10 QUESTIONS: David Bristow

David Bristow, who served as Getaway magazine’s editor for 14 years, has authored more than 20 books, including Running Wild, an account of Zulu, the horse who became leader of a herd of zebras in the Tuli Block, Botswana.

David Bristow

Running Wild features a colourful cast. How did you identify and track down the humans that feature in the book so that you would be able to tell Zulu’s story?

I knew most of the characters before I started to research the book, having been to Mashatu [in the Tuli Block] numerous times before. I had even met Zulu on safari, although I did not really remember much about him from that time. The rest of the characters I had to track down. The research took the better part of a year.

What is the most inspiring thing for you about Zulu’s story?

Obviously the most WTF! aspect to the story is how was a domestic horse not only able to join a wild zebra herd, but become the alpha stallion. Answering the question was the crux of the whole book and most of my creative and research effort went into answering that question. I researched not only the actual life of Zulu, but everything I could about horses from Black Beauty to Exploring Equine Intelligence, Evolution and Behavior. Then I tried to work out what it is about horses that they become such almost magical creatures. For example, why will a horse obey its rider and charge into blasting canon fire without flinching? Or, carry a rider thousands of kilometres until it drops down dead? It is a mystery and I am still not a 100% sure if it’s because they are super sentient creatures, or really thick.

Can you tell us about the significance of the book’s setting, the Tuli Block?

I guess the story could have occurred anywhere, but it just happened that Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris set up shop there, and bought Zulu along with a few others from Onderstepoort as their start-up herd back in 1997. However, it had to be there or else the “great storm” would not have figured in the story, Zulu would not have escaped to “run wild” in the Tuli region and likely hitch up with the wild zebras there.

What are the most meaningful insights we can learn from Zulu and his life?

The most obvious one – did Zulu breed with the zebras – is one that will forever remain unanswered. When he was recaptured none of the humans took any notice of the zebra herd or checked to see if there were any offspring in attendance. Zebra males mating with horse and donkey females is known to be possible, but has always bred a sterile zonkey or zorse. But a male horse and female zebra mating, or at least producing offspring, is unknown. Not even the boffs at the Equine Research Centre at Onderstepoort could shed light on that one.

Then there is the matter of what knowledge Zulu brought back with him. He returned a horse extremely wise in the ways of the bush and survival. He would find predators in just about every ride. More than once he saved his rider from close encounters with elephants and lions, which any other horse would not have been able to do. Then there is the whole matter of African horse sickness and what Zulu taught his owners about its treatment. This knowledge is still being used to treat safari horses.

Are there any other examples of horses integrating with another species as Zulu did?

No, not so far as I know. Firstly, horses are extremely skittish animals; most domestic horses die from colic, which is essentially a nervous disposition. Then there is the small matter of horse meat: can you image how all the predators of the African bush would have loved to get a bite of that! How was it that Zulu was not eaten is amazing. In captivity horses can and will bond with other animals, but out there in the bush it’s every horse for itself.

If you could ask Zulu one question, what would it be?

Did any of the females in your zebra harem bear your offspring?

What was the most difficult aspect of working on this book?

To date I have written more than 20 books and I have always maintained that writing is the easy part, just like making bricks or bread. It’s selling them that is hard. I got 174 rejections from agents and publishes around the world before I got the “yes” from Jacana Media in Johannesburg. Even so, the research took a year as I mentioned, writing took another year, then a year to find a publisher and finally a fourth during which there were three rewrites.

What makes horses such compelling animals — both as companions to humans and as figures in literature?

Interesting that, and there is no easy answer. That is the question which is explored in the play Equus: why did a teenage boy stab out the eyes of several horses one night in the stable where he worked (true story)? I think mostly it has to do with horse anatomy. Horses are extremely powerful animals and when we interact with them, and ride them, this power is evident and can be overwhelming. They can run further than any other animal. They can jump astonishing heights. Most of these characteristics are derived from their unique back leg geometry; they have very light spring-loaded lower legs powered by extremely large buttock and thigh muscles which makes equids unique in the animal world. But the matter of the connection between humans and horses, that’s one I’m still working on. Best you ask a teenage girl.

To what do you attribute the human fascination with “being wild”?

We’ve spent the better part of the past 10 000 years or so trying to tame nature in order that we might lead more secure, predictable and increasingly comfortable lives. Suddenly in the past hundred years or less, taming has turned to destroying in our unrelenting urge for material comforts. It was not only Bob Dylan who said, but I remember he said it so well, that “I never knew what I had, till I threw it all away.” We’re a funny animal, in the worst way.

What is the next story you will tell?

