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In Conversation with Bianca Marais

Bianca Marais is the author of two historical fiction novels both set in South Africa during periods of upheaval. I have been a fan since I read and loved her first, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, several years ago. And last year I had the pleasure of meeting her in person a couple times and can attest that her persona online very much carries over into a caring & hilarious woman in real life. For more detailed answers to questions about writing and publishing, give a listen to her new podcast which can be heard on her website or Apple podcasts.

Bianca Marais, photo by Jory Nash

Mel Rosenthal: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions! The most important one right now is: how are you doing? How are you, and your neighborhood/city coping with everything?

Bianca Marais: I’m doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The early months of strict lockdown and restrictions eased in Toronto, but we’re looking like we’re heading back that way because our numbers are up again. Sigh. We’ve had to be very careful anyway because my husband is at high risk for COVID. Like everyone else in the world, we’re taking it a day at a time. And we feel incredibly lucky to be healthy and employed!

MR: I must say that I really loved If You Want to Make God Laugh just as much as I did Hum If You Know the Words, I am so enamored of your style!

BM: Thank you so much, Mel! I appreciate that!

MR: I mean it! Which published authors do you think have most influenced your writing?

BM: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees were the two books that most inspired me to want to tell my own South African stories that were very similar in terms of theme and characters, but also worlds apart from the American experience. I honestly can’t say, though, which writers have influenced my writing style. I read voraciously across all genres and don’t think there are one or two authors who’ve influenced me. They all have! And there are so many that I admire.

MR: I always love confirming that my favorite authors are as obsessed with reading as I am. Reading is, in a way, half the work of writing.

How do you make sure you spend enough time crafting the characters so that when you use multiple POVs they each come off sounding unique? You speak of them as your “invisible friends” and, for example, Beauty made sure she was included in your second book. Would you be open to writing sequels to either of your published books if one or more of the characters had more to say?

BM: Character always comes to me first, way before plot or story. I can’t describe the alchemy of it. It’s like a character will sidle up to me in a bar or on the subway, and kinda be: ‘Hey, psst. Let’s talk. I promise you want to hear my story.’

And then I start writing them because, for me, that’s the only way to get to know them. I don’t like plotting out their story ahead of time too much, because then it just feels like my characters become puppets who are going through the motions of acting out a tale I want to tell.

The more I get to know them (and I do that by writing them all in every kind of point of view and tense to begin with in order to find the POV that suits them best), the more they organically move the story forward as they pursue what they most want.

I loved Beauty so much from Hum and her story was far from over at the end of that book, which is why I wanted my readers to get a glimpse of her in Laugh. But no, I won’t be revisiting these characters again.

MR: That makes so much sense. The writing will read more naturally if the characters have their way.

Is South Africa your ideal setting? Do you think you could keep returning to it in the future? Has the country’s history shaped your approach to your novels (which I’d refer to as emotional, family-driven epics) so far?

BM: They say to write what you know and also about what enrages you. In that way, South Africa was an ideal setting for me, because it was a minefield of unexplored emotions. Growing up in apartheid South Africa as a white child, you’re brainwashed into believing in the racist bullshit the government was spouting. Even so, the practices of apartheid chafed against me from a very young age, and yet I never felt I did enough to tackle my own inherent racism or the system.

Writing about South Africa has been therapy for me. South Africa became a character in both of my novels – neither of them could have been based anywhere else in the world or at any other time. But I’m now done with telling South African stories. While the characters still have a lot of stories to tell, I don’t feel like I’m the one who should be telling them moving forward. The Own Voices movement is so important and that’s where my focus now is in South Africa – encouraging and empowering young black women to tell their own stories.

MR: I noticed at the end that you included a note to address the various heavy, possibly controversial topics, addressed throughout the book. I thought this was a great way to head off some criticism you might receive for choosing to address the AIDS epidemic and racism of the early 90s while also making it clear how much each of these topics matter to you personally.

Given all that, why do you think it still doesn’t sit well with a small percentage of readers and how do you respond to critics? Or do you choose to let your books speak for themselves?

BM: With both of my novels, I agonized over whether I had the right to write from black characters’ perspectives. The fact that I did it with enormous respect and humility (and consulted sensitivity readers and cultural experts in order to get it right) meant that I didn’t get integral aspects of the culture wrong. But still, after all this time and after many discussions, I still don’t know if I had that right.

