Saturday, May 29, 2010

[Interview] Bettina Wyngaard

South African novelist, Bettina Wyngaard made her debut as an author with the publication of Troos vir die gebrokenes (Umuzi, 2009) - a novel about three generations of Afrikaans-speaking black women, dealing with issues like domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and crime.

The novel was subsequently shortlisted for the Jan Rabie Rapport Prize, which is awarded to a debut or early work characterised by fresh and innovative Afrikaans prose.

In this interview, Bettina Wyngaard talks about her writing:

What made you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I’m not even sure that it was a decision, as much as an urge, a compulsion, if you will, to return to writing.

I write mostly in Afrikaans, but have never really felt comfortable with the Afrikaans literature that is available out there. I felt it did not really reflect my reality, with the result that I read mostly English.

Eventually, I realised that instead of complaining and bemoaning the lack of fiction reflecting my reality, I could be the voice telling those unheard and untold stories. So, I identified a story and a milieu that I could identify with, and that isn’t really portrayed in literature, and started writing.

There is very little fiction written in the sometimes very informal Afrikaans used in Troos vir die gebrokenes, addressing the issues that affect “real” people.

The language in most Afrikaans books is often stilted and formal, so that it leaves the reader uncomfortable, as if something is missing. I found it difficult to relate to those characters.

Why do you think the literature is like that?

At a guess, I would say it is because no one has been prepared to risk doing things differently.

There have always been Afrikaans writers who challenged the status quo and addressed social issues, but the vast majority preferred writing romantic fiction, for which, of course, there probably is a far greater market.

It could also be that the memory of past censorship has made writers more wary of taking risks in their writing.

How would you describe your own writing?

Social commentary, but packaged to appeal to a popular audience.

I shine a spotlight on relevant social issues affecting women in the hopes that I will get readers to think differently about these issues.

I don’t believe that all writers everywhere should only write about social issues. There is a definite place for fantasy and escapist fiction. Having said that, however, social commentary holds up a mirror to society, daring the reader to change their thinking and/or behaviour. I believe this to be a vitally important function of writing.

Who is your target audience?

Afrikaans-speaking adults with a social conscience.

What motivated you to start writing for this audience?

I believe that there is not enough fiction in Afrikaans that address social concerns, and that there is always need for that sort of writing.

Which, would you say, are some of the most pressing issues affecting South Africa today?

Crime, especially corruption and gender based violence, poverty, the ongoing AIDS crisis ...

We, as South Africans, have this tendency to believe that government should fix everything that is wrong, and that we are absolved from doing anything. We need to change that mindset - it is all our responsibility to ensure that our society is held morally accountable.

If we all work together, we can make a difference.

Which authors influenced you most?

I have mostly been influenced by social commentators such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, as well as the natural philosopher, H. D. Thoreau. They write about issues I’m passionate about, using words as a means of exposing injustice, but doing so in compelling, beautiful prose.

Have your own personal experiences influenced your writing in any way?

I’m not sure that any writer can divorce their writing from their life experiences. Certainly, in my own case, I have found that my writing only ring true if I write about things I know about, or can convincingly imagine.

In order to convince the reader to suspend their disbelief, the writer must be able to authoratively paint a picture of the events, the characters and the world those characters inhabit.

It’s important that my writing is authentic and accurate. As a result, I do quite a lot of research before I start writing. I’ll often interview people, familiarise myself with the environment I’m writing about, and ask loads of questions

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Finding time to write. I generally set time aside over weekends to do some writing.

When I have a publishing deadline, I’ll write everyday. Otherwise, I write over weekends, but only when I have something to say, or am trying to explore an idea.

Writing is meant to be fun, and trying to force it, takes the joy out of creating characters and the world they inhabit.

When you do write, how does each session start? How do you proceed? How do you know when to stop?

I try not to do any reading for a few days before I start writing - to clear my mind of all clutter. When I write, I only listen to classical music, so no songs with words to interfere with my thinking. I choose the music to go with the mood I want to create in the piece I’m writing.

