Interview with authors Jassy McKenzi and Joanne Richards

My friend Lornette Joseph and I were fortunate to attend a Bloggers get together held at Skoobs in Monte Casino recently.  We are bloggers (Check out Lornette’s fantastic Madiba related post Forever A Man of the Times here) and as if the thrill of attending such an event in such an eclectic venue wasn’t enough, we were fortunate in that I was selected as one of the winners to interview authors Jassy McKenzie and Jo- Anne Richards!

Jassy Mackenzie is from a family where books weren’t just more important than television; they were so important that television was banned from the house.

Today, Jassy is the editor of HJ, a hair and beauty trade magazine. She has had numerous non-fiction articles on a wide variety of subjects published locally and internationally over the past 11 years.

Jo-Anne Richards is a South African novelist and journalist, whose work has been published internationally. She teaches creative writing through Allaboutwriting  and lectures at Wits University in Johannesburg.

Jassy was born in Rhodesia (as all ex-Zimbabweans still prefer to call it), and moved to South Africa when she was eight years old. She loves the energy, danger and excitement of Johannesburg, and believes there is no better place for a thriller writer to live.  Jassy herself has been hijacked at gunpoint outside her home, and had her car taken from her by force.  About Random Violence, Jassy says, “Writing a first novel is a scary process, almost as frightening as having a gun jammed against your head and being dragged out of your car by your throat. But while an act of violence is committed in a heartbeat, a novel takes much longer. Writing a book takes months. It’s like living with a psychopathic axe murderer whose sanity might snap at any moment. My belief in the story kept me going. I am inspired by the hope that one day I can share the terrifying, exhilarating essence of Johannesburg with readers across the world.” 

Jo-Anne’s latest novel, The Imagined Childwas released in March 2013 by Picador Africa.

Odette leaves Johannesburg to make a new start in Nagelaten, a small Free State town. A writer for a popular TV soap, she appears to be searching for a less complicated life. But others think she’s escaping – to a place where she knows no one and won’t have to share her secrets.

Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, was originally published by Headline Review in the UK, and reissued by Rebel-e. When it first appeared, it topped the South African bestseller list in its first week and remained there for 15 weeks.

Elaine Thorne, Jo-Anne Richards and Gaynor Paynter at Radio Today Johannesburg

Here is the transcript of our discussion:

Gaynor:   What inspired you to write? How long have you been writing?

Jo-Anne: As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer and when I was growing up, my mother said what do you want to be and I said a writer, and she said don’t be silly, you must do something sensible! So I ended up studying journalism, I loved my time in journalism and it taught me a lot about writing. So I don’t regret that for a moment. It is probably sensible to have something, you know – and then, at a certain stage, I was always frightened of starting that first book. When it’s something you’ve wanted your entire life, you think to yourself: what If I stare at those first words, and they’re terrible, then it’s your whole life’s dream ruined. So I put it off for years until one of my friends said: “Will you stop about this book you’re going to write. Write it or shut up.”  I explained about  the terrible fear and he stared at me and said: “Are you going to carve this book in stone or does your computer not have a delta button?”

 I thought: I’ll go home and try and if I don’t like it I’ll just delete it. That’s how I started. I still do a lot of rewriting but I don’t judge myself on it. So, I’ve always been writing in one way or another.

Jassy:  I always wanted to write a book, except my kind of handicap at the time, was I never seemed to be able to get beyond the first three chapters. I was scared of the first three chapters. I could write the first three chapters of anything, but then I would lose interest and self-doubt would catch up with me. And overtake and I would think these three chapters are totally kak and I need to do the next three. And it would be a totally different story. And time is also a problem, specially when you’re working in a job when you have to travel. One time I thought I know how to solve this problem. I will take a Dictaphone with me. And while I’m driving I will just talk, my book into the Dictaphone. I will dictate it. It didn’t work, the Dictaphone was just, I don’t know if I bought a really cheap one or something, but having dictated what might have been my best work, I got there and all I had was static in the background. It was so discouraging and put me off for a long time.  I think what motivated me was getting hijacked. That, the hijacking, probably makes you take a little bit of a look at your life, you have any sort of scary experience it makes you a look at your life, decide maybe I should be doing the things I want to do, instead of – that was a motivating factor and so was getting the right partner. If you are in emotional turmoil and your love life is complicated, the energy you’re going to have left over for writing a book is nil and I met a divine guy, and the love life got sorted. Instead of angsting about my own problems, I could angst about fictional problems. There were many factors that got into it. Were it not for all of them I could probably still be writing chapters occasionally and then leaving it.

Gaynor: Is it easy to get your books published as a South African writer?

Jo-Anne:  I think it’s a hard time. Everybody says worldwide at the moment, it’s a difficult time in the market. So, they want, as you were saying earlier, they want books with an angle or a high concept, mainly. I suppose they don’t want to take chances, so it’s hard.

Jassy:    I don’t think that being in South Africa is harder though. I would say if anything it is easier.

Jo-Anne: Globally we’re in a difficult patch. That can change. We’re in a patch where no one knows what’s happening with books. We’re in that in-between phase where no one quite knows what’s happening.

Lornette: What do you prefer, knowing you’re an eBook or your book is on the shelf?

Jassy: I don’t mind, people have different preferences. I think eBooks are a good thing, they encourage a lot of people to read a book, more easily or conveniently when they might be doing something else. For instance, my partner Dion has become a huge eBook fan. He’s got a gadget like you have, a square. I don’t know what they call those things. And he spends his life ordering the most – eBooks on world wars and all sorts of strange subjects that he finds easily on line, but yet, when we come to Monte  Casino, he will always come to Skoobs, browse and find his favourite fantasy and sci fi auctions. It’s almost like the eBook has replaced TV watching and the paper book still has its time and place that he buys and reads, in bed.

