Sometimes when the blurb of a book falls into my inbox, it tugs at something and I feel a deep rooted need to know more. About the author, the story behind the words and of course the book itself. Such was the feeling when Rachel contacted me to ask if I would be interested in supporting the blog tour of A Heart Warrior’s Mother by Marilyn De Villiers. I knew straight away that this was one where I had to put pen to paper, or rather fingers to keyboard, and bring the book to you through an interview with the author.
About the book
Kerry-Anne Aarons is over the moon. She and her husband, Imran Patel, are about to become the parents of a baby daughter, and give their son, Leo, an adored little sister. It wasn’t planned, but Kerry knows that Lily’s arrival will complete the perfect little family she has always wanted. She, Imran and their two children are going to live happily ever after…
Then life intervenes.
Lily is born with a serious congenital heart defect and Kerry’s battle to save her daughter commences. It’s a battle that takes her from the operating theatres and Intensive Care Units of local hospitals to the High Court of South Africa. It’s a battle that strains her relationships with her friends, her parents, and – ultimately – her husband. It’s a battle she is determined to win.
But how much will Kerry have to sacrifice to give Lily the future she deserves?
“A true, cross-generational story of the eternal link between love and pain… the greater the love, the more inevitable the pain. Marilyn Cohen de Villiers once again – with amazing skill – depicts the common humanity that transcends differing cultures.”
James Mitchell – former Book Editor, The Star, Johannesburg
Meet the author
Hello Marilyn, and welcome to Cup of Toast! Thank you for agreeing to an interview with me. I’m delighted to introduce you and your work to my readers.
Thank you for your time and interest.
Diving straight in, you have spent your life thus far working with words. Were there any early influences that encouraged this love of language?
I can’t recall specific early influences. I’ve just always loved reading. My mother called me her little “bookworm”. When I was growing up, she had a full-time managerial job which was unusual for women back then, but I can’t recall her ever reading to me. There were children’s books in our home – Enid Blyton mainly – but they “belonged” to my older sisters. As soon as I learned to read, I’d devour whatever books I could lay my hands on. In primary school we’d be given a class “reader” on the first day of each new school year. I’d read it from cover to cover as soon as I got home from school – and then reread it in class with everyone else throughout the year.
You have a background in writing non-fiction, and say on your website that you started writing fiction to “see if I could write a novel”. Could you tell me a little more about this?
I’m a journalist. Creative writing was part of our English syllabus at school but for 40 odd years after matriculating, I wrote only non-fiction – newspaper articles and later marketing materials for various organisations while working in Public Relations. And then, about 10 years ago, a colleague and friend I’d known since primary school went to sleep one night and just didn’t wake up again. That really shook me. At her funeral I was chatting to some of our colleagues and someone asked me why I’d never written a book. That question and my friend’s death made me take stock of my life. If I died suddenly, what would I have achieved in my life? How had I used the talent I’d been given? I’d spent the better part of my life using my talent to write what other people said I should. Often my work would be attributed to someone else or even by published under some else’s byline. Wasn’t it about time to see if my writing could stand on its own two legs? As I’d always loved novels, it made perfect sense to me to try and write a novel. So I did – and it was liberating!
The Heart Warrior’s Mother is now your fourth published book, what inspired you to keep writing after you’d published your first novel?
I wrote A Beautiful Family to see if I could write a novel. Having written it, I wanted people to read it. They did. I was hooked. The thrill I got – and still get – when someone says they “love” my book or they “can’t put it down” is addictive. Seeing my book on the shelves in bookstores gives me the same “high”. I wanted more. I still want more. I found my voice and I have things I want to say. So I write novels.
In a 2016 interview you mentioned that your first novel was rejected by traditional publishers in South Africa, and alluded to not feeling like a “proper” author having gone down the route of self-publishing instead. Has your perspective changed now that you’ve published four books and sold them both nationally and internationally, with great feedback?