No food for lazy boy! My next book is already on the store shelves. It’s called The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep and it contains 20 stories about some of the most curious characters I could find in South African history. And I’m working on the one after that, about 20 amazing places in South Africa, a kind of adventurer’s bucket list. That will be out around this time next year, and I’m already planning the two after that. I guess you could say I’ve got the writing bug. And lucky for me I finally found a publisher who encourages me to scratch that itch.

Running Wild is published by Jacana Media.

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Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.

WORK/LIFE: Eben Venter

Eben Venter

Eben Venter grew up on a sheep farm in Eastern Cape, South Africa. After studying philosophy at university he migrated to Australia in 1986 when a State of Emergency was declared. His novels, which have appeared in both English and Afrikaans, include Santa Gamka (which won the W.A. Hofmeyr prize, the M-Net and the ATKV prize), Wolf, Wolf and Trencherman. His next English-language title, Green as the Sky is Blue will be published by Umuzi in August.

What does “writing” mean?

I have notes for a short story based on a Congolese refugee called Emmanuel (whom I’ve met in real life). Emmanuel has a problem with his eyes. They close involuntarily: he often can’t see what he’s supposed to. He is also shy, but an accomplished artist of line drawings.

Weeks before he has to see a specialist, he makes meticulous drawings of his eye condition. He’ll be too shy to explain what’s going on and his eyes might shut suddenly, so this is his solution. These are my notes so far. Sometimes during the night I wake up and continue the story. In fact, I’ve just about finished the story in my head. However, all of this, the notes and thoughts, do not add up to a written story.

Only once I’ve sat down and activate my imagination – the action of forming mental images, and writing them down – will the words follow on one another and guide my sentences from one to the next. Only in the actual process of writing will the building blocks of the story – those notes and thoughts – at last become story.

Which book changed your life?

This question does not apply to me. I can only say the following: during and after my brother’s death Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying gave me insight into the process of dying. I love Remedios the Beauty whose beauty was so powerful that one day, while hanging out the sheets in the wind, she ascended into heaven – from Gabriel Garcia Marques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I like the Afrikaans writer Karel Schoeman’s meandering, dream-like sentences. J.M. Coetzee’s clear, precise use of the English language I admire, and how, in spite of the clarity, his stories always allude to something other than what’s on the page. I also love W.G. Sebald’s lateral jumps: from the eyes of owls in the Antwerp Zoo to the penetrating gaze of philosophers. That is the selection I’ll make for now.

Your favourite fictional character?

As a child I liked Noddy. But fascination with a fictional character changed as my reading matured. If I’m enveloped by the story and the way it’s told, the character at the time becomes my favourite. However, I am attracted to characters whose life and times seem absurd, as if they float one inch above the real world. Many Eastern European novelists created these sort of characters, maybe they would’ve headed for a gulag if they wrote otherwise. There is the young first person narrator in Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and the wastepaper collector of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. There is Coetzee’s Michael K who silently subverts the system, and that obstreperous voice of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield I will not forget.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a sixteen-part love story about a woman who migrates from Cape Town to Australia’s Gold Coast; it’s for a woman’s magazine called Vrouekeur. I am also making lots of notes on the different voices in, and doing research for, my new novel. More I cannot say otherwise my creative process becomes diluted. For sure it’ll only become a story once I start writing uninterruptedly.

Describe your workspace.

My study faces north-east with morning light pouring into the room. My desk is a broad top with six drawers, probably originating from an office in the old SAR [South African Republic]. The shelves in this room hold my collection of Afrikaans books, my dictionaries, philosophy texts and my own books: the eleven works of fiction I’ve produced, and the translations works. I keep these in sight to remind and encourage me of the task ahead: a story with a different approach, hopefully changing the form of the novel, and on a subject I haven’t tackled before. I am happy to have a working room like this.

Eben Venter's study.

The most important instrument you use?

My eleven-inch MacBook Pro, my current notebook with its HB Staedtler pencil, my set of two Shorter Oxfords, the HAT [verklarende handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse taal], my Latin and Greek dictionaries, and the two thesauruses in English and Afrikaans.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The golden writing period is that three to four hours early in the morning. If I miss that time, I miss out on delivering my creative piece for the day. Very little alcohol, no dagga and early to bed are all pre-conditions of using the golden hours productively.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I don’t get stuck while I’m in the writing process. Even if I do write nonsense, it still exists as an amorphous creation from which I can make sense the following day. Stuck means not opening up where I had left my creative work the day before. Worse is not even making a single note in my current notebook.

How do you relax?

