I have just emerged from a six-book Liane Moriarty feeding frenzy. Why had I never heard of her before? Anyway, I hadn’t and then serendipitously, she turned up in both my real life and my online book clubs – in the same week. Moriarty is an Australian writer whose novel Big Little Lies (I read it) just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And I can tell you why: her novels are strongly crafted, but not too artsy; her characters are warm and witty and full of foibles that make you want to be friends with them; her plots are intriguing without being full of red herrings and obvious tropes. My only criticism, and it is a mild one, is that they are the most middle-class books I have ever read. Joanna Trollope has been ousted from the pillar of middle-classery. There is nary a poor person, nor a homeless one, nor one of colour in any of the novels. It’s a world of yummy mummies, intrigue at the school gates and shenanigans in the Sydney suburbs. However, and this is what rescues the novels and I’m sure what has shot Moriarty to the top of the bestseller lists, she writes with such teasing wit that her characters laugh at themselves being middle-class at the gates of Sydney schools – and you laugh with them. Comfort reading at its absolute best.
So having sadly finished Moriarty’s entire oeuvre, I wrote to an Australian friend asking if she knew her. She didn’t but she did recommend the next writer into whose work I am now diving – Elena Ferrantes. An Italian whose work was first translated into English in 2012, Ferrantes has become a writing sensation. Described as an angry Jane Austen (you had me at that), Ferrantes has caught the public’s imagination as she refuses to do any publicity or put a face to her name (and she writes superbly). According to Wikipedia, she has admitted that she is a mother, which means she probably is female. I am reading the first of her Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, and have the second and third ready to go on my e-reader. Things are dark and dreary in Ferrante’s work, there is relentless poverty but there are souls that shine out of the darkness. There will be a binge, I can predict it.
Since it is Christmas and things come in trios (wise men, etc), I have a third writer in mind. Both my mother and brother have devoured the Patrick O’ Brian novels, and he has named his Lab puppy Jack Aubrey. In honour of the less famous Jack, I plan to read these next.
Do you have any writers upon whose work you binge?
So I am writing, but there’s always time for reading. Here, in handy list form for ease of use, are my latest five-star books:
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love was a Marmite book. Some loved it, others hated it. I was amongst the lovers. But that aside, the raging success of E,P,L gave Gilbert the money and time to research and write The Signature of All Things, which is the book she was born to write. It is the big, bold, open-hearted story of Alma Whittaker, a nineteenth century botanist whose research takes her in the same direction as Charles Darwin’s. Gilbert says she was inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which the author writes historical fiction with a modern sensibility. This was exactly what I loved about Gilbert’s novel. I also loved it on sentence level. There was deep, deep sentence jealousy.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Lauren is a superbly talented South African writer. Her last couple of books have gone to auction at Frankfurt Book Fair and earned her huge advances. She is a genre-busting wild child, presently sporting pink hair. Her latest is set in Detroit and focuses on the efforts of a female detective to find a serial killer. What starts as a crime novel spirals into a deftly managed horror story. It is vast in imagination and bold in its reflection of the twenty-first century sensibility, replete (in a good way) with Facebook posts, Reddit conversations and journalists manipulating the Internet for cheap fame. Stephen King should look to his laurels.
Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes
Loved this. Marx’s big-hearted youngest child got most of her schooling at her father’s feet, and grew up to be a tireless trade unionist, journalist, writer and campaigner before committing suicide in her forties. She forced the suffragettes to consider working women in their campaigns, forced British trade unionism to be more international and fought on every side for workers’ rights. She is a fascinating human being and Holmes does a great job bringing her to life. If we’re talking modern sensibility, then Tussy (as was her nickname) was the epitome of this with her absolute refusal to countenance the mores of her time.
All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
I am an unabased Toews fan. I love everything she writes, mostly because no matter how tragic the subject matter, it is always thread through with dark dark humour. The same goes for her latest novel, about two sisters, emotional refugees from the Canadian Mennonites, who have gone on to make their lives outside the sect – Elfrieda as a concert pianist, and Yolanda as a messed-up normal person. Most of the story is told at Elfrieda’s bedside in a mental institution where she is recovering from her latest suicide attempt and contemplating her next. Witty, tragic, beautiful. This book is hard not to love.
