author of Home Affairs.
1. When did you first start writing?
As soon as I knew how! I used to keep diaries and journals as a child (and still do) and was forever scribbling down notes, phrases and fragments of sentences or thoughts and ideas that came to me. I would also write down words that I’d read that I either didn’t know the meaning of or wanted to use in the future. My first ever professional writing was copy for my father’s advertising agency while I was still at school and I have written professionally in one form or another for most of my working life, although only latterly have I started to write books.
2. What do you love most about writing?
I love the idea that letters can be arranged into words, and those words, in turn, arranged into phrases that conjure up so many images in the mind of a reader and evoke such an intense range of emotional responses. I am always delighted when a book makes me cry or laugh out loud, and I love the idea that rather like musical composition, it was a particular arrangement of words in a very specific order that elicited that response. I have always loved the written word and adore writing in all its forms, and I still think that an artfully penned letter is a beautiful thing to write and a lasting and lovely thing to receive.
3. Tell us a little about when and where you write?
I almost always write in bed in my pyjamas or in a tracksuit, fuelled by copious cups of tea and the more than occasional inspirational bar of chocolate. I like to be comfortable when I write, and for me that entails being as horizontal as possible. I write on my laptop; I used to write longhand, but I find that I think faster than I can write, and I type faster, too, so all drafts are written on my laptop. I keep a notebook with me at all times (in my handbag and next to the bed) and when ideas come to me (often in the dead of night through the pall of sleep) I will scrawl down those ideas in barely legible script. Too often I’ve thought “That’s fab! I’ll never forget that in the morning” only to wake up and find that I have indeed forgotten whatever it was I thought was so inspired. I have piles of scrappy notebooks full of ideas, drawings, maps and newspaper clippings, some of which have now been turned into books (most unpublished as yet, I hasten to add, but they’re books nonetheless). I tend to write all at once, while the story or ideas are very fresh in my mind, rather than writing piecemeal over prolonged periods of time.
4. Do you edit as you go along, or write it all and then go back?
A bit of both, really. I generally write a chapter and then go back and do preliminary editing on the go, and then I’ll put it all together and edit the whole thing several times before the final draft is complete.
5. What else do you do? Do you have a day job, and if so how do you juggle writing and work?
I most definitely do have a day job: needs must and all of that. I’d love to be writing books full time, but there aren’t a terrific amount of writers who can do that and I am not in such hallowed company, alas. My day job used to be in the media so I was writing all the time, but since returning to South Africa I work in conservation and find that I am now more able to write creatively at the end of the day because I haven’t spent so much mental energy crafting the written word throughout my working day.
6. Do you find that you write every day no matter what, or do you have months of writing and months of normal life?
I do tend to write in intense ‘chunks’, rather than a little bit every day. I can spend ages collating ideas for what it is I want to write, but once I get down to it I write in one go until it’s all down on the page. When I am writing I write every available minute: late at night; early in the morning; over weekends etc. For months I got together ideas for Home Affairs, for example, but the book itself was written in just three and a half weeks. It was the same with Letters from Longido, a book I wrote about my time living with the Maasai. I kept many notebooks while I was in Tanzania and then when I got back to England I sat down and wrote the book in around four weeks. I find that if I try to write a little bit at a time I lose impetus and the thing just never gets finished, but I do admire the discipline and resolve of those who are able to write for set amounts of time every day. In between writing I read a great deal, but I don’t read anything while I am writing as I find it very distracting to my own line of thought.
7. How does place influence your writing?
The aesthetics of the place in which I write do not influence my writing, but certain elements about that place do. For example, I need to write in total silence; some can write with the radio on, or music playing, but I have to write in complete quiet. I suffer from tinnitus so there’s already too much noise in my head, and unlike the rest of my gender I am simply not able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time!
We also very deliberately do not have a television. If we did I’d spend hours watching documentaries, infomercials and Desperate Housewives, and not a word would be committed to the written page.
While the place in which I physically write doesn’t influence me in any great way, many places themselves have influenced what I write. Looking at what I’ve written to date, almost all of it is very geographically specific and I like to observe the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of a particular place, and the people which inhabit that space, and bring them to the fore in what I write.
8. Which (if any) author first inspired you to start writing?
My uncle, Mike Hoare. I used to read his books as a child and I loved the idea that he would go and have adventures and then turn those adventures into stories and in doing so share the adventures vicariously with his readers. I always thought it would be terrific to go and do things less ordinary and then write about them afterwards and this spurred me to go and do exactly that and attracted me to a life of travel. I have turned my experiences in the Middle East into a book, as well as those of my time in Tanzania, and the notion that this was possible came directly from my conversations with him. He was, and is, a great inspiration to me.
9. What books are sitting on your bedside table at the moment?
Heaps! There are books littered all over this house! At the moment there is Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, James Eckart’s “The Year of Living Stupidly” and “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, and I always have Stephen Fry’s “Paperweight” and P.J. O’Rourke’s “Give War a Chance” next to the bed, both of which are great for dipping into during odd moments of insomnia. There is also my notebook with notes for my next book, Traditional Healing.
