Emma van der Vliet was born in Grahamstown and spent most of her childhood there. After graduating from UCT and Rhodes, she accidentally spent ten years working in film production. She later returned to UCT, where she taught film and media, got her MA in creative writing, her PhD in Film and Media Studies, and produced several children. She lives in Observatory with her family and other animals.
Her first novel, Past Imperfect, was published by Penguin in 2007. And earlier this year Emma’s second novel, Thirty Second World, was published.
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
I hadn’t realised this until quite recently, but I actually work quite slowly, editing myself as I go along. This means that I take a really long time to write something, but it’s often more finished than a first draft written by someone who likes to throw it all out onto the page and then start to work with it from there. It may just be because I’m a lazy self-editor, but I think it’s also a question of one’s working style. I think things through in my head a lot before I actually get around to putting them down on the page, and once they’re down I’m not that keen on constant reworking.
2. What research do you do for your book?
Well it depends on the book. For Past Imperfect I researched Paris, French and the French (among other things), and for Thirty Second World I researched game capture and swingers’ clubs! It depends on where your story takes you. That’s one of the great joys of writing fiction – an excuse to “research” things you might otherwise never get to know about, and the excuse to call sitting nursing a cup of hot chocolate on a Parisian pavement “work”.
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
When I was in full flight with Thirty Second World I was aiming for 1000 a day. I tended to find that on days that I knew I wasn’t going to get much done – if there was a school outing or another work obligation, for example – and my day was going to be eaten up and bitty, I would rather look over other sections or write up notes from the little piles of scrappy paper on the backs of shopping lists or envelopes or restaurant serviettes. I need to get into the flow to be able to get any decent chunk of writing done, so if that wasn’t going to happen I did bits of “maintenance” instead.
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?
I do a bit of both. For Past Imperfect I started with the second chapter, which was a kind of mini version of the book as a whole, a story within a story or what the French call a “mise en abyme”, because it was all about a homecoming and so was the whole novel itself. I then backtracked to the lead-up to that initial homecoming, and then let the characters lead me from there. With Thirty Second World, I had the skeleton of the film shoot itself – eventually I split the book into three sections, pre-production, production and post-production, after the phases of a film job – and the characters, starting with Beth and Alison, were already strongly present in my mind. Another of my favourite things about writing is when the characters come to life and take over, and I hear voices and conversations between them in my head. I think that’s the part I love the most – that (mostly benign) possession.
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
Mostly it’s just finding the time to write. And my own lack of confidence. It can be an extremely lonesome task, and while I relish my time alone, I do sometimes start to question whether what I’m writing is any good and what on earth the point is of locking myself away and spending hours staring at a screen. It’s such an undertaking, and novels are so damn long!
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Push through and keep writing if I possibly can, preferably on a section which is fairly “mechanical”. Or I get one of the zillion other things on my plate done. Or if I feel I deserve it I’ll go for a walk or phone a friend or read something for the pleasure of it, and to remind me of why I’m trying to write in the first place. Writing time, where there are enough hours in a row really to get into the flow, is so precious that writer’s block is not really an option!
7. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
For Past Imperfect I had the unheard of good fortune of having an extract from the novel “discovered” by a commissioning editor at Penguin who just happened to be reading the obscure literary journal I’d published the piece in. So she then approached me and asked whether I’d written anything else, and I could then produce the rest of the manuscript. With Thirty Second World, I approached Penguin, again, with a sort of descriptive “tagline” – the equivalent of what you see on a movie poster but a little less telegraphic! – and a brief story synopsis. But since they’d published my first one that made things a lot easier. I think the norm would be to provide a very brief story synopsis, perhaps an idea of what kind of target market the book would be aimed at, and a first chapter.
8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
Firstly, I’d ask whether they were sure they wanted to write, and why. Not everyone is cut out for hours and hours of solitary work with little, if any, feedback. But if that doesn’t put them off, then congratulations and commiserations to them! They should go out and live life and observe other people living their lives, and try to put themselves into those people’s shoes. And take notes all the while. Eavesdropping is one of my favourite pass-times. Listen to people’s dialogues, think about what makes them tick. And just imagine.
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