When one of my publishers asked me to submit a 200 word biography for their authors' website, I thought about dropping the usual bio platitudes and submitting the following:
"Natasha Mostert is a spectacularly brilliant, raven-haired psychic who saw her first ghost at the age of four. She likes to take midnight rides on horseback and practises levitation twice a day."
Natasha Mostert is a South African novelist and screenwriter, who specialises in contemporary psychological thrillers with mystical and paranormal themes. She grew up in Pretoria and Johannesburg but currently lives in London with her husband, Frederick. She still keeps an apartment in the university town of Stellenbosch in the Cape province.
Educated in South Africa and at Columbia University, New York, Mostert majored in modern languages and also holds graduate degrees in Lexicography and Applied Linguistics. She has worked as a teacher in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and as project coordinator in the publishing department of public television station WNET/Thirteen in New York City. Her political opinion pieces have appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times, in Newsweek, The Independent and The Times (London).
She is an avid kickboxer. Click here to find out more about her involvement with the CPAU Fighting for Peace project, which teaches Afghan women how to box and feel empowered in their lives.
She is the author of six novels. Her fourth novel, Season of the Witch is a modern gothic triller about techgnosis and the Art of Memory and won the Book to Talk About: World Book Day 2009 Award. Her latest novel is Dark Prayer, a psychological thriller about memory, identity and the murderous consequences of a quest gone wrong. Please address all literary queries to Deborah Schneider at gelfmanschneider.com.
Aside from novel writing, Mostert has branched out into screenwriting and is a member of the WGAW.
Future goals include writing poetry, executing a perfect spinning crescent kick and coming face to face with the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe.
Natasha Mostert's interest in mysticism started in early childhood when she was growing up in South Africa. Her aia (nanny) was a Zulu woman who introduced Natasha to African mysticism and legends and the world of the insangoma (witch doctors).
She remembers exasperating her mother by insisting on following her nanny's example by stacking several bricks below each corner of the bed to keep out of reach of the tokkelosh — an evil gnome with an enormous head but very short legs! Years later she would write about this in her novel, The Midnight Side. The concept of witches and witchcraft would surface again in Season of the Witch.
While waiting in a dentist's office, she read an article in a magazine about Thomas Edison's attempts to invent a telephone that would connect people with relatives who are no longer alive. She was only thirteen years old at the time but the concept of communication from beyond the grave stirred her imagination and deepened her interest in the paranormal. Many years later she would use the idea of telephone calls from the dead as the central theme in her debut novel. She returned once more to the concept of ghosts — and in particular ghost photography — in her third novel, Windwalker.
Natasha lives in Chelsea, London — the setting for her two witches in Season of the Witch. She now writes full-time.
Even though she writes about subjects, which many people consider far-fetched and fey, she always embeds them firmly within a realistic, every day framework. Her ghosts do not drag chains and howl outside windows — they find it more amusing to manipulate the stock exchange. Her witches in Season of the Witch do not use boiling cauldrons as their tools, but computers and code. By carefully blending hard fact with paranormal conjecture, Natasha hopes to seduce her reader not into a 'willing suspension of disbelief' but into accepting unquestionably the veracity of the world she builds in her books. Her research for her novels is intensive and rigorous.
Serial killers, gruesome torture scenes and festering corpses get little play in Natasha's novels but critics have been unanimous in describing her work as 'disturbing', 'creepy' and 'unsettling'. She explains her decision to side-step stock thriller concepts as follows: 'I find the idea of someone manipulating your mind far more frightening than deranged killers and slashed bodies. Jung said nothing is more fascinating than observing "how the mind reacts to its own destruction." I agree and you can see this belief given form in Season of the Witch as my hero and villainess engage in a deadly mental duel.'
Writing is not the only passion in Natasha's life. She is an avid kickboxer and does full-contact sparring. Her trainer is former European Light Heavyweight kickboxing champion, Carlos Andrade.
Dark Prayer is Natasha's latest novel. Kirkus describes it as a "brainy, fast-moving thriller" and states: "Mostert brings together fascinating strands of biology, psychology and mysticism, with astute observations on memory, the past, identity and love... The well-described parkour scenes nicely capture... the (heroine's) live-in-the-moment ethos.. (and) skillfully ups the ante with suspenseful episodes of danger leading to a climactic rooftop scene."
