Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Hot Swedish Lurve

One day whilst googling the title of my book (as you do), I came across a brief discussion of it in a language I rather vaguely identified as “Scandinavian”.

The article was accompanied by a fetching photo of our very own Ben Editor/Williams/Oswest, so naturally my curiosity was piqued.

I’d never used Google Translate before, but had been dying for the chance, and here was the perfect opportunity. I wasn’t 100% sure how it all worked but how hard could it be, right?

I copypasted the excerpt into the relevant box and pressed “go”. Nothing happened. Then I noticed that you were supposed to nominate the original language that you wanted translated into English.

The original language looked like this -

Landets chick lit skildrar storstadskvinnor i 20- 30-årsåldern på jakt efter materiell och känslomässig perfektion. De senaste 2-3 åren har ett tiotal titlar kommit ut. Genrens sydafrikanska introduktör brukar stavas Fiona Snyckers. I hennes Trinity rising står en politiskt inkorrekt, snygg, smart, ambitiös, universitetsstuderande hjältinna. Boken vänder sig främst till kvinnor som må ha sociala problem, men hellre köper skor än lusläser historieböcker.

Hmm … Norwegian?

Wrong. Try again.




Not even close.

I was getting a little desperate when I suddenly noticed a button you could press if you wanted Google Translate to identify the language for you. Win.

Aha! Eureka! It was Swedish. And after it had been through Google Translate, it came out looking like this -

“Its chick lit depicting urban women in 20 – 30 years old in search of physical and emotional perfection. The last 2-3 years, a dozen titles come out. South African genre introducer is usually spelled Fiona Snyckers. In her Trinity Rising Star politically incorrect, handsome, smart, ambitious, university students heroine. The book is addressed primarily to women who may have social problems, but would rather buy shoes than READ THROUGH THOROUGHLY history books.”

Isn’t that brilliant?

Seriously, who among us would not rather buy shoes than read through thoroughly history books? I’m sure there are historians at Princeton who would rather buy shoes than read through thoroughly history books.

And aren’t we all in search of physical and emotional perfection?

Honestly, I think I’ve just found my blurb writer for TRINITY ON AIR.

And to those of you who suspect that I chose the title of this post for all the Google search hits it will net me, I say fie on you and may your camels be stricken with fleas.

Feet Of Clay

Other people have crushes on singers and movie stars. I have crushes on authors. Every time I read something beautiful or moving or profound – something that sings with truth or quivers with humour – I fall a little bit in love with the writer. More than that, I believe that I actually know them.

Soap opera fans of the unbalanced variety may confuse actors with the characters they play, but I confuse writers with their books. Forgetting that the author is officially dead*, that there is no text in the class**, nor fish in the text***, I blithely accept the novel as a direct passport to the writer’s soul.

You’d think that someone who has done a little writing herself wouldn’t make such an elementary mistake. No one would be more horrified than me if someone tried to derive me from my fiction, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to derive my favourite writers from theirs.

So when those writers turn out to have feet of clay, or to be entirely different to what I expect, it all comes as a bit of a shock. Picture a 13 year old girl waking up to the news that Rob Pattinson has been caught turning tricks at King’s Cross station and you will have some idea of the level of my disillusionment.

I was still a teenager myself when I came across a reference to the fact that P.G. Wodehouse never set foot in England after World War II and lived under a cloud of suspicion of having spied for the Nazis. I clearly remember the sensation of having been punched in the gut as I read this – the sick dismay, the dry mouth, the trembling denial. I remember the voice shrieking in my head, “It’s impossible, it’s a lie, it can’t be!” Those were pre-internet days when information was more than just a click away. I physically had to go to the library and search for the the truth, paging through biographies and collected letters with sweaty fingers.

And there is was. Just as I suspected. P.G. Wodehouse never betrayed his country. He was made a Knight of the British Empire just weeks before his death, in recognition of the gross error of judgement his country had made. And when all the papers in the matter were finally declassified fifty years later, he was proved once and for all to be entirely innocent. Phew.