Just back from South Africa, where I took Balthasar’s Gift to four cities and got to celebrate its launch with a lot of special people in wonderful book shops around the country. I was also honoured at each event to have a great co-host join me on stage (or in comfortable arm-chairs and once, a red leather sofa) and ask me questions about crime fiction in general and Balthasar’s Gift in particular. I’ve been alone with this book for many years, so I was more than happy to talk and talk and talk. Many people bought books, so I was happy to also sign and sign and sign.
Much of it has melted into a happy blur, but here’s what I can remember from each launch:
The event was held at Cafe Tatham, a beautiful cafe adjacent to the city art gallery. High ceilings, wonderful purple walls. The book arrived in the nick of time, thanks to bookseller extraordinaire Cheryl Naidoo who talked FedEx in from Durban. Friends and family poured in (including two school friends, and one school teacher of mine) and the cafe was soon full of people talking and drinking wine. I sat on the red sofa with Cheryl Stobie, who is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (and my former Grade 6 teacher). She asked me if writing the book had turned me into a better version of myself (yes and no), which of the characters I would like to have dinner with (Aslan and Maggie), which parts of the book were hardest to write (scenes involving children; at this point I cried), and the role of the journalist in society (observer versus activist).
On to Durbs, where my co-host was William Saunderson-Meyer, journalist, author of the much-syndicated Jaundiced Eye columnand crime fiction aficionado. The event was held at Adams Books in the Musgrave Centre, and manager Cedric Sissing gave us a lovely intro. The bookshop was packed – and I was touched again to see faces of school friends and people who I hadn’t seen for years. William and I talked about the role of crime fiction as a political reflection of society, my own political journey and how that was mirrored in the novel, how distance made it easier not harder for me to write the book and my route to publication. He wanted to know what the hell feminist crime fiction was and I attempted to explain. William put it out there that that the brandy-soaked Boer is a bit of a tired stereotype, and my riposte was that German audiences had no beef with Boer but were not crazy about the arts reporter.
Cape Town is special, even if I diss it a little in the novel. Special for me because I studied there and special because it is filled with some of my favourite people in the whole world. My co-host was the TV director and novelist Sam Wilson, who is awesome and also my cousin (no link between his awesomeness and our shared genes – he just is). Sam and I talked about Pietermaritzburg being a character in the novel, about how Maggie is a female James Bond, how I researched the AIDS topic and whether there is a book two featuring Maggie (there is). We competed with the State of the Nation address, happening at the same time about 300 metres away in Parliament, and despite this, there was a goodly crowd. A couple of cops wandered in with their walkie-talkies on, adding an air of authenticity. The Book Lounge put on a fabulous spread – pity I didn’t get around to trying to their biltong, feta and rocket sandwiches. As with the other two events, we sold nearly all the books.
The last event was in Johannesburg, held at Love Books in Melville. Like the Book Lounge and Adams, this is a wonderful shop, with thoughtfully chosen books and comfy armchairs where you could while away hours. The owner Kate Rogan gave us a lovely intro, and then my fellow Modjaji writer and author of the Trinity Luhabe series, Fiona Snyckers, asked some perceptive questions about Maggie and about the role of the journalist in society. It was a very cold, wintry Joburg evening and I was so touched and thrilled that so many people turned up. I saw colleagues from my Joburg working days, family (my children are quite bewildered by the number people with whom they share a gene pool) and friends new and old.
In between the four events, I also did a couple of press interviews, appeared live on radio twice and did some signings. The whole experience was amazing, and now I need to get working on Book Two so that I can go back and do it all again.
There is nothing quite as exciting as a newspaper article about your forthcoming book launch in your hometown newspaper. It is even more exciting when it’s the newspaper that you trained on as a junior journalist many years ago. And trebly so when the newspaper you write about in your novel is ever-so-loosely based on your hometown paper.
Susie Nott-Bower is the author of The Making of Her, published by Linen Press in 2012 and described on their website as “a blackly funny novel about women who feel unwanted and irrelevant when they reach fifty.” When Susie and I were on the same online writers’ forum, I watched Susie’s progress to publication with interest and marked The Making of Her in my mental TBR pile. After the forum caved, I lost contact with Susie, but when I finished reading the novel, I tweeted Susie to tell her how much I had loved it. She graciously agreed to an interview.