Her four earlier novels have also received praise from critics around the world: 'Bedtime reading for the brave' The Times; 'Classy psychic thriller...original, unsettling... kicks the usual preconceptions into shape' The Literary Review; 'absorbing psychological detail...climactic surprise, a humdinger' Kirkus; 'hauntingly elegant' Booklist; a brilliant tale in the thriller genre with little dots of spirituality here and there' Cape Times; 'Highly accomplished' Toronto Globe and Mail. Season of the Witch won the Book to Talk About: World Book Day Award 2009
Natasha is working on her next novel, titled WHISPER. Sign up to her newsletter to be informed of the release date.
Some online and radio interviews with Natasha Mostert can be found by following these links:
The following interview with Natasha was taken from the amazon.co.uk author's interview:
When and why did you begin writing? When did you consider yourself an author?
I suppose I considered myself an author only after I had actually signed the contract with my publisher! I've considered myself a writer for much longer. Even during the time I worked as a university teacher, writing esoteric, dry-as-dust academic articles, I knew that some day I would like to write creatively. When South Africa started on its remarkable journey from apartheid to democracy, I wanted to write about this astonishing transformation and was fortunate enough to get my pieces accepted by the op-ed page of The New York Times and by such newspapers as The Independent and The Times (London). This in turn gave me the necessary confidence to embark on a novel.
Who or what has influenced your writing and which books have most influenced your life?
Writers are often asked where they find their inspiration. I'm a scavenger: I'm constantly trawling for evocative images, words, phrases, pictures in magazines, photographs, snatches of overheard conversation, even ceiling details!
As for books: I read voraciously and widely. My native language is Afrikaans and my academic background in modern languages has exposed me to some exceptional works of literature. But I write commercial fiction and have a high level of pop culture intake. Anything that moves people or manages to get their imagination going, is worth paying attention to. A book that always takes my breath is Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. And the book I wish I could have written is Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. It is a brilliant, brilliant read.
What is the most romantic book you've ever read? The funniest? The scariest?
I was thirteen when I read Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I still remember the impact the very last scene in the book made on me. In this scene two skeletons - a male and a female - are discovered in the vault of Montfaucon two years after the main events in the book have taken place. The female was obviously buried in the vault after she was hanged but the male - a humpback -- shows no rupture of the vertebrae of the neck and must have come to the vault to die. When an attempt is made to disengage it from the female skeleton in its grasp, it crumbles to dust. After reading this scene, I was inconsolable for days! Even though I've read some remarkable romantic novels in the years that followed - Theodore Fontane's Effi Briest, Louis Couperus' Eline Vere, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, and of course Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind - no other reading experience has touched me as much as the hunchback's passion for his Esmeralda. The funniest book I've ever read is Auberon Waugh's autobiography Will this Do? It is shameless, intelligent and very, very funny. The scariest? Stephen King's The Shining. No contest.
What music if any most inspires you to write? What do you listen to while writing?
I am passionate about music, so much so that I even wrote a book The Other Side of Silence on this topic. My mother is a voice coach for opera singers and I grew up with classical music. But my taste in music is like my taste in writing: eclectic. For inspiration, I usually listen to Nina Simone: voluptuous sophistication and crystalline purity - it never fails. Loreena McKennitt sings the way I wish I could write : her compositions are magical. I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan - apart from the music, I'm always bewitched by his lyrics. Any soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer is wonderful background music for writing, as is the music of Shahin and Sepehr. And Mozart, of course. I read somewhere that more women ask to listen to Mozart while they give birth than any other composer. His music certainly helps with the creative writing process as well! When I'm homesick I listen to Splash, Patricia Majalisa or the Dalom Kids. They're all great performers of 'Mpantsula Jive' - a hybrid of South African Mbaqanga township music and Western dance influences. Singer-songwriter Cengiz is a friend of mine: a cool, guy making great music. Find him at his website.
What are you reading now? Which CD is currently in your CD player?
