Tag Archives: Helen Moffett

Sunshine in my pocket

Every New Year’s Eve local time at midnight, I tune in to my favourite radio station in Austria to hear the live ringing of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral bells in Vienna. Afterwards, they always play Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz, and then usually a pop song of note. This year that song was Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. I’d never heard it before, but it was catchy enough to remember. When I looked it up, listened to it properly, watched the video, and read the lyrics, I could not stop dancing to it, and realised that it is the perfect song to start this year with.

Last year … should be best forgotten, at least most of it, especially the first half (ugh!). Personally all I can think of is: I survived. Fortunately more intact than I thought possible. And here I am, ready for 2017! All positive energy and smiles, or as Timberlake sings, with “that sunshine in my pocket”.

A whole sun of sunlight in my heart’s pocket, in fact.

New Year’s resolutions? Ah, you know, the usual: write a few books, win the lottery, travel the world.

In all honesty, I hardly have any plans. It’s the year I turn 40. I will publish two books. All monumental stuff, but it feels like my life should be: I am getting older. I write. I publish. I am embracing it all with great joy. What is different about this year is my involvement with PEN South Africa. I have been co-opted as a board member and will be promoting activities celebrating our inspiring literary heritage and contemporary writing.

For a while now, I have also been dreaming of founding an independent publishing house, a home to exquisite writing. This year might see its birth.

There will be literary salons, book festivals, trips – local and overseas – and lots of tennis to watch (Rafa is back!). I am looking forward to the publication of Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, Antjie Krog’s Lady Anne: A Chronicle in Verse, SSDA’s next anthology of short stories Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa (edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona and Helen Moffett), Katherine Stansfield’s Falling Creatures, Melissa Volker’s A Fractured Land, and Sarah Lotz’s next novel in which a Polish character features … I was told she gets to have some great mountaineering adventures … Or was it sex? Both, I hope. As long as she reaches the summit.

karinaI have no doubt this will be a brilliant year for books; many more exciting titles await.

I wish you all lots of health, and if not a sun, then at least a ray of sunlight in your pocket.

Let us dance.

Let’s not stop The Feeling.

Blue light at Temenos

light

How often can you shatter and remain whole?

Death. Loss. Grief.

House break-in.

Cancer scare.

Institutions breaking you down by sheer incompetence and lack of understanding.

Death, again. And again.

Car accident.

And then…         . A void, a negation of time and space, of reality. How do you describe something or someone whom you tell, repeatedly: ‘I can’t breathe. I am in unbearable pain. I feel small. I am fragile. Vulnerable. Skinless. Please do not hurt me…’ And they violate your body and soul regardless? I do not know. Perhaps some things cannot be described. Sometimes words are too good to contain this, this…          ? blue-light-too

I care about words.

Another shattering.

Another loss.

What remains are the pieces. And a life-long illness. Deal with it, Karina.

turn-withinIn a corner, with no way out, when everything seems lost, broken, incomprehensible, a tiny light might save you. Holding on to that light is not an act of bravery. It is an act of compassion. I survive because I have kind people in my life. Perhaps recognising and reaching out for that kindness is courage? I do not know. I know that the sharing, the true care of friendship, have saved me from utter despair. The women in my life. I repeat: The women in my life. I do not know what I would have done without You. I salute and cherish you!

blue-lightThe first time I travelled to Temenos in McGregor, the retreat was recommended to me by my friend Margie. She knew what I was going through and said that the beauty and silence would be good for me. I fell in love with the place. One-and-a-half years later I went back, for the beauty and the silence. It is a silence punctuated by the outrageous screams of peacocks and the reluctant striking of the church tower clock. People smile, from the distance.

breakfast-at-temenos  sirloin  bemind

You can do things, or just be. Read. Sleep. Eat well. There is a bric-a-brac shop in the middle of McGregor which sells the best olives in the country. Tebaldi’s, the restaurant at Temenos, serves delicious meals. There are donkeys. Wine estates. Dusty heat. Tarot card readers and aroma therapists. Kindness, in the place and its people. The veld. And lazy sunsets which make you believe in tomorrow. It is all right to go to bed before 8pm. To read next to the pool for hours. To start brewing coffee at 5am and drink it on the stoep of your cottage while watching the light yawn and rise in the magical garden around you. Meditate, or just sit doing nothing at Temore, The Inner Temple of the Heart, with its soothing blue light.

reading-next-to-the-pool  falling

Wherever I go, I find coins. I call them my lucky coins. In South Africa, usually, 5c or 20c; 50c if I am really lucky. When I arrived in the gardens of Temenos, I found a R2-coin next to my car. Then, a few hours later, another R2-coin next to the pool. And the next day, while I was telling this story to my friend Helen (our stays at Temenos overlapped for one day and one night) during our sunset walk in the veld – in that very moment – I found another one next to our path. I want to believe that good things are coming. That despite the insanity of reality surrounding us in these troubled times, the kindness of people will prevail.

helen-in-the-veld-at-sunset

questions-from-the-seaDuring the last McGregor Poetry Festival a poem was inscribed on the walls of Temenos, my favourite one from Stephen Symon’s stunning debut collection Questions for the Sea. What synchronicity to find it there when I was returning home last night for the Q&A at Stephen’s reading/launch at Wordsworth Books in Gardens. On the way to the Gardens Centre, I stopped at The Book Lounge to pick up a book I’d ordered earlier, only to find out about the violence in the streets outside the bookshop just hours before. Louanne and Werner spoke about lost children and fear. They cancelled the event scheduled at the bookshop for that evening. The book I was buying was a gift for my friend Louisa who recently shared the remarkable Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard with me. I started reading it at Temenos. Uncanny is not the word… There is a collective wisdom of women out there, to tap into it, to allow it to nourish and heal you, that is what I am reaching out to.

with-resident-catI arrived at Wordsworth Books rattled, but there were good friends, cheese and wine, and poetry – subtle, soul-restoring poetry. Beauty, like light, can save you. How precious that it can be contained in words. Thank you, Stephen and Nick, for caring about words.

My words are safe. I find strength in the beauty of peahens. I love my Friends. I can’t wait to share my McGregor olives with them.

peahens

And I am very curious what R6 of luck will gift me.

coffee-in-bed

Of romance, rugby and refugees: Intertwined at the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival in Cape Town

Meg Vandermerwe, Anne Landsman, Diane Awerbuck, Helen Moffett, Karina with Nadine, and Rachel ZadokSunday, 22 May, one of those glorious winter days in Cape Town: all light and revelation. It wasn’t even 9 am, but the queue in front of the Gardens Community Centre in Hatfield Street looked overwhelming.

