Michelle Edwards obtained a Bachelor of Journalism from Rhodes University in 2005. She has lived in Taiwan, the United Kingdom and Zambia, and now lives in South Africa with her husband, two children and the most chaotic chocolate Labrador ever born.
Tell us something interesting about you.
I have spent the last few days thinking about (ie. waaaaay overthinking) this question. Should I write about something I like (example: puns and portmanteaus and also alliteration)? Something not many people know about me (such as that I have secret tattoos or that I am half-Afrikaans)? Something about the body I’m in (I’m double-jointed in my thumbs, elbows and shoulders – when I was more supple, I used to be able to hold my hands behind my back and pull my shoulder blades together until they touched [ew]). My abilities (quite a short list: writing; spotting a typo, spelling mistake or grammatical error from a mile away; and being able to memorise song lyrics from the first time I’ve listened to them), my upbringing (extremely eighties-and-nineties-suburban, West Rand of Johannesburg, yellow-grass hockey fields in winter and petrichor on summer afternoons) or my bad habits (wine, staying up too late on weeknights, waking up too late on weekends)?
For me, the things that are most interesting about people, both in fiction and IRL, are their incongruities – the things you would never imagine from your impression of them. So that is what I’m always looking for when I make new friends, or meet new people. I’m always wondering – what is something about you that seems out of place in my picture of you? It’s what I’m always looking for in the characters I write, and the characters I read about.
Did you study creative writing? If so, tell us how your course helped you. If not, how did you wind up writing?
I didn’t study creative writing, but I did study journalism with a specialisation in writing and editing, and I’ve written (and edited) for a living since 2009, after my overseas stint as a TEFL teacher (which gifted me with kindergarten Mandarin, the ability to ride a 125cc scooter pretty niftily in gridlocked traffic in the pouring rain, and excellent anecdotes – ask me in a DM about the time I unwittingly smuggled narcotics into the Philippines from Taiwan (WHAAAAAAT??). The course that got me to finally structure Go Away Birds, as well as my current three-fifths-completed, work-in-progress manuscript, as a proper novel was a Creative Writing Masterclass with Claire Strombeck and Mike Nicol, which was supervisory rather than instructional – so technique wasn’t “taught”, but I did get feedback on the manuscript at regular intervals.
This really helped me to stay motivated and accountable – and stopped me from making some very basic fiction mistakes. An example: initially, two of the characters in the book were called Frank and Frans. Total rookie error – not only did their names start with the same letter in a pretty broad cast of characters, which is usually a no-no, but their names are basically identical – massive nope. That’s the kind of technical help the course gave me, but the real gift of it, as I said, was having the extrinsic motivation to write the story, having deadlines and an audience, years before the book would be published.
What is the book about?
Go Away Birds is about Skye, a chef in her early 30s. She and her husband have been married for six months when the story starts. Together, they co-own Cape Town’s trendiest restaurant. When Skye makes a naïve misstep in an interview with a high-profile foodie magazine, she jeopardises both the business and her marriage, and in the wake of the ensuing social media storm, she leaves her husband and goes back to the farm in the Lowveld where she grew up. She hasn’t been back to see her mother, who still lives on the farm, for nine years – not since her mother’s partner passed away. While Skye is on the farm, she has to try to find a way forward while grappling with the way her unconventional upbringing shaped her as an adult, her difficult relationship with her mother, and the recent trauma she has suffered and kept a secret from everyone, including her husband.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve been fascinated for years by the idea of adult women abandoning their lives and starting over somewhere new – so the idea of a woman who has everything she’s ever wanted but can’t hold onto it, a woman who has to choose to make a new life for herself, was one I’d been wanting to explore in fiction for a while.
I was inspired by the places I’ve lived and loved – the area of the Lowveld where Skye grew up, between White River and Hazyview, is where I spent most of my teenage years; and when my husband and I were first married, we lived on the south peninsula of Cape Town, not far from Misty Cliffs, where the first part of the story unfurls. These places are described almost as characters in Go Away Birds and writing about them after I’d left was a way for me to keep them alive in my own life (I was living in Johannesburg when I wrote the manuscript).
