Author Interview: Fiona Snyckers – The School Gates, Or Driving Ella Mental

October 16, 2021

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In Fiona Snyckers‘ latest book, The School Gates, Ella Burchell, burnt out after years as a professional dancer, moves to a small town on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast hoping to rebuild her life. Things look up when she gets a job teaching dance to children at a for-profit private school. But Ella hasn’t reckoned with the cabal of private-school mums who run the Pines Academy as their own personal fiefdom. Circling into cliques at the school gates every morning, the mums are a force to be reckoned with.


When, and under what circumstances, did the idea for your latest book come to you?

The idea came to me gradually over my years as a private-school parent. I saw so many eye-opening things and heard so many crazy stories, that the idea of putting them in novel form was irresistible. It also struck me that the situation was getting more intense, not less, as the years went by.


Did it initially feel like something to commit to, or was that something that took time to develop?

When I wrote my 2014 novel, Now Following You, I created three sisters as characters. Jamie Burchell worked in a restaurant and was the main character of that book. Caroline Burchell was a medical doctor. And Ella Burchell was a dancer. It was always my intention to write a separate book about each sister, so in a sense, I committed myself back then already. My novel SPIRE told Caroline’s story, and now The School Gates tells Ella’s story.


How did you conduct your research or other preparation before writing?

This is the only one of my novels for which I lived the research. I was and still am in the trenches of private-school parenthood. The situations in The School Gates were inspired by things I saw and heard. And of course, I added a touch of exaggeration for humorous and satirical purposes.


If resources (money, time, whatever) were no object, what additional groundwork would you like to have completed?

There is no extra groundwork I would have wanted to complete. I’ll just be glad to get out of my children’s school-going age with my sanity intact!


When considering influence, do you find yourself wanting to write like someone (in terms of their style, tone or use of language), or aiming for a kind of perspective or storytelling approach you admire or enjoy?

I used to be a terrible chameleon – overly influenced by whatever book I happened to be reading at the time. It was so bad that I had to avoid reading novels while I was writing something in order not to adopt the other writer’s style. It’s better these days. I think I have settled into my own style. That said, I admire writers with a simple and lucid writing style, like EF Benson and Karen Jennings.


What’s in your to-read pile – and what upcoming book (other than yours!) are you most looking forward to?

 I have Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara And The Sun lined up next on my Kindle. I can’t wait for the upcoming collaboration between Gail Schimmel, Qarnita Loxton, Pamela Power and Amy Heydenrych that is coming out from Pan Macmillan next year.


Do you have a favourite character that you have created?

I still have great affection for my first published character, Trinity Luhabe. There are four books in the series so far, as well as a short story coming out in a collection soon. One day I will have to write about her again!

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