The Right-Brain’s Revolt: A Dialogue with Marina Auer
Marina Auer is a doctor based in Durban, South Africa. She is a mother to two children and minion to three cats. Her medical work is theatre-based and varied; on some days she helps tug reluctant babies into the world and on other days she assists a neurosurgeon to section out brain tumours.
For several years, Marina trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She participated in one ‘cage fight,’ which is a memory she’d rather erase but which she nevertheless calls on to add authenticity to the action scenes she drafts!
A devoted reader across diverse genres, she started to write fiction in 2018. Those first attempts will stay in a locked drawer (along with the trophy she received for the cage fight – silver for second place out of two contenders).
Her philosophy for writing fiction is the same for practising medicine: sharing stories of integration, hope, and healing.
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Durban and Kampala via email.
Single Minded is set in 2002 at the height of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa. When desperate need outpaces scarce resources, a young doctor is caught up in a deadly trinity of medicine, corruption, and superstition. Single Minded was born out of Marina’s internship experiences; apart from the murders, the medical incidents in the novel are real, rats and all.
Marina and I discuss ninjahood, cats (including one whose name rhymes with ‘glow’), strong female characters, writing a novel based on her experiences in the hospital where she met her husband, and the joys of pantsing. And we manage to do this all without annoying interruptions from the one who shall not be named (a.k.a. The Person from Porlock). A hearty and much-deserved “congratulations” to us!
Davina: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?! Fascinating. Tell me more.
Marina: For years I had a desire to learn martial arts – for self-defence, for strength, and maybe to be a ninja.
Davina: That makes two of us. I’ve always wanted to be a ninja. Although I didn’t want to have to do anything to become one. I always hoped I’d wake, one morning, already miraculously transformed.
Marina: I know what you mean. I will ponder an idea for years and, then, in a flurry of decisions, dive in. Call it Obsessive Impulsive Disorder!
Anyway, although I say, “ninja,” Karate and Judo did not appeal but were the only martial arts available in my area. So, I leapt at the chance to try Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu when classes started locally.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu turned out to be very different to what I’d expected. No flying kicks or slicing fists. The sport is all wrestling, grappling, and strangle holds. And I loved it! I loved it until my trainer moved to Cape Town and I had to join another group. Too many young men: too much testosterone. To spare my limbs, I had to stop. Those skills aren’t all lost, however. It’s been a few years, but I still know my way around a rear naked choke!
Davina: Perhaps you should try something less strenuous on the limbs? Chess? (The dispute over whether chess is a game or sport continues, but we will settle it amicably: no need for flying kicks or slicing fists, surely).
Marina: Chess…? No. I’m all attack and no strategy! These days, I focus on strength training and running. Being out on the road is a good place to find inspiration.
Davina: Agreed. Some of my best ideas come to me while I’m out walking or road-tripping. Where else?
Marina: On the page. There’s nothing like writing to get the ideas flowing. Oh, and trying to go to sleep. The minute the bedside light switches off – ping! – another idea starts poking at my weary brain.
Davina: What animals have been prowling at your entrance into fiction writing?
Marina: To be honest, I think I have more ideas prowling around my head now than I did before I started.
Davina: Which is a good thing. More ideas mean more books.
Marina: Yes. I’ve recently revised a complete manuscript and I’m currently working on a third. All three novels’ main characters are female doctors. I’ll have to move on from that motif at some stage, but I have an overriding theme in mind that I’m working on. A total of four books will complete the set.
Davina: What motifs/themes do you reckon you’ll move on to and why?
Marina: I’ll continue to write mysteries and thrillers with strong female characters. (Not for me the main character who fumbles her way through the thrills and spills, sipping endless glasses of cabernet.) And they’ll no doubt contain medical elements, but I’m wary of formulae.
So, while each novel has a different premise, the fact that their main characters are all doctors makes me think “enough; move on.” As far as themes go, female identity, social commentary, challenging stereotypes, and finding commonality in our (sometimes) divided country will continue.
Initially, I didn’t allow myself to entertain the dream of writing. I didn’t believe I could – certainly not a complete novel. While I had ideas for characters and partial plots, no fully-formed story ever came to me. But after years of my husband saying that I should write about our experiences at the hospital where we met (and saying “You should be a writer” every time I predicted the next plot point in a TV thriller), I finally decided TO WRITE.
