Did you always want to be a writer?
I never wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be an airhostess and travel the world. But in the days when I was young you had to be tall and very pretty to be an air hostess. I was neither. I went to university and studied history and politics and got a part time job as a switchboard operator at a newspaper. I was useless at it so they let me write a few stories. I ended up being the political correspondent for the Sunday Times. Along the way I had three children and one day I decided to stay at home and look after them. I didn’t know what else to do when they were at school so I decided to write a book for them. When no one wanted to publish it, I wrote a few more books. And then they got published. I wanted to tell stories to my children to make them laugh. It was my way of connecting with them.
What is the one book that sparked a love of reading for you as a child?
My love of reading was not sparked by one particular book, it was newspapers that did it. Every morning I used to lie in bed between my mother and father while they read the newspapers. I would point to some photo and ask my father what the story was about. And he would tell me. It was really special. Actually I lie, he used to say: “For crying in a bucket, I’m trying to read my newspaper, give me some peace.” I couldn’t wait to be able to read the stories behind the pictures for myself. That’s what sparked my love for reading.
Who is your favourite young adult writer?
The one author I really like who writes for both adults and teens is Philip Pullman. I loved His Dark Materials Trilogy. They are cross-over books which I think are the best sort of novels. I also like Roald Dahl. I didn’t mind reading his books to my children too much.
Which of your characters do you hate/love writing?
That’s a bit like asking me which one of my children I love most. But I have loved writing the Melly books as I like April-May February. She reminds me of my daughter Sophie who is an original soul who makes my life both hell and heaven. I wouldn’t have a character in one of my books that I didn’t enjoy writing about. That would be like eating bad food. I even enjoy writing about the mean and ugly people. I particularly liked writing Pops and The Nearly Dead which is a book about a teenage boy who spends three months with his grandfather in a retirement village. A lot of the book comes from true stories about my mother’s retirement village – as well as some of the rather disturbing things that happened to my father before he died. I enjoyed being able to take real people and events and give them different histories and endings. In a sense, I loved the fact that I had the power to rewrite history and make it all better.
Do you have a special writing place?
I write in two places. The first is at home in Johannesburg at my desk in my sort of study which leads on to my stoep. I find it easier to write when there is a lot of activity going on. So when I sit down to write a new book I usually also embark on a new building project on my house. I love building and Builder’s Warehouse is my favourite shop. Or I start a new garden project – ripping out old beds and planting new ones. So when I write I have lots of people coming and going and hammering and asking me to order sand and bricks which gets me very excited and energised.
The second place I write is at my cottage in Stanford, which is a village near Hermanus. I take a week off from my family and sit and write on the stoep. I like this time away a lot as I don’t have to cook or bath or get out of my pajamas. I eat old Christmas cake and peanut butter and fish sandwiches. When I want to see people I go and buy Ghost Pops and Coke at the cafe and talk to the people walking their dogs.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I have a few rules. I love rules. It makes me feel that my life has some order. The first rule is: read, read, read and read some more. You can’t write if you don’t read. The second rule is: keep a diary. It should be about things that make you laugh or cry; people you meet, the things they say, things that interest you what you experience every day. It will give you material for your books. I kept a diary for many years when I was young and when I was pregnant with my first child I trashed them all because I thought I was going to die in childbirth and I didn’t want anyone to read them. I regret destroying my diaries a lot. The third rule is: write every day – in your diary, on Facebook or on a blog. It will help you develop your voice. The fourth rule is: don’t listen to what people say you should be writing. Write what you want to write about. They are your stories and you shouldn’t try and write someone elses story. The last rule is: respect your readers. Don’t try and lie to them or cheat them or give them rubbish.
Which authors do you admire?
I go through stages of having huge crushes on authors and I devour them until someone else catches my eye, but I always go back to Jane Austen and she never disappoints. I love her irony and her sense of empathy. And her long sentences. I wish I could write long, complicated, grammatically perfect sentences. But apart from Jane Austen, there is one author who I esteem above all others for writing the best book ever written: Harper Lee. Whenever I see To Kill a Mocking Bird in charity shops, I buy it. I have about thirty copies and I’m going to keep on buying it. She inspires me to keep on writing until I get it right.
What do you do when the muse deserts you and you get writer’s block?
I write the first draft of a book in the shortest time possible, and so I drive myself really hard and tend to neglect everything else and go a bit off my head. Because of this I try not to get writer’s block because then it would make the whole first-draft process longer and more agonizing for everybody. But when I do hit a block I go walking. Walking always sharpens the mind and makes you alert to all sorts of possibilities – like breaking your leg by falling down the holes left by the skollies who nick the water metre covers. I also wander around my garden a lot (and when my gardener Goodwill comes to work he knows there’s been a block because I’ve done all sorts of weird alterations to his beds). And then, when that doesn’t help, I read newspapers. I love newspapers. There are always a hundred possible books in every newspaper, and usually I’ll read something that removes the block and allows me to carry on writing.
Who or what is your muse and why?
I am constantly moved to write by the people I love most in the world – my family. My two daughters and son drive me mental most of the time but when they aren’t doing that I am constantly in awe as to how funny and clever and nice they are. And then the children’s father says many things that inspire me to write, things like: “Why don’t you write a book that earns some decent cash?” and “If you can’t write a book that sells do you think you could learn how to cook?” Stuff like that – really inspirational.