Susan Newham-Blake, prolific magazine journalist and editor for over fifteen years talks to SSDA about her life in the fast lane and her inspiring debut book - Making Finn. It’s a well-crafted page turner, a heartening humorous tale that takes the reader on an adventure with a twist. It is a journey featuring two woman, a life-altering dream and a sperm donor on the other side of the world who can make it all come true.
I absolutely love reading adventure stories and Making Finn was an exceptional one for me. There was not only the physical suspense of the journey surrounding the precious cargo needed for you to become a mother but also the many emotional trials and tribulations you went through. Making Finn is a personal story about a specific period in your life. You must have had many reactions during and after the publishing of your book. What were some of the challenges, good and bad, that you had to deal with?
SUSAN: There was big interest in the actual story of using sperm donation to conceive a child so I had a number of magazines, newspapers and radio stations interviewing me. There were not too many negative responses to the book that I was aware of – the odd comment maybe which I can’t even remember now. I know that after an interview I did with John Maytham on Cape Talk he said there were some unhappy listeners who wrote in but he thankfully didn’t share those with me, nor was I interested in them.
Most rewarding were the letters I received from readers who’d been spurred on to finally have the child they’d so longed for. I received one particular letter from a grandmother in her eighties saying she had much more insight into homosexuality after reading my book and that it had made her more open-minded and sympathetic. A while after the book was published I received letters and pictures from people showing me the baby they’d conceived after reading my book and that has felt incredibly rewarding. For a while Finn was a bit of a mini-celeb at his preschool which was quite fun for both of us. We still give a copy of the book to his teachers to give them insight into his background – he’s ten years old this year so it seems a long way away but still interesting.
Making Finn is a story with great soul. How did you get your writing to reflect this?
SUSAN: While writing the story I didn’t think too much about publishing it or sending it out into the world. I don’t think I could have been so honest if I’d thought hundreds of strangers were going to read it! At the time I wrote it to simply get the story down so that one day my kids would know how they’d been conceived, from the most accurate source.
It must have been an interesting jump from magazine writer and editor to published author. Can you elaborate on how this process worked for you?
SUSAN: Nothing much changed to be honest. I continued to be a magazine writer and editor while I wrote the book and I continue to work in the magazine industry as an editorial director for a publishing company. The publishing of the book felt like a very exciting aside to what I do full time, which is my career and raising my children. However, through the process of publishing the book I learnt a great deal about the book publishing industry including distribution and marketing and I met some amazing people and other authors. Many of these people have remained in my life and some have become creative writing companions and even mentors.
You are now a mother of three young children. Can you tell us a little about how you manage your world in relation to this and what creative writing adventures you have planned for the future?
SUSAN: I am lucky to have an energetic hands-on wife, Roxi, who shares the domestic chores and co-parenting of our three children. I also work for a progressive company that allows flexible working hours so I can leave early and spend as much time with my kids helping with homework, and spending time with them in the late afternoon. It is a lot to juggle and life can be exhausting, especially since our daughter is still a toddler. But we muddle along doing the best we can, as I suspect most of us do.
As far as creative writing adventures are concerned I did write a novel after Making Finn, which is lying in the bottom of a drawer. It was a bit of an experiment and escapist project that I might or might not revisit one day. I have started on a second novel, which I’m hoping to complete this year. I belong to an inspiring and motivating monthly writing group headed up by Meg Van der Merwe (author of Zebra Crossing) that has helped keep the creative writing juices flowing. Meg is also an amazing mentor and teacher so I feel like I’ve learnt and continue to learn a lot about fiction writing. I’ve also written and continue to write short stories, which gives me my writing fix.
Can you tell us your favourite books you read in 2016?
SUSAN: Last year I enjoyed The Girl on the Train which was cleverly crafted and great fun to get through. I loved The Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay on her personal journey to discovering her birth parents. I also read her collection of short stories called Reality, Reality and also enjoyed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck.
On Susan’s Bedside Table
I am currently reading Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. It’s a sensual and entrancing read. I have a pile of books on my bedside table including Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, a powerful insight into the journey of a family whose daughter is transgendered. I have had The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange, Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Three by Sarah Lotz, all sitting on my bedside table for the past year so I’m hoping to finish them this year.
Interested in identity? Make sure to enter the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize. Our theme this year is ID. Submission details here.
Susan Newham-Blake was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has an English degree from UCT and has worked in magazine publishing as a writer, editor and publisher for 18 years. She is the author of Making Finn (Penguin) published in 2013. She lives in Cape Town with her wife and three children.
Interview by Catherine Shepherd