Meg Vandermerwe is the author of a novel, Zebra Crossing, and a collection of stories, This Place I Call Home. She has degrees from Oxford and the universities of Sussex and East Anglia, and she is currently completing a doctorate with the University of Lancaster. Based in Cape Town, she teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
What does “writing” mean?
Writing for me means exploring people, places and situations that I acknowledge I know little about and desperately want to understand better. It means imagining “the other” so that I can build bridges of empathy and with it humanity both for myself and for my reader. It means shining a light on darkened corners. It means asking questions rather than offering answers.
You are responsible for UWC CREATES, the multi-lingual creative writing programme at UWC. How do you balance this role of teacher and nurturer, with your own creative writing?
Balance is the key word. I feel incredibly fortunate to do what I do. It gives me hope to help talented writers develop their craft and individual voices. But I have learnt that unless I make time to nurture my own writing too, I will be unable to help others develop theirs. Both must be given time and space. I try to make sure that I have at least one day a week dedicated to my own writing. I also give myself the “gift” of reading time, thinking time, daydreaming time, adventuring time. All important.
What book changed your life?
Lots. But I remember being 16 and reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It was a revelation. That a novel could slip between time, place and gender. That you could also put photos and portraits in a novel. It taught me that in effect you can do anything with a novel as long as it is done with integrity.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new novel about a Coloured fisherman in Paternoster who falls in love with an Umamlambo or Xhosa mermaid. On the surface it is an exploration of myth but really I want to engage with the tensions between the black and Coloured communities in this country. It is an old and terrible wound that we don’t speak about and we must.
Describe your workspace.
I have learnt to work anywhere even in a noisy café.
The most important instrument you use?
A pen for editing by hand.
What’s your most productive time of day?
Afternoon. I always procrastinate in the morning and do chores before finally settling down to write.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
I do something else and trust that when the story is ready to come knocking it will. However, I keep a pen and paper close by, so that when it does, I am ready to answer.
How do you relax?
Reading by a fire with a cup of tea or glass of wine. Hiking. Throwing pottery on the wheel. Cooking for people I love.
Who and what has influenced your work?
Grace Paley. Her philosophy about writing and about living a meaningful life, is my lighthouse. I know it will always guide me across foggy seas.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Two pieces: Never marry/sleep with someone you wouldn’t want to be.
And by Toni Morrison, who told me that if you are a writer you have to be willing to “go the distance”. It took me a long time to understand what that meant, but finally after my first book, I understood. It’s hard work being a writer, like digging a ditch, as Yeats said. You have got to be willing to do the long, slow, unglamorous graft.
Your favourite ritual?
Buttering hot toast so that the butter melts. I also recently joined the ‘Polar Bear Club’ where you swim in the icy Clifton sea once a year on the Saturday nearest to the Winter solstice. I think that it going to become my favourite annual ritual.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Sitting by yourself for two or three or four years writing something that at the back of your mind you know might never be published, might never be read, might never been understood or appreciated. But I always tell my students (and myself) that my job is to write a tale I believe in with as much integrity as I can. What happens after that is beyond my control.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
I can talk too much and not listen enough.
What are you afraid of?
Living a life filled with regret.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?
Do it with integrity, do it with passion, do it with humility and curiosity.
What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?
Being a teacher who empowers others. I tell my students that if they don’t need me anymore by the end of the course then I have done my job. My aim is to make myself redundant.