By BRUCE DENNILL
As her 21st birthday approaches, Katy Ferreira has not left her bedroom for close on two years. In fact, she has not left her bed – at 360 kilograms, she simply can’t. Characterised by an indomitable spirit, Katy tries to make the best of a bad situation. She does the crossword in the Herald newspaper her mother brings home, consumes the food she craves – biscuits, pies, doughnuts, litres of fizzy drinks – and waits in hope for insulin and a solution to her plight. To pass the time she begins to compile her own crossword in one of the Croxley notebooks that have been unused since she dropped out of school. Within each cryptic clue is a message, an attempt to explain how it feels to be ‘the fat girl’, how taking comfort in sweet things as a grieving and lonely child escalated into a deadly relationship with food and a psychological and physical disease. The process triggers splintered memories of dark family secrets and hints of culpability. As Katy finds her voice – quirky, macabre, devastatingly astute and viciously funny at times – the notebooks fill up. Not to Mention by Vivian De Klerk is part diary, part memoir, part love-hate letter to the mother who fuelled her daughter’s addiction as steadily as the world ostracised her. The destructive power of shame and society’s harsh judgement of people who are ‘different’ is matched by the immense courage of a young woman who is determined to be heard.
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.
The rise in obesity and related eating disorders caught my attention years ago – it is a pressing social issue and society in general is not kind to overweight people, who are often mocked, ostracised and called names. They often find themselves excluded from normal life, derided and looked upon with disgust. The sheer number of cruel and derogatory words in English, and in slang, for people who are overweight and don’t look ‘normal’ is striking and the shame surrounding obesity probably has caused untold suffering repeatedly over the ages – as it did for Katy. I wanted to depict the awful tragedy of a young girl’s undeserved humiliation because of her own body, and as my main character, Katy Ferreira, took shape, writing all those thousands of words so that she could express herself became an absolute pleasure.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
I had to choose an appropriate setting, both in time and place, so that the idea of total isolation and virtual imprisonment would be feasible. I find I write best about what I know well, and so I selected Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape, because I spent most of my childhood holidays there. The novel ‘takes place’ – with very little action! – in 1980-81, a time without cell phones and computers. Then I had to work on weaving together Katy’s feelings and memories about her childhood and girlhood while maintaining a plot which would engage the reader to the end. That part of it actually came last.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
I’m a researcher by profession, and so I started with doing come background fact-finding, exploring the physiological and psychological characteristics of this condition. The range of information on this topic is immense, no pun intended, so I eventually had to cut a great deal of it out – it would have made for a turgid read. I also combed through back-copies of the Herald newspaper in 1980 and 1981, for ideas about what was happening politically at the time, and what other headlines would have caught Katy’s attention, like grisly murders and reports on violence – she has a delight for the macabre side of things!
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?
I knew I wanted to build this novel around the solutions in a jumbo crossword, which Katy devises herself during her writing, so I started by choosing appropriate words which relate to aspects of Katy’s situation, and fitting them into the grid. Katy makes a few mistakes – but she makes the point that she isn’t perfect either. Further than that, I did not know where the novel was going. The plot and ordering of the clues evolved as I worked on them.
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?
Women’s work: planning meals, cooking them, doing the washing, organising cleaning and gardening and shopping. And sport and social activities: Pilates, tennis and bridge. But such distractions were welcome in a way, giving me an easy balance between my writing and having fun.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I’m a little bit crazy, I suppose, but I meet deadlines, always. I’m so weirdly punctual that in fact I think my rapid my turnaround time sometimes makes editors think I haven’t applied my mind to the questions at hand.
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?
I don’t set myself targets, and I also take extensive ‘holidays’ – literally, before lockdown, five to six weeks at a time – during which I do no writing at all. My writing occurs in bursts and flurries, and when things are going well, I sometimes write up to 10,000 words in a day – and often delete most of them the next day when I reread them. I don’t watch my word-count at all actually – it can be counterproductive.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
Go with the flow. Write down the random thoughts and ideas that come to you during the active writing periods – my subconscious gets going, and flits around, watching and waiting for opportune ideas. I only print out what I have written once I have around 40,000 words, and then I read it back to myself, aloud, and make corrections and changes as I build it up further. And I always keep reading other books.