Miranda Sherry on writing

Black Dog Summer is my fourth completed manuscript, although it's my first published one.

Starting my first book was incredibly difficult. It was easy when I was seven, sitting on the bricks beside the swimming pool at bottom of the garden with an old school exercise book (used up pages torn out). In those days, I wrote stories all the time, short ones and vast epic tales that I had little hope of finishing. I wrote whilst sitting on my bedroom carpet in a patch of sun and I wrote at my school desk when I was supposed to be doing just about everything else.

But somewhere between those moments of joyous scribbling and growing up, I came to the conclusion that being a writer wasn’t a ‘real job' so I put my exercise books away.

I didn't ever stop wanting to write, but I didn't believe I had the chops to finish an actual book. One day, I told the judges inside my head to shut up, and I sat down and wrote a book. Not all at once, of course. I took breaks for eating and going to the loo and working a full time job, which I hated, but after seven months, I finished it. It was a groaning 99,000 words and it was quite, quite horrible, but while writing it, I’d felt better about life than I had done since scribbling away at the bottom of the garden as a kid.

Finishing it gave me the guts to look for a job that would utlise my writing skills, and I've been earning a living as a writer, in some form or another, ever since.

Nobody wanted to publish that first book, though, despite the fact that I rewrote it more times than I care to remember. So I wrote another, just as ghastly, and then another, which was slightly better, and then finally, Black Dog Summer.

My writing style is…

I try to keep my sentences immediate and simple, without losing the lyrical quality of the language that I love so much.

A character from my novel I’d most like to meet…

I'd like to hang out with Lesedi the reluctant sangoma. I think I might just be as fascinated by her as little Bryony is.

I wouldn't like to meet Simone. She's too much of a goody-two-shoes, and I expect she'd get a bit sanctimonious if given half a chance.

On research…

In preparation for writing Black Dog Summer, I devoured a large number of books, research papers and doctoral theses on sangomas, interspersed with watching recorded interviews and footage. I studied the plants of Southern Africa, along with their traditional and medicinal uses, and had to do quite a chunk of research about wild animal conservation and veterinary practices.

Past visits to wildlife sanctuaries and game reserves yielded a wealth of memories and useful information, as did my long-ago visits to Limpopo where some of the story takes place.

I read as many documents and accounts that I could about farm murders in South Africa, present and past – looking at the nature of the crimes, numbers and statistics, news reports and survivor accounts. It was hard going for me. I'd probably be a useless crime-writer.

A difficult episode to write in Black Dog Summer was…

Whilst I was writing, a dear friend’s father was murdered in a botched robbery. I remember sitting in the airport waiting to catch a flight to the funeral, unable to think straight due to the poignancy of the timing: I’d just begun work on the part in the book where the events of the violent act are finally revealed in detail. It made writing the scene particularly painful.

For the most part, though, the dramatic scenes are often easier to write as the action sort of propels me along. I find that the small, intimate moments of connection and resolution between characters can be far more difficult.

Where I write:

I wrote the majority of Black Dog Summer in the early hours of the morning, sitting up in bed with my laptop on a foam yoga brick (my 'writer's block') in my lap. It was winter when I was finishing the first draft, and I remember rushing home from work in the icy Joburg evenings to write, where I'd head straight to the warmest place in the house with my laptop: the heated tiles of the bathroom floor.

Now that I'm no longer working full time, I don't have to do so much of my writing at odd hours in odd places, although I must admit that I'm becoming more and more fond of writing whilst standing at the kitchen counter (not odd at all, I hear you say). When that gets too much, I write on the couch in my lounge with the laptop and 'writer's block' on my lap. I'm not a fan of sitting at a desk, I find it very uncomfy. 

A typical day when writing:

I sleep with my laptop on my bedside table, so that I can reach for it the moment my alarm goes off. I typically write in bed for about an hour before getting up, feeding the cats and heading to work. I now only go in to my day job on a part time basis, which means that I'm able dive back in to my books in the afternoons and early evenings.

When I used to work in television production years ago, I'd take my laptop to work so that I could sit in my car during lunch breaks and do some frantic writing. Don't miss those days.

On the most surprising part of the writing process...

By the time I started Black Dog Summer in 2010, I'd been writing and rewriting and wrangling with fiction for about seven years so I had an inkling that just charging in and forging ahead was not going to work for me. I spent months planning and researching and working out all the details of plot and characters before I began to tell the story. Because of this, not much changed from first draft to the final one in terms of the basics.

I was dying for an editor, though. I'd worked with editors before and loved the process, and I knew that there was plenty of room for improvement, it's just that I couldn't see it. Working with Laura from Head Of Zeus was bliss. Finally there was someone as passionate about the manuscript as I was, but with fresh perspective and insight. Her involvement was invaluable.