I remember a similar sense of disorientation when Patrick Dennis, author of the Auntie Mame books, turned out to have been gay. This was neither good nor bad as revelations go, just gobsmackingly other than what I was expecting. The Patrick Dennis persona he created on the page was so utterly convincing, I had absolutely no suspicion that he actually identified more closely with Auntie Mame.

There are other examples. Enid Blyton turning out to have been a distant parent (although really, I should have seen that one coming – it’s reflected in all her books). Coleridge the opium addict. H.L. Mencken the racist and anti-Semite. Salinger the nutcase.

But instead of learning my lesson from these salutary cases, I’ve just got worse as the years go by. The blogosphere has turned me more rabidly fangirl than ever. Blogging has shredded the last vestige of a barrier between author and text. If reading someone’s Private Secret Diary**** doesn’t give you direct access to their soul, well what does? And if that person blogs every single day for years on end, you get to know them quite well by the end of it, don’t you?

Facebook and Twitter have closed the gap even more. Now you can “friend” or “follow” your idol, and if you’re lucky they might just “friend” or “follow” you back, creating even more of an illusion of intimacy.

Obviously, it’s different for me. I know perfectly well that my online persona is just a construct that bears little resemblance to the “real me”. Which is why my bloggy friends are usually surprised when they meet me. “Are you always this quiet?” they ask, waving their hands in front of my face. “Smile. It might never happen.”

But that’s just me. Everyone else is exactly the way I picture them. And if they’re not, well, I really don’t want to know about it.

* “The Death of the Author”, Roland Barthes, 1968.
** “Is There a Text In This Class?”, Stanley Fish, 1980.
*** “Is There A Fish In This Text?”, Robert Scholes, 1984.
**** That’s an actual blog that I follow – I am SO in love with Jonny Billericay. I have, like, a total crush on him.

Life Can Be Very Krool

Years ago when I was 25 and newly married, my husband and I decamped to Oxford so that he could take up a scholarship at Balliol to read for the BCL.

The first thing I did as he plunged into the gaieties of Noughth Week was to register at a temp agency. The second was to start writing my first Proper Novel. I had piles and piles of rejected pulp romances at home, but this was to be my first foray into proper writing.

When I finally finished it – my first “real” novel – I took the breathtakingly cheeky step of sending it off to Barbara Trapido.

The Whitbread Award-winning author of “Brother Of The More Famous Jack” and a slew of other critically acclaimed novels was, and still is, one of my literary heroes. I knew she lived in Oxford, and I knew she was born in South Africa. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to solicit her help for a completely unknown fellow Seffrican.

Barely a week after I sent the novel off, I got a phonecall from the great lady herself, informing me that she’d read my novel on the train and was going to introduce me to Felicity Bryan, her erstwhile agent. She had also written an analysis of my novel and was popping it in the post straight away.

I still have that three-page, hand-written analysis, and will probably keep it until the day I die. In it, she describes my novel as “lots of fun” and “eminently publishable”, and dispenses such useful snippets of advice as a reminder that Black Forest Cake is a very Non-U dessert, while Sacher Torte is perfectly acceptable. Who knew, right?

I deleted all references to Black Forest Cake from the text, and, armed with my letter of introduction, sent the novel off to Felicity Bryan. Again it was barely a week later that the phone rang and the lady herself invited me to pop round to her office to meet her.

She showered praise on the novel, and told me it was “very enjoyable” and had “great potential”. She also regaled me with anecdotes of her many high-profile clients, including yet another hero of mine – the great Robertson Davies – who passed away just a few months later.

I undertook to build the book up to 75,000 words (at 50,000 words, it was far too short), and we parted on the best of terms.

