Talking authors: Jo-Anne Richards

The Mail & Guardian is running a series of interviews with South African authors. We posed difficult questions; we also asked some easy ones. Jo-Anne Richards obliges.

Describe yourself in a sentence.
I am a passionate writer, a touch insecure and with a tendency to oversensitivity, who loves deeply and develops sudden, wild enthusiasms. 

Describe your ideal reader.

Ideal? Hell, in a country where so few people read, any reader is ideal. Obviously I’d prefer a reader who buys their own copy. It helps. Oh, and I love bookclub readers—they keep writers afloat. Apart from that, anyone who reads with interest and an open mind is a great reader.

What are you working on?
I’m working on a fifth novel. While I’m working on something, I can’t really give too many details, but it’s about family; about mothers and daughters and flawed people in difficult relationships.

Tell us about your everyday writing routine.
Everyday? What luxury. I have a day job (and a night job—I teach writing classes in the evenings). I have to squeeze everything to accommodate my writing. I write best when I’ve been at it an hour or two, so the odd half-hour doesn’t do it for me. When all goes well, I try to write for a morning. Sometimes I might even manage two mornings.

What book(s) are you reading now?
I’m finishing off Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals, which I read during a trip to India. I am also reading DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little. In the Free State, where my partner and I go every second weekend to write and read, we keep a great collection of crime novels. So in Vrede, I’m reading Ruth Rendell’s Not in the Flesh.

Do you remember the first novel you read?
The two that jump to mind are both by Enid Blyton: The Boy Next Door and The Island of Adventure. If not the first, they were certainly among the first.

Which book, if any, changed your life?
I hate this question because the instant I’ve finished writing this, I’ll remember countless important books that escape me right now. I’ve always felt perhaps I ought to make up some obscure, deeply intellectual tome to make myself sound clever.

The first book that touched me deeply as a child was a collection of Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories. I wept inconsolably when The Nightingale and the Rose was read to me.

But I do remember being struck by the beauty of the words. I learnt the stories off by heart and pretended to read them to my classmates. I had to fake the reading thing because I was dyslexic. That book saved me an awful lot of teasing and torment.

When I did learn, books became a refuge. My parents had a wonderful store of books and I developed passions—reading my way through their Kiplings, Jane Austen, all my mother’s Georgette Heyers and even an old volume of Balzac. In adolescence it was DH Lawrence, Scott Fitzgerald and JD Salinger.

Changed my life? Well, I spent years searching for Joshua Shapiro from Mordechai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now, whom I was convinced would be the great love of my life. Then I thought myself in love with Stingo from Sophie’s Choice.

It’s quite telling that all my literary loves were writers. I think I was somehow searching for the writer in me.

Of course the novel that literally changed my life was my own first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken. Everything changed from the moment it was accepted—if not externally, then certainly within me. I became a writer. 

Do you write by hand, typewriter or computer?
Computer. I stare at an empty screen until words come. I like being able to change, adjust, delete and shift things around.

Why should people buy your book as a gift this holiday?
Well — perhaps because My Brother’s Book is my very best (so far) and I put my heart and soul into it. It’s about a family with passions and flaws, I hope it tells a good story, and it’s about truth.

What book(s) are you buying as presents?
I buy books that match people’s enthusiasms—and that they might not buy for themselves. My partner has a passion for the Beats, for music and for art and modern culture. I search for and collect books throughout the year that I think he’ll like. I’m not going to reveal what I’ve found this year or they’ll no longer be a surprise.

I buy my father books about battles and wars and forage around for good crime novels for a close friend. ReadSA is planning a sale of local books at David Krut on December 9, where I will buy a lot. We have so many fabulous local writers whose books make brilliant gifts for everyone.

What CD are you currently listening to?
Right now, a compilation my partner made me for my birthday. In general, a couple of my new enthusiasms are The Mendoza Line and Whispertown 2000, but they must fit in beside more established loves, like the new Wilco album, the latest Okkervil River and the two I got as presents: Gary Louris and Marc Olson & Gary Louris.

In a multi/polymedia world, why is book publishing still important?
You can read a book in the bath and if it falls in, you won’t actually die. And a Kindle will never have the smell of a new book—or an old book you’ve spent ages searching for.

What subject is currently passé in South Africa?
I hate rules. I try never to prescribe what we ought or ought not to be writing about. It depends on the treatment, surely. The most skilled writers in the world have dealt with old subjects and new, and the best of them can still surprise us.

Jo-Anne Richards is the author of four novels, her latest being My Brother’s Book, published by Picador Africa in March 2008. Her short stories have been included in five collections. A sixth is due to appear in 2010.

She has been shortlisted for the M-Net Book Prize and nominated for the Impac International Dublin Literary Award. Her first book was chosen as a Dillon’s Debut in London, to be showcased as an “outstanding first novel”.

She lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand, as the academic coordinator and lecturer in the honours programme in Journalism and Media Studies.

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