The Gospel According To Wanda B Lazarus by Lynn Joffe is a funny, feminist take on the myth of the Wandering Jew. Wanda freewheels through the ages, relating musically-charged, irreverent tales in her quest to become the tenth muse.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
As part of the Creative Writing MA at Wits, I had to invent a proposal as to what my work would be about. The concept of a time-travelling musician, working her way through two thousand years of history, occurred to me as a way of exploring the myth of the Wandering Jew … as a woman. This is a ‘big idea,’ the umbrella concept for the tropes and themes I wanted to explore in a satirical manner; the suppressed voices of women, anti-Semitism and the power of music through the ages. I knew this was not able to be played out in a shorter format. Hence the five years it took from concept to publication.
Is this more complex with something like Wanda, where the scope of the story takes in such a huge scope in terms of time and culture?
Wanda’s journeys take place over two thousand years. So, yes, it is more complex than taking a biopsy of one specific epoch or culture. Or a song or a short story. I wanted to expose Wanda, and the reader, to different cultures through history in which the Jewish people were continually blamed for the ills of their time. And send the whole thing up in a serio-comic satire.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
After I decided I’d work on the Wandering Jew concept as a work of literary fiction, I spent the first year creating Wanda’s character. Her idiosyncrasies. Her anachronistic way of speaking. A back story that didn’t make it into the manuscript. Much research on the history of the Wandering Jew in order to place her within the correct historical context. I had to establish Wanda’s unique voice so that wherever I placed her, she had her opinions and prejudices understood to herself. In the second year, I concentrated more on plot – the classic storytelling tropes – and engineered her more tightly into scenes that were appropriate for her tale. I wrote about 30 chapters before I decided on the final 11.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
Thorough research was paramount to the authenticity of the writing. Sometimes I started off with an historical hunch and researched on Google until I found the perfect angle. Then I dug deeper into the extensive collection at the Wertenweiler Library on [the University of the Witwatersrand] campus. I looked up many historical figures and events to see which Wanda would respond to. But most importantly, the story and character had to be paramount. I removed much of the ‘history telling’ in subsequent drafts. Also, much synchronicity was discovered through the research. The gypsy girl mosaic, for example, I discovered in year two, it having only been excavated that year. I decided that she was the face of Wanda, and many aspects clicked into place having made that call.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
Apparently there are two types of writers; ‘pantsers,’ who write by the seat of their pants, and ‘planners’, who know everything up front and follow a predetermined structure. I think because I had a strong concept – the myth of the Wandering Jew – I knew I had to have a character who wandered, and wondered, through history, but because character trumped plot at the start, it was pantsers for year one, planner for year two and in year three I threaded it all together so it told a rollicking historical tale in the voice of my character. So I’m a bit of a hybrid, actually. The ending changed several times before publication.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
Life is a distraction! I can affirm that a regular writing routine is the most important aspect. But it’s not magic, it’s not a miracle. It’s sheer, bloody, exhilarating hard work. During the course of writing Wanda, I committed to write every morning, on arising. No other distractions, even a cup of tea!
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I’m proud to say I have never missed a deadline. Ever. Not in my advertising career or in my writing. It’s the most sacred, important aspect of the work. However, Covid put paid to the date of the original launch and the time lost was spent checking, rechecking and then rechecking the manuscript. I’m grateful for that time. Because it’s made the book better.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of wordcount or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
There is a writing goal called a ‘Conrad,’ named after Joseph, whereby he penned 800 words every day, tidied them up, and moved to the next passage. When I saw this stated in an article by Will Self, I was less troubled by massive word count or chapter completion and realised that if the great Joseph Conrad could churn out a mere 800 words a day I was on track. Sometimes when the writing flowed, I could do three or four Conrads on a good day. Stephen King’s writing goal is a thousand words a day. So it’s not quantity, it’s quality.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
Wake up. Get up. Write. Rinse. Repeat. Whether you feel like it or not. Don’t answer emails. Don’t check Facebook. Don’t make phone calls. Don’t schedule meetings. Inspiration is the spark, but the rest of it is as Ernest Hemingway advised: ‘Sit down at the typewriter … and bleed.’
If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
I run a business as well as a marriage and life in general. I don’t have the luxury of writing all day, every day. The discipline of sitting down daily, no matter what. The morning writing routine was respected by all. I must add that I my staff were ready to step into the dominant work roles and I have taken more of a back seat into the daily dealings. Two of my stalwarts are now directors of the company, so I now report to them.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
There is so much that can be done. A new author has no idea of the vicissitudes of the publishing industry. There is also a major difference between ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ publication. Publishing from South African contains its own challenges as the process favours ‘the west’ where the reading public is far larger and established distribution channels are not available to us as readily. Authors need to know that they are responsible for much of the post-publication marketing and need to keep at it … possibly forever. I’m learning as I go along. Reviews are paramount. Interviews are vital. Endorsements are essential. Marketing is still a challenge, but my Fairy Godfather has given me a wonderful leg up. It’s a combination of chutzpah … and a lot of hard work.
Please discuss the power of a good endorsement? Stephen Fry is a famous and very vocal fan of the book, which must have affected your mindset re the above?
I’m the luckiest debut author on the planet! Due to the Covid lag, Stephen was able to read the book before we went to print, so I have a ‘shout’ on the front cover. I couldn’t have dreamed for a more apposite author to illuminate my journey. I imagine this is why the novel was featured during December 2020 on Exclusive Books’ ‘Recommended Reads.’ And why those who have never heard of Wanda will give the book a second glance. I’d reached out to others with the manuscript; the query process, seeking an agent, submitting to publishers. But this was the first and most indelible endorsement I could have imagined.