By this time, as you may imagine, I was having to rent an adjoining apartment just to house my rampant ego. I honestly believed that my ship had come in at last. I’d hit the big time, left failure behind me forever, and could expect Hollywood to come a-knocking at any moment. I remember feeling a kind of dim pity for those poor, and patently inferior, writers who struggled for years before they finally made it.

If someone had told me then that it would be another ten years before a book of mine got even a sniff of genuine interest from a publisher, I would have laughed in their faces. And possibly kicked sand at them too.

But so it was.

Felicity Bryan sat on the reworked version of the novel for months and months and months (never a good sign). Then she phoned to say that it wasn’t “exactly” her kind of thing, but that she was sending it onto another agent in London who would definitely love it.

The second agent sat on it for a few more interminable months, before announcing that it wasn’t “quite right” for her either, but that she was sending it onto yet another agent who would be sure to adore it. The third agent eventually came clean and admitted that she didn’t adore it at all … and she didn’t offer to send it on anywhere else either.

My ego began to shrink back down to normal size, which was probably a good thing for all concerned. I think I still have a copy of that novel lying about somewhere, but I haven’t so much as looked at it in the last ten years.

Does That Make Me a Geek?

The definitions of geekhood are many and varied, and most of them don’t seem to apply to me.

I’m not a techie, for one thing, and I don’t loiter palely in Internet chatrooms, emerging blinking into the daylight only to stock up on Coke and crisps.

I do however have a fine collection of Pre-Crisis DC comics (and if you have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, then you’re a geek too – oh yes, you are), an affection for the original Star Trek series, and a very high opinion of the comic strip as a form of art.

It’s a lonely existence in many ways because the only people who “get” it are the said nutcases in Internet chatrooms. And most of them are, ex hypothesi, completely barking. But when the urge to share my enthusiasms becomes overwhelming, I do log on occasionally and lurk about in the underworld of geekdom, nodding and muttering to myself in the manner of a psychiatric patient.

And if I were really honest, my BookSA status updates would read something like, “Fiona Snyckers is reading Footrot Flats by Murray Ball” instead of, “Fiona Snyckers is reading The Latest Shortlistee for the Man Booker Prize by Some Obscure Armenian Dude”.

Or if not Footrot Flats, it might equally be Pogo Possum by Walt Kelly, The Addams Family by Charles Addams, or Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson. It is impossible to overstate how highly I regard these brilliant men and their scintillating creations. For sheer style, wit, pathos, and an inimitable bottling of a particular zeitgeist they are unmatched and unrivalled. The howling injustice of their creations being dismissed as “low art” is something I could blog about for weeks (but I won’t – don’t worry).

I was switched onto the magic of comic strips in my childhood by a friend of my father’s – a hard-living, hard-drinking man by the name of Mike. He was a bad father and a worse husband, but he took an inexplicable interest in the quiet and serious girl-child in whom he seemed to recognise a kindred spirit.

He lent me his precious Pogo Possum and Footrot Flats collections on a regular basis. And when his liver finally packed its bags and said Sayonara for good, he gave me the whole lot to keep, knowing that he’d never need them back.

Every now and then I take them out and read the entire collection from start to finish – and send up a little prayer of thanks to the man who opened my eyes.

Cheers, Mike. I should have known that you knew who Agamemnon was.

Extra! Bluebloods Swell Ranks of BookSA


Seeing as we’ve got back onto the subject of cats again (where will it end?), I’m uploading my puddy-tats to join the ranks of the BookSA Felines.

That’s Abby on the left, and her brother Pye on the right. They are both 11 years old. If you look closely you’ll see that Abby is missing her left back leg, thanks to an overly close encounter with an automobile a few years back.

Contrary to popular perception, they are not in least snooty or stand-offish, but rather the sweetest-natured, most affectionate cats in the world. Naughty though, and extremely apt to swat food off the forks of unsuspecting visitors – just like Helen’s late Pushkin.