“Do you by any chance have a spare ticket for sale?” a woman near the entrance asked as we approached. I shook my head in confusion, and her pleading eyes moved on to the next person. My companions, the writers Helen Moffett and Diane Awerbuck, looked just as surprised as I felt. This was no rock concert, nor a sports event. We were here for the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival. We’d heard that the tickets had sold out about a week in advance, but people desperate to get into a literary festival seemed quite unusual.

We were spotted by one of the friendly volunteers assisting festival participants and visitors (the lucky ones with tickets) and ushered through the security and registering desks. The crowds inside buzzed with excitement. “Are they giving away something for free?” I wondered aloud.

The idea for the festival was born in July last year. In February the organisers – Joanne Jowell, Cindy Moritz, Viv Anstey and Gary Anstey – asked Beryl Eichenberger and Caryn Gootkin to help with the marketing. Together they reached out to a team of volunteers, secured the venue and the sponsors, and began composing a programme which would “appeal to all ages and cover a range of genres” with the aim “to promote constructive dialogue and discussion in the true spirit of Jewish life without promoting any single political or religious agenda”. From food, sports, politics, academia and journalism to fiction, poetry or memoir, the topics on offer were geared to satisfying nearly all tastes. Seven venues, 49 different events, and a palpable atmosphere of being part of something special made for a wonderful mix. There was a programme for children, but I attended only events for adults. However, I often spotted young people in the audiences, which is always heartening.

The festival opened for me with “Faribels and foibles in fiction”. Next to me in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium sat a woman crocheting, while Rachel Zadok, Rahla Xenopoulos, Marilyn Cohen de Villiers and Liesl Jobson spoke to Helen Moffett about the faribels and foibles which drive their writing. What could easily have turned out to be a light-hearted conversation quickly became a serious discussion, as an appreciative audience member commented afterwards.

In A Beautiful Family, the first novel in her Alan Silverman saga, Cohen de Villiers wrote about abuse and domestic violence to counter the myth that “it doesn’t happen to us”. She was initially scared that she would be accused of fanning the flames of antisemitism, but her work had been received with gratitude. Similarly, Zadok, Xenopoulos and Jobson are not afraid to explore mental illness in their fictional and autobiographical writings, often giving voice to experiences which would otherwise remain unnamed. Asked about how to cope with the exposure, Xenopoulos, who has written a memoir about being bipolar, said, “You owe your reader the truth. In a room, the person telling the truth, the one most vulnerable, is the one with the most power.” To which Zadok added that “there is something about owning your story”, as well as about not fearing to communicate how difficult being a writer actually is…

Continue reading: LitNet

JLF

 

 

Rambling on about books: Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin

PersonalIt’s not often that you get to star in a Fairytale where you are The Princess and a real Hero comes to save you, but that’s the story of my Christmas Miracle.

To say that last year was rough for me would be a bit of an understatement. Yet being a glass-half-full kind of person, I will not deny that magic and beauty did not abandon me when all else seemed lost. Both continued flowing not only from the hearts of the amazing people who love me but also from complete strangers.

One of the most magical moments of last year was encountering Jack Reacher, my Hero. Falling in love – fictional or otherwise – is a beautiful gift. When that love allows you to reclaim something as precious as reading is to me, then you let your long braid hang out the window and hope that your Knight In Mattress-Pressed Armour holds on tight. Nearly twenty books later – i.e. approximately 2 000 000 words – he still does! (In my book, that’s a miracle in itself.) I am almost finished with Personal – the last of the existing Jack Reachers for me – trying to make it last by reading only for comfort when Dragon Insomnia rears her ugly head, but soon that adventure will also come to an end and I will have to join the rest of the Reacher Creatures who are counting the days until September when Night School, Reacher No. 21, is published. As a reader, I ask myself what are all the other months in the year for? But I suppose Lee Child should be allowed to sleep at some stage. And I need to get my act together and follow Jack’s example by simply sleeping when I want to. Perhaps I must see whether headbutting works on dragons…?

Reacher Said NothingHaving become one of Jack’s greatest fans, you can imagine my excitement when I found out about the publication of Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It appeared towards the end of last year and before it became available in South Africa (still waiting for it to arrive on our shores, so that I can share it with friends who love Jack as much as I do), I tweeted about it, saying something like, “What could possibly make me happy for Christmas?”, and adding, “Karina said nothing.” At that stage, I hadn’t clicked that Andy Martin and I were actually following each other on Twitter. My friend Helen Moffett, whom I’d infected with Reacher Fever, saw my tweet, and kindly offered to get me a copy of Reacher Said Nothing as at the time she was staying in the U.S. where the book was already in the bookshops. Lo and behold, Andy Martin saw our Twitter exchange and generously offered not only to send Helen a book for me, but to sign it, get Lee Child to sign it, and to add a second signed copy for her into the parcel. There are moments in life when it is easy to believe in fairytale miracles. And this was only the beginning!

Helen received the promised gifts, but resisted the temptation to read the book until her return to South Africa in mid-December when she delivered my copy to me and we began our Christmas tandem reading of Reacher Said Nothing. And what a joy it has been! The book is everything that a Reacher fan might have wished for, and more.

Reacher Said Nothing signedReacher Said Nothing is dedicated to “all those loyal readers of Lee Child who may have bought this book by mistake” and opens with two epigraphs: a quote from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, and one from one of my absolute favourites, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading in which the author writes about the different ways of reading – for the action and characters of the story, and for the detailed exploration of the texture of the narrative. Andy Martin’s ensuing analysis of Lee Child’s creative process is both.

Martin approached Child with the idea for the project in 2014, only days before 1 September when Child traditionally begins writing his next Reacher novel. It was to be the twentieth in the series, Make Me. In an email of 22 August, Martin proposed “a kind of literary criticism but in the moment, in real time, rather than picking it up afterwards…trying to capture the very moment of creation…you would have someone (i.e. me) looking over your shoulder as you are typing the words.” Five days before the first word of Make Me appeared on Child’s computer screen, he said yes. And off they went.

Writing a book as great as Reacher wasn’t easy.

Reacher Said Nothing takes us not only behind the scenes of Make Me’s genesis, but also to the day in 1994 when Child bought the paper and pencil with which he wrote Killing Floor, the first in the Reacher series, and explores much of the before and in-between from uncertain beginnings to stratospheric success. More importantly, it throws light on the magic that happens whenever any writer picks up a pen and begins dreaming. In this respect it is as much a book for readers as for writers. When writing, Child thinks like a reader; that’s his thing. But there is no magic formula. Only a lot of doubt, hard work, and hope. Trust. And when you are lucky, a good story to tell.

