We chat to award-winning author, editor and Now Novel story coach Arja Salafranca about writing poetry, prose and embracing multiple mediums. Arja’s advice: Write your passion. Watch the video or read the transcript below.
Getting to know Arja Salafranca
Brendan McNulty: 00:00
Arja Salafranca has published three collections of poetry and a book of short stories. She’s an experienced writing tutor and editor of fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and academic theses. She has an MA in Creative Writing focusing on the novella and a BA in Psychology and African Literature and has received the Dalro, Sanlam, and SALA [Awards] for her writing.
Hi Arja, thanks very much for taking the time to chat to me today. So I wanted to get to know you a little bit and introduce you to some of our writers. And as part of that process – I know you are fairly new to working at Now Novel – but I just wanted to get an idea of what you do or how how you help people?
Arja Salafranca: 00:55
All right, well I tutor in all sorts of things. My interest is in all sorts of different genres and different types of writing. My interest … I’m a writer myself.
I’m a poet and a short story writer. I’ve written novellas. I’m writing a novel. I’ve done travel writing, travel essays, and I used to work at The Sunday Independent as a lifestyle editor so I’m au fait with journalism and lifestyle journalism, probably the most.
How I can help people is with combining all that knowledge and combining my passion for some of those genres. As I say, I write in all sorts of genres and I read in all sorts of genres, so I bring a breadth of experience to the process.
Brendan McNulty: 01:45
Yes I would be hesitant to to try and understand how many thousands of words you’ve written over the last couple of years, but I would imagine it’s quite a few.
Arja Salafranca: 01:58
You know, let me just tell you – I keep diaries, and I always said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I could write a novel, it’s so long.’ And then I looked at how many words I’d written in my diary for nine months and it was something like 90 000 words.
So I always say to people, ‘If you can keep a diary and you can keep it consistently, you can write a novel. Because a novel is … well a general novel is 75-plus [thousand] words, but there you go.
Brendan McNulty: 02:23
Yeah, exactly. Maybe I need to … well I mean, I write a journal but mine is pretty dry stuff, so I’m not sure if that would be interesting for everyone else, but at least it’s good to know that maybe one day I’ll have the facility.
Arja Salafranca: 02:39
There you go.
How eclectic writing experience helps
Brendan McNulty: 02:40
So as you said, you’ve got a a background in poetry, creative writing, lifestyle [editing] and journalism. How do you think all of these different practices complement each other and and help you in your writing?
Arja Salafranca: 03:00
Well it depends what I’m writing. But for example, if I if I remember all the interviews I’ve done through the years as a lifestyle journalist, you start tuning into the way people speak, you know.
You start understanding that sometimes males speak a little bit differently to females. I’m being very generalized here and I don’t mean to be, but … I’m not saying males and females are different, but there are differences in the way they speak, there are differences in the way different people speak, and your ears start tuning in.
And that’s a very useful facility to have when you come to writing a novel or creative non-fiction or short stories.
Because so often one of the problems is that when you start writing dialogue, all the dialogue sounds the same. It all sounds obviously like you. But if you’ve had that experience, even if you go to a coffee shop and just sit there and eavesdrop on people, you’ll notice how different people use, let’s say, a ‘hey?’ at the end of the sentence.
And other people don’t use a ‘hey’, and that’s something useful to bring into your your dialogue writing. So … to listen.
So that’s how my journalism and my lifestyle writing has complemented it.
And then, I once went off to Madikwe Game Reserve with a friend of mine – it was a press trip. And we were very lucky to witness an elephant mourning. I mean, it’s a sad occasion but we saw the elephant and they talked about how the elephant actually mourns its dead and they walk around it and they trumpet. And I I took that and I put a little bit of it into the travel writing that I did do from that story.
But I also then used it later on in a novella that I wrote, and I was able to expand it and to put more feeling into it, because the lifestyle journalism that you do, sometimes you can’t put so much feeling into it.
On writing a diary
So that’s how experiences, I suppose, feed into your own writing. And experiences can be a springboard. Write them down because you never know when you’ll want more information about something you can’t remember.
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As we say, that’s where keeping a diary can also be very useful and valuable. And it’s also – sorry, to go back to diaries – they’re also very useful for the whole ‘dialogue’ story.
When you keep a diary and you write down conversations between your friends, people, etc. again, you notice our different conversations can be. How people speak differently, and the words that they use and how that feeds in.
Brendan McNulty: 05:33
It sounds like your diary is a sort of area where you collate a lot of information, or things that you might want to use at a later stage.
