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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Meeting other writers on The next Big Thing

- Jo-Anne Richards

One of the most warming effects of spending a week almost constantly in the company of 18 other writers was that, by the end of the week, we were a gang. Writing is a solitary, often lonely occupation, so it’s an uncommon experience. (Might one say novel?)

From South Africa, Palestine via America, Uganda, Nigeria, India via Ethiopia, UK and Canada via South Africa, participants in the 16th Time of the Writer in Durban supported each other’s panels and launches, ate together, drank together, shared secrets and argued hell out of each other.

We wandered off on expeditions or tried to find a drink in Durban after 11pm. Bonds grew sufficiently strong to trample a few national and cultural borders. The last Time of the Writer I attended in 2008 gave me a few enduring friends. I can see that this one will too.

No matter how diverse the group, it always comes as a surprise how similar many of us and our experiences are. Oh, I don’t mean life experiences. Those couldn’t be more different. Neither are we similar in outlook, personality or temperament. But there’s a certain quality of experience around writing, and how we feel about it, that is common to all of us.

I received this blog opportunity, the Next Big Thing, as I was flying to the book fair and I nearly let it go. I thought I had enough on my plate, launching my book in two cities in two weeks, speaking on panels and trying to keep up with my work. But I came to the same conclusion as Liesl Jobson, who tagged me in last week’s Next Big Thing:

If it draws the attention of just two people to my work, it will have been worth it – because my book is me, only better. It’s an extension of the best part of me. I want it to make its way in the world because I gave birth to it and love it with a protective ferocity. That’s one of the things we had in common.

So here are my answers to the Next Big Thing questions. I have tagged those of the writers on Time of the Writer who do blog: Jackee Batanda from Uganda, Elana Bregin from South Africa, Jude Dibia from Nigeria and Shafinaaz Hassim, also from South Africa. I have also tagged Kate Sidley, who shares my publisher and writes extensively and with great sensibility about books and writing.

What is the title, or working title, of your book?

The title of my book, which first launched two weeks ago, is The Imagined Child.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s difficult to know exactly where the idea for a book comes from. Sometimes I have been struck first by a character and at other times a setting. But underlying that, almost sub-consciously, I become fascinated by a human issue that I want to explore. With this book, it was the idea of how much we are formed by our primary relationships – those with our parents – and the effect we in turn have on our children.

We are all damaged to a greater or lesser extent, genetically or by our upbringing it doesn’t matter. The way we deal with our damage, whether or not we come to terms with it, and whether we are able to forgive, determines the kind of adults we become and ultimately, the type of parents.

For a few years now, I have wanted to rummage around in some of our most unattractive urges. These relationships are fraught with guilt, blame, sometimes anger. It’s been my experience that most people experience “unnatural” feelings towards their parents and their children, at least some of the time. But few feel able to admit to them in public. I wanted to explore these.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a very inexact science, tryng to place any book within a genre. My publishers regard The Imagined Child as readable literary fiction. My early training was in journalism, so all my writing is accessible. Hopefully it’s intriguing and suspenseful enough to draw readers through the story, with characters who are easy to identify with, but I hope it also offers some insights and explores some serious human issues.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My protagonist is attractive, but in an interesting way. I would need an actor who could portray a certain darkness, as well as a sensitive vulnerability. Juliette Binoche is a little older, now, than my character, but she does have some of those complex qualities and she’s an intelligent and insightful actor.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Imagined Child is a psychological mystery in which Odette tries to claim a simpler life in a small Free State town, but gets caught up in two deaths – one involving her troubled daughter – and in the end has to face her own flaws in order to find redemption. (Whew, that was one sentence, wasn’t it?)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My book is published by Picador Africa, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

My first draft is always very rough and bears no resemblance to the final product. It probably took me about 18 months to write. But then I went back to the beginning and wrote a second, and then a third, a fourth …

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t answer this question for myself. I could trot out a number of books that I admire and which I would like to think my book resembles, but I’d end up sounding, at best, presumptuous, and at worst, deluded.

I asked my publisher and she said it was hard for her too because she thought I had a pretty unique voice, which was nice of her. She also said: “But I think something like Sounds of life by Anna Raverat is comparable in many ways; and locally I do think your work resonates with someone like Michiel Heyns’s writing.”

What inspired you to write this book?

I suppose I was inspired to tackle the fraught relationships between parents and children by years of speaking to mothers, sometimes late at night after a glass of wine or two. It struck me that parents often lie to each other. They find it hard to admit how hard children are, or how they sometimes struggle with feelings that are considered wrong.

It started me thinking: if we are formed by our parents, then they are to some degree responsible for the kind of parents we are. But they, in turn, were formed and damaged by their own parents … in the end, how far back do we blame? And how much responsibility is ours?

Then I projected outward and considered that many of the same feelings exist around the country we were brought up in, which stands as both parent and child. It formed us, we blame it for our damaged selves, and we feel guilt for the way it turned out.

When I first read it a few years ago, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin also started my mind working. She did tackle a mother’s difficult feelings towards a child. Her protagonist felt unable to nurture or, for much of the book, feel love for her troubled child. But in my experience, these kind of feelings are seldom that clear-cut. I wanted to explore the complex push-pull that most mothers feel – they might, in their worst moments, wish a child dead, yet they will protect them against all world.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Mine is a very human story that includes a murder and a death. I hope it explores feelings and ideas that many people struggle with. I hope readers will identify with the characters I’ve created and the psychological mystery they present. I’ve given you something dark and something hopeful, something suspenseful and something redemptive, all bound up with a bit of humour.

As I said, I’m handing the baton to some of the writers I met at Time of the Writer, and one who is fortunate enough to be published by my publishers, Pan Macmillan: Ugandan writer Jackee Batanda, Kate Sidley, Elana Bregin, Jude Dibia of Nigeria and Shafinaaz Hassim.

 

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