#MTW2017 Q&A with Sarah Key

As part of Mystery Thriller Week The Blithering Bibliomaniacs have been conducting interviews with various authors. TBBManiac Robs had the chance to have a word, or few, with Sarah Key.

We hope you enjoy the results as much as Robs did!

Q: You were a high school teacher, and then moved to Adult Education – why did you decide to make such a move?

The teenagers were unruly and could not spell nor were they into Shakespeare. Schools are fairly rigid and regulated. I’ve never been very good at sticking to rules if I can’t see their point. Adult learners need to be self-directed if they are to be successful. The model is different from pedagogy – freer and more tuned to individuals who are accountable and this suited me better.

Q: You have two young daughters, how do they feel about Mom being a writer and have you in anyway involved them in your work – perhaps bouncing ideas around, or asking for their perspectives on any real life inspirations you may have?

Our daughters are happy with my present job and fairly proud of me, I think. Annabel, eleven, actually gave me an idea for the end of the last book of my trilogy, ‘The Starlight Tide’ although she had an abbreviated explanation of the situation that had played out.

Our thirteen year old, Olivia, has recently read all of Khaled Hosseini’s beautiful books and Jodi Picoult’s latest, ‘Small Great Things.’ I don’t believe in censoring reading material, however my books deal with dark issues and twisted deeds and contain some violence, realistic situations, and supernatural themes which some may find distressing, therefore, they are only suitable for a mature audience. They are, in ways and extension of me, and I’m not comfortable letting our children into that world for the moment.

Q: I know a number of moms are going to wonder; how on earth have you managed to write AND parent? Both are equally demanding and challenging and yet you’ve produced three books so far, with more to come! Do you follow a schedule when writing, allocating yourself a certain number of words or time a day for example?

Like many women I am an excellent multi-tasker. I have focused on raising our two daughters but they are now big enough to get on with life more independently. I have other family responsibilities and I fit them in.

I have never pressured myself – written to a set amount of words or set myself targets. Writing is what I love doing so I hammer away whenever life doesn’t get in the way of art. I am dogged and once I start a book (or trilogy) there’s no way I’m not going to finish it. I try to write every day, especially on the weekends. I usually do a block of writing in the morning from 10.00am – 13h00 and then get a bit in in the late afternoon between walking dogs and cooking dinner!

Q: Your trilogy is called Sisters of Light referring to your four female protagonists. This is an aspect of the story I enjoyed as it’s not often you have FOUR females working together, did they always work well together or was building a story with them a challenge for you?
My debut novel, Tangled Weeds is full of male characters so by the time I began The Dandelion Clock I had had enough of testosterone! Being female I found it easy to concentrate on women.

Flash and Honey are cousins and, thus, share family bonds. They are Cape Coloureds (part of an ethnic group in South Africa comprised of mixed race who speak the Afrikaans language).

Petra and Joanie are life-long friends with complicated childhoods spent in the colonial outpost of Lusaka, Zambia. The pairing of the protagonists added to interpersonal dynamics.

Each youngster struggles with her own issues and insecurities in early adulthood. Coming to terms with these, results in personal growth, self-actualisation and a higher degree of inner peace. Themes of seeking forgiveness, finding self-acceptance, and managing disorders are explored. As my plots unfold, my characters are affected by circumstances in their own ways and make decisions and take actions particular to their personalities.

Q: The Dandelion Clock introduces the reader to a number of themes which are prevalent within South African society; do you feel that your work with youth and your HIV/AIDS program helped you with providing the realism that was present? Were any of the scenes or characters inspired by people you’ve met or experiences you’ve had during your travels?

I have a deep love of ethnographic research. I did my Master’s Degree in 2002 and recorded narratives of Holocaust survivors and Apartheid resistors. I ran the national rollout of a UNICEF/Department initiative aimed at assisting orphaned and vulnerable children for three years. The adage ‘I’m a writer, anything you do or say might be used in a book,’ is true.

In Tangled Weeds there is an account of the experience of circumcision school. This subject is taboo and the description, provided by an initiate, is one of my favourite parts of the book. I was a social activist and worried about many issues such as the instability of southern Africa and how this feeds into the exploitation of women and children (sex trafficking). I witnessed the downward spiral that accompanies drug addiction.

The sisters are a mishmash of people I know, bits of my younger self and figments of my imagination. I was a student at Cape Town University in the late 1980s so experiences, favourite haunts and political context that colour the novels are my memories. I did a stint overseas working as a nanny in London, as Joanie does. My mother grew up in Zambia and I visited relatives there frequently and used these experiences in The Butterfly Wind.

Q: The Dandelion Clock was an intriguing mix of crime, thriller/suspense and supernatural. Why did you include supernatural elements – some might say it risks detracting from the suspense of the story as a whole, was this something that concerned you at all and how did you keep from getting too ‘spooky’?