Yes and no. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. However, I’d be lying if I said that publishers’ rejections of A Beautiful Family on the grounds that it “didn’t have commercial potential”, didn’t meet their “writing standards” and “wasn’t in line” with their publishing criteria doesn’t still rankle – despite its success and the success of the two subsequent books that make up what I eventually called The Silverman Saga. On the other hand, once I had seen how relatively easy it is to self-publish, I made a choice to go it alone for all my books. But does that make me a “proper” author?
The mainstream book industry in South Africa – including conventional media and the organisers of literary events and book fairs – clearly don’t think so. They simply ignore the existence self-published books. The only book fair I have ever been invited to was one focused on Jewish books and writers because I happen to be Jewish and my books had a Jewish angle. It was a great event, but outside of that small circle, my work remains invisible.
Do I care? Should I care? I suppose that deep down, I’d like some kind of affirmation from the mainstream industry, not only in South Africa but internationally. Why? I have no idea. From a practical perspective, there is very little that a publisher in South Africa can do for me that I can’t do for myself. Internationally, however, would be a different story.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! You describe your own childhood family life as being “happy” and “stable”. How much of your own life experiences inform your writing today?
I often joke that my wonderful, supportive parents and family did me a grave disservice as a writer. I’ve no deep seated angst that drives me to create. However, I do draw on my environment, my culture, and my life experiences in my books which tend to be grounded in journalistic realism.
Do you ever find yourself in any of the characters that you create?
Of course! But not in any of my main characters – not even Tracy Jacobs, the journalist in The Silverman Saga. However, there is one character, in particular, who is very “me” – but I’m not going to reveal his/her identity or which book/s he/she appears in. One reviewer happened to comment that this character was “hateful and pathetic”. I was quite taken aback by that!
The Heart Warrior’s Mother is partly based on a true story. How did you come across the story and what prompted you to write about it?
After my mother passed away from a truly dreadful disease – Emphysema – I started working on a book that would draw on her experiences in the healthcare system. Then a young man came to my house to buy my mother’s portable oxygen concentrator. He told me about his baby daughter who had a congenital heart defect. His story resonated with me – he and his wife were clearly going through similar emotions and experiences that I had gone through with my mother. So I asked him if I could write about his daughter, he agreed – and The Heart Warrior’s Mother is the result.
What research did you do before writing it, and did you find it hard to write about a true story compared to your previous novels which were entirely fictional?
I did a lot of research into the medical aspects of the book. Although the real mother was obviously pretty knowledgeable and gave me a lot of information, there were still things I had to check to ensure I understood them and got them right. I was also lucky enough to interview the real baby’s cardiologist who have me invaluable insight into what was going on with her. It seems my research paid off as Professor Rob Kingsley, the doyen of paediatric heart surgery in South Africa (he is also renowned internationally) read the book and commented on the accuracy of the medical details.
My initial intention was to write a non-fiction book. But I found it incredibly difficult. There were so many gaps that the parents, unsurprisingly, were just unable to fill. They sometimes couldn’t even remember sequences of events let alone whether the sun was shining at the time, or exactly what the doctor had said, or how they felt at that specific moment. As a journalist, I believe in accuracy and I wasn’t prepared to compromise on that. My other problem was that the real parents are wonderful, supportive, amazing people – and, for me, a good read needs some relationship conflict to hold the reader’s interest. So the book faltered.
Eventually, after months of no writing, I asked the parents if they’d mind if I fictionalised their story. They agreed – their aim was simply to raise awareness of congenital heart defects rather than promote themselves. So I’ve changed the time frame of the story and made up some events. I have also fictionalised all the characters – with the exception of the little heart warrior herself. Her name has been changed, but her story is as accurate as I could make it.
How do you hope your readers will feel once they’ve finished the book?
I hope it will have touched their hearts. I hope they understand and can emphasise with the parents of children like Lily. I hope they will give their own children/grandchildren a huge hug.
