Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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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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Conversations with Writers – Talking to Patricia Dusenbury

perfect victimPatricia 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.


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From There to Here

Anyone remember The Cool White Room of Peace? I was there this week. Lying there, with someone drilling inside my head, specks of spit hitting me in the face, the numb slug of my tongue in my mouth, I had some time to reflect.

When I wrote that post in 2006, it was right at the start of my writing journey. I was just starting to find my feet as a blogger, starting to peek out from behind the wall of fear at the possibility that I might start writing something out of the images in my head and the rage in my heart. It took another eighteen months, but in January 2008, with the awareness that at the end of the year I would turn 40 and the feeling that if I didn’t start then I never would and I would one day die angry and bitter, I started a novel.

It was very bitty. I had no idea where I was going. I wrote my way in, draft after draft after ever-loving draft. Cheerleaders read my chapters, saying encouraging things. Friends leapt out of the internet to read my drafts and make suggestions. There were highs and some horrible lows. It started out as literary fiction and turned into crime. First person became third. An entirely new character presented herself to me as I drove my family home from Berlin and she became my main character. I killed darlings. I erased characters. I murdered words.

Around draft six, my agent Michaela phoned me to say she loved the book and wanted to represent me.

Around draft fourteen, my publisher Else offered a contract to publish Balthasar’s Gift in German. She titled it Balthasars Vermaechtnis and translated it herself with loving attention to detail and to the accuracy of words and meaning.

July 17 is publication day. Sometime between now and then, I will hold a book that I have written myself in my very own hands.

It has been a long hard road from the cool white room of peace to this. But every detour, every dead end, every hard shoulder presented a chance for me to become a better writer. I am grateful for them all.


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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!


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Cool Things from WriteCon Zurich

Living on a small English island in the sea of Germany means I don’t often get to hang out in person with other English writers. So when WriteCon Zurich organiser Jill Prewett pinged me to say there was a space free and would I like to come, I was all like get me to the station right now, James, and don’t spare those horses goddamnit.

I am now heading home after a deliciously writerly weekend, but I wanted to summarise the highlights before real life kicks in again and I am too tired to think:

  • Being amongst writers. Writers care. This is a lovely and wonderful thing. I made a whole heap of new friends.
  • Emma Darwin’s fiction masterclass. I finally understand psychic distance and – this is a big and – how this relates to telling and showing. I plugged the result of some exercises from the class into chapter one of Karkloof Blue and it is now rocking.
  • The enthusiasm and drive of independent author Joanna Penn, who blogs here and writes here. I learnt for the first time how self-publishing can be a very good thing. Thanks, Jo, for explaining the hybrid model to me.
  • Vegetarian restaurant Hiltl. The best food. I went there twice.
  • Snow.
  • Finding my favourite hat and gloves again after losing them.
  • The fact that being amongst writers and talking and thinking about writing has had an immediate effect on getting me writing again. I am re-inspired and re-energised, and that is the best thing of all.

Now I have a four-hour train journey back to Heidelberg and more than enough time to a write a minimum of 2,000 words.

Crack the whip, James!


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A book deal for BG (and me)

Dear readers, I am so very, very happy to be able to tell you that I have sold the German rights to Balthasar’s Gift to Argument Verlag! I can now, without conscience, call myself an author.

The book will be out, in German, in Spring 2013. Argument have an imprint called Ariadne, which focuses on crime fiction by women. They tend to publish left-leaning, feminist fiction with edgy female protagonists. Ahem!

I have known since late April, so have already drunk my body weight in celebratory alcohol, but tonight I will sleep happy knowing that the contract is signed and we are on our way.

Next step: a contract with an English publisher so that my friends and family can read BG in the language in which it was written. Hold thumbs as BG wings its way around publishers’ desks in the UK!

If you want to get a feel for some of the themes in the book, here’s its mood board on Pinterest.


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My Writing Corner

I write in my bedroom, which is not ideal, but thanks to Germany’s Top Husband, who put up the shelves, my writing corner is now pretty (essential to me) and looks like this:

Here it is from a slightly different angle:

I love the white shelves, the flower pictures and the photos of my family. It makes me a very happy writer.

Yours sincerely,
Charlotte in the Corner