I am busy reading Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz. I am switching between CDs at the moment: New Order's Get Ready, Loreena McKennitt's Book of Secrets and Francis Cabrel's Quelqu'un de l'intérieur.
After ten years of writing novels, I decided to try my hand at writing a screenplay. It was going to be a breeze. After all, I'm used to hammering out 400 pages of text so how hard can it be to write 120 pages of dialogue, right?
Writing a screenplay is a wild, exasperating and challenging ride. For those of you who are interested in scriptwriting, here are a couple of thoughts on the adventure. (And no, the Nicholas Cage movie, Season of the Witch, is not based on my novel of the same name!)
1. Selling on or selling out?A few years ago I sold the movie rights to my novel, Season of the Witch. As I signed the contract, I had the same doubts that plague most authors who find themselves lucky enough to catch the eye of Hollywood. Would the scriptwriter understand my characters? Would the story be butchered/dumbed down/changed beyond all recognition? What if my novel ends up a B grade horror movie with shoddy production values? Is there any way I can retain creative control?
The answer to the last question is a resounding 'No.' The contract you sign is pretty much boiler plate and the one most authors are required to sign.
Once you scribble your name on the dotted line, you relinquish all rights. The film makers are allowed to change your characters, plot and even the genre. Your gritty drama may be turned into an escapist fantasy with characters brandishing laser swords. Your dark, poignant ending could be transformed into a relentlessly sunny one.
If you absolutely hate the movie, you may have the option to ask the studio to remove your name from the credits. If you are a best-selling author and the studio relies on your name to attract moviegoers, your contract will in all likelihood state that you are not allowed to do so.
So why take the risk?
Name recognition. This is probably the biggest carrot. An author's name recognition skyrockets after a successful film and book sales may increase substantially.
Money. The upfront money is usually not a fortune but it is still a nice windfall. There is also the promise of a bigger pay check in the future if the movie gets made, which is by no means certain. More about this later on.
The hope that the filmmakers will make a fine movie, which will introduce your story to a far wider audience than your book will ever reach.
Season of the Witch is still in development. If it makes it to the big screen I will be buying my ticket and popcorn along with everyone else. Fingers crossed.
2. How does it work when you write your own script?Two years after selling the rights to Season of the Witch, lightning struck again and another one of my novels was optioned to be made into a film. And this time I was asked to write the script. Happy days! I get to retain creative control. Right?
Ah, control. A lovely word, but not a concept, which features in the life of a Hollywood scriptwriter. This was the first thing I discovered — almost right off the bat.
The second thing I learnt was that even though you are paid to write the script, this does not necessarily mean a movie will be made. Hollywood's vaults are overflowing with commissioned scripts, which for one reason or another, never went into production. Who knew? Not me.
I also discovered I would not be allowed to talk about my good fortune and write about it in blogs and newsletters (half the fun) because writers are required to sign a contract with a clause, which forbids them to talk about the project until such time as the studio gives them the greenlight to do so.
The fourth thing I discovered was that I was going to have to learn to use Final Draft, the scriptwriting software, which is the Hollywood standard. Writers of screenplays do not use Word.
And last, but definitely not least, it dawned on me — rather quickly — that whereas a novel writer is pretty much queen of the castle, a script writer is low-woman-on-the-totem pole. A Hollywood script writer is a writer for hire.
What does this mean?
It means that even though you are the scribe of record, your vision is almost always subservient to the vision of the studio executive and the producers. Producers have the right to remove you from the project whenever they feel like it and engage the services of another writer. It happens all the time and to the very best of writers. Think Gladiator, which started off with David Franzoni, who was then replaced by the great John Logan, who was then replaced by the great William Nicholson before Franzoni was brought back on board again. It is rare these days to see only one writer's name in the credits. So much money is involved that studios try to hedge their bets by attaching more than one screenwriter to the project — the argument being that if one is good, two must be better. By the time writers three or four get on board there may be very few of your precious words left. Remember, it is in the interest of these writers to try to change as much of the original script as they can in order to win WGA accreditation.
