~ Interview by Melina Kantor
Our guest for today is Lisa Anne Julien, and she’s going to share some of her thoughts on her writing career and writing for an audience of South African women.
Welcome Lisa! 🙂
How did your writing career evolve? How did you come to write for Nollybooks?
When I left home in my early twenties I used to write very long and, according to my mother, very expressive and descriptive letters about my travels. At that point I discovered my love for writing but it was only in 2003 that I ventured into writing feature articles for magazines such as O, the Oprah Magazine, Psychologies, Elle as well as UK-based and Caribbean-based publications. In 2008 I tried my hand at short stories and enjoyed some success and have been crafting them ever since. I was part of the first group of writers that Nollybooks publisher, Moky Makura, approached to submit a manuscript. After submitting a one-page synopsis and a first chapter I was commissioned by contract to complete the manuscript.
The aim of Nollybooks is to create a culture of reading for South African women. Why is that so important?
In the past the South African inferior Bantu Education system was designed to keep blacks from aspiring beyond certain heights. This has had a significant impact upon the levels and quality of education among many black people today. You would be also hard-pressed to find book stores and public libraries in townships or areas where there are large communities of disadvantaged people. Nollybooks recognises the importance of reading and reaching those that are most marginalised such as black South African women. This is an important stepping stone to creating a love for the written word and an awareness of the connection between reading and education.
What are the challenges and limitations of writing for a target audience of South African women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four?
South African women of this age group are incredibly diverse in regards to ethnicity, background and interests. I needed to select an ethnic group from which the characters would be from and in doing that I was concerned about excluding or not speaking to young people from other ethnicities. The Nollybooks brand also insists on the novels not being sexually explicit in any way. In fact, we were only allowed to go as far as a good kiss. Sex and sex-related topics such as pregnancy and HIV/AIDS are issues relevant to young people and women in particular and so it was challenging to exclude these issues or at best allude to them but in a positive manner only. Many readers of romance novels also expect there will be sexual content so it was a bit difficult having to reign in that natural literary desire to write about those things. However, I found that having to write on romance and passion was decidedly more interesting and a test to my skills as a writer than writing about the raunchy aspects of sex.
What types of social issues have you chosen to weave into your books? Why?
Issues of community development, human rights of persons living in informal settlements (sometimes called “squatter camps”) and to an extent, women’s empowerment are all issues prevalent in the novel. These are topics close to my heart as my background is social policy and gender and development, so I found that I naturally gravitated towards the inclusion of these issues in the book. Currently I work as a development consultant on issues of violence against women and HIV/AIDS and so I found it was quite easy to write about the tensions and processes related to these issues. I was also intrigued by romance evolving amidst the backdrop of these social issues as I believe that is the reality in many cases.
What is your process for creating characters?
I try to understand and know my characters really well, so when I make up a profile I write down everything about the character: their birth date, star sign, what they enjoy for breakfast, the music they like, their physical descriptions and measurements etc. I’m careful to create characters with different layers and hopefully with some degree of complexity, so I would think of certain situations and the ways in which my characters would respond to them. The process of writing this novel also taught me that I needed to be courageous about my characters’ positions on certain issues. As a writer I found that they stood on the fence quite a lot and hence their personalities were not coming out as strong as they should. When I saw this I had to go back and deliberately increase the depth and strength of a particular character.
What do you want your readers to take away from your stories?
I want readers to believe that this story is intrinsically “South African” in nature, as complex and heterogeneous that concept is in this global world right now. My aim was not to shy away from the social backdrop of present South Africa but to include it and see to what degree it could be used as a catalyst for romance. Whilst offering readers escape into the world of romance and to some extent, fantasy, I want readers to feel that the story is realistic and speaks in some way to their lived experiences.
Would you mind telling us a bit about what you’re working on now?
I’m currently working on a number of short stories and still brainstorming on the story arc in a forthcoming novel.
Thank you so much Lisa! it’s been a pleasure to have you!
As an added bonus, here’s a video of a TV interview with Lisa. Doesn’t her book sound fantastic?
Lisa-Anne Julien was born and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. In 1992 she moved to New York to study dance at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre and the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance. After 3 years in New York, Lisa left for London to complete degrees in development studies and social policy. To pay her tuition, she worked as a nursing assistant in a psychiatric hospital for 4 years. In 2002, Lisa moved to South Africa and has since worked as a researcher, writer and consultant in the field of gender and women’s rights and HIV and AIDS. As a freelance writer she has written for a number of magazines as well as peer-reviewed journals such as Agenda Feminist Journal. Lisa was one of ten finalists for the 2008 Women & Home Magazine South Africa short story competition and in November 2008 she was selected as a winner in the “Highly Commended” category of the Commonwealth Short Story competition of that year. She currently lives in Johannesburg with her two beautiful children.