Tag Archives: Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature

Literary Couples: Alex Smith and Andrew Salomon

This is the first in a series of posts I would like to devote to Literary Couples. Think Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, or Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster.

I would like to begin, however, locally and very much in the present with two dear friends: Alex Smith and Andrew Salomon.

Alex, Andrew and their son Elias

Alex, Andrew and their son Elias


Photo: RHS

Alex Smith is the author of Algeria’s Way, Four Drunk Beauties, Agency Blue and Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. Her writing has been short-listed for the SA Pen Literary Award and the Cain Prize for African writing, and has won a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and a Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award. She lives in Cape Town with her partner, their book-loving baby boy and their dogs. Her latest novel is Devilskein & Dearlove.

Andrew Salomon is the author of a young adult novel, The Chrysalis, and his short stories have appeared in several journals and collections. He received a PEN/ Studzinski Literary Award for African Fiction in 2009 and was shortlisted for the 2011 Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. He lives in Cape Town, but his work as an archaeologist has taken him all over southern Africa and a few places beyond. Tokoloshe Song is his first novel for adults.

Alex and Andrew allowed me to ask them some questions:

Please describe your partner’s creative process.
Andrew: Alex gets an idea – whether it be a character or a situation, or something else – and she writes away. She has an amazing ability to get the words down, to just write thousands of words at a time. Just a few months after our son was born she had to write three novellas within one month, and she did.

Alex: I think we are both a bit secretive about new ideas – or maybe I just am! I often see Andrew typing up notes – fragments of things he has seen or words that have intrigued him – and I’ll come across files on our shared desktop (laptop that is) with extraordinary file names; I don’t open them, but when I inquire, it always turns out that the file is a page of these notes, which could for example be graffiti he has spotted on his way home in the train. So he hoards ideas, that’s probably the beginning of his ‘creative process’. Then he takes the plunge and starts writing a new novel or story. To be honest we have never discussed anything like our ‘creative processes’ so I have no idea what happens after that. I do know that he likes to get a first draft done in a focused period of time – so during that time he becomes quite single-minded about the task of writing; he’ll set himself a daily word target, that sort of thing. I also know that when it comes to editing, he is meticulous, far more so than I am – I always feel like a bit of a lazy slut in comparison to him when it comes to editing.

Are you each other’s first readers?
Andrew: Definitely, I know I can count on Alex to be truthful in her assessment, but also kind in the way she delivers it.

What is your favourite piece written by your partner?
Andrew: Alex’s latest novel, Devilskein and Dearlove is a wonderful read, and I am also a big fan of the book that came from her experiences living and working in China, Drinking from The Dragon’s Well – it’s a book that depicts her experiences very truthfully and that also paints an intriguing picture of a place caught in extremely rapid change, so rapid that now it could probably serve as an historical snapshot.

What is the best and worst aspect of sharing a life with another writer?
Alex: Well, I’m not really one to dwell on negatives, but if I must then probably the worst thing is that you have to be really thick-skinned as a writer because it entails all manner of disappointments – from awards you are shortlisted for but do not win to flat out rejections on various projects. So when you share a life with another writer, you experience those slings and arrows in duplicate – those aimed at yourself and those experienced by your partner. For me the best thing is just having somebody very close who loves books, loves stories, gets excited by possible plots and characters and even possible names, and who also really understands what this strange business of writing is like, both its wonders and its realities – small things like knowing what editing actually is (it’s interesting how many non-writers imagine that novels fall out of the heads of their authors in pristine condition and all ready for the typesetter).

Andrew: The best aspect is that you share your life with someone who understands the deep desire to write, to tell a story. So there’s never any explaining necessary about the need for time and space to do this, and we support each other in creating that time and place.
I’m not sure there really is a ‘worst’ aspect but Alex has an uncanny ability to misplace bookmarks, so she keeps borrowing mine, and I have a tendency to use bookmarks that usually have some kind of sentimental meaning to me, which I get to keep for only a short time until they get sent to the secret place of bookmark-no-return. Also, both of us being book-lovers, when we moved in together, our already-substantial book collections got combined into a giant collection and now we seriously need a room just for books, but there’s no chance of that in our postage stamp of a house!

D&DTokoloshe SongYou can win a copy of Alex’s and Andrew’s latest titles in my BOOK GIVEAWAY.

Alex Smith

Alex Smith1A long time ago, behind seven mountains and seven rivers… That is how fairy tales begin in Polish. The words make me think of the time I met Alex Smith when she was looking for people to translate her Orphan’s Lullaby. I did the Polish version and we met for coffee at the Book Lounge to discuss the project and to get to know each other. It’s hard to believe that this already happened six years ago. Since then we have become friends and have supported each other through the ups and downs of writing careers.

We share a deep love for literature, even if our reading tastes often differ and the kind of stories we tell are sometimes worlds apart. The one thing which has always stood out for me in Alex’s work is her powerful, versatile, irresistible prose which has few equals in contemporary South African literature. I once told her that I would even read the history of toilet paper, if she were to write it. Her prose is like a cup of delicious tea, like a favourite bar of chocolate, like a warm breeze on a perfect day on the beach. One wallows in it with pleasure, no matter what her subject matter.

My absolute favourite of Alex’s books until now is Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008), a quirky travel memoir about the time she spent in Asia. I will never forget the kettle falling scene. Simply wonderful, like the rest of the book. I reviewed it along with her Four Drunk Beauties (2010) for ITCH.

Alex contributed a funny, moving story to Touch: Stories of Contact. She has been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize. One of her more recent stories features in the Adults Only anthology and I am told that it is remarkable (can’t wait to get the book just to read it). She has been recognised for her work with the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award, has been short-listed for the SA PEN Literary Award, won a silver award in the English category of the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, and was shortlisted for the international Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. And I believe even greater things are to come for her.

Her latest novel, Devilskein & Dearlove (published by Umuzi locally and Arachne Press in the UK) is about to be launched at the Book Lounge next week. Alex will be in conversation with the amazing Versuhka Louw. We are in for a real literary treat.

“Young Erin Dearlove has lost everything in a violent attack on her family. She now lives with her bohemian aunt Kate in a run-down Cape Town apartment block. Locked into a fantasy of her previous life, she shuns all overtures of friendship from her new neighbours, until she meets Mr Devilskein, the demon who lives on the top floor… and opens a door into another world. Just as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reworked Kipling’s The Jungle Book for a modern audience with a liking for the supernatural, Devilskein & Dearlove is a darker, more edgy, contemporary reworking of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden. An orphaned teenager is taken in by a reluctant distant relative, and in her new home makes an unexpected friend and finds a secret realm. It has shades of the quirky fantastical in the style of Miyazaki’s (Studio Ghibli) animated films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle (originally a novel by Diana Wynne Jones). Alex says ‘As a child The Secret Garden was one of my first favourite novels – one of the first I relished reading by myself. Although Devilskein & Dearlove is very different, it was inspired by that novel and its themes.'” (Arachne Press)