Author has a way with words

Gillian Leggat with her granddaughter Clara to whom she had dedicated her next book.

Author of 60 books, Gillian Leggat, has called Fish Hoek home since 2013.

The prolific 67-year-old writer has just had her latest book released by London-based publisher, Austin Macauley.

The Golden Highway, a young adult Christian fantasy novel, took approximately six months to write and already has a sequel being penned.

“My greatest challenge was to write a novel for young adults in this very popular genre where ‘giants’ have gone before me (JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis),” said Gillian.

“I wanted to write a page-turning book for young adults so I deliberately included several unexpected events and plenty of action (plus a measure of romance). But I also wanted to make my novel thought-provoking, so the theme of bad/good choices and their long-term effects is strongly present throughout the pages of my book,” she said.

Gillian lived in Johannesburg for most of her life and visited the Cradle of Humankind region in Gauteng – which stirred deep thoughts.

“I was fascinated by the discoveries that were made in that area by Robert Bloom and others, and was very aware of both the controversial discussions that centred around those discoveries (evolution vs creation). As a Christian, I also had a strong desire to explore the idea of the narrow, difficult road leading to life; as opposed to the wide, easy road leading, ultimately, to death.”

She says she was inspired by numerous newspaper articles and internet searches, extracts from the Bible, especially the well-known passage about the armour of God (Ephesians 6, vs 10-18) and fantasy novels such as CS Lewis’s Narnia series, especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

“I really enjoyed writing this novel, and what I learned about myself is that I love to imagine, dream and write. From a very early age, I was an imaginative, dreamy child.”

Gillian also lived for 10 years in the Natal Midlands.

She bought her Fish Hoek home in 2004, specifically for her retirement.

“I call myself semi-retired. I teach two days a week at the Valley Tutor Centre in Fish Hoek and also run adult writing classes for the Bergvliet Continuing Education centre. I desperately need time to write, though, which is why I insist on teaching only two days a week.

In between writing and teaching, Gillian walks on the beach and on Jagers.

“I have written quite a few short manuscripts while sitting on a bench at the end of Jagers. I find it incredibly inspiring to listen to the waves crashing on the rocks while I work, occasionally glancing up to stare at the sea and the mountains. I find it a great privilege to be surrounded by such beauty. I also often write on my balcony which has a view of Elsies Peak (and a tiny slice of sea). I also find the Fish Hoek people incredibly friendly and I love St Peters, the church which I attend,” she beams.

Austin Macauley publishers have also accepted a picture book of Gillian’s called Star Bright, which will be released towards the end of next year. Star Bright is dedicated to her first grandchild, Clara, who was born two weeks ago.

Pegasus Publishers in Cambridge recently accepted her adult Christian novel, Headlines in Heaven.

Gillian has 60 published books, most of them supplementary reading books for educational publishers such as Macmillan (her main South African publisher who has been publishing her since the early ‘90s), Pearson Education, and Cambridge University Press.

Her book, Sing for Me, won an award for its illustrations and was translated into a number of African languages, and also into Afrikaans, she said.

Her picture book, Colour Crazy, was also published by Garamond, while her memoir, Breath of God was self-published by iUniverse in the America.

“I went ahead with that for personal reasons – I was dealing with bereavement – so I wrote a book about it, and found that writing experience extremely therapeutic.”

Gillian said she was constantly telling her three children stories when they were little, and eventually began to write them down.

Her first and second books, The Biggest Pizza, published by Daan Retief, closely followed by Jabu and the Red Drum, published by Tafelberg, were published in 1989 and 1990, respectively.

She says her writing career was launched after she attended a writer’s conference at the University of the Western Cape in 1988.

“That conference helped a great deal as I met various people there who were the keys to launching my writing career. As I have been a full-time English teacher for most of my life, I was drawn to the picture book and short children’s stories genres; I found that this genre was my forte, and I could write a story in a weekend, or many stories during my school holidays.”

When she arrived in Cape Town in 2013, Gillian sent her CV to Kathy Miles, the director of the Bergvliet Continuing Education Programme.

This led to Gillian designing a writing course for Kathy’s programme.

Since then Gillian has designed various writing courses for her: Quick Writing Tips; Creative Writing Adventure; Delving Deep: journaling; Secrets of Successful Fiction Writing; The Story of My Life (an introduction to memoirs and autobiographies); Twelve Top Tips for Fiction Writers; Creative Writing Gems and Experimenting with Different Genres. These are all short courses designed specifically to fit in with the centre’s termly programme.

Gillian advises young writers to believe in themselves – and not to give up.

“Writing takes a great deal of perseverance. Most writers receive multiple rejections and many disappointments, so you just have to practise a great deal, edit your work and keep going. And don’t ever make the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ an excuse for not writing. If you really can’t write any more at a particular writing session, do some research, revise some previous work, listen to some conversations at a coffee shop, observe and record what you see around you. But the most important advice: Persevere with a capital P.”

Had she not taught or been a writer, she would have considered a career dedicated to inspiring young children.

Gillian’s favourite book of all time is Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White, the Australian novelist who won a Nobel Prize for Literature.

The last book she read was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

She considers reading to children absolutely vital. “It stimulates their curiosity about life, broadens their horizons, and I believe is key to developing their intelligence. It also helps them to empathise with their peers, especially if the story they are listening to is relevant to their experiences or situations.”

Her next writing course at Bergvliet will start on Wednesday October 26.

The title of the course is The Story of My Life (an introduction to memoirs and autobiographies). It will run for four consecutive Wednesdays.