by Jennifer Mills
“I had to write my story, this was the story I wanted to tell,” MD Villiers.
Martie de Villiers’ debut novel City of Blood – published in May 2013 – has taken seven years to write.
Brought up in South Africa, Martie studied psychology and sociology at university and then worked as a tennis coach, in HR and finally Commodities, but she always wanted to write. By the time she attended her first writing course at City, University of London, Writers’ Workshop in 2006, Martie was already writing in her spare time.
“City gave me invaluable insight into the industry,” says Martie. “You can’t always read up on how to be a writer,” she adds, “There are things you actually need to learn from those with experience in the publishing industry.” Thanks to the course, her writing developed.
“Before the writing courses at City, I wrote very detailed stories and said the obvious, but feedback on your writing helps and I realised that I didn’t have to show every action in my writing.”
Martie soon discovered how isolating writing can be. With fellow course members she formed a writing group.
“We met up and read each other’s work and gave feedback, because by sharing you see yourself becoming better…You need feedback to keep up your motivation. Comforting words from family and friends will not develop your writing and story in the same way as feedback from fellow writers.”
She began to attend as many talks by writers as possible: “You need to study the craft and keep going.”
In 2003 she read a news story in the local Johannesburg paper about a murder where the culprits escaped. It inspired her to write the story about Siphiwe, a young orphan whose life dramatically changes when he meets two dangerous men in Johannesburg; this developed into City of Blood. Growing up in South Africa, Johannesburg is a city Martie says she would never want to get lost in: her mother was a social worker and used to come home with horror stories from what she had witnessed. Martie wanted to understand the violence of the city and its consequences and dedicated herself to write these stories.
After a few years working on her novel, Martie sent three chapters to just one agent, Euan Thorneycroft. He signed her straightaway. After further redrafts her book went out to publishers. She didn’t expect an answer for months, but just six weeks later Martie got an offer: a two book-deal with the prestigious Harvill Secker.