Here’s our chat:
Susie, I have just finished reading The Making of Her, which I thought was superb. I suspect there is a germ of autobiography in there. Could you talk about how aspects of your life sparked the premise of the book?
Susie Nott-Bower: So glad you enjoyed it, Charlotte. And yes, there’s more than a germ of autobiography there! The Making of Her is the story of three middle-aged people (and I’m definitely middle-aged) whose lives are transformed during the production of a tawdry television makeover show. I worked as a director/producer for the BBC and Channel 4 for many years, and have written just about all my life. The two women – Clara, a driven, impatient television producer – and Jo, a sensitive, introverted writer – are two sides of myself. Clara, a feminist, has lost her femininity along the way, and Jo is increasingly losing her spirit, married as she is to the dreadful Iain. Pete, the reclusive rock star, has barricaded himself into a too-small life. All these are tendencies of mine, under pressure. While many of the events in The Making of Her are not autobiographical – I’ve never had plastic surgery, for instance – the themes definitely are.
What I loved about TMOH, is that although the themes of love, loss, self-esteem and relationships are chick-littish, for want of a better word, your style is quiet and literary. This really surprised me, as I expected a Bridget Jones of a book. How did you reconcile your theme and your style? Which came first?
The Making of Her was rejected by one agent on these very grounds – that the tone seemed at odds with the content of the novel. My style has always been quiet and reflective, and I went on a How To Write A Novel course at University College, Falmouth clutching the beginning of a ‘literary’ novel. The course leader – who wrote historical romance – advised us to put aside anything we’d brought and start from scratch. I wrote my first ever step sheet that evening, which turned out to be The Making of Her. The course – which was excellent – basically focused on how to tell a good story. I’ve since realised that both accessibility and depth are important to me: I want readers to be involved, and also for there to be levels of depth and resonance. After all, The Making of Her is about superficiality in the worlds of television and plastic surgery – yet beneath that surface lie questions about culture, the feminine, and individuality.
So, let’s talk about your writing process. How did you move from a step sheet to a fully fledged novel? Are you a planner, a pantser or something in between?
The Making of Her was planned and I was quite regimented about it: I set myself a target of just 2,000 words a week and worked from my step sheet. It was comforting to have a structure, a map of the terrain. And 2,000 words a week was doable, and meant I’d have a first draft in 9 months or so. But these days I am a planter – something between planner and pantser, with gardening allusions. I start with the seed of an idea, plant it on paper and watch it grow into … whatever it becomes. How successful this is remains to be seen!
Love the idea of being a planter! I think having pantsed my first book, that’s what I’m probably doing now. So, let’s talk about working with a small indie press. How is that working for you?
Linen Press has been built over seven years by Lynn Michell, who is passionate about what she does. She brings out two to three books a year, which means that as a writer you receive a great deal of personal attention – a fabulous gift, since Lynn is a superb editor. Pre-publication is a collaborative process and as well as working through The Making of Her chapter by chapter with Lynn, I was involved in every aspect of the book, including choosing the cover design. Linen Press is rightly proud of its books as beautiful objects as well as thoughtful and page-turning stories. The down side of this is that, because the print-run is relatively small, costs tend to be high. The Making of Her is now available as an e-book, which means it can compete.
What have you done for The Making of Her in terms of publicity?
Publicity and distribution for small indie presses are a challenge. Writers have to be willing and able to put in a lot of time and effort on their books’ behalf. I wrote to every women’s magazine and newspaper – in some cases twice over – and most never replied. Book bloggers have been fabulous. And Cheltenham Waterstones gave me a day’s signing – although I understand they no longer do so. But the Linen Press’s reputation is growing and hopefully this will help. They’ve just published Maureen Freely’s latest novel, Sailing Through Byzantium, which has been chosen as one of the Sunday Times’ Books of the Year.
What are you working on now?
Urgh. The question I dread! Because I’m not working on anything – I’m in a long-drawn-out fallow/barren period. Wasteland. Waiting for spring are three projects – an almost-completed first draft of a non-fiction book about creativity and personal development; 30,000 words of a novel; and the seeds of a new one – a few scenes, a few ideas, some backstory…
What were your top three reads in 2013?
