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A Q&A with Trade Secrets runner-up prize winner, Amy Heydenrych

Amy is a writer and book blogger based in Johannesburg. She has been twice shortlisted for the Miles Morland African Writing Scholarship and her short stories have featured in anthologies across the continent including CACE Writivism, Jalada Africa, The Kalahari Review and the first Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, Bloody Satisfied. She is represented by The Bent Agency in New York and London, who are currently pitching her debut novel internationally. When she is not writing her own fiction, she ghost writes books and columns for South Africa’s business leaders, giving her some trade secrets of her own. Amy is a Trade Secrets Runner-Up prize winner for her story ‘Handle With Care’.

Your story, ‘Handle With Care’, features postal worker, Gloria, who ‘makes good’. The focus is on unfinished business, loss, unrequited relationships, after which the reader is left whole and hopeful. Is this something we need in SA right now? To feel better about ourselves? About who we are?

Most certainly! Over the past few years South Africans have been worn down by a vicious, inflamed public dialogue. So much of our public discourse appears to be focused on separateness. I really wanted to emphasise our shared humanity and capacity for good. In the story, many lives are changed through the positive, loving actions of one person who challenges the status quo. This was intended to inspire and illustrate how we often have more control over our environment than we realise.

What was the initial inspiration for your story?

Two years ago, my best friend Emma exhibited far too much faith in the postal system and sent a beautiful necklace from London to South Africa in the hopes that I would get it in time for my wedding day. The package never arrived… and so ‘Handle with Care’ was born.

Gloria’s love story is inspired by my own handwritten letter that I sent to my now-husband. I sent him a heartfelt letter, along with a book that held deep meaning for me. This was a pivotal point in our relationship and one of the main reasons we are together today. The letter is still treasured in our home.

Letters taught Amy the true meaning of ‘Handle with Care’…

Gloria, your protagonist, gets a job at a post office and begins to ask questions. How did you develop Gloria’s character?

Gloria was one of those wonderful characters that came to me all at once. I was walking a lap around the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, fuming over my lost parcel, and suddenly she came to me as a fully formed person, down to her beret. In essence, she was inspired by some of the conscientious older women I see who, despite not receiving the opportunities they deserved, live their lives with grace and pride.

Readers have commented on the transcendent nature of the story. Did you write the story as a ‘healing exercise’?

Civil spaces such as the South African Post Office are great levelers. No matter who you are, you have to wait in the queue alongside everyone else. I felt moved by this shared vulnerability. Of course, this sense of helplessness can bring out a darker side in people and the story was a way for me to resolve my own anger at a specific type of privileged person who is abusive to civil servants. All in all, the story expresses a deep desire for reconciliation and compassion towards others.

Is the post office in itself a symbol of hope? – of anticipation, of surprise packages…

Definitely – there is nothing more exciting than receiving a package you have been waiting for! In writing the story, I was intrigued by the power a letter or a parcel can hold. It symbolises effort and care on behalf of the giver. In a world of quickfire communication, there is nothing more romantic.

At what point were you inspired to write magical realism?

I hadn’t written magical realism before, and didn’t expect this story to take the magical turn it did. I wrote the first draft of this story in a day, and just let the mood carry me. I usually focus on gritty thriller stories or sad, hyper-real literary pieces, so it felt freeing to escape the terms of the real world and imagine a happier ending.

As a ghost writer… can you share any juicy business Trade Secret?

The press statements, books and opinion pieces you read by business leaders and public figures are more often than not written by a young hack like me, mainlining coffee in her pink dressing gown at three in the afternoon. For example, one of my early jobs consisted of ghost writing a weekly column on “how to run a business” for a Nigerian newspaper. I was 26 at the time and could barely afford airtime!

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

The true skill of writing lies in the editing. Don’t be too proud to put your work through several rounds of edits and then have it edited by someone else all over again. This is the only way to get to the essence of the story.

Trade Secrets

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