By BRUCE DENNILL
In the ten short stories in Women Out Of Water, published by Modjaji Books, Sally Cranswick pulls aside the covers to let readers into the lives of women thrown out of their comfort zones. With chilling clarity and a haunting lyricism, Cranswick slows down time, zooms in close, and refuses to look away.
When, and under what circumstances, did the idea for Women Out Of Water come to you?
Women Out Of Water is a collection of short stories about women coping the best they can in strange, and often extreme, environments. Having lived in many different countries, I think I’ve often viewed the world as a ‘fish out of water’ myself. The stories evolved over time. The first was Trade, which I wrote as my final dissertation for Middlesex University back in 2005 – it’s seen many changes since then! And I wrote the final story, At The Window, in 2019. Writing that last story – which is the smallest in the collection at under 500 words – was like unlocking a story box. I suddenly realised I had nine stories that all made up one solid body of work. It was an exciting moment.
Did it initially feel like something to commit to, or was that something that took time to develop?
I wrote the three main stories – Horse, Trade and Mother – for my MA dissertation so yes, I was very committed to them. I had to hand them in! But I rarely leave a story unfinished, so in that sense I commit to all of my stories. Even if I don’t think it will be publishable, there’s always something useful or useable somewhere down the line.
How did you conduct your research or other preparation before writing – was it more experiential or more academic or desk-based?
Each story was so different in approach. For example, Horse was a distillation of my love and understanding of horses, combined with the incredible landscapes I had discovered since coming to South Africa. I felt so inspired by the land itself for that story – the colour of the soil, the rock formations, the bird life, the trees and plants, the bush animals and the magnificent baobabs, which I’d never seen before coming here.
If money was no object, what additional groundwork would you like to have completed?
What a great question – I often think about how much I could write if I locked myself away at an inspirational writers retreat – no expense spared! I did a lot of research for Trade; the embassies helped me to source interviews with country nationals and I read books, articles and travel guides to get a good sense of place, but I would have loved to visit Moldova and Romania. Ultimately, I just had to research as much as I could and then… close my eyes and imagine.
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 admire so many writers – Atwood, Coetzee, Proulx, Sedaris – but I can’t think about them when I’m writing or I’d never get a word written – it would be too daunting. So when I write, I aim to be free and let the story and the character’s voice come the way it wants to.
What’s in your to-read pile – and what upcoming book (other than yours) are you most looking forward to?
Over the last year I’ve read a lot of memoirs for my life-writing and memoir courses. I learn so much from reading other people’s stories. I’ve just finished Bronwyn Davids’ Landsdowne Dearest, am loving Elizabeth Nayamayaro’s I Am A Girl From Africa, and I always look forward to receiving the life stories that writers send me.
Do you have a favourite character that you have created? Or if you’re writing non-fiction, do you have a specific topic that you find endlessly fascinating?
Hard to choose a favourite – Alma, Sophie, Sisi, Victoria, Jo Stanley, Luca, Natalie, Tanya and Lilian are all on such different journeys and I admire them all for having the courage to keep moving ahead. In terms of what I am thoroughly immersed in, and endlessly fascinated by – it’s the power of our own true-life stories; the sharing of those stories and the community they can build. Our stories are our superpower!