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Marita van der Vyver shares her insights on storytelling, family life and Travelling Light

Sharon Meyering

Author: Marita van der Vyver
Publisher: Penguin Books (SA) (Pty) Ltd
ISBN: 0143024558
Published: 2005
Format: Softcover
On Was R95.00 Now R76.00
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Marita van der Vyver

Marita van der Vyver has been selected, by LitNet, as one of South Africa's most prominent female writers in their ABSA/LitNet Lewende Legendes: Vrouereeks (ABSA/LitNet Living Legends: Womens' Series). We managed to sneak in an interview with her to chat about her new English release from Penguin Books SA, the tensions of being a South African writer in France and the art (and hard work) of storytelling:

  1. Many people are going to be reading Griet kom weer for the first time in 2005 because of the new English translation, Travelling Light (released by Penguin). Did you ever think that Griet would become so popular?

    No - and 16 years after I created the character, I still find it hard to believe.

  2. Did she take on a life of her own, bringing about the sequel, or was it a story you (or your publishers) felt you hadn't finished telling?

    I thought I was done with Griet. I actually wanted to be done with her because the hype surrounding the initial publication of the novel caught me unawares and made me feel far too vulnerable and exposed. But then I moved to France and she popped up in another novel (a cameo appearance in Breathing Space) and I realised that in fact I hadn't finished telling her story. Living in France gave me the necessary distance - physical and emotional - to continue doing this without feeling swamped by my own creation.

  3. Entertaining Angels has been categorised as "South African Fiction after Apartheid". Was this your intention when you created Griet?

    When I wrote the story, in 1989/1990, Apartheid was still officially functioning - though giving its last desperate gasps - but I wanted to tell a personal rather than a political tale. So even though the story is very clearly set in that "Camelot moment" from the end of '89 to the beginning of '90 - when the whole world order changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Eastern Europe, the liberation of Nelson Mandela, etcetera - the emphasis is always on Griet's personal trials and tribulations. By the time it was published in 1992, the world had changed irrevocably, and seemingly for the better. I suppose the rather black humour and the irreverence and the hopeful ending caught something of the Zeitgeist of those early post-Apartheid days. A question of the right book at the right time?

  4. Do you regard a work of fiction like Travelling Light as a moment in the history of South Africa, or is it just a story?

    Always, in the first and the last place, a story - I have far too much respect for stories to qualify them with a phrase like "just a". I think a good story is always more than "just a story". My own stories are usually set in a very specific time frame, a certain place at a certain time, which brings us back to the Zeitgeist I referred to previously. To me this is an important part of a novel.

  5. Do you think a translation which appears a few years after the original creates tension between the original time setting of the novel and the present?

    If the novel is good (and the translation, of course), the tension should work positively. A translation is always a kind of test, a way of finding out if a novel contains those essential elements of universality and timelessness that can make it survive its particular setting and time-frame.

  6. Jaco Jacobs once asked you in an interview for Beeld if you have any strange habits or superstitions when you write. You answered:
    Nee wat, skryf is nie vir my 'n mistieke ervaring nie, dis doodgewoon verskriklike harde werk. Ek swoeg so om elke punt en komma op presies die regte plek te plaas dat daar nie nog energie oorbly vir bygelowigheid nie. (Click here to read the interview.)

    The interview originally appeared in Jip (Beeld), 11th November 2002. - Ed

    a) If you put so much energy into "perfecting" your Afrikaans novels, isn't it difficult to see your story through the translation process?

    Yes! By that time I'm thoroughly fed-up with the story and usually knee-deep in another one. But that's where discipline comes in. To me writing is above all a question of discipline.

    b) How much input do you have in the translation, and
    c) How much importance do you place on the English having the same texture as the original, Afrikaans version?

    I work very closely with the English translator because any further translations (apart from the Dutch) are usually done from the English version rather than the original Afrikaans - for the simple reason that English is more accessible to international translators. Therefore it is important that the English acquires the texture of an original text rather than a straightforward translation. For instance, I would change metaphors or descriptions for the sake of alliteration or rhythm in the English version. But it has to remain a South African English - with its inevitable echoes of Afrikaans - because my characters are mainly Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. I am not trying to write British or American novels. .

  7. Your work has been called the "[b]est Feminist novel on fairy tales since Shields' Republic of Love," and your writing has been described as "Loony, sexy, sad" and "Eroties, snaaks, toeganklik diepsinnig". Yet you are also a children's writer. What is the danger of stereotyping authors?