How …what’s the process? How do you know what to put into your diary, and then how do you know when and what to take out? Because 90 000 words over nine months, it must be quite hard to find the relevant piece or go back and reference it. If that makes sense?
Arja Salafranca: 06:08
Yes, well first of all, because I write it by hand, I write it with a fountain pen on the most beautiful paper – Clairefontaine and Rhodia paper – and I like the feeling of writing it by hand, it’s … besides poetry, it’s the only thing I do write by hand.
And I’ve had this conversation with myself about putting it digitally, so that I can actually search it, but so far this conversation has not gone anywhere [laughs], there’s been no resolution.
So I mean, when I come to the fiction, I don’t consciously think, ‘Okay, I want to write about an elephant mourning’, for example – it just comes. And it seems to fit that particular story. And when I do want to go back into my diary to reference something that happened or to rewrite about it or use it, it’s a bit of a difficult process finding things but you … I’ve got a rough idea that this happened in 1992, for example, so I just have to kind of whip through the pages for that.
And of course different views produce different lengths of diaries. Sometimes when you’re going through a really bad emotional kind of time, a breakup or something like that, then you know you can write your 90 000 words and and probably a lot of those 90 000 words are just the same old ‘same old’, because you’re going through a process – a problem at work or a year-long problem at work or whatever it might be.
So my diary does feed very much into my writing in terms of practicing and that’s a huge thing that people should should try and do is to practice your writing. And diary writing allows you to practice and it also allows you to practice without thinking of eventual publications so you’re not thinking, ‘Whoops, I better go edit that because that’s a little bit awkward and a little bit lumpy.’
You’re just right and it’s incredible how it becomes a practice that … it’s like piano playing, you know you’ve got to practice your scales every day or however often you practice your scales. And without that, the fluidity of the playing doesn’t come out in the final performance or on stage.
So it’s a very useful habit. A lot of people can’t keep diaries or hate the thought of keeping diaries, and I totally understand. But I’ve got ideas about … you know, keep a postcard to yourself, write a postcard to yourself once a week or something like that. It’s not as daunting as keeping a diary on pages in a beautiful book.
Brendan McNulty: 08:32
So here’s my diary. I mean, mine is not as fancy, and I don’t use nice pages.
Arja Salafranca: 08:44
My diaries change from time to time, and I used to write them in beautiful books, and then when they were finished, I would start the next one – let’s say in August – I’d start the next one. But a couple of years ago, I decided to try keeping yearly ones.
So they all start now on the 1st of January and end on the 31st of December, so it’s a it’s a Rhodia notebook and I’ve got this leather cover, and this is my blank page, that’s where I say what volume it is at the end of the year.
Brendan McNulty: 09:20
Okay. Your handwriting looks very neat also. I used to use a fountain pen, but now you’ve somewhat inspired me to … I’m gonna Google those books and see if I can get a little less of my sort of scratchy, stream-of-consciousness writing that I’m using, but yes.
Arja Salafranca: 09:51
Whatever works for you.
How to get into poetry
Brendan McNulty: 09:57
So moving a little bit, you talked about your your background in poetry, and having published poetry. I’m not a poetry reader, but how would you
guide someone who isn’t a poetry reader into poetry?
Arja Salafranca: 10:21
I would say look at anthologies rather than buying individual collections at first. An anthology would guide you to some of the different poets that you might then want to look up.
So there are South African anthologies of writing, there’s … all over the world they have … in the UK you have the Best Forward Poetry and that is The Forward Book of Poetry, as I think it is published, and in the U.S there’s a fantastic series called ‘The Best American’. And one of those is The Best American Poetry. So that gives you a whole, wide view of different poetry from that year, published in different journals and so on.
‘The Best American’ also has ‘The Best American Essays’, ‘The Best American Short Stories’, travel writing …
Brendan McNulty: 11:13
So at the risk of this being, ‘Show and Tell’, I have ‘The Best American Comics’ which is maybe a little bit less … but you know all about the series.
Arja Salafranca: 11:28
So you know all about the series.
Brendan McNulty: 11:29
Yeah, it’s great. It gives you a nice … snack into what’s going on and they’re nicely curated and yeah, it’s very interesting.
Arja Salafranca: 11:40
I think that, for me, would be the the best way of people getting into poetry, because sometimes doing poetry at school either kills it for people, or it does make them more interested in writing or reading poetry. But so often the poetry at school, or the way we were taught, and it differs from place to place and generation to generation, is the
old-fashioned poetry. The language is difficult. You know, you’ve got young kids of nine, ten, eleven. I would say try and introduce them to more contemporary poetry.
