‘Ghost Limb’ author Almini van der Merwe on publishing her first novel
Almini van der Merwe’s debut novel, ‘Ghost Limb’, was published this year. She chatted to The Reading List about the highs and lows of the exercise.
Ghost Limb is emotionally charged and poignant, set in the late 1980s in Strand in the Western Cape. In the book, a woman named Johanna arrives to work at the home of a dominee’s family. At first, she appears full of fun, if enigmatic, but soon she begins to draw the people around her into a complex and mysterious psychological web.
Ghost Limb is the latest book published under the Umuzi Trailblazer imprint from Penguin Random House, which focuses on shorter works of fiction meant to provide insight into what it is like to live on the African continent.
In this edition of #TheFlap, The Reading List spent a few minutes chatting with Van der Merwe about her writing – and reading – life.
The Reading List: Thank you for agreeing to an interview with us for Daily Maverick, Almini! #TheFlap is based on the Proust Questionnaire, an infamous parlour game invented by the French writer Marcel Proust, who believed the answers would reveal a person’s true nature…
So, to begin: What were some of the unexpected challenges that came up while you were writing? What was unexpectedly easy?
Almini van der Merwe: Finishing the damn thing was challenging. I ran out of steam right before the climax and the novel stood still for many years. When I finally mustered the courage or fortitude or whatever it was to tackle that scene it actually wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated, but I think it intimidated me for a long time. What I found unexpectedly easy were the long nostalgic asides that venture into memoir territory. There I could rely on memory to carry me and didn’t have to strain my rather limited imagination.
TRL: What was the most exciting part of the publishing process?
Almini van der Merwe: I found it all quite exciting and simultaneously quite overwhelming. I had become quite used to keeping my own counsel and my comfortable snail’s pace so it was quite overwhelming to take on outside perspectives and deadlines. One highlight was meeting my publishing team, Fourie Botha and Catriona Ross, in person and realising this was really happening. I also loved the home stretch, where I worked closely with my editor Alison Lowry, and how seamlessly we were able to understand each other. She really worked her way into my subconscious and her voice almost felt like an extension of my own. It was amazing to have that companionship and counsel when faced with longstanding headaches and problems.
TRL: What question do you think readers are going to ask you the most?
Almini van der Merwe: Is the novel based on real events?
TRL: What’s the more important daily goal: a certain number of words, or capturing an idea on the page?
Almini van der Merwe: It feels amazing to get words on a page and it is easy to fall for the illusion of productivity that a clacking keyboard conjures, but I feel happiest when I feel I have nailed down something ineffable that was previously beyond my reach and that gets me closer to my final goal. Some days that’s a word or a sentence and other days it’s going into the negatives, by whittling down a wall of text. In the early days it does feel useful just to get some material on a page though, even if just to get past your own inner critic.
TRL: Pen and paper or keyboard and screen?
Almini van der Merwe: Both, for different purposes. I keep a pen and paper on my worktable for fleeting thoughts or fragments that I want to log. I also keep a paper diary, but for novel writing I do prefer a word processor because it allows for less-messy editing.
TRL: Do you have an ideal reader in mind while you are writing?
Almini van der Merwe: No, I don’t. I write basically like I am the only person who will ever read it. This creates problems later because I have to do a lot of editing for clarity.
TRL: If you could co-author a book with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose and what would it be about?
Almini van der Merwe: As an avid reader and admirer of so many, both contemporary and classic, the mind boggles, but the truth is that I would struggle to relinquish creative control or even just the solitary pleasure of the process. By its nature I think writing is a solitary pursuit and if I wanted to collaborate with other people I probably would have gone into a different line of work.
TRL: What’s the first book you can remember having read to you? Or the first book from your childhood or youth that left a strong impression?
Almini van der Merwe: There are so many. I quite enjoyed horror stories, and after exhausting the Goosebumps stories in the children’s section of the library I graduated to Stephen King. There are also Afrikaans fables and fairy tales that made a strong impression. Huppelkind by WO Kühne is one, Jakkals en Wolf another. And I had a copy of nursery rhymes from the 1940s with some pretty terrifying illustrations. Also, the children’s bible, Alice in Wonderland; all the Enid Blyton stories.
TRL: What is your greatest indulgence?
Almini van der Merwe: Sleep.
TRL: After people have read your book, what should they read next?
Almini van der Merwe: I think my book almost demands a palate cleanser, but I am at a loss for recommending one. I usually turn to television for that. But perhaps I could recommend the second-to-next one? I like to read stories of obsession, and one author from the German-speaking world that South African readers might not necessarily know is Thomas Bernhard. The Loser is excellent. I can also wholeheartedly recommend Max Frisch. I am currently finishing Gantenbein although again, it is quite a demanding read. DM
Ghost Limb by Almini van der Merwe is published by Umuzi (R270). Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including interviews! – daily.