Interview with Marita van der Vyver








Marita van der Vyver has published an array of novels which have been translated into a dozen languages. In this interview she shares insights on writing.



Marita van der Vyver has been selected as one of 50 most influential South Africans by more than one publication in her homeland and has received numerous awards for her literary genius. At the age of 22 Marita van der Vyver wrote a youth novel which won the first prize in a competition for writers who had never been published. This is how she got her foot in the door of the publishing world which led to the opening of many esteemed doors across the world.


Her first adult novel, Griet skryf 'n sprokie (1992)/Entertaining Angels (1994) has been translated into a dozen languages including Chinese and Icelandic. This marked the first Afrikaans book that has ever been translated into Chinese. The New York Times Book Review described the novel as a real rarity, "funny, wry...hard to resist.” Van der Vyver also holds a masters degree in journalism from the University of Stellenbosch. The prolific writer currently lives in the South of France and recently made time to share her insights about writing.


What is your definition of a successful novelist?


If you can earn your living by writing the kind of novels you yourself would like to read, you can call yourself a successful novelist.


What are the most important qualities that a writer should cultivate?


The right amount of confidence. Too little confidence is as dangerous as too much. Too little and you will give up after the first letter of rejection or bad review; too much and you won't listen to the valuable advice of good editors or the constructive criticism of sensible reviewers.


The publication of Griet skryf 'n sprokie caused a lot of controversy in the Afrikaner community at that time. Do you believe that controversy is necessary to make people think?


Controversy doesn't necessarily make people think; on the contrary, sometimes it simply reinforces prejudices. But controversy can shake people out of their comfort zones – and that's a good way to read a good book, feeling slightly uncomfortable.


Do you simply dismiss negative reviews or do you sometimes use it as constructive criticism?


I tend to have too little confidence (still learning the lessons about confidence I preach to other writers!), so I take any criticism to heart, sometimes too much. But then I tell myself it is after all only one person's opinion, and that keeps me from falling apart. And when I get a rave review, I also tell myself it is only one persons' opinion, which keeps my feet firmly on the ground.


What is one of the most memorable compliments you have received regarding your books?


Whenever a perfect stranger comes up to me and tells me 'You have written my story' or 'That character is me,', I am thrilled.


Do you ever suffer from writer's block and if so, how do you treat it?


Every morning of my life before I start writing! I'll do anything not to confront that empty page (or empty computer screen): feed the cat, make all the beds in the house, drink 3 cups of coffee, brush my teeth 3 times... I 'treat' it by sitting down and writing. It feels like closing my eyes and jumping off a very high cliff. Every day I have to make that jump.


Do you write in longhand before typing? If so, what is the value thereof for you?


I often write the beginning of a book, a chapter or even just a new scene in longhand. To get the creative juices flowing, as it were. Like an athlete who warms up before running a marathon. Sometimes I do it simply to escape the tyranny of the computer. To sit and write at the kitchen table or outside in the garden instead of being chained to the damn machine in my study.


What is your advice to aspiring authors?


Appreciate it is hard to sit down and begin a book - but it is a hundred times more difficult to finish it. You need the persistence and the staying power of a long-distance runner if you want to be published.


Which award are you most proud of and why?


A handmade card from my daughter telling me I'm the mother of the year. Raising a happy child and turning a small human being into a 'successful' adult is much more difficult than writing a successful book.


What was the last book you read that made an impression on you and why?


The French writer Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog which I read last week. Next week it will be another book again. I'm an insatiable reader and keep a reader's blog to try and 'contaminate' others. Barbery's novel impressed me because it managed to combine quite complicated philosophical concepts with a feel-good story and a great read.


What nurtures your creativity?


Daily life. I believe in what Muriel Spark called 'the transfiguration of the commonplace'. Everything, absolutely everything, that I see and hear and experience can lead to a story. It's a state of mind, I suppose.


How would you like to be remembered as an author?


I'd prefer to still be read, a hundred years from now, rather than simply 'remembered'...


When she is not writing she has her nose in books and says that she has been influenced most by authors like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, "who manage to combine accessibility and entertainment with intelligence and a great literary style."

Whether van der Vyver is aware of it or not, she also wrote the book on how to be a brilliant writer who continues to entertain and inspire readers across the globe.