I have regressed to comfort reading, and spent last year reading and re-reading Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions and Isabel Dalhousie novels, together with some Mavis Cheek and quite a bit of chicklit. There are three novels waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf – Rosy Thornton’s Ninepins, Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist and Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky.
Yewande Omotoso’s novel Bom Boy is published by South Africa’s Modjaji Books (the awesome independent publisher that will be publishing Balthasar’s Gift later this year) and has been shortlisted for the inaugural pan-African Etisalat literary award. I just spent the last two days having a lovely chat with Yewande via email about writing.
Here’s what we said:
Yewande, your debut novel, Bom Boy, has just been short-listed for the pan-African Etisalat Prize. Congratulations! Could you tell us the premise of the novel and what inspired you to write it?
The story of Bom Boy is really the story of Leke. A young man growing up in Cape Town. He’s adopted and never knew his parents. Somehow he’s struggled to feel at home wherever he’s been and so his childhood has been one of a misfit. As he comes of age his adoptive father hands him a package. It turns out to be a bunch of letters from his biological father. Slowly Leke, pariah, outcast, borderline sociopath, works his way through the letters, through “his story” and his parents’ story, his heritage and tries to find the ground, he even tries for love.
Hard to say “what inspired” and point to something specific and concrete. The story morphed over many drafts. A professor of mine once said you write your first five drafts and then you finally realise what it is you’re trying to do. So the beginnings can be watery and dark. Bom Boy began as wanting to write about someone on the edge, someone even a little mentally unwell, but not so unwell as to be irrevocable.
Yes, I think it took me five drafts to work what I was writing too. So is Bom Boy your first novel, or is there a manuscript under the bed?
No! There are no manuscripts under the bed. There are several short stories, some that got published others rejected and many that have never been sent out. There are lots of poems. Bom Boy was my first attempt at something novel-length.
What was the difference for you between writing short stories and poetry, and writing a novel? Could you talk a bit about the process of writing Bom Boy.
Poetry is often quite personal, autobiographic and linked to specific moments when I seek catharsis. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I use poetry as a kind of medicine for loss, heartache, coming to terms with various things. So it’s medicine first and then art which means my poems are often no good! Or if they’re a little good I’m too lazy to make them better.
Short stories I write continually, I use them as a practice. It’s a good way to hone the skill. Short stories are incredibly difficult though, because of their compact nature. I’ve gone through love-hate times with short stories. Currently I’m enjoying reading and writing them, enjoying the challenge and the lessons.
Writing ‘Bom Boy’ was an adventure. Writing a book is like a forest you can really get lost in. Because it’s so big (sometimes seemingly endless) it really tests your resolve, your temerity as well. And it’s scary the way an unfamiliar forest can be. There’s always a bit where you can’t see anything…I like the scale of it. Trying to wrestle with something quite unwieldly. Tame it but not too much or it loses its essence. It’s a great fight, I think.
I really love that image of writing a novel being like a forest. Do you have any specific writing routines or practices? Is coffee essential for example, or tons of tea?
Not really. When I wrote Bom Boy I would awake in the early mornings to write. 5am or so. Writing first thing in the day remains sacred but it’s not always possible. I’ve tried not to be a fussy writer. I’ve trained myself to just about write anywhere and at any time. On an empty stomach or stuffed, with munchies or without. I seldom begin writing at night but if I’ve started late in the day I can continue for many many hours. Certainly though there are conditions under which I seem more efficient. Morning. Silence. Warmth. Stability helps, the absence of turmoil, emotional and otherwise.
I also need to be reading when I’m working on something. And I have no formula for “what” but I do need to have something inspiring in my hands.
It’s so lovely to connect with you and hear how you go about your process. Writing can be lonely. Do you have support from other writers – a writers’ group or network?
Writing itself isn’t lonely I don’t think. Solitude is, for most writers I believe, a necessity in order to make the work. And solitude can be a very cherished thing. My loneliness is seldom linked to my life as a writer. It’s linked to other things and other aspects of life although I concede that it’s not always easy to tell these things apart.
Strangely, my writing is often an antidote to my experience of loneliness. As if writing itself is my true unflailing companion…but that’s another whole story!
