YA in SA Author interview: Joanne Macgregor

turtlewalkhi Joanne thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! Can I ask you to introduce yourself for the audience please?

Hi Matt, thanks for having me to “chat” to all your wonderful, bookish readers!
I’m a born and bred Joburger and have lived here among the Hadedahs and mine-dumps all my life. Johannesburg isn’t a beautiful city – though we have fabulous trees – but there’s something about the vibe and the pace that’s exciting. Or maybe we all just have altitude sickness!
After I finished school, I trained as a high school English teacher and I loved doing that for a while. I must confess that in my early days, I did a lot of things “for a while”. I have done IT training, business consulting with one of the Big Four consultancies (awful job!), been a general factotum in a children’s theatre, answered phones, arranged flowers, done in-store demonstrations of cooking frozen vegetables (almost as bad as business consulting!) and, once, I had a job handing out helium balloons in a shopping mall, while wearing a bathing suit and high heels. One day, I will write a book – a tragi-comedy – called “Jobs I have done”. Along the way I collected a fistful of degrees and for the last 15 years, I have practised as a Counselling Psychologist, dealing primarily with victims of crime and trauma. It’s tough work and my brain escapes by dreaming up stories when I’m not in my consulting rooms.
The first book I wrote was a biography of the sole survivor of the 2003 “Sizzlers Massacre” of nine men working in a Cape Town massage parlour. Although it was never published, I learned an enormous amount about writing and that gave me the confidence to begin writing books that have, thankfully, been published.

Your new novel Rock Steady has just been released – it is your second book for young adults and a sequel to Turtle Walk, can you tell us something about the series?
Rock Steady is the second in the series that began with Turtle Walk. Although it’s a sequel, it reads just fine as a stand-alone novel.
My inspiration was a desire to write something different to the books I saw on the YA bookshelves at local book stores – books written almost exclusively by foreign authors, set in Europe or the US, telling stories very often based in fantasy, with a preponderance of male protagonists and feeble girl sidekicks who served as loyal friends, victims to be rescued, or passive foils to the boy’s actions. With this series, I wanted to write realistic fiction (a break from wings and wands and fangs), telling South African stories set in our beautiful country, with smart, funny, resourceful, kick-ass heroines. In short, the kind of books I’d love my teen daughter and her friends to read. The feedback on that score has been amazing!
In each book, the protagonists tackle some broadly ecological issue. In Turtle Walk it was illegal long-line fishing which decimates Leatherback Turtle populations, in Rock Steady it’s the illegal trade in San Rock Art. Of course, back at school, the eco-warriors have to deal with the usual teen issues – first love, parental pressure, really mean teachers, etc. Sam, the main character, also suffers from anxiety and it’s been fun to explore that a bit more deeply in this book. The main characters are female, but the books aren’t “girly” and there’s lots to interest boy readers.

Rock Steady and Turtle Walk have both been published by Protea Boekhuis in South Africa, do you have any plans for international publication?
Turtle Walk was picked up by international distributors and is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Hopefully Rock Steady will follow suit. I think it’s safe to say that most South African authors have plans for international publication. We have such a small book-buying public here that in order to make a living from writing, you do need to adapt your writing style and projects for the international market.

Are you planning on writing more stories about Samantha Steadman and the eco-warriors?
One of these days, I have to begin writing the third in the series. I’m thinking of having my eco-warriors go head-to head with fracking in the next one. And it may be Jessie’s turn to come off the rails!

Did you make a conscious decision to write for a teen audience?
For this series, yes, though I like to write what I would like to read, and I love reading YA books. I don’t think there were very many of them around when I grew up (we seemed to go from Enid Blyton straight to Wilbur Smith), so maybe I’m indulging in a second adolescence!
I have also written two books for younger middle grade readers (Jemima Jones and the Great Bear Adventure, and Jemima Jones and the Revolving Door of Doom, both of which are available as ebooks) as well as an adult novel. But I really enjoy writing in the YA “voice”. There’s a lot to like about YA fiction as a writer. It’s very direct, raw and emotional, there’s not too much in the way of flowery, literary descriptions, and there’s always room for writing with humour – which seems to be my style. So though I don’t want to be locked into writing one genre only, I’m very comfortable in the YA zone.

What is your favourite part of the writing process?
I think it’s that the work is so varied that even I can’t get bored. There’s a rhythm to getting the idea, fleshing it out in pleasant daydreams, getting it down on paper, editing and rewriting, and these days, of course, marketing, but it’s never the same. Each new book is like a new baby, and you can’t quite be sure what it might become!

Were you a reader as a teen and did you have any favourite authors?
I was a reader as a foetus! Seriously, ever since I could read, I’ve read everything that would stand still long enough, be it the classics, trashy novels, or the back of the cornflake box. I loved it all –from the minute microcosm of Jane Austen’s world to John Steinbeck’s spare style; from the rollicking romances of bodice-rippers to the detailed excellence of PD James. I read, and always have, every genre except high fantasy and science fiction – I think I must lack the imagination to see other worlds, because I don’t think I could write those genres either. I suspect I might be a low-brow, because I generally prefer gripping stories and authentic characters to literary fiction.

Can you recommend any other YA writers (from SA or international)?
Oh, wow, where to begin? In South Africa, Jayne Bauling, Edyth Bulbring, S.A Partridge, Kabelo Kgatea, John van de Ruit and Christine Porter, among dozens of others. Internationally, the usual suspects: John Green, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth and, of course, Jo Rowling, but also Gwen Hayes, Lauren Oliver, Stephanie Perkins and Australia’s Melina Marchetta. I’ve just finished “Poison Princess” by Kresley Cole and thought it was fabulous.

Are any of your novels based on personal experiences?
I’m a real magpie, collecting images, experiences and words – especially words. Sooner or later, everything I’ve ever heard or seen or felt or experienced winds its way into my books. Of course, it gets transmuted through the experience of my characters in the alchemy of the writing process. In Rock Steady, Samantha is tormented by a really sick teacher, and that is based, in part, on a miserable experience I had at school. I also use my kids shamelessly – stealing their jokes and teen-talk. The only exception to my general thievery is in my psychological practice – what my clients tell me there, I treat in strictest confidence. What happens in therapy, stays in therapy.

Are you working on anything new at the moment or do you have anything planned for the near future?
At the moment, I’m writing a YA romance, and I’m loving it! It’s based on a contemporary (and non-fantasy) retelling of a classic fairy-tale. I’m a bit superstitious of saying more about it, though, in case I jinx it. My psychological thriller for adults, Dark Whispers, is scheduled for publication next year. Writing that book, which was based on a newspaper article I read, scared the pants off me, and it definitely won’t be one for my YA readers.

Do you ever visit school or library reading groups either in person or virtually via Skype? If you do what is the best way to contact you about a visit?
I love visiting schools and talking directly to teens – I want to get as many young people as possible addicted to reading! I’ve done school visits in Johannesburg and Cape Town and would definitely be available to speak to groups via Skype. I do talks on my specific books, as well as on the broader writing process and the ecological issues tackled in my eco-warrior series.
I’ll be part of the children’s programme at the Franschhoek Literary Festival again this year, and will be visiting Durban in July as a guest at the Kids Lit Quiz international finals. I’d love to chat to readers and schools outside of South Africa. Travelling is always a possibility as, like many South Africans, I have family in London and Atlanta. The best way to reach me is probably via twitter @JoanneMacg or via the contact form on my website www.joannemacgregor.com.

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