Q&A with Jane Evans – author of “A Path Unexpected”

 In Author Q&A, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

Jane Evans is the former CEO of Ntataise Network Support Programme, which provides extensive early childhood development across South Africa. She has been part of our community for many years,  participating in a number of our courses, and joining us on retreats such as our now famous Venice Retreat.

Her recently released memoir, A Path Unexpected (Jonathan Ball) describes the twist her life took when, as a young Johannesburg journalist, she fell in love with a farmer from the Free State. Jane found herself on a remote farm with nothing to occupy herself. It is here that she is moved to create her non-profit organisation to provide education and training for the wives and children of farm labourers during the height of apartheid.

Here is what she had to say in our Q&A with her:

1) Tell us a bit about your writing process?

I had absolutely no idea where to start with the story I hoped to tell and the memories I hoped to capture. So, I started at the beginning of the particular ‘slice of life’ I wanted to write about. I just wrote, well, badly, discerningly undiscerningly until it was all on paper. I then panicked because I had read or been told that it should all be in the present tense. That didn’t work for me.

I read and reread trying to do what I thought was editing my manuscript. Thank goodness for Jo-Anne and Richard. I met them for one-on-one sessions and began to understand what might turn my ramblings into hopefully something publishable.

It was apparently a long way from that, and I rather gave up hope. I put it aside for a few months then tried again.

2) How long did this book gestate for?

I thought about it for several years. It took, part time, in the region of ten years from my first efforts until my book A Path Unexpected was published.

What surprised me was how much I lost myself in my writing and how determined I was to write.

3) What surprised you about how the story unfolded as you wrote it?

I was surprised at how much I remembered of little personal incidents and how I was able to thread these into the overall story.

4) What are some of the challenges that you face when writing something as personal as a memoir?

The main challenge was not to hurt anyone in any way. I got around this by showing things as they were and not commenting or giving an opinion. There was also no reason to introduce a character who brought negativity to the story unless they also brought something of value and helped move the story forward.  I found it very difficult initially to write about my ‘feelings’. I still do until I discovered these did not have to be deep dark secrets, yearnings etc but rather simply stating how I felt. I was looking for too much.

5) As a writer of memoir, how do you manage to tell a compelling story while also remaining true to what happened?

This had much to do with writing techniques. Writing a scene with conflict, again not as difficult as I first found. Conflict did not have to be a major explosion. It could be as simple as contradicting something one of my characters had said. The scene needed drama at varying levels and above all dialogue that rang true. It also means holding something back to make the reader curious to want to know what happened next.

6) You write about some events that took place many years before you sat down to write. How were you able to remember these events in such detail?

Fortunately, I had kept written annual reports of Ntataise, the NGO which forms the core of my work, since it started in 1980. I met with many of the people involved in Ntataise since 1976 when I first broached the idea of empowering farm workers wives to establish and run nursery schools on farms. I researched political events which I referred to make sure my facts were correct. I also checked my facts with relevant people who I wrote about in my book.

7) How can the act of memoir writing be helpful to the writer on a personal level?

In my case the act of writing my memoir allowed me to capture a story which I wanted to be told and felt should be told. It is part of South Africa’s early learning history.  Whilst my memoir was based on my memories it contains memories of many of the women I worked with. More than anything it strengthened my friendships with women and men who I had got to know over the 40 years of the NGOs development and operations and my life on the farm.

8) What do you hope people will gain or take away from your story?

I hope I have managed to tell a story and give an understanding of the tremendous strength and passion of how when one wants to achieve something badly enough, obstacles can be overcome.

9) What sparked your passion for early childhood development (ECD)?

The innate trust and innocence which babies, children are born with.  I cannot bear to see ‘The Light in their eyes’ being extinguished by parents, other adults, siblings, teachers. Children are not miniature adults , they need security and nurturing.

10) Why do you think ECD is so crucial to South Africa?

Good quality ECD is crucial in any country and specifically in our country where so many children do not receive food, security, early learning opportunities. Exposure to positive early learning , be it at home, playgroup, nursery school, ECD centres, Grades R and earlier can only but strengthen a child’s perception of him or herself as someone who is loved, someone who has the ability to feel good about him or herself and is ultimately able to contribute in whatever his or her way to society.

11) What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in setting up your organisation and did you go about overcoming these challenges?

Possibly the belief that early learning was a nannying service and not an essential part of a child’s learning and development was one of the greatest challenges I faced. Finding women who wanted to become ‘para professional’ early learning teachers was crucial to the organisation. The majority of women in the environment we were working in had had limited opportunities for education and were often not literate. People were suspicious of what we were trying to achieve. The women’s husbands were opposed to their wives going off,  sometimes for two weeks at a time for training, to ‘become cleverer’ than they were. The government of the day should have been a challenge but local education authorities didn’t really care about what we were doing as long as they were not called upon to support it in any way.  This was a challenge in terms of funding. On all the farms Ntataise, the name of the organisation and meaning ‘To Lead a Child by the Hand’ originally worked on the farmers paid the emerging teachers’ salaries and made venues available in which to hold the nursery schools. The organisation was registered as a not for profit Trust and accepted as an NGO, Non-government Organisation. The private sector, business, philanthropic Trusts, private individuals made the funding available which allowed the organisation to grow.

12) Tell us a bit about the process of getting your book published?

This was a tortuous process. I submitted my manuscript to a number of publishers obviously, in hindsight, before it was ready.  I then worked with an editor who had reviewed an interview I had given to a University of Pretoria Business School publication on Social Entrepreneurs. He brought a matter-of-fact approach to add to the broader elements of writing which I had learnt through Jo-Anne and Richard.

I then submitted the manuscript to Jonathan Ball Publishers who sent it back with the comment that it was ‘okay’ but with more work it could be good. The reader returned it with what I felt were positive suggestions. Months later I resubmitted it.

I then, to my amazed delight, received an offer to publish along with more suggestions for additions, changes etc.

My book, A Path Unexpected, was published and on the bookshelves towards the end of the Covid Lockdown which certainly cut down on opportunities to give face to face talks etc but it was published.

13) What advantages do you think traditional publishing offers to authors?

Traditional publishing offered me exposure to competent readers, good editing, the thrill of knowing my book would be published with professional help, marketing, development of the cover and knowing that a highly thought of publishing house thought my book was good enough to publish. That off course is a personal reaction.

14) What are tips you have for aspiring memoir writers?

Based on my experience, write, just write it all down don’t self-edit during this process.  Join a writing programme, work with mentors, learn about the role of dialogue, conflict, expressing feelings and so much more. This isn’t for everyone but it certainly has stood me in good stead.

A Path Unexpected is a memoir about family, love, loss, finding purpose and dedicating oneself to a life of service. Eloquently written and told with great sensitivity and humility, this is a memoir about how one woman’s unexpected path led to family-like bonds in the unlikeliest of places, and a dream so profound that it would impact generations of young learners and the women who teach them.


If you’d like to give yourself the time to write in a beautiful and inspiring environment, join us on our Venice Writing Retreat. Our Mentoring Programme is open to writers who have completed a substantial creative writing course.


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