Interview with Drienie Hattingh, author of “Forever Friends”

How important is research to you when writing a book?

EXTREMELY important for historical fiction. It took me 7 years to complete my novel. I had to research the 19th century history of four countries… France, America (The New World), The Netherlands and South Africa. I also traveled back to South Africa to the town where my story plays off in order to get the real present-day challenges my main character were facing. I also wanted to experience the ambiance of the place and I wanted my heroin to have special, real places…. I have real stores she shops in, real restaurants she frequents. Her favorite coffee shop is real. Even the art gallery is real and artists are real people. Research was extremely important because I, for one, will stop reading a book when I know something is not true… when the author wrote about a place and I know the information is wrong. And, being a x-South African I was super sensitive with details of the place where my book plays off in South Africa. I would have hated it if a South African read my book and something is not correct. Right down to where the sun comes up, behind a certain mountain and goes down behind another. I especially wanted my fellow South Africans to feel, while reading my book, that I know what I’m talking about, that the places in the books are not only real to me and my characters, but to them too.

How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something?

If I’m not inspired it’s difficult. I have to know where I’m going with my writing. I have to have a clear picture of my characters and the story, how it will begin and it end.

What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?

It’s difficult starting a new project. With my new book I could not see the ending clearly. It took me months to visualize the ending and making it believable.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

I do proofread and edit my initial draft and then my critique partners read the finished manuscript several times. I trust them completely. They will cut chapters and characters that do not ‘help to move the story along.’ When we all (we are 5 women) are satisfied with each other’s input into our manuscripts, we send our manuscripts off to a professional editor. I ALWAYS use a professional editor.

If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?

I’m rewriting the first book in an anthology series. I never was quite satisfied with the book and after I compiled and published the last book in the series I knew I had to redo the first one.

How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?

Book signings are also promotions. People need to see the book a couple of times before they buy it. So every time you have a book signing, it is one closer to selling a book to that person who’ve seen it a couple of times. I take something with me to keep me busy (I knit) and I talk to people all the time, even if they cannot buy a book right then and there. I tell them about my book/s and give them book marks. They are all potential customers.

Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?

No! Although, sometimes I do… on Goodreads… readers will, for instance, say in a review that they loved the book and look forward to the next one. Then I’ll tell them about other books in this specific series. I’ve actually befriended a couple of readers like this who now regularly review my books. BUT, never react to a bad review. Not good.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

I do pay attention to reviews who say specific things that will improve a new book. In a ghost story series I’ve published, a reviewer said that the stories, in the anthology, were too predictable. So I made a point of telling authors who submitted stories to watch out for that in future anthologies.

Tell us about your writing style, how is it different from other writers?

I write in readable language. I do not use big words. I’ve had writers in writing groups who said they want to ‘educate’ readers. I do not believe in that. I want readers to read my book and enjoy the STORY. I don’t want them to have a dictionary handy to be able to understand my writing. Big words take readers out of the story and that isn’t good.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

I think every author put something, if not a lot, in their books. My main characters enjoy good coffee and good wine and good food, just like me…. as an example. But, I do not force political views and religion on my readers, through my writing.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

Yes. In my historical novel, that plays off in South Africa, which is quite a dangerous place to live these days, I do have things that happened to family and friends, and myself, happen to my characters. But it is a way of life in South Africa. So it’s not isolated to stuff that just happened to me and my family.

Have you ever taken any help from other writers?

Definitely. I belong to a critique groups and we all read each other’s manuscript right from the start to finish. We take it very seriously and depend on each other to get it done and published.

Now when you look back at your past, do you feel accomplished?

I do. I never thought I’d be a published author and that people all over the world would read my words. It still thrills me to see (on Amazon Kindle) that someone in England or Italy bought my book.

Any particular writer in mind whom you would want to complete your unfinished works in the event of your death?

I absolutely hate it when someone continues writing an author’s work when they die. I will never read author’s books who have the permission of Agatha Christie’s family to continue writing Poirot novels. I think Agatha would turn in her grave if she knew someone else took her idea, her character, and are writing novels about ‘him.’ I will never read those books.

Can you tell us about your current projects?

I’m writing a novel playing off in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. My main character is a game warden who is involved in catching poachers.

Had any of your literary teachers ever tell you growing up that you were going to become a published writer one day?

No. Actually my English teacher asked us to write an essay and I was very proud of my essay and couldn’t wait for the teacher to read it and respond to it. The teacher never read it, he said my writing was awful and because of that he didn’t read it and he gave me a failing grade.

Have you ever written a character with an actor in mind?

In my historical novel I saw Morgan Freeman in my mind all the time when I wrote about one of the main characters. I could hear him laugh and his voice too. I did not write this character with Freeman in mind but while I wrote he kept on popping up in my mind and I started seeing him every time I wrote about this character. I could hear his voice and laugh in my mind.