Andy Martin has a great story to tell. Reacher Said Nothing itself reads like a thriller. Like a master of the genre, Martin builds up the tension to the moment when Child sits down to write the first sentence. From there, he continues about the power of storytelling – the written word’s extraordinary potentials for both, writers and readers. After all, one particular book Child read as a kid led him to the life he has today. His own books have entertained millions of readers around the world for two decades. Even though I am not particularly fond of crime fiction or thrillers, Child’s books have changed my life, and I am grateful. It is all about the “[h]ope of a hero coming to save you. Hope of becoming a hero.”

“He would have been good around the campfire, Lee – he would definitely make you forget about the wolves or the saber-tooth”, Martin writes.

Yes. And about the pain of grief…
Make Me and Reacher's Rules
From the start when I began reading Killing Floor, I recognised and was captivated by a quality in the novels that intrigued me: an attention to word choice, syntax, punctuation – a kind of poetry that I now realise is fully conscious, intentional. “It all mattered, linguistically”, Martin writes. It’s about noticing things. And to see the process unfold is fascinating. Child writes only one draft, but the meticulousness with which he constructs the narrative allows him to.

I loved the humour of Reacher Said Nothing, the banter between the two authors, and Martin’s often hilarious commentary. An early scene:

“‘It’s reverse Freudian,’ Lee said. ‘You’re on the couch and you are analyzing me.’
I said nothing.
He flexed his fingers. ‘Naturally I’m going to start, like all good writers, by…checking my email!’”

There are numerous smileys in the margins of my copy of the book. I have scribbled, underlined, single and double, all over.

Martin and his subject emerge from Reacher Said Nothing as two people who are really passionate about what they are doing, are prepared to work their fingers to the bone in pursuit of their visions, and know how to have fun while doing it: “I live in a permanent daydream. I get paid to daydream narratives”, Child says.

It pleased me no end to discover that they both eat cheese and marmalade sandwiches. And to read about “the grape in the fridge”.

Lee Child’s relationship to his fictional hero is highly interesting. Anyone who has non-existent people – I am hesitant to write – living in their heads, knows what it’s like. Creation is a thrill. All of us, readers and writers alike, are junkies.

My final verdict on Reacher Said Nothing? Allow me to quote:

“‘Outstanding,’ said Lee. He pointed out that it was one of Reacher’s favorite words.”

Completely unrelated to me, the name ‘Karina’ is mentioned in Reacher Said Nothing. It made me smile. A Karina is rumoured to appear in Andy Martin’s next book, Reacher Said Something, but that’s another story about writing about writing about writing… Another daydream.
Karina in Reacher Said Nothing
In Make Me, Reacher is concussed. “He’s rambling on about books. A bit like you,” Child says to Martin when writing the scene.

And I am about to headbutt a dragon, and live happily ever after.

To be continued…

Why Jack?

jack_reacher_the_affair
It might have been the attitude with which he left the diner. Or his ice blue eyes. Perhaps the way he had his coffee.

He arrived, as always, unexpected. Without a clue how badly he was needed.

Nobody calls him Jack. Not even his mother. But that is who he is to me.

I reached out to Killing Floor at a time in my life when everything had become difficult, including breathing. And to stay alive, I need breathing as much as I need reading. It is a matter of survival, of being who I am. In the early stages of widowhood, I had to learn everything anew. How to breathe, to sleep, to eat. To smile. I picked up books in the hope of reclaiming a little bit of myself, a sense of stability, some solace, and an escape from my unbearable new reality, but every page was a struggle. Books which would have taken me two or three days to read, lasted for long agonising weeks. I was desperate. Until I picked up Jack Reacher on a roadside, typically hitchhiking out of town.

Lee Child’s hero is 21st-century’s Mr Darcy. “All men want to be like him and all women want to fuck him,” as Reacher was introduced to another fan who related the comment to me.

But why? Ungainly tall, mostly scruffy, socially awkward, a man of few words, he is not exactly the most attractive individual out there. But his allure is undisputed. Millions of fans around the world breathlessly awaiting the publication of the next instalment in the series every September can attest to the fact.

Jack Reacher grew up as a military brat, a third-culture kid, at home everywhere and nowhere. I relate to that. We have a coffee habit and a thing for numbers in common. When we know what we want, we go for it. We don’t do regrets.
Jack1
Jack went to West Point, served thirteen years in the military police and retired in the rank of Major. Since then, he roams the American landscape (with only occasional detours abroad), a folded toothbrush in his pocket and some cash in the bank, taking on odd jobs when necessary, stepping in whenever injustice crosses his path. He has a heart of gold and an admirable integrity. He never walks away from a situation before both are satisfied.
Jack2
Killing Floor (1997), the first in the now 20-titles strong series, is breathtakingly good. I was hooked after only a few pages. The exhilaration of devouring a book again at breakneck speed came with such a relief that I immediately bought the next one, and the next, and the next (once I even ventured out into a freezing and rainy Sunday night at quarter to nine and sped like a maniac through town to Exclusive Books before they closed because I’d just finished a Reacher novel and couldn’t bear to face a night without the following in my hands). By about the third or fourth, I was telling all my friends and all strangers willing to listen about my fascination (obsession or addiction might better describe it), and my gratitude (infinite). With the Reacher books, my hunger for all kinds of reading returned to me. Back in full force, it is the only thing from my past which has pulled through the greatest loss of my life unscathed.

With the exception of the latest, Make Me (which I simply could not resist), and Worth Dying For (which I turned to when I couldn’t find a copy of 61 Hours in time), I am reading the series in the sequence of publication. I intend to trace all the Jack Reacher short stories next. And then, the long wait until next September will set in. But like Jack, I am extremely patient.

It has been interesting to see how the series and the protagonist develop, responding to technological innovations (cell phones, ATMs, WWW) as well as changing socio-political realities (for example, Gone Tomorrow’s astute post-9/11 commentary), or ageing, human vulnerabilities. As the series progresses, chapters become shorter, cliff-hangers more irresistible. The writing is great. Just great. Child switches between first- and third-person, exploiting the diverse advantages both offer (although I do prefer the former). The dialogue is crisp and intelligent. The sense of humour deliciously dry. I enjoy the feminist touches: women are treated as equals in all respects. Jack has no ‘type’: the women he falls for come from different backgrounds, and are all strong, independent characters. Descriptive passages (landscape, weather, architecture, and especially the fight choreography) are intricately balanced between fast pace, slow motion, and, at times, pure poetry.

“It was raining and grey on the western peaks, and in the east the sun was slanting down through the edge of the clouds and gleaming off the tiny threads of snow in the high gullies.”
(The Visitor)

Child can capture the essence of a character in a few phrases.