I was a child of the radio. We only got a TV when I was twelve so my brother and I listened to a nightly serial about a psychic called ‘The Mind of Tracey Dark.’ I suppose Honey’s character lingered in the depths of my memories for almost forty years!

I didn’t intend to make Honey psychic – it happened naturally. I agree that it may put some readers off but I didn’t consider that. I don’t regard my books part of the supernatural genre. They are psychological thrillers that present multiple perspectives and many realities.

I had a rich (fairly dark) literary history. I grew up on fairy tales, Heinrich Hoffmann’s ‘Shock Headed Peter’, rhymed stories in which disastrous consequences befall naughty children. I read Edgar Allen Poe when I was a preteen and later on, Stephen King. My father studied psychology around that time and I was fascinated by his textbooks pouring over pictures of people with anorexia, catatonia and other disorders. I have always been fascinated by the aberrant human mind and have an overactive imagination.

Working as an adult educator I gained insights into African traditions and rituals. When I was a child our helper slept on a bed that was raised on paint tins. She believed in the tokoloshe, a dwarf-like water sprite, that got up to mischief. Witchdoctors, witches and traditional healers are part of African society.  Modadji, the Rain Queen, is believed to have power to control the clouds. Mythology is symbolic, archetypal, allegorical and powerful and enriches literature I believe.

Evil takes many guises and South Africa is a dangerous crime-ravaged place. While I do not enjoy uber violence I use suggestion to get my readers’ adrenaline flowing. When it gets too scary I move on to the next scene…

Q: How do you write a book – do you plot the outline and characters and develop them first, or do you write and see where everything takes you?

I wish I could meticulously plot a book before writing it. It would be much less stressful. I am not, however, a total pantser.

Once a setting and a cast of characters invade my mind I am under siege. My characters develop through my stories; they evolve or devolve as the case may be. The moral dilemmas they face are of particular interest to me. I believe that good must triumph over evil and there is always a chance of redemption. I think that this message of hope must be offered to readers in these challenging times.

Q: The process of getting a book written and then published is, I imagine, quite challenging. There’s the writing, proof reading, editing, cover designs and finally publishing and marketing. Are there any of these you found to be more challenging than the rest and has it gotten easier with each book you write?

I am a published author. Rebel ePublishers (Detroit New York London) has edited my manuscripts, designed my covers and placed three of my novels (so far) on Amazon as ebooks and paper books (print on demand). I am really lucky to have this support.

Authors need to realise that writing is the easy part. I resisted marketing until recently but my entire mindset has been changed by linking up with other authors, reviewers and book people. The internet is amazing and there are many like-minded readers and writers out there.

Q: The thriller/suspense genre is one I feel is quite patriarchal, while this is slowly changing it seems that there are still mostly male authors. Is this a fair assumption and are there any challenges you feel you’ve had to face and overcome being a female author within this specific genre?

I don’t think so. It’s not about gender but about how compelling your story is, how hard you work and how lucky you get. Thriller/Crime is the genre I have always loved. Incidentally I have recently read three local thrillers all written by women. Currently I have just finished The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison. I have struggled recently to find stand-alone thrillers written by men.

Q: I think that South Africa still has a long way to go in terms of giving our local authors the support and opportunities that say, sportsmen and music artists are given. Where do you think we should focus our attention to achieve the levels of success that international authors find – is this something that should be spearheaded by government or by communities instead?

I think we need to unite as writers. Let’s be real about the extensive pressing basic needs of citizens that the South African government fails to attend to. With health and education in crisis how are our rulers going to help authors?

Writers support other writers. Networking with people who have acquired in-depth knowledge by walking the path is the best way to learn and develop. Sharing information and hooking into networks brings not only emotional support but valuable connections. As writers, we need to join writers’ groups and find people who support local talent. The indie writer movement is gathering momentum in Johannesburg where I am based.

Social media is another huge platform that can be utilised to build global and at-home relationships. By tapping into groups that enjoy the particular genre that you write or book nuts in general, deep friendships can be formed and opportunities to promote yourself and others created.

All of this is time consuming and takes energy and effort. Only the lucky few are taken on by a publishing house which spends money marketing and setting up road shows so you have to be proactive. What has recently motivated me is the realisation that I haven’t worked so hard, for so long, for no-one to read my books. It’s tough in all industries, the written word is no exception. You’ve got to work as hard on your marketing as you do on your writing.

Q: If you had to give only one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?

Appreciate that writing is not easy. Some days you strike the keyboard with smug satisfaction and other days you sit tormented and tearful. Try to get into a routine of writing every day – even if it’s just for twenty minutes. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Q: Before we close off, is there anything you’d like to say to your supporters?

Thank you! I have been a writer for seven years and have not had many readers. Feedback on my work feels wonderful. The best thing gift you can give a writer is an honest review of their book.

TBBManiac Robs would like to thank Sarah on behalf of The Blithering Bibliomaniacs for taking the time to answer her questions, as well as for providing such amazing answers. 


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