Tell us a little about yourself & your background
When I was little my parents would tell me stories every night. My mom would read to me (Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer were our favourites) and my dad would make up new tales. They both work in theatre, so I guess stories were always part of my life growing up and became an integral part of who I am. When I showed promise as a writer, the adults around me said I should be something called a “journalist”.
So that was my path and what I studied, but when I actually landed in a news room I hated it! I ended up falling into social media management accidentally by virtue of being the youngest person on my team and found myself much better suited to that. So now I work in marketing by day and squeeze stories into all the spare hours. I love both sides of my life.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I’d say “always”, but that’s not quite true. My first ambition was to be a teacher, even though I always loved telling stories and playing make-believe. It was my fifth grade teacher who decided I should be a writer. (As an aside: I think this is a common story with most authors!). She’d ask me to read out my stories to the class and even bought me a nice pen as a gift to encourage me. I always meant to dedicate my first book to her, but since then there have been many amazing teachers – including two of my editing team – so I ended up dedicating the book to teachers in general.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I’d love to be a full time creative at some stage. That means that I’d be running my own business writing, doing design work, working on audio and maybe even doing some of that teaching that I dreamed of in kindergarten.
Can you tell us a little about your current novel, Keyflame?
The first draft was written as a homage to the strange little town where I went to university. I wrote it in my final year and drew heavily from my own experiences. Then it went into a drawer for a decade. What it is now is quite different, but I hope it’s still got some genuine Grahamstown vibes stuffed between the pages. This is the blurb:
Lilah’s father taught her to be afraid of the world, but now he’s sending her to Grahamstown, a full day’s drive from home, to study. Then he gets into legal trouble and she’s left stranded without a cent. Her classmate, Kalin, steps in to help. He’s argumentative, brooding and just mysterious enough to be attractive. When they’re ensconced in his study surrounded by old books and strange talismans, it’s easy to forget how many times she’s been warned that he’s bad news.
The longer she stays in Grahamstown, and with Kalin, the more she doubts her sanity. Is the town haunted? Are leylines real? And what about the vivid dreams she keeps having of a fantasy world she thought she’d made up? Everyone is keeping secrets, and Lilah’s father may have had good reason for being so overprotective. Who is Kalin really, and what will loving him cost her?
Can you introduce us to your main character?
Lilah is not a kickass femme fatal. She’s a gentle creative who’d rather disappear into the background. She loves books and drawing and getting As on exam papers. She does not love large crowds, talking to strangers or making new friends. The start of the book pushes her out of her comfort zone, and the rest of the book continues to do so. There are different kinds of strength, and I think that sometimes it’s the one under the surface that is most important.
Do you have a favourite quote or scene from Keyflame?
A week before the end of term, I’m sitting reading alone at the Kaif when a shadow falls across my book. I look up to find Kalin standing there.
“Is this all you ever do?” he asks.
Even though I’ve seen him in our Law tuts, we haven’t spoken since that time in Politics. I raise my eyebrows at him. “Excuse me?”
He sits down on the bench next to me and starts reading my notebook, like he did that first day of lectures.
“Kalin!” I snap.
He looks up.
“Can I help you?”
There’s a flicker of a smile. I don’t know what I’ve done to amuse him. “Is this all your work, or are you doing another favour for a stranger?”
Really? “What’s your problem?”
“No problem. It’s only, whenever I see you, you’ve got your head down studying. There’s more to being a student than that, you know.”
“This from the man who told me to be myself.”
“You took my words to heart? I’m touched.” He produces a folded brochure from somewhere and passes it to me with a flick of his wrist.
“SciFest. It’s happening up at the monument this week.”
I take the brochure. It has a starscape on the front, and above it in big bold letters the words: SciFest Africa: South Africa’s National Science Festival. I page through it. It seems there will be lectures and workshops on everything from Antarctic adventures to virtual reality.
“Come with me,” Kalin says.
My stomach jumps. “What?”
He laughs. “You should see your face. I’m not asking you to dinner. This isn’t romantic, I promise.”
Of course it wouldn’t be. That would be absurd. I focus on the brochure, so I don’t have to meet his eyes. “Why? Don’t you have friends who can go with you?”
I cringe inwardly. I’m being mean to hide my own embarrassment, and even though he annoys me, I don’t want to be that person.
If he’s upset at all though, it doesn’t come through in his voice. “I thought you might like a break from the books. This one in particular.” He extracts the copy of Great Expectations from my hand.
“Hey!” I protest as he closes it without marking the page.
“Don’t try tell me it’s the first time you’ve read it, I won’t believe you.”
“You have some nerve.”
“I’m known for it. So, what do you say?”
“You’re not exactly endearing yourself to me right now.”
He leans forward, bringing himself closer. I catch a whiff of herbs before he tucks his hair behind his ear. “You’re lonely.”
“Maybe,” he says with a shrug. “Maybe I’m lonely too.”
I study his expression. His easy confidence hasn’t faltered; there’s no trace of self-pity in his gaze. It’s a statement of fact.
And it is little wonder that he struggles to make friends if the way he acts around me is any indication of his usual strategy, but I don’t want to say that. “Is there a particular lecture you’re interested in?”
“No. Your choice.”
“I’ll have to look at the brochure.”
He reaches for one of my pencils and, before I can stop him, he opens Great Expectations and writes in it.
