Children's Literature Interest Group Interview with Beverley Naidoo

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Beverley Naidoo was born in South Africa but moved to the United Kingdom in 1965. As a child Beverley always loved stories but only started writing when her own children were growing up. Her first book, Journey to Jo'burg, won The Other Award in Britain. It opened a window onto children's struggles under apartheid. In South Africa it was banned until 1991, the year after Nelson Mandela was released from jail.

Do you base your characters on real people?

That would be dangerous! Although I enjoy retelling fables and folk stories that have much to say about human beings, I’m probably known more for my fiction about ‘real life’. I always start with a lot of research. I’m nosey. I don’t just want to know ‘how’ something has happened, but the ‘why’ that leads deep into the human heart. If a real person were to identify themselves as one of my characters, especially one whose heart is a fortress, that person mightn’t be pleased. Some writers have found themselves sued...

I research to ensure that a situation is credible i.e. everything that happens in my plot has to be ‘possible’.  It certainly doesn’t have to be ‘probable’. But I always leave myself free to imagine my characters, some of whom I will place in very difficult situations. Once my characters begin to grow in my mind, we go on a journey to discover how they might act - and why.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

I live near a beach. It’s amazing what sea air can do.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

It’s probably keeping my sense of direction and energy on a long project. If I were a long-distance runner, I imagine this would be about not going astray during the middle stretch.  Novels like The Other Side of Truth and Burn My Heart have each taken a couple of years while Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett – a biography for adult readers - took seven years. So maintaining my focus and sense of purpose is critical.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

It allows me to pursue my curiosity, especially during research. I’ve had so many interesting encounters with others, including young people and teachers I’ve met during my research workshops, as well as with other writers, translators and readers. For me, being a writer has opened up conversations around the world.

What inspired you to write?

I loved stories as a child yet the library in my convent school was always locked. The attitude was that we girls should just study our textbooks. Luckily my parents loved stories. They collaborated on writing children’s stories with music for radio.  But as a white child growing up under apartheid in South Africa, I remained very blinkered until I reached university.  I didn’t start writing until I had children. I was living in exile in England and the particular impetus was discovering that the non-fiction books about South Africa for children were as limited and untruthful as those from my childhood.  Even books published in Britain after 1976 told readers nothing about the hundreds of young black people in Soweto who had been shot dead by police... nor about Nelson Mandela and others locked away in jail. Nor was there any fiction for young people in which they could begin to imagine themselves experiencing what apartheid meant.

I knew there were gripping stories to be told. So I began to write. My first two books, published in 1985, were Journey to Jo’burg, a short novel for young people, and Censoring Reality, mainly for teachers and librarians about the misrepresentation in books about South Africa. (You can read or download a pdf from the Non Fiction section of my website.)  Both books were banned in South Africa until after Nelson Mandela was released from jail.

Do you follow the same process each time you write?

I’ve written poetry and plays as well as fiction and non-fiction and the process is obviously affected by the genre. But generally I begin with a lot of thinking and mulling over ideas in my head, jotting notes and whatever occurs to me, including questions, in a notebook.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

When I’m ready to start putting thoughts together. My handwriting has become increasing awful so I can just about read back my notes.

How much does your editor change what you write?

I’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderful editors who have been sensitive to what I’ve set out to achieve. The relationship between writer and editor needs to be one of trust and frankness. The most important thing is the book in hand, so if a trusted editor feels something isn’t working, I listen and engage with that. Jane Nissen, who was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished services to the world of children’s books in 2007, edited a number of my novels published by Penguin Children’s Books.  Her commitment was outstanding and I’ve valued her friendship. I fear that in today’s harsh publishing climate there is a lot more pressure on an editor’s time and pressure to acquire books that are immediately marketable.

I’ve also been fortunate in having Hilary Delamere as my agent and someone whose judgement I trust as an early reader of my work. The writing process can leave you feeling quite vulnerable and having a supportive editor and agent is hugely helpful. 

What is your attitude to ebooks?

Change is inevitable. I shall always prefer a book in my hand but if ebooks bring in more readers, that’s fine. However ebooks are also part of the bigger story of how much profit can be made from books as a ‘commodity’ with authors regarded primarily as producers of this commodity.  We live in a world where the word ‘value’ is all too often taken as meaning ‘market value’. 

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

I loved fairy stories and folk tales but the first book that told me that literature could be about real life was The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it in the 1950s and I’ve carried Anne Frank’s young voice in my head ever since. I loved the way she spoke out for social justice and when I visited Palestine in 2000, she was still with me.  Under the Non Fiction section of my website, you will find my article ‘What Would Anne Frank Have Said?’

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read, read, read... and keep a notebook!


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