So sometimes that does kill poetry for people. And there’s this idea that it’s so very difficult. And yes, you find that kind of obscure poetry with the meaning shrouded in mist and all of that, but there’s a lot of poetry that isn’t like that. So pick up an anthology and … Like a poem? Go do another one. Read a poem a night for a month. That’s thirty poems … wow that’s quite a lot, that’s quite a wide variety.
Brendan McNulty: 12:46
Okay I’m gonna have a look for something in The Best American series and see if I can find myself some poetry to get involved with.
Editing other writers’ work – lessons
What has editing other people’s stories taught you about writing and how would you apply that to your to your own writing?
Arja Salafranca: 13:05
Well it’s taught me sometimes factual information. I edited a thesis a couple of years ago on airlines, which is totally outside my idea of anything. So that taught me a lot about that.
Editing and cutting is really where some of the lessons come in, because you learn how much can be cut. How much there is that is extraneous. Also editing in terms of cutting out the first paragraph or even the first page (when you’re talking about creative writing).
It’s amazing how if you cut that out, you’re right into the story. And I’ve learned that through my writing and also through seeing what people are doing in their writing and how to change that.
So it’s taught me information, it’s taught me about a world out there and things like that I don’t know very much about. And it’s also taught me how different people create stories and how … you have to edit their work, but you have to let their vision live. And that’s quite a difficult thing to do, instead of just going in with a sledgehammer and making it all the way you would want to do.
So you have to be quite sensitive and you almost have to live in their story as much as they’ve lived in their story. I’m talking about fiction, of course, not an academic thesis which is a totally different kind of editing. And I’ve edited all sorts of things from PhDs and masters theses used to creative non-fiction, to short stories, to …
I’ve just finished a novella this week, which was wonderful. I was in the Kalahari – I mean, I was right in Johannesburg where I live. But I was in the Kalahari with this novella, which was lovely. It’s a real window into other people’s worlds.
Brendan McNulty: 15:09
Yeah, I like what you said about the sensitivity required in order to not impose your world view or structures on someone.
I can imagine that’s quite a tightrope at times, because you have this wealth of knowledge and how things should be done and other people may not have that as much but part of their … naivety or part of their voice comes from the way that they communicate, which may not be perfect all the time.
Arja Salafranca: 15:50
Absolutely. To smooth things over, to also suggest … I mean when you suggest how story isn’t working, for example, or how perhaps chapter one should be chapter nine, and chapter nine should be chapter two. How the story develops – developmental editing.
It also teaches me, because I think, ‘Ah! You know that story of mine, maybe I should apply the same thing.’ So it’s all very useful.
Brendan McNulty: 16:17
Yeah. So you were in the Kalahari last week with someone else’s novella, I think you were working on a novella yourself at the moment? Ah, a novel, sorry …
Arja Salafranca: 16:35
I wrote a series of novellas for my MA in Creative Writing and that’s when I worked on my novellas.
Brendan McNulty: 16:42
So I mean can you give us a sneak peek, or should we wait and circle back? I mean are you happy to talk about what you’re working on, or is it under wraps for the time being?
Arja Salafranca: 16:59
It’s not under wraps, I won’t obviously give the whole story away. I do want to write it.
I’m always working on a few different things. I mean, I’ve got ideas for short stories which are sitting at the back of my mind while I get on with the novel.
It’s a novel that’s set in two time zones, so it’s set in the early 1920s – I haven’t quite settled on whether it’s 1922, but we’ll see – and then it’s also set in the present day. So it’s set in, let’s say the 2020s.
In the 2020 section, it’s sent in an area of South Africa called Magaliesburg, and it’s set on a sort of holiday estate but people also do live there.
The real name of it is Utopia, which I quite like, but I don’t want to use Utopia, so I’m calling it shangri-la, for reasons which will become more apparent in the novel as I go.
So the present day is there and it’s a woman who is called by another woman to write a biography of her aunt. And she’s got some information about her aunt, but she doesn’t have it all. So this woman, the main character, has to write … has to imagine as well. But interspersed with it is the 1920s when the woman’s aunt was living.
So we have that … what I’m trying to do in this novel also is to look at biography, and how to write biography.
So I’m bringing those strands of biography into it, but it’s more than just how to write biography. There are parallels between the woman now and the woman’s life in the 1920s, and I’m bringing those together.
I’m using a little bit of letters and some diaries, because I’m using what a biographer would have available to them, which would be those kinds of things. Photographs, postcards – I’m going to include all of that, and also the different voices of some of the characters, especially from the past.