That said as a writer I spend chunks of my time alone. Solitude is seldom a problem for me. And there are usually enough people I know that when I want to see someone I can. Being an architect as well and currently getting a small practice off the ground means I actually have quite a balanced life at the moment.
In terms of my need for relationships with other writers it is imperative for me. Firstly I seem to have a terrible weakness for writers. I fall in love with them – men and women alike – and I seek their company and advice. I have a kind of childish (misguided?) notion that “writers are the best”! On a more serious note, though, in terms of producing work, if I’ve made any progress I attest a lot of it to a few treasured relationships with writers some of whom are in my own family.
You mentioned that you are an architect. Do you see any similarities in designing buildings and building novels?
I am commonly asked that. I think there are similarities or at least I choose to see some. To construct is a verb I think that applies to both activities. Also the way a building design exists in my head first and then all the work to make it real. Same with a story. Same with a lot of creative acts. Same in the sense that I believe the strongest designs have some core idea or intent behind them. With a lot of great stories there’s usually some key underlying answer to the question “what’s the point”? And again that notion that you, the maker, doesn’t always know “the point” at inception but part of bringing the creation to maturity is your discovery of it. In architecture we use tracing paper, drawing over and over and slowly the image changing, becoming more itself, same with writing draft after draft after draft.
Tell us about your path to publication … how did you find Modjaji, or how did they find you?
I started nearing the end of my Creative Writing masters. I finished the manuscript and submitted it to UCT. Then I started thinking of “sending it out”. A friend mentioned Modjaji. I looked them up. Sent a precis of my novel, then a chapter and finally the whole thing. Colleen wrote back some months later, she liked it and wanted to publish it. I was a bit dumbfounded. We met and I liked her, I also admired her work as a publisher and the important role she plays in SA publishing. That’s how it started.
So from a Creative Writing degree, to a publication deal to short-listing for a major literary award! How does that feel? How important do you think it is that there is now an African literary award?
In terms of your question: It feels exciting and immensely encouraging. Wanting to write can seem like a very hair-brained notion. When things like this happen I feel a mixture of luck, suprise and relief. And while it doesn’t happen all the time, it’s the same feeling I get when a stranger greets me and says they read the book, even better if they say they liked it or it resonated with them. These are all experiences, however rare or fleeting, that have a touch of magic to them.
It is incredibly important that there is now an African literary award, for several reasons. One is the quality of this award. It is not just a pot of money; if you study carefully the mechanics of the award it goes beyond merely rewarding a writer, it is designed to ensure the expansion of African literature, designed to ensure that the writing and reading of African fiction thrives, in this way it develops a community as opposed to just an individual. Two, it is an African award whose home is in Africa. Three, while I don’t think “to win an award” is a good reason to start writing, I do think this award adds a certain profile to the job of writing, encourages young people to get interested in telling stories and this can only be a good thing for Africa and the world.
Ute Carbone and I hang out in the same writers’ space. When her first novel, Blueberry Truth, was published by Etopia Press in 2011, I remember remarking on the gorgeous cover and making a note to myself to read it. Two years later, I got off my backside and did so – and what a reward it was! Blueberry Truth is an exuberant, delightful story about Verbena (Beanie), her quartet of sisters and a damaged little girl called Blueberry who takes Beanie’s heart. Ute writes with a warmth and charm that bubble up through her storytelling and which make the reading experience truly effortless. It is a special skill, which I love as a reader and which, as a writer, makes me pretty envious.
Ute was kind enough to come and join me at Charlotte’s Web for a chat about her novels – there are many!
I’ve just finished reading Blueberry Truth, which I loved. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was your first published novel. Was it the first novel you wrote or do you have manuscripts under the bed?
Hi Charlotte, I’m tickled that you liked Blueberry! It was my first published novel, but actually the fourth I’d written. I’ve got a large pile of work under the bed. I’m slowly, but I hope surely, starting to dust off some of those manuscripts and put them out into the world. Of Blueberry’s predecessors, two of the three manuscripts are still tucked into the back of the closet, collecting dust. The other, a women’s fiction called Dancing in the White Room, is under contract and is scheduled for release in March of next year.
Dancing in the White Room is a gorgeous title. Do you always use colours in your titles?
