‘You have to be present, mindful and in tune with the possibilities that lie before you on the page.’
– Melissa A. Volker
How and when did creative writing begin for you?
I’ve always loved reading, books and stories, but the first time I tried to write one of my own, it didn’t turn out to be the kind of writing I enjoyed reading. I was mortified and gave up immediately. But when I took a break from my career in beauty therapy, I decided to give it another try, this time with help. I took a creative writing course and it taught me that I still had a long way to go. I signed up for another one, and then another and things improved, but I still had no book. Finally, I signed up for a year-long supervised course, and the mere thought of the amount of money it cost forced me to write consistently until I completed the first draft of a full-length novel.
You write romance with a strong awareness of environmental themes. Please share with readers how important this aspect of your writing is for you.
I think we are all busy and get carried away in our day to day life and don’t realise the consequences of our lifestyle habits, like the use of single-use plastics. Maybe we don’t understand the complexities of some issues, like renewable energy, fracking or shark/human interaction. Even the seemingly innocuous things we take for granted with young children, like balloons and glitter, are not environmentally sound choices. While I don’t claim to have an in-depth knowledge of all these issues, I am acutely aware of them and try to make environmentally conscious decisions in my own life. I like to include these environmental themes in my stories to increase awareness in a way that the average person can digest and have a think about, without feeling disheartened. Maybe they will be moved to alter their thinking and habits? Maybe they will have a broader understanding of the issues from another point of view?
What is the greatest appeal of the romance genre for you as a reader and a writer?
I like happy ever afters. There is enough sadness in real life. And the one requirement of a romance is a happy ever after or a happy for now. (A love story, on the other hand, like The English Patient or The Notebook, does not, apparently, require a happy ever after.) I really love to feel the emotion with the character as a reader, and when I can feel my characters’ emotions as I write, I am equally delighted. I try to evoke positive emotion and feeling in a way that the reader can join in and become invested in the characters and the story.
How do you feel about the relatively new term ‘Up Lit’? Do you think it applies to your work?
I love the idea of Up Lit, of stories of kindness and of compassion. I am drawn to intelligent stories of people who have to get through quite serious issues, like emotional disorders or community problems, but they come out on the other side with hope. I think, because the world is so overtly divisive and fractured, regular people yearn for positive human stories to escape into. I do think my work is Up Lit, as my protagonists, although often flawed, ultimately treat one another with kindness and compassion, despite their differences.
In your stories, you create fascinating and independent women characters who overcome adversity with integrity and hope. Who are the women who inspire you and your writing?
My mother is a smart, organised, incredibly brave and positive person. She is a great reader and thinker, and has always just got on with the necessary business of life, despite adversity that might come her way. For the past fifteen years she has been doing that in the face of an incurable auto-immune disease. She presses on with such courage, love, faith, dignity and hope.
My maternal grandmother grew up in the United States, but in a notebook she gave me, she wrote that the happiest times of her childhood were when they had enough food. That stayed with me and after her death I found a lengthier memoir she had written. I was humbled and inspired to read a more in-depth account of the adversities she overcame to break with the cycle of rural poverty into which she was born.
You write about surfing on diverse platforms. Surfing also features strongly in your novel Shadow Flicker. Please tell us about the place this sport has in your life and work?
Is surfing a sport? Haha, I suspect it’s more of an obsession, a compulsion, much like writing, but possibly less plagued by self-doubt? I’ve been married to a surfer for more than twenty years, and initially I acquired a good beachside understanding of things. But four years ago, I stepped off the beach and learned to surf a stand-up paddle board. I have not looked back; I now plan my week around the surf report. Surfing is a most empowering experience; it has taught me that I am stronger and braver than I ever thought. I am grateful to have the opportunity to be in the water whenever it presents itself.
Significantly, the first editor who did NOT reject my writing was Calvin Bradley, of Zigzag Surfing Magazine. I entered a competition called Write To Surf, and wrote a story about my life as a surf widow called ‘The Thinking Girls Guide to Life with a Surfer‘. I didn’t win the competition, but they published the story online. It was my first ever published story and when it got over 1000 likes on Facebook I was beyond stoked. It’s been epic to subsequently write pieces for The Inertia, Zigzag and Wavescape, especially when I have had the opportunity to write about women’s interests in surfing. We have a bunch of smart and funny surf writers in South Africa and I enjoy reading their work and learning from them as well.
In some ways surfing is like writing. It’s almost impossible to impress your will upon a wave, instead you have to be in tune with it and adapt your movement to the possibilities the wave is revealing to you. Much like a story. Sometimes you can’t impress your will upon it or force it in a certain direction. You have to be present, mindful and in tune with the possibilities that lie before you on the page.
What other hobbies/interests are part of your everyday?
I’m a beauty therapist and operate a home-based salon. I am host to a cat who rules my life, and am raising two beautiful children who have quite busy schedules. They beat me consistently in Bananagrams and keep me up to date with new music trends. We are a spiritual family, so I try to take time to focus on that every day as well.
What did winning the Strelizia Award mean to you?
I think most writers experience a bit of Imposter Syndrome, and I found that without an academic background I had little confidence in myself as a writer. When I first competed a version of Shadow Flicker, it was rejected by multiple publishers which was quite disheartening. But I pressed on, picking myself up after each rejection, getting advice and tweaking and rewriting the manuscript on multiple occasions. There was something inside me that kept telling me to keep going, not to give up. I really love the story and the characters and I knew if I could polish it properly, it would touch readers’ hearts. Winning the Strelitzia Award validated that. The very shiny, polished version of Shadow Flicker touched the judges’ hearts.
“The Romance is thoroughly believable and satisfying. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year!”
“I especially enjoyed the very real South African setting and characters, the unique surfing background, and also that the hero and heroine and their conflicts were not clichéd.”
“It was fresh, well written.”
— ROSA’s Strelitzia Award Judges, 2017
What would you like your readers to take away from reading your novels?
Life is complicated but kindness and love are the bomb. I would like readers to feel good and happy after reading my novels and be open to making a positive difference in their corner of the world.