So I’m playing with it, I’m working into it, I’m researching and that means the most difficult part because I have to go find 1920s newspapers and I had to go to the library in town. Our downtown CBD and go find newspapers and and use them on microfiche, whatever they might have.
I mean, I remember using microfiche 100 years ago, and it’s not as nice as having it online. I can’t find South African newspapers online
Brendan McNulty: 19:40
No, I can imagine it might be quite an interesting … [crosstalk]. Sounds fascinating. How far are you through it?
Arja Salafranca: 19:49
I’m not that far, I’m 10 000 words into it. I’m not sure how many words it’s going to be, I’m going to let it dictate.
Plotter vs being a pantser
Brendan McNulty: 20:03
We always ask or or there’ always a discussion about whether people are plotters or pantsers in terms of do you have it all plotted out or are you a seat of the pants kind of person. In terms of how you’re writing. My assumption is that you have a fairly clear idea about where at least the first draft is going?
Arja Salafranca: 20:30
Yes. I’m actually not a plotter, but I found with this novel that I couldn’t begin until I had an idea. So I’ve got, you know, chapter one, chapter two, whatever, written down very roughly. I’m fine with the story taking me where the story has to go.
With short stories it’s different. I don’t plot a short story. I have an idea in my mind, and I know kind of where I want to go with the short story and then it takes me. But I found with the longer piece, I needed to have a mind map. I needed to have something to look at. And I’m glad I’ve got that, so that’s helped a lot with writing it.
Advice to writers from Arja
Brendan McNulty: 21:08
In some respects I would think that short stories are actually more difficult because you have to create the character, you have to create the tension, there’s a resolution with the plot and everything has to happen in a fairly short space of time. You don’t have the luxury of a a longer arc to deal with things. But that’s why I think maybe plotting would make more sense or I don’t know … it’s it’s just an interesting uh way of looking at them.
What do you find as the biggest struggles that first-time writers encounter, and how would you propose that they’d get get over those struggles, or how would you help them to get over those struggles?
Arja Salafranca: 21:57
I think perhaps a lack of confidence is the problem. A lack of knowing how to begin and thinking they’ve never done this and they’re biting off … they’re trying to eat an elephant and I mean, how do you eat an elephant? You eat an elephant, you know, tiny bit by tiny bit.
So I think, how I would help people is to have the confidence that you have a story to tell. Otherwise you wouldn’t be wanting to sit at your computer and tell the story.
So there you go, you already have a story to tell, you just have to tell the story. And take it slowly. Take it bit by bit. Don’t think that you want to
write a novel and it’s going to take you a year and it’s such a big, long commitment and how are you ever going to finish it. Will it be good enough.
First of all, forget about whether it’s going to be good enough or not going to be good enough. Don’t even think about that. Put that editor part of you, that judgmental, critical point of view, away.
You can bring that part of you back after a year or whenever you’ve written your novel, and when you do need to rewrite your novel or re-draft it, you can bring that part of you back.
But have the confidence in yourself that you have this story that you want to tell, and that it’s a story that’s important to you. And if it’s important to you, it’s probably going to be important to many other people. It will resonate with them.
The other thing is to write what you want to write. Don’t think that because there are novels about serial killers coming out this year that now you have to find a story about a serial killer. Because this is what’s going on and this is obviously popular, etc. If you don’t want to write about serial killers, then don’t.
Write what is your passion. Write that story that won’t die, that keeps on living. Look at the characters that won’t let you alone at two in the morning and come along knocking on your door and say, you know, ‘Come write us’. Write your passion,
and that’ll come out into your book.
Brendan McNulty: 24:04
That’s great. I love that. I think that’s actually a perfect epigram or way to end our interview. So thanks, Arja, and I’ll remind everyone to write their passion from now on. Thanks for your time.
Arja Salafranca: 24:21
Okay, excellent. Thanks a lot.
About Arja Salafranca
Arja Salafranca has published three collections of poetry, A Life Stripped of Illusions (1995), which received the Sanlam Award for poetry, The Fire in which we Burn (2000); and Beyond Touch (2015) which was a co-winner of the SALA Awards.
Her fiction has been published online, in anthologies and journals, and is collected in her debut collection, The Thin Line (2010), longlisted for the Wole Soyinka Award in 2012.
She edited the Life supplement in the Johannesburg-based The Sunday Independent from 2003 to 2016. She holds an MA in creative writing from Wits University (2012) and lives in Johannesburg.
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