Sue Nyathi – An interview

Sue Nyathi 3 credit Mogau Ramaila of 3rd Eye Visuals
Sue Nyathi. Photo credit: Mogau Ramaila of 3rd Eye Visuals
I’m trying to remember how we first connected (menopausal porridge brain). Who stalked who (should that be whom?) on Twitter first? Did you stalk me or did I stalk you, or did we both do a bit of stalking?

I stalked you. I know this because I first met you in some obscure bookstore in Rosebank in 2014. It was in that centre which I think they have since torn down. I was pregnant at the time, not with expectation, but with Sabelo. So I was still at that stage where you are hankering to read everything about pregnancy. I even had a subscription to Living and Loving. So here I was, combing through the bookshelves and I saw “Ms Conception” and so I was like right, I am going to read this. I gobbled it up in a few days and then afterwards I started looking for you and I found you on Twitter. And that was how our friendship began.

Why has your mother not yet read The Golddiggers yet, Sue?? (Yes, I am still stalking you on Twitter)

She says she can’t get into it. She will read 10 pages and then say, “It’s not like the Polygamist.”
Of course it’s not like the Polygamist!! She is still hung up over Jonasi and his four wives and refuses to expand her reading horizon beyond them. I know when people have not read my books, some like to pretend they have but you know when they haven’t. So l always say, if my mom hasn’t read it, don’t feel guilty about not reading it. This is especially true in my close circle of friends. Like I totally understand, I have even dated men who haven’t read my books. Men who don’t read. I learned the hard way!!

What is the book about?

The GoldDiggers is a book that takes you on a journey from Bulawayo to Johannesburg. On board this quantum are Melusi, Lindani, Dumisani, Portia and her sons, Chamu and Chenai, a set of twins. Apart from Melusi, who is the driver, the rest of the passengers are fleeing from Zimbabwe at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. Each has their own story to tell. They are gold diggers in that they are trying to get a piece of the gold supposedly buried in Johannesburg. The book follows the path of each one as they try to navigate a foreign world which is sometimes hostile and unkind.

I see that the book has created quite a buzz on social media. What kind of feedback have you had from readers?

The book has created a buzz in two distinct ways. Zimbabweans are like, “thank you for telling our story”. On the other hand, South Africans are like, “we had no idea” and many have professed that in their privilege they were unaware of the brutal life faced by illegal immigrants. However, universally, everyone agrees that it is a touching book and a pertinent story considering the xenophobic attacks and migration crisis globally. It has created a lot of empathy as many professed after reading it, that they looked at their Zimbabwean domestic worker or gardener in a different light. That they were less harsh on that Zimbabwean waiter at their favourite restaurant. Which for me was the aim, I wanted to stir empathy amongst people. It is so easy to paint immigrants with one brush but each one has a story. I wanted to tell that story.

Tell us about your journey to getting published. Talk us through both your lowest point (when you’ve been ugly crying) and your highest point (cracking open the prosecco).
Sue and Pamela at the launch of The Golddiggers at Exclusive Books Rosebank. 2018
Sue and Pamela at the launch of The Golddiggers at Exclusive Books Rosebank. 2018

You know Pam, what many people don’t know is that I have been writing for years. I could say my first complete novel was at age 13, it was titled “Crazy Over You”. Teen romance influenced by your Sweet Valley High series. As I navigated through high school the books got longer and more intense. In my early 20s, whilst trying to get my first degree, I wrote what I believed was my fully fledged novel titled, “Family Affairs”. I was 25 when I felt confident enough to submit the manuscript to Weaver Press. It was well packaged, I even did a cover. Irene Staunton sent me a 2 page rejection letter which broke my heart. I had put so much into that manuscript. I decided then I was going to give up writing because it clearly was not meant for me. This will always be my lowest point because I was ready to give up the dream.

Months later, my late cousin, Nqobile Githinji then asked me why I was no longer writing. She was a journalist and had always read my books. I forwarded her the rejection letter and explained that the book thing was not for me and it’s a hobby I should have given up a long time ago. She called me and re- read the letter to me, pointing out the positives that were contained in that letter. So with great trepidation I revisited that manuscript and I rewrote one chapter as Irene had suggested and she reviewed it. Her feedback was invaluable. That was my first lesson in how take learn to take rejection and criticism and learn from it. I then spent the rest of the year rewriting that book again.

So Weaver Press was the first door to close in my face and many more followed. It was this decision that eventually led me to self publish The Polygamist at age 35, after another round of rejection letters. The Polygamist actually put me in the spotlight. This is how I actually ingratiated myself into the writing community and met many other writers like you. By the time I had completed the GoldDiggers manuscript you were able to refer me to your publisher. Although they finally gave me the dreaded rejection letter (they later told me they regretted it) it was their reader’s report that actually helped me with soliciting offers. When Pan Macmillan gave me that offer letter, it was my Prosecco moment.

