I recently had the pleasure of reading Gail Schimmel’s new novel, The Park. The story follows Rebecca, who is a mother to her adopted daughter, Amy. Rebecca starts taking Amy to the park to get out of the house, meet other children and other parents. Soon enough, Rebecca meets Rose and Lillith and their daughters. The three women soon become close friends but, with both Lilith and Rose, things aren’t quite what they seem.
I had the great privilege of interviewing Gail Schimmel for The Park’s blog tour, hosted by Pan MacMillan South Africa. The transcript of that interview follows below.
Paperback Reader: first off, Gail, congratulations on publishing your latest novel. It was a great book and I really enjoyed it. Tell me, though, did you enjoy writing the book?
Gail Schimmel: that’s a hard question. Most writers have this thing where all they want to do is write, but when they sit down to do it, they’ll do everything but write. They clean out their cupboards, fold washing and the like. I did enjoy writing the book, because I enjoy writing. I mean, I must enjoy writing otherwise I wouldn’t have put myself through this. However, I always hit a bit of a bump at 30 000 words for some reason. I also found some characters, for example, Eugenie, very easy to write and Lerato fun to write, but other characters not so much. In other cases, I would really look forward to writing certain scenes. I would even sit down at my desk and rub my hands together eagerly! So, I guess you could say that I enjoyed some parts more than others.
PR: Where did the idea for the book come from?
GS: I went to the park with a friend who asked me to watch her kids for a short while. She was gone quite a lot longer than expected and, when she came back, I informed her that I had just plotted my whole next book. Literally, this event gave rise to the whole basis for the book.
PR: Are any of the characters based on or inspired by real-life people?
GS: No, I generally don’t base any of my characters on real people. There are definitely characteristics and traits in some of the characters that are based on characteristics of people that I know, but no character is based on another person. I also think that writers tend to watch people very carefully and pick up on ‘types’ of people. For example, I think that Lerato is a type. Everyone knows a ‘Lerato’. I also find that the people who are the least like real people tend to be the most fun to write.
PR: What message did you want to get across with this book?
GS: I generally just want to tell a story. I don’t think that I am a very philosophical writer. I suppose, though, there are three underlying messages that I want to get across. The first is that motherhood is very hard and that is ok. It’s ok to be an average mother. It’s ok to feel challenged by motherhood. The second is a subtle message about racist behaviour and the way that people treat adopted children, especially when the parents and children are of a different race and hence people can see that the children are adopted (as is the case with Rebecca and Amy). There are a lot of patronising comments about what a good, kind person the mother is and how lucky the child is, almost like it’s a stray dog. What people seem to miss is that it’s the mother who considers herself to be the lucky one. The third aspect is that I believe there is a need to have homosexual characters in books where their homosexuality is not the story. I think this is a subtle way of normalising the characters. I did this with Joanne and Trixie in The Park.
PR: What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex/a different race/religion etc. to you?
GS: I honestly don’t find it hard to write from other perspectives, but I do find it hard to edit. You can’t speak with another person’s voice. You can research as much as you like, but these are sensitive issues. In the past, I’ve asked a gay friend to read the drafts and let me know if there’s anything potentially offensive in the book. In the case of The Park, I got advice from a coloured friend who has children with her (white) husband on how to refer to Amy – e.g. mixed race, coloured, etc. There are a lot of political aspects that can arise. One has to be very careful about cultural appropriation and misrepresentation.
PR: How long did it take you to write the book?
GS: In theory, a first draft takes me about 8 months, but sometimes things get in the way. I have young children and things like school holidays make it difficult for me to write. Additionally, I hit my usual 30 000 word slump, which added a bit of time. I also actually had this book on my computer for a long time without doing anything with it.
PR: That’s interesting. Tell me more about your writing process. Do you plot the whole novel and characters out first and then start writing, or just start and hope for the best?
GS: Before I start writing, I have the basic idea in my head. I’ve tried to just start writing without a clue and that really doesn’t work for me. I generally need to know where I want to be at the start, the middle and the end. I may not know how I’m going to get there, but I know where I want to be. I then write in a sort of ‘free’ way. With The Park, I also started keeping notes on what was going on more so than I had in my previous books – just brief notes on character traits, names, etc.
PR: And how do you write – by hand, on the computer, typewriter, dictation?
GS: I write on my computer. There is just no way that I could write by hand and retype it. Actually, when I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. When I told my parents this, my father, who was an artist, said that I would have to retype the whole story as I edited (this was in the days of typewriters). So, I decided that that sounded way too difficult and became a lawyer instead!
PR: Did you write it while working full-time?
GS: I work as a consultant attorney in comparative advertising, so I work in the mornings and parent in the afternoons. The book had to fit in with all of that.
PR: Do you write every day?
GS: I try to, especially when I’ve decided that I need to finish a book, but it’s not always realistic. I also like to try and write about 500 words a day. I generally attempt to do this before I do anything else, but, again, sometimes life gets in the way. I also can’t write over the weekends and at night as I have children, so I have to do it first thing in the morning.
PR: More generally, what is your favourite, underappreciated novel?
GS: I think that South African writing is generally underappreciated. People tend to assume that it’s heavy and self-conscious, and there is writing like that, but not all of it is. There are also plenty of fabulous, light-hearted and funny reads.
More generally, I think that Chris Bohjalian and Mary Wesley are exceptional authors that everyone who hasn’t read should read immediately.
PR: What would you say to young, aspiring writers?
GS: If you want to write a book, sit down on your butt and write it. It’s really that simple; there is only one way to do it. There are no shortcuts. You have to stare at your computer until you write it. A lot of people tell me that they think that they have a book in them. Well, unless you actually write it, it doesn’t do anyone much good.
PR: Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
GS: I strongly believe that every writer should read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. It really makes you think and is a must-read.
In terms of novels, it is very seldom that a writer re-invents the wheel, but I really can’t compare anything to Sally Andrew’s ‘Tannie Maria’ books. There is a naiveté that is similar to Alexander McCall Smith’s books, but then there is a deeper, not-so-naïve layer to them. I especially recommend ‘Recipes for Love and Murder’.
PR: Thanks so much for your time, Gail. That was really insightful and best of luck with your new book.
I recently wrote a full review of The Park, which can be found here.
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