Story-ideas-1011172

South Africa has talent

  • MandyWiener2
Three phenomenal South African Jewish women have just brought out books. SA Jewish Report caught up with Mandy Wiener, Nechama Brodie and Rahla Xenopoulos and asked them these questions:
by Martine Bass | May 03, 2018

Rahla Xenopoulos

1.    In a nutshell, describe yourself.

Wife, mother, writer, teacher of writing, Jew, person who refuses to cook. Lover of books, people, movies, flowers, friends, long lunches, family vacations, Luddite. Also, I would describe myself as happy.

2.    What drew you to writing a book?

My first book, A Memoir of Love and Madness, was about living with bipolar disorder. I wasn’t a writer then – mind you, who is to say I’m a writer now? But I didn’t imagine myself as a person who might ever publish. What I knew for certain, though, was that there was a story I had to tell. There was so little available on bipolar disorder and I felt a desperate need to talk openly about it – not to in any way dispute how awful having a mental illness is, but to show that there is survival; you can have a sickness and still lead a full life.

3.    What is your background and how has that influenced your writing in general and your writing in your latest book, The Season of Glass?

I grew up in an intellectually rich and challenging home. There were always books and theatre and music and interesting people around. My family’s approach to religion was much like their approach to life: not conventional but also not without devotion. My parents had a constant and profound sense of enquiry, which affected me. Because I had severe dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), I was late in starting to read, but being surrounded by literature ‘fed’ me. My mother was a speech and drama teacher and some of my earliest memories are of The Tempest being rehearsed and performed in our garden, and of my mother reading A Tale Of Two Cities to us all when we were on a vacation.

When my brother was about 13, his best friend died. In response to that loss, he became religious. Being the baby sister, I looked up to him hugely, so while I never ate off paper plates, I did spend many a Shabbos visiting him at Yeshiva, walking with him to shul and, on some level, I must have picked something up, even if it was the joy that Judaism brought him. My mother is also deeply Jewish, which must also have touched me. I’ve always loved the stories and searching of Judaism. Perhaps this new book is about those two things: stories and searching.

4.    What inspired this particular book?

I felt drawn to life after this one, to the idea that we return and return, the idea that there is something so much bigger than us. Many years ago, I read Andre Schwarz-Barts book, “The Last of the Just. I became fascinated with stories of the Lamed-Vav Tsaddikim (the 36 Just Men of Jewish mystical tradition). I think we write what we yearn to understand. There is so much research, time and devotion that goes into the producing of a book that as a writer, one has to be fiercely invested in the characters and content to see it through. I guess I wrote this book as a way of learning about Jewish mysticism, the Messiah and reincarnation in Judaism. Of course, it’s two and a half years later [since beginning this book], and all I’ve learnt is how little I understand. But also, let’s not kid, the idea of making the Messiah a young girl was just too much fun to resist writing.

5.    How long did it take you to write and what was your process?

Initially, I had some bizarre notion that I’d finish this book in one year, ha ha! It took a long time, nearly three years of devotion. I teach writing workshops, so I used the exercises I developed for my students to write my own work. I’d try them out the week before the workshop. Also, I attended workshops given by friends. I’m a serious believer in the power of writing workshops – wait, not the power, the miracle of writing workshops. I was truly blessed on this book to work closely with my publisher. He read as I wrote and we talked it all through, so I wasn’t isolated. With a book like this, you don’t want to feel alone.

6.    What kind of research was involved and how did you go about it?

More than anything else that I’ve written, this book was intensely researched. At first, I planned to get a research intern, but then my publisher wisely said: “Do your own research. You’ve got the internet and Google Earth. The story will come to you as you research.” And that certainly was the case. My opening section is the Ethiopian Jews and the first person I found was Gudit. She was a black, Jewish warrior queen who raged through Ethiopia in the 10th century. I was like, ‘Yes – this woman’s story I can write.’

I try to absorb everything available on the subject I’m writing. During the writing of that first section, the Ethiopian one, my family became very regular guests at the Ethiopian restaurant in town.

It wasn’t like I could pop into a Yeshiva for a couple of years, so I read and read and read the history and teachings of great rabbis. It delighted me to find that there are such powerful contemporary thinkers in Judaism. I also listened to podcasts and watched YouTube links. Maybe it’s because it was the first time I actively focused on learning about my religion, but it feels like Judaism is going through a renaissance.

7.    What was your biggest challenge in writing this book and how did you overcome it?

I think the biggest challenge with the writing of any book is myself. I just struggled to get it done. It’s such a big, intense book and most of the time I’d rather eat cake and arrange flowers than write.

8.    Describe your relationship with the characters in your book and what they mean/t to you?

I really love the people who populate this book. I loved how hopeful and dignified they were. Even the villains, I kind of, got them. I loved the devotion between the brother and sister, so much of it was taken from my own children. Multiples (the book features twins) are different, it’s kind of like, the act of constantly caring for one another is akin to the act of breathing. That love becomes a character of its own. I felt a huge need to protect the main character, and, even though I wrote them, the hardships she was forced to keep enduring saddened me. Writing a book that’s about the cycle of life makes you aware of the mistakes humanity keeps making, and of the power of goodness and cruelty on us all. It made me more conscious of trying to live more with goodness in my life.

