Sunday, March 31, 2024

In discussion with author M Kelly

What feels like a hundred million years ago, before the Great Panini of 2020, I edited a collection of short fiction by Namibian author Marisa Kelly, and the stories have seen the light of day courtesy of one of my favourite African small presses, Modjaji Books. A big welcome to Marisa here on my spot, for a little Q&A and author spotlighting! 

I always maintain that an editor can tell a lot about the authors they work with, based on their writing, and the one thing that struck me about your writing is that you've lived in many different places in southern Africa. Can you tell us more about your journeys and some of your favourite places in Africa? What is it that you love about this region?

I’ve been lucky enough to spend a bit of time travelling in quite a few African countries over the years but Namibia is the only one I have called home – I’ve lived here since 1998. I’m pleased that you think my work reflects a familiarity with the sub-Saharan region but the truth is that I have a very vivid – almost cinematic – imagination, I’m super observant (aka nosy), have a good memory, and do massive amounts of online research before I begin my stories. So actually, quite a few of the locations for my tales are places I’ve only passed through briefly, or visited on the Internet! Ethiopia is one place I’m longing to return to though; I felt an affinity with Addis Ababa the moment I arrived (something to do with the outstanding coffee?). As for what I love about the region – my background is (broadly) in animal welfare so let’s say I came for the wildlife and landscapes and stayed because of the amazing – often eccentric – people I’ve met.

Every writer has some sort of origin story, a moment when they realise 'this is what I want' – what is yours? What are some of the highlights of your writing journey thus far?

I consider myself primarily a story-teller, rather than a proper, grown-up author... I have no formal education in literature or creative writing and so, in a sense, this has freed me to blithely take the plunge as an amateur where aspiring professional writers might have been a bit more circumspect. From 2017, I submitted a series of rather rough drafts to the Kalahari Review online magazine and eventually the editor, Derek Workman, suggested they could be polished into a collection. By then, my work as an editor of technical/scientific work and newspaper-column contributor was drying up so it seemed a good moment to change course and, luckily, I managed to find a home for that first collection, A Bed on Bricks fairly quickly, at Modjaji Books. Also, reading Diana Athill (who was a 20th-century British literary editor and latterly a memoirist) made me realise that the skills you need to edit other people’s work are a good foundation for original writing. A highlight since then has been getting to know local authors – all much younger than me, and many people of colour – who are often mentioned alongside me in the cohort of ‘emerging Namibian writers’.

Namibia has a special place in my heart, possibly because I'm married to a Namibian, but what is it about the place that creeps into your soul? How has that bled out into your writing?

The process of coming up with a story, for me, is usually that I think of a conundrum or crisis; imagine the type of person who might drive it, or be affected by it; then consider a suitable environment in which to place it. In Namibia, we have a remarkable diversity of people and places – not to mention the race-based economic and social disparities that are still so evident, regrettably – so I have the raw materials right here. And I walk in nature, a lot, and use the time to figure out the mechanics of a plot. I thought I read in a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that Horace, the Roman poet, once said: ‘In walking comes the answer’ but I’ve never been able to track the quote down… Nevertheless, it’s true: so many stories I read don’t ‘hold together’ in a logical way, or lack spatial or temporal coherence. A writer really does need to consider structure, chronology, history etc. and solitary rambles in the veld let me thrash out that aspect.

Single-author short story collections are often a hard sell when it comes to publishers, so we are super lucky to have someone like Colleen Higgs from Modjaji Books championing the format. Did you set out to write all the stories specifically for a single release or do they all have back-stories attached to them?

Since 2017, I have had 17 stories either published online or entered into short-form fiction competitions and awarded prizes. Nine of these were then collected into the book that (wonderful, supportive) Colleen published. Competition entries often have to conform to a theme, which is great discipline for a writer, but many others I just freestyle when the inspiration hits. Mostly, I write ¾ of a story, let it marinate a while, then come back to it once a resolution forms; I usually have at least five tales half-written and waiting to tell me how they want to end.

It would seem that the publishing industry is only becoming more and more of a challenging environment for newer writers to navigate. What is some of the advice you'd give newer authors that you wish present-Marisa had given past-Marisa?

It’s very tempting to go the self-publishing route now, especially after some dispiriting rejections. But for me, there’s really no substitute for having the backing of an established publishing-house team – so I would advise new authors to persevere, and take any advice offered along the way. I’ve yet to read a self-published book that wouldn’t have been much improved by the inputs of a content editor/line editor, proofreader and professional layout artist/illustrator (for the cover). And also, because I am a contrarian by nature, I would say, don’t just ‘write what you know’ (that cliched advice) but be far more ambitious. I read an awful lot of low-stakes, limited horizons ‘My Bad Breakup’ type of auto-fiction but the writers I love are ones that aren’t afraid to tackle important themes on a big canvas.

Of course the question that EVERY author dreads with these sorts of interviews – what are you currently working on? And can you direct readers to any of your other existing works?

I have two follow-up short story collections that I've submitted to South African publishers that I hope will see the light of day, and another in process. Although I am very leery of social media, I do include links to all my stories that appear in online journals etc. on my Facebook page, too. And – by the by – I also ‘work’ as the volunteer manager of a small-scale women’s project that upcycles fabric samples into various eco-friendly products ('Sew Good Namibia') and I am in discussions to launch a ‘little library’ pilot project here to promote a reading culture in under-served Namibian communities.

Read Carapaces, a short story, here.

Pick up your copy of Bed on Bricks here. Or on Amazon. Find out more about Marisa's environmental work, find her on Facebook, and check out Sew Good Namibia on Instagram.

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