Jo-Anne:   There are certain books that people will always want in paper. I also think eBooks are a good thing. But I suppose book shops are going to have to adapt a bit and keep those kinds of books that people still want on paper.

Lornette: I’m finding the transition very bad. To me there’s nothing nicer than buying a new book, opening it up, getting that smell of freshly printed and I’m finding, I can do it on my phone, I don’t need to – reading is a passion and a pleasure. That’s why I’m always curiously –

Jassy:    I don’t even own an ereader, but I do have a couple of eBooks and I read them on my computer and laptop. More for research purposes.

Jo-Anne:  I have my Kindle and love it. It means I can just order a book any time. If I’m in bed at night, and hear about a particular book: it’s one click. I love that. But there are certain books that I still want –

Jassy:    It’s a selfish habit in a way, Dion has his books on the reader, when do I get the chance – I don’t get to borrow it. There are also people who need to read and should be reading and don’t have access to ereaders, for example children of my groom who take care of my horses. I buy books two or three times a year, I just go to the book shop and buy whatever I can find in their age group. To them a book is like a toy. And hopefully they read it and enjoy it and get pleasure from reading it. When they’re adults, who knows whether they’ll read from ereaders, but at least now, if books were only eBooks they would never read. The books I buy them are stories are colourful and exciting, they are something that children can do as an alternative.

Gaynor:   Where can we buy your books?

Jo-Anne:  All good bookshops. Particularly Skoobs. As well as Amazon, Kalahari. 

Gaynor:   Are any of your characters based on real life people? 

Jo-Anne:   People always ask me if my books are autobiographical, and no,  my books are not. I observe,  I talk to people, I pick up things, and you weave those things into a totally different story. You take something, a character or an argument you see, or  some interaction, or in my latest book there’s a small Free State town and a lot of peripheral characters around the town are sort of –

Lornette: Have you ever had somebody come up to you and go is that me in your book?

Jo-Anne:   Often. When you do base a character on a real person, you change them and they end up unrecognisable. But I usually find that people who aren’t, are the ones  who come up and say: “ was I the boring teacher in your second book?”

Jassy: When you try to put people into your books, it doesn’t work. Book characters are different from real life characters. You can steal things from them and put those in, but I think it’s very difficult to put a person in the pages of a book. I did try, there was a guy I hated, I thought you’re the villain in my next book. But it didn’t work. The villain took on his own identity and moved away and the ugly characteristics of this guy that I just wanted to get off my chest, the guy didn’t even end up being particularly evil. He ended up having good in him. It shows you how difficult it is to do that. I think you’d really have to be a nonfiction writer in order to do that.

Jo-Anne:   You’re putting them in situations that the real life person was never in and they develop in different directions.

Jassy: They do. I think characteristics are easy to put in, whether it’s how someone looks, a mannerism they have or a habit they do or the way they dress, people watching, it’s just so dry, I love sitting at a restaurant and people watching.

Gaynor: What inspired you to get involved in the genre you chose, do you do different genres? Or doesn’t that work?

Jo-Anne: I’ve never worried about what I’m writing, but I’ve always been in the area that’s loosely termed literary fiction. And I mean, I’ve got a great interest in writing other kind of things, but somehow that’s what I just always gravitate to. That’s what comes out.  It’s not an exact science.

Jassy: Publishers need to make a book marketable.  One of the ways of making a book marketable is to be able to say where on the bookshelf it would be able to appear. How you would be able, from that point of view, it’s important, even if a book crosses genres to be able to describe what it is in terms of this is literary fiction with a humourous twist.

Gaynor: Would you like to discuss future projects and neither of you has discussed your current project and if there’s anything else you’d like to draw attention?

Jo-Anne: I think my new book, The Imagined Child, is my best book. And I have had a very good response to it so far, and I’m fairly pleased with it. You work on something for so long and you pour so much love into it, that it’s nice to get a good response. So it’s important to me. I haven’t’ started another book, I’m supposed to start doing this thing that may not be named: it’s a PHD actually but I keep thinking if it doesn’t go well this month I’ll just drop it, so I keep referring to it as “ this thing that may not be named”.

Gaynor: How long does it take, the impossible question, how long does it take to write a book?

Jo-Anne:  I teach at Wits, I’m teaching creative writing, you know, and I do other things, so it takes me about five years.

Gaynor:    I think that’s pretty good going. Jassy, tell us something about your current work as well?

Jassy: I have been in the crime fiction genre, I’ve been writing thrillers and then I have an idea for an erotic romance with a humourous twist. It was very well accepted and lots of fun. I’m writing the sequel to Folly at the moment and I really want to actually use this opportunity to break away from crime fiction that I was doing to explore other things, I’m not sure if crime fiction is the niche I want to eventually settle in as a writer. I think that perhaps I need to look at writing for humour and also other projects at the moment. I write about a book a year. I’m quite a fast writer, but I have a day job, but I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’m quite clued up on how to do it faster. So I don’t really have travelling time, which can really add to your day. So from that reason I find it’s easy to work fast, and – the bad thing about working from home, it’s always better to take yourself out of your office environment. For me it’ s easier to go somewhere else to write.

I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who takes the time to read the book, we as writers only do one step in the process.

Click here to hear the podcast of the interview done at Radio Today.

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Writer, transcriber, proofreader, editor, lover of the arts.

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