An award-winning journalist, American-born Melissa Siebert has covered a vast mix of stories in South Africa and abroad. She’s been based in Cape Town for most of the last twenty-five years, working for various local publications; co-running Ubuntu Productions, a documentary company; and co-directing the Media Peace Centre, an NGO that develops media projects to help manage and transform conflict. She has also taught journalism at UCT and writing at Harvard. Garden of Dreams is her first novel.
Garden of Dreams is my first novel, so the process may change if I ever write another one. I say that somewhat facetiously, but it seems that many writers feel this upon completing a book: Never Again! It is more work than one could ever imagine, a huge investment of time, energy, imagination, self… – MELISSA SIEBERT
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
I edit slightly as I go along, not much. Better to let it flow, if it can. Upon finishing the first draft of Garden of Dreams, I handed it over to my trusted, discerning readers, Joanne Hichens and Michele Rowe, and then revised/edited according to their comments. Both women are wonderful writers, good friends, and great critics, so I was lucky to have their wisdom/advice. That’s vital, I think – to have reliable, supportive yet critical, readers of the first draft. When Penguin SA offered to publish, as per usual I was assigned an editor – Jenefer Shute – and I was lucky in this regard as well; Jenny and I had a fantastic working relationship even though she was mandated to cut the book quite radically (and we were both skeptical, feeling the book had little ‘fat’). A word of advice to those undergoing ‘the knife’ (such a big cut, 11,000 words in my book’s case) for the first time: if you trust the editor, close your eyes and don’t look back, ie read through the edited version, see if it works, without checking back with your original (or cross-checking as little as possible). Save yourself the torment. Both Jenny and I, and luckily Penguin, were happy with the edit in the end, as it made the book leaner, more powerful.
2. What research did you do for Garden of Dreams?
I researched my book a lot…both through secondary sources (online, mainly) and firsthand. As my book deals with child trafficking, mainly from Nepal into India, and most of the book is set in India, and to a lesser degree Nepal, I needed current, ‘on the ground’ research as well. I’d been to India years ago, traveling around the country from south to north over several months, but I needed to return. So in early 2011 I returned to India – journeying to the places I knew were going to be in the book (Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi) – and went to Nepal for the first time, again targeting places where the novel would transpire (mainly Kathmandu, the capital, and Chitwan National Park, the jungle along the border with India). Aside from observing the details that help evoke place in these countries (what people smoke; how they dress; the street food; the language/way people speak; the music playing; the spiritual/religious artifacts and rituals etc), I interviewed many people – mainly people working in counter-trafficking in Nepal. In Delhi, on G.B. Road – the red-light district where many trafficked kids end up – I interviewed pimps and prostitutes. I’m a journalist, by the way, so this wasn’t too out of line for me. Because I’m a journalist, I would really advocate this kind of research – firsthand – probably for almost any book one is writing. Place is important to me, and I wanted my book to transport people to India and Nepal (and, in one chapter, to the beach in Kommetjie/Cape Town), a huge part of that ‘transport’ being what I hoped were authentic characters inhabiting those landscapes. (Vikas Swarup, who read the book early on, kindly said I had ‘captured India’ – and that made my day, year etc!) I also wanted to get the ‘facts’ right in terms of trafficking. So aside from interviewing counter-traffickers, I read a lot of UN and other humanitarian reports on the issue.
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
I’m very erratic. Some days I write more than 1000 words, other days I don’t write at all. This year I’ve got a 17 year-old son in matric, so that explains a lot! Exams exams exams exams…and frenzy! (No writing…)
4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?
My writing process…well, as I say, it could change, but for Garden of Dreams – which is forty chapters long – for the first sixteen chapters, I found I could write only four chapters at a time, no more. Like driving in the dark with your headlights on – you can see only so many metres ahead, no further. Once you advance, you can see the same distance ahead again…But, as I prepared to start Chapter 17, I sat down and wrote out a plot outline for the remaining twenty-four chapters, all in one afternoon (a paragraph on each chapter). It was like an epiphany, really. I never fully believed what writers said about their characters coming to life and ‘taking over’, calling the shots, but that is pretty much what happened. After sixteen chapters, my characters were ‘alive’ enough to guide me in plotting out the rest of the book. Magic! I think every writer is different, though, in terms of process. Probably most of them, though, end up shuffling chapters around, and even dropping a chapter or two.