All I know is that I spent ten years volunteering in Soweto during the worst of the AIDS pandemic, and so I saw first-hand what the disease was doing to my countrymen. Many of the women I volunteered with knew their time was running out and shared their stories with me, asking me to pass those stories on. They were terrified of being forgotten, you see. And to me, preserving their legacy was more important than potentially upsetting people who might question my right to tell those stories.

But having said that, I like that I’m challenged about this. These are discussions we should be having. We should be championing #OwnVoices and challenging how white the publishing industry is and asking why diverse stories aren’t being heard.

MR: I think you’ve done them justice. Also, I can’t help but agree, the conversations are oh so important. On the consumer side of publishing I’m trying to keep myself aware of what I’m picking up and pushing myself to diversify my shelves.

MR: When I read Natalie C. Anderson’s City of Saints and Thieves, Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars and Jenny D. Williams’ The Atlas of Forgotten Places, each one had some similarity in style or story that reminded me of your work! How would you contextualize your books among other contemporary or classic books?

BM: Oh wow! Thank you, Mel! I haven’t read any of these books but I’m adding them to my TBR pile immediately! I honestly don’t contextualize my work. I get asked how I compare my work to other South African writers, etc., and the truth is that I don’t presume to compare myself to anyone. Every time a reader compares my work to a book I adore or to an author I admire, I’m gobsmacked.

It feels surreal that this is what I do, and that people see my work the way I see other writers’ work. I just sit down and write, and every time I hear from a reader who loved my work, I’m so touched. And I’m honored that they’d read it. And I’m so grateful that I get to make shit up for a living. But shit that feels so, so real to me.

MR: You’re doing a wonderful job - it’s so real to me too! And I’ve learned so much. I’m grateful for you.

What is something you’d never write about even if given a million+ dollar advance? And the reverse, what else would you love to write about whether or not you got any advance?

BM: Oh, this is a tough one. Writers don’t make much money and so aren’t generally able to support themselves purely on their novels, so it would be difficult to turn down that kind of advance. Having said that, I don’t write for the money and so if I’m not compelled to write something, I can’t do it.

Of the six novels I’ve written, only two have been published. That’s not a great average. But I don’t regret living with any of those characters for the time that I did. And they didn’t give me a choice not to write them – I just had to!

I can say I won’t hurt animals in my work. And I refuse to push a racist/sexist/prejudiced agenda.

MR: Both fair lines to draw.

What would you most like to share to aspiring writers about the process?

BM: Prepare yourselves for rejection. Tons of rejection. The irony of being a writer is that you need to be more sensitive than other people, but you also have to grow a tougher skin. Even if your work gets accepted and published after years and years of being rejected, it may not do as well as you’d hoped. Sales can be disappointing. But that’s the industry.

Don’t write for the recognition or the sales or the accolades. Write because you can’t imagine not writing. Because it makes you happy. And when it finds a reader that it resonates with, it makes it all worthwhile.

MR: Those are wise words. I think we hear that a lot, the warning about rejections, but if we’re writing because we are writers and we have to do it, it hopefully cushions the blow and makes the success that much sweeter.

Where do you spend the most time writing?

BM: Mostly at home in my tiny den. It’s like a little cave and I love it!

MR: Sounds cozy. Do you write every day?

BM: No. But when I’m not writing, I’m planning and plotting, and thinking about writing. Some characters need to be negotiated with. You have to wheedle and finesse them. That time isn’t wasted. It’s all a part of the process.

MR: I feel that! I consider all of my reading as research, but actually getting the words on the page brings on a different kind of accomplishment.

This is such a nerdy question, but do you ever write longhand?

BM: No! But only because my handwriting is so appalling that I can’t read it.

MR: Ha! You remain so humble and you are often participating in book club conversations about your books, often live messaging or Skyping in from wherever you are so that you can be present for your fans. What inspired you to start this? Do you think it’s important for authors to be present in this way, especially as book clubs and even book launch events have had to evolve in response to the pandemic?

BM: I have a career as a writer purely because of my readers, and I’ll never lose sight of this. Readers have so many choices. When they walk into a bookstore and choose my book over the thousands and thousands of others, it’s a big deal to me. I appreciate it! And when readers reach out and want to talk about my work, that means something to me. Their taking the time to read my books, to review them, and then want to talk about them, is something I’ll never stop being grateful for. And so, I try to be as available to my readers as often possible – many of them have become close friends in the process.

