Introducing Jo-Anne Richards

12 Mar

Jo-Anne Richards is the author of four novels. Her first, The Innocence of Roast Chicken topped the bestseller list in the week it appeared and remained there for 15 weeks. It was shortlisted for the M-Net Prize and nominated for the Impac International Dublin Award. She was chosen as a Dillon’s Debut, to be showcased in the UK as an “outstanding first novel”.

Innocence and her second novel, Touching the Lighthouse, were published by Headline in London and, in German, by Knaur. Her third, Sad at the Edges, was published by Stephan Phillips. A French translation is underway.

My Brother’s Book is published by Picador Africa and has recently launched in South Africa. She has had short stories published in five collections, in South Africa and abroad.

She is the academic co-ordinator of the Honours in Journalism and Media Studies at Wits University and a supervisor in the Wits Creative Writing Masters programme. She facilitates a number of literary courses and runs a Writers’ Circle.
I also am honoured to count her as a friend, and was thrilled when she agreed to be my very first interviewee on this blog! As to be expected, she gave generously of her time, wisdom and self.

Q. What’s the first book you remember loving?
My mother, who believed we should experience the beauty of words, sometimes forgot that books could be emotionally, as well as intellectually, hard. (I’m glad she did, though).

When I turned four, she gave me an Oscar Wilde collection and read me The Nightingale and the Rose. I sobbed until I could only dry-heave – devastated by my first realisation that love might not always be returned and that sacrifice could be futile.

My father had a great repertoire of “baboon stories”, about a family of baboons in the bushveld, with a girl baboon remarkably like me. That night, he was forced to tell me three baboon stories in a row to calm me sufficiently to go to bed.

Although I remember the story’s sadness, (and still dissolve if I attempt to read it aloud), I don’t recall the feeling as traumatic. After a couple of readings, I knew it well enough to mime reading it aloud – a trick that saved me a little of the torment that resulted from my inability to learn to read when I started school.

I was a dyslexic child and a total geek, with no friends, and eyes that overflowed at the slightest thing. But now and again, I could gather a small group to me by sitting on the floor and “reading” one of the stories in the collection.

Wherever I am, I search for illustrated editions of that collection. Last year, my daughter returned from a trip and unpacked the most exquisite hard cover I’d ever seen, with delicate illustrations and gorgeous paper.

“Oh,” I said, all misty-eyed. “I can’t believe it. You found that for me, your beloved mother, who read you that book when you were but a tot.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied. “I bought it for myself.”

Q. What’s your favourite thing that you’ve written?
Books are like children. You care about them all, each in a slightly different way. You are loving about their good points and sensitive about, yet a little exasperated, by their flaws.
You can imagine how someone might react if you kindly pointed out their child’s funny nose?
Well … people don’t always realise that writers have precisely the same feelings about their books. I suspect some people believe that saying somehting nice will mark them as lacking in intelligence and, certainly, discrimination. They are impelled to enumerate drunkenly your books’ many flaws at cocktail parties – to prove they recognise them, I suppose. My favourite people are those who come up to me in the street and tell me that a book of mine moved them, or touched them, or made them laugh or cry.
Hell, I love those people. In a country with as small a reading public as ours, where the financial rewards are non-existent (In fact, if you spend time on novels instead of company reports for large corporates, writing probably loses you money) those memories are the often the only things that carry you through the cold, lonely times.
I love my first book because it was my most carefree. I had no expectations, no ambition beyond getting it written. Now I think it could have benefited from a good edit, but I think it had an energy that I’m proud of.

One of my four books didn’t get as much attention as my first (and not entirely due to its own shortcomings). I’m deeply protective of it and, in those moments, see my first book as the rather vain, but pretty daughter who received more undeserved attention than the quieter one.
At the moment, my favourite book is my latest, My Brother’s Book. It’s my personal best. As a writer, perhaps you always want the best for your current book because you’re never quite sure if you’ll be able to pull off that trick again. Each time you finish one, the possibility of another seems more ridiculously far-fetched.
But I really believe I’ve done my best work (so far) in this, so I’m deeply in love with it. I’m competitive with myself, so I’m determined to write better each time. I know it’s exhausting, but there it is. I’m just starting a fifth novel, and perhaps eventually that will turn out to be my favourite. But at this stage, it still feels like a foetus. I’m scared to talk about it, because it’s not yet safely past its first trimester.