How do you think your writing style has changed over the years?

Not much, but I do think my knowledge of the English language got much better. English is my second language. But my writing style is the same. I believe in using simple language, and not big words that would take the reader out of the story.

Have you ever written a character vaguely based off a real life acquaintance and they found out when they weren’t meant to? If yes, then please tell us, it would make a terribly interesting story!

It hasn’t happened yet and I hope it won’t. The big villain in my historical novel is a well-known person in the town where my story plays off. I actually visited the town (in another country) to get all the local history and problems locals faced, to make my book real and believable. After the book was published I asked a local business owner to read my book and review it. After she finished reading it she said the book was totally believable in every way. Then she said that she knows who my villain is based on. I asked her, kiddingly, “So, do you think I will be allowed to visit there, or will I be thrown out?” She said, “I think you will be okay, I don’t think anyone will shoot you…” she wasn’t kidding.

Tell us about an interesting or memorable encounter you had with a fan?

A woman came to a book signing and was very excited to see my props, African animals, and also huge framed photos of the town, Franschhoek Valley, where my story plays off, and was specifically in awe about the framed photo of a farm house (which I usually show to readers and say, that that is the house where my heroin lives, in my book) built in the Cape Dutch style. All the family-owned, three century old, farm houses, in Franschhoek is built in that style. This lady said, “I cannot believe it! That’s my ancestors house! I have a picture of it. However much I told her that all the family owned, three century old, farm houses in Franschhoek, South Africa, looks like that, she would say, “No, that is my ancestor’s house!” She asked me to tell her all about my historical novel. I told her my book was inspired by the French Huguenots flight out of France, in the late 17th Century, and how the 1,000 some refugees from France, settled the Franschhoek Valley and started vineyards. She looked at me with huge glistening eyes, and said, “That is the history of her ancestors. They fled France during the late 17th century and were French Huguenots too.” She was beyond excited. She told me to wait right there (as if I was going anywhere) and within minutes she was back with four other women, her mother and sisters. They were waiting for her at a restaurant, next to the book store where I was doing the book signing. She showed them the framed photo of the house and they all agreed with her, that that was their ancestral house. I told them that I took that photo of the house while I was doing research in Franschhoek, and I actually stayed in the house which was now a Bed and Breakfast. They were just in awe, gaping at me. They all bought copies of my book and had me sign it, of course, and even bought extra copies for other family members. They told me that they have never heard anyone talk about their family history like I did and could not believe I wrote a book dealing with that. I still don’t know if this house was their ancestral house or not, but it was a wonderfully delicious encounter and this group of women were just hanging on every word I was saying. They then asked if I would pose with them for a photo. All in all, a wonderful encounter… a day I will always remember.

Being an author, how susceptible are you to getting recognized on the street?

I am more recognized for the anthology series I wrote than my historical novel. The series is based on local legends and are very popular in my neck of the woods. So I would often have people saying to me, “You are the lady that write those books about our town, right?”

Do you enjoy the attention fans shower you with, or would you rather keep it online?

I love being recognized for my books and enjoy talking to the readers. I also love to ask them which of the stories in the books are their favorites and often they would share their own stories about ghostly encounters with me.

Do you think the charm of public libraries has toned down much in the last decade?

Yes. I once had a book signing at a library in a town about an hour from us. It was a big town, with nice houses and new stores. The library was a new one, very fancy, replacing the old one. I could not find my way and stopped and asked several people if they know where the library was and NO ONE KNEW. Very sad.

Does fan mail still excite you as much as it did the first time you received it?

When I was a columnist for a newspaper, where we lived in Minnesota, I received a lot of letters to the editor and personal letters addressed to me, telling me how my column inspired them and how they enjoyed it. I never got tired of those.

Do you mentor?

All the time. I’ve helped many authors to finish their manuscripts. Some I took time with to meet and discuss their work and others I’ve prodded and bamboozled into completing their manuscripts. I have several writers who are now published that would not have been published, if I did not encourage them to do so.

Often, we are stuck in situations that we are not able to find a way out of. Have you ever incorporated a real life situation from your own experience into the book and made the character find a way out of it the way you could not?

In my novel, that plays off in South Africa, where carjackings happens all the time, I had a chapter where the mother and daughter were carjacked. I’ve never been carjacked but I’ve often wondered if I were, how I’d get out of it. In this chapter I let my main character, outsmart the carjackers. However, my critique partners, who had the audacious job of cutting my novel to a respectable word count, decided to cut that chapter because it did not forward the story.

Which character(s), created by you, do you consider as your masterpiece(s)?

So far I think, in my historical novel, FOREVER FRIENDS, my main character’s grandmother, Nette, is a strong woman who lived her life as she wanted, ignoring opinions of people around her. Her character just developed more and more. I knew exactly how she would react in any situation.