Thanks Charlotte. No, not all of them have colors. Though now that you’ve mentioned it, maybe from now on… Actually, the title for this comes from a ski term. It’s a book set around skiing, the main character’s significant other is an extreme skier. For a long time, I didn’t know what to call it, it was ‘the ski story’ on my computer, and then I came across Dancing in the White Room, which is slang for skiing through powder snow so deep you can’t see anything but white. It was kismet. I knew I had found a title.
I love that image. For me, skiing is associated with fear – as is writing. Do you have any writing-related fears (that you are prepared to acknowledge?)
Who me, scared? She said while looking over her shoulder and biting her lip.
I’m a big ‘fraidy cat when it comes to writing. Facing a blank page is always scary. There’s a fear that the story won’t work out as I’d envisioned it–and honestly, it seldom does. And the fear that it won’t be as wonderful as it is when it’s just a kernel of an idea floating around in my head–and truly, it’s never as brilliant. Once I get past those fears and have managed to write the story, there’s the fear of sharing, a fear that I’ll be like those singers on the talent shows, the ones who can’t hold a note but think they can, who get up there and bravely sing off key while the rest of the world wonders why they ever thought they could sing.
I read somewhere that if you’re not at least a little scared when you write, then you might not be doing it right. I try and keep that in mind.
Face the fear and do it anyway is my motto too. Now, tell us about your other published novels.
It’s gotten to be a long list, Charlotte. I’ve been very lucky to have found some small publishers who like what I write. These past few years I’ve gotten to polish up some of those old manuscripts we talked about earlier and get them out into the world along with some newer works. So, let’s see. I’ve got three romantic comedies available through Champagne Books.
The P-Town Queen is a wild romp of a story about a shark researcher who has lost her grant money, gotten a divorce and is living with her retired fisherman father in Provincetown (P-Town) Massachusetts and a guy who is running from a mob boss hit by living under an alias and pretending to be gay (P-Town has a vibrant gay community).
Afterglow is chick lit with a bit of a twist. The main character is a kindergarten teacher in her fifties who finally asks her philandering husband of 30 years for a divorce. Through the course of the book, with the help of a slightly crazy best friend and a love affair with a much younger man, she gets back on her feet again and finally, once and for all, learns to stand up for herself.
Searching for Superman is the more traditionally romantic of the three, though it still has a lot of quirky characters. The lead is a young woman who is looking for the perfect man–a guy a lot like superman. She meets an ordinary guy dressed as superman for a kid’s birthday party and figures he’s not the real deal. But, of course, he’s just the right guy for her. The book is set in and around and old theater that teaters on the edge of being torn down.
Then I have a trilogy of short stories called The Lilac Hour available through Turquoise Morning Press. The stories are love stories and they are linked in that the main characters are women from three generations of the same family. I’m currently working on a historical novella series. The novellas all revolve around the same two characters– the daughter of a wealthy ship builder and a sea captain. The books are set in and around clipper ships in the 1850s. It’s a real departure for me to write, but I love being able to stretch my wings and try new things. The first two parts of the series, Sweet Lenora and To the Wind, are available through Champagne. The third part comes out next year, in April. Part four currently resides in my head and I’ll soon have to sit down and commit it to words.
And, if that weren’t enough, I have two books coming out next year. Dancing in the White Room, which I’d mentioned earlier, comes out with Turquoise Morning Press in March. It’s women’s fiction, with a strong female protagonist (I love strong female characters) and is set in Lake Placid, NY (not too awful far from where I grew up) The main character is a ski patrol woman who is living with an extreme skier who likes to take death defying risks. It’s a lot about whether or not this is a love worth keeping and at what price.
Confessions of the Sausage Queen is the craziest book I’ve written to date, with an ensemble cast of quirky characters who run willy nilly through the pages in an effort to save a small town’s biggest employer, the local sausage factory. It comes out with Champagne Books in July of next year.Then, of course, there are the manuscripts unfinished on my computer, the ideas still in my head, and three novels, several shorts and a few novellas still in the back of the supply closet. I’m going to have to live to a hundred to get to everything. Even then, I’ll probably still have a pen in my hand because I won’t be done.
