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Erica Emdon

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A converstation between Erica Emdon and Tracey Farren

This is a transcript of a conversation held last week at the Book Lounge between Tracey Farren, author of Whiplash, and me, about Jelly Dog Days. Tracey really gave her questions a great deal of thought and I was very excited to be involved with her in the conversation. I believe we went through some very similar processes in writing our books, and both of us grappled with issues of how to make the darker aspects of hidden social realities accessible and write them into fictional stories. Tracey coined the phrase “resilience fiction” which may be apt. Both our protagonists show an enormous capacity to overcome their harsh social circumstances, and each finds her way out in her own individual way.

Tracey Farren (TF): You have chosen a difficult subject to stomach. The story is terribly dark on one level, but the narrative is more than bearable, it is compelling. How did you make it possible for your witnesses to not look away in horror, to keep them with you throughout, rather than throw in the towel and think, ‘This is too sad, I can’t stomach this?’ What helped me, personally as a reader, was my hope for her. In a way, she strung me along, saying, ‘Perhaps I should tell. Perhaps I should get help.’ She did this so effectively because, by the time that she needed help, I cared for her. What also helped me was the way she adapted to what was happening to her. In some ways she developed a veneer of numbness. This was a relief, but also added to the ‘pull’ of the story. I kept thinking, something’s going to crack.’

Erica Emdon (EE): Like you, I had faith in my protagonist Terry, believing that her humanity and resilience would get her through the darkest moments she had to deal with. She developed as I wrote, and gained an inner strength enabling her to cope, play and be a child, love her siblings and her few beloved friends and adults and operate in the world as a functioning human being. I knew she needed help, and like you, I cared for her and wanted desperately to make it all better. But I also knew that she would not be able to ask for help, it would never materialise, so she would have to manage on her own and she wasn’t going to be able to step away from it. As a writer it took a fair amount of discipline not to take her out of it all and give her a prince on a white horse, riding out of the sunset to save her.

TF: The book felt tremendously ‘real’ because your characters were both gifted and flawed. They were contradictory, emotionally ambivalent. If they were all good or all bad, we wouldn’t believe them or care for them. We would sense their lack of authenticity. I’m just wondering how you came to this complexity of character.

EE: I suppose there is always a real person in one’s mind when one writes. My real people are my own family members, the women I interviewed and what they said about their families. Each character I was told about, or every one of the people close to me, are complex, contradictory, variable people. I wanted to find these qualities in everyone I wrote about – their contradictions, human foibles, inconsistencies.

TF: I’ve mentioned Terry’s emotional resilience, and her disassociation that helped her to survive. How did you imagine this response, which is both very chilling and very reassuring at the same time?

EE: Having interviewed a few women some years ago, who had survived very dysfunctional and awful childhoods, I came to understand that disassociation is a coping method frequently used to deal to manage the stress and difficulty encountered. When writing the novel, I found that if I wrote about one awful scene after another, it became unbearable for me to continue, so introducing the lighter moments, the playfulness, the disassociation, the imaginative games, allowed me, as a writer to pace the narrative, and I knew such diversions were consistent with how children cope in these circumstances.

TF: I’m particularly interested in your portrayal of the baddie. Again, you avoided the temptation to create a stereotype. I say temptation because it is easy to want your story to carry a moral meaning. This baddie was also her best caregiver, in some ways he sincerely seemed to love her and care about her welfare. He is deeply flawed, but you kept him human. What was the process of his creation?

EE: I do believe that most people have a dualism in their personalities, which allows them to be both loving and terrible at the same time. We all have the capacity to display unacceptable tendencies, but have generally learned to keep these at bay. Those people who we consider evil are one’s who are unable to control their deeply disturbed behavioural patterns – maybe because they have a personality disorder, because they were neglected and had inadequate mothering, or for a whole host of reasons. I also believe that one person may present a very different side of his or her personality to different people at different times. The serial killer may also be the kind, gentlemen who gives children sweets on the bus. Or the Nazi death camp commander may sit with his family telling happy stories every evening. The paedophile and incest perpetrator is frequently a person who manifests a dark, violent and oppressive persona toward children at times, while being a loving, caring, attentive adult at others. Grooming is spoken about widely in the literature and involves the period prior to the start of the abusive relationship when the adult woos the child, and wins over his or her affections, often making it very difficult for the child to resist cooperating. I think my “baddie” is pretty typical of his kind of man. He is a person who is deceptive and conniving. He probably had a plan with Terry long before he acted on it. But the story is told through Terry’s eyes. And for her he was loving, trustworthy and caring for a great many years. He was kind and she had no reason as an innocent child to expect anything other than love from him. I had to portray this through her eyes, this trusting side to the child’s nature. I still don’t understand the “baddie” completely, even after having written him into the story.

TF: A couple of things that endeared me to the character, Terry, was the extraordinarily mature way in which she loved her siblings. They presented a massive burden of work for a growing girl, yet she stepped into the role with great love and courage. Also, she was groomed to manage an inordinate amount of domestic work. This was shocking to me, yet because I trusted the realness of the characters, I accepted that this was also entirely true. How did you, as the writer, ‘find out’ about this young girl’s courage and maturity?

