Author Corner – Christa Kuljian

Photo of Christa KuljianChrista Kuljian is the author of the recently released Sanctuary – How an Inner-city Church Spilled onto the Sidewalk, published by Jacana.  This narrative non-fiction book is based on how the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg and its controversial Bishop Paul Verryn came to offer refuge to people who had nowhere else to turn.

Christa takes readers on a historic journey of how Central Methodist became a visible reminder of so many of the challenges facing Johannesburg and South Africa – poverty, migration, xenophobia, policing, inner-city housing and shelter, the vulnerable position of women and children, and the gap between rich and poor.

1.            From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

Book jacket for Christa Kuljian's SanctuaryMy experience with writing and editing Sanctuary, is that the editing took as long as, if not longer than, the writing. The seeds of Sanctuary were sown when I wrote a long article about Central Methodist Church in August 2010 for the Ruth First Memorial Lecture. It was in February 2011 that I decided, for certain, that I would expand the lecture into a book and my writing began right away.  My editing happened in several different phases.  At first, from February 2011 to February 2012, after I wrote a chapter or a scene, I would go back the next day to edit it.  At times, I might ask someone to read an individual chapter and give me feedback.  Then I would edit some more.  Once I put all of the chapters together in February 2012, I did extensive editing of the manuscript as a whole for about five months through July 2012.  Then in September through December 2012, I worked with an editor and we did further editing together.  I was editing throughout the entire writing process, but most intensely for the last year before publication.

2.            What research did you do for the book?

I began my research in April 2010 and finished my research in December 2012.  What that means is that even after I finished writing the first draft of Sanctuary, I still continued my research to fill in certain gaps.  There were some people who initially didn’t return my calls or emails, so I kept after them until the last minute and then I worked their responses into the text.  My research involved reading newspaper articles and research papers, online searches, face to face interviews, phone interviews, attending meetings and workshops, and spending time at Central Methodist just hanging around and talking to people.  I filled eleven moleskin notebooks.

3.            How many words do you write, on average, per day?

During my most intensive writing phase, which ran from May 2011 through April 2012, I set myself a target of writing 1,000 words each morning.  I set a goal for myself of hitting 50,000 words by the end of July 2011 and 100,000 by the end of September 2011.  Those self-imposed deadlines slipped but they motivated me.  At one point, I found that I was so busy with other things during the week, that my best writing happened on the weekend and I would have a burst of writing on a Saturday.

4.            Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and then compile the chapters, or do you just start writing from Chapter 1 and let the story lead you?

At first, I wasn’t sure where the book would begin.  I had chapters that covered current events, as well as chapters that covered historic events.  When I wrote the historic chapters, I wrote them chronologically from 1886 (the year of the founding of Johannesburg and the founding of Central Methodist Church) through to the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  Then I wrote the chapters about events in 2008, 2009, and 2010 in chronological order as well.  I put together several different outlines over time.  In late February 2012, I spent some time storyboarding on my wall, with blocks of coloured paper representing each chapter.  I set things out into Parts One, Two and Three in the order I thought they would work.  I started in the present, went back in time to the historic chapters and then worked my way back to the present again.  I ended up making some changes (moving things around on the wall) but much of that February 2012 structure did remain.  It was only in late February 2012 that I put all the chapters together in one document.  It was soon after that I realised that I had written the entire book in the present tense and I had to change it to the past tense.

Also, I kept a process diary throughout the entire writing and editing process.  I made notes about what I had accomplished and challenges I was grappling with at every stage.  On 14 June 2011, I wrote “I have so much more writing to do.  How can I do all the writing if I don’t have all the research?  How can I get all the research done soon?  I feel a bit panicked.  Will I have enough for a book?  Will it hang together?  I guess, as with climbing a mountain, you start as prepared as possible and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I feel like I’m a quarter of the way up and I’ve forgotten some supplies.

5.            Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

In the case of Sanctuary, I really wanted to know the structure of the book from the beginning so that I could be guided as I wrote.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way.  I kept writing different chapters, not knowing exactly how they would fit together.  I just had to keep working on it, knowing that a solution would eventually emerge.  One thing I learned in writing this book is that there is no solution without a problem first.  I started to look at a problem as a positive thing, because I knew I would eventually find a solution.  I also ran into writing fatigue at times.  Sometimes I would write in bursts.  I’d have a great run and make good progress.  Then I would have a long time when I wasn’t writing as much and I wondered how I would get back into a groove.  Eventually I would hit my stride again.  Another analogy that helped me was knitting a large quilt.  Keep on knitting, knitting, knitting.  Eventually your work will cover the entire bed.

6.            What do you do when you have writer’s block?

On this book, when I hit a period of writer’s block, I would let things continue to percolate.  I would continue my interviews, continue to write in my process diary, and make lists of things that I wanted to do and accomplish.  Eventually, I would start another writing session again.

7.            When you submitted your manuscript to a publisher, what information did you include in your proposal?

I was very fortunate that Bridget Impey and Maggie Davey from Jacana Media were in the audience when I delivered the Ruth First Memorial Lecture on Central Methodist Church in August 2010.  Several months later, Maggie asked if I had considered expanding the lecture into a book.  I responded with a resounding, “Yes!”  That was the motivation I needed.  I wrote the book, knowing that if I did a decent job, Jacana would publish it.  Looking back at the proposal that I wrote for the Ruth First Committee, I can remember that I included a scene that I wrote about Central Methodist that illustrated my interest in narrative nonfiction.  I convinced the Committee that my style of writing would be exciting and appropriate for the topic.  I suppose that my Ruth First Lecture was a proposal of sorts.  It was a lively, well structured, compelling piece of writing that convinced Jacana that the story was worthy of a book.

8.            What advice can you give aspirant writers?

Write about topics that interest you.  Do as much research as you can about your topic.  Write in scenes.  Keep a writing journal to gather ideas for future stories.  That’s how I first recorded the idea to write about Central Methodist.  Without the initial idea, nothing else would have followed.

Visit Christa’s website to read more about Sanctuary at





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