I recently had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Gabriël Oosthuizen, a fiction writer from Cape Town, South Africa. While his focus is primarily literature of estrangement (e.g. science fiction and fantasy), he's very versatile and can tailor his approach to any given set of expectations. We worked together on a few different projects through The Urban Writers, and after having read his work, I was excited to both have this conversation and to share it.
In this interview, we'll be discussing planning strategies and positive writing habits, mindfulness in writing, and writing apprehension, but this part will be primarily focused on planning and writing habits. This is how I got to know Oosthuizen as our first project was based in outline construction. This was all about brainstorming, about sharing ideas, and about how to create the link between the writer, the editor, and the person we were writing and editing for.
As soon as we finished the outline together, we had a call over Zoom to discuss the project in depth as I wouldn't see it until it was written. It was a daunting fantasy text with science fiction elements, and so much of our discussion [as I remember it] revolved around, "What would Tolkien do?" That aside, I'm grateful to have worked on this project, to have been able to read his writing, and to be able to share his thoughts on writing with all of you.
How would you like to identify yourself for the purpose of this interview? What would you like my readers to know about you?
I think I would like to identify myself as a fiction writer, specifically someone who is interested in the realm of fantasy, horror, anything with a supernatural element or twist to it that also delves into very accurate and complex character sketches.
What do you feel that texts like this, literature of estrangement, give us?
I think that it gives us enchantment. I think that the fact that it gives us a sense of escapism makes us buy into the genre. That, in itself, is a wonderful avenue to share and subvert some truths about reality. So, you have this amazing hero that goes on a journey. Typically, they're confronted with a conflict, they need a mentor, they need allies and then there's some resolution and some higher growth. That is a basic archetype, but also a dimension of our own life in many cases.
It may not always unfold as smoothly as we read it. I think it just gives us a way to see that even this powerful figure that is capable of amazing things can face crises, can face conflict, can display vulnerabilities. They might need help. They can't do everything by themselves, and in the end, at whatever point in time that end might be for that person or character or...you know, whoever you're reading about, there is some form of resolution. It might not be the one that you had hoped for, it may be, or it may be something that completely subverted your expectations that you didn't see coming at all. I think that's very much a blueprint of life.
Something dressed as mystified, mythos, and something magical that helps us escape, but also look at ourselves in a very different light. That's what I like about that. There's room to play and to make yourself and make this character into our version of an ideal, but being a flawed person yourself, this person will never be the ideal. They will also have those flaws, those character traits that you might not have even intended for them, but display themselves naturally through the story. It's because you're a flawed person and it's through these flaws that we actually gain our greatest strengths and our greatest lessons in life.
So, I think that it's that sense of escapism, but also in that same sense, how it offers us an avenue to teach people lessons, because now they're more receptive, because you get them into the realm that they want to be in. They listen more, they receive more, and then they come back to their own lives, and then reflect on it, and it stays with them for years on end. We still talk about Lord of the Rings, we still talk about Harry Potter and we still talk about all these characters that have gone through the typical hero's journey but that have captured something about us, maybe not fully, but we find something about ourselves that we identify with in that character and that makes us stick with that story until the end.
You brought up the concept of reflection, which I've found to be important in any aspect of writing whether it comes to avoiding pitfalls, when it comes to, maybe, confronting your own apprehensions. How do you employ reflection in your work?
When I start a character, getting together basic traits and a basic sketch before I even start writing the story, I think I do embrace something of myself in that character. Maybe, consciously, maybe very unconsciously. I've seen for myself that my lead characters...even if it's not even my story, you know, it's mean for someone else.
As a ghostwriter, you take the character that they give you, but somehow I always begin writing them as very contemplated and almost introverted. They introspect a lot. I mean, they don't just experience that they experience and then reflect. It's like: live, pause, live, pause, but then I realized that that's not what the character was meant to be when it was given to me. So, they need to speed up, they are a bit more impulsive, a bit more intuitive. They don't reflect as much. They reflect, maybe, afterwards, after they've made a mistake. So, I think in that way, that's how I bring in reflection from my characters is first, maybe getting that part of me out that wants to see myself in that character, seeing that it doesn't work in the story.