With my twin author Fred Khumalo at Sues launch
With my twin author Fred Khumalo at Sues launch
The Golddiggers has just been longlisted for the prestigious Dublin Literary Award. We all knew this was an award-winning book, did you have any inkling it was going to be this successful?

I will be honest, when I wrote the book it was merely prompted by the conversations around xenophobic violence. I did not have any awards in mind when I wrote it; I was just keen for the world to hear our side of the story. When I wrote the Polygamist I remember being asked where I would want this book to go and I responded by saying, an award would be nice. Then I later discovered self published books were not eligible for mainstream awards so that whole award thing was pretty much aborted very early on in my career. For me the longlisting means a different thing. It is a recognition of the work I have done and an affirmation of my work. I had many doubts in the past about this writing thing. Even as a self published author you are looked upon with disdain, that you are not good enough. The funny thing is that in other industries e.g. the music industry, having your own label is great but in the writing industry self publishing is frowned upon. It’s like you exist on the periphery of the writing world. Many traditionally published writers would not even speak to me, such is the snobbery. I felt it. So even if I don’t make the shortlists or win the main prize, the longlistings say to me, we see you Sue. You are just as good as the rest of them. It validates me as a writer.

What would you like to say to people who diss chicklit/genre fiction?

Like I have said before, there is so much snobbery in the writing world. Chicklit is often dismissed as being frivolous but I love it. Marian Keyes is one of my fave Chicklit authors. Which is probably why I was drawn to your book, Misconception. You know I have read everything under the sun. From your Sidney Sheldons to your Martina Coles. All the stuff that is often considered trashy, I have read. I have also learned something from these books so I don’t toss anything. Sometimes I need a light hearted read, life is stressful and chicklit will have you laugh out loud. The Polygamist is often considered chicklit and that’s okay. Every book has its own target market. If it’s not for you then keep it moving. The classifications are limiting and if you follow them rigidly you will often miss out on a great read!

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?

When I was much younger, I was more meticulous about the planning. So with me it always starts with what is the story I want to tell and who is going to tell it. Then I draw up the character bible from there. In my earlier days I would even do a chapter by chapter synopsis of the whole book. I spent a great deal more time planning. Now my plans are sketchy and I tend to download from my head as I write. Which is great because writing needs to be flexible and fluid. My writing process is not dictated by word count. It is actually determined by the hours spent on the craft. Ever since I got retrenched in June 2018 I have had the liberty to do nothing but write. So I aim to spend at least 5 hours writing every single day. On good days I may write 1,500 words but on a bad day it could be 200 words but the plan is to do it diligently. I am one of those writers who prefer total silence when I write. You won’t find me in a cafe writing, the noise distracts me. Because I require total silence, early mornings work for me, so when I was gainfully employed I would write from 3am to 6am. Now I just write when my son is in school which is from 8am to 1pm. The minute he gets home I then transform from being the creative writer to the desperate housemom. I don’t write on weekends because I need to be “present” and also leave room to socialise with family and friends.

What’s next for you?

Well I have just completed my 3rd novel so I will take a hiatus from writing. I like to take a gap in between books. I finished the Gold Diggers in 2016 even though it only got published in 2018. I know many people will think I haven’t stopped writing since the Gold Diggers but I had a nice break in between the two books.

However the real conundrum is what next? Do I want to return to my career as an investment analyst or do I want to continue as a full time writer. The biggest challenge with writing full time is financial. I have a young son who still needs to get through school and the myriad of bills that have to be paid so that remains a driving consideration. I am even flirting with the idea of going back to school. So I am at the proverbial cross road of my life.

Advice to aspiring writers (you may not say ‘go and work in a bank’). How do you deal with rejection?

My advice to aspiring writers, you need 3 Ps to be a write. Persistence, Passion and Perseverance. If you don’t have those then don’t even think of writing as career. Passion is what will keep you going when the chips are down. Writing looks glamorous on the outside but its gruelling on the inside. I didn’t choose writing, it chose me. I say this because when I don’t write for a long time I start to itch. Like I have to get the story out of m.

Rejection is a painful thing that almost every writer is confronted with. It is painful because you start to doubt yourself and your ability to write. You hurt because you ask yourself if you even have a write to want it. Publisher rejection letters are a lot like your man crush Monday telling you he is not interested you in the same way. You are crushed initially. You will cry. You will eventually pick yourself up and rise above it. Like heartbreak, you heal in time and you pick up your pen and start writing again.

Are we ever going to do the Vic Falls Lit Fest?

I believe we will. A dream is a dream. It has just become a dream deferred because of the present circumstances.

And one day it WILL happen! Big thank you to Sue Nyathi for being my first author on #FridayReads. Her latest novel THE GOLDDIGGERS is published by Pan Macmillan South Africa. I highly recommend it!

Sue Nyathi 2 credit Mogau Ramaila of 3rd Eye Visuals
Sue Nyathi. Photo credit: Mogau Ramaila of 3rd Eye Visuals