Gail Schimmel ’fesses up


Photo: Retha Ferguson

Jo’burger Gail Schimmel recently released her second novel, Whatever happened to the Cowley twins? (NB Publishers, 2013) – a twisted read centering on the mysterious and as yet unsolved (fictional) disappearance of the two-and-a-half-month-old Cowley twins, Isabella and Melissa. The plot may seem simple enough at this point, but our homegrown chick lit queen had a few developments hidden up her sleeve when she was writing this novel. It must also be said that Gail has a finely tuned understanding of “mense en hul dinge” and after she tweeted about the absurd name under which she was booked in at a hotel during her stay in Cape Town (without giving it away!), I had to interrogate her a bit for the juicy stuff. Oh, and spoiler alert: beware of Amanda – she may not haunt Gail anymore (read further to find out more about this), but she’s sure to haunt you for a while. So, here we go…

Okay, it’s time to ’fess up: under what name were you booked in at your hotel for the Open Book Festival 2013?

Adele van Onsellen.

The “van Onsellen” made sense – my married surname is “van Onselen” and that is what is on my ID book, and therefore on my plane ticket – so I guess the travel agent took it one step further with a typo thrown in for luck. But “Adele”?

What was the first story you wrote when you were a child?

The first story I remember writing was an adaptation of Cinderella, I think. All I can really remember is that my mother’s friend Ruth – who is a lovely, kind woman – featured as a witch. The ugly sisters had names adapted from real people, and my mom got quite worried that I’d show it to the people concerned.

I also wrote a very long story (on blue, lined writing paper) about a friend of mine who was a bit . . . unusual. I was about 7.

If “Whatever happened to the Cowley Twins” was ever turned into a movie, who would you cast as Amanda and why?

Oh, what a lovely, head-scratcher of a question. She’d have to be blonde, and able to play someone slightly crazy. Maybe Gwyneth Paltrow? I suppose I should say someone local, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know enough for that. But one of those crazy, quirky English actresses would also fit.

How did Amanda come to you and does she still haunt your dreams?

She was strange – I had the least grasp of her before I started. She was almost a plot device. But then when I started writing she had a distinctive outlook and turned out to be a bit crazy (I was very surprised by that . . . and more surprised when I realised at the end that it made perfect sense.) She doesn’t haunt me at all, to be honest. I think she has less of “me” in her than the others

I heard you say that your latest novel was inspired in part by having babies, but also by secrets. Would you mind telling our readers a bit more about both of these aspects and how they have been influential both in your personal life and your writing?

My last 5 years have been busy ones emotionally. In order of events: I had a baby after huge fertility battles and a complicated pregnancy and birth; my mother died when Thomas was 6 weeks old; my father died 9 months later and at the end of the month in which he died, before I knew it I was buying Girls Clothing Online when I realized I was pregnant again, completely naturally.

Because I am an only child, I was tasked with cleaning up my parents’ home of 40 years. My father was a hoarder, and I realised what a paper trail a life leaves. I came prepared, I did my research on vacuum reviews, bought a sturdy looking machine and charge straight ahead in the biggest mess I had ever seen. In my case, I was lucky enough to find love letters written by my mother to my father when they first met. Anyone who knows me will know that this was a bit . . . unexpected. But I started thinking about what would happen if a person found something bad. And then I thought what if you found this bad thing not about your own family, but about your spouse’s. And the people are still alive. Do you tell? That’s where it started.

I suppose as a mother of two small children – two babies really – it was inevitable that my fictional secret would involve children.

What made you decide to write the Cowley twins novel from four perspectives?

It sounds so pretentious – but I did want to challenge myself. And for the plot that I came up with, multiple perspectives seemed a clever way to tell the story. Hopefully the readers think so too . . .

What are your thoughts on females, femininity and feminism?

I think of myself – when forced to do so at all – as a post-feminist. I’m all for equality and equal pay and all those “obvious” things, but I do also think that there are certain biological realities. Most women make better care-givers than most men, because most women are more nurturing than most men. (Note the careful use of “most” – can you tell that I’m a lawyer by day?) And most men are more likely to want to, say, be in an army or be a fire fighter than most women. I know people think that this is socialised behaviour, but that disregards hormonal patterns and the fact that little boys brought up in gun free homes still bite their toast into the shape of guns. Since having a son and a daughter, I’ve realised that this “socialised” story doesn’t ring true for me.

