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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Alan Paton Award shortlist: Q&A with Steeped in Blood co-author Sylvia Walker

Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-06

What are the challenges of writing about something factual or “real” as opposed to writing a work of fiction?

Writing non-fiction takes a fair amount of research and perhaps different skills from those required for writing fiction. It is less creative than fictional writing, but there is a great challenge to present the information in an interesting, easy to read manner. One is not writing a textbook! The copy needs to be simple and understandable and the challenge is not to fall into the trap of being too technical, or writing in a genre that only people in a specific industry or with a particular area of expertise would understand. Your writing style has to have mainstream appeal.

Do you think that because of South Africa’s troubled political past we have more interesting stories to tell than other countries?

Every country has its history and a story to tell, and no one is any more significant or important than another. Because of our unique political past there is perhaps a greater international interest in our stories, as opposed to those from another country, but I doubt we could give ourselves the label of being “more interesting”.

Are South African readers still keen to find out the truth behind the scandals reported in the daily media, or are they more interested in escapist fiction to immunise them against the violence of crime surrounding them daily?

Truth is stranger than fiction, it is said, and I believe that many of the stories in the news could be made into blockbuster movies! There is room for both – escapism as well as the revealing exposés related to newsworthy events.

Is there room for non-fiction writing that doesn’t encompass our apartheid past in this country?

Absolutely! Apartheid is still a burning issue and it will take a few generations still for the aftershocks of this system to subside. These aftershocks are responsible for so many of the issues we still face on a community level in South Africa, and this will continue to be the source of many books. However, there is definite room for books on other subjects, such as we have seen with Fruit of a Poisoned Tree (Anthony Altbecker). Nothing to do with apartheid, but everything to do with the road of life and a flawed justice system.

Do you think non-fiction, by its very nature, should have more prominence than fiction in the book stores? In other words, is it more worthy of promotion than fiction?

No, each genre has its merits and following, so shelf space should be shared equally.

What does this nomination mean to you and is it really just good enough to be nominated?

It’s a tremendous honour for me, and something that was completely unexpected. I do not believe it’s about winning. All the books on the shortlist are worthy winners and it’s the recognition from peers that is important. Writing is very lonely and isolating, and authors spend days, weeks and even months alone with their words and thoughts. Public recognition like this is incredibly valuable for an author. More valuable than words can describe.

Who do you think is going to win the prize?

As I said, the books are all worthy winners. I would not wager a bet and do not envy the judges’ task!

Are you keen to keep writing in the genre of non-fiction or do you plan to write fiction soon? If so, what attractions does fiction offer you as a writer?

I have been encouraged to write fiction, as this is my second crime-related book, and I may have enough source material by now to attempt it! I am not sure that fiction interests me particularly, though. I don’t even read fiction, only non-fiction. This is a whole new journey for me – writing books - and I have no idea where this path will lead to. If someone had told me five years ago that I would be a published author, I would have laughed. Life has an amazing way of presenting opportunities, and it’s up to us to grab hold of those opportunities and run with them. So who knows whether I will write fiction in the future. I have my next two books lined up – both non-fiction, and that is where I am right now.