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Die Ketting

Sonja Loots Sonja Loots (32) is the books editor for Rapport. She has a part-time lecturing post in the Afrikaans Department at RAU, is a member of the KKNK (Klein Karoo National Arts Festival) arts cabinet and has worked as a scriptwriter for the SABC2 soap 7de Laan for the past five years. Her debut novel, Spoor, was published by Tafelberg in 1995 and her poetry and short stories have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines. She freelances as a journalist and apart from corporate work for companies like Absa, contributes regularly to the décor magazine Visi and the lifestyle magazine Insig (articles of hers appear in the current issues of both these magazines). She holds an MA in Afrikaans literature from Rhodes University.
Pamela Jooste Pamela Jooste's first novel, Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter [Doubleday] was awarded the Commonwealth Prize Best First Book Award for the Africa Region 1998, The Sanlam Literary Award and the inaugural Book Data South African Booksellers' Choice Award. The book went on to become a critically acclaimed theatrical production.
She has written four novels to date, and the latest People Like Ourselves was published simultaneously in the UK and South Africa in March 2003. It was numbered in the Top Twenty Bestsellers for 2003, awarded by Exclusive Books. It was the only South Africa novel, written in English, to gain a place on this list.
Aside from her novels Pamela Jooste has also written award-winning short stories, radio plays, serials and film scripts and her work is included in the Penguin Book of Contemporary South African writing. She lives in Cape Town and is married to an attorney.

Sonja Loots in conversation with Pamela Jooste

  1. Much has been made of your colourful childhood in Cape Town harbour, where your parents managed the Queens Hotel until you were twelve years old. Did those years make a writer of you? Or do you think you would have become a writer even if you had a perfectly normal, suburban, childhood?

    If much has been made of the geography of my childhood, it is because it impacted so very much on Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter. I had a particular childhood that enabled me to write that book. I don't think, though, that it was that particular geography that made a writer of me. It was, though, in many respects a fairly isolated childhood in terms of interaction with other children and so there was plenty of opportunity for the inner fantasy world to grow. I was fortunate, too, in having a mentor who consciously stimulated my interest in reading and the development of an interior life. Also, as you might imagine, in the particular geography in which I grew up there were all kinds of people living the most extraordinary lives. I didn't think so then, but I realise it now.

    I don't like the notion of suburbia very much and have been known to say so; but having said that, I really don't know what a "perfectly normal suburban childhood" is. I am beginning to think that there's no such thing in the sense that I think you mean. Certainly not the kind of everything-in-the-garden's-rosy kind of childhood you see in TV advertisements.

    A large number of writers write a "Bildungsroman" as a first novel; some even do it unconsciously - or claim to. If the stories they present are anything to go by I think anyone inherently a writer could take any kind of childhood and get a perfectly riveting book out of it, and many writers have.

  2. Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter, your first novel, was tremendously successful. It won the Commonwealth Best First Book Award for the African Region, the Sanlam Literary Award and the Book Data South African Booksellers' Choice Award. Quite often writers struggle for years to write a book that matches or surpasses a highly regarded debut. Have you ever had the feeling that the success of your debut casts a very intimidating shadow over your subsequent writing career?

    Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter certainly gathered a momentum of its own and readers identified with it in a very particular way - and not only in this country. In England it transcended its South African setting and people, I got the impression, read it in a more universal way. It was a WH Smith Choice and got a great deal of exposure because of this. You speak of the prizes and that's very nice of you, but as you know, prizes are often dependent on the level of entries each year. It's a good thing to remember that. It's also about reader reaction, and book-prize judges are readers in a one-on-one interface with the text, so what one judge might choose as a winner might not be another's choice and so on. WH Smith make their choice on the kind of feedback readers are giving them and their customers trust their endorsement to bring them the kind of book they really want to read. An endorsement from booksellers and positive feedback from readers is probably a far more reliable gauge than prizes are. I am fundamentally a worker at the "poplit" end of the market, but I say again that I deeply appreciated my work being recognised by this awarding of prizes.

    Every book's different, in much the same way children are, I suppose. Frieda & Min, my second book, was short-listed for a few prizes, but we've already established what that's about. It was, I think, the book many people liked best, as a read.

    Like Water in Wild Places has been the most translated of my books. It was judged by Metro magazine in the UK to be one of the top five books to come out of South Africa in the post-apartheid era, for what that is worth, but it found itself in rather elevated company where I'm not quite sure it really belonged. Nevertheless, that is pleasing. It is interesting that this is how an English magazine rated it, because English readers, in the nature of the thing, read from a different perspective.

    People Like Ourselves (2003) struck a funny chord I hadn't expected. I had a great deal of correspondence from people who were horrified to imagine they would have been one of the "people" of the title. It was like looking into a mirror for them and they didn't like what they saw. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

    So the answer to your question is that I don't think my debut cast a very "intimidating shadow" over my subsequent writing career. I like to think of myself as a storyteller. Once the story leaves me, what becomes of it is up to others to determine.

  3. In People Like Ourselves the characters seem bewildered by life and their circumstances. Would it be correct to say that this was your most cynical work to date? If so, what does it stem from? Does it have something to do with the disillusionment that many whites are suffering from in post-apartheid South Africa?

    Do you think it's cynical? It deals with a specific, rather small group of people dealing with quite a few destabilising things at the same time. Prime among them is, I would think, what is commonly known as midlife crisis. Imprinted upon this is the change going on in the country, which different people respond to in different ways. I am quite sure some people are "disillusioned" whilst others are invigorated. "Bewildered" is a good word. Yes, they're a bit bewildered and it's rather a nice way just to freeze-frame them like that.

    I have written in reply to question 2 about the response this book evoked mainly, I would think, from middle-class white people of a certain age. I say again that maybe the questions it seems to have brought to the fore are not such bad issues to address.

  4. Your publisher has revealed that you are already working on a new book, due to be released early next year. Can you tell us anything about it, or do you believe that you will "jinx" your novel by discussing it prematurely?

    My poor publisher suffers grievously with a great many writers all in the "process" at the same time, because that's the way it is with writers. Please don't be offended and I hope you won't think it's odd, but I never discuss a work in progress with anyone except my agent who, having read about a third of the work, is very pleased with the way things are going.

  5. Earlier this month it was revealed that some passages in People Like Ourselves were lifted from an article written by architect and Wits academic Lindsay Bremner. You immediately, unreservedly and sincerely apologised, but the storm hasn't died down yet. How has this whole furore influenced you as a writer?

    As you say, I did immediately, unreservedly and sincerely apologise, but despite this I must say I feel myself to have been unfairly and harshly treated. The pieces I used were of minor descriptive nature only and had no impact on the book, the story line or the characters. When I apologised I also offered to have the pieces removed in any future edition because, as I say, it was clear to my publisher and indeed to anyone who had read the book, that such a deletion would not have affected the novel at all.

    You ask whether this incident has "influenced" me as a writer. The answer of course is, no, it hasn't. The story itself, the narrative, the characterisation, the plot line, all of those things that make a novel what it is, are part of a different process altogether. As a writer yourself, you will know this.

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LitNet: 23 February 2005

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