9.    What type of book do you love reading and why?

Reading is one of the greatest adventures life has offered me. Books have been one of my most consistent and loyal friends. I’ve got a rule: If you read trash, you’ll write trash. As I said, I was raised on good literature, so thankfully, I’m drawn to good literature. I read and re-read the classics. When I’m working on a book I read literature that in some way relates or ties in to what I’m writing. The reading for this last book was, obviously, vast, from stories about the inquisition to the work of people like Yuval Noah Harari. Also, South African writing is experiencing a major boost. I love reading local fiction.

10.  What message or lesson did you want your readers to take home after reading your book?

I was constantly delighted by the exquisite, ancient beauty of Judaism as I wrote, so that’s an obvious one. Also, that life is a continuum. If we stop in a spot, that spot is a culmination of both our ancestors and our descendants, and a culmination of who we have been and who we are yet become. And of course, the power of stories. In the end, it’s through stories that we negotiate life, that we understand one another.

11.  Does being Jewish ever come into or influence your writing work?

Yes. Being Jewish informs pretty much everything that I do, including my writing. But obviously, this book more than any other. The funny thing is that I thought, after this book I’d be over exploring Judaism in my writing. But of course, I’m just more fascinated. I could keep writing stories of Jews forever and still not understand us.

12.  Some writers feel a real sense of loss at completing a book – what did it feel like to you?

Oh my G-d no! I felt an immediate and huge sense of relief.

Nechama Brodie

  1. In a nutshell, describe yourself.

    Mad professor-in-training.

  2. What drew you to writing a book?

    I’ve earned my living from writing words for the last 21 years. Over the last decade or so, my writing work has shifted from journalism (where, sadly, the texts are getting shorter and shorter) to books and research. I like writing longer pieces.

  3. What is your background and how has that influenced your writing in general and your writing in your latest book, Knucklebone?

    I've been a journalist for 20-something years, in print, radio, online, television. I’ve also written two urban histories: one of Joburg, one of Cape Town. As part of that, I got to see and tell so many different stories, meet so many people I wouldn’t have ordinarily met. And I don’t mean famous people. I mean interesting people. I think that helps, because it gives you a vast repertory of characters to draw from when you write fiction.

  4. What inspired this particular book?

    I’ve always liked and read crime novels and detective stories. Add to that a lifelong interest in stories of the strange and the supernatural. These mixed together in my head and one day, while I was driving, listening to music, the story for Knucklebone popped into my head.

  5. How long did it take you to write and what was your process?

    The book took a year or two to write. The early drafts went to a group of readers for feedback, then rewrites, etc. And then another three years of more rewrites, getting it sold, getting it edited, getting it onto the shelf.

  6. What kind of research was involved and how did you go about it?

    There was a mix of research – into security, into traditional and religious beliefs, into poaching. Some areas I researched more intensively than others because they were unfamiliar and I didn’t want to mess them up. So, I tried to work with several izangoma, who helped to improve and check on those aspects of my story, at all stages of my work – while I was writing and while I was editing. I also spent a lot of time looking up examples of European witchcraft and magical beliefs, as they exist today. Other aspects (including police-related stuff) I didn’t want to over-research because it was more important they existed as I imagined them, rather than being technically correct.

  7. What was your biggest challenge in writing this book and how did you overcome it?

    The hardest part of any book is just finishing it. Also, getting the ending right and getting the action bits right. In the earlier drafts of this book, the magical elements were a lot stronger and wilder. The original ending was a grand magical finale, completely over the top. It was great fun, but it was also too much. In the various rewrites, I worked to strengthen the detective story and rely less on magic to create the tension and resolution.

  8. Describe your relationship with the characters in your book and what they mean/t to you?

    To be honest, I wrote this book so long ago – publishing can be a long thing! I had three non-fiction books published in between finishing Knucklebone and having it on sale! Ian and Reshma and Ma Rejoice are familiar but not top of mind for me right now. When I was writing, I had different relationships with them. If I write the planned sequel, I’ll have to meet and greet them all over again.

  9. What type of book do you love reading and why?

    It depends on the work I’m doing. If I’m writing fiction, I generally don’t read too much fiction at the same time, because it creates a competing voice. But I love fiction and I save it up for when I can read. My favourites are science fiction and fantasy, detective thrillers and a mix of other literature. And I read a lot of non-fiction, for work (journalism work sometimes, and I am also doing my PhD) and for pleasure. I judge books by their covers and by their opening pages. If the first sentence, first paragraph interests me, I’ll carry on. I’m currently reading a children’s/teenager’s history of Shostakovich’s writing of the Leningrad Symphony (Symphony for the City of the Dead). It’s really brilliant.