I also believe that the liberation of women has come at some cost too. The reality is that most women will be, whether emotionally or actually, the primary caregiver of their children. I used to believe that this too was socialised – and again, having children changed that. There is no doubt that while we both love our children, my husband and I have very different reactions to them. There is a primal need in me to look after them and be with them (even though I often want to kill them, equally primally!) But I also want to be an equal financial contributor to my home like I used to be, and write, and have a life. And I can’t do it all, so I feel guilty about something most of the time. Most men don’t have that struggle to the same degree.

Does that even answer the question, or have I detoured into a therapy session?

I’ve also heard you say that you don’t write to get a specific message across, but rather to get rid of the voices in your head. Do you still have the ghosts of some characters hiding in the recesses of your mind and how do you deal with them?

I relate to some characters more than others, and they stay longer. Jordan from Marriage Vows was in my head for so long that she has left traces, and occasionally visits. With the Cowley Twins it’s Cricket who is a bit stubborn about leaving – and also Tertia, because I only heard her voice at the end, so I didn’t really get to grips with her. But their stories are told and it’s time to move on to the new voices in my head. (Noisy lot!)

One of the things I like about your writing is that it isn’t “literary” – by which I mean drowned in meta-elements – which allows, I’d say, for a much more immediate experience of your characters. What are your thoughts on this?

If I tell you that I don’t even know what a meta-element is, will that answer the question?

I read a lot – and by some people’s standards I am a fairly intellectual reader – but I read to escape. I want a story, and I don’t want to have to work hard to get my story. So that is what I try to write. I went to a talk by Jeffrey Archer and he said that you get literary writers and story-tellers, and very seldom do the two meet. I agree with that, and, like him, I see myself as a story-teller.

Tell us more about learning gay lingo for your novel and also about growing up around a lot of gay men and women. How has that influenced your conceptualisation of humans and human nature?

I am completely confounded by people who think what other people do in bed has any bearing on anything, and that it somehow influences how a person should be perceived. For me, “gay” is the same as, let’s say, “blonde”. I will notice, I will know, but it really is neither here nor there. Because of the examples of gay men and women that I grew up with, I was quite astounded to discover that anyone thought that this was an issue. What I do have an issue with is people who choose to live a lie, and by doing so, hurt other people.

I’m terribly proud to live in a country with the first constitution to recognise equality of sexuality, and I hope that we keep that as part of our culture. I think that it is under threat and that the homophobia that permeates the world is as frightening as racism and religious extremism.

As to the “gay lingo,” I was a bit worried that my vocabulary had been coloured by American novels. For example, I didn’t know if we had rent boys in South Africa. So I got my very talented friend, Brett Lotriet Best, to check me. He taught me the fabulous word “twinkie”.

Do you try to keep your “legal self”, your “writing self” and your “family self” separate or do you allow them to blend freely?

Hard to answer. They are separate in that they have separate times. I am a lawyer most of the morning, and a parent most of the afternoon, and a writer . . . well, too little of the time! But they must blur too because I’m not a machine.

How long does it take you (well, more or less) to write a first draft?

I start slow and get distracted, and often start with a bad idea. That part takes a while. Then I buckle down and write and when I do that I write 500 words a day, come hell or high water, and that speeds up. So I take years – or have so far – but not years of intense writing, thankfully.

I read about some famous writer who wrote for a set amount of time a day and if he finished the work he was on, he just turned over the page and started the next one. Obviously that is a bit extreme, but I wish I didn’t lose the discipline of daily writing in the joy of finishing!

What is the craziest thing you have ever done?

I’m a very un-crazy person I’m afraid. I don’t really believe in astrology but I’m a Capricorn, and a Chinese Year of the Ox, and it all makes for a very plodding, domesticated picture. Probably the craziest thing I have done is taking it into my head that I could write a book .

The zoo also seems to influence your work a lot. Why do you think that is?

I have no idea really, and I’m a bit perturbed by it. I went there often as a child, and it is one of the most beautiful places in my beloved Johannesburg, so that all probably plays a part. A more literary writer would probably talk about the superficial innocence of the zoo and the dark reality of captured animals that lies at its heart, read more at the Conservation Institute. But really, I just like the zoo. And especially the lemurs, although my son prefers the bears and my daughter has a strange passion for giraffes, who are right at the back of the zoo and very tiring to reach.

(Can you see what happened there? I start talking about the zoo and I can’t shut up. What’s that about??)

What is the most important thing that you would like to teach your children?

There are so many important things to teach children, it is quite exhausting: brush your teeth if you don't want dental implants; don’t talk to strangers; say “please”; stop shouting “f#*k” in Spar – you know, the usual.

I guess my biggest hope is that they will be kind people who respect other people. And also, that they stop shouting “f#*k” in Spar.

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