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Novelist Gail Schimmel shares secret of two careers



South African Advertising Regulatory Board Chief Executive Gail Schimmel, is an acclaimed fiction writer who has just brought out another book titled Little Secrets. The SA Jewish Report speaks to her.

How did you find your way to writing fiction?

I have written stories since I could put pen to paper, and cannot remember a time I haven’t been writing something. However, when I was younger, my father (who was a well-known artist and really should have known better) pointed out that writing was very hard work – this was pre-laptop days, and he said that I would have to rewrite, retype, and edit, and it wasn’t all making up stories.

Well, I’m very lazy and that did sound terribly hard. So, I became a lawyer instead.

But the stories stayed, and I carried on writing in my spare time.

Why does it appeal to you?

I don’t know that there really is an appeal! Goodness knows, it’s neither the money nor the fame, because there’s very little of either!

But I think of these stories, and then they want to get out, and I’m really happy only when I’m writing as part of my day. So perhaps you could say that staying sane is the appeal. I also really love it when someone has clearly genuinely loved one of my books.

How do you manage to be a wife, the mom of two, an attorney working as chief executive of the South African Advertising Regulatory Board, and an author?

Most women (and people, but more women) have multiple portfolios and balance many different things – I’m not unique in this. I’m just lucky that some of my things are high-enough profile that everyone is awfully impressed when they know about it.

I do often joke that I manage by doing everything very badly, and I’m worried that there may be a kernel of truth in that!

I also believe the common wisdom that if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

How do your careers fit together?

They both stimulate me in different ways, and when I’m not feeling too thinly spread, I feel very lucky. In my day job, I use language for logic and to achieve some good things; and in my writing, I use language to make up worlds and have fun. Language and thinking are common themes, but they are very different at the same time.

Where do you find the time – or make time – in your day to write?

I often answer this by saying, “I don’t exercise.” What I mean by that is that I think we all make time for the things that matter to us. The theory is that I write as one of the tasks on my to-do list, like any other task, during the course of my work day. But this has been challenging lately, and I seem to do most recent writing curled up in a hideously uncomfortable chair while my son does jiu jitsu in the evening.

How would you describe the books you write, as this is far from your first?

The books written under my own name are domestic noire – the dark side of domestic life. I also wrote cozy mysteries with my friend, Kate Sidley, under the name Katie Gayle.

What inspires your stories?

My stories all start with a “what if”. I find lots of writers look at the world like this – we’re constantly imagining how things might or could be. From there, I do one of the things we’re told to do by the books and teachers of writing – I complicate it!

What inspired Little Secrets?

Little Secrets started with the idea: what if you were googling someone, and they didn’t show up at all? From there, I worked backwards – why would you be googling this person; what were they to you; and why would it be so bad?

How do you get from inspiration to completion? What’s your process?

When I have a good idea, I actually get a tingling in my palms. It’s exceptionally useful, because I have lots of ideas and most are terrible. Once I have the idea, I spend some time thinking about it, and before I sit down to write, I’ll know how the book will end and where I want to be in the middle.

And after that, it’s “bum glue”. You sit down and you write. I try to write 500 to 1 000 a words a day, depending on the circumstances, and I often fail. But I keep going! The difference between a writer and the many people who claim to “have a book in them” is that the writers sat on their bums and wrote.

What do you believe will draw people to this book, and what do you believe they will take home from it?

I’m a story teller – people who read my books want to enter someone else’s world. And after that, I hope that the story just keeps them there. You have to have an interesting premise, interesting characters, and a bit of tension.

As to what they take home, I’m not really ambitious about that – no big life lessons. My best compliment is if someone says that they woke up thinking about the story weeks after finishing it, suddenly seeing another possibility or angle.

(I also really like to make people laugh.)

Of all your careers, which is the most important and why?

They are important in different ways. If I had to choose, I would probably choose the writing (and then would promptly starve to death), but I am glad I don’t have to choose. Writing is important to me because I love to entertain people and I almost need to write. But my day job is stimulating and, as I said, I achieve really important things.

You love reading fiction. Why?

I’m a bit controversial on this issue. Though I love reading, I don’t think there is anything morally superior about reading over, say, watching TV. Entering other worlds through stories broadens our knowledge, our horizons, and our empathy, but how you receive your stories might vary.

What makes a fabulous novel?

When it’s compulsive – you just have to keep reading, you don’t know what will happen, and you can’t wait to come back to it.

How do your kids feel about your books?

My daughter would say that I’m always tired – she’d roll her eyes while she said it – and my son that I’m too stressed.

They love the fact that some people know who I am, but they are too young to have read them. My son isn’t a reader, so probably never will, but I think my daughter might.

What’s next for you?

This year, I have added a new project – a podcast with Fiona Snyckers that will start on 29 May, called “The Hidden Lives of Writers”. That has been fun to work on.

And then, the next book is actually almost done, so readers can look forward to that in 2024.

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