But the most honest way for me to answer this question is to give what sounds like an esoteric or spiritual answer, even though I am not at all a spiritual person. Skye, Rory, Cam, Heather, Lola and Andile – the book’s main characters – came to me fully formed. The outlines of their stories, and who they are as people, appeared in my mind as if they existed on some other plane, and all I had to do was access them as truthfully as possible.
Sally Rooney has spoken in interviews about loving her characters, and observing them, rather than actively feeling like she created them, and that is the closest description of my experience with writing Go Away Birds that I’ve found. The characters themselves inspired me.
Who do you think this book will appeal to?
On the surface, Go Away Birds is about Skye’s journey to self-discovery, and it can be read as such – as a kind of modern women’s fiction. The closest comparison to this reading of Go Away Birds that I can give is a book I read years ago called The Mermaid Chair, by Sue Monk Kidd, which is also about a woman in a troubled marriage going back home. She also has a difficult relationship with her mother, and, not to give too much away, there is an unfortunate incident with a kitchen knife in both the Mermaid Chair and Go Away Birds.
But Go Away Birds is about more than one woman’s journey – it’s a book about South Africa, about white privilege, about belonging, and legacy, and history, and how problematic these three things are in modern-day South Africa, especially for children born in the eighties, towards the end of the Struggle. We didn’t personally fight apartheid, and we didn’t support it, but our entire lives have been shaped by it. So, in this sense, Go Away Birds will appeal to South Africans, especially those who are interested in our history, and who engage with how it has affected us. If you liked Bridget Hilton-Barber’s Student Comrade Prisoner Spy, which informed a lot of the background of the book, or Diane Awerbuck’s incandescent Gardening at Night, you’ll like Go Away Birds.
Tell us about your journey to getting published. Talk us through both your lowest point (when you’ve been ugly crying on the bathroom floor) and your highest point (cracking open the prosecco).
After I finished the MasterClass, I submitted the manuscript to the Dinaane Debut African Fiction Award, and it was one of six manuscripts that were longlisted (!!!). I thought, in my naivete, great, this is it! Even if I don’t win or get shortlisted, other publishers will read about the manuscript and that should give me an in! That was in June of 2018. But as it turned out, the manuscript was not shortlisted, and no publishers came knocking. I subsequently submitted the first three chapters to a few other publishers, all of whom were interested in seeing the full manuscript. The absolute low point for me came in these months, when I was waiting to hear from one publisher after another. I would draft increasingly impatient emails to them, and delete them before sending, in case they saw my mail, and my nagging annoyed them, and would make them not want to accept my manuscript after all.
This lonely, anxious time stretched on for a year, until the first high point in July 2019. I was sitting in a tea garden in South Lusaka, where we were living at the time, and the email came from Colleen Higgs at Modjaji, saying “we would love to publish your book”. I wanted to scream. But it didn’t feel real until a few months later, when the contract arrived, and I got to sign it, and then there it was in black and white, the ultimate high point: I was going to be a published author.
It’s strange, I never imagined that I’d want to get published – I’ve said before that I’m not a hugely ambitious person. Go Away Birds was a story I loved, and it was mine, and until I’d finished it, I didn’t care if it never left my desktop folder. But once I had dipped my toes into the water and got that longlisting, that was it – it suddenly became the most important thing in my life (other than my cherubic children and handsome husband – see, what did I tell you about alliteration). The year of waiting was intensely difficult for me, because there was nothing I could do that would increase the chances of publishers accepting the manuscript. I felt so lonely, and so helpless.
That is what spurred me on to start my current work in progress at the beginning of 2019, my second manuscript for a novel. Having a new project to focus on was invaluable in helping me to deal with the waiting.
