This week, I am thrilled to be interviewing the lovely Ginny Stone. A busy mum and author living in South Africa, Ginny was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and her book, Out Damned Spot, tells of her terrifying experience. Bittersweet and achingly funny, it is a real and frank account of those dark days.
Ginny Stone is a hybrid author, with 14 books traditionally published and and 7 indie books with more in the pipe-line. She lives in Pretoria, South Africa in a rambley old house with extended family, and took time from her busy schedule to chat to me about life, cancer, pets and living in a family commune!
I recently read your book “Out Damn Spot” which is in fact a true story about your brush with cancer. The book deals with the situation in a fairly lighthearted and even humorous manner, but I suspect it was far from funny at the time?
True story! I actually had no clue how dangerous melanoma was until I hit Google and saw that it’s the biggest killer as far as skin cancer goes – mainly because it goes undetected so often. I was lucky.
In the book, your family were initially concerned in the first few days, but that concern quickly changed into disinterest and, dare I say it, even annoyance that your illness was inconveniencing them. Is that a fair statement?
Erm… not quite! They were concerned— in fact panic-stricken would be more accurate – but once I got the all clear and they realised I was not going to die, they relaxed and stopped worrying. This happened to be 6 days after the op – I was was still sore, woozy from the meds and post-op ghoulies, had no feeling in my upper arm (still don’t) and was reeling from the fact that I, Mrs Indestructible, was in fact destructible.
You come across in the book – and in your posts on social media – as a powerhouse of energy. Always on the go, you strike me as being the mover and shaker in your family, so do you think it was a bit of a shock when suddenly “Mum couldn’t do it all anymore and they had to help”?
A shock of seismic proportions would be a fairly accurate thing to say. Thing is, mostly mum did continue to do it all. I am my own worst enemy and never ask for help. I think family members should automatically know when I need somebody to step in and feed the cats, make supper or just do general household stuff. That’s stupid because they don’t even see that I’m floundering. I need to learn to ask.
It must have been a very scary time for you, and I can only imagine what you must have felt, but did you ever believe that you wouldn’t recover? That the treatment wouldn’t work?
Okay – so I knew that they would be able to cut out the cancer from my arm easily because it was only stage 1. I wasn’t sure if it had spread though. I kept asking what the treatment would be if it had, and nobody would tell me. “Let’s wait and see,” they infuriatingly said. I guess it’s because if it had spread throughout my entire body, I would up been up shit creek. Luckily, the sentinel node was clear. But let me tell you – having that sucker out was much worse than having the cancer removed. That’s why I still have no feeling in my arm. The doctor never said a word – it was the biggest shock ever that first day when I showered. Why don’t they tell you what might happen, so you can expect things?
And what we all want to know is are you completely healed? Has the cancer gone for good?
Lol – fat joke – who knows! I am covered in speckles and freckles. I just keep an eye on the ones that I can see. For the time being, yes.
At the time or perhaps since, did you seek the help and guidance of any cancer sufferers’ organisations or websites? Did they help, and can you recommend any for anyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves in a similar situation?
Hah! It boils down to me and that help thing that I talked about above. I didn’t even think about counselling until long afterwards. It would have been so incredibly beneficial. All I wanted to do was talk about it, and nobody wanted to listen. “Yes, yes, but you’re okay!” was the general beginning of the change of subject sentence. My body was was okay, but my head was all screwed up. I blame my doctor for not suggesting some sort of help, but I think if you have not been through something like that yourself, you don’t really realise how much it messes a person up. Must say, my Instagram and Facebook family were fabulous – but I would recommend some sort of therapy. Unless you are a writer and a gardener – writing my book was cathartic on so many different levels.
You live in South Africa. I know this is a very beautiful country, but one that has its troubles. What is it like living there? And is it really as dangerous a place as it seems?
It’s the most fabulous place. The scenery is so diverse from province to province and absolutely to die for. The people are friendly and it’s not half as dangerous as everybody always blabs on about. Yes, it does have its own troubles and you do have to be savvy where you go, especially at night time. But you have to do that in any country. We have electric gates, barbed wire on the fence, bars on the windows, alarms and locks. Shhh… don’t tell anybody but we don’t use half of them. I have no desire to go and live anywhere else – except maybe near the sea. We have malls too – a fact that sometimes seems to astound overseas people. But no, lions and elephants do not roam freely in the streets.
Now “Out Damned Spot” isn’t your only book. I know you have also written the “Sibo” series of books for children. Perhaps you could tell us a little about them?
Sibo is a little girl who wants to help save the world. She wants all the kids to help her. I wrote the first book when we moved to Gauteng (from the Western Cape) in 2007. My writer and journalist friends loved it and suggested I send it to a lady who had publishing connections. OMG! She slated me left right and centre, told me my topic (global warming) was ridiculous and suggested that I take her writing classes at University. I was mortified, so bloody embarrassed that I could have been so bold as to have thought that lowly little I could write a book. I stashed it in my laptop for over six months. Then started chatting to a well-known columnist in one of the larger newspapers and he loved it and said I should send it to his publisher. They said ‘No thank you’, so I bluntly emailed them back – “No thank you because it’s crap or no thank you because it’s not what you are interested in publishing?” Got a really nice letter by return email, giving me the Publishing Association of South Africa’s website, and saying it was not at all crap – they just did not handle children’s books. I picked 5 children’s publishers from the list and emailed them. The very next day two publishers replied. One emailed and Lets Look Publishers called me and enthused.
