In an interview with Conversations with Writers, Zukiswa Wanner discusses her books Behind Every Successful Man and The Madams.
Conversations with Writers: When did you start writing?
Zukiswa Wanner: I started writing when I was five. As a prospective published writer though, I was kind of pushed into it by South African writer Lewis Nkosi, who had seen some of my opinion pieces and suggested that I should consider writing fiction. I told him I was too much of a realist to write fiction and he told me it was the greatest bull he had ever heard.
I thought it a challenge and in two weeks I had written the first draft of The Madams. I sent it in its rawness to another Drum-era journalist – the now late Doc Bikitsha – and he loved it and suggested that I make it longer. He also sent me a list of five publishers to send the manuscript to and of the five, three accepted it. I picked one out of those three, went through a rigorous editing process and the rest, as they say, is history.
Conversations with Writers: How would you describe your writing?
Zukiswa Wanner: I write stories of contemporary South Africa.
In my writing, I generally focus on the middle-class because I believe I see enough of poor stories in Africa on CNN.
Conversations with Writers: Who is your target audience?
Zukiswa Wanner: I write something that resonates with me and that I would enjoy. It's just coincidental that there are people who have read my work who seem to enjoy it, which I suppose is an indication that ultimately, many of us have similar aspirations.
Conversations with Writers: Which authors influenced you most?
Zukiswa Wanner: The Zimbabwean author, Shimmer Chinodya, because I love the way he manages to bring out serious issues through humour (and therefore not sound preachy). I also love George Orwell's cynicism.
Conversations with Writers: How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
Zukiswa Wanner: Apart from language usage, not much.
I tend to use other people's stories, so some of my friends have been bastardised in the two books that I have written, in one way or other.
Conversations with Writers: What is your main concern as a writer?
Zukiswa Wanner: My main concern is probably writing something that's entertaining enough for people to keep turning the pages in these days of short attention spans.
Conversations with Writers: How do you deal with this concern?
Zukiswa Wanner: I am yet to know how to deal with it because traditional 'intellectual' readers want me to be more serious when writing while people who generally have never read tell me how much they enjoy my conversational style. I shall have to keep 'practicing' so I can create a balance between the two.
Conversations with Writers: What are the biggest challenges that you face?
Zukiswa Wanner: My greatest challenge is being referred to as 'a good female writer', as opposed to just being a good or bad writer. I think it's awfully patronising and I tend to dismiss people who refer to me as that because my writing (essays, blogs, etc.) is not limited to 'female issues' (whatever that is) and even if it was, women make up half the world anyway.
Conversations with Writers: Do you write everyday?
Zukiswa Wanner: I write everyday. Mostly emails and responses to people on Facebook. But I also generally wake up at about midnight and write throughout the night daily.
I then take a shower, take my son to crèche, and then come and sleep for most of the day unless I have assignments that just can't be put on hold.
Conversations with Writers: How many books have you written so far?
Zukiswa Wanner: Two.
The Madams (Oshun, Nov 2006) is a story of the friendship of three women in today's Johannesburg and the issues they experience.
The novel explores questions like: Is HIV/Aids just a disease of those under 35? Does our Rainbow Nation tag mean we, in South Africa, are truly over our racial issues and racial labels? Is domestic violence merely a disease of the lower classes? In spite of women getting top jobs and the best constitution in the world, are women really equal [to men] in today's South Africa?
The book is written in the first person and the voice is that of one of the female protagonists.
My latest novel, Behind Every Successful Man (Kwela Books, June 2008) deals with traditionalism versus modernity and questions whether a woman can ultimately be satisfied with just being there for her husband and her children without pursuing her own dreams (well, unless of course her dream is to be a stay-at-home mom). It's written in the third person and gives both the husband's and the wife's perspectives.
In Behind Every Successful Man, Nobantu decides she is going to leave her house to pursue her dreams, to the horror of her CEO husband Andile. He then has to learn how to be a father to his children, as opposed to being a cheque book dad, while she has to learn how to be in business without the security of his money to fall back on.
Conversations with Writers: How did you chose a publisher for your latest novel?
Zukiswa Wanner: I left Oshun because the team that I had worked with on The Madams had all quit and I tend to like working with people I am familiar with (the royalty fee I was being offered at Kwela didn't hurt either!).
I chose Kwela because I was already friends with a lot of their writers and knew the inside scoop, I also knew their publisher and many in their team.
The advantage, in addition to the aforementioned higher royalty percentage, is that they have a better publicity team. People actually stop me in malls now to tell me how much they enjoy my books (the down side is that I can't walk around wearing sweats anymore!)
Conversations with Writers: Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?
Zukiswa Wanner: Nothing, because I was commenting on a time I am living (the present) unlike I suspect, if I had been writing a historical novel (yet another reason why I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is so brilliant).
Conversations with Writers: What did you enjoy most?
Zukiswa Wanner: Sometimes I just have a line that feels right. In Behind Every Successful Man, that line was from Nobantu's mom as repeated by her mother, 'Better to cry in a limo than laugh in a taxi'.
Conversations with Writers: What sets Behind Every Successful Man apart from The Madams?
Zukiswa Wanner: The style as I have highlighted above. And the fact that I actually have a male voice in Behind Every Successful Man.
Conversations with Writers: Are there any similarities?
Zukiswa Wanner: They both deal with issues that women I know have struggled with at one time or other.
Conversations with Writers: What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Zukiswa Wanner: Being featured as one of South Africa's Most Phenomenal Women this year and my nomination for a South African Literary Award.
* Zukiswa Wanner is the author of Behind Every Successful Man. Wanner has contributed material to newspapers and magazines that include the Sunday Independent, Oprah, Elle, Juice and Afropolitan.
* This interview was originally published by Conversations with Writers.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.