I always have an outline of what I want to write, even though the actual writing often meanders far away from the outline!

I stop when I lose focus and concentration, or when the plot starts losing interest to me. If I’m not spellbound, neither will the reader be.

How many books have you written so far?

One, an Afrikaans book called Troos vir die gebrokenes, published by Umuzi, an imprint of Random House in July 2009.

Troos vir die gebrokenes is about three generations of Afrikaans speaking black women, dealing with various social issues, such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse, crime, the effect it has on them and how they overcome. It is a story of hope, of the human spirit overcoming affliction.

Given that Afrikaans is a language which a generation or more of black women will have resisted, at one time or the other, is this tension between the language and the people who are using it reflected at all in the novel?

No, I deliberately did not take any stance on the language. The characters deal with issues, like poverty, like gender-based violence, that are far more pressing for them. Adding issues around language would have taken the focus away from the main message, which deals with hope and empowerment of women.

How long did it take you to write it?

From conceptualising to finalisation, about nine months

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

Random House has a reputation as a publisher of excellent material, and I wanted to work with them. It never even occurred to me to send my manuscript elsewhere.

What advantages and/or disadvantages has this presented?

Working with a group of dedicated people who really set the bar high, forces me to constantly evaluate the quality of my own writing. Having an ego, or being possessive of one’s work, is not even an option!

How do you deal with this?

Write, rewrite, and rewrite again until I’m happy with the result.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Writing about serious issues without striking a depressive note.

The challenge for me was to put my characters in extremely dark situations, but to have them retain a hopeful outlook.

It is a very delicate balance to maintain in life, and trying to use words to portray it without making your audience feel manipulated, is tricky.

I find that taking a step or two back from the work, and really looking at it critically, helps. Also, getting constant feedback from others.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

The whole creative process.

Contrary to common perception, writing is a collaborative process, and having a team of talented people co-creating with me, is probably the ultimate buzz - seeing my baby raised by a village, in a manner of speaking!

What sets Troos vir die gebrokenes apart from the other things you've written?

Troos is my first work of fiction, everything else has been factual

It is similar to other things I've written because it has a strong emphasis on gender issues, although it is approached from a different perspective to the more academic writings that I’ve done.

What will your next book be about?

Corrective rape, so it’s again about a gender issue.

I’d rather not divulge more than that - I find the story evolves almost without my input, so the plot I work on now, may no longer be applicable a week from now.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

As a debut writer, I’d have to say getting my first book published by the first publisher I submitted it to!

When did you start writing?

I’ve always written, even as far back as primary school. In fact, my first published piece appeared in our school newsletter in my Grade 8 year. I stopped writing for number of years during tertiary education, and when I started working.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

[Interview] Magdalena Ball

In earlier interviews, poet, storyteller and literary activist, Magdalena Ball talked about the factors that made her start writing, her concerns as a writer and about her debut novel, Sleep Before Evening.

Since then she has gone on to publish She Wore Emerald Then, a poetry chapbook written in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson. The chapbook was a finalist in the USA Book News 2009 NBBA Best Book Awards.

She Wore Emerald Then was followed by Repulsion Thrust (Bewrite Books, 2009), a full length, solo poetry collection whcih tackles subjects like quantum physics, astronomy, time travel, ecological destruction, and technological singularity, all viewed through the lens of the human condition.

Below, Magdalena Ball talks about the work she is currently doing:

How would you describe Repulsion Thrust?

My latest book is Repulsion Thrust, which is out from Bewrite Books. It's a poetry book which is in three sections. The first has an overall theme of "The Black Dog" (as in Churchill's - eg depression and pain), the second is environmentally and technologically/futuristically focused, and the third is an almost lighthearted (for me!) synthesis of the first two -- a kind of answer to the clash of the first two notions.

As always with my work, there's a fair amount of influence from the 'sciences', from quantum physics to psychology, geology, evolution, and astronomy.