A character I wish I had created…

Hillary Mantel's marvelously complex Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. While he's not exactly fictional, of course, Hillary Mantel's creation is extraordinary. He's so alive on the page, and when you put down the book, he's somehow still right there with you. Absolute brilliance.

On the meaning of the black dog…

Years before I began writing Black Dog Summer I encountered my own 'warning black dog' in a dream. The memory of it stayed with me for years, and later inspired the sinister spectre in the story.

My next project:

I'm currently writing a new book that features (amongst other things) a vegetable garden, a secret grave, and a dead horse, but that's all I'm giving away for now... 


Favourite books:

Reading JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey as an impressionable teenager sparked off a terrible yearning: firstly, I wanted to be there in 1950s New York in the wonderful chaotic apartment of the irrepressible Glass family, but more than that, I longed for the ability to bring characters to startling life with a few spare sentences the way that Salinger did. I had no idea how to even begin, but the ache never left me, and over the years I've returned to the book time and again for a top-up of his deceptively simple genius and immaculate style.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is set in a Native American reservation and follows the lives of a two families bound together by old feuds, new loves, and dark secrets. I was twenty when I first read it, and its poetic power and savagery left me gasping. From that moment I longed to be able to do what Lousie Erdrich had done: weave the brutally real alongside the mysteriously magical and make it all seem effortless.

Over a decade later, when I began Black Dog Summer, I was still haunted by the voices of her vivid characters, and I've no doubt that their company helped give me the courage to attempt my own creation of a mystical reality.

Barbara Kingsolver's brilliant Prodigal Summer is one of those special books that I've read again and again. I love the richly drawn characters with their flaws and hopes, and the tangible quality of the natural environment that's woven so deeply into the story that it becomes a character in and of itself. I've a long-abiding love for the trees, plants and creatures of my home, and inspired by Kingsolver, tried to bring these natural elements to life in my book in a way that would allow the reader to immerse themselves in a certain time and place, as I've so often been immersed in hers.

If I were a fictional character I’d be…

Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax - I'd like a healthy dose of the infamous witch's pragmatic wisdom as well as her ability to read people at a glance. She's powerful beyond measure but a genius at hiding it, which is obviously far cooler than someone swaggering about all over the show. Most of all, I'd love to 'borrow' like she does: leave my own body and hitch a ride in the mind of a wild animal, seeing what it sees and experiencing flight and freedom.

Also, she's aged really well. Oh, and she can do magic, of course.

How do you find your next read?

Mostly through my dad. I come from a family of dedicated and voracious readers, and he is always reading reviews online, downloading Kindle samples, and generally foraging around for literary goodies.

I also love having books recommended to me by friends, and I am a huge fan of libraries. I've discovered many of my favourite authors by just picking up random books from the library shelf and having a go.

Which book do you wish you’d written?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Because it's extraordinary and brilliant and luminous and masterful and just delicious.

Top ‘non-book’ piece of writing? (e.g. poem, short story, play, article etc.)

Any poem or song lyric by Leonard Cohen. It would be impossible to pick a favourite because every time I open the anthology of his works I find a new 'best one'. His writing is evocative and lyrical and quite transporting.

Dream dinner party guests:

Stephen Fry - I'm a longtime fan, both of his writing and his screen work. I love QI, and think anyone with such a cache of weird facts at their disposal will make a riveting dinner guest.

Joss Whedon - In all the interviews I've seen, this brilliant screen writer is always dry, funny and fascinating. I'd love to meet him, I think he's brilliant.

Mary Berry from The Great British Bake Off - she is so sensible and so sweet. I think she'd be a delightful addition to the dinner party (and perhaps she can bring a pudding along).

Stanley Tucci - He can rings around anybody, and for some reason, I imagine he'd be lovely to chat to.

Neil Gaiman - I'd like to talk books, writing and literacy with this incredible writer. Sandman was my first 'graphic novel love'.

Judi Dench - Everything she does is extraordinary, and yet she's so down-to-earth.

Five desert island items:

My man. We've been together for over fifteen years and I'm still not sick of him in the least. Even the yukkiest, most barren desert island would be bearable if I was with him.

My kindle. Desert islands must have WiFi these days, surely...

Something to write on and something to write with. I turn into a bit of a loony if I'm not working on a story. I imagine that in a desert island situation this would be especially dire.

My two cats. Although I suspect they would hate me for it. 

Earl Grey tea. It's a terrible addiction. I'm not proud of it.

Black Dog Summer by Miranda Sherry publishes 14th August 2014. It is a powerful and gripping story of a murdered woman watching from the heavens as her traumatised daughter adjusts to life with a new family.

Will you love this book as much as we did? Share your reading experience newvoices@headofzeus.com or via @HoZ_Books @miranda_sherry_ #blackdogsummer