“She looked like a solid, capable woman. She was about sixty years old, maybe more, white, blunt and square, with blond hair fading slowly to yellow and grey. Plenty of old German genes in there, or Scandinavian.” (Worth Dying For)

Consider a few of the opening lines:
“I was arrested in Eno’s diner.” (Killing Floor)
“The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot.” (Persuader)
“They found out about him in July and stayed angry all through August.” (Without Fail)
“Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.” (Make Me)

I can no longer count how many people I got into Jack. Only one person was disappointed with my recommendation. All others are as addicted as I am. It has been delightful to discover which of my friends had been fans for much longer than I. I keep getting messages of thanks. We all share stories of how Jack features in our lives. To me, he has become a trusted, reliable friend. I turn to him for adventure and smart entertainment – always a bloody-good read!
Jack3
Tense, entertaining, intriguing and never predictable, the Jack Reachers thrillers belong to the best of their kind.

And! The sex is good.

To find out more, join us for Cape Town’s celebration of Jack Reacher, and get Make Me at a 20% discount on the night!
Jack invite_new
IF IN DOUBT, READ REACHER!

The magic of Open Book 2015

Helen MacdonaldSo, who else has fallen in love with Helen Macdonald during Open Book 2015 in Cape Town? H is for Hawk has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve only decided to get the book when I heard about Macdonald’s generous endorsement of Stray: An Anthology of Animal Stories and Poems, edited by Diane Awerbuck and Helen Moffett (all royalties donated to TEARS Animal Rescue). How cool is that? Macdonald showed up at the Open Book Stray Readings and stole my heart reading the passage in which she first saw and fell for Mabel, the goshawk who helped her cope during her time of bereavement. At one of her other Open Book events, Macdonald spoke about how you can’t tame grief and how sometimes you have to do mad things in order to survive it.

This was my first Open Book since André’s death. Last year, we were still mourning Nadine Gordimer – together. We’d thought that we might celebrate the tenth anniversary of our first and only public interview (at Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg in 2004) with an event at the festival, but André was recovering from a knee operation and did not feel up to it. We did pay tribute to Nadine: with Margie Orford, Billy Kahora and Imraan Coovadia reading from her work and sharing stories about her influence on their lives and writing. André read from his own work at another event. We attended a few others, gathering memories which all returned to me this year when I was walking around The Fugard Theatre – alone.

At the opening ceremony, Mervyn Sloman said that every year Open Book is infused with magic. How true. “You’re a magician,” someone magical in my life said to me once. Perhaps I can conjure miracles when inspiration and desire strike, but I would like to think of myself as a magician of a different kind, one who can recognise the magic of the everyday. Even when suffocating in the clutches of grief.

with SallyMagic was all over The Book Lounge and The Fugard Theatre during Open Book this year. In the stories I read preparing for the festival (discovering my love for the work of Karen Joy Fowler, Melissa de Villiers and Andrey Kurkov in the process); in the warmth of a friend’s grip around my arms at the opening ceremony; in Karen Joy Fowler’s humour; in the melody Petina Gappah sang during her interview with Lauren Beukes; in a walk in the sun between events; in Stephen Segerman’s and Craig Bartholomew Strydom’s devotion to the Sugar Man story; in Claire Robertson’s mesmerising reading voice; in seeing the first cover designs for the special edition of Flame in the Snow; in Elleke Boehmer’s, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s and Craig Higginson’s inspiring eloquence; in a dim sum lunch, a bubbly and a Glenfiddich shared with friends; in Beverly Rycroft’s moving honesty; in a friend’s sparkling eyes which could have been clouded by loss but weren’t; in the hospitality of Fugard’s Iris who with her colleagues took such great care of all of us; and, last but not least, in S.J. Naudé’s careful thoughts about our craft – the magic and beauty of it all.

with KarenI loved chairing the three events I was asked to. I loved seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I loved interacting with writers whose work has meant so much to me over the years. I loved buying books and talking about literature with people who care. I loved being asked to sign my novel. I loved feeling that I was close to returning to my own creative writing. I loved every single memory from the past. I loved making new ones.

Thank you, Mervyn, Frankie and all the other magicians at The Book Lounge.

You can’t tame grief. Grief is this creature that moves into your home when death strikes. It lurks, ready to pounce at all times, especially when you least expect it. It never leaves again. You can’t tame it, but you can tame the way you react to it. And live. And experience joy again, in a story and in your life. And smile. And appreciate the magic. That moment.
with Andrey and Andrew

(Photos: Books Live and PEN SA)

Writers’ Other Lives

Books in Mafra
“We pay our writers to write,” my Norwegian friend Kristin said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and enlightened me about the Statens Kunstnerstipend, a “grant and guaranteed income programme with the objective to give creative and performing artists the opportunity to actively pursue their artistic career and to aid younger artists in establishing themselves as artists.” The programme offers diverse short and long-term grants as well as one-off bursaries for travel, study or material expenses for artists based in Norway. I was mostly fascinated by the “guaranteed income” support scheme: established artists can apply for this to provide them with the financial stability necessary for having “artistic enterprise as their primary form of occupation.” And the crux is that the recipients retain the right to this financial stability (paid monthly) until they reach retirement age.
Norwegians seem to take a much-quoted imperative to heart: “If you think culture is expensive, try ignorance!” The objective of their support programmes is to ensure that individual artists are able to contribute “to a diverse and creative wealth of art” in Norwegian society.

Listening to Kristin and reading about Statens Kunstnerstipend, I thought of the many writers I know in South Africa who struggle to make a living while pursuing their creative careers. For most, the situation is not desperate, but almost all pay their bills by other means than their creativity. I decided to approach a few of them to discuss the dynamics involved in being a writer and having an ordinary day job. Their valuable comments were often surprising and opened up many engaging ways of thinking about this topic.

We tend to think of creative people rushing home after long hours of suffering in their dreary jobs to lock themselves up in that special room of their own and devoting the rest of their waking hours to the Muse. What transpired from my interviewees is that, on the contrary, even though it is sometimes difficult to juggle their paid and creative work, they actually enjoy their money earning jobs just as much as they do their creative ones. Only the degrees vary.

Red InkAngela Makholwa is the author of the urban thriller Red Ink (2007) and the fresh-off-the-press chick-lit adventure The Thirtieth Candle. When she was fifteen, she decided “quite firmly” that one day she would publish a novel with “an authentically South African story”. Today, she is not quite sure anymore what that means, but she is definitely somebody who knows what she wants and how to get there. She runs Britespark Communications, a successful public relations and events management agency in Johannesburg, and feels fortunate to be “doing something that allows her creativity to flourish”.