There are now 14 titles published in the Sibo series. The first four Lets Look Publishers carried the costs for, but because I’d worked in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field before, I had contacts and was used to filling in proposals. So I got a few pertinent books in the series funded – the first was on the topic of astronomy for International Year of Astronomy (2009). Thereafter I got commissioned to write Sibo stories on various topics like… nanotechnology (true as Bob – if you are not sure what it is – read the book), biodiversity, HIV AIDS, Chemistry.
Peter Sanderson from Lets Look and I are passionate about road safety – so we crowd funded for that title and got a chunk of funding from Nash Nissan. The following year we got more funding from Super Group SA and – this was very cool – we printed Sibo Looks Right in a slightly less robust format (more like a magazine) and gave them out at toll gates over the Easter break – a time when the roads statistics are shocking.
Sibo on the Move was commissioned by the Gautrain (our version of rapid transport) and they sponsored 10,000 copies of this title. That’s a funny story too – but I’ll bore the pants off everybody if I go into all of my funny writing stories.
By the way – the other publisher that contacted me – Quali Books – published three other little books I had written and dodgily illustrated on HIV AIDS – and went on to translate them into 8 of the official SA languages. They are still being read.
What kind of writer would you say you are? One who plans and outlines meticulously? Or do you just dive in headfirst, no parachute and no safety net?
Pantser for sure! I get an idea in my head and off I go. But I’m trying hard to change my evil ways.
What do you have planned next? Are you currently working on anything?
My daughter and I write our series “The Imaginaeries” together. She’s the anxious one from Out Damned Spot and has a uniquely weird sense of humour. So, she gives me ideas and I run with them and write the story. So far we have three books in the series – self-published. It’s a modern day fairy story set in a local nature reserve where my husband and I go hiking. It’s a magical place all on its own, named Faerie Glen Nature Reserve. I know, right? Perfect!
Emma had originally created (designed and hand-made) a series of soft dolls with names like Marigold, Ivy Lion and Winona. We wrote them into the first story as some of the Imaginaerie characters – it’s a whimsical tale with some twists, and now we are writing the back, front and sometimes sideways story of each character. It’s going to be an epic series and it’s not only for kids, in fact the last two books are a tad less kiddyfied than the first. The back stories are more novelettes – quick, easy fun reads. There are many more in the pipe-line.
Have also just finished “Wizard of Wigwash – the Adventures of Johnny the Penguin” which I wrote in conjunction with Alastair Kendall in the UK. His dad used to tell him bedtime stories and he always wanted to turn them into a book. Poor dude, he found me just after I’d had my melanoma diagnosed last year, so I was rather straight forward and told him his writing sucked, but his plot was great. I’d write his story for him if I was not going to pop my clogs. I didn’t, so I wrote the story. Of course it turned out a lot bigger than he’d ever been told, and he was great and let me have my way with lots of the story-line. There have been three iterations, but the final version is rather good, if I’m allowed to say so myself.
I’m also busy with the first issue of a “Creative Writers Journal” also at the moment – if anybody wants to submit an entry – please have a look and see what it’s all about. The more the merrier.
I have signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time ever. I plan on writing something about Jack, the hooligan cat and Gemma, the neurotic sausage dog live on the Edge. Bit long for a title hey?
What’s your favourite part about being a writer? And what’s your least favourite part?
Being able to put stories, blogs, whatever into words and have people enjoy reading the end product. I love reading Sibo to kids and knowing that the story has made some sort of an impact. Even when their eyes roll back and you think they are bored, they suddenly perk up and answer all the questions correctly at the end and then fight over who wins a book. I wish I could give them all books. One day when I win the Lotto I’m going to buy loads of my books and give them out free! Oh wait… shit, I better start playing the Lotto then – hey? A friend of mine once called it ‘stupidity tax’ and I’ve stayed away since then.
I effing hate marketing! That’s the yuckiest part of writing – even if you are traditionally published you still need to market. It always feels like you are bragging about your own books, like… buy mine, buy mine!
As well as writing, I know you’re very passionate about your garden. Now to my English eyes it’s a very unusual garden, no less beautiful for that, but I imagine the climate in South Africa can very much dictate the type of plants you can grow?
Succulents rock! They are water-wise and are very rewarding. I love “proper” flowers too though. The weather in Pretoria is great for flowers and plants – they don’t even die in the winter. There’s no frost where we live, although it does get chilly (like ~2 deg C).
What made you decide to completely restyle the garden? And is it finished yet? Do you have any more exciting plans for it?
When we moved into our house, the back garden was enchanting, shady, tree-filled, cool and green. The front garden was bare red earth with some succulents around the edges.
