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, and her experiences in South Africa.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Have you read any of the books Melissa mentions? Have you read her book The Chameleon House? Do you have questions for her? Would you consider South Africa a gift to writers?
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