Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Escape to South Africa, with Emma Ruby-Sachs

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Emma Ruby-Sachs (photo credit: Jane Saks)

Emma Ruby-Sachs talks to Open Book about the experiences in South Africa that energized the writing of her powerful and vibrant first novel, The Water Man's Daughter, released this month with McClelland & Stewart.

You can catch Emma Ruby-Sachs at the Harbourfront Centre this evening, Wednesday, May 25th, where she'll be reading along with Howard Norman and Kyran Pittman. Visit our Events page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Water Man's Daughter.

Emma Ruby-Sachs:

The Water Man's Daughter is the story of three very different women who are thrown together by a violent crime, the murder of a Canadian water company executive in South Africa: the daughter who flies over to find out what happened to her father, the young activist who is forced to keep an eye on her and the policewoman torn between solving the mystery and keeping the heroes of her community safe. It's all set against the struggle for life's most basic needs that is waged every day across Africa and much of the developing world.

OB:

Nomsulwa, the young woman from the townships who leads a grassroots movement against the international water companies, is a fascinating character. How did she develop as you worked on the novel? Was her character inspired by people you met who had experienced similar circumstances?

ERS:

Nomsulwa is a composite of many of the women I met while I was living in South Africa. Then, as with every character, she has a little of me and people I know from my travels all over the world in her personality and history. But her struggle, the reality of fighting for survival and also being on the outside of society and under threat for her sexuality — those elements are based on real people and real experiences.

OB:

What was the most challenging aspect of writing a novel set in South Africa?

ERS:

I would have loved to have written this novel entirely in South Africa — so the smells and the sounds and scenery could have been all around me while I put the story together. Remembering those details years later when I was doing revisions was incredibly challenging.

OB:

Tell us about the time you spent living in South Africa during 2003 and 2004. How did your experience there contribute to your development as a writer?

ERS:

South Africa is an incredible country — a place where most of the people remember actually winning a revolution. It’s also a country that faces extreme poverty and violence. That combination was so vibrant and intense that just the months I spent in the country filled me with so much information, energy and feeling that I knew I had years of writing to produce to communicate all that I had experienced. That time inspired my writing and gave it focus.

OB:

Do you feel it's important for a writer to have spent time in a country before using it as the setting for a novel, or do you think it's possible to render a realistic foreign setting through research alone?

ERS:

Fiction has no boundaries. Science fiction writers create worlds with no real life experiences to back them up, but they are still vivid and compelling. I think research could be enough for many. At the same time, actually being in South Africa for a sustained period of time was essential for my writing.

OB:

Do you have any favourite South African writers whose work you could recommend to us?

ERS:

Yes! I loved Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. Nightrider by Tatamkulu Afrika is a wonderful book of poetry. Anything by Athol Fugard.

OB:

If you could travel anywhere for the purposes of writing about that place, where would you go?

ERS:

Somewhere where my BlackBerry doesn’t work. Well, actually, I think I would go back to India, especially Bombay. I was just there for five weeks in January and can’t wait to return!

OB:

What are you working on now?

ERS:

I’m writing for the Huffington Post, working at Avaaz.org (which takes up a lot of my time) and having fun with a second novel idea. Nothing solid yet, but I’m excited to be using all I learned writing this first novel.


Emma Ruby-Sachs's journalism has been published in The Nation and The Huffington Post. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the University of Toronto law school, Ruby-Sachs lived and studied in South Africa for periods in 2003 and 2004. She has worked as a civil litigator in Windsor and Toronto and currently works with Avaaz.org, a progressive online organization. Emma lives in Brooklyn.

Visit her at her website, emmarubysachs.com.

For more information about The Water Man's Daughter please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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