Q. Everyone’s process is different: are you a “write every day” or a “write when I’m inspired”, or a different kind of animal?
If I wrote when inspired, I’d never have finished a book. I never have enough time for writing, so the time I set aside is incredibly precious. I can’t fritter it away. Also, writing is terrifying. Each day I sit down to write, I fear I won’t be able to do it.
So, anything seems more appealing, even tidying the linen cupboard. If it was inspiration I was after, I could so easily persuade myself that today was definitely not the day … I could just feel how lacking the inspiration … surely, I’d be better off going to a morning matinee.
I’m not really a great believer in writers’ block either. I have felt blocked and uninspired sometimes. But I force myself to sit there, staring at the screen, typing one word, and then two. Sometimes it takes me a couple of days to get over the feeling. But sometimes, after I’ve plodded along for a while, it begins to stride and eventually to take off and fly.

Q. Writing can be a lonely career – how do you battle against that?
I wish! Although it’s scary to sit down, writing settles me. It’s what keeps me sane. I’m rather a nervous, unsettled person. Only when I’m writing steadily do I feel vaguely serene.
After a morning’s writing, especially if it flies, I sometimes feel as though I’ve entered another plane … Do you know know that feeling when you’ve had an experience, good or bad, that takes you beyond other humans , if only for a time? For that little while, it’s as though you’re skirting the edges, watching people from a great distance, unable to communicate except about that one extraordinary thing that’s befallen you?
It’s lonely, yes, but it’s wonderful too. It’s like learning to float. Well, that’s how writing feels. I wish I had more time. Instead I’m bothered by petty concerns like earning a living …
I get bugged by students night and day on my cell phone (Whatever happened to being scared to phone your fierce lecturers?). By broom sellers at the door, a child’s school, someone whose deadline I missed, someone else who wants me please just to read her novels / story / poems … Anyway, I suppose what I mean is, I’d be saner if I had more alone time just to write.
Instead I have to squeeze writing between my real life concerns, which are (probably for all of us living in cities) too overwhelming – too full of people, expectations, duties and traffic jams. Oh for a little more loneliness.

Q. What are you reading right now?
I fairly recently finished reading Richard Ford, whom I met in Cape Town at my favourite Cape independent, The Book Lounge, earlier this year. I found him funny and charming, and he writes with great sensitivity about the fragility of hope.
I have Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam sitting next to my bed because he’s one of my favourite writers. I haven’t started it yet. I’ve been reading submissions from my Writers’ Circle, three manuscripts for which I was an external, two manuscripts that people begged me to read, and another for a publisher. I’m desperate for a bit of summer holiday, with beach, sun and books.

Q. What are you writing right now?
Besides several little pieces commissioned by women’s magazines, I’ve started a new book. Please don’t ask anything about it. I still feel it might miscarry. I say this every time, but a book feels so wonderfully strong from about halfway. You forget how delicate and shaky it feels at the beginning.
I have one person, a good friend, who reads as I go along. The rule is that he can be mildly critical, (or massively so, but only if he thinks it’s way off-beam, and deserves to die. Because that’s what it will do, if he’s massively critical.) I do a lot of work in the rewrite and am desperately sensitive until I’m finished. Then I take a very harsh look at all its shortcomings.
I don’t show my partner until it’s finished, or nearly so. He’s a writer and a book critic, and he’s Dutch, which means he’s very straight-forward. He doesn’t cringe and apologise the way the rest of us do. I can’t face his comments until the poor thing is stronger.

Q. Write me a haiku about your day today
Jacaranda blooms on wet streets
A purple shroud
For the death of spring.
I thought of it while driving home because I always find the hopefulness of spring so poignant, especially when it is battered by storms. I want to scoop up the blossoms and stick them all back, so that it won’t be gone. It feels so sad.
It’s my birthday on Monday and, after my birthday, it’s offically no longer spring. I do love summer but … I’m such an odd person. When I was at school (which I hated), my favourite day was Friday and my worst Sunday. On Friday I had the anticipation of Saturday and, on Sunday, I could only look forward to Monday.
I’m an overwhelmingly hopeful person and for the very hopeful, disappointment is never far behind. My birthday, perhaps, also reminds me that my own spring … okay, let’s not go there.