“What are you doing!”
I snatch it back, and he laughs at me again. “My number. Give me a call tonight and let me know. And don’t worry, I didn’t press hard.”
Where do you find most of your inspiration?
Every story starts with an idea that makes me feel something. It can come from anywhere – the weather, a news article, a song, a conversation, a photograph. Then I trap that idea and put it in a jar and keep feeding it. I spent a lot of my final year in Grahamstown walking around, so the Keyflame idea lived on a diet of historic buildings, intriguing natural landmarks and conversations with locals.
Are you more of a plotter or a panster?
I like to have an idea of the key landmarks in a story before I start writing it because otherwise I write myself in circles and nothing gets anywhere. I do like leaving room for fresh ideas though, because coming up with all the good ideas I’ll ever have during the plotting phase seems impossible.
What is your writing routine like? How often do you write?
When working on a first draft, I try to write every night between 10pm and 12am. I discovered that this was a good time by doing lots of experimentation. I find that if I don’t get into a routine, I lose touch with the story and the first writing session after a long break is always more of a catch up than anything productive.
How much research has gone into Keyflame?
I get a bit ridiculous with my research. I’ll go right down to whether the tide was going in or out on the particular date I have in mind at the particular time I have in mind. Luckily with the resources we have today research isn’t hard. The most frustrating part of the research was looking at leylines. I’d originally had the idea to use them after encountering a concept in a book as a kid, but I struggled to find the same info online. I found one tweet about how Grahamstown had leylines. All the other leyline experts (these are a thing!) are more interested in Europe. Regardless of whether something is real or not, I like to build on what’s gone before so it was frustrating to have nothing mapped. I actually found that original book in a second hand shop about a month ago, believe it or not! (It didn’t deal with Grahamstown either, but it was still fun to go back to the source of the idea).
What was the hardest thing about writing Keyflame?
The initial draft did not have any diversity because there were I think three main characters and the rest where ghosts and I, as a naive white teenager, just didn’t think further than that. Coming back to it, I wanted to give it a cast more reflective of the people of South Africa. That was hard because I didn’t want to just paint in background characters to tick boxes (especially when the ghosty characters were all bad guys!), which meant introducing new characters and giving them full lives and reasons for being on the page. The hard part was doing this without making the story stupid long. Eventually I had to accept that there will need to be a second book to close off the new character arcs, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing and I’m excited for the plans I have for the sequel. I’m also glad I did this because it made the story better (live people are almost always preferable to ghosts), and Keyflame is still a full story in and of itself even though there will now be a sequel.
Did you choose self publishing or traditional? Why?
I chose self publishing because every part of the process appeals to me. I love making books, not just the writing part. I love working with a team to get it the best it can be, I love cover design, I love interior formatting, I love marketing (making all sorts of extras, choosing who to give review copies to, running competitions etc). I felt like going traditional would mean sacrificing a good chunk of the experience, and it would also mean I had limited control over the quality of the end product. A book in a traditional publishing house is just one of many. I want each of my books to get the best possible treatment and attention.
What has the publishing process been like for you?
Absolutely amazing. I’ve loved every second of it. I have the best team of people, from the beta readers who gave feedback chapter by chapter, to the editors, to the proofreaders. I’ve heard that being a writer can be lonely, but I’ve found it to be the opposite. As long as you’re humble and willing to give as much as you recieve, writers are the most wonderful people.
What are you currently reading right now?
I’m currently listening to Watership Down while trying to get over my Raven Cycle (by Maggie Stiefvater) book hangover. I loved that series so much that when I finished the final book I immediately turned around and started reading again from the beginning. Now fighting the urge to do a third run. I should at least give it a few months!
Who are your biggest idols?
In terms of writing, Maggie Stiefvater is pure goals. She is a master at wielding words and story construction and I love the kinds of stories she tells. Another idol is Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn. She’s created a life doing what she loves, and that’s my aim.
Do you get writers block? How do you deal with it?
I think there are two kinds of block. One is a complete lack of motivation. That I think of as an empty tank of creativity and it usually comes after pushing too hard for too long. The best solution is to take a break and let the tank refill by consuming other people’s creations: books, art, TV and even videogames. The second kind is a block with a specific scene where it just doesn’t feel right and you can’t tell why. The solution to this is also to slow down and retrace my steps to see why it didn’t feel right. Sometimes figuring this out can take time, but going forward is like trying to cross a broken bridge. It’s dangerous and it’s probably going to land me somewhere I don’t want to be. It’s worth the time to go back and figure out what went wrong.
If you couldn’t be a writer what would you want to be?
My day job is in marketing and I enjoy that, but if money wasn’t an issue I’d love to be an artist. I’d hate relying on art for money, but I love the experience of creating.
What do you get up to when you’re not writing?
I enjoy every pretty much every craft imaginable and I go through phases with each one. At the moment I’m in an embroidery phase. I also enjoy art, reading and playing videogames like Dragon Age, the Sims and Stardew Valley.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Let yourself be a beginner. No one is an expert the first time they try something and that’s okay.
When will Keyflame be out?
6 March 2020. The e-book will only be available through Amazon, but that means that I can put it in Kindle Unlimited, so if you’re a subscriber you’ll be able to read it for free. You can pre-order Keyflame right now, if you just can’t wait for the launch!