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Short Sharp Stories

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Die Laughing Teaser: Q&A with Barbara Erasmus

Barbara ErasnusBarbara Erasmus is freelance hooker who has written a miscellany of features for anyone who will pay her. These have been published in both national and community papers, as well as in magazines such as Men’s Health, Country Life, Fair Lady, Equinox, Diversions and Private Edition. She is a listed writer on the UK website Travel Intelligence and won the annual Woman&Home short story competition in 2008. Her novels include Kaleidoscope, Even With Insects and Below Luck Level. Her crime-fiction novel Chameleon was first published online in installments on BooksLive Crime Beat blog, which she edited for three years. She is currently on the beat, attempting to solicit both a publisher for her fifth novel, Four Letter Words, and a director for her screenplay of Kaleidoscope.

 

 

 

What is your take on humour SA- style? 

I aim for a wry, understated humour. I don’t enjoy slap-stick, over-the top comedy, either to read, watch or write but I follow a number of local columnists who highlight the absurdities of local politics and have the stamina to be funny on a daily basis.

 

Your DIE LAUGHING story, ‘The Pushmi-Pullyu Equation’, features a grandmother who visits Los Angeles to be with her ‘American’ family. The tongue-in-cheek action plays out as tension arises between the granny and her daughter-in-law risibly named the Paragon. Is this mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law relationship typically exploited for humour? 

In-laws have long provided writers with material for humour because they introduce an element of otherness into the nuclear family. Anything qualifies. Comparisons are made about everything from cooking skills to gardening and university degrees.  There’s no bad guy in most of these scenarios — each is full of good intentions, certain that their way will deliver optimum results — and optimum grandchildren.

 

The Paragon – supremely confident – is affectionately described as an Olivia Pope clone, a Fixer, who may, in Granny’s eyes, ideally like to ‘fix’ her mother-in-law. How does your story reflect their personality clashes?

I wanted to write a story about how a sense of otherness can arise, not because the new daughter-in-law is black but because she is American. Dairy Milk rather than Bourneville — a continental rather than a racial mismatch. Many factors complicate communication between family members, and the global village means your son is less likely to marry the girl-next-door. That said, many other ‘differences’ add to the comedy, and the grandmother is in the perfect position to experience first-hand the difficulties of adjusting to life in the USA: driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, cooking ‘oxtail stew’ which seems anathema to this small American family, getting used to a new accent — even the ‘hooting’ is done in an American accent!

 

The grandmother is ambivalent about her option to emigrate to join her family. How did you develop the humour, but also the pathos?

Changing continents is a huge decision, especially if you are planning to follow your children. Mobility is the name of the game for the young. Long term careers with the same company are no longer common so there is every likelihood that the kids you want to join in Manhattan — and you give up your entire life to this — will relocate to Beijing once you get there. The lure of children and grandchildren may be tempting but it’s not easy to leave Africa behind. I really wanted to communicate a sense of this in my story — the opposing forces of the Pushmi-Pullyu equation at play, really to play with that image, the unicorn with a head on either side of its body, both heads wanting to go in different directions.

 

Does your story have personal resonance for you, as you have children and grandchildren living overseas?

A problem with being white and solvent is that one’s circumstances are very different from the vast majority of South Africans so my story can only resonate with a small segment of the population. This includes people like me who are unemployed and getting older by the day, leaving them with time to play bridge a couple of times a week. Often, these games don’t materialize because someone has flown off to visit children who have signed on for jobs with prospects in London, Sydney or Tel Aviv! Global mobility splits up families all over the world but political and economic uncertainty has aggravated this scenario in South Africa. Eight years of Zuma is enough to make anyone anxious about the future.

We’ll always love and miss our Canadian connections but have become dexterous on WhatsApp and Facebook — and have recently acquired a delightful daughter-in-law and grandchild who live locally.

 

Going back to The Story of Doctor Doolittle from where you’ve referenced the Pushmi-Pullyu, do children still read these classic stories?   

The Far Away Tree is as riveting as Harry Potter and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. My grandchildren read the same books I read to their parents, albeit in updated technicolor editions. Who wouldn’t find Dr Seuss entertaining? And if they don’t, we can ignore them and settle down to re-read them ourselves…

  

When it comes to writing, you describe yourself as ‘a freelance hooker who has written a miscellany of features for anyone who will pay her’. (Haha!) Is this indicative of the problems in committing to a writing career in SA? 

My freelancing career has proved even less lucrative than teaching, with the added disadvantage that pay cheques are intermittent. Safrea advises writers not to accept less than the minimum rate but I have a tendency to pounce on anything I’m offered. As circulation for newspapers and magazines falls, it makes sense for editors to use in-house staff rather than freelancers — and for your name to be Deon Meyer when you submit a manuscript to a publisher!

I came across a wonderful website called Literary Rejections which contains alphabetical lists of literary agents from around the world. I have currently been rejected by UK agents up to G …

 

As a novelist, short-story writer and journalist, do you have a preference for any particular form?

Humour is my forte but I veer towards tragedy once I get started. Small scale domestic tragedy. Not a gun nor a gang in sight. Maybe he stops loving you. Maybe your mom dies and you really miss her. Or you don’t miss her at all and that makes you feel guilty. Although I have no medical background, I am interested in the ripple effect of medical conditions on the families who live with those afflicted. I enjoy researching conditions such as autism, Alzheimer’s and Turner Syndrome as well current affairs such as white-collar crime. It continues to amaze me how willing busy professionals are to talk to mid-profile writers like myself who are interested in finding out more about their specialities.

 

Do you often use real life as a starting point for your fiction?

I never write about myself or the people close to me. I kill off a lot of mothers in my books but I adored my own who died gently when she got old. I don’t need a visa to visit my daughter-in-law who lives down the road in Meadowridge. But I am a good listener. And a proficient eavesdropper. I latch onto nuggets of conversation, a newspaper headline, or a line of poetry and use these as starting points for researching a book. I remember emotions I have felt and apply them to fictional circumstances.

 

What advice would you give to the short story writer? 

My advice to anyone who wants to write is just to start. It always felt impossible that my first few pages would grow to 80 000 words but I’ve somehow written five novels. And hey, short stories are so much shorter !

 
Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 9.00.45 AMBook Details:
Editor Joanne Hichens
Foreword Evita Bezuidenhout
ISBN / EAN 9780994680518
Publication date July 2016
Buy the book here!

 

 

 

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