The Dangerous Life of a Writer

I was going to blog about the underperformance of South African novels in the literary marketplace, but then this brush with the law occurred and seemed to demand blogging priority.

It happened last Friday on the mean streets of Sandton, where Metro cops lurk behind every topiaried bush, waiting to leap out at unsuspecting motorists chatting on their cellphones. I was driving along talking animatedly into my dictaphone. Not because I’m some high-powered CEO who is never off-duty, but because this is how I write. I compose my novels onto a dictaphone.

Does anybody else do this? Anybody at all?


Well, Barbara Cartland used to. Only it wasn’t so much a dictaphone as a real live secretary. And she didn’t so much dictate as rattle off wads of pap almost faster than the human ear could follow. At least 10,000 words a day, apparently, and frequently more. Can you imagine?

I started dictating years ago when it came to me that my best ideas happened away from the computer – when I was driving around town, for instance, or pottering around the garden in the wake of a preoccupied toddler. I decided to harness all that off-duty creativity by carrying a dictaphone around with me at all times. Worked a treat, it did.

But getting back to last Friday.

There I was – deep in the throes of Chapter 14 – when a Metro cop flung himself bodily in front of my wheels in a manner that brooked no misunderstanding. I duly reined in my steed and prepared to defend myself with all the vigour of stainless innocence.

HIM: Ma’am, you do realise that it is against the law to talk on a handheld cellphone while you are driving?

ME: (smugly): Indeed, officer? But as you can see, this is not a cellphone. It is merely a dictaphone.

HIM (whipping out a portion of the Road Traffic Act with all the air of a conjurer): Aha! But look here. It quite clearly states, “any mobile phone or other handheld communications device.”

ME (on shaky ground here): Well, yes … but it’s not really a communications device, is it? I’m not communicating with anyone, am I? I’m just writing notes to myself.

HIM: Hmmm. Well, okay. I’ll let you off this time. But don’t do it again. It’s just as dangerous as talking on a mobile.

ME (fingers crossed behind my back): I won’t. I promise.

HIM (struck by a sudden thought): Hey! You haven’t been recording our conversation on that thing, have you? Here, let me listen to it.

At this point, I must confess to a slight twinge of apprehension. My dictaphone has a nasty habit of switching on by mistake, you see. And of recording hours and hours of ambient noise before I either stop it or the battery dies. Whichever comes first.

So it was with a somewhat gulpy feeling that I rewound it a few seconds and then pressed Play. The dictaphone crackled into life. Together, the Metro cop and I bore witness to these deathless lines:

“I won’t do it!” she said defiantly, pushing her hair back agitatedly.
“Oh, yes you will!” he said arrogantly, pulling her towards him powerfully.

There was a moment’s silence. Then I held my hands out, wrists together, and said in a subdued voice, “It’s a fair cop, officer. I’ll come quietly.”

He snapped the bracelets into place and proceeded to read me my rights: “Fiona Snyckers, I am arresting you on suspicion of wanton adverb abuse and general crap writing.”

And then I spent the night in chokey.

Okay, I didn’t really. But I deserved to.

Searing Honesty – What I’m Really, Really Reading

Sensitive readers look away now. This won’t be pretty. It might be honest, but it won’t be pretty.

You have been warned.

What I’m Reading For Research -

Heat magazine.

Okay, you can take that smirk off your face now. My novels are all about club-hopping twenty-somethings in today’s Jozi. I need to keep up to date with youth culture, don’t I? And the same goes for my MTV habit and my E! Entertainment addiction. It’s all in the name of research.

My Novel du Jour -

Today it’s Whiplash by Tracey Farren. Lordy, lordy, that is SO not an easy read. Brilliant, though. And incredibly brave of Modjaji Books to have published it. And of Ron Irwin to have punted it. Good show, all round.