And finally, what’s next?
Another novel – but I have two possibilities. I may continue with the novel I had started working on before I got side tracked by The Heart Warrior’s Mother. Or, I may continue with a fictionalised version of an autobiography I had been commissioned to ghost write for a rather colourful character many years ago. For reasons that will become clear when/if I write the book, the project fell apart. The former is about around medical ethics; the latter about power and politics. Which would you prefer?
I think both sound fascinating. If I had to jump down from the fence, probably the former? I believe that there is huge value in writing the often as yet unwritten based on direct personal experience.
Did you know?
Thank you Marilyn for sharing your thoughts with me today. Any final words?
Did you know…
- Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) is approximately 60 times more prevalent than childhood cancer and about 25 times more common than cystic fibrosis.
- Most children with CHD across Africa, including South Africa, are denied life-saving corrective surgery because of limited state facilities and lack of funds.
Prof Rob Kingsley founded The Children’s Cardiac Foundation of Africa (TCCFA), an organisation set up to “save the lives and improve the health of children born with congenital heart disease in Africa by raising funds for heart surgeries and by training specialists and support staff in the field of paediatric cardiac care”. A portion of my royalties from The Heart Warrior’s Mother will be donated to the TCCFA. Alternatively, people can donate directly to TCCFA from their website https://tccfa.org/
Purchase links for The Heart Warrior’s Mother
A percentage of the proceeds of this novel will be donated to the Children’s Cardiac Foundation of Africa, an organisation that funds lifesaving heart surgery for children across the continent.
A little more about the author
I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, the youngest daughter of an extraordinarily ordinary, happy, stable, traditional (rather than observant) Jewish family. After matriculating at Northview High School, I went to Rhodes University in Grahamstown where I served on the Student’s Representative Council (SRC), competed (badly) in synchronised swimming and completed a B. Journalism degree. This was followed by a “totally useless” – according to my parents – English Honours degree (first class), also at Rhodes.
With the dawning of the turbulent 1980s, I started my career as a reporter on a daily newspaper, working first in the news and later, the finance departments. During this period, I interviewed, among others, Frank Sinatra, Jeffrey Archer, Eugene Terre’blanche and Desmond Tutu. I caught crocodiles; avoided rocks and tear smoke canisters in various South African townships as protests and unrest against the Apartheid government intensified; stayed awake through interminable city council meetings and criminal and civil court cases – and learned to interpret balance sheets.
I also married my news editor, Poen de Villiers. Despite all the odds against us coming as we did from totally different backgrounds, we remained happily married for 32 years and three days. Poen passed away as a result of diabetes complications on 15 March, 2015.
After the birth of our two daughters, I ‘crossed over’ into Public Relations with its regular hours and predictability. My writing – articles, media releases, opinion and thought leadership pieces and so on – was published regularly in newspapers and other media, usually under someone else’s by-line. I returned to my roots as a journalist in a freelance capacity some six years ago, writing mainly business and IT articles.
So why, after a lifetime of writing non-fiction, did I decide to try my hand at fiction?
The catalyst was the unexpected death of a childhood friend and colleague in 2012. This spurred me to take stock of my life, to think about what I had achieved. A few months later, I decided to try and write a novel. This turned out to be A Beautiful Family which was published in July 2014. The fiction bug had bitten, and my second novel, When Time Fails, was launched in September 2015, followed by Deceive and Defend, in 2018. Although this was not intended when I first started writing fiction, the three novels together constitute The Silverman Saga trilogy
Unlike my earlier novels, my latest book, The Heart Warrior’s Mother, was inspired by a true story.
Social Media Links –
N.B. Thank you to Marilyn De Villiers for her time in answering my questions around her writing and book, and of course to Rachel from Rachel’s Random Resources for organising the blog tour! I have not received anything in exchange for bringing this interview to you today. For more information about how I work with others, please refer to my disclosure page.