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
One of the greatest challenges about writing (especially a LONG work, like a novel) is finding or making the time to do it. At the start one has to grant oneself permission to do it – or I did, anyway…especially fiction, when there were no guarantees that my book would see the light of day or earn me a penny. Having written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, I don’t have a problem writing – ‘writer’s block’ doesn’t afflict me. But I have to say, when I set out to write a novel for the first time, I felt almost paralyzed by a couple of things. One was the length: around 100,000 words, a sustained story – when my journalistic pieces had been around 2000-5000 words max. That was terrifying, the ‘long run’. Also the infinity of fiction scared me – with journalism (feature writing I’m talking about), one interviews/researches/reports and ends up with more or less a finite amount of data from which to construct a story (and usually a fairly imminent deadline, which limits the story as well). But with fiction – all is fair game. Luckily, the characters do kick in and start bringing some shape and structure and delineation to the book, containing it somewhat – and the process becomes less frightening. The choices diminish. Which is a huge relief! I overcame these challenges by just getting on with it (like taking a deep breath and diving in the deep end)…and, as I say, my characters came to my rescue.
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I don’t have writer’s block. I don’t even like to think of it like that. It’s more – ‘I don’t feel like writing right now’, or ‘the story hasn’t clarified in my mind yet, it will come’…I don’t want to beat myself up about it. I believe that if a good story is going to emerge, I’ll recognize when it’s time to ‘midwife’ it…(ie write it). It helps that I am not counting on earning a living from writing fiction…not yet, anyway! And I do not define myself solely as a ‘writer’…which also helps.
7. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
Generally, I think publishers (or agents) ask for a short summary (a page or less) of the book, a bit of biographical info (particularly what else you’ve published) and several chapters – though this varies. If you can get someone to give you a shout-out – as I did with Vikas Swarup – of course include that in your submission. And your query letter needs to show that you’ve researched what kind of books they publish, or represent (in the case of agents). Some ask why you wrote the book…
8. Your work doesn’t stop after your book has been published, the next step is marketing and publicity. What are you doing to promote your book?
One has to promote one’s own book, especially without an agent (which covers a lot of South African writers). I’ve been ‘talking it up’ amongst friends; posted a lot of stuff about it on Facebook, both on my personal page and on the book’s own page, and tweeted about it; been in regular dialogue with my publisher about promotion, including launches, reviews, interviews, festivals and so on. Am now trying to figure out how to get a film producer to look at the novel as possible film material…
9. Do you think it’s important for authors to be visible on social media – if so, why?
Yes, social media does help – a lot. I don’t use Twitter so much, but have had a lot of response to the book on Facebook, as I’ve explained in #8. I’m still learning the ropes, though, in terms of getting the most out of social media for book promotion.
10. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
I guess obvious words, like be prepared to work, HARD; write what moves you, and has a chance of moving others; as previously mentioned, find readers you can trust, who will be honest and helpful, and share your work with them as you go along; don’t be afraid of losing huge sections of your work, if they have to go; kick the ‘editor’ off your shoulder (ie, your critical self peering over your shoulder) as you write; don’t imitate other writers or the IDEA of being a writer; be prepared for people to not like your work, or to not even pay attention to it; be prepared for agents, especially, to treat you like you don’t exist (my favourite example of agent dismissal is The Kite Runner – Hosseini tried about 30 agents before one took him on); have faith in your book, if you know you’ve written something of quality that will touch, at least, quite a few people; rewrite, again and again; and, as many say, read read read read…a variety of works. And LIVE!
11. What are you working on now?
I started a second novel some time ago, dealing with witchcraft in Limpopo and loosely linked to my own ancestors from Salem, Massachusetts, site of the 17th-century witchcraft trials and hangings. But I haven’t been able to get back up to Limpopo to do further research, so that project is on hold. Also, skirting around witchcraft is not only a little creepy. So, I have more recently begun something of a memoir, dealing with how women, as they age, grow ‘invisible’ – the book is a claim on the sensuality of youth, I guess you could say, its vitality and visibility…and in my case, wild adventures in Egypt, Palestine-Israel, and South Africa. But I may fictionalize all of it, work it into a novel…how is not clear to me yet…but there are many stories within the story. A few glimpses: riding in the Egyptian desert around the Pyramids and hanging out in the dusty stable courtyard with my male Egyptian friends, the fellahin in galabeyas and turbans, talking politics, listening to the great songstress Oum Khalsoum and smoking sheeshas; fending off the advances of an Egyptian-Armenian-Canadian lesbian artist but becoming her close friend; falling in love with a former Fatah commander; hiding from Israeli soldiers in a West Bank village under curfew; reporting undercover in the dying days of apartheid and my activist days in South Africa – on the fringes of the ‘revolution’. I imagine that once I get writing this (have just started), more tales/memories/images will return.
Courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa click HERE to read an extract from Garden of Dreams.
Author picture copyright © Colette Yslie Benjamin