Toni Strasburg was born in South Africa, the daughter of Rusty Bernstein (Rivonia trialist) and Hilda Bernstein (writer, artists and activist), and was exiled to Britain in 1965. She studied at London University and worked in various jobs before becoming a filmmaker. She has documented apartheid-era wars in southern Africa, concentrating largely on the effects on women and children. Her award-winning films include Chain of Tears and its sequel, Chain of Hope, The Other Bomb, An Act of Faith and A South African Love Story.
Her memoir, Fractured Lives, has just been released (published by Modjaji Books) – it tells of Toni’s experiences as a documentary filmmaker covering the wars in southern Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. Interweaving autobiography, history and social commentary with frontline reporting, the memoir offers a personal female perspective on a traditionally male subject.
Says ANTJIE KROG, author of Begging to be Black and Country of My Skull on Fractured Lives: ‘An eye opener! Not much is known about what transpired on the ground in our neighbouring countries during apartheid. This memoir tears into your comfort zone by means of the crackling story behind fluent documentaries on these places and times. Some of the details make your hair stand on end!’
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
I started by writing some of the chapters as a draft for a novel and gradually saw it as a memoir of the years I was covering wars on film. These became a series of anecdotes that didn’t hang together.
A friend suggested that I enrol for the Creative Writing MA at UCT as I was moving to Cape Town, and my supervisor told me to just start at the beginning and write to the end. After that there were many, many edits before it got near to being finished.
2. What research did you do for your book?
As it’s memoir it is my recollection of what happened. However the first rule in making documentaries is to do your research and do it well so I had a lot of background in the events I was writing about. I did do a lot of re-reading to write the historical background. I also used the journals that I kept on every film that I made for reference. Of course I also had the films.
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
That varied – I tried to write at least 500 a day once I was in the main part of the writing. Often it would be much more, especially when I ‘got into’ parts of it and it took over all my sleeping and waking life. However writing is not the only thing that I do, and I have many other calls on my life as a woman and as a filmmaker.
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?
This book is a memoir so there are certain confines to the story. Usually I start with ideas and short pieces and then if I want to take it further I will write an outline.
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
I find writing a very lonely occupation especially as one of the things that I love about film-making is working with a team and having other creative people as part of the process. At times I find it extremely hard to discipline myself to shutting myself into a quiet space and getting on with it when I could be doing so many other things. However once I get going there is something compelling about how the writing process takes over my thoughts and even dreams.
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Two things – I try to put down a short sketch of where I’m trying to go with the book and to just write something – anything to get back into the process. But sometimes the only thing to do is distance myself, go outside, do something physical, and maybe just put things aside for a period.
7. When you submitted your manuscript to a publisher, what information did you include in your proposal?
Just the manuscript – or first three chapters – whichever was required by publisher, a synopsis, and a brief cv. It is important to read the publishers requirements carefully and submit what they ask for and not what you would like to send. In the UK it is necessary to have an agent, you cannot submit directly to a publisher.
8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
If you are serious about writing you have to make an effort to write something every single day. You have to live inside your book and work at it. Writing is a job not a past time and like all work it’s sometimes very hard and needs effort. Also when you think you are finished you are not. Leave it to rest and settle then go back with a fresh eye and look at it again, a lot of editing and re writing is needed.
To read more about Toni, and her memoir Fractured Lives, visit her website on www.tonistrasburg.com.