Spotlight on Helen Brain

Helen Brain is the author of 30 books for children, an adult memoir and many short stories. In 1998 she won an ATKV award for her novel Tamara and her novel Noem my Kat was a runner-up for an ATKV award in 2001. Three of her books have been selected for the SACBF (South African Children's Book Forum) Honours List. In 2006 Helen was nominated for a Women Demand Dignity "White Ribbon" Award.

 

Helen tutors the Write a Children's Book Course, the Basics of Creative Writing and the Basics of Creative Writing for High School Students Course.

 

She lives in Cape Town with her family. "When I'm not writing, I'm teaching kids age 6-14, or making things, like carpets, tiny books or plastic flowers to stick on my fence."



Q. How did you become a writer?

I started writing a novel, and after a hundred pages I knew it was dreadful, so I set about learning the craft of writing, from books, articles and by analysing how writers I admired wrote. I gave myself five years to learn the craft before I got published, but I was fortunate that my first book was published before the five years were up.



Q: What has been your greatest writing achievement?

I am always pleased when I push myself to express something in a way that has emotional authenticity - when I get below the skin of a subject and have to engage with part of myself that is uncomfortable. Any story or scene that achieves that is satisfying.


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

Sometimes I'm commissioned to write a story with a particular theme. I prefer to sit down and start writing, and see what happens.


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

Very, very difficult if you are writing fiction.


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

Learn the craft thoroughly. And don't use words that you don't use in everyday speech, or your writing will sound pretentious. Write like you talk, and your voice will be authentic.


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

Stop whining. If it's so hard to be a writer that you have to moan about it all the time, then give it up. Otherwise, stop whining and start writing. And my second most important tip is: don't talk about the story you are writing to anyone, unless it's a technical difficulty you're discussing with a mentor. You only have so much fresh energy per work. If you talk it away you won't have any left to write it down.
 

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

I look for freshness and authenticity. I love it when my students say something in a way that is genuinely their own. I want to engage with their characters emotionally, and to do that the writer has to have engaged with the characters emotionally first. I think it's that getting below the skin of the characters to make them come alive which makes good writing.

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