Helen Moffett

Acclaimed author to visit City

  • Apr. 15, 2015 3:34 p.m.

The Writers’ Guild of Alberta and Red Deer’s The Olive present South African editor/poet/erotica writer/journalist Helen Moffett at The Olive April 20th.

The event, also hosted by Red Deer’s own acclaimed author Kimmy Beach and Edmonton-based author Peter Midgley, gets started at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. and there will be a cash bar.

Beach said those interested in attending are asked to pre-register by calling The Olive at 403-340-8288 after 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday or clicking ‘join’ on the event page on facebook. There will be lots of gourmet snacks and books by all three authors will be for sale.

Moffett has a PhD from the University of Cape Town, and was the President’s Fellow at Princeton University. She has compiled three editions of a poetry anthology for Southern African students, a guide to academic English for students and a collection of South African landscape writings, Lovely Beyond Any Singing.

“I’m so very lucky. Because of the incredible organizational generosity of Kimmy Beach and Peter Midgley, I’ll be doing readings and workshops in Calgary and Victoria, and taking part in the Edmonton Poetry Festival. I’m hugely excited – and a bit nervous.”

Her passion for the literary world stretches back to her youngest days.

“My mother was a librarian, and we grew up in a home without television, where books reigned supreme,” she explains. “I was taught to read at a very, very young age – I was the eldest of three kids under the age of four – so I truly can’t remember a time when books weren’t a magic carpet, solace, alternative worlds.

“Interestingly, I had no intentions of becoming a writer or an editor – I wanted to become an academic, and everything seemed on course for that. I had my PhD, I’d been teaching in the English Department at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for several years, but when I blew the whistle on a sexually harassing senior colleague, I also blew up my career.”

She then went into academic publishing at Oxford University Press’s Southern African branch. “I wasn’t happy in an office environment, but I learned so many skills, and discovered I had a knack for editing, helped by my passion for books and local literature.”

Moffett tackled an array of subject matter – from monographs on apartheid to medical textbooks to literary fiction. She went freelance after four years, and spent the next 15 years between editing and academia, going back UCT to lecture students on African poetry and holding a senior research post at the African Gender Institute, she said.

In spite of all of this, she still wasn’t calling herself a writer – even though she had written academic papers, book chapters, university textbooks and was co-authoring a book on cricket.

Eventually, she began writing poetry in an attempt to deal with infertility, which led to the publication of her first collection, Strange Fruit.

“Things snowballed after that, and I now have three erotica titles in print co-authored with two amazing local writers, Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick, as well as a book on landscape,” she said. Meanwhile, her love for editing continued to flourish.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we’re living in the golden age of South African writing, with exciting talent emerging every which way you look, in every possible genre.

“Authors like Lauren Beukes, Ivan Vladislavic, Sindiwe Magona and Zakes Mda – I’ve edited at least one novel by them all – are making international waves. It’s a privilege and incredibly exciting to be part of that.”

She has also written materials for Rape Crisis Cape Town and Womankind UK.

“I started researching sexual violence in South Africa after a fellowship at Mount Holyoke about 15 years ago, when I realized I had essentially returned to a giant jail for women – after a year of freedom to walk wherever I liked, even after dark,” she said.

“I’d been a feminist activist my entire life. We have the worst rape statistics in the world for a country not at war, and it dawned on me that I could use my research skills to analyze discourses about rape – and that might change how people thought about it, and subsequently their actions. I believe passionately that anti-rape campaigns need to target boys and men, as opposed to putting the onus on women to avoid it.

“I began writing teaching and training materials, as well as serious research pieces. And yes, doing the research is horrific. I had to do a paper on the rape of children for Womankind, and was so distressed one day, I drove into a tree. I cope by debriefing with a therapist, and never working on the writing or research for more than six weeks before taking a break. At the African Gender Institute, I had fantastic, warm, loving collegial support, and that helped enormously.”

She is currently working on her second collection of poems, as well as a volume of short stories.

As to editing, she has described the relationship between writer and editor as ‘horizontal’ in that it’s not hierarchical. “I am neither a version of the strict teacher with the red pen, laying down rules, nor a glorified typist who cleans up grammar mistakes and tidies references. We are both, for the period of editing, what I call ‘servants of the book.’

“Editing fiction is a delicate job, because you have to become a writing chameleon – you must find your way into the author’s voice and never impose your own. Whereas if I’m doing an academic book that has weak spots, the kind of rewrites I suggest are very different, and have to do with showcasing the research data or strengthening the argument.”

Meanwhile, Moffett fundamentally describes herself as a teacher.

“Teaching keeps me young, keeps me humble, keeps me learning,” she said. “Students are always bringing new perspectives to things I thought I had handled. There’s that moment when you’re explaining a concept, and you see a light bulb go off over someone’s head, or you transmit your passion for a topic or book — I get the most incredible kick out of that.”

Ultimately, Moffett finds being involved in so many facets of the industry an absolute joy.

“My explanation for my ‘multiple career disorder’ is that I’m easily bored. A joke, but there’s a truth to it – I’m most content when I’m learning something new, and the kind of work I do means that there are always fresh territories to explore.”


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