Talk us through your writing process. Do you write thousands of words a day, 200 words a day? How does it all come together for you? Do you have A PLAN?
For Go Away Birds, I didn’t have a plan. On the MasterClass, we had to submit around 7 000 words a month, so I made sure I wrote those, and in the final month, to get to the end of the story, I wrote about double that. But that was without any plan at all – like I said, I was simply observing the characters and seeing what they’d do.
I came to deeply regret this approach in the editing of Go Away Birds. Modjaji assigned the incredible Emily Buchanan to edit the manuscript, and she and I worked together on it for almost a whole year – which is as long as it took me to write it in the first place. There were holes and inconsistencies and so many red herrings. If I’d started the manuscript with an end point in mind, editing would have been much easier.
So, now, with my second manuscript, which I’ve been writing for two years and am just over halfway through, I have a plan. It’s in my head – I don’t do post-it notes or notebooks or any planning by hand, but I know where the characters need to get to, and I know how to get them there.
My plan is to finish by the end of 2021, and so since the last week of October I’ve been waking up at 5am every day to write for two hours before exercising and then starting my workday (having a full-time job in marketing and two children means I need to actively carve out time to write or else it will never get done). At the moment I’m writing about 2 000 words a day, but I do go back every day and finesse what I wrote the day before. So, it’s pretty slow going. I am more tortoise than hare, and this is one of the reasons I already know I’ll never be a prolific writer.
What’s next for you?
My work in progress has the working title Falling Water (s/o to my fellow Maggie Rogers fans). It’s a much simpler book than Go Away Birds in that it doesn’t really address big themes, and is more firmly in the romantic fiction/women’s fiction genre. There is a lot of kissing in it, whereas Go Away Birds features exactly one kiss. Just one.
Advice to aspiring writers (you may not say ‘go and work in a bank’).
I have two pieces of advice, and they’re both practical rather than inspirational. One, find a reader you trust to be brutal with you – to highlight bits that don’t make sense or to question certain aspects of the manuscript. This is great practice for when you will have an editor. I went the MasterClass route, which meant getting professional and occasionally brutal but necessary feedback. If you don’t go through a programme like that, use someone in your social circle who knows books, who loves stories, and who loves you enough to be honest. Second, always read your work aloud, back to yourself. This helps a lot with rhythm and intonation, and you’ll hear immediately if a line or a chunk of dialogue, or a description sounds “off”.
I’m busy reading John Green’s Anthropocene Review – it’s his podcast turned into a book. He reviews things that humans have made, giving them star ratings out of five. It is so pure and wholesome, and a lovely bedtime read. Fiction-wise, Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series is honestly as brilliant as everyone says (I didn’t want to read them because I am ornery and do not enjoy reading things that have been hyped up – but I finally did, and am so happy). I’m also busy re-reading Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn – all her romantic fiction is insightful and quirky and sexy, all at once. My ultimate book recommendation is always A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – but don’t come crying to me after the twist at the end, because you will make me cry too, which I always do, and I’ve read it five times and listened to it on Audible twice.
Where can the fans get your book? Are there signed copies available?
There are a few signed copies at Bargain Books in Hartbeespoort, because that is the closest bookshop to where I live. Copies are also available at all good bookstores – last I checked, Love Books in Melville had two copies left, but if you can’t find a copy at your local, please ask them to order it in. Or you can order one through the publisher directly at modjajibooks.com, and on Kindle through the Amazon store, and worldwide through the African Books Collective. All the details on where to find a copy are on this blog post at my website, www.michelle-edwards-author.com. I also have a few signed and inscribed copies for sale through my site that I will courier to your door.
Thank you so much for taking part in #FridayReads!
Ps…I have the honour of being in conversation with Michelle next Thursday, 18th November at Exclusive Books, Rosebank Mall. 6 for 6.30pm. This book makes the perfect gift so pop along, listen to our chat and get a few signed copies of Go Away Birds for pressies (and obvs one for yourself.) Don’t forget to RSVP!