Whilst I was flirting with cancer last year, I was angry. Really, really angry with the world at large. So I flung myself into sorting out our fugly front yard. We’d tried making a few raised beds when we first moved in (August 2017) but they did not work out that well. Then winter arrived and the front garden was a nice warm place to sit. Albeit ugly as sin.
Chris bought us a divine swinging bench. I used to sit on it (and snivel when I thought I might die) but then I pulled up my big girl panties and started scheming. It went from there. I got fit and toned hefting rocks around the place. I think the family realised that it was an outlet for me and they left me alone. Chris only interfered when I placed the pavers for my long legs – he insisted that I make them closer together.
I still love pottering around in the garden. I appropriate rubble from the side of the road and make cool stuff with it, herb swirls, edgings etc. The broken plates went up onto the wall in a nice big mosaic. The bench has become a renowned place to sit with friends and family.
We mentioned your family before, and I know you have an eclectic assortment of family members all living in a big house together and I always imagine it to be a bit like The Waltons. Is this true? Or is the reality not quite so rosy?
Chris calls it a commune. I say it’s a mad house. We originally bought the house because it had a pecan nut tree and enough space for everybody. My 85 year old mom has her own granny flat attached to the house. Emma and her significant other have a little garden flatlet, Luan (aka Vetboy – my stepson – 3rd year vet school – no mean feat), Chris and I share the main part of the house. I make supper for six people most nights. Mom cooks the odd one every now and then. It was a rule we made right at the beginning – everybody eats supper together. Sometimes it’s a real pain in the backside, but mostly we manage.
The funny thing was, when I was sick, instead of them all pulling together, everybody went into their own little silo of misery and anxiety and I was left trying to pick up the pieces. Nobody ever talks much about how guilty one feels for putting loved ones through the trauma of your illness.
I have another daughter; she’s married with her own delightful daughter aged 7. We often wish that they lived a bit closer than Cape Town.
I think it would drive me crackers having so many people placing demands on me all the time, so what do you do when it’s all a bit much and you need to escape from it?
Crackers with cheese and pickles on! I go into the garden of course! Or do crafty stuff or hide in the loo with my book. Every now and then Chris and I sneak off for a weekend, but they are few and far between. Luckily I do have my own office. Okay – Chris has a desk in it too, but as he’s at work all day – it’s mine!
Now, as well as sharing your home with your large family, you also have several pets whose antics I and many others enjoy sharing on your social media sites. Can you tell us about them?
I’m quite good at sharing animal stuff hey! It’s because I wrote “A Dog’s Blog” for 8 years as a weekly column in a local newspaper. It was a hysterical look at family life from our SPCA pooch’s point of view. In fact, am still compiling those columns into books. Two down, another three to go!
We inherited Gemma when we bought the house. Her family moved to New Zealand and left her behind. She’s a neurotic sausage dog, had been run over before we got her, so limps like a drunken sailor whenever she thinks she’s not getting enough attention, and is very, very vocal. Gemma has the best kept toenails in the neighbourhood, thanks to Vetboy.
Then we have Edge – Emma recruited him when we still lived in the complex. She was an abandoned kitten and managed to weasel her presence into the household, much against every reluctant bone in my body to have another animal (we already had Ralph, who had adopted us when he had a perfectly fine home of his own). Edge got fatter and fatter and we thought she was preggy, but kitties never appeared. Turns out, when we went to have her fixed, that she was a he, about 5 or 6 years old, and had already been neutered. He had just eaten himself into a preggy-looking state, with man-boobs—the whole tootie. Shame, he also has tumours in his throat, and is FIV+. Luckily we have Vetboy in the house – he gives Mr Edge regular injections of cortisone and keeps everything in order.
Then there is Jack aka #Hooligancat. We got him after Ralphie died. He is the most delightful hooligancat that ever existed. He is also the most wicked. You can read how we got him here.
Do you get to see much of the wildlife in South Africa? And what are your favourite of all its wild animals?
Every now and then Chris, who heads up the Physics Department at the University of Pretoria, has an overseas visitor who needs to be entertained. We usually hive off to the nearest (3 hours away) nature reserve, Pilanesburg, where one can spot some of the “big five”. We mostly manage to see elephant, rhino, giraffe, myriads of buck, hippo, warthogs etc etc. The cats – lions and leopard – continue to elude us though. My personal favourite are the giraffe.
Have you travelled much outside of South Africa? If you have, where has been the location in the world you enjoyed the most?
I was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in Malawi, went to high school in South Africa and landed up staying here. I’ve also been to Namibia, Mozambique, Cyprus, Rome, Amsterdam, UK, Belgium, Switzerland and have visited my sister in San Francisco, or rather, just outside SF. I loved Belgium.
If you could travel anywhere, money no object, where would you go?
My bucket list is to walk the El Camino, not really for the whole pilgrimmy thing, but I love the thought of having my life on my back for a few weeks and not having to worry about much. Otherwise I’d like to just travel a bit with Chris – he’s a great person to travel with.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Ginny Stone for taking the time to have a chat with us this morning, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed hearing about her busy and exciting life. Below is the link to look up Ginny’s books and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Once again, thank you for joining me this Sunday morning here on A Little Bit of Blake. I hope you have a wonderful day and I look forward to chatting with you again next week.