Q&A with memoir author and publisher Melinda Ferguson
'I hurtled into writing 'Smacked', in many ways to save my life'
Nal'ibali Column 4 Term 3 2019
Smacked, Hooked and Crashed - you have a talent for seriously catchy titles! You’ve written many books, but those three titles offer extremely personal accounts of challenges with addiction and health issues that you’ve experienced. How do you walk the line between openly sharing vulnerable moments with readers and protecting your privacy and recovery processes?
I hurtled into writing Smacked, in many ways to save my life. I was pretty suicidal during the last year or so of my active addiction to heroin and crack, and the early years of recovery were very dark as I had messed up so much of my life and hurt people around me. So during the writing of that book I found a reason to live. I decided that brutal honesty was a must if I was to write something authentic. So privacy was never on the cards: I’ve never really bought into the idea of being anonymous as part of my recovery. Bringing my dark to the light, however twisted and shameful that was, was a very effective way of healing myself and confronting my demons. Now this has become my approach in publishing and the writing workshops and courses I do with writers. I pull out the demons, confront the shadows and so we get healed. And write great books.
Your work has helped reach people at their lowest points. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to help those who reach out to you after reading? How do you draw a line between Melinda Ferguson the writer and Melinda Ferguson the recovery coach?
This has been a line I have had to navigate since Smacked was published in 2004. At first I felt super responsible and gave a lot of myself away to people who constantly reached out to me. Slowly, after getting terribly exhausted, I began to realise that I didn’t have to say yes to everybody and feel responsible for every addict’s recovery. It’s been a great learning process. These days I guard my private time and space with great vigilance because it’s a natural instinct for me to let people in. There is much to do in this life that I have carved out as a publisher and author, and only so many hours in a single day!
You’re also interested in helping other people develop their writerly voices! You offer popular writing workshops in Cape Town, Johannesburg and online. What have you found to be the things that local aspiring authors are most in need of?
To be seen, to be heard, to connect and to be validated. I have also found a great hunger for writers to write their own stories, and what incredible stories of pain and struggle and triumph we have in South Africa.
You head up MF Books, a cutting-edge imprint of Jacana Media. What do you look for in a new book?
Unique voices. Brilliant writing. An ability to shift the reader. Authenticity and truth ... and these days I also have had to ask the million-dollar question: will it sell? Publishing is like gambling. You get a hunch and spin the wheel.
What are some of the books MF Books has published that you’re most proud of getting out into the world?
In September this year I will publish Steven Sidley’s incredible novel, Leaving Word, which will be my 40th book and, in truth, they are all my babies. But as space is limited here, the book I am most proud of is Rape: A South African Nightmare by Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola in 2016. We won the highly coveted Alan Paton Award for this book and that changed everything for me as a publisher. Then, Being Chris Hani’s Daughter ,which I co-wrote with Lindiwe Hani, was an absolutely unforgettable book to work on and publish. Oh gosh, there are so many …
You’ve been lucky to have found mentors along the way in your writing and publishing career. What would you advise someone who needs guidance, but is intimidated to approach publishing houses? How can people seek out their first break into the industry?
This is so hard to answer. I went back to school and did an honours in publishing at Wits, and met my greatest mentor there, Bridget Impey. But I watched and watched the industry and read and read its books. I spent a lot of time in bookshops and observed covers and what was selling and what spoke to me. So I guess it’s more about observing and learning than actually having physical people to guide someone who is keen. Still, definitely go to book fairs, like Open Book Festival, and speak to publishers and authors at these events.
Fans of your work can catch you speaking at this year’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town. What will you be discussing?
I am doing a morning writing workshop on memoir. Last year I did one which was totally booked out, so hopefully this year the same thing will happen. I will be sharing my insights and doing some practical writing work with the attendees, and giving my special, honest feedback.
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