I chose Bewrite Books because they published my novel, Sleep Before Evening, and I knew that they also published poetry, and above all, that they would provide a thorough editing process for me, which is what I wanted. I also knew it would be easier than going to a new publisher as I already had a positive relationship in place with them and a reasonable understanding of the process, although poetry was quite different to prose, and there was much still for me to learn.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into Repulsion Thrust?

Finding a neat structural framework for the poetry I had been writing was a little bit tricky. Also with poetry, there's always work involved in ensuring that you remove anything that is absolutely unnecessary to what you want to say. Every word has to work, or you dilute the effectiveness of the poetry.

With the framework, that was simply a left brain exercise. Sit down and think about the overall focus of the work and work out how a structure could support what I wanted to say.

In terms of the editing process, again, having someone else involved was very helpful. I had one superb reader (my mother -- say what you will -- she's a great editor), who went through every poem with me once I was done. I read them to her outloud, and she would ask questions or point things out. Often just the process of reading outloud showed me what didn't work and what did.

My Bewrite editor (Sam Smith) was also very good at spotting what worked well and where I was overly wordy (an issue I need to work on!), or obscure. We even removed a few poems he didn't feel were strong and replaced them with others. I even did a last minute edit after the final proofread.

What did you enjoy most?

To be honest, I really love writing poetry. It's a medium I find most natural, and the fact that you can complete an exercise in one relatively contained burst, and then have something to submit, makes it very satisfying.

I found that I was (and continue to) "allow" myself some poetry time at the end of a hard slog or difficult bit of writing as a kind of reward. The combination of short term (completion/submission) gratification, with knowing I was working on a longer term objective (a full book), was very pleasurable.

To be honest, it's kind of hard to stop myself and get back to a daily fiction schedule, which doesn't have that instant component.

I will though.

My next novel is over halfway done, so it has a kind of imperitive of its own.

What sets Repulsion Thrust apart from other things you have written?

This is my first full length poetry book (the others have been much shorter chapbooks), so it's a big thing for me. It's much more intense and inclusive.

I was able to have that chapter structure and to cover a much wider terrain. I'm very excited about it!

In what way is it similar to the others?

When I finished Quark Soup, I said I would leave science alone for a bit, but found myself even more drawn to it. Not only the language, although I do tend to find words like "catalysis" and "emulsification" very attractive (not sure why!), but there is, to me, something so breathtaking about looking at the world around us from a scientific perspective. There is so much that is beautiful to explore. The fundamental structure of a snowflake or rock formations are just startling. An aurora or solar wind is an amazing thing. The quantum world itself is so full of interesting absurdities that breakdown reality in ways that are seem out of sync with day to day relativity, but when you think about dreams, emotions, or perceptions, there are alignments which aren't absurd at all. So I play with those things in most of my work.

What will your next book be about?

Black Cow is the story of Graeme Archer, a well respected Chief Executive Officer of a large multinational corporation. When his health problems worsen, and his busy family life starts to disintegrate, he has to rethink the way he lives.

The story tracks the family as they move from a ritzy suburb to a small Tasmanian farm, and the challenges they encounter as they attempt to change their lives from super consumers to super conservers. It's a little funny (my funny, which is still reasonably black at times ...)

Do you have a target audience?

I'm sure I'd sell more books with a more specific target audience.

I embrace all readers and hope that my work, even the poetry, is clear and simple enough to appeal to all levels.

That said, my work probably will appeal more to a literary fiction, poetry loving reader who likes their work to resonate for a while, rather than to someone who likes fast paced, action thriller style work. That's what my son tells me, and I'm sure he knows best.

How would you describe your writing?

I'm one of those jacks of all trades who tends to write across genres.

I have been doing a lot of poetry recently, and my work seems to be very science oriented at the moment, though that can change, and tends to apply more to my poetry than my fiction and certainly more to poetry than to nonfiction, which can be on any topic from literary criticism to parenting.

