YA in SA: Author Interview with Edyth Bulbring

april-may1. Hi Edyth thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, for the benefit of those who have not come across your books before could you please introduce yourself?

Hi Matt, thanks so much for interviewing me on your blog. I was born in Boksburg (near Johannesburg) and spent 17 years growing up in Port Elizabeth, which is a very windy city on the coast of South Africa. I never wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be an airhostess and travel the world. But in the days when I was young you had to be very tall and very pretty to be an air hostess. I was neither. So I went to university in Cape Town and studied history and politics. I also edited the university newspaper and got a part time job as a switchboard operator at a weekly newspaper. But I was useless at it so they let me write a few stories. I ended up being the political correspondent for the South African Sunday Times from 1991–1995 (where I had the privilege of covering the transition to democracy). I then went and did an MBA at the University of Witwatersrand, where I learned that I don’t have a strong profit motive. Ten years ago I chucked in the full-time job at the Sunday Times and decided to stay at home and look after my three children and try and write books (for which you certainly cannot have any profit motive). The first book I wrote was for my children. And when no one wanted to publish it, I wrote a few more books. And then they all got published which was a bit of a relief.

I live in Johannesburg which is a brilliant city with the best weather in the world. I have published six books in South Africa. The Club, which was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in September 2008, and five young adult novels: The Summer of Toffie and Grummer (Oxford University Press, February 2008); Cornelia Button and the Globe of Gamagion (Jacana, April 2008); Pops and The Nearly Dead (Penguin, March 2010); Melly, Mrs Ho and Me (Penguin, September 2010) and Melly, Fatty and Me (Penguin, September 2011).

2. You have written books for adults (The Club), tweens (Cornelia Button) as well as Teen readers (Pops and the Nearly Dead & A Month with April-May), do you have any preferences for writing for a particular age range?

I don’t usually write with any audience in mind. I simply tell the story I want to tell. I like writing books from the perspective of young people. Teenagers are interesting people and their take on life fascinates me. I think they tend to be more honest than adults. And their observations on life and society tend to be less muted and constrained by convention.

I think A Month with April-May and its sequel 100 Days of April-May would be enjoyed by teenage readers, but one of my other books, Pops and the Nearly Dead, is one of those cross-over books that appeals equally to adults and teenagers. I like the fact that it’s the kind of book that builds a bridge between the generations and makes people realise that the only thing that separates old people from young people is a couple of years. When I set out to write The Club and The Summer of Toffie and Grummer I didn’t have any market in mind. I didn’t give it any thought. I just wanted to write a good story that would capture the imaginations of people who like to read books. And then these books got buffed and tweaked in later drafts when the publishers decided where they wanted to position them. Although The Club was pitched (by the publishers) at an adult market, a lot of teens have read it and it grew a bit of a cult status among teen readers. The only book that I specifically meant for children (aged about 9–12) was Cornelia Button and the Globe of Gamagion. I wrote it for my three children and I think it’s very much a children’s book. And unlike my others books, I have met very few adults who have actually enjoyed it. Which I think is fine, because I never wanted them to.

3. Is A Month with April-May your first novel to be picked up by an international publisher?

Yes, Hot Key Books is publishing A Month with April-May in February 2013 and the sequel, 100 Days of April-May in September 2013. There is also a third book which will be published next year that is not part of the April-May series. The two April-May books are also being published by Bayard in France next year.

4. The original title for A Month With April-May was Melly, Mrs Ho and Me. Apart from the title were any other changes made when you were published by Hot Key Books?

I was very lucky to have an amazing editor in South Africa called James Woodhouse who edited the two April-May books. I loved working with him and I think Hot Key Books were really happy with the edit he did. So very few changes were made to the text except for a couple of words that were either South African slang, or too foreign for a UK reader to understand. We either made it clear in the sentence what the word meant, or we changed the word to one with which a UK reader would be more familiar. We also have a glossary at the back just in case the reader wants to check that his/her understanding of the word is correct.

5. How were you discovered by Hot Key Books?

I have an agent called Tina Betts from Andrew Mann in the UK. And she got me discovered by Hot Key. Tina has been really amazing. She kept the faith with me and persevered, even when things looked pretty bleak and I had almost given up hope of ever being published outside of South Africa.

6. What is your opinion on the state of YA writing in South Africa?

There are lots of brilliant YA authors in South Africa, but, like the rest of fiction, the book buying market isn’t great: we are competing with the big titles from the UK and America that also have big marketing budgets behind them.

But there is an exciting project in South Africa which started a couple of years back to try and get young people reading, especially young teens from low income communities who haven’t had exposure to the culture of reading for pleasure. The project is called FunDza Literacy Trust and it publishes local material by great local writers on an accessible app on a cellphone – and nearly all teens in South Africa have access to cellphones. The stories are high interest, lots of drama, and a new chapter is loaded each day, in the proud tradition of Dickens’ penny dreadfuls. There are also full books available on the site. So far, more than 350 000 users have registered, which is amazing considering that a bestseller in South Africa is a book that sells about 3000 copies.

The publisher that founded FunDza, Cover2Cover Books, has a Harmony High series aimed at the same target market. The books follow the lives, loves and challenges of a group of teens at a fictional township high school. The books are written by a small collective. Some titles give you the idea of the content: Sugar Daddy, Too Young to Die, Two-faced Friends, Broken Promises. FunDza distributes these books to schools and literacy organisations and they are having rave reviews, with teachers reporting that they had never seen kids reading like this before. These are, hopefully, the gateway to broader reading pleasure as young people realise that reading can be meaningful, and so can go on to enjoy the more challenging local writers who are producing some really interesting books.