Siphiwo Mahala is in a similar position. As Deputy Director for Books and Publishing at the Department of Arts and Culture, he works in his field, which gives him great satisfaction. He has always been passionate about reading and went on to study literature at university, finishing with an MA in African Literature at Wits. When he began publishing short stories, the overwhelming joy of “seeing his creative writing in print” inspired him to pursue this avenue further. He received the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award for his first novel, When a Man Cries (2007), an incisive portrayal of township life in South Africa. He says that his day job is “essentially the best one that any literary enthusiast could do in the public service”. It includes the promotion of the culture of reading and writing and developing a sustainable book industry that encourages equitable development of all local languages: “The job itself is not too far from my personal ambitions hence it is so fulfilling.” Only drawback: “When a job is a passion it means that when something goes wrong it doesn’t end in the office, you take it home and your family falls victim of a situation they didn’t cause.”

When a Man CriesInspired by their day jobs, Angela and Siphiwo find that they can well manage the two spheres in their lives, creativity and work. However, sacrifices have to be made, as Siphiwo notes, and one has to accord creativity the time and space it deserves. Only then can you also “expect your potential reader to skip their favourite soap opera, miss hot gossip, and let the pots burn while reading your book,” he says.
Would they give up their jobs to write fulltime if they could make a living out of it? An emphatic yes in both cases in spite of the aforesaid. For Angela writing is “an esoteric experience” and she “envies those who can afford to do it fulltime”. Siphiwo considers writing his “first love”, but he is too realistic about making money out of it: “For as long as the culture of reading remains as low as it is currently in the country, we are not likely to have more than 10% of our writers writing for a living.” He might not write for a living, but he insists he “lives for writing.” Financial support from the government for writers would be welcomed by both, although Angela feels that it could make her feel obliged to write “about issues of enormous political or social impact”, while Siphiwo believes that any such support could truly work only with “a national writers’ association firmly in place.”

In their considerations, both authors allude directly and indirectly to an aspect of state-sponsored support for artists about which Sven Eick, author of the socio-critical novel Apetown (2007), feels strongly: “I am firmly behind the notion that artists should challenge society rather than attempt to have society endorse their work.” He also believes “that the tax-paying public should have the right to choose whether or not they want to support writers, i.e. by buying their books, and that it’s not the government’s business to fund writers on their behalf.” Sven highlights the corruptive aspect of making money with creativity: “If writing novels were to become my only source of income, then inevitably I’d begin writing novels to make money, and that would represent a corruption of the creative process for me. I think a 50/50 balance would be about right.” By which he means that he’d also “always want to do something other than writing.”

ApetownSven was working on cruise lines when he realised that he was destined to become a writer. He wrote regular updates of his experiences which attracted “a small, but dedicated following.” He knew then that he should invest more “energy” into writing. Today, he earns his living as a copywriter for a network of sports websites: “I find many aspects of the sports I cover interesting. Sport is really about narratives, and despite being somewhat saturated by the amount of sport I cover I still find these narratives interesting and engaging.” He wants to continue with a similar but more creative line of work in the future: “I’m interested in the business aspect of the internet, how to keep content free and informative whilst still generating revenue using non-intrusive and targeted advertising. However, I’d obviously prefer to write more creative content than the grunt work that occupies a lot of my time.” And even though he would not accept financial help from the government as a writer, he wouldn’t mind making money out of books, so that he could continue to write at leisure. “I guess this is any writer’s dream,” he says. “I just don’t want to become a book-a-year Wilbur Smith type.” He also suggests that “instead of governments paying writers it might be useful to fund initiatives like the Boekehuis in Calvinia, or other low-cost writers’ retreats where we could go away to write at no expense.”

Other writers would endorse state-funded grants, but like Sven, they cannot imagine giving up their other occupations in order to write fulltime. Multitalented, with degrees in drama, journalism, and creative writing, Willemien Brümmer always knew that she wanted to be “An Artist”, but it took her a long time to find her individual path. She published her debut short-story collection, Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het (The Day I Let My Hair Down) in 2008. She actually writes for a living, writing feature articles for By, the Saturday supplement of Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad. Almost stumbling into journalism by accident, Willemien felt in the beginning that it was not creative enough; “it felt like stealing,” she remembers, and the wrongly perceived lack of creativity made her ashamed to call herself a “journalist”. She realised how inseparable journalism and creativity were only fairly recently. A few years ago, while completing her MA in Creative Writing, she wrote profiles of people “in the news” for Die Burger’s weekly column Oop Kaarte and recognised how similar the methods for writing articles and writing short stories were. The only difference is that “reality is often far more interesting than anything I can come up with,” she admits.

Die daagThis dimension of her work is decisive. She draws inspiration for her fiction from the stories she encounters in real life: “In my next book, fiction and journalism come together closely.” Still, writing fiction feels like “chocolates after dinner”, like “spoiling yourself,” says the Calvinist in her. As a perfectionist, Willemien invests a lot of time in each journalistic article, and despite having a lot of freedom in what she writes about, she sometimes feels torn between having to write about yet another subject and wanting to engross herself in the one she is currently working on. “It’s simply not enough to have only one week to write about somebody like Sindiwe Magona,” she laments about a recent assignment. “Nor is it easy to distance oneself from a story one is working on for a couple of months. It’s like falling in love; turning away can be a painful experience which also poses a lot of ethical questions. It’s not a natural situation; one has to become calculatedly distant and that’s not the kind of person I really am.” In this respect, Willemien would not hesitate to accept a grant to support her writing, journalistic and fictional: “It would allow me to concentrate, work in-depth, on both. In an ideal world I would write a book about each subject.”

Similarly, in an ideal world, the talents of Helen Moffett would not go to waste. “I wear many hats,” she writes on her blog. It would take an entire walk-in cupboard to display all, or at least some, of them: academic, copyeditor, mentor, teacher, cricket expert, and most recently the co-author of Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket (2008) and author of the sensual poetry collection Strange Fruit (2009). With four academic degrees and thirty years of experience, Helen does not have a regular income because her health dictates that she work as a freelancer. Academic editing for clients all over the world pays the bulk of her bills. There is also fiction editing, manuscript assessment, training (writing workshops for academics and NGOs), copywriting, ghost-writing, and occasionally a life-saving royalty cheque courtesy of one of her prescribed academic titles.

As for Willemien, creative writing feels to Helen like “sitting down to pudding”. She has her notebook always at hand, because “poetry happens anytime”, and she has enough notes for stories, novels non-fiction to keep her busy for the rest of her life, if she could only afford to give up her bill-paying activities, especially academic editing. “If I have any kind of break, I write like mad,” she says with a dreamy smile on her face, “and I eagerly accept commissions for fiction. This means I get a deadline and the piece must be finish on time, allowing the work equal value and importance. It always feels like a holiday.”