I sat down at my computer in late 2018 and was delighted to discover that the story doesn’t need to be fully formed in the beginning. For me, at least, the plot evolves organically as I write. It’s an intriguing experience.
Davina: How did you go from “OK, fine, I will write about our experiences at the hospital where we met” to “…and I’ll include murders?”
Marina: Ah, so I forgot to mention that while I was working at this particular hospital, decomposing bodies were found in the grounds. They were probably patients who had wandered away from the wards and died. But for years my imagination conjured up more sinister scenarios. Hence Single Minded.
Davina: Decomposing-bodies-on-hospital-grounds is a scenario I only encounter on the Investigation Discovery channel. I keep promising to cut back on screen time so I can make more time for books but, alas, I can’t say no to a good crime show, especially if it’s about a serial killer. It would comfort me greatly if you admitted to a similar dilemma.
Marina: Ooh, I can’t resist a good series. Crime thrillers. Off-beat comedy. Even supernatural/horror. The Haunting of Hill House. Stranger Things. Give me more! And, of course, true crime documentaries. Have you watched Devilsdorp?
Davina: I haven’t.
Marina: I highly recommend it. A case of truth being stranger than fiction. Watching these is research, isn’t it?
Davina: Of course, it is! Nothing must ever get in the way of research!
Marina: But I do keep a rein on my screen time, especially social media, and I always read last thing at night.
Davina: Why is Single Minded a novel? Why isn’t it a memoir, or a collection of short stories or poems or essays? Why a novel in English, further?
Marina: English, because it is my home language. I have great respect for anyone who writes in a voice that is not their mother tongue. Writing a novel is difficult enough. Writing in a second language is true talent.
My answer to one of the earlier questions leads to “Why not a memoir?” Discovering the story as it evolves and weaving fiction through life events is far more appealing to me than sticking to facts alone. I’m a fiction reader; ergo, I’m a fiction writer.
Perhaps to hone the craft I should have tried my hand at short stories and essays first, but I didn’t know any better! I simply dived in, aimed for 80,000 words, and didn’t stop until I reached the target.
“I’m a very organised person at heart, intimidatingly so for some of my family members. Writing without outlining must be my right-brain’s revolt.“
Davina: Sometimes I think there’s so much about writing well that is about reading well. Maybe we write a good novel not because we’ve written several hundred short stories and essays but because we have, for so long, been fluent, sensitive, and empathetic readers.
Marina: Without a doubt! I’ve read over a thousand books. That must be well over a hundred million words of other peoples’ writing. Some of those words needed to escape the confines of my head and find their way back onto a page.
Davina: I hope this isn’t my inflated opinion of myself talking, but there are books I’ve read that seem to have been written just for me, as if their whole point was to resolve a long-standing argument with myself or answer questions I was on the threshold of needing answers to. We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of those books.
Marina: For me, it’s the books that remind me of how exquisite it is to be human. And how fragile. The God of Small Things. The Kite Runner. Those books broke me a little, but that’s not a bad thing: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen.
Davina: A fellow The God of Small Things-er! We need an international holiday to celebrate that book!
The book that broke me was The Road. I wept and wept and wept when I finished it. Then I spent the rest of that day feeling extremely embarrassed. “Look at you! How can you care this much about – how can you be so moved by – made-up people?” I berated myself.
But back to your novel. In Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington draws parallels between memoir and fiction, suggesting that writing the former is about much more than “…sticking to facts alone”:
Although the roots of the memoir lie in the realm of personal essay, the modern literary memoir also has many of the characteristics of fiction. Moving both backward and forward in time, re-creating believable dialogue, switching back and forth between scene and summary, and controlling the pace and tension of the story, the memoirist keeps her reader engaged by being an adept storyteller. So, memoir is really a kind of hybrid form with elements of both fiction and essay, in which the author’s voice, musing conversationally on a true story, is all important.
Memoir…makes no pretense of replicating a whole life. Indeed, one of the important skills of memoir writing is the selection of the theme or themes that will bind the work together.
When you select the material for a memoir, you will be keeping other material for later. Most people only ever write one autobiography, but you may write many memoirs over time.