7. Did you have any favourite authors when you were a teen?

I read everything I could lay my hands on and never really took note of who was writing them. I read all my mother’s and sisters’ library books. I read lots of trashy books and some good books too. I was a bit of a glutton. The children’s books I really liked were written by Enid Blyton, Willard Price and I liked the Katy books by Susan Coolidge. I loved Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Montgomery) and I have tried to get my daughters to read it and they have refused. It breaks my heart.

But the one author I admired as a teen and still go back to is Jane Austen. She never disappoints. I enjoy her irony and her sense of empathy. And her long sentences. I wish I could write long, complicated, grammatically perfect sentences. But apart from Jane Austen, there is one author who I esteem above all others for writing the best book ever written for both adults and teens: Harper Lee (who only ever published one book and got it right the first time). Whenever I see To Kill a Mocking Bird in charity shops, I buy it. I have about thirty copies and I’m going to keep on buying it. She inspires me to keep on writing until I get it right.

8. Who is your favourite young adult writer (local and international)?

I don’t read young adult fiction unless I have to. I know that sounds a bit mad, but I don’t want to be influenced by what other young adult writers are writing. And it would make me nervous. But the one author I really like who writes for both adults and teens is Philip Pullman. I loved His Dark Materials Trilogy. They are cross-over books which I think are the best sort of novels. I also like Roald Dahl. I didn’t mind reading his books to my children too much when they were young.

9. Are any of your novels based on personal experiences?

Most of the ideas of my books come from things I have heard or experienced. With A Month with April-May, a couple of years back, my daughter was going through a rough spot. She didn’t want to go to school, she was sleeping a lot, and her grades were dropping. I finally figured out that she was having a bad time with one of her teachers. And knowing my daughter, the teacher was probably having a rotten time of it too. It got me thinking about the effect that one teacher can have on the life of a child. And how teachers have the ability to make or break pupils – and vice versa. It also got me wondering about the miscommunication that happens between people and how sometimes it sets us off on a course of action we can’t stop, even when things are heading for a train smash. So I decided to write about a teacher and a student who butted heads and things got out of hand. In my daughter’s case, things didn’t end happily. Writing this book was a way of turning things around and giving the story a different ending. There are aspects of Pops & the Nearly Dead which are based on real life characters and events. About six years ago my parents moved into a retirement village in Port Elizabeth and a few months later my father died. In the years that followed his death, my mother and I would talk about the people and goings-on at her retirement village – and of course we would talk about my father. We would knit – she was teaching me how to knit a blanket for my daughter – and talk and sometimes cry, and then I would write a chapter. And so, over the years, Pops & the Nearly Dead grew into a book. A lot of the book comes from true stories about my mother’s retirement village and a number of the characters are based on real people. But I took a lot of these events and turned them on their head and asked “What if?” and “Why not?” I enjoyed being able to take real people and events and give them different histories and endings. In a sense, I loved the fact that I had the power to rewrite history and make it all better.

10. What is your favourite part of the writing process?

I think it is when I have completed the first draft. I try and write the first draft of my books really fast. Because I’m not one of those disciplined writers who plan and have an outline of a book. So I lurch from chapter to chapter, never quite sure how one will end and the next will begin. I go a bit loopy in the process, sort of in a bit of a panic as to what comes next. And so of course, I drive my family a bit mental. So I need to finish the manuscript quickly before things completely unravel. I can’t afford to indulge in writer’s block because then it would make the whole first-draft process longer and more agonizing for everybody. But when I do hit a snag I go walking. Walking always sharpens the mind and makes you alert to all sorts of possibilities – like breaking your leg by falling down the holes left by the skollies who nick the water metre covers to sell for scrap metal. I also wander around my garden a lot and read newspapers. I love newspapers. There are always a hundred possible books in every newspaper, and usually I’ll read something that removes the snag and allows me to carry on writing. I find writing is a bit like running a marathon. It’s very hard work and the first and last few chapters are the worst. So I really like it when the first draft is written and I can go back to it feeling less crazy and start to flesh it out.

11. Do you ever visit schools or libraries in South Africa and have you considered Skype visits for international virtual visits and if you answer yes to either of those questions what is the best way to get into contact with you to arrange visits?

I have visited a lot of schools in South Africa and I like doing it. I enjoy hearing what young people are thinking and I find it really rewarding. But the idea of Skype scares the skin off me. I tried to do it once and I felt really weird. I think I’m a bit digitally challenged. But also I think I like to feel connected to people and Skype made me feel isolated. But if any school in the UK wants me to come and visit in all my fleshiness, I would love to do that. I can be contacted on facebook, or at my email address edythbulbring @ gmail.com.

12. Do you have any future titles coming out from Hot Key Books?

There is a third book that Hot Key Books is publishing next year which is not part of the April-May series. It was initially published by Oxford University Press (SA) in 2008 and it is called The Summer of Toffie and Grummer. It is the first book that I got published so it is very dear to my heart. I wrote it for my mother and it’s about a girl who tries to find a boyfriend for her widowed grandmother. I think Hot Key Books is going to change the title, which is fine by me because they come up with great titles. My experience with Hot Key Books has been brilliant and I really feel like I have found a home for my books with them in the UK.

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