Having said that, not all writers enjoy engaging with book clubs, in which case I don’t feel like it should be forced on them. I do think, though, that with the pandemic limiting readers’ access to bookstores and events, and stopping them from seeing their real life book clubs, authors can help readers navigate their new reality. And most authors are more than happy to do so! In an attempt to help independent bookstores during the pandemic, I’ve hosted dozens of online events in which I’ve interviewed various authors. They all surprised me with how eager they were to assist and readers have surprised me with how much they’ve loved the virtual events. I’ve been touched by their feedback that our discussions help them feel connected and less lonely.

Bianca Marais, photo by Jory Nash

MR: Who do you wish would read your books? Like, would you aspire to have one or more of your books on Obama’s yearly reading list?

BM: Who wouldn’t love to have Obama and Oprah and Reese reading their books? That’s how many successful books are launched – by having high-profile individuals spreading the word.

Still, it matters to me when ordinary people read my work and reach out to tell me how much it resonated with them; that it brought back their childhood, or made them think about racism in ways they’d never considered. When someone tells me that my work changed their perspective and made them see things in a new way – or it made them feel seen and understood – that’s awesome. I always hope that my books end up in the hands of readers with whom the work will resonate. And it’s thanks to booksellers and Instagrammers and book club members that this happens.

MR: I’m so happy to be one small part of that, recommending your books often on Instagram (and just generally to all of my friends and family and fellow writers)!

What did you last read before bed? What book(s) on your nightstand do you hope to finish before the end of the year? Which upcoming releases are you looking forward to?

BM: I’m lucky enough to have an advance reader copy of Steven Rowley’s next novel, The Guncle which will be out in May of next year. It’s absolutely wonderful so I highly recommend readers pre-order it! Also Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Better Luck Next Time.

I have twelve bookstore events coming up in the next two months and these are all the books I still have left to read before I do the interviews: Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of The Stars, Alan Bradley’s The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Andrew Pyper’s The Residence, Jane Johnson’s The Sea Gate, Kerry Clare’s Waiting for a Star to Fall and Peter Robinson’s Many Rivers to Cross.

MR: It’s been such a big year for publishing!

What is, in your opinion, a book from the last 5 or 10 years which you loved but is wildly underrated?

BM: I adore anything by Julia Glass. Her Three Junes won the National Book Award for fiction in 2002, but I don’t think her work since then has gotten the recognition it deserves. I loved Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor and it didn’t get very much notice. Also, Etta and Otto and Russel and James by Emma Hooper was incredibly special. As was False River by Dominique Botha.

MR: Adding Julia Glass to my TBR right now….

Where do you want to travel to next, when it’s safe to do so, and which book(s) would you take with you?

BM: I was supposed to be in Mauritius in May to meet up with my South African-based family for my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary and that sadly had to be cancelled. I’m hoping that we can make the trip next year. Books I’ve been desperate to get to are Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, and Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High, The Poet X, and Clap When You Land.

MR: Ah I hope it can happen then. In the meantime I can definitely attest to Elizabeth Acevedo’s greatness. Any of those would be great reads to bring on vacation!

Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? A few favorites? A favorite stop on either your most recent or your last book tour?

BM: I honestly can’t narrow it down. There are dozens of indie bookstores that I adore visiting, either on tour or just as a reader. I’m so grateful to every bookseller out there for the work they do. I honestly believe that the right book at the right time can save a life, and that makes booksellers heroes in my opinion.

MR: That’s so true. Books have been such a blessing this year.

To wrap up, would you like to speak about what you’re writing next??

BM: I’ve just finished writing a domestic suspense thriller, which has been a huge genre change for me. Selling it during COVID is proving to be quite challenging but I really hope that it finds a good home. And after that, I’ve started something that is kind of magical realism/fantasy in the same vein as The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune which I absolutely adored. Apparently I’m not very good at sticking with one genre!

MR: The latter sounds so intriguing. Can’t wait to read them both!

Thank you again for your time! I’m so appreciative of your time and insight.

BM: Thank YOU so much. I loved these questions!

Read Mel Rosenthal's review of If You Want To Make God Laugh here


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