Marina: Sounds like I need to add Judith Barrington’s book to my To-Be-Read list.
That final sentence neatly sums up what I wanted to avoid: writing a single autobiography. In light of Barrington’s explanation, I would have to say that, yes, there is some memoir in all three of the novels I’ve written so far.
Davina: In that case, here’s something else from Barrington that might interest you:
…with a reading audience hungry for personal stories, memoirs are appearing in ever greater numbers. But laying bare the soul with absolute frankness is still an act of courage for women and for men too, though for somewhat different reasons. Men, even today, are not supposed to be preoccupied with soul searching: to be honest about their inner lives and their relationships is still uncomfortably close to transgressing the male role. For women, deeply personal writing can also be described as a rebellion against the expected role, though in the case of women, the expectation is that we will be preoccupied with inner lives, with relationships, and with family, but that we will gear our stories to satisfy, flatter, or collude with our immediate circle. In spite of twentieth-century inroads, men are still pushed to be actors and women caretakers. Neither role fits very well with making art out of truth.
Which of your roles would you say is better suited to the process of making art out of truth?
Marina: Oh, my goodness! I’ve so often pondered the counterpoint: how difficult it is for a homemaker/mother to also be creative. Coleridge might have had the person from Porlock to deal with, but he didn’t have to hear “Mom, can I have a snack?” half a dozen times a day.
Davina: (Chuckles.) Ah, yes, the person from Porlock. Stevie Smith proposes that a visit from this person might offer a much-needed scapegoat:
He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.
Oh, and the person from Porlock has a cat called Flo. Shall we introduce your cats to Flo?
Marina: Sure. Why not throw another cat into the mix…another creature walking over my laptop keyboard? “One million monkeys and one million typewriters” vs. “Four cats and one laptop?” Might work.
To answer your question, though, I’d have to say that while my role as doctor has yielded the most anecdotal fodder for my writing, emotionally I tap into mother/wife/daughter. Every role has led me to this place. And every role has to be scoured to yield those creative nuggets.
Davina: What about the danger of over-exploiting the emotional resources that your roles as mother, wife, and daughter offer you? How do you ensure that you keep some reserves for yourself, and your writing, especially when doubts about your prospects as a published writer begin to niggle?
Marina: That’s a tricky one. More often than not, those roles don’t “offer”: they demand!
Creativity is crucial to my psychological well-being. Six weeks ago, I would have said I make sure to carve out a niche of time daily, or at least every couple of days, to dedicate to writing. However, this past month has been a particular challenge. Every spare minute has been consigned to crisis management as I plunged into sorting out my father’s business and personal affairs when he fell ill. I’ve learned from a career in medicine, though, that if you deal comprehensively with the crisis in front of you, the decks will clear. And I need a clear deck to be creative.
Juggling other roles and responsibilities, for an unpublished writer especially, can be difficult. How do you justify the hours spent writing when there’s no guarantee of success?
What has kept me going is receiving positive feedback and encouragement from readers and other writers. Being shortlisted for the Island Prize was obviously a huge boost. And the most recent affirmation – squeal! – was signing my first novel, Double Edged, to Kwela Books. We’re looking at publication in the second half of 2023.
Now, I need to print a ‘Do Not Disturb: Novelist at Work’ sign to stick on my laptop – perhaps with the caveat ‘Intruders May Be Written into the Story and Murdered!’
Davina: That’s fantastic news, Marina! Congratulations! I think, though, that the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign should be engraved into the door – embossed, like a nameplate; the warning about the possibility of being written into a story and murdered should hang from the doorknob. That will show them! Hah!
Now, onto plotting. I’ve been warned that while pantsing might work for a short story, it is unlikely to work for 80,000 words. That I need a PLAN. Or, at least, an outline.
Marina: I pantsed it all the way! Obviously, there were plot elements that didn’t work because of the lack of planning, but that is what the second draft is for. And the third. Otherwise, it’s time to call in the cats on the keyboard!
Before I wrote Single Minded, I’d read Stephen King’s On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. He’s a pantser. He even suggests that rigid outlining is the enemy of creativity. That gave me the courage to try. And the approach worked for me, at least to finish the novel. The jury is still out on what editors and publishers will think!
A few examples of how little I outlined/planned:
I did not know the ending.