  10. What message or lesson did you want your readers to take home after reading your book?

    I don’t know if I overtly thought of a message while writing this book. It was more about exploring ways of understanding why people are so capable of such horrible things.

  11. Does being Jewish ever come into or influence your writing work?

    Absolutely. My first published fiction was a short story about a group of teenage Jewish boys in Joburg who created a Golem. I’m more interested in that aspect of Judaism than, say, the more traditional memoir or kvetch.

  12. Some writers feel a real sense of loss at completing a book – what did it feel like to you?

Relief. So I can get on to the next one(s). I feel that sense of loss when I finish reading a great book – because the story has ended. But I don’t feel that when I write.

Mandy Wiener

1.    In a nutshell, describe yourself.

I’m generally quite laid-back and easy-going (I hope), but once I’ve put my mind to something, I can be quite stubborn and persistent. Perhaps that explains my vocation as an investigative journalist. I am naturally quite curious and am fascinated by current affairs and unravelling complex characters.

2.    What drew you to writing a book?

I’ve always loved books and have been passionate about reading since I was a young child. I think it’s an inherent thing. I grew up in a house surrounded by books and my mother always took me to the library. I think the natural progression was to want to write a book. And once the bug bites, you keep going back for more.

3.    What is your background and how has that influenced your writing in general and your writing in your latest book, Ministry of Crime: An Underworld Explored?

My background is as a hard news reporter, having spent over a decade at Eyewitness News and on radio. Radio reports are generally quite short, so I found that I had so much more information that I wanted to include but it didn’t fit into a 40-second report. I am all about the detail, and that needed to find a place to live – and I felt this would best be in a book. In my latest book, there is a considerable amount of detail and a multitude of interviews and voices – and there is no way that could have translated on radio, hence the decision to write a book.

4.    What inspired this particular book?

I have reported on the events of Ministry of Crime for the last decade or so. I lived and breathed it all. So much of it was already in my head and I had the access necessary to put together a book. It’s such a complex story, and while people may follow the individual stories, they don’t grasp the holistic picture, and that is what I tried to do in Ministry of Crime. I attempted to weave together different strands of the narrative and tell the parallel stories of the criminal underworld and the criminal justice system.

5.    How long did it take you to write and what was your process?

It took about two years to research and to write. I started off by doing dozens and dozens of interviews, and this was very time-consuming. I then had to craft the various interviews into a narrative that flowed and made sense. There was a very intensive editing process because the book felt too long initially and very complex. For me, editing is a real art and moulding the narrative takes a lot of care and finesse. I was also doing interviews right up until the very last minute to ensure that I jammed everything in and kept it as up to date as possible.

6.    What kind of research was involved and how did you go about it?

The primary research that I did was sitting face to face with people and getting their versions on record. I wanted a multitude of voices on the pages. There are various truths, so I wanted the reader to be able to be informed and determine what they believe the truth is. I also did a great deal of reading and going back into the archives and studying news reports, affidavits and court records.

7.    What was your biggest challenge in writing this book and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge was probably distilling all of the detail into a palatable narrative. There is so much complexity and I wanted to be sure that people actually understood what was going on. The other challenge was access, but fortunately, many of the people I asked for interviews were co-operative.

8.    Describe your relationship with the characters in your book and what they mean/t to you?

Some of the characters I have known for many years because I’ve been reporting on these stories for so long. You get to know people and know about their lives. Other characters I had never met before, but fortunately, they had read my work and were amenable to being interviewed. I made a point of ensuring they knew what was coming and what the book entailed, and I tried to be as fair as possible.

9.    What type of book do you love reading and why?

I generally only read local non-fiction. There is so much great stuff out there from my colleagues at the moment. But I do occasionally need to switch off and I love a good novel.

10.  What message or lesson did you want your readers to take home after reading your book?

I don’t want people to be entirely disillusioned by this book. I can understand that people might read it and feel like the criminal justice system is so broken that they have no hope and just despair. I want people to read it and become aware so that it doesn’t happen again. It’s crucial that we are active citizens and that we make a noise when we see the cycle repeating itself.

11.  Does being Jewish ever come into or influence your writing work?

I honestly don’t think so.

12.  Some writers feel a real sense of loss at completing a book – what did it feel like to you?

Utter relief. This was a long and very intensive process, so there was no feeling of loss, just relief that it was finally out there.

2 Comments

  1. 2 Jeff Davis 13 May
    Dear JR,

    I am part of the programming team at Limmud (JHB) and I would like to get in touch with Rhale Xenopoulos. Do you have a contact number/email address that I could reach her on?
    Thanks and regards,

    Jeff Davis
  2. 1 Travis 27 May
    Jeff, you might want to follow Rahla on Facebook. She is very active there and will respond to your query.

Comment

  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
       
    Toolbar's wrapper 
     
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
      
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.
       
 

Follow us on

Newsletter