Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Writer on Tour

I have been out and about, dear readers.

In March, I went to the Leipzig Book Fair:

leipzig

I was feeling pretty nervous (hiding nerves under brave smile):

nervous

Because first up was an interview with the press:

neues deutschland

But, being socialists, they were very nice to me:

press

Then I went on stage to do a reading (one guy fell asleep):

Buhne

After, that I went to the Institute of African Studies to do another reading. This time, I had Madiba with me for company. I felt much more relaxed:

madiba

I read:

flow

I signed:

signing

Then I drank some wine:

wine

Last night, I did a reading in Langenbruecken, near Bad Schornborn, organised by the darling proprietors of the ars legendi bookshop. They arranged wonderful wine, Italian delicacies and some fabulous jazz. My husband and friends were there and I felt less nervous.

Starting to get the hang of this reading in German thing:

blue

Next up is Berlin in May, and then in June I hit South Africa to promote the English version of the book and do readings in Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Cape Town and Joburg.

In between all this promotion work, I am trying to write book two. It is not easy, but I have come up with a plan. It involves sparrows, dawn and daggers drawn against the inner editor.

And perhaps a little wine.

 

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Conversations with Writers: Talking to Susie Nott-Bower

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.JPEG OF FINAL TMOH COVER ONLY

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. 

You can find The Making of Her on the Linen Press website.


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Conversations with Writers – Talking to Yewande Omotoso

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 Yewande_03this 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.Cover_BomBoy_Front_300 dpi(1)

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.

Yewande blogs here and Bom Boy can be purchased here or here.


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Memory is Fallible – Two Novels from Fact

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,

soil must subside

we may not


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Tales from a Reading

Last week Monday, six weeks after Balthasars Vermaechtnis was published, I gave my debut book reading in Hamburg as part of Ariadne Verlag’s series ‘Der Krimi ist politisch‘. Hosted by the Buchladen Osterstrasse – a really lovely bookshop in Eimsbuettel, which I would visit on a regular basis if I lived in Hamburg – the series hopes to examine why political crime fiction is having such a heyday.

Thanks to coaching from my publisher Else Laudan and some practise earlier in the day, I was not too nervous. And thanks to some great publicity from the Hamburg Abendblatt, the bookshop was nice and full. There was some lovely South African wine on offer, which might have pulled people in (the bookshop has a reputation for clever pairings of wine and books), but as a rookie, I was just thrilled to see so many people there. My lovely blog and now in real life friend, Lilalia, came all the way from Luebeck with her son to support me. It was great to have two faces I knew in the audience. (Lilalia played a very special role in the writing of the book, but that’s a post for another day.)

Lesung01

Else Laudan and yours truly

Else and I had a game plan and we stuck to it. She spoke about the series, I read a chapter from the English manuscript, she read the following chapter in German and then we opened the floor to questions. There was much discussion – about the nature of crime fiction in general; about South African crime fiction and where it is going; why there is so much crime fiction coming out of the Scandinavian countries, which are essentially very stable and non-bloody in comparison to South Africa, which is less stable and more bloody; and some of the themes in Balthasars Vermaechtnis. I managed to not cover myself in shame while answering questions in German, though some may have winced. Later, I was told that my German is charming, which I think is a kind way of saying it is somewhat quirky and all over the place.

Lesung02

Else and I nochmal (see what I did there?)

And credit to Doris Claus, Torsten Meinicke and Gerlinde Schneider at the bookshop for organising it so well. They run frequent readings and that is clear in their slick yet relaxed style. Thanks too to Gerlinde for the photos in this post!

Afterwards, I got to sign books and talk to people. Then some of us went on for a drink, and it was truly splendid to chat to some really well-versed crime fiction aficionados about our shared interest. In the group was the exceedingly famous and prolific crime writer Robert Brack, who will be reading from his novels and talking about crime fiction with Ariadne author Clementine Skorpil on 23 September. Be there, Hamburgers!

It was an honour to take part in the Ariadne series and to be able to read from my book. If all future readings go as smoothly and well, and I get to meet such cool people, then I will continue be one very happy writer.


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BG: Now with Added Translation

For my friend Di, who claims not to be able to read German, though I doubt it because she is so damn clever at everything else she does, here is a very rough translation of the Balthasar’s Gift promo materials:

Pietermaritzburg is the capital city of the South African province KwaZulu-Natal. And the two main beats of the local Gazette are crime and health, which says something about Pietermaritzburg.

