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SA Partridge

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

What inspires me

As part of the Franschhoek Literary Festival Book Week for Young Readers I spoke to some eager young minds (and one bemused principle) about what inspires me as a writer. Below is the abridged version.

Being a writer doesn’t necessarily mean that as soon as you sit down in front of a computer the words will start pouring out and before you know it you have a book.

Everybody needs inspiration, whether it’s for an essay or project, and sometime writers need to be inspired too.

One of my major sources of inspiration is other writers, particularly female writers. My favourite story to tell is of that fateful night in 1816 when Lord Byron proposed a contest to his friends to see who could write the scariest story. In attendance were Byron, John Polidori, Percy Blythe Shelley and his wife Mary.

Both poets produced nothing, John Polidori wrote The Vampyre, but it was twenty year old Mary Shelley who won hands down with her novel, Frankenstein, about a doctor obsessed with the idea of bringing the dead back to life.

It’s my favourite example of whatever boys can do we can do better.

We’ve come a long way since the days of whalebone corsets and fainting fancies and there are thousands of female writers to be inspired by. A few of my personal heroes include Lisa Jane Smith (The Vampire Diaries), Stephenie Meyer (Twilight), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) – all bestselling authors.

In South Africa we also have no shortage of female writing talent to be inspired by – Margie Orford, Kate White, Sarah Lotz, Amanda Coetzee, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Alex Smith, Lauren Beukes… I could go on forever.

Growing up I always knew that I was going to be a writer. There was no question of my becoming anything else. While the other kids were sitting in their circles talking about boys, I was sitting on the steps of the library writing my heart out. Even at the end of exams I’d scribble on the back of my exam paper. I have boxes and boxes of handwritten notes in my untidy childish scrawl.

As I kid I was particularly obsessed with Stephen King, and his novels were an endless source of inspiration. It actually felt like I was reading young adult fiction, as most of the characters were my age. In Salem’s Lot he wrote about a teenager, Mark Petrie, who wakes up one day to find that the rest of the town have been turned into vampires. In Apt Pupil, Todd Bowden discovers a Nazi hiding in his neighbourhood, and then in Christine, Arnie Cunningham buys a possessed car. King would put these kids in the worst possible situations and in that way show their inner strength, their resilience and also their innocence.

I loved it.

I wanted to write a novel about a kid in a horrible situation, do terrible things to him and then spit him out again.

So I wrote The Goblet Club, about a teenage boy’s experience in the world’s worst boarding school.

But it wasn’t only Stephen King that inspired me. I needed a villain too, so I looked to my old school setworks for inspiration. I was immediately drawn to the character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello who got others to do the dirty work for him, while he whispered from the sidelines.

Iago inspired the character of Trent, a good looking and charming young man who incites his friends to commit murder without them even knowing.

For my second novel, Fuse, the inspiration found me.

I was deeply struck by the story of Morne Harmse, the troubled kid that brought a samurai sword to school. I thought a lot about Morne, and asked myself the question, ‘What causes these kids to lash out at the world?’

I started writing the story of a boy plotting to blow up his school, but who was stopped before he could do any harm. The world turned against him, and he was forced to make a run for it.

I was reminded of William Golding’s Lord of the flies, which explored the theme of survival of the fittest, loss of innocence and the ugly side of human nature.You only need to watch reality TV to see how quickly normal people can turn on each other.

Morne’s case also made me curious about what happens to these kids after these incidents, so I explored various scenarios and included several worst cases in the book.

Fuse was my way of telling my readers to be aware of their choices. Books are a great way to step into someone else’s shoes; explore the possible consequences of our actions and learn a little empathy at the same time. It’s a thrilling tale aimed to entertain, but it should ideally make you pause for thought too.

Dark Poppy’s Demise was inspired by my own foray into the world of online dating, but I also wanted to explore the concept of evil.

You can’t tell that someone is bad from the outside. Danger can come in the form of a friend, a family member, a neighbour, the well dressed man buying bread at the shop or the harmless old man that lives down the street (read Apt Pupil to illustrate my point). There’s a little patch of darkness inside of a lot of people, with no trace of it on the outside.

What that meant for me is that the villain of my story could be anyone.

In Dark Poppy’s Demise my character of Jenna meets the boy of her dreams on Facebook. He’s cute, charming, romantic – the whole package.

Naturally he turns out to be one half of a psychopathic duo who uses the Internet as a stalking ground to find their victims.

And it happens. Trust me on this.

Another thing that inspires me is the country I live in. I wanted Cape Town to be the unspoken character in my novels. Its an old city, full of history and culture. I wanted to capture the salty sea smell, the feel of the cobbled streets under a worn sneaker, the pink of the sky above Table Mountain at sunset, the view from De Waal drive at twilight.

I want my readers to fall in love with its quirks – its graffiti, its unfinished bridges, its flower sellers and toothless street vendors. I wanted it to be real.

Writing is a way for us to express ourselves and to make sense of the world we live in. Books also help us to understand ourselves better and work through our issues.

One of my favourite examples to use in school talks is Twilight. I asked the kids what the book would be like without vampires. (My favourite answer was from a boy who exclaimed, “an over emotional girl!” He was half right).

In Twilight, if you take the vampires out the equation you’re left with the story of a girl whose parents are divorced, who feels like she has no place in the world, who has no relationship with her father, who is choosing her boyfriend over her friends, and who is struggling with the realisation that her best friend is in love with her.

Everyone can relate to at least one of those.

I hope the kids left inspired to write their own stories.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    May 11th, 2012 @12:02 #

    It is so nice to read about another woman who went through a King phase. I still go back and read one of his from time to time. Ah, nostalgia.


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