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Interview with 2020 Blue Light Books Prize Final Judge: Michelle Pretorius

2020 Blue Light Books Prize judge Michelle Pretorius speaks about home, the power of empathy, and the beauty of the short story.

A writer of many genres, Michelle Pretorius is the author of the debut novel The Monster’s Daughter (Melville House, Audible, 2011) and winner of the FAW literary award. She recieved her B.A in South Africa of the University of Free State in South Africa. She also has a M.F.A in Fiction Writing, and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Ohio University. For more information, visit her website.

  • Do you find you have writerly obsessions? What subject matter do you find yourself returning to, in your writing and reading?

I read across genres and a wide array of subject matter. I feel that opening yourself up to a myriad of possibilities allows you to make connections and that is an important part of creativity. Though I primarily write crime narratives, I love how crossing genre boundaries allows us to see the human experience from different angles, so I always try to open myself up to the possibilities a different genre can hold for what I want to say with a story. I do get obsessive – as I think all writers do – when I am working on something. Like all story ideas it usually starts with a thought, a “what if?,” which is usually followed by an excessive amount of research and a lot of living in my head – a lot of the story develops there before I ever put anything on paper. Because of my background, I find myself frequently coming back to themes of inequality and social justice. I also have morbid fascinations, which makes me deeply interested in the antagonist and the “why” of a situation as opposed to the “what” and the “how”, if that makes sense.

  • Your work frequently addresses our relationships to politics and history. Do you think this is a necessary part of writing today? Do you have any advice for navigating this space?

The society we live in, and to a great extent our identity and our experiences within that society, is a product of both history and the politics that shaped that history. I don’t think it’s possible to separate ourselves, and by extension our characters, from it. All writing doesn’t have to be a bold political statement, but having an awareness of the forces that shaped the social situation your characters find themselves in adds depth and nuance to a story. Much has been written about the power of literature to create empathy and understanding, and I want to add education to that. As humans we learn through story and I believe that creating a space in our work for readers to learn about other people’s experiences and struggles that they may not be familiar with, which in itself is political, is necessary. Maud Casey, in her book, The Art of Mystery, talks about how in our current political climate “empathy can feel like a radical act.” I think this is a good place to start. Approaching your characters, even the ones that hold controversial viewpoints, with a willingness to try to understand the forces that shaped their beliefs and motivations, opens the door to discussion. Amid all the shouting that is going on, I think discussion is a worthy goal.

  • Your book The Monster’s Daughter is set in South Africa. Can you talk about what it’s like to write about home, especially when you’re away?

The fact that I left home allowed me to be able to write about it. Sometimes you are too close to a situation to understand the forces at work, to see the bigger picture as it were. I had the experience of growing up in a country that was in the midst of political upheaval and where the cultural group I belonged to was the oppressor of other groups. I was socialized into a mindset that what was being done to others was justified. It’s the fish in water syndrome. It’s hard to understand the truth until you separate yourself from that reality and look at it from a distance. To recognize and acknowledge your role and culpability in the suffering of others is a hard thing to do, and I had to actively engage in my search for the truth through writing and researching The Monster’s Daughter. Writing became my vehicle to a deeper understanding of the forces of history and my place in it. I haven’t lived in South Africa for almost twenty years now, and visits are infrequent, so I find myself increasingly out of touch with the socio-economic forces and cultural nuances within the present-day reality of the country. I just completed a draft of my second book, which is also set in South Africa, but I doubt that I will write another unless I had the opportunity to go back for an extended period of time to immerse myself in the culture.

  • What writing projects are you working on now?

As I mentioned, I just finished a draft of my second book and I’m working on rewrites at the moment, but I have a couple of project brewing in the background and hope to start the research soon. One continues my interest in crime fiction as a vehicle for social commentary, and the other is speculative in nature and will undoubtably push me out of my comfort zone, which I find to be a very exciting prospect. Whichever one shouts loudest when I’m done with my current project will be my next obsession.

  • What do you look for in a short story collection?

Though I primarily write novels, I love reading short stories, and I’m very excited to read the submissions for this competition. Short story writing is an art form that confirms and subverts our expectations and understanding of the human condition in surprising and inventive ways. I gravitate towards work that pushes boundaries, and that challenges my understanding of the world we live in, even in subtle and understated ways.  In a collection, I look for stories that are strung together by a larger theme, or motif in the writer’s work, and how each of the stories work toward illuminating a different aspect or changes our understanding of that central idea and its effect on the characters and world of the story.

The deadline for the 2020 Blue Light Books Prize is October 31st, 2019 at 11:59 p.m. Click here to send in your submission.