    I detest any kind of stereotyping. Being labelled as an "erotic feminist" writer on the one hand and a children's author on the other hand simply shows how ridiculous such stereotyping can be. The only advantage I can think of is that it gives me something to rebel against. With Griet skryf a sprokie I deliberately chose a title that sounded like a children's book. With Dinge van 'n kind (Childish Things, also published by Penguin) I deliberately blurred the borders between adult and adolescent fiction. The struggle continues ...

  8. If you could "label" your writing style, how would you define it? (What it is or what you'd like it to be classified as.)

    Nothing more - or less - than good writing. Which implies honesty and style and originality and discipline and all the other attributes of good fiction, whether it is crime fiction, science fiction, children's fiction or "serious" literary fiction.

  9. Being so far away from South Africa, don't you sometimes feel as though you're losing touch?

    Not with the internet and frequent visits. If I've lost anything by being far away, I've probably gained even more by acquiring a wide-angle view rather than looking at my surroundings through a telescopic lens.

  10. What do you do on those days when South Africa feels like another planet?

    I take out my mother's recipe book and bake a batch of whole-wheat beskuit.

  11. What makes your heart ache the most when you think of South Africa?

    The gap between rich and poor, which seems as wide as ever, and far more noticeable than in Western Europe.

  12. You often mention the South African crime in Travelling Light; do you think this creates a negative impression of South Africa, especially when the book is made accessible in other countries around the world?

    Yes, possibly - but Travelling Light is a novel, not a tourist brochure. Novels require honesty. Tourist brochures have a different agenda.

  13. What has living in Provence taught you about people?

    That people are basically the same all over the world. The same desires, the same perversions. Living here hasn't really taught me this; it simply confirmed what I've always believed.

  14. How do you respond to people who say it's not possible to write a truly South African story if you don't live in South Africa?

    An author who has never lived in South Africa will probably not be able to write "a truly South African story". But if you were born in a country, grew up there, spent a major part of your life there, you might be able to write an even better story about that country while you are living elsewhere, looking in from the outside as it were, than while you are actually living there. This has been proven by many great expatriate writers from various countries during the past century.

  15. What do you think is going to happen to the art of storytelling in the future?

    It will keep on transforming itself in ways that we can't even imagine at present, aided by technological progress, but it will remain one of the basic human needs, in all cultures, at all times, as it has been since the dawn of humanity. We need stories to try to explain the inexplicable, make sense of the senseless - in short, to make life worth living.

  16. Name one element of storytelling that is different now from when you started writing.

    I'm much more aware of the "technical" side of writing fiction: how to handle different points of view, for instance. I'm referring to the kind of thing you learn either in the slow, "old-fashioned" way, as I did - through your own experience, trial and error, reading other writers - or the faster way, through a good creative writing course, as more and more young writers are doing. Although I remain convinced that you cannot really teach someone to write, I do think a creative writing course can help a born writer to become a better writer sooner.

  17. Do you think as a storyteller you relate differently to children than other people do?

    I probably relate differently to people of all ages, not only children. But writing for children, and often about children, even in my adult fiction, I need to keep in contact with the child in myself. I'm often amazed at how easily adults forget the intensity of their childhood feelings and experiences.

  18. Where do you think stories originate?

    Everywhere! Stories are all around us, like shells on a beach, waiting to be picked up by the right person, in our daily activities, in the newspapers, in our neighbours' lives, in the eyes of a stranger sitting across from us on a train.

  19. Which fairy tale / storybook character are you most like?

    Scheherazade? Telling tales to stay alive, not only figuratively but also quite literally. I earn my living, however precariously, through fiction.

  20. Who is your favourite storyteller?

    At the moment my five-year-old daughter. She inspires me every day with the imaginary world she creates around her. Total suspension of disbelief!

  21. What processes do you have in place to enable you to write?

    Virginia Woolf's famous "room of one's own". Mine is rather messy because the rest of the family uses it as a store-room for bicycles, toys, musical instruments, etcetera, but still, in theory it is my room with my computer and my reference books. And, perhaps most importantly, a door that I can close against the noise in the rest of the house.

  22. How do you balance your family with your writing?

    I close the above-mentioned door and scream at anyone who disturbs me. No, seriously, any writer who also happens to be a wife and mother learns to compromise all the time. Sometimes you need the concentration power of a hypnotist to shut yourself off from your family's demands. Most of the time you feel guilty. Occasionally, only very occasionally, your family actually seems proud of what you are achieving.

  23. When are you at your most creative?

    When all the children are at school and my partner is at work and there are no guests in the house. Only me and the cat and the computer purring together.

  24. And we all want to know, if you met Luca on the street, would you be attracted to him?


Marita van der Vyver
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LitNet: 06 April 2005

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