Writing For All Generations

Add more to your reading experience, listen to this playlist of Rita Saliba's favourite songs whilst reading this feature on her.

Have you ever seen those motivational posters that show an iceberg with the tip above water and the bulk beneath?  It is a reference to the hard work that goes into any success story which most people never get to see.  Perhaps unsurprisingly that was the image that came to my mind as Rita Saliba, one of Malta’s most prolific authors, was describing her writing process.

“Whenever I’m writing, regardless of whether it is a full length novel or a short story,” she explains.  “I have to do a lot of research.  If I’m writing about someone who is into beekeeping then I have to learn about that hobby.  So before I write that story I go out and research about beekeeping even if most of what I learn doesn’t make it into the story.  That knowledge gives depth to the characters and that knowledge remains with you.”

“I really enjoy that kind of research,” she continues.  “That’s why books are great.  You have to research much more than what goes into the book itself.  I had a story where I spoke about the Second World War.  I used to go to those places where old people tend to meet up in my village – benches at playing fields for instance – and as soon as I mentioned anything to them the stories would come flooding.”

“When I tried to look for such stories off the internet I wasn’t satisfied.  What did that person feel?  How did that boy whose dog died buried in the rubble? Or that girl who lost her one and only doll when her home was bombed?  You won’t find such emotions on the internet; you need real people to talk to you to get that.  Some times you laugh, on others you cry with them.”

All those emotions are then poured into the book; the magic dust that ignites readers’ emotions.

Something Rita has been doing plenty of.  Modest and unassuming – her soft voice matching an innate level of shyness – a casual glance would not give any indication that this is an author who has left quite an impact on the Maltese literary scene.  Her three young adult books – Inzul ix-Xemx, Bella Bergen u Il-Kulur tal-Lellux – all won the national price for literacy in this category and have gone on to boost an age bracket with quality writing in the Maltese language.

What makes her story all the more amazing is that she started publishing her work quite late.  Not that this has had a negative impact on her career; indeed she feels that it is pretty much the opposite.

“You have to live to write.  You won’t find ideas in books.  In fact, most ideas come from living.  If you’ve ever experienced anything, some sorrow or found yourself stuck in a crowd, that helps when you come to relay thoughts.  Today there’s the internet and that can help,” she repeats “but it is not the same thing.  I find that when I’m writing about something that I experienced it comes out much stronger.”

“I started dabbling with writing from an early age.  There weren’t that many books that were suitable for young children so to an extent I just wanted to write the books that I wished were available.”

“I read a lot – our house was filled with books – but they didn’t have illustrations.   My grandmother, I remember, had an encyclopedia as well as Brere Rabbit stories and the images by themselves used to enthrall me.  And I always wanted more.  So I either wrote stories or drew pictures.”

“I also grew up in an environment where everyone told stories.  I used to hear my mother and father telling stories but, in particular, I used to hear many more at my grandmother’s.  There was a great-aunt who wasn’t highly educated by her timing of storytelling was spot on.  She never missed a beat.  I think that back then they were more open to experience life and appreciate it than we are today.”

“When I was around seven I wrote a poem in the inside cover of an exercise book that I kept under my school desk.  A teacher read it, like what I had done and submitted it to a programme that used to be broadcast on redifusion (the predecessor of public radio).”

“I never imagined that I would go on to publish my work.  In fact my dream was to be a horse jockey!”

It would be many years later that Rita would pick up writing.  By that stage she had given up on her horse riding ambitions (I presume) and was busy raising a family.  The creative urge that seems to be a constant in Rita’s life still nibbled away at her.

“I was approached by Clare Azzopardi and Trevor Zahra who wanted to come out with an academic textbook that was more updated than Denfil.  The result was the Senduq Kuluri series.  There was a whole learning experience as we needed to work with the national curriculum to ensure that what we were submitting wasn’t too advanced or not advanced enough so all that was an educational journey for me.  The real fun came when I started writing stories for those same books.”

That sparked off the desire to tell her own stories.  “A bit later there was a competition to submit a story for seven year olds.  People didn’t have to write in their name but they could submit it under a pseudonym which probably helped me go ahead and submit as I was a bit lacking in confidence.”

“Still, my story won and through that my first book was published: Kevin U Qatraxita.  It was a huge joy and when I received a published copy of the book I took it to bed with me!”

That success gave her the confidence to keep on writing and publishing books.  

I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t won on that occasion; whether she would have continued writing.  Rita believes that it would have made much of a difference.  “I don’t always win, there have been instances where I haven’t. For me it is an opportunity to learn because you’re trying out new ideas and perhaps different genres.  I always encourage people to give such competitions a shot.  There is nothing to fear and no need to hold back.”