My Comfort Food -

Or as Barbara Trapido so cleverly put it – Elgar and hot milk. This never changes much. I usually have one P.G. Wodehouse, one Georgette Heyer, and one Janet Evanovitch on the go at any one time. These are my literary equivalents of a giant bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. I know they’re not good for me, but they restore body and soul. They also mess with my writing style something horrible. (“Which way to Soweto, old bean?”)

My Hotline to the World -

The Internet. This is not a good thing. Noooo – not a good thing at all. I waste a frightening amount of time reading other people’s blogs, Facebooking, browsing news and currents affairs sites, and generally farting about. Bad writer. Bad, bad, bad writer!

Still More Research -

A heaping pile of Mills & Boon novels.

Okay, seriously, the wind is going to change and your face will stay like that forever. Stop smirking!

The bug has bitten again – renewing my determination to break into the romantic fiction mass market. (In between my “real” writing, of course.) So I’m working my way through a whole stack of M&Bs to familiarise myself with the latest trends. Too fascinating for words. Did you know that the most common plotline across all imprints is for the hero and heroine somehow to get married before they actually fall in love? Think autocratic billionaire hires spirited ingenue to provide him with heir … and then falls in love with her. As you do.

So there you go. What I’m really, REALLY reading. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mills & Boon Dreams

Has anyone on this site ever sold a book to Mills & Boon? For real? If so, you have my undying RESPECT.

My adventures with mass-market romance began when I was in my Honours years at Rhodes University. I made the mistake of reading Florence King’s “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady,” in which she describes how she kicked off her writing career by producing reams and reams of pulp fiction. Very lucratively too.

I had always known that I wanted to write – the only question was what day job to take up in the meanwhile. Journalism was winning by a short head until Florence came along and filled my head with crazy dreams. Why not just skip the whole day-job part and cut straight to the paid author part? Yes! Genius!

So after graduating I horrified my friends, family and well-wishers (and mainly my mother) by NOT applying for an internship at the Weekly Mail, Financial Mail, Business Day or wherever. Instead I got a job as a waitress by night and settled down at my manual typewriter by day to produce my first romance.

That original effort was pretty crap, to be honest. I can’t really blame them for turning it down. It was far too riddled with sub-plots for one thing, and didn’t have nearly enough face-to-face time between the hero and heroine. The second effort was better, but I messed up in a big way by setting it in London or New York or some other city that I had only the scantiest knowledge of.


I’d begun to realise that M&B authors tended to set their novels in their own home towns, so my next opus took place in Jo’burg.

Rejected again.

Oh, my God! The agony. The heartburning. The masochistic determination to try again.

It had also dawned on me that M&B actually PREFER to receive 3 sample chapters plus a synopsis rather than a whole novel. This was very good news. Why write 50,000 words if you don’t have to, right? So the next four attempts were just 3 chapters long, and the rejections came boomeranging back. I beat my head briskly against the sturdy surface of my Hermes Ambassador. Why, why, why? This was not rocket science, ffs. WHY could I not get it right?

Especially when I’d got the sex scenes down to such a fine art. And trust me it’s not easy to work a celestial sex scene into the third chapter of a novel when the hero and heroine cannot officially get it together until the last line of the final page. But, I managed it. And those sex scenes were, if I do say so myself, deliciously baroque.

By this time, my benighted “gap year” had limped to a close and I enrolled at Wits for a Masters degree in English lit. And yes, I did have a few more goes at popular romance after that, and no – not one of them succeeded.

So if any of you has ever got it right and managed to crack into the M&B market, I abase myself at your feet. And ask just one question.

How the hell did you do it???

The Blog Ate My Homework

I have a Secret Fear.

Would you like to hear about it?

Okay – here goes. My Secret Fear is that when I start blogging I shall stop writing.

This is not quite as bonkers as it might sound. I’ve seen it happen, you see. To people I know quite well. In fact, I am personally acquainted with at least two individuals who would be successful, published authors today had they not allowed themselves to get sucked into the black hole of blogging.

» read more