Then, you start shedding away all the layers that just don't fit. Then, you can start building on someone else's idea because now you've climbed into their story and can be more receptive to what [the customer who asked for the story to be written] intended for this character to be. Not only lead characters, I think then it also comes to your supporting characters, because they are going to be very different from your lead character.
So for me, it's very important, when you bring in a process of reflection, to start with your lead character because that's the one you're most invested in. Get all those bad habits out of impressing or projecting too much of yourself on that character. Shed that away, and then leave room for the traits that were organically meant for them. Then, move on to your supporting characters because then the story goes where you intended or planned to go. Maybe, when I write my own book one day, which is very much something I would like to do, I might do less of a shedding, obviously, because I would like to have that story that has someone like me in it because that's what I identify with. That's how I think I will bring the most dynamic character arc that I would be proud of a story attached to myself. Yeah, I think that's how I'd do it.
Branching off of that, do you have any processes that you employ to get yourself in the mindset to start writing your characters?
I've been trying to get into the habit of actually reading something or pushing my leisure time in before my work time. 30 minutes of reading fiction, whatever that may be, just to get into the kind of habit of storytelling and how words flow into a narrative. Then, you move into what you're doing and what you're supposed to be doing. Usually, I continue reading for a while first, reading what I've already written. It's a process of having a step back from what you've written, giving it a bit of time and distance between yourself in your own words, and then coming back and saying, "Oh, maybe what I wrote yesterday. Okay, maybe this work, this doesn't do anything." I start the editing process, and then I get back into writing. When I have spent some time with my world again, I've slowly opened the door and gotten comfortable. Then, I'm ready to go. So that's that's usually my process. It's still a bit imperfect, I still feel there's a habit or ritual or two missing, but I also haven't been doing it for that long. So maybe I will adopt those habits in time.
Yeah, we're always developing writers. We did speak about this a little bit before the interview, about the importance of the planning process. I was wondering if you could comment on that.
I think it's crucial, an outline of some sorts. You'll have this big grand scheme of where the story might potentially go. You might have a few lines that will help you describe that. So say, there's a misunderstood hero, outcasts of society, but then there's a call to action, some grand thing. Then, he's realizing the weight of a world doesn't come down upon him alone, but maybe he's a catalyst to something greater, he needs other people, he needs to start a movement. Just having been that stone cast in the water that causes ripples. Maybe that's your idea, and you start there.
Then it's good to go, "Okay, but what kind of traits would this character have? What would they look like? What would have been their background to have made them feel like an outcast and outsider? How are they approaching life and people right now? What is the kind of world that they're living in that necessitates him to action and somehow being a catalyst to other people and being charismatic and inspiring?" So, be bold in those questions. I think it's important to try and start answering those questions. Maybe the answer that you give in your initial planning and outline might not be the answers that you find when you actually start writing, just as my latest plotline that I submitted a few minutes ago was, very much.
I told the editor I did these character sketches, but I know it's not my best work. I think it's because I'm just getting plot points, but not really weaving them into the story. I'm not seeing the character in that environment yet. I'm not seeing them gradually developing as the action unfolds, I'm not seeing the dialogue yet. I don't know my character yet. I'm just guessing what they would be like if they're faced with this. I think it's actually important to create that discrepancy for yourself is what you think you're planning and then comparing it with how it turns out. Then, maybe in the editing process, finding that midway that actually balances out the two and then creates the character as they were supposed to be. So, I just think, planning a starting point not just to get the bad ideas out, but to create a foundational setting for yourself to build on to change and take alternative routes from. It's a very jumbled up description, but yeah, that's what I found. It's helpful because it really gets you into the story world. That's where you want to be. That's what you need to climb into daily. So, if you feel it's structured, it's easier to get into, even if you know it might change the following day.
Thank you to everyone who has been giving feedback and supporting Purposeful Prose in its journey thus far.
A big thank you to Gabriël Oosthuizen for taking the time to speak with me and and to share his experiences and thoughts on writing. Remember, this only scratches the surface! The next part of this interview will be posted in two weeks' time.
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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!