Strange FruitHaving constantly to worry about making a living, diminishes Helen’s potential as an academic as well as a creative fiction and non-fiction writer. She says an unambiguous yes to any grants for writers, however modest. Many wonderful opportunities slip by her because she cannot afford to invest her energies in them. In the last seven years, she has been trying to write a book on gender violence, a crucial topic in contemporary South Africa, and one that Helen is an expert on. “It’s tough to write; I’m only able to make any progress when I get a bit of funding for the project, but I still have some way to go.” Asked what she would do if she didn’t have to worry about the end of the month, she says she would write and devote more time to teaching: “I love teaching, but there is so little pay in it. Yet, I feel that it is my moral responsibility to transfer my skills. I just can’t lock up all that education and experience I’ve been fortunate to acquire over the years; not being able to pass it on is terrifying, but I have very little choice.” Even so, she insists on teaching a few courses a year, however poorly paid.

Drinking from a Dragon's WellIn comparison, Alex Smith fully intends to “make a living out of creative writing”, but she also wants to continue working in other areas as long as they do not sap her creativity. At present, she is a tutor for a novel writing course and a bookseller at Exclusive Books. “Working with books keeps me grounded. I’m a story addict and seeing the dozens of new titles arriving every day is heartening, but it also doesn’t allow for any illusions of grandness about writing. I feel writers and booksellers are readers’ servants.” Alex’s grandfather was a dedicated book collector, travelling to London to buy everything from antique tomes to rare first editions. She grew up surrounded by books and being around them makes her “immeasurably happy.” She has authored two herself, the novel Algeria’s Way (2007) and the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). A third, Four Drunk Beauties, will be published next year. Talented and prolific, with a Creative Writing MA under her belt, Alex wouldn’t say no to financial support for creativity, but doesn’t feel anybody owes her anything. Having studied business science, for some years Alex earned a good salary as a successful creative and marketing director of a textile company. “But I always wanted to be a storyteller,” she stresses. “The way things are now, I’m free to write, and the price is debt, but it is my choice to be in this position. My heart’s desire is to explore real and imagined places, and play with turning those into stories.” Knowing her literary output and determination, one cannot help but feel assured that she will succeed at what she does with such unmistakable passion.

One author who has managed to write himself out of dire poverty is the inspirational Zanozuko Mzamo, or Zyd, as many know him. He is the author of a motivational book called A Year of Staying Positive (2007). Zyd grew up in Johannesburg, went into exile in the 1970s, studied economics in Zambia and Bulgaria, and returned to South Africa in the early 1990s to work in commerce. He was deeply unhappy with what he was doing, struggled to keep working, and eventually ended up broke and homeless. It was devastating, but the experience set him out on a journey of “soul-searching and gift finding”. He asked himself, “Who am I? What am I here for?”

A Year of Staying PositiveTo find answers, he visited libraries, fell in love with self-help literature, and discovered writing as a way of encouraging people. In 2005, he applied for a job at the community newspaper City Vision and even without pay persisted in publishing a weekly motivational column that garnered him a lot of recognition. He received so much positive feedback from his readers that with the help of Colleen Higgs and the Centre of the Book, he decided to self-publish 52 of his articles in book form. “A couple of publishers turned me down, but I wouldn’t be deterred, not even by the initial scepticism about the book in my community.”

His persistence and initiative were recognised by Carl Wesselink of the Kuyasa CDM Project (developing energy efficient housing in Khayelitsha). Carl Wesselink saw that Zyd’s book could inspire people and offered to buy two thousand copies of it to distribute in Kuyasa as well as to pay Zyd’s salary for a year. Today, Zyd coaches people in personal development and self-improvement in Kuyasa. He considers reading an indispensable ingredient of both. His latest initiative is the Teach a Child to Read Campaign, and he has two more books on the way. He finds the idea of state-funded support for his writing intriguing, but is scared that it would make him lazy: “I like challenges,” he points out. “When I was about to drown, I found my calling,” he says, relaxed and confident. “I hope to sell a million copies of my books.” His mere presence inspires. It’s easy to believe that he will make it.

All seven authors I spoke to seem to have found the right niches for their many talents. Financial support for their creativity wouldn’t drastically change their lifestyles, just utilise their talents in more efficient and rewarding ways. They all seem to have discovered what Zyd writes in one of his essays: “Life is what you make it.”

Sources:
http://www.kunstnerstipend.no/english/

First published in WORDSETC 6 (September 2009).

Interviewing Helen Moffett at the South African Book Fair

Girl-wallpaperThis Sunday I will be interviewing one part of the Helena S. Paige trio, Helen Moffett, on books, bars, and boys at the South African Book Fair.

A girl walks into a bar (and talks books):

Sunday
15 June
2pm

Cape Town International Convention Centre
Literary Forum 2

Blog hopping with Alex and Sally

Devilskein and DearloveAlex and EliasMy dear friend and colleague writer, Alex Smith, invited me and and another friend, S.A. Partridge, to take over the blog hopping baton from her. She asked me to answer the following questions and to nominate two other women bloggers to continue with the chain. Before I respond, the nominations:

Page PluckerSophia from Bournemouth, UK, of the wonderful book reviewing blog: Page Plucker. Even though Sophia does not seem to be active right now, I hope she will resume her reviewing soon. It was her review of Philida which first attracted my attention to her blog.

Girl-wallpaperHelen MoffettHelen Moffett, a woman of many talents: editor, writer, cricket expert, poet, activist, cat-mother, and dear friend. She is the Helen in Helena S. Paige, one of the authors of the Girl series (I am currently reading Girl Walks into a Bar and Girl Walks into a Wedding which also has something to do with ‘hopping’ – between scenes of various erotic encounters…). Helen has also published one of my favourite volumes of poetry, Strange Fruit. Ever since I met her, I have also known that one day I am going to hold a novel in my hand that has only Helen’s name on the cover. I am looking forward to that moment very much.

THE BLOG HOPPING Q&A:

What am I working on?
I’m in the process of completing my next novel. My working title is Ordinary. It is a boy-meets-girl story for a young adult audience. I live near Bishops and I love going for walks on the school’s campus. The idea for the novel came to me during one of these walks. At first, I did not want to engage with it because I was in the middle of another novel. But Ordinary refused to go away, hijacking my creativity and keeping me awake at night, so I decided to give it a go. The other novel is on the backburner, but I hope to have both finished by the end of this year.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
In my work I skip between genres all the time, so I am going to concentrate only on Ordinary for this answer: I hope to be able to portray teenage sexuality in a way that many teenagers will be able to relate to. Something between the extremes of over-the-top promiscuity and total innocence. I’m frustrated by both ends of the spectrum when I read YA literature. I recently saw a film that made me think of what I am trying to achieve in my novel: The First Time with Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien. The film is like a teenage version of Before Sunrise. Great stuff! But there is a much darker dimension to my novel than to the film.

Britt Robertson and Dylan O'Brien in The First Time

Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien in The First Time


Why do I write what I do?
I cannot imagine a life without reading and writing. Sharing stories gives meaning to my existence.

