Q: 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?
A: 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 our Public Protector Thuli Madonsela ‘to her teenage self’.
It was taken 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: Did you find that by writing the book it helped you with your own healing too?
A: 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.
Q: You chose the self-publishing route, even although your book would have been snatched up by a traditional publisher. What prompted this decision?
A: 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.
Q: What made you decide to write your story in fiction format, as opposed to a memoir?
A: Although the end result is a work of fiction, Umbilicus actually started life as narrative non-fiction. But 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, about market trends and optimal shelf positioning for a contemporary story like mine, I decided to change the names of all the characters, repackage the story as an autobiographical novel, and target it at the Young Adult realistic fiction reader instead.
Q: Do you have another book planned, and if so, can you give us a little hint around what it will be about?
A: 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 realistic fiction reader.
For more information about Paula, follow her on instagram or visit her website.