Joburger Paula Gruben was put up for adoption as a baby in 1974 and although she lived a happy, carefree childhood, she faced a crippling identity crisis in her teens as a result of not knowing anything about her biological parents. At the age of 21, Paula was granted access to her file and subsequently met both her birth mother and father. This planted the seed for writing a book about her adoption story, which fell to the wayside as life got in the way.
But when Paula became pregnant in 2010, she had time to reflect on the emotions both her birth and adoptive mothers must have gone through, so decided to continue writing her story. The result is Umbilicus, a fictional novel interwoven with facts from her own real-life story. With the recent release of the book, GLAMOUR chats to Paula about her writing and the process of penning her life story.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I have worked in the magazine and publishing industry since 2000, first on the marketing and research side, then editorial. I’ve always loved working with words so it was a natural progression. My first feature story was published in 2007, and I moved from freelance to full-time and back to freelance over the next few years. Then in 2010, when full-time motherhood to a severely premature baby became my priority, I had to put my writing career on hold. Franz Kafka once wrote, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity”, so in 2011, I started blogging to keep the creative juices flowing. When my son started playschool a couple of years later, and I had more time on my hands, I started serious work on Umbilicus – one of about half a dozen manuscripts I had filed away in various stages of gestation. It’s been a long and laborious process to reach the point of actual publication, but undoubtedly my most rewarding personal project to date.
What are some of your favourite stories to read as a writer?
I am a huge fan of crime fiction, psychological thrillers, autobiographies and memoirs.
Umbilicus is based on your own experience. Was it a difficult process trying to put this into words?
The words came quite easily but the scenes were all over the show, in myriad disjointed vignettes. It was quite a challenge deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, and then weaving it all together in a compelling narrative arc with a decent pace. When I started writing this book, I also didn’t know how the story was going to end. It was only during the process of structural manipulation that the idea for a satisfying ending emerged, and I finally knew I had it all sewn up.
Why did you decide to write a fictional novel of this experience instead of an autobiography?
Several key characters in the story wanted their names changed for professional and personal reasons. And then, after analysing all the feedback and constructive criticism I received from industry professionals during the submission process, about market trends and optimal shelf positioning for a book like mine, I made the executive decision to change the names of all the characters – except public personalities, such as radio and club DJs, in order to provide a cultural touchpoint – and repackaged my book as a Young Adult novel instead of a memoir.
What is your advice to aspirant writers?
Read, read, read! You cannot write unless you read. Attend writing workshops and courses – online or in real life. Write like you speak; simple is always better. Dialogue makes up about seventy percent of contemporary novels so learn to master the art of writing dialogue and you’re well on your way to producing marketable material. Go to book launches and don’t be shy to ask authors and publishers questions. Put yourself out there – network, network, network! And use Google – Google is your friend, as are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest – to connect with other writers and potential readers down the line. If you’re like me and write in ad hoc chunks rather than full, chronological chapters, then yWriter is a marvellous little tool. It’s a free downloadable program that helps you sort and structure your work into scenes, chapters and, eventually, a complete, coherent whole.
What are you currently reading and loving?
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Joburg launch of Paige Nick’s latest novel Dutch Courage, which I’m about halfway through now. On Saturday, I attended an author talk by hard news journalist Alex Eliseev on his recently released book Cold Case Confession: Unravelling the Betty Ketani Murder, which I’ll start straight after. I think the quality of work being produced by homegrown authors is world-class.
What does your writing process entail?
I need dead quiet to write so I do my best work while my son is at school or after he and my husband have gone to bed. I type most of my raw material into an MS Word document on my desktop PC then copy and paste everything into yWriter to sort, structure and edit. I am also a very visual person and find that creating mood boards on Pinterest works extremely well in helping me compartmentalise and organise my rather haphazard thought processes. Genre, theme, plot, characters, setting, soundtrack, exposition, ideas for cover art and marketing, inspirational writing quotes, anything you can think of really – each has their own virtual pinboard.
What has been your favourite book in the last year?
I bought a copy of Finding Jack by Gareth Crocker at an author talk of his a couple of months back and I can truly say it is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read. I blubbed like a baby! I’d rate in in the same league as The Power of One by the late Bryce Courtenay, and I cannot wait until my son is old enough to read both of these books.
Want to know more about Umbilicus? Read our review here!