Q. One thing you’d recommend all writers read/do?
Keep a little notebook. When you’re driving through the Karoo or … Nevada or the Hindu Kush, force yourself to describe it. Find the words that will transport people there. Look for the images that will express the smell, the feel and the look of the place. It’s like going to the gym. It keeps the writing muscles working. Also, when you want to write about it later, you’ll have forgotten the exact texture of it, unless you made yourself describe it at the time.
Eavesdrop. Write down people’s conversations. Describe their reaction to each other, their posture – the things they say, the things they don’t say, the way they skirt around each other and relate everything back to themselves. Record their frailties, their quirks and mannerisms.
Scribble whenever you can (and even when you think you can’t).

Q. I really loved “My Brother’s Book” – it blew me away as a completely new and exciting book. Often I make “excuses” for books, films, etc because they’re South African, but this was sheer joy from beginning to end. I believe the industry is in an exciting place right now – which local authors/publishers do you think are doing interesting things – what should we watch out for?
Well now I’m in love with you. I’m overwhelmed when people say things like that. Probably quite pathetic, but I get tears in my eyes.
I think local publishers are heroic. There must be easier ways to make money. So I think they’re all doing extraordinary things.
I think there are loads of creative people, doing fascinating things in South Africa. I hope the economic situation doesn’t affect books badly because I think you’re right: we’re maturing as a society of writers. Our writers are developing, experimenting and growing.
On the flip side, I believe that a society that cares nothing for writing or its writers becomes an ignorant and insular one. It becomes crass and insensitive, full of people unable to see beyond themselves or imagine themselves into other people’s skins. We are becoming a society that doesn’t read and that doesn’t value the people who write. It’s inexpressibly sad.
Non-fiction is as far as some people will go. They think that, somehow, “being real” will save them from whatever they’re fearful of in the word, by giving them the answers. Particularly in South African, in these times, people aren’t looking for literature, they’re searching for an oracle.
Fiction has lost popularity because novelists don’t authoritatively grab people by the throat and force them to understand what they think they already know. Novels are a way of seeking to understand. Novelists are the people who, unfettered by the burden of having to show “what really happened” (or however much of “what really happened” will ever be admitted by those involved), can explore the best and the worst of humanity. They can rummage around in our flaws and our virtues, and look unflinchingly at our actions and motivations. Surely this is the only way we can ever truly understand ourselves, as individuals or as a nation.
I went to give a talk in a bookshop the other day and discovered an audience horrified by the thought of reading for fun, rather than “self improvement”. If reading isn’t fun, it will never compete with an episode of The Wire on TV.
I think that we won’t bring back a culture of reading unless we come back to the idea of reading as a joy, an escape, (just about) the best thing we could think of doing in bed …
I was thinking the other day that perhaps we do our children a disservice by encouraging them so hard. Perhaps we should bring back a bit of sinfulness. I used to be punished if I read under the bedcovers with a torch. I can still remember the feeling of delicious transgression. If I ever found my children reading under the bedclothes, I wept with joy.

Q. if you could interview a writer, who would it be?
I’m not sure I’d like to interview writers in the formal sense. I’d far prefer to chat informally – with any number of writers, really. I always feel I’ll grow grumpy with envy around writers I admire. But when I do actually meet other writers, I often discover so many experiences and feelings in common, that I forget to be grumpy.
I’d love to meet Ian McEwan and Michael Chabon, because they’re two of my favourite writers. I’d be incoherent with envy though, with either of them. I’d like to chat to Nick Hornby, but that might be based on the spurious assumption that, in person, he has the charm and humour of his writing. He might have, but you never can tell …
I like his views on of music though, and loved Thirty-One Songs. I read it cover to cover while recovering from malaria once and wanted to swap music with him. Not so sure he’d be so thrilled, though.
I’ve always wanted to talk to JD Salinger. I loved all his books and am fascinated by why people become reclusive. I also read two intriguingly contrasting memoirs about him.
The other person I’d love to meet is Pat Conroy because I think he’s greatly underrated as a serious writer. I love the emotional intensity of his writing and wish he’s produce another. I’ve also read that he borrowed from life and was disowned by his family as a result. I’d be fascinated to discuss an issue that I think all writers grapple with, and that not many civilians understand – the weaving of real life and imagination, to produce fiction.

Read more about Jo-Anne and her work on her site, link on the right of the page!

Jo-Anne and I (and Tim's head) at the Book Fair last year.

Jo-Anne and I (and Tim's head) at the Book Fair last year.

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