Wow! You’re prolific. Five published books, two coming out next year and a series of novellas in the making! How do you combine life and writing? (Please don’t tell me you also have a full-time job …)
Not so much prolific as stubborn. I try to write at least a something everyday. For years, I wrote in little chunks of time, late at night after everyone was asleep, or while waiting for an appointment, and so on. I taught a writing workshop, so that kept me in good writing form. Currently, I don’t have a full time job and my kids are both grown, so I have more time to devote to writing. Balance has always been a problem, though. More recently, the challenge is carving out the time and space to write with all the other things that go along with being an author–doing edits, writing promotional pieces, and keeping up a blog and a website.
Well, while we’ve been talking I’ve downloaded and started reading The P-Town Queen, so you have a new fan. Thank you so much for the lovely chat.
Thank you, Charlotte. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I hope you enjoy The P-Town Queen.
Patricia Dusenbury is my publication day sister. Our debut crime novels launched on the same day – mine in German and in print, hers in ebook form to the world. Pat’s novel, A Perfect Victim, is an elegant crime thriller that tells the story of Claire Marshall, a professional house restorer who is caught in a web of deceit, lies and fear when one of her clients dies. Still coping with the untimely and tragic death of her husband in a house fire, Claire is emotionally bereft and struggles to cope with daily life, let alone becoming prime suspect in a murder case. Set in the suburbs of New Orleans, A Perfect Victim is spare and evocative. It is also the first in a trilogy featuring Claire Marshall.
I asked Pat some questions about her writing process and the route to publication.
1. Pat, thanks for joining me at Charlotte’s Web. Uncial Press just published A Perfect Victim. Is this your first novel or do you have a couple of manuscripts under the bed?
APV is my first novel and I have about one and a half more written. Together they are a trilogy, following Claire Marshall, my protagonist as she recovers from the shock of her husband’s sudden death and builds a full life for herself. Each book is also a murder mystery, and the last two include elements of romance.
2. How long did APV take you to write? And are you a planner or a pantser?
I wrote APV on and off for ages and as a total pantser with no idea what I was doing. About five years ago, I finished it, wrote off to lots of agents, and started writing a sequel. I went back and forth with an agent for almost a year, meanwhile working on book #2. The agent eventually lost interest, but by that time I had two books and parts of the third.
By then, I’d learned a bit; for example, you probably should put your first novel in a drawer and leave it there. It’s a learning experience. But I didn’t want to put two and a half books in a drawer, so I went back and totally rewrote APV. This version was accepted for publication by Uncial Press. APV has changed a lot since that first version. My approach to writing also has changed, and now I’m more of a planner.
3. What is your relationship with writing? It is something you came to late, or have you always loved it?
I enjoy writing, and have always written something. Over the years, work required me to write lots of reports, analyses, even an occasional political speech. After completing an especially dry document, I would joke about owing the world a poem, but when the time came I decided to write a mystery because I’ve always read mysteries. This turned out to be a lot harder than expected. The difficulty plus the vast room for improvement keeps me engaged.
4. Writers tend to be avid readers. Which are your top five books?
My all time favorite book is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Other favorites change over time. Today the next four would be Bel Canto, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and In the Lake of the Woods. My favorite genre is mysteries, and I’m a huge fan of Donna Leon, Dennis Lehane, Michael Dibdin, John LeCarre and Kate Atkinson to name my current favorites.
5. I love Kate Atkinson too! You talk about many rewrites with APV. Where do you find the energy, the resource inside yourself to keep going?
I have a head like a rock, perhaps from beating it against brick walls until the walls crack. My husband assures me this can be very annoying. However, it kept me going through the multiple rewrites.
6. What are your top tips to aspiring writers?
I would advise aspiring writers, myself included because I aspire to get better, to listen to what people you respect say about your writing and think about the best way to use their advice.
Find out more about Pat and her books on her blog: patriciadusenbury.com. As an economist, she was responsible for writing numerous dry reports and is now trying to atone for that by writing novels that amuse and engage the reader. She has been married to the same man for about a million years and lives with him and two Alaskan Malamutes in Atlanta, Georgia. They met on a blind date. Pat is not on Twitter, as she is busy hoping it is a passing fad.
