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An interview with Willemien de Villiers PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 29 August 2007 08:19
Willemien de Villiers: author of Kitchen Casualties and the upcoming The Virgin in the Treehouse (both published by Jacana Books).

1. When did you first start writing?
Probably as soon as I was physically able to, as I don’t remember a time without a connection to words and books and reading and writing. I was fascinated by the magical qualities of language from a very young age; by the ability of ‘The line of words [to] finger your own heart,’ as Annie Dillard so succinctly puts in The Writing Life.

2. What do you love most about writing?
The way it creates calm and order from my ever-churning internal chaos; the way it brings me to new insights about myself and the world I live in. 3. Tell us a little about when and where you write?
I don’t adhere to a strict, set routine but spend most of my days working on current and future projects. I also work as a freelance editor of English and Afrikaans texts, and have recently felt a strong urge to create something visual and immediate (everything writing is not). A series of paintings, maybe.

My study is the centre segment of our long worm of a house; a wonderful book-filled space with a view of old, mature trees and a wild fynbos garden, as well as wet washing flapping on the line.

4. Do you edit as you go along, or write it all and then go back?
I suppress my natural inclination to edit as I go along, and freewrite, by hand in a notebook, until I find that I have found the essence of my main character/s and have pegged out most elements of the story. I’m getting better at not judging my work at this early stage, and just getting it written. At some point I start feeding it into my computer, and then a more critical voice seems to enter.

5. How does writing a second novel differ from writing a first? Do you feel pressure to put in elements you know critics liked, and leave out things they criticized?

I really believe that a counter-productive ‘second-book-syndrome’ exists, often acting as a surprisingly stubborn stumbling block to finishing it. If only we could all write our second books first!

It is easy to feel trapped in a lose-lose situation: if your first book did well, then you might feel a certain amount of performance anxiety, and if it did poorly, well, then you might feel that it’s your last chance to prove yourself.

Fiction writers especially are by nature overly dramatic, and unless one finds a way to disengage from all the expectations, the anxiety could prove fatal – to both author and book. I’m alive and kicking, with my second book on its way to the shelves, so there is hope for all.

6. Could you tell us a little about your new book?
The title is The Virgin in the Treehouse, and its main theme explores the issue of power in relationships, and its very personal meaning in, and impact on, the lives of three women: two sisters in their mid-to late-fifties, and the younger sister’s daughter, Zoë.

Zoë is the ‘Virgin’ of the title, and her narrative explores the areas where sexuality, power and religion intersect. Each of these women is captured at a moment of transition, leading into transformation.

7. Was there a seed or an obsession that got you started writing it?
Towards the end of writing Kitchen Casualties, often while driving, I started hearing snippets and sentences which I couldn’t ignore, so I just wrote them down as soon as I found safe spaces to pull over. Much of it was in the form of dialogue between two people. I had no idea who they were and where it would lead, but I knew that it was the seeds of my next book.

8. Do you find recurring themes in your work?
Familial relationships intrigue me, especially the mother/daughter dynamic. I do seem to move away from that, though, and more towards the father/daughter one. Abuse of power will always feature somehow, I think; it lies at the heart of so much that is wrong in the world, both socially and politically.

9. Where do you get inspiration from?
The mere act of writing inspires me, but spending time walking next to the sea, examining plants, the ever-changing sky and listening to rainstorms always replenishes my empty larder.

Eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations is also very inspiring!

10. Which (if any) author first inspired you to start writing?
I grew up opposite a library and had virtually unlimited access to books. That is where I discovered the seductive sound of the English language (Afrikaans is my first language) and spent many a childhood-afternoon silently reading page after page of text without understanding a single word. I loved it! I think the first book I ‘read’ in this way was by the Australian author Patrick White, whose books I still re-read, only now with more insight and understanding, I hope.

11. What do you read now?
An eclectic range of authors, from Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood and Mary Watson to Haruki Murakami and Orhan Pamuk and Eben Venter and everything in between. Recently I prefer reading non-fiction.

12. Do you consider yourself a Cape writer? Does place influence your writing?
I don’t think of myself as a Cape writer, although living here inspires me. My themes are universal, but linked to the South African reality, rather than a more narrowly defined Cape reality. I think that physical place always influences ones writing.

13. What do you love most about the Cape?
The diverse, wild beauty of the sea and the mountains, as well as its wet winters and grey skies. I like the fact that most of the people here are true individuals, not overly interested or keen to succumb to a group or laager mentality. And the copious amounts of good wine, of course.

14. Any advice for young aspiring authors?
I’ll pass on a (paraphrased) quote by Peter Elbow: ‘Don’t worry about getting it right, just get it written.’ Be kind to yourself, and turn off your critical ear when you first start to write something – there will be plenty of time for that critical voice when you have finished writing your novel or story or poem. And remember, actually getting your bum on a chair and writing every day is the only way to improve your craft and become an Olympic athlete.

15. What is the meaning of life, according to Willemien de Villiers?
I was part of a crowd at Kirstenbosch Gardens a few years ago, listening to the Dalai Lama speak, when someone asked him the same question. His radiant answer has become mine: To be happy!

- interviewed by Bridget McNulty on a wet winter’s day in Cape Town.

Have you read Willemien de Villiers' work? Leave a comment at our blog ...