EE: One of the real women I interviewed before writing this book, described how she had looked after all her young siblings while her mother slouched on her bed drunk most days. She fed them, bathed them and cooked the family dinners and Sunday lunches. When she told me about this, she was really proud and felt this was a great thing to have done. I wrote this into Terry’s life because as unfair as it was, it was plausible, and I believed it assisted her to grow and develop confidence. I then put myself into Terry’s shoes and imagined myself being nine, ten, eleven and so on, remembering my parents chasing me to feed my pets, clean their cages and look after my young cousins when they visited. I realise that a child has an enormous capacity to get things done, when he or she knows he or she has to do it. I created a kind of willingness and efficiency in Terry’s character borne out of her reality, and based on my own memory of having had the capacity if I had to, to do the same. It helped me deal with her resilience and fortitude, which became fairly important character traits allowing her to survive and even thrive.

TF: How often did you get unexpected info from your imaginary character, where you dismissed your research and wanted to say, ‘She told me. It’s true.’

EE: Often she would give me a kind of hint, or idea, as what I should say next or make her do next. She lived in my mind for a great deal of time.

TF: How did the facts come alive for you? Did your character ‘get up and walk’ or ‘begin to speak’? Did your characters take what you had been told and embody it, or act it out? Or did you do mountains of research and then forget about it? Did it then become unconscious fodder for your imagination?

EE: My research informed the work, primarily. Both the number of long, in depth interviews I conducted with about ten women in around 2003/4. Two in particular stood out and one woman, with whom I spent days, influenced the story quite extensively. Also I read a great many non-fiction works on childhood trauma by writers such as Judith Herman, Alice Walker, Lloyd Vogelman, Alice Miller and academic writers in a number of journals. Fictional accounts of trauma, pain and abuse were also very influential and I read widely during the few years before writing. I focused not only on personal and private pain and trauma but also national and political upheaval as represented in holocaust fiction. I read a wide range of work – from W.G. Sebald’s The Emmigrants, Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room and Primo Levi’s Moments of Reprieve, to private accounts of abused childhoods, like The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison), The Hiding Place (Trezza Azzopardi), It’s Me Anna (Elbie Lotter), Acid Alex (Al Lovejoy), Street Kid (Judy Westwater), Fools and other stories (Njabulo Ndebele), I Know Why the Caged Bird Signs (Maya Angelou), Rape: A Love Story (Joyce Carol Oates) and The Rape of Sita (Lindsey Collen), amongst others. Even memoirs such as Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints, One Child’s Story of Survival and Hope, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight and Susan Sloan’s Behind Closed Doors were influences.

Eventually however, I put it all away, never going back to any of it again, and just wrote the novel from my own memory and imagination. I suppose that all of it, plus my memories of Johannesburg and my visits to all the places I wrote about, suffused my mind and helped it all come together.

TF: It is a very intimate experience writing a fictional character as ‘I’. The present tense makes it more immediate – there is little space to step back and to take a breath. How did you handle this? How did you live with Terry and her with you? Did you feel maternal towards her? Ashamed of her? Perhaps tired of the responsibility sometimes? How did you keep her at bay? Did you feel as if you were going around with an imaginary friend? What methods/rituals did you use to separate?

EE: I wrote the book in the first person present tense through Terry’s eyes, so she did indeed begin to live in my head. I had to stop myself lying awake at night dealing with what was going on in her life, wondering if she would be able to manage or not. I felt maternal towards her most of the time, and when I was actually writing, I sometimes became very, very sad and would cry about what was happening to her. Yet I was making it happen by writing it. So it is a complex relationship. I was causing her pain, but feeling incredibly sorry for her and wanting to hold her.

TF: Academic writing is dry, detached and objective. Fiction writing is thoroughly human, sensual, and subjective. How did you move far enough away from the cold writing to the visceral nature of this fictional drama?

EE: For me, fiction allowed me to develop an emotional relationship with my characters, and convey them in language, which could explore their internal psychological worlds most effectively. I believe that poetry, fiction, fine art, photography and many art forms are can bridge the divide between the artist, the audience and the subject and allow proximity, emotional identification, passion, empathy, compassion and wonder. None of these are available, in my mind, in non-fiction writing (with a few exceptions).

TF: Why did you change your writing goal from a sociological discourse to a subjective story?

EE: I had intended my interview material and research efforts to be used in some kind of non-fiction sociological study of the dysfunctional South African family, the breakdown of relationships, the dreadful mess that the criminal justice system is in, and this kind of thing. But when I started to write this, it really wasn’t what I wanted. It did not read well, it was detached, dry and very unreadable. I need to inject feeling and life into the subject, and went on a long journey, which included attending a few short creative writing courses and finally ended in me doing a Masters in Creative Writing, in order to liberate myself sufficiently to write the novel. I had to shed the various layers of writing techniques I was familiar with and find a fictional voice.

TF: How do you balance your different types of writing now?

EE: I personally spend every day of my life writing in the detached mode of a lawyer, fund-raiser, and analyser. When I write as a novelist I have to leave this behind and enter the other mode, which is not always easy. But it is the one I prefer!