“Personally, I never say that I wrote something and it was a waste of time.  There are a lot of things that I write but which I never use.  But I am always practising.  Sport helped me in that aspect (Rita was – and is – an avid sportsperson who has practised, athletics, netball and thai chi). There is that discipline to train and push yourself which is extremely important.  At the end of the day you are competing with yourself, not with anybody else.”

A look at Rita’s writing career reveals a rather linear evolution from kids’ books to young adults and, now, books for adults.  “It was all natural.  Still, I don’t like calling it kids’ literature because there have been occasions where I found it difficult.  You can’t write down to them, you have to write for them.”

Indeed children provide her with quite rich feedback and inspiration as Rita, like many Maltese authors, makes it a point to visit as many schools as possible.  

“Children are extremely sharp.  You need to do double the research for kids’ books than you do for adults!  You have to ask around and look things up because they immediately notice if something isn’t as it should be.  They notice the littlest of details.  Even if you don’t write something but hint at it they pick it up.” 

“Then there are the ideas,” she pauses as she weighs her thoughts.  “Some frighten whilst others delight.  I have to admit that I take more than I give in those visits. Those children end up featuring indirectly in my stories, some of their traits have a way of sticking.”

This latter point is interesting because reading through Rita’s work it quickly becomes evident that character is the strongest driving force of her writing.  

“Sometimes I will have someone in mind and then build on it.  Characters are something on which I work very hard because they will be with me for a number of weeks.  A character is born before I start working on them, to be honest.  I start thinking about them before I have a real idea.”

“Every character is complex.  And I need to know them in detail.  Even in books like Inzul ix-Xemx where I had a large number of characters I note down the details of each one even if I don’t go on to use that detail in the books themselves.  The only exceptions are secondary characters who I use to push the story along.”

“A character who is from a family of manual labourers will think differently than one who comes from a family of professionals.  A policeman’s son is different from a baker’s son even if they have the same interests.”  

That of plotting the details of each character is just one aspect of Rita’s process to plan her story.  “I like to plan.  There are instances of short stories that form in my head and I just write them down.  When it comes to a novel, however, I have to plan it out.  More than that you have to ask around to get input.  You have to be humble and ask; to see how others react.  Sometimes they tell you that what you are thinking isn’t how things happen.  That is often the case with young adults where what I think is different from how they see things.”

When they were growing up, Rita often used to turn to her own children to get feedback.  That is one of the ways that she managed to combine the strenuous task of raising a family and writing successful books.  

“Sometimes I’m amazed at how I did it,” she replies when I reply, out of egotistical curiosity, how she managed.  “I always took writing as a stress reliever because if I had considered it work I don’t think that I would have stuck at it.  For me, writing is an adventure.”

“It is not easy but you have to find a balance.  Then again, you have to find balance in everything.  If you dedicate yourself completely to your family you end up tired and resentful.”

“In the end, I think that having a family ended up helping my writings.  Sometimes they were the ones who gave me ideas.”

This sparks off a different conversation, one about how she comes up with ideas for her work.  “You have to chase after ideas.”

“Sometimes you can get an idea simply by looking at an empty cup of coffee.  You notice people and start imagining their back story.  Over the years I’ve come to know a number of people and everyone has their own character.

“Sometimes I don’t have any ideas.  So you look for them in books, not in what you read but in the emotions they bring up in you.  Different ideas can come when you go to different places.  You don’t have to force it, you only have to be open to ideas.”  

Suddenly she recalls another of her sources for ideas and, giggling says.  “Overhearing conversations is also good.  I’m always with a book in my hand but that doesn’t mean I’m always reading!  Sometimes I pretend to be, especially when there is someone else nearby having an interesting conversation!”

“Not every idea is a good one,” she warns, however.  “Sometimes I’ve enthusiastically started writing a story only to find midway that it doesn’t work.  I’ve got a folder on my computer that is filled with stories that I couldn’t finish.  Those stories you keep on the backburner.  Maybe one day you think of a way to fix the problem or maybe you can use some element of it in some other story.”

Rita talks from experience but she is also open with her thoughts because she honestly wants others to do the same. 

“I wouldn’t say that writing is easy but I always tell people not to give up.  If I hadn’t wanted it, the easiest thing in the world for me would have been to find an excuse.  I had raised two children, why would I want to go into all that hassle?  But it is something that I really felt I needed to do and ultimately it is as easy as that.”

“I used to believe that writing is a solitary exercise but that is not the case.  Feedback is extremely important.  Writing isn’t something to keep to yourself.  When I was young and wrote something, I used to hide it, not because I had written anything iniquitous but because I believed that you had to keep it to yourself.

“When I started to be published I realised that I had to communicate with others.”

Rita Saliba has just published her latest book Damask, a collection of short stories that is available from Horizons Publishers who are also the publishers of another of Rita's books Satin.  Other books by the same author are available here.

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  1. I had no idea about this local writer, thanks for sharing and keep more coming!