Book Club / Meet The Author | Sheila Kohler

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An interview with Sheila Kohler, the author behind Once We Were Sisters, the title of this month’s book club

Once We Were Sisters is extremely personal, was it difficult to write and was the writing process cathartic in some way?

It is always satisfying to have finished a book, to have worked on something,  and to be able to share it with an audience, but, yes, it was a difficult book to write. In a way I have been writing this book since my sister’s death more than thirty five years ago, though I wrote it in fictional form for many years or even through the historical novels I have written like “Dreaming for Freud” which is an account of one of Freud’s early patients.

Has your own life entered into any of your other novels?

Indeed as I said, I have come back to this trauma again and again. In my first novel, “The Perfect Place” my narrator is the guilty one which is how I felt. She is the one who has looked away, who has not acted as she should have, who is always thinking about something else. In “Crossways” I came perhaps closest in fiction to the real story with three protagonists: the bereaved sister, the heart surgeon,  and a character modeled on John, the Zulu servant who brought us up. “Cracks” is the story of a girl who is lost out on the veld, or so it seems.

What motivates you as a writer?

I have always loved telling stories. I began as the story teller in the dormitory at boarding school. Sometimes I would still be telling the story and realize that all the girls were asleep! I’m not sure where the desire to tell stories, to share one’s life comes from but I have had it from a very early age. I think writing becomes an obsession. I am always writing wherever I go.

Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?

I like both forms. The short story is difficult because you have to get in an out fast, but it is very satisfying when it works and does not take quite so long.

What has been your greatest achievement so far?

That is a hard question to answer. I hope to have lived a good life, not to have done too much harm,  and perhaps brought some joy or satisfaction to others.

Where do you write?

Anywhere and any time.

Which writers have influenced you?

So many starting with the great nineteenth century English writers who were my first loves like the Brontes, Dickens, Jane Austen and going from there to the French writers like Flaubert , Camus, and later Marguerite Duras. I have also been influenced by my great fellow countryman John Coetzee whose work I admire so much as well as the great Russians like Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoi.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished Coetzee’s new book, ” The schooldays of Jesus” which I really admired. Such an original and mysterious writer.

What would you be if you were not a writer?

I once wanted to be an actress and I also studied psychology. I think both have helped me in my writing: being able to read one’s work aloud to an audience is useful as well as, of course, understanding human nature.

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