How does my writing process work?
Stories come to me. Often the trigger is an image, a phrase, a mood. Sometimes it is everything at once and within seconds the whole story is fully fledged in my mind. But usually it takes a few days or even weeks to develop an idea. I cannot begin writing before I know roughly where I am heading. At the bottom of every story is something that I need to understand for myself, and the need or wish of sharing the journey to that understanding with others. Then it is all about finding the voice: who is telling the story and how. For Invisible Others I had to re-write the first 10 000 words of the novel because the first-person narrator I chose for it in the beginning wasn’t working. If necessary, I do research. It is an organic process. The writing takes me a long time, but I don’t mind. I’m extremely patient. I prefer to work in the afternoons, that is when I find myself to be most creative. It took me a long time to understand this, but I know that I can’t force anything when it comes to writing. Every story has its own rhythms. I have learned to respect that. All my creative work happens on the computer, but I do take notes on paper. My desk is drowning in them. I always share the first draft of anything I write with my husband first, then I pass it on to others for comments. The editor gets the third or fourth draft, and the process of revision starts all over. That is when the real writing begins for me.

* * *

For André J. Kershaw’s, my step-grandson’s, review of one of Sally’s novels, Dark Poppy’s Demise, click here.
For my review of Alex’s latest novel, Four Drunk Beauties, click here.

Fresh from Franschhoek: FLF 2014

Nadia and I at the FLF, photo by Jennifer Platt

Nadia and I at the FLF, photo by Jennifer Platt

Another FLF has come and gone. It was my first one as a participating author. My event with Nadia Davids was a real joy. Nadia is wonderfully articulate, kind, a pleasure to talk to, and more beautiful in real life than in any photograph. We discovered that on top of everything else we have in common, she left South Africa the year I first arrived here. We seem to be leading these uncanny parallel lives. I hope there will be many more points of contact. We read from our novels, spoke about writing place and history, being first-time novelists, the genres we write in, and our lives as writers and critics.
With Nadia
(Jennifer Platt from the Sunday Times twitted live from our event.)

The guest of honour at the FLF this year displayed her eloquence with light, shade and colour, bathing Franschhoek in its autumn glory. This is my favourite time of the year, and the beauty of autumn days like these past two fills me with a sense of wonder like nothing else. (There was this one autumn day in 1990 when my mother was hanging up laundry in our garden in Church Street in Warwick, NY, and I was just there, watching her, surrounded by the reds and browns and yellows of dying leaves, basking in the early morning light, the sun on my back, and silence between us when I thought, This is where love comes from, from the beauty of this world, it is nourished and sustained by it. Despite its craziness, the weekend reminded me of that day.)

André with Breyten Breytenbach at the FLF

André with Breyten Breytenbach at the FLF

Franschhoek had all its other treats ready for us. Books and book lovers everywhere. The programme offered tons of stimulating encounters. The food and the wines were divine, as always. Gable Manor, the guest house we stayed in, was charming and cosy. In the words of Kgebetli Moele, the author of Untitled, who left a comment in the guest book the day before us: “Perfection!”
All that was missing was the time and space to enjoy it all, but festivals are by nature hectic creatures, especially if one is participating, leaving you dazed and exhausted for days afterwards. There is something about a festival that often puts me on edge. It’s not the participating on stage or being part of an audience, but rather the in-between of awkwardness when these boundaries are blurred.

I attended four sessions and a show during the weekend. The highlight was the show: Pieter Dirk-Uys’s AND THEN THERE WAS MADIBA! I have heard him speak at FLF and other events before, seen him numerous times on TV, and have cooked with Evita for years now, but I had never attended one of his live performances. Now I know that by not making it to one earlier, for years I have been depriving myself of laughter and insight. I will not be so stupid in the future. Dirk-Uys as Madiba or Zuma or Verwoerd was a sight to behold. He was priceless as Winnie. And underneath all the laughter and fun was a profound message of hope and being all together in this beautiful mess we call the New South Africa. There is always hope for a nation capable of laughing at its follies.

The sessions I attended were truly inspiring, worth every cent:

WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHAT’S LITERATURE
Jenny Crwys-Williams talking to Karin Schimke, Lauren Beukes and Imraan Coovadia about the interactions between authors, critics and readers. I found the following comments interesting:

Lauren said that nowadays authors have to be more social and put themselves out there. As Jenny pointed out, Lauren is highly successful in exploiting social media for book-promotion and is one of the few young South African writers who can write full-time because of commercial success. Lauren said that as a social person she counts herself lucky to be able to engage in the world of social media and enjoy it. She also said that she was fortunate in finding an agent who understood her vision. Lauren helps to promote other local writers by hosting The Spark on her blog. When she started with it, the idea was to have a white and a black writer alternatingly, which has proven impossible. It seems that black writers were not responding as readily to her requests as white writers (I had a similar experience when compiling Touch: Stories of Contact for which I was subsequently criticised, but I did approach many more black writers than ended up in the anthology; for various reasons some chose not to participate in the project; both Lauren and Imraan donated their fantastic stories for which I am still very grateful). She also praised her South African editor, Helen Moffett, who allows her to perform all kinds of acrobatic stunts in the air because she knows who is on the ground waiting to catch her if anything goes wrong. (As part of the trio Helena S. Paige behind the Girl series, Helen is not only a successful novelist, but also a sensual poet and a nurturer of South African literary talent.)

FLF books1Karin conceded that as a journalist she understands that she should be participating in the world of social media, but admitted to finding it exhausting. She made a wonderfully vivid comparison between twitter and being at a crowded cocktail party where all one longs for is a breath of fresh air, but getting to the door proves to be nearly impossible. (I cannot say how grateful I was for that image – I am too frightened to even enter that room – I am the one outside in a quiet corner, sipping the champagne, and reading a book). Karin did not get out of her way to market her book of poetry Bare & Breaking when it was published in 2012. Like most writers, she would love to be able to write in her chosen genre fulltime, but has to make a living otherwise. She has no illusions about being able to live off writing poetry in South Africa, but that is not what it is all about for her. As a writer, one has to understand one’s motives for writing, she said.

Imraan spoke about the difficulty of talking about the reading experience which is deeply personal and not always easily shareable. I loved his comment about the fact that a change in taste is proof of a “living mind”. He also mentioned that for him there are different ways of being a writer in the world. He referred to Damon Galgut who is shy and simply gets on with his writing without unnecessarily putting himself out there. He also said something very interesting: Why spend so much time on publicity if the reason you write is to get rich? Instead, one could invest the time in becoming a billionaire by other, more straightforward ways. For him, writing is about the “book and you”.