10. Do you particularly admire any South African authors?
Yes, I think there are a lot of excellent South African authors. J.M. Coetzee is a superb author and his “Disgrace”, while not exactly enjoyable reading, is a superbly crafted book; one of my top ten favourites. I also love Sarah Britten, whose politically-correct-be-damned insight and razor-sharp wit is a tonic. I was also very fond of Daleen Matthee’s work and I am sad that she is no longer with us.
11. If you could switch professions without any repercussions, what would you want to be?
I have switched professions very often in my life, almost always on a whim and always with repercussions, but I wouldn’t change a thing about those decisions - capricious though they almost always were - because they have given me much to draw on. If I could write full time (and by that I mean if I could write books full time, as opposed to the dry financial articles I used to pen for a living), I’d be extremely content.
12. What surprised you most about writing Home Affairs?
Several things: I was surprised how the story took on a life of its own even as I was writing it. I blocked the story very carefully and had the chapters all mapped out before I began to write it as a book, but the characters and the story itself evolved as I was writing it, almost unconsciously. I was also surprised by what fun it was to write! Home Affairs was my first attempt at a novel (hitherto I had only written narrative non-fiction) but I had such fun writing it. I had expected to battle with it, especially with the dialogue, but I looked on it as a challenge and it turned out to be enormous fun! I was also very, very surprised to win the competition. I had anticipated that the prize would go to a novel of more scholarly import, something weightier and more literary, but I entered thinking I had nothing to lose and was utterly surprised and delighted to win.
13. Where did you get inspiration for your characters from?
From real life. In Home Affairs all of the characters are amalgams of real people; people I either know (or knew) or have encountered in everyday life. I observe people closely; everything about them, from the things they say, to the things they don’t say, to their mannerisms and how they dress and what this says about them. People ally themselves with other like-minded people through all of these things, and I look for what those things are. I locked myself out of my car one day in Brits, and while I sat at the Wimpy I was delighted to see every character from Home Affairs walk past me in living technicolour! The book was already complete by then, but it was a very nice affirmation that the characters described are like people you could meet in everyday life.
14. Do you have a favourite character?
Lady Eleanor, by a country mile. She’s deliciously outrageous, irreverent and wicked, and I had enormous fun writing her. I liked the fact that writing her segments often made me laugh out loud, and she’s also the character that people have commented on most often. One could say she is ‘larger than life’, but in point of fact she is the only character based on a real person in totality, and that person – a formidable woman, now late of this world - was like her in almost every way. I may not agree with Lady E’s politics or her ridiculous affectations, but she’s a rich and colourful character and she was so enjoyable to script. I actually think there are lots of Lady Eleanors still living in Durban and in the ‘other colonies’ and I even met one or two while living in Bahrain.
15. Could you tell us a bit about the Citizen Book Prize?
The Citizen Book Prize is a completely unique book prize in that it is voted for by the reading public, not a panel of literati. As a friend of mine says, it’s “like Pop Idol for bookworms”. The thinking behind the prize is that most people will pick up a book in a bookstore and buy it based on the synopsis on the book jacket, so the Citizen Book Prize is open to unpublished books by unpublished South African authors and the public votes on the synopsis of the book they would most like to read. It’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity for an aspiring author and I would urge anyone whose wish is to be published to enter the competition, because aside from the fabulous prizes and the excitement and gratification of having the book published, it also comes with a tremendous marketing and publicity drive, which is a great fillip for any unknown author.
16. If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring South African authors, what would it be?
My advice would be this: observe, read, write...and never give up. Observe constantly, because it is important to have something to write about and for that writing to ring true; read voraciously, because there are a great many authors who are excellent at their craft and from whom one can always learn; write, because that is what you want to do. It’s no use talking about writing a book; the only way you’ll get into print is to actually write one! And never give up, because you’ll need the hide of a rhinoceros in this game. I am the veteran of many a rejection slip (including one to “Dear (blank)” – they didn’t even bother to fill in my name!), and while your book may not be right for that publisher or that agent, if you are tenacious and professional someone will eventually be interested. No use giving up at the first hurdle!
17. What’s the one question you haven’t been asked in an interview, that you wish you had?
Hypothetical Interviewer: “Bree, I was interviewing Mike Newell [film director] the other day and he said he really enjoyed Home Affairs and would love to turn it into a movie. He also mentioned that Maggie Smith is interested in playing Lady Eleanor. Is this something you’d like to see come to fruition?”
18. What is the meaning of life, according to Bree O’Mara?
I’m sure I don’t know the meaning of life, but I’ve been very dedicated to trying to find out what it is. I’ve looked just about everywhere, from Kilimanjaro to Cairo to under my bed, and I’m still looking, learning, discovering. The only person I know who would assert that they absolutely know the definitive meaning of life is Lady Eleanor Lambert-Lansdowne and her view on the subject would be this: “Life is a pursuit best enjoyed by people who know how to dress properly and whom one is not afraid to invite to one’s box at the races. To that end, never wear white shoes; never drink the wines of the New World, and never use the words “Bognor Regis”, “latte” or “fish sticks” in a sentence. And always, always use Irish linen for one’s table settings. It’s the only thing that nation ever did properly, anyway.”