Friday, 22 January 2016

Write what you know...

At the start of on my career as an author, I wanted to write a crime novel. Something gritty, like Prime Suspect - remember that? Then, after a period of alarming research including a conversation with a former policeman who described his underground work, I decided that perhaps criminal activity was not my thing.

I had, of course, been mulling over my family's history for many years, particularly my grandparents' epic migration from Ireland to South Africa in the early 1900s... could this be the inspiration for a novel about a family making a new life in rural South Africa? There was only one way to find out: get started.

I'd like to say that the project proceeded smoothly, but of course it didn't! A first novel, an unknown author... was never going to be easy. It took me 6 years of research and and many revisions before The Housemaid's Daughter finally made it into print. During that time characters came and went, the plot expanded and I took the risky decision to write in the voice of Ada, my young black heroine...
I wasn't supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.

Many readers have asked me how I managed to get into Ada's character, into her head and heart. Using all my experience of growing up in South Africa and drawing on the many women I'd met like Ada, proved not to be enough. I began to fear I would never understand her, that there was too much that separated our lives. And yet, when I changed tack and began to think about what Ada and I shared, I found that it was more than I'd realised. For example, we were both mothers and, as mothers, we would do anything to nurture and protect our children. Once I started to focus on what drew Ada and I together rather than what kept us apart, I began to find her voice.

It was still early, this first morning with my daughter. The moon hung luminous in a sky streaked with rising smoke. A rim of sunrise showed orange on the horizon. I walked along the dirt road, holding my child in my left arm and a bucket for water in my right. A girl child, not a boy.
I would call her Dawn.

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