Once the producers have a finished script — after many, many, many rewrites — a director will come on board and will often exercise 'the director's pass.' He may stick the script under his arm, disappear into his cave and come out with something that bears scant resemblance to the screenplay, which had required such backbreaking work from so many different people over so many months or years. I am told the only director who shoots the script as is, is Clint Eastwood. Terry Rossio, the writer for Pirates of the Caribbean, once complained humorously about a film reviewer who commiserated with a director for 'struggling manfully with a pedestrian script' when in fact, it was the director who had turned a good script into a mundane one.
Pretty grim, huh?
Yes, but the process is also exciting and you get to work with talented and creative people. But it is true that you cannot allow yourself to get too attached to your source material
Do I always agree with the changes I am asked to make? No. But I also understand that it is so tremendously expensive to make a movie, that there is no way the scriptwriter will be allowed to dictate which direction the film should go.
If you're thinking of becoming a scriptwriter and feel you'll be compromising your artistic integrity by accepting the situation as outlined above, then this job is not for you.
3. There is no guarantee that your script will be made into a movie, even if the studio has paid good money for it.
I find it extraordinary that there are many writers in Hollywood who have made their living over decades selling scripts — but who has never had even one of these scripts turned into an actual movie.
Even the most illustrious screenplay writers have sold scripts that went nowhere. When I attended a lecture by William Nicholson at a BAFTA event I was startled to learn that he had written eleven screenplays, for which he was paid very well, but which never went into production. Nicholson calls them his 'stillborn children' and says he had to make peace with the fact that they are buried in the vaults of studios all over Hollywood with no hope of resurrection.
Before you sign on to do a screenplay, therefore, ask yourself if you'll be OK with working long and hard on a creative project (even if you get paid), which may, in the end, never see the light of day.
4. Scriptwriters have to network more than writers of novels.
If you're a scriptwriter you have to make contacts. Check out e.g. events at BAFTA. The London Breakfast Club hosts luminaries of the scriptwriting world. Here is a piece I wrote about legendary Frank Spotnitz – he of X Files and Man in the High Castle fame.
5. Are authors better at adapting their own books than professional scriptwriters?
The sad fact is that authors often suck at adapting their own books. You'd think it would be exactly the opposite. After all, I know my characters as intimately as if they were my relatives. I know their shoe size, their neuroses and their most private thoughts: including the ones they do not share with the reader.
But authors can be very wordy. We forget that screenplays and literature are two wholly different things. We forget that a screenplay is never going to be read for its own sake. Literary merit is not what makes a good movie, which is probably why Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald did not shine when they slummed it in Hollywood.
A screenplay isn't even about dialogue. It is about the picture. True, there are lines that come to define a movie: 'Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,' and even 'Hasta la vista, baby' but a movie is not theatre. Words take second place.
6. Is it easier when you adapt someone else's work?I have since also been asked to work on scripts based on another author's work. In this case the challenge is twofold:
a) do not change the original story so much that you will alienate the author's fan base
b) do not — because you are intidimidated by the success of the novel — stick to it so rigidly that it turns into poor cinema. Some scenes and concepts simply do not work on screen. Get rid of them.
In other words, be sure to square the circle.
Useful links for aspiring scriptwriters
Check out THE BLACK LIST and subscribe to its newsletter. THE BLACK LIST also now offers screenwriters the opportunity — for a fee — to upload their script for review and rating.
John August's blog is a great resource for aspiring scriptwriters and covers almost all aspects of the life of a working writer in Hollywood. August also does a regular podcast with fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin. Find it on iTunes.
Terry Rossio: Wordplay. Another good resource, although Rossio doesn't keep his blog as current as August does. Whereas August is super short and sweet in his entries, Rossio likes to chat.
Final Draft. When you buy your Final Draft software (expensive) you also get to receive their newsmagazine, which is great stuff and gives you an overview of all the recent deals in Hollywood plus features written by Hollywood insiders.
- Looking for movie scripts to read from first drafts to shooting drafts? Here are a few resources:
BAFTA: To find out about events and lectures on screenwriting, visit the BAFTA website.
London Screenwriting Festival: Every year wannabe writers and those who have already made it get together at the London Screenwriting Festival