I did not know who one of the villains was until two-thirds of the way through.
I did not truly understand that villain’s motives until the second draft.
These all evolved in the course of writing. Sometimes, I would think “how did that happen; I didn’t mean to write that” – yet that took the narrative in a direction which worked.
Don’t you find that when you’re writing, your characters and plot constantly play on your mind like a radio on low volume in the room? I’m sure that our subconscious works on the story, and figures things out for us. I’m prepared to believe in that magic.
Davina: Yes, there’s a lot of that magic involved. So many times, I’ll agonise for days over whether to turn an ending into a happily never after. Then a resolution will present itself, a week later, while I’m in the middle of worrying about something completely different.
These days, I’m forcing myself to outline more, and have been catching more inconsistencies – usually a lack of credibility in plot or character – as a result. I suppose the trick, as with most things, is to find the right balance between pantsing and plotting.
Marina: The strange thing is that I’m a very organised person at heart, intimidatingly so for some of my family members. Writing without outlining must be my right-brain’s revolt.
Davina: (Chuckles.) Recently, I was speaking to a writer friend about prologues. She seemed shocked by my question about when she considered it best to include one. She said, “Do people still write those?” I laughed and said, “Of course, people still write prologues. Where do you live?” Her response was “Honestly, I never read prologues.”
I, on the other hand, read everything – forewords, afterwords, prologues, epilogues, introductions, acknowledgments, you name it. I figure that whatever people have gone to the trouble to include in a book must be something I need to know.
For the record, I LOVED your prologue: how it opened (“To be clear – it was a wheeled chair, not a wheelchair; a rudimentary device, never intended for independent ambulation”) and how it ended (“The tall grass opened its many arms and welcomed the falling body into its final embrace”). It was action-packed and just the right length.
I realised later that I didn’t read it as a prologue but as the first chapter. Or, at least, that I very much wanted it to be the first chapter.
Marina: I also read everything – from the dedication to the acknowledgements. It’s fascinating to hear how many people contribute to a published novel, while I sit in solitude writing mine.
From a reader’s perspective, I get impatient if faced with an overly long prologue, eager for the real story to begin. But I do enjoy casting my mind back mid-novel/later and re-discovering the sneak peak of events that might have been seeded there.
From a writer’s perspective, I think a prologue works well if it draws the reader in and whispers “let me tell you a secret” – if it awakens a curiosity to discover the events that led there or follow on.
Thank you for saying you enjoyed the prologue! I wanted to create a sense of being lulled by the rhythm of the chair, the journey through the hospital, and then create a “what the…?” moment at the end. The personification of the chair and the grass contributes, I hope, to an idea that the setting itself is not completely inanimate.
Why not simply make the prologue the first chapter? In this case, the prologue has a cadence distinct from the chapters that follow. It is a moment encapsulated that will have context only later. Another reason is that chapter one – also short – is set a couple of months before the main storyline begins. Too many chapter time-jumps in quick succession might have come across as jarring. I’ll have to ask for editorial input on that, though!
Davina: Your prologue did exactly what you intended! There’s a sense that the wheeled chair has a mind of its own. Although you’re aware that a doctor is pushing it, there’s a lingering suspicion that it has an agenda, one that’s likely at odds with the doctor’s.
Are succeeding chapters as short as the first? Should I continue to expect “ambulation,” “recalcitrant contraption,” and “derelict detritus?”
Marina: After chapter one, as we join the main character on her journey in the hospital, the chapters lengthen and then shorten again as the novel races to a conclusion. Apart from a couple of glances back, the timeline is linear. The chapter breaks do often coincide with the start or end of a day, a significant event or another character’s point of view.
As for ambulation, recalcitrant contraption, and derelict detritus, perhaps the phrase ‘clinical detachment’ might be appropriate. Ambulation (or ambulatory) and recalcitrant are frequently used in medicine. They slip off my tongue – and fingers – onto the keyboard. But that’s where I need to beware: readers don’t want their intelligence underestimated, but they also don’t want endless jargon.
I have it on good authority that those particular words will face the editor’s scalpel. And I need to adopt clinical detachment as we work through the editing process. Gulp!
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.
Photo credit for featured image of Marina Auer: Hayley Walker Photography.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.