Spotlight on South Africa: Carin Marais

Flash! Friday may be winding down, but the global writing community’s growing stronger than ever. One of the greatest joys of our particular contest here has been the privilege of meeting writers from around the world; we are the better for expanding our naturally narrow patterns of perspective and understanding. Today we are joined by longtime Flash! Friday writer and two-time champ Carin Marais, who has graciously agreed to share with us about her writerly life in South Africa. Welcome back to the mic, Carin!

Carin Marais

Please tell us about your writerly journey.

For as long as I can remember I have made up stories, though I did not always write them down. I think growing up surrounded by books and being encouraged to read anything and everything I wanted to really spurred it on. I read very widely as a child (and still do). The classics were cheap so they always seemed great value for money, which meant that I read writers like Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, etc. early on. Roald Dahl, on the other hand, really brought home a kind of a stranger, darker fiction and reading The Neverending Story was a big step towards reading more fantasy and discovering writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, and Robert Jordan.

I read Pratchett and Tolkien in high school and there was no turning back! Their books in turn also led me to texts like Beowulf, the Eddas, and The Golden Bough. I also started writing in high school after some personal tragedies. Writing has always been a way for me to work through personal stuff as much as it is fun and fulfilling. I can’t imagine not writing.

I find that I lean towards speculative fiction as soon as I start to write a new story even if I did not mean for it to have any of those elements. Watching series like Star Trek, X-files, Stargate SG-1, and Outer Limits growing probably had a big hand in that! I love the way you can ask any “what if…?” question in speculative fiction and work through your question in a world different from our own, whether it is a secondary world or just set in the future. I do tend to write fantasy rather than science fiction or horror even though some of my stories are quite twisted and dark. My love of mythology and folklore also has a definitely influence on what I write and the worlds I create.

At the moment I’m busy writing and editing my NaNoWriMo novel, which is an epic fantasy tale. In-between that I am also writing some short stories in both English and Afrikaans (I am Afrikaans, for those who perhaps did not know). I am hoping to finish the first draft of an Afrikaans short story anthology by April or May next year. I also write for Flash! Friday, Cracked Flash, and Three Line Thursday as often as I can.

How do you balance creative writing with a writing job and everything else?

I love having a job where I get to write and translate a wide variety of texts – it also helps for when I cannot write otherwise! Because the writing I do during the day is removed from the fantasy I write in my own time it is easier to switch between the two.

I write whenever I can, sometimes taking my lunchtime to work on something. Because I worked full-time and studied part-time for a few years, I have a work-study/write routine that I now mostly fill with writing and other projects and hobbies.

Introduce us to your writing life in Johannesburg.

I mostly write alone, though for NaNoWriMo I do go to the write-ins and at those times it’s really a lot of fun to be in that environment when everyone is giddy to get their first draft (and 50,000 words) done. I usually write at home or in one specific coffee shop (who makes huge cappuccino’s) close to where I live. The waiters know by now that they can just leave me and only need to refill my coffee mug or teapot every now and then.

When I do snack on something while writing, it is usually jelly beans. It was a habit which started while I was studying, and there’s this one brand which seem to put my brain into a mode where it knows that it’s time to focus and stop thinking about the weather and whether or not I need another cup of tea before I actually start working. Because I don’t drink much caffeine anymore, I tend to drink a lot of different teas. I especially like local teas such as rooibos, honeybush and the variations of those two (with cinnamon, vanilla, etc.).

What’s the publishing situation like in your part of the world?

NB Publishers, which is part of Naspers, is the biggest publishing house in the country and some of its most well known imprints are Tafelberg and Human & Rousseau. Some imprints, like Kwela Books, are specifically geared towards African fiction. There are also publishers geared specifically to Christian books.

As in the US and many other countries it is difficult to get published traditionally, but there are various new platforms available and writers can self-publish their work. One of the platforms which I am a member of is Woes, which is an Afrikaans platform for writing. You are also able to sell your self-published books there.

Introduce us to Johannesburg!

I live just outside Johannesburg. It is in Gauteng, which is the smallest province of South Africa. It’s in a part of South Africa called the Highveld and is at an elevation of 5, 751 ft. Our weather is mostly sunny and besides the late afternoon thundershowers in summer, I love that we still have a deep blue sky in the middle of winter. We very rarely get any snow, so the day that a few flakes fall almost everyone drops what they are doing.

About 4 million people live in Johannesburg, and it is a melting pot of different cultures, people, and religions. My own neighbourhood is diverse, which makes it a great place to get inspiration from. The city certainly has its own vibe that is a lot different from smaller places.

When it comes to entertainment we’re spoilt for choice because it is such a large city. There are, for instance, restaurants to pick and choose from serving food from around the world. For me the biggest treat is being able to go to the theatre and see live performances and there are various theatres you can visit. The Cradle of Humankind is also only about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and you don’t have to go too far to feel like you have left the city far behind you. Soweto is also not far away and there are some great tours that you can do there as well.

Who are your favorite South African writers?

My favourite South African writers are Karel Schoeman, Nataniël, Dalene Matthee, and P.G. du Plessis. Karel Schoeman has a way with language that I admire so much – the way he can conjure places and characters as well as writing lyrical without it turning into purple prose. I love his books Hierdie Lewe (This Life), Na die geliefde land (Promised Land), and ’n Ander land (Another Country). They have all been translated into English.

Dalene Matthee’s stories about the Knysna Forest and the people living there have always brought my imagination to life (and I love forests, so…). I think there are very few South Africans who haven’t at least heard of Kringe in ’n Bos (Circles in the Forest) and Fiela se Kind (Fiela’s Child). Nataniël’s sense of humor and his stories, which many times are bittersweet, are for me some of the best writing. He writes in both English and Afrikaans.

The heart in P.G. du Plessis’ stories and the way in which he writes characters is absolutely wonderful. He is one of the few writers who can make me cry with just one sentence! Dan Sleigh is another favourite writer and his novel Eilande (Islands) made a huge impact on me when I read it. I can highly recommend reading any of these authors.

What are you reading now? 

I usually read more than one book at a time and at the moment I am busy reading Boris Akunin’s The Death of Achilles, which is the fourth book of his Erast Fandorin Mysteries series. I am also busy with the series of books The History of Middle-earth. (I can highly recommend both series.)

The Erast Fandorin Mysteries are set in Russia in the late 1800s and the hero of the tales is part James Bond, part Sherlock Holmes. What I like most about Boris Akunin’s writing is his characterisation and his dry sense of humour. He can make me laugh out loud even when I’m reading in public. The names do take some time to get used to, though.

Who has most inspired you as a writer? 

My mother always supported my writing endeavours and my sister is always there to lend an ear and to give me motivation to carry on when I get to the place where I think everything I have ever written are the most awful things ever to grace a page.

When it comes to fiction writing, the Afrikaans teacher I had in my last two years of high school had a big impact on me and pushed me to keep on writing.

How can we as a flash fiction community do better? 

There is such a great vibe in the flash fiction community! I have not come across any negativity and have only received support and encouragement from everyone. So I guess what I want to say is that everyone can just carry on what they are doing now! I hope that there will be some more flash fiction writers from South Africa joining in in the future!

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