No matter what I'm writing, it's always metaphor rich, with a certain amount of depth, and probably more run-on sentences than I should have. That's my natural tendency. Even my academic writing is metaphor rich, much to the horror of various supervisors that I've had over the years!

Which influences do you draw on as a writer?

So many authors have influenced or inspired me, that it's difficult to pinpoint specific influences. I could start from my earliest reading experiences, including such authors as Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, Little Bear, In the Night Kitchen) and Dr Seuss (The Lorax still brings a lump to my throat. On Beyond Zebra still excites me) through to authors that inspire me now, from literary writers like Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, to Auden, Plath, Porter, Judith Bevridge to the incredible science writers like Hawkings and Dawkins. I'm sure I've left out some major influence, and could probably list names for many paragraphs.

And, like most writers, I also draw on my personal experiences in almost everything I write. I'm something of a magpie, so will pick at just about everything I've got - personal obversations, sensory experiences, overheard conversations, a story someone told me, the song my son is struggling to learn on the piano. If I burn myself on the stove, the pain will be in a story or poem before the sting goes.

As a writer, I always try to get at the core of something. To try and get at something meaningful and deep at the heart of our experiences. That goes for whether I'm writing fiction, comedy, nonfiction or poetry. It isn't always easy, but it helps to have good readers, who can test whether what you've said translates into what you mean for a reader. I have several excellent readers who I show final drafts to, and they don't hesitate to tell me when I'm not making sense or when I've written something trite.

Do you write everyday?

I do write everyday. It isn't always a lot, but I'll always schedule in some time for writing in my daily plan.

I would love to have a regular place and time, but with the juggling I do, I have to take whatever moments I get, so I'll usually just open something up in the morning that I'm planning to work on and whenever and wherever I get a chance I'll work on it.

If I'm writing a poem, I'll usually keep going until the whole thing is done (first pass - often there are several iterations later). That's the same for any short piece of work - flash fiction or a short nonfiction piece. For longer work like a story or a novel, I'll usually keep going until, through some kind of instinct, I feel I've had enough and it's time to stop (or I have to go pick up the kids from school or meet some other impending deadline).

It's probably the same for nearly every 21st Century person but time is my biggest challenge. Finding enough of it to do all the things I want to do.

I'm reasonally well organised and do tend to plan each day fairly well, listing key objectives to lead to the bigger objectives, but there's always a limit to just how much you can get through in a day, and in addition to my writing, I'm also parent to three young(ish - getting older all the time :-) children, have a reasonably big day job, have just started another Master's degree, have two websites to manage and a new book to promote, so time is always a challenge. I deal with it as best as I can, through planning and prioritising - standard time management processes, but I also sometimes have to ease off my goals and accept my limitations. My children won't be young forever, so they always have to take priority.

How many books have you written so far?

I've listed the books I've written below. I've collaborated on and participated in quite a few more anthologies and collections (say around six), but these are the key ones:
  • Repulsion Thrust, Bewrite Books, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-904492-96-2 - this is my just released full length poetry collection. Repulsion Thrust tackles big subjects not often the fodder of poetry: quantum physics, astronomy, time travel, ecological destruction, and technological singularity, all viewed through the lens of the human condition.
  • She Wore Emerald Then, 2008, 978-1438263793, (poetry chapbook - collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson), finalist in the USA Book News 2009 NBBA Best Book Awards. She Wore Emerald Then and Cherished Pulse are part of an ongoing "Celebration" series of chapbooks designed to replace greeting cards.
  • Sleep Before Evening, BeWrite Books, 2007 , ISBN-13: 978-1904492962 – 2008 Indie Book Awards Regional Fiction Finalist - this is a novel set in NYC that follows the adventures of 17 year old, Marianne as she discovers the healing power of music through an almost deadly journey into the deepest recesses of her own mind.
  • Quark Soup, Picaro Press, 2006 , ISBN 1-920957-23-5, ( Poetry Chapbook) - Quark Soup contains twenty eight poems which muse on topics like what it means to be human, love, loss, fear, longing, and transcendence. Avoiding cliché and the mundane, the poetry in this collection is accessible to the common reader, with a powerful intellectual edge and playful wit. As all good poetry should, this work uses sound, sense, and strong imagery to deal with everyday topics like depression, birth, growing old, love and death, all moving towards a large universal picture. As the title suggests, there is a strong astrophysical theme running through the poems.
  • The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything, Mountain Mist Productions, 2003 , ISBN 1-920913-10-6, ( Nonfiction) , The Art of Assessment is a complete guide to the review process, from how to write good reviews, how to use interviews to add depth to your reviews, obtaining review copies, marketing your reviews, and plenty of examples and references to help you become a working reviewer.
  • Cherished Pulse, 2006 , re-released in 2009 as a print book, ISBN 978-1449546052 ( Poetry Chapbook - collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson) , Cherished Pulse contains twenty poems which look at love from a wise, mature, sensitive perspective. Never sentimental (forget Hallmark), the poems explore love in its many guises -- cherish, longing, sensuality, and that sacred place between desire and consumation.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

