is a book about maths?!

Yes, that's lovely geometry on the cover! Drawn by my own hand!

But no, the book is not about maths. It does have a mathematical backdrop, but, as its title tells, it's essentially about Amina and what she goes through at the camp and beyond. Maths haters needn't worry at all; they are not required to make calculations or solve equations to enjoy Amina's story. It is a mystery adventure at the surface but deeper down it's also about the cruelty of dementia, the meaning of identity and the power of stories.


Who is the target reader for this novel?

I love to think that anyone from age 10 or 11 upwards (including those who are not exactly passionate about maths) can enjoy reading this novel.


Did you base Amina on a real life person? 

No. Originally, when I first started plotting the story, she was just one of the secondary characters, but before long she took on a life of her own and insisted on taking the lead part. She was very convincing so I obliged.


All your three novels are children's. How much do your children inspire you? 

I wouldn't say that my novels are for children, but it is true that all of them - at least those published to date - feature teenagers and young adults. Probably yes, my children, their world and their literature texts inspire me more than I am consciously aware of.  


You quit your job in the financial world to take up writing. Is this book your way of converging the two worlds?

I think it goes down to a somewhat deeper level. I've always been an avid reader, and yet my favourite subject at school was maths. Most people believe that literature and maths are incompatible, but I love both. In a way Amina is an attempt at showing that these two disparate worlds can somehow be converged. Writing Amina I realised that I love literature because it helps me navigate through life's unanswered questions, and I love maths because I know it has answers I can get to if I work hard enough.


Why did it take you so long to take the plunge?

It took me so long simply because "taking the plunge" had never actually crossed my mind: for many years the dream of "one day writing a book" was just that, a dream. It was my dad's sudden passing away that changed the way I look at life and made me start thinking about my dream with a greater sense of urgency.


You have won the Emerging Author award - how does that feel?

When I started writing, the highest point I was aspiring to was to manage to get published. So just over three years down the line, having three published novels and three literary awards to boot feels very much surreal. It is also a big motivational boost: it feels great to know that my work is recognised and appreciated, and makes me want to write more and more.


Can you make a living out of writing?

From my experience, definitely not. It doesn't come even close. Since the market for Maltese books is tiny, when you factor in publication and distribution costs, what is left for the author's months, or years, of painstaking work is a mere drop in the ocean. It is disheartening to think that sooner or later I might have to give up writing to go back to "gainful" employment. My dream is that some day it would be possible for Maltese authors to earn a decent income for their work, as in Norway, for example, where writers are supported directly with work grants or a guaranteed income.


What tools do you use to store ideas? Sticky notes? Diaries? 

Normally I use whatever scrap of paper comes to hand or the memo pad on my mobile. The more intriguing ideas get recorded on a Word file I named Ideas Bank. Apart from day-to-day life I get a lot of inspiration from books I read, so I keep another Word file named Book Observatory to take note of interesting concepts, mainly related to writing techniques, that strike me while reading.


How much of your writing time is research? Do you research every novel? And how do you go about research? 

I spend a lot of time on research, and yes, I research all my novels down to minute details. For readers to thoroughly enjoy a book and immerse themselves in its world, they need to be able to believe that what they are reading is true, even though they know they are reading a work of fiction. Research is what enables the writer to achieve this effect. I normally carry out research in large chunks in the initial stages of writing a novel, but then also continuously while I am writing.


When you write, do you just want to say a story, or do you want to pass on some sort of message to readers?

I write to create an enjoyable story. When I write, my foremost thought is to write a story that I myself would enjoy reading. It goes without saying that I tend to explore and highlight themes that I am interested in, so naturally these would then seep through to the readers to ponder and interpret as they wish.


Who is your first reader of a story and why?

I discuss ideas and draft excerpts with various members of my family depending on the subject matter, but the first eyes that get to see my completed first draft are normally those of my publisher, Chris Gruppetta of Merlin: he is a brilliant "doctor of stories" and always comes back with an excellent diagnosis of what works and what doesn't in my draft.


What are you reading at the moment? And what is the book that everyone must read in 2019?

Right now I am reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which is an amazing read. Also each night, at bedtime, I read my daily dose of Trevor Zahra's 365 short stories. Trevor Zahra is Malta's master storyteller and 365 is precisely the book that I believe everyone must read over 2019, starting from 1 January right through to 31 December.


Which is the book you wish you had written?

What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. It is absolutely brilliant, a perfect mix of everything I love in a novel: satire, mystery, humour and adventure, all rolled together in an incredibly ingenious way!


What's in the pipeline for us readers? 

I am currently very excited to be co-authoring a colourful collection of short stories for adults. There are also several books for children in the pipeline, both original and in translation, and I've just started exploring an idea that I have for a brand new novel...


  • don't miss