(After the session I bought a copy of Karin’s Bare & Breaking. Some time ago, I published a review of four Modjaji poetry titles, three of which I found outstanding, one less so. The positive comments I made about the three books went largely unnoticed. For my comments about the fourth one I got lynched. The heated reaction of the publisher and friends of the author to my negative remarks about the fourth volume sadly put me off further Modjaji titles. This is how I missed out on Karin’s book until now. But some of her comments about the volume and her own approach to writing made me curious enough to ignore my decision to keep away from Modjaji titles. On Saturday evening, I read some of Karin’s poems in the luxurious bath of our room with a view at Gable Manor and the moment I got out, I made my husband read them. We were both bowled over by her “sound-shades”. I look forward to discovering the rest of the volume.)

Here is one gem:

“Morning Work” by Karin Schimke

We are cocked and angled
together like an African chair,
groin-hinged and eye-locked,
small-talking the sun up.
At the join we are genderless
until – out of two flat triangles –
something flowers at us,
blooms bright as though
our eyes are suns
and it must find light.
We give it light, and we laugh,
and then bury it, lids shut,
so it can seed again.

THE CONSIDERED CANON
Imraan Coovadia spoke to Nadia Davids and Michiel Heyns about the Western and the South African literary canons. All three are novelists, reviewers and academics.

FLF books 2Nadia said something very moving about academics having the “privilege of learning to read deeply”. She sees the text as a social document that operates in the world, not only as something read for pleasure. During our talk the day before, I asked her whether her own novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was an attempt to write a people into history who had been underrepresented until recently, and she said yes, admitting that it was done with the full awareness of the pitfall of representation. That was her reason for including minute details of everyday Muslim family life in her story of specific historical moments (time round forced removals from District Six, the state of emergency in1986 and the year 1993, just before the first democratic elections). Michiel mentioned that while reading Nadia’s novel he was aware of her having read Jane Austen. What a compliment for any writer!

Nadia, Imraan and Michiel at the FLF

Nadia, Imraan and Michiel at the FLF

Imraan, who is an excellent book reviewer with the kind of gutsy eloquence which I lack, quoted from the curious Wikipedia entry about South African literature which made most of the audience shudder. Hope was expressed that people engaged in writing these entries will amend it to reflect less biased views. Imraan asked the panellists to name their own personal South African canons. The Story of an African Farm was there for both Nadia and Michiel. Michiel mentioned Bosman, Paton, J.M. Coetzee (Age of Iron and Disgrace); Nadia added Woza Albert!, The Island, Gordimer and Brink. Outside of South Africa, Nadia made a special mention of Anna Karenina, and Michiel of Middlemarch. Harold Bloom’s conservative take on the Western canon was discussed. Imraan found that according to Google the most mentioned South African books are Long Walk to Freedom, Cry, the Beloved Country, Country of My Skull, Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, Spud, The Smell of Apples, The Power of One, and Master Harold and the Boys. He added Burger’s Daughter to the list himself, because “it should have been there.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Michiel Heyns is one of my favourite local book reviewers. (For five years, I’d had the honour of reviewing books alongside Imraan and Michiel for the Sunday Independent under the editorial guidance of Maureen Isaacson.) I always say that when I grow up I want to write reviews like his. I also had the privilege of working with him on Encounters with André Brink. Michiel is one of the few South African authors who see the entire world as their fictional playground, daring to write about topics other than local. I applaud him for that! Exciting news is that Michiel’s latest novel, A Sportful Malice, has been published last week. Talking about the Western canon, or any canon for that matter: the title derives from Shakespeare. Definitely something to look forward to! During the discussion, Michiel mentioned merit in relation to Nadia’s reference to the text as a social document. He spoke about literature and the canon as a “moral guide”, of showing you “how to live your life”. A test for any text is whether you are prepared to reread it, he said. I also think of it in terms of whether you want to share it with other people. The moment I find myself buying the same title over and over again for my friends, I know I have encountered a good book.

AFRICAN PASTORAL
DominiqueHarry Garuba talking to Dominique Botha, Claire Robertson, and André Brink about their latest novels, False River, The Spiral House, and Philida, respectively.

Claire and Dominique are first-time novelists. Like André, Dominique writes in both languages, Afrikaans and English. She recommended to everyone in the audience to write in Afrikaans if they could, as she was thrilled with the kind of enthusiasm and reception she encountered on the Afrikaans literary scene. Her novel is based on her family story and she has kept the names of her family members in the book: “It’s my take on something that may or may not have happened,” she said. She is of the opinion that “it is much better to write truth and call it fiction than to write fiction and call it truth”. (During questions from the audience, I asked about her decision to keep the real names for a fictionalised story. She said the names were beautiful and that changing them would not have removed the problematic aspect of the situation. The people involved would still know that they are being written about, only the larger public not. I’m not entirely convinced. In cases like this, I always try to imagine what it would be like for me: I would feel uncomfortable about my own brother writing a fictionalised version of me and using my name for it in a novel. It simply would feel that it wasn’t me. Why my name then? If he was writing a memoir or biography, and attempting to reconstruct memories in the process without intentionally fictionalising them, I would have no issue with him telling anything about the family past we share and using my name. In a novel based on fact, on the other hand, I feel that a name change signifies that fiction is part of the parcel, that the people are no longer the ones you knew in real life but partly imagined characters who might reflect on real people but are their own creatures. This is particularly true for me when one writes about people who are still alive and who owe their own versions of a story. I don’t want to pretend to have final answers to this complicated process, not even for my own work, but I think it is an aspect of writing that should be treated with utmost care.)

Claire, who had the rare experience in South Africa of having her book go beyond the first impression within a very short period of time, spoke about the idea of a farm novel which not only connects us to the land but to something much larger. After she’d finished her novel, it revealed to her that what she had been writing about is the “urge to perform acts of rescue”. While writing, whether as a novelist or a journalist, she looks for “tragic flaws”, not “wickedness”, in people, whether it is in the men of the Enlightenment or the architects of apartheid.

Tellingly, I forgot to note who during the discussion said that memory is a “very personal and unreliable thing”.

Victor and André

Victor and André

For André, whose novel Philida was born on and delves into the history of the nearby wine farm Solms-Delta, the act of writing begins when fact ends and imagination takes over. Through writing the story of Philida, he felt “enmeshed in my own life”. Philida could voice things which were difficult to communicate otherwise.
In the fourth event I attended (LITERARY DOYEN) Victor Dlamini, an insightful and patient interviewer (and one of my favourite photographers), spoke to André about his career, belonging, and Philida.

A note of thank you: Thank you Liz for all your kind words about my novel (you made my day!). Thank you to all for a weekend of literary delights!

Books sold (that I know of): 1 (thank you Nols – very kind of you! I hope you will enjoy it)
Books bought: 3
(I’m clearly not in it for the money.)