This is the first in a series of profiles on PEN SA’s members.
In 2005 she was a runner-up in the Richard & Judy How to Get Published Competition and Gem Squash Tokoloshe was shortlisted for The Whitbread First Novel Award and The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and longlisted for an IMPAC award. In 2014 Sister-Sister was shortlisted for the Herman Charles Bosman Prize for English Fiction and the University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing in English and longlisted for The Sunday Times Fiction Award.
In 2011, Rachel launched Short Story Day Africa to highlight African short fiction. Short Story Day Africa runs annual short story competitions for adults, young adults and children and produces anthologies from the winning stories. The latest of these anthologies, Terra Incognita, was launched last week at The Book Lounge.
Favourite South African novel?
Other than my own? Fraught and tricky question. Plus, I’ve become too jaded for the kind of joyous celebration required for picking favourites. That said, the SA novel that currently speaks to me most is Pompidou Posse by Sarah Lotz. It invokes a certain nostalgia for being young and reckless, which I have to admit probably has much to do with the midlife crisis I refuse to admit I may be having.
What are you working on at the moment?
A short story called “Waiting” about a shoplifter that nicks baby goods. A novel about a child that may or may not exist. And the blurb for the next Short Story Day Africa competition themed around Water.
Favourite part of the writing and publishing process?
Disappearing days (so rare) and redrafting with an excellent editor.
Any characters (yours or another writer’s) that have stuck with you?
The narrator’s pyromaniac lover in Stuart Dybek’s short story, “Paper Lantern”.
Any advice / tips for writers starting out?
Don’t write for therapy, financial gain or glory. Write for the beauty of language and the joy of story. The first three things will disappoint you and rob you of the other two.
Hardest part of the writing and publishing process?
I hate spending time trying to grow a presence on social media so that people will read my work. I’ve tried it, and I’ve had to admit defeat. I’m a novelist. I can’t communicate well in 140 characters. I find the current publishing industry where a writer must have an internet presence in order to find an agent/publisher/audience so disheartening.
South African writers or books that have made an impact on you?
I started putting down names in reply to this question, but there are so many. Every great book I read has an impact, plus the South African writing community is so close knit and supportive of each other, simply knowing a writer has a huge impact on one’s life. I think the smallness of our publishing industry has created a kind of support group of wonderful generous talented people. I guess SA writers are like AA, only we’re not anonymous.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and I haven’t picked another book up yet, though I’ve been dipping into Terra Incognita.
If you had to pick one book to give to all South Africans to read what would it be?
Any other genres that you’re interested in trying your hand at?
I pretty much blend genres in my work, so I find it hard to think in terms of writing in one genre or another.
Proudest moment of your writing career?
Being offered a chair at a packed book launch of a far more famous writer than me because a reader loved my book.
Favourite quote from a book?
‘Is that what writing amounts to? The voice your ghost would have, if it had a voice?’ – MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
‘”I’m a novelist,” Ruth said. “I can’t help it. My narrative preferences are all I’ve got.”‘ A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki