Glamour magazine: When did you decide to become a writer? Paula Gruben: I have worked in the magazine and newspaper publishing industry since 2000, first on the marketing and research side of the fence, before moving across to 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 prem 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.
GM: What are some of your favourite stories to read as a writer? PG: I am a huge fan of crime fiction, psychological thrillers, autobiographies and memoirs.
GM: Umbilicus is based on your own experience. Was it a difficult process trying to put this into words? PG: The words came quite easily but the scenes were all over the show, in a myriad disjointed vignettes. It was quite a challenge deciding what to leave in and what to chuck out, and then weaving it all together in a compelling narrative arc with decent pacing. 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.
GM: Why did you decide to write a fictional novel of this experience instead of an autobiography? PG: 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.
GM: What is your advice to aspirant writers? PG: 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.
GM: What does your writing process entail? PG: 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.
GM: What has been your favourite book in the last year? PG: 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 it 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.
Women24: Umbilicus is more than a story about adoption. It is also a coming-of-age story written from a young adult’s perspective. What did you want your reader to feel and experience through your book? Paula Gruben: There’s a poignant line from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ which reads: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And that’s exactly how I wanted my reader to connect with my protagonist. But the somewhat iconoclastic second person point-of-view I use, which adds so much to the immediacy and intimacy of the story, actually came about quite by chance. Initially I wrote Umbilicus in the first person. Then just before I started the submission process, I came across a letter written by Thuli Madonsela to her teenage self. It was from a book called From Me To Me, which is a collection of letters written by some of South Africa’s best loved personalities to their younger selves, and I was inspired to write my own, to include as a Prologue. Ultimately, I ditched the idea of a Prologue, but by now I had fallen in love with this compelling new ‘voice’ which had emerged on the page, and I ended up altering the entire manuscript accordingly.
W24: By sharing your story you will be helping so many others find healing – and that shared feeling of ‘someone understands.’ I know you particularly have a heart for teenagers and young adults. Can you share more about your talks at schools? PG: It is my passion, and my mission, to share my story with teenagers. To reach out to and connect with any lost or troubled souls who may be secretly facing seemingly insurmountable challenges or crises in their own lives – to let them know they are not alone, that there is help out there, and hope for healing. To complement my book, I have created an unbiased, non-judgemental, interactive and inspiring Teen Talk, suitable for all grades at high schools. Topics discussed include issues of: crisis pregnancy, abortion, adoption, suicide, self-esteem, and identity. My main aim is to educate adolescents about their rights, responsibilities, and options regarding an unplanned pregnancy. And to facilitate dialogue and debate amongst their peers about abortion versus adoption versus teen parenthood, including the impact these choices could have on their lives, over both the short and long term. I am not prescriptive in my advice, and advocate neither a pro-choice nor pro-life stance. Rather, I call for introspection and critical thinking from the teens themselves, providing links to the resources they will need in order to make a safe, informed decision should the situation of a crisis pregnancy ever arise.
W24: Did you find that by writing the book it helped you with your own healing too? PG: I once likened the process of writing this book to that of peeling an onion – amidst a steady stream of tears, uncovering layer upon layer of memory and fact, getting deeper and deeper under the skin, I managed to get closer and closer to the truth. My goal was to gather up all the separate layers of fact and memory and integrate them into one coherent story. The resulting book, although dark in parts, is far from navel-gazing misery-lit. It is ultimately an enlightening and inspiring story – a love story – which, once birthed, left me feeling liberated and empowered.
W24: You chose the self-publishing route, even although your book would have been snatched up by a traditional publisher. What prompted this decision? PG: Like most budding authors at the start of their careers, I was lured by the thrill of potentially securing a contract with a big name trade publisher, which supposedly meant utter validation of my worth as a writer. But after about six months of querying and not getting any joy (there were exciting flashes of interest, but no firm offers), I was growing increasingly impatient and finally decided to call it a day. I figured I could spend the next year, two years, five years even, embroiled in the submission process, with absolutely no guarantee of ever securing a contract. Or, I could take the bull by the horns, stop the soul-destroying cycle with immediate effect, and self-publish instead. It was a no-brainer. I don’t regret the traditional submission experience one bit, as I learned an awful lot about the industry, and grew a much thicker skin. But in retrospect, I am so glad I decided to go the self-publishing route, as it is far more in line with my more maverick ‘indie sensibilities’, which extend to just about all aspects of my life.
W24: Do you have another book planned, and if so, can you give us a little hint around what it will be about? PG: My second book will be a direct follow on from Umbilicus, although both can be read as stand-alone stories. The working title is Incomer, and it is based on real events which took place during my two crazy years living in London and working in an adult store in the heart of Soho, the city’s red light district. It will be targeted at the New Adult (NA) realistic fiction reader.
Northcliff Melville Times: Tell us about the title of the book and the unique cover design. Paula Gruben: My belly button was the last point of contact with my birth mother. Growing up I always felt a spiritual connection to her, and the word Umbilicus just fitted the ‘tie that binds’ thread of my work so perfectly. The figure on the cover represents the main character – the teenage me; a lost and broken soul – her heart torn between loyalty toward her adoptive family, and longing for her biological family, whom she doesn’t yet know. The subliminal triangle between the three hearts symbolises the adoption triad.
NMT: The book speaks to all involved in the adoption process. How were you able to develop such insight? Usually, this type of story would be very one-sided. PG: Much of the story is told in epistolary format, through real letters between my birth parents, adoptive parents, and the social worker involved in our case. It’s all glued together by a very intimate second-person point-of-view, from the perspective of the main character – the adoptee. It took about a dozen drafts and a lot of shuffling of chapters and scenes to create a well-structured narrative arc and coherent whole.
NMT: Who should read Umbilicus? PG: My story will appeal to readers of any age who enjoy young adult (YA) realistic fiction, particularly those involved or interested in the adoption experience. George Meredith once wrote: “Memoirs are the backstairs of history”. And although this isn’t strictly a memoir, but rather an autobiographical novel, it is an authentic slice of life, about real people and real events during the 70s, 80s, and 90s in South Africa.
NMT: This [self-publishing] route must have presented its challenges. But your tenacity has seen you through it. How did you stay focused to the end? PG: Maya Angelou once wrote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” And for me, it was exactly the same. I had a story which needed to get told. I knew my message was an important one, and that there were a lot of people I could help and inspire. It took about two years of research, writing, editing, designing, and formatting to birth this book baby.
NMT: I’ve seen the great reviews and the sales seem to be doing great. How do you feel about your book baby now? PG: Deeply humbled, and terribly proud. All the blood, sweat, and tears were totally worthwhile! Although it’s already touched a lot of lives, I still have a great deal of work to do in order for it to reach my target audience en masse. My ultimate goal is to see Umbilicus on the Department of Basic Education’s list of approved set works for Life Orientation. There is not a single teenager in South Africa that cannot in some way relate to and learn something from this story.
NMT: Any advice to up-and-coming authors? PG: If you’re keen on writing a novel or a memoir, or as in my case, a hybrid, do a focused writing course. It’ll help you work through various bottlenecks you’ve probably stumbled across in the creative process. Harness technology. There really is nothing you can’t teach yourself online nowadays. Network with fellow authors, on social media and in real life. Support their book launches and signings. And don’t be shy to ask questions. Anne Lamott once wrote: “Very few authors really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.” And once we’ve figured out how to do it, we’re usually happy to lend a hand to those still learning the ropes.
THE Book Club (TBC): What did you spend your first earnings as a published author on? Paula Gruben: Groceries. And a new dress.
TBC: Had you already written your second novel before you published your debut? If not, do you find writing the second a different experience, because you’ve already got a book and readers out there? PG: I am still so deeply entrenched in the marketing and promotion of Umbilicus that I simply don’t have the time to even think about resuming work on its sequel, Incomer, right now. To give you an idea of my schedule since my official bricks-and-mortar bookstore launch for around 100 guests (2nd August), I have done a Teen Talk for 300 students at a local high school (23rd August), an author talk + signing for 50 guests at a monthly book club lunch at a local bistro (30th August), another author talk + signing for around 20 guests at a newly formed book club which meets once a month for lunch at a local tea garden (17th September), and have been invited to do the opening speech for an art exhibition in Pretoria (9th October), plus a 30-minute speech for 300+ delegates at an annual national adoption conference (2nd November). And this is not counting all the interviews and articles for publications, websites, and blogs I have done in between. I am also currently working on a proposal to the Department of Basic Education. I will resume work on my second novel when the time is right.
TBC: What do you hate doing to market your novel? PG: I come from a research and marketing background, so I’m actually really enjoying the marketing and promotion of my first novel. It’s a project I am extremely passionate about, and I do believe this comes through in all aspects of the little business I am building around the book. For example, over the past 24 hours I have been approached by an Adoption Specialist Social Worker to speak at one of her group sessions for prospective adoptive parents (January 2017), and by the organisor of an upcoming PTA brunch to do an inspirational speech for around 150 guests (February 2017). For all my speaking gigs, I request the opportunity to market / sell signed copies of my book to audience members afterwards. As an aspiring authorpreneur, especially a self-published one like myself, you have got to put yourself out there if a) you want people to find out about and buy your book, and b) if you want to leverage your ‘book as business card’, to create alternative revenue streams (other than just Amazon and bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales). I recommend all new authors create a simple website + blog (I did mine in WordPress), where you can provide all sorts of background info and updates, and which you can then link to in online conversation at the click of a button.
– Extracts from a ‘Q&A – Ask the Author – First Time (Debut) Authors‘ online event, hosted by TBC on Facebook, 19th – 23rd September 2016
Voxate Writing & Editing: What kind of feedback have you had from your readers and editors? PG: Mercifully, Umbilicus has been extremely well-received. These are just some of the words that readers have used in reviews to date: affecting, authentic, beautiful, bittersweet, brave, candid, captivating, compassionate, consuming, emotive, engaging, enthralling, exhilarating, fascinating, fearless, gripping, heart-rending, honest, humbling, important, informative, insightful, inspiring, interesting, motivating, moving, open, original, poignant, powerful, raw, real, refreshing, relatable, remarkable, revealing, sad, soulful, thought-provoking, touching, truthful, unforgettable, unique, uplifting, well-crafted, and well-paced.
Voxate: What are the publishing houses looking for, based on your dealings with them? PG: Unless you are a Trevor Noah or Helen Zille or Chris Hani’s daughter, you stand a snowball’s chance in hell of a local non-fiction publisher picking up your memoir. You will have to fictionalise your story and try submitting to their fiction imprints instead. Even though I ended up self-publishing, I am grateful for the advice and insights I gleaned from traditional publishers, mainly about current market trends and optimal shelf positioning for a story like mine. Although I didn’t take every single bit of advice on board, I did end up changing Umbilicus from a memoir to an autobiographical novel, from non-fiction to fiction, and it’s worked out really well.
Voxate: We’d like to know the results of your decision to self-publish. Would you consider it successful? Why? What does success mean to you? PG: The average novel written in English by a South African will sell 600 – 1,000 copies in its lifetime. Taking into consideration I’m about halfway there already with Umbilicus, just seven months after its release, I guess I’m not doing too badly. But to achieve my goal of seeing this book included as recommended reading in high schools around the country, much work still needs to be done. Perhaps with the clout and connections of a traditional publisher behind me I’d have achieved this goal by now. But there’s no way of knowing. For me, over and above not-too-shabby book sales and phenomenal reviews, surprising personal fulfilment has come in the form of a steady stream of invitations to do author talks. This has not only created another income source for me in the form of speaker fees, but also a valuable platform to engage with and sell my book directly to readers at each event. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my talks, but I tailor the content and the message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience. The feedback from these talks has been incredibly gratifying.
Voxate: If you knew then what you know now, what would you tell yourself? PG: Stop doubting yourself! Your story does matter. You are a good writer. You are a good public speaker. Your testimony will touch hearts and change lives.
Voxate: Please give us a quick list of pros and cons for the traditional publishing route. PG: Sure, there’s still an element of ‘prestige’ attached to being offered a traditional publishing contract. And it’s nice having someone handle much of the marketing and publicity on your behalf, leaving you more time to actually write. But realistically, your odds of landing a publishing deal in the first place are slim to none. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee of commercial success. As a writer, you have to decide what you want most – the ‘prestige’ of a traditional publishing contract, perhaps only years after you start the submission process, or the reward of seeing your work in the hands of readers, now. For me, it was the latter. And thanks to technology, plus lack of ego, I was able to embrace the idea of self-publishing as a truly credible alternative. During the process of birthing my first book baby, I acquired a whole new skill set, which I can use again and again in the birthing of all my future book babies.
Voxate: What advice do you have for aspiring authors? PG: If you decide to try your luck with the traditional publishing route, be prepared for rejection, and probably lots of it. To help soften the blows, follow @LitRejections on Twitter. Their daily tweets of ‘inspiring rejection stories’ (not an oxymoron, believe it or not!), motivational quotes, and genuine empathy will encourage you to persevere, and most importantly, remind you of why you started this publishing journey in the first place.
If you choose to go the self-publishing route, make sure to outsource the services of professionals, like Staging Post and MyeBook, for areas where you know you lack expertise. Very few authors are able to single-handedly see the entire process through from start to finish, from first draft to physical paperback. From the editing, proofreading, and typesetting of their manuscript, to ebook conversion, cover design, website design, distribution, marketing, and publicity, it’s a pretty Herculean task, by anyone’s standards.
Luckily I had the experience needed to do everything myself, but what I didn’t have was the capital needed to do my first print run. I used Indiegogo to raise enough funds to cover the costs of my first print run (200 units), and I used the profit from the sales of those books to bankroll my second print run (another 200 units). If I need to crowdfund again, I will give Thundafund a go. It’s apparently the leading crowdfunding platform for South Africa (it wasn’t around when I used Indiegogo a couple of years ago).
Voxate: How much time do you spend writing per day / week? PG: When my son is at school, I try and spend at least two to three hours every morning working on my books – either marketing the first, or writing the second. During school holidays, however, this routine goes out the window. Then I take whatever free time I can get – an hour here, half an hour there. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Voxate: How long (on average) does it take you to write a book and how many times do you edit it? PG: With Umbilicus, the research, writing, and assembling of all the puzzle pieces into an identifiable narrative arc, probably took around two years. Although the end result is a work of fiction, the book started life as narrative non-fiction, and I wanted to get all my facts straight. The sociopolitical setting of the story, and details of the locations and historic events narrated by the protagonist are all factually sound. It went through at least a dozen edits, maybe more. Now that I’ve got templates to work from and systems in place, I’m hoping Incomer will take around 18 months. Being the perfectionist that I am, I reckon this manuscript will also go through around a dozen edits to get to the point where I am completely satisfied. But I know in the end it will all be totally worth it!
MyeBook.co.za: What were some of the doubts you faced before publishing, and how did you overcome them? Paula Gruben: I have never, in my 42 years on the planet, ever experienced so-called writer’s block. I have, however, from time to time suffered from the crippling effects of Imposter Syndrome – the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. During the creation of Umbilicus, I questioned my ‘right’ to write. I wrestled with doubts over my ability to write. But like Maya Angelou once wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” After grappling with all the worst case scenarios and how my fragile ego would cope, I decided to put on my big girl knickers and just go for it. The risk of rejection and ridicule became overshadowed by the increasingly stronger labour pains of a fully gestated book baby ready to be born. Before I knew it, she was out in the world, the positive reviews were rolling in, and the inner critic was silenced once and for all.
As far as the occasional, inevitable shitty review goes, I liken them to the Braxton Hicks. However strong the pain may feel at the time, it doesn’t increase in intensity, and eventually it eases off completely. You should never take a bad review personally. Like John Lydgate once wrote, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
MyeBook: Were you part of any author communities that you can recommend? PG: I am a firm believer in the power of networking, online and in real life. As an indie author, you have to put yourself out there in order to find your tribe. Join and participate in online communities like THE Book Club (TBC) and The Secret Book Club (TSBC). Make the effort to attend in-store book launches and litfests in your city. Skoobs, Theatre of Books in Joburg hosts monthly indie author networking events, with guest speakers. Don’t be shy to ask authors and publishers and bookstore owners questions. You’ll be surprised how generous people are with sharing their intellectual capital if you hustle hard, and stay humble.
South African Indie Revolution). I figured if I couldn’t secure a traditional publishing contract for Umbilicus, I needed to keep my options open. Just as well I did, as many of the connections I made at the SAIR book fest that day proved invaluable in the year that followed, once I decided to forego the idea of traditional publishing and forge ahead with self-publishing instead., later changed to
MyeBook: You have put a massive amount of effort into building a business for yourself based around the book. Can you briefly summarise the main steps needed for those who might want to follow in your footsteps? PG: Self-publishing is a lot like embarking on a treasure hunt. The treasure at the end of the hunt is seeing your work in the hands of as many readers as possible. But with the speed at which technology and software evolves, you will often find your map to be a bit faded and outdated. Just as you decipher one cryptic clue and complete a challenge to move onto to the next leg of the hunt, so the next cryptic clue and challenge presents itself, and so on.
The one blog post to which I refer all budding South African indie authors when they approach me for tips and advice is this one. It’s a simple, but detailed step-by-step guide on how to self-publish, charting all the steps I took, right from the very beginning of my own self-publishing journey, to the present day. A regularly updated little roadmap, with loads of useful links, including the holy grail on how to get your paperback onto the shelves of Exclusive Books. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the most popular posts on my blog, with almost 2,000 hits in just over a year. Just goes to show how hungry local indie authors are for tried and trusted tips and authoritative advice.
As far as building a business for myself based around the book goes, I think it boils down to mindset. From the outset I saw myself as not ‘just’ another indie author, but rather an authorpreneur. I figured out a way of using my ‘book as business card’, to position myself as an expert in my field, and the steady stream of invitations to do inspiring and educational author talks has proved very fruitful. Not only has it created another income source for me in the form of speaker fees, but it’s also a valuable platform to engage with and sell my book directly to readers at each event. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my talks, but I tailor the content and the message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience.