Spotlight on Alex Smith


Alex Smith is the author of three novels, Algeria's Way, Drinking from the Dragon's Well (longlisted for the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award in 2008) and Four Drunk Beauties, all published by Random House Umuzi. She has had many short stories published in anthologies and journals, and her short story 'Buffalo Panting at the Moon' was shortlisted for the 2007 SA PEN Literary Awards. Alex was also shortlisted for the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Literary Award, won a silver award in the Sanlam Youth Literature Competition in March 2010 and was just nominated for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing.

Q. How did you become a writer?

Mmm, that is a strange idea, 'becoming a writer', like the beginning of a story. Wherever you pick for the story to begin is arbitrary because a story has so many possible beginnings. Iain M. Banks begins The Algebraist, a space opera of a novel with a paragraph to that effect.

One possible beginning in this case: in high school I wrote a shoddy adventure novel, inspired by Ian Fleming and set in Mauritius. Thankfully that manuscript has vanished, unpublished. More obvious a beginning I suppose was when I quit my good day job, sold my house and everything else I had, walked the Camino de Santiago, and then rented a labourer's cottage on a rose farm in Stellenbosh where I took up writing full time. That's where I wrote the first draft of my first published novel.

Q: What has been your greatest writing achievement?

Probably not giving up. Achievements are overrated virtues.

Q. How do you decide what to write about? Where do you get ideas?

Everything is inspiring, it can be overwhelming. Not all ideas are keepers though. Usually I leave an idea alone and if it returns over and over again then I do something about it.

Q. How easy is it to make a living as a writer?

It's not easy, but very near to impossible to make a living as a creative writer in South Africa. I believe if you can get into scriptwriting that is lucrative. Journalism is something else altogether. 

Q. What general advice would you give aspirant writers/journalists just starting out?

Journalists are in a different world - there are real jobs for journalists. I'd say to a person thinking of making creative writing their career, what my aunt once said to me: don't do it unless you can't live without it. Anne Landsman, winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Award, said at the Cape Town book fair last year that she feels [creative] writing is a vocation.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important writing tip you ever received?

Go back and rewrite it. Go back and rewrite the rewrite.

Q: When you mark your students' work, what are key qualities you look for in their work?

In anything I read, what I want from the sentence I'm on is for it to make me want to read the sentence coming. I want that of each paragraph, every page, and all chapters; I even want it from the last line. It must be moreish. That could be because the plot is riveting, or the language is entrancing or the concept captivating or perhaps the characters are just damn funny or brilliant, vivid, authentic... authenticity is a very fine quality.

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