Would You Consider South Africa a Gift to Writers?

The guest post series in this blog has been on a hiatus, but today I introduce with great pleasure Melissa de Villiers, the South African author of The Chameleon House, a collection of short stories recently long listed for the Frank O’connor award. She answers questions on various topics of writerly interest.

The Chameleon House: Melissa de Villiers
The Chameleon House: Melissa de Villiers
1. Tell us about your writing journey. When and how did you start writing fiction?

I grew up in a house full of secrets. My maternal grandfather, for instance, lived an hour’s drive away down the road but we never knew or met him – my mother had cut him out of her life as a young woman and there was so much she never seemed to want to tell us about her background. As a child, I’d make up stories to explain the questions that went unanswered.

Also, I grew up under the last years of the apartheid system, which imposed its own code of silences. Making up stories – the wilder and more absurd, the better – became a kind of private test to see whether I was starting to become a typical ‘product’ or not – whether I was getting sucked in.

2. What aspect of writing a short story do you find tough, and which one do you find easy? Why?

Starting out is the worst. That’s when the sense that you might fail can press down, or even threaten to become so overwhelming that you never start at all. You have to hold your nerve, laughing hysterically at your own insane self-absorption and just get on with it.
Easiest? Cutting back – that final cull once you’ve finished a draft.

3. If you had to give just three pointers on ‘writing technique’ to aspiring authors, something general creative writing books don’t tell them, what would they be?

  • Live a full and varied life and write about life. You need to keep your well of ideas brimming.
  • Don’t wait for inspiration to strike – treat writing like a job. Turn up ‘for work’ every day and just do it, even if it’s only for an hour and has to be fitted around career, children, and other commitments.
  • Writing fiction isn’t primarily about ‘self-expression,’ though that might be a useful by-product. Rather, you’re making a construction for people to read – an artifice based on effects. You need to be crafty, patient and careful as you manipulate the possibilities. It’s hard work. I like what Zadie Smith had to say on the matter: “You want self-expression? Go ring a bell in the yard.”

4. If you had to choose three of your favorite authors and their best works, which would they be? Why did you choose these in particular?

  1. The strength of Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction is that it leaves out just as much as it leaves in. Her last novel, The Blue Flower – probably her masterpiece – is spare, droll and utterly distinctive. And written when she was 79! A lesson to all us procrastinators.
  2. The British-Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera’s first collection Monkfish Moon is a book I’m very fond of. The style is lyrical yet the stories are war-haunted, tinged with the sadness of lost things. It’s wonderfully done.
  3. Suchen Christine Lim’s The River’s Song is my favourite Singaporean novel. The song of the river is also the song of Singapore’s underdogs – ‘unsung and uncelebrated.’ It’s a brave and skillful book.

5. Tell us more about The Chameleon House, your recently launched short story collection. Is there a target audience? What did you have in mind when you chose the stories to go into the collection?
My stories mostly deal with a South Africa in transition, in the years immediately following the end of the brutal and bloody apartheid system. Many of the white characters are still in a state of some confusion and denial about the whole process – they’re monsters, really. South Africa’s a gift to writers in some ways. The political landscape requires strong reactions to things – you’re never far from a drama.

6. Which is your favorite story in the collection and why?
I’m fond of ‘A Letter to Bianca’ because somehow the first draft came very quickly – that’s most unusual for me. Ironically, the heroine is someone with a paralyzing case of writer’s block.


Melissa De Villiers
Melissa De Villiers

Melissa de Villiers is a writer and journalist. She grew up in South Africa but now lives between Singapore and London. Her debut short story collection ‘The Chameleon House’ has  been longlisted for the Frank O’connor award.

         Have you read any of the books Melissa mentions? Have you read her book The Chameleon House? Do you have questions for her?

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !


Add Yours
  1. aj vosse

    An interesting read! I had a quick look at Modjaji Books to see if they’d take short story submissions from expat South Africans but it seems they only cater for ladies! Anyway, if you have any advice for submitting short stories and collections please let me know! All help is appreciated in this game, as you know!! Thanks! 😉

  2. Isabel

    Hi Damyanti and all the other readers! What a fabulous blog post!

    I work for Modjaji Books, the proud publishers of The Chameleon House. I see some people have struggled to find the book. You can buy it either directly from our website, and we will post it from South Africa. It will cost roughly R350 including shipping. Here is the link: http://www.modjajibooks.co.za/titles/the-chameleon-house/

    OR you can buy it from the African Books Collective, and they will print it and post it from the UK. It will cost roughly 18 pounds including shipping, which at the current exchange rate is the same as R350. Here is the link: http://www.africanbookscollective.com/getpaid-cart

    Happy Reading 🙂

  3. Shery Alexander Heinis

    Quite an interesting interview and thanks for introducing us to a new writer. I find the three pointers on writing to be very useful advice – I do try to turn up for the job everyday, although some days I’m a lot more productive than others!

    • Damyanti

      Yes, turning up is very important. I edit on some days, or write something non-fic, but I’m around if fiction wants to show up!

  4. Jacqui Murray

    I love her answer to the worst part of a story–starting out. Same is true of all writing, I think. Even an email sometimes for me–how to write this interesting, concise, focused, with a point.

  5. urvinegi

    Hey there! I’ve nominated you for the Versatile blogger award and the Creative blogger award. Check my recent post for further info.
    Thanks. 🙂

  6. Guilie Castillo

    Loved it! I, too, was unfamiliar with Melissa de Villiers, so I’m grateful for the introduction–and I’ve put The Chameleon House in my wish list. She sounds fantastic (and that Zadie Smith quote made me spit out my tea 😀 ) Thanks, D!

  7. any1mark66

    Ok I know very little of South Africa. Besides big items. It’s confronting that some things are universal. And reassuring that bloom where you are planted cab be expressed in many more ways than you think. 🙂

  8. ccyager

    Thank you for introducing Melissa de Villiers here — I had not heard of her before. So much of what she said I can relate to or I agree with. So many young writers think all they have to do is make up stories — they need to live life so they have a foundation in which to ground those stories. Thank you! Cinda

  9. AmazinglyBrash

    This interview is very informative. It speaks to me….it pinpointed the process of writing. The Mind is always creating worlds that are yet to exist. But they are realized when the words connect writer to reader. Great advice in this piece. Maintain your passion, it shows in your work.

  10. G. R. McNeese

    This was a great interview. It’s a comfort to know there are others who have issues starting out. I agree that we have to think of writing as going to work. It’s the best way to get things done.

  11. ANooP

    Not sure if South Africa is a writers place, but sure is a nature’s lap. I loved the way the author has answered especially short story. I can relate to it.

    Frank O’ Connor… happens to be the project manager in client side at my workplace but without an O. lol. That’s some coincidence.

  12. Pizzos3.com

    I really enjoyed this. Will definitely be reading your collection and some of the favorites. I am completing my first short story collection in honor of Walter Dean Myers and the city I grew up in Detroit. Can you speak a bit about pace within the collection? Specifically how you decided the order of the stories? FYI educators of teens love short story collections they work great within the 45 minute class period. Try and market there.