There I met a couple of publishers, a couple of friends and scored some book swag:
One of the publishers I met is a fabulous guy called Thomas Woertche, who, along with a team of other crime fiction aficionados has started a new e-book press called Culturbooks. One of the first books they have published is this:
I have recently been rocking a certain look. I give you If Virginia Woolf Worked in Corporate Communications:
In the twenty years since democracy, there has been a groundswell of South African literature. Once two behemoths – Gordimer and Coetzee – strode the land, but the freedom of the new South Africa has brought a freedom of creative thought and a wave of writing. Now we have South African crime fiction (rivaling that of the Scandis, so I hear from reliable sources), South African romance and young adult fiction, South African distopian fiction and even South African chick lit. Margie Orford, Deon Meyer and Lauren Beukes are household names to book lovers.
I have recently read two South African debut novels that are worth mentioning in their similarity of purpose. Both are novelisations of true events. In both books, the writer is both narrator and character, writing fiction out of fact.
The first is called False River and it is written in English by Dominique Botha, whose mother tongue is Afrikaans. False River tells the achingly tragic story of her older brother Paul, a poet and renegade whose brilliance could not be contained by an ordinary life and who died of an overdose in London when he was 27. As the first two of five children, Dominique and Paul were allies. The novel charts both Paul’s trajectory and Dominique’s as she goes from being adoring little sister to anxious guardian to one of his mourners.
False River is beautifully written. It contains passages of such breathtaking poetry, so deeply anchored in the landscape I know and love, that it is worth reading for the language and imagery alone. If Paul was a poet, Dominique is one now.
However, she is also a storyteller, and this is a novel. For the reader, there is a layer of tension, a discomfort, in knowing that it tells a story that is real. When asked in a recent SATV interview why she chose not to write a memoir, Botha said that “… memory is incredibly fallible and we can’t rely on it, so when you go back and recreate something you either have to be incredibly factual or you have to acknowledge the fact that retrieving a memory is committing a first act of fiction.”
Asked why she took so long to write this first book, Botha said that at first she felt too much in his shadow to write. However, she realised many years after his death that his memory was fading and that she had a strong compulsion to put pen to paper and write it down. As someone who knew Paul and many of his friends loosely disguised in the novel, I am glad she did. Not only do we have a new voice on the South African literary scene and a story that is a gift to the reader, we also have a way to remember our friend. Here is a scene from the end of the book:
Time flies and time stands still. We pass through time. She is not swayed by us. The vlei spills into the pan. A moorhen glides. Willows drop braids into water. Buried flowers in the darkened garden strain against the soil.
By sunrise all the women from the stat were sweeping and cleaning around the house. They had come unbidden. Ma stood by the window watching them. Martha edged her upstairs to change.
The protocol of solace marked the hours.
The second novel from fact I have recently read is One Green Bottle by Debrah Anne Nixon. The narrator is a woman named Jennifer Hartley, whose idyllic life on a KwaZulu-Natal farm is marred by a series of panic attacks that eat away at her self-esteem and grip on reality. She is hospitalised in a local psychiatric ward. The novel charts her series of stays on the ward, the people she meets and endures there and, after losing her marriage and custody of her children, her eventual tentative recovery and release.
One Green Bottle is a searing account of mental illness and does a brilliant job of evoking the hopelessness of those caught in its coils. While it is less obvious than with False River that the narrator and the author are one, there are clues. The novel is dedicated to ‘fellow sufferers of mental ailments’, the main character writes pages of a novel while she is incarcerated and an afterword from a psychiatrist talks of Nixon’s struggle and catharsis.
However, for me it became evident in Nixon’s descriptions of ward life that this was no creative imagining of the despair, bleakness and grinding exhaustion that is long-term mental illness. I had to put the book down several times while reading, in order to regain the energy I needed to go back into the wards. Despite her simple sentence structure and compassionate and often loving descriptions of Jenny’s fellow inmates, Nixon pulls no punches. She is brutally honest and reveals a system that is failing its patients, both at a structural level and in the inability of psychiatry to do much more than throw experimental cocktails at their patients in the name of healing.
While two books don’t make a trend, it was interesting to read False River and One Green Bottle back-to-back. Both tell acutely personal stories cast as novels and, whether read as fact or fiction, both take the duty of care to show that while loss and tragedy are part of the human condition so too are hope and love. As Botha’s final poem says,