[Book Review] Mailer and Gibran's alternative Gospels

In 2007, when I was browsing through the shelves at the Dudley Library, looking and hoping I’d find one or two titles by Dambudzo Marechera, I came across The Gospel According to the Son.

The title was like a magnet.

Many years earlier, while browsing through the shelves of a bookstore in Harare, Zimbabwe I’d stumbled upon Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus, the Son of Man and I’d been completely taken in by the idea of a novel about Jesus Christ. I’d found Gibran’s book so engaging that it’s now top on the list of books I keep reading and re-reading. Norman Mailer’s Gospel According to the Son is also joining that list.

The two books are similar to each other. They are both based on the Gospels. They both take a familiar story and they re-imagine and re-tell it. They both present an imaginative account of the life and work of Jesus Christ and explore the effect that Jesus had on the lives, hearts and minds of the people he lived and worked among. The story in both books is presented in the first person by a person who was close to the action. And, to me, the spirit that informs and pervades both books feels so authentic that each of the books reads like an alternative Gospel.

The main difference between the two books is that Jesus, the Son of Man was first published in 1928 while The Gospel According to the Son came out in 1998. Also, while The Gospel According to the Son has one narrator, Jesus, the Son of Man is told from multiple perspectives. It is told from the individual point of view of a variety of characters who’d known, lived with, met or heard about Jesus Christ. Most of the characters whose voices we hear in this book are also mentioned or implied in the Gospels. These characters include Anna, the mother of Mary; Mary Magdalen; Caiaphas, the High Priest; Joseph of Arimathaea and Simon, the Cyrene. Jesus, the Son of Man gives these and other characters more time and space than they were given in the Gospels and allows each of them to tell what they saw, heard, thought and felt about Jesus in their own words.

In The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer does more-or-less the same thing. While in the Gospels which appear in the Bible, we hear about the life and work of Jesus from people who heard about him from his disciples, in The Gospel According to the Son, Mailer allows Jesus to tell his own story in ‘his own words’.

Mailer allows us to imagine how Jesus Christ might have told the story of his own life. He allows us to imagine Christ as a man like any other man and to see some the inner conflict Christ must have felt and experienced and how he resolved or failed to resolve this conflict. Mailer allows us to imagine what Christ might have thought and felt about key stages or events in his life, among them: his birth; his apprenticeship as a carpenter; his relationship with his mother and immediate family; his relationship with his disciples; his relationship with God; his relationship with religious leaders of the time; his death; his resurrection and the wars that have been fought in his name.

Both Jesus, the Son of Man and The Gospel According to the Son are written in language that is accessible and easy to read. They contain nuggets of observations on life and spirituality that encourage the reader to think about life, religion and his/her relationship with others and with God. The books also have the effect of making the reader want to go back and re-familiarize himself/herself with the Gospels and the account they present of the life and work of Jesus Christ.

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