Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Barbara Erasmus is a free-lance journalist and author based in Cape Town. She is a listed writer on Travel Intelligence. She has written four novels, all set in contemporary South Africa. Her first novel, Kaleidoscope (Penguin, 2004) was nominated for the Commonwealth Best First Novel Award and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Kaleidoscope and Even with Insects (Penguin, 2005) were both selected for the Exclusive Books Homebru promotion. Her third novel, Chameleon, was published in instalments on the Crime Beat blog, which she edited for three years. Her fourth novel, Below Luck Level, was published by Penguin in 2012.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED AS A WRITER?
I decided to write because I could do it in my pajamas. As a teacher, I’d been ruled by bells and time-tables so the flexibility of free-lance journalism appeals to me now; the intermittent salary cheques are less appealing! I’ve dipped into my luckless husband’s pension fund over the fifteen years it has taken me to build up the varied portfolio of published articles and novels listed and reviewed on my website.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
I recently completed Four Letter Words which I will try to publish in 2015.
Just before that, I published Below Luck Level, which deals with the challenge of Alzheimer’s, an endemic illness in the new millennium.
WHEN DO YOU WORK?
I am a very bad role model for aspirant writers as I have no routine at all and am prone to procrastination. Even the ironing seems preferable on occasion…
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I have never learned how to type so I usually write in long-hand first because it’s quicker. Fortunately, I have become quite proficient with two fingers when transferring my work to the computer.
I try to follow the example of writers I admire who have a light take on serious subjects. For example, I loved Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. Humour is my forte but I have a predilection for tragedy—small-scale domestic tragedy. Nothing Shakespearean. Not a gun or a sharpened blade in sight.
My first three novels were all based on first-hand research which was a lengthy process. I worked in a school for autistic children while writing Kaleidoscope and on a prisoner rehabilitation programme at Pollsmoor while researching Chameleon, which is based on white collar crime. I completed the first drafts of Below Luck Level and Four Letter Words far more quickly because by I have become increasingly dependent on the internet for instant, up-to-date medical research on both Alzheimer’s and infertility. Also, because those issues affect so many families, I was able to talk to friends who gave me insight into their own experience.
WHY DO YOU WRITE?
I resigned from teaching at the same time as my children set off to explore the world so I had time to research the topics that interested me.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOUR WRITING?
Random articles in the newspaper. Even with Insects was triggered by a stranger’s death notice. Chameleon was based on a sensational case about a stock-broker’s dramatic fall from grace. Rainman brought autism into the public eye, and there are frequent features on both aged parents and career girls who struggle to fall pregnant, the themes in Below Luck Level and Four Letter Words.
A sliver of verse often gives me an idea, and a title, Below Luck Level, is taken from a Kay Ryan poem. Philip Larkin triggered Four Letter Words.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF BEING A WRITER?
Re-writing. And not throwing it into the dustbin.
Also, I live in South Africa where only a small percentage of the population ever buys a book. It’s very difficult to find an agent to market your work overseas.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LOVE TO HEAR MORE FROM?
I have a Zimbabwean background so I like Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) and Lauren Liebenberg (The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam), both of which are so evocative they make me homesick. I’ve just finished Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters which shows her trademark originality—a mix of crime and horror. My editor, Jenefer Shute, is also a very accomplished writer—compact, dark novels (Life-Size and Sex Crimes, among others).
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Some of the women from my Cape Town writers’ group, The Kimberley Club: Rosemund Handler (Madlands), Joanne Hichens (Divine Justice), Liz McGregor (Touch, Pause, Engage), and Heather Parker Lewis (The Other Side of the Moon).
Thank you, Barbara Erasmus!
— Nicole Melanson
Like this author interview? Follow WordMothers or Subscribe to meet more great female authors!