Crime reporter Magdalena Cloete knows her town and has no illusions about it. One morning, a man is shot on the front verandah of the local AIDS Mission. A political murder? Maggie’s instincts go into red alarm, since the victim, Balthasar Meiring had tried in vain only the week before to draw her attention to an ongoing court case. It focused on the sales of AIDS medication that fraudulently claimed to cure the disease. Was there more to it than the usual business machinations?

As she starts to investigate, Maggie finds she has a gang of thugs on her heels. Threats and physical attacks only serve to heighten her determination. In the meantime, she learns enough about Balthasar’s life and his commitment to his cause that she loses all professional distance and risks her own skin …

And the back cover text:

Farmer’s son Balthasar Meiring was active in an AIDS Mission – until someone put four bullets in his chest. Crime reporter Magdalena Cloete suspects that there is much more to Meiring’s murder. On her search for truth, politicians and gangsters do their best to get in her way.


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The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by my new friend, writer JJ Marsh, to do this meme.

The idea of this is that a writer puts up a post on his or her own blog answering ten questions about his/her work in progress, and then “tags” three writers to do the same. Then, the writer posts a link to his/her “tagger” and to the people he/she is “tagging” so that readers who are interested can visit those pages and perhaps discover some new authors whose work they’d like to read.

I’ve chosen to focus on my completed – and soon to be debut – novel Balthasar’s Gift, rather than my work-in-progress, because the latter is still in bits and nowhere near being a coherent, pleasing whole of which I can speak in sensible sentences. It’s still at the stage of being a feeling, a synopsis and a few thousand words on my laptop. However, when I do think about it, I feel little short shards of joy that are painful and pleasing at the same time – but it’s too close to talk about.

So, herewith, I give you The Next Big Thing meme:

What is the working title of your book?

Balthasar’s Gift. It was always so. My German publisher has indicated that it will need a different title in German, which is probably sensible as Balthasars Geschenk doesn’t have much of a ring.

Where did the idea come from for this book?

Two places. First, a huge feeling of rage that Thabo Mbeki’s government were denying that HIV caused AIDS and thus killing people with their lack of action. Second, an image of a juggler. I put the two together.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s crime. The first draft was literary fiction, but luckily I woke up to the fact that this story needed to be told in a very specific way, and by a very specific character who I needed to create specifically for the purpose.

Which actors do you have in mind to play in the movie of your book?

I wrote this role for Charlize Theron. But if she turns it down, my other choice is Jodie Foster, circa The Accused. As for the love interest, Spike, I spotted him on the street in Heidelberg a few weeks ago but I’m not sure if acting’s his gig.

What’s the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Oh bloody howl. This is so difficult. Here’s a little something I wrote last night but it’s by no means the final version:

Journalist Maggie Cloete has no idea what she’s in for when she investigates the murder of Balthasar Meiring, an AIDS activist, and discovers that the family of AIDS orphans he’s taken in are being targeted by a dubious local politician and a posse of vengeful gangsters.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have an agent, who has sold the German rights to a publisher in Hamburg. We are still looking to nail down the English rights. However, if we don’t succeed in selling BG into the English market, I have not discounted self-publishing. It’s a lot more respectable nowadays, especially if authors are happy to be both professional and entrepreneurial.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the novel?

Fifteen long months. This baby has been slow in the making: four years, in fact. However, I think by writing a novel I have learned how to write a novel and with better planning, Karkloof Blue will take less than half that time.

Which other books in this genre would you compare to your novel?

It’s Nadime Gordimer (South Africa, politics, pain, race, redemption) meets Janet Evanovich (gritty, acerbic, tart).

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Inequality – the unfair deal some people get and the privilege others get just by dint of birth – and how people challenge their birth-right to make a new world for themselves.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

It’s feminist crime fiction. I believe in turning over stereotypes – men as warriors, women as victims – and giving power to the disempowered. Writing that was a lot of fun, but it was also a challenge to me, as I had to keep to keep questioning my own filters and biases and trying to break through those. Whether I’ve succeeded fully still remains to be seen.

Who to tag?

Well this meme has been around some, but how about these favourite writer friends of mine?

Melissa Romo

Christine Lee Zilke

Nicole Doherty

Nova Ren Suma

Liz Fenwick

If I haven’t tagged you, please feel free to play!