I take our whippet and kelpie to the nearest beach for a run and a swim. When the monkey mind takes over, the Buddhists’ term for the distracted, jumping all over the place mind state, I opt for compulsory relaxation. That consists of an hour work-out with my trainer at the gymnasium. As I cannot afford to pay in full, I barter by cooking him supper twice a week.

How has living outside of SA influenced the way you write about the country? 

In 2009 my novel Santa Gamka was published, later to become a successful stage play too. The story is about a young lad operating as a sex worker in a small Karoo town. All my notes, written and photographic ones, were made while I lived in Prince Albert in the Great Karoo. However the book I wrote here on the north eastern coast of New South Wales, Australia. The vast distance between myself and the location of the story made me into homo ludens, I could write playfully, say whatever I wished through the character of Lucky.  And I did. The distance also gives me that sudden, fresh appreciation of a word, an expression or the name of a small Karoo bossie – as if I’m registering the beauty and significance of these words for the first time.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Growing up on an Eastern Cape farm, privileged, the system semi-feudal (you have to insert these qualifiers now or you’re dead meat), influenced the story-lines of my earlier work (it boils down to what you do with your privilege, doesn’t it?). My Afrikaans teacher at Grey College was a worldly pedagogue, my philosophy lecturers, first at Potchefstroom, then at UJ, were all brilliant: What do you mean when you say that? And: You can’t just use that term without properly defining it. Other than that, I was an auto-didact: I shaped my use of language and my appreciation of literature by constantly reading.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I once had an offer from the University of the North-West to take up a junior lectureship in philosophy. I turned it down. Never followed the straight and narrow which would’ve meant a steady salary and a pension. No-one told me I’d made a good choice. Quite the opposite.

I smoked hashish in an alley off the Ramblas and I looked at male models in Interview magazine and read Genet which kind of shocked me at the time. In 1986 when the State of Emergency was declared in South Africa I migrated. No one told me to do this. I just did it. And kept on writing.

Your favourite ritual?

Sometime ago I made ceviche for the first time – the Peruvian way of marinating raw white fish. It turned out beautifully. That is a ritual. There are other rituals described in my new novel, Green as the Sky is Blue, that I actively participated in and made notes of afterwards. Those rituals have enriched my life. There are simpler ones, like tickling a dog’s ear and drinking a lovely cup of tea. And reading.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Without any doubt it is persisting with the act of writing, as I’ve tried to explain above. Week after week, one month to the next, until you have completed your first draft. Then comes the meticulous revising. It could take up to two years.  If I remember correctly James Joyce sometimes spent two weeks on a single sentence, and fourteen years on Ulysses.

The most pleasurable part of the novel-writing process?

A single sentence, pared down, saying exactly what I had intended it too, can bring pleasure. When I reach the seventh draft of a novel I become happy too.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

The fourth of the seven deadly sins, sloth. On the other hand, I don’t want to apply such Calvinistic rigour to my life and work. That British nurse who recorded the top five dying wishes of people, noted that they regretted working so hard or not keeping in touch with their friends, or not simply hanging out.

What are you afraid of?

During the time of Cyclone Debbie our house, a Queenslander high on stilts, almost flooded. I had to take a Valium. Once the whippet did her business next to a baseball field and I refused to pick it up because the field manager told me to. He then started walking straight at me: the embodiment of the menacing male oppressor that has done so much damage through the ages – that scared me. And the dogs.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

You have to read widely in order to know what has been written and what’s happening on the writing scene now.

Secondly: you have to be prepared to write long hours on your own. Then be able to endure (constructive) criticism of your work.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Recently I received an email form J.M. Coetzee after he had read my last novel, Groen soos die Hemel daarbo. I can’t say what was in it for privacy reasons, but his words will make me happy for years to come.

Author photograph by Stephen Fourie.

THE BOOKSELLER: André Sales – Clarke’s Bookshop

André Sales

Situated on Cape Town’s bustling Long Street, Clarke’s Bookshop has a wide range of new and used titles (including a particularly fabulous selection of Africana). We chat to André Sales who has been selling books there since 2003.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

The book that I’ve just read which I recommend to everyone is Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang. It’s the sort of book I always enjoy reading, a personal history which manages to broaden my understanding of our country’s past. I particularly like the chapters describing the optimism of the early days of democracy, and later her experience of trying to come to terms with her place in middle-class suburban Johannesburg. It’s an honest perspective of a time in our country which I think we are still trying to understand.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

I think shoplifters have a wide range of interests just like customers who buy books. We did a stock check recently and couldn’t really pinpoint a genre of missing books.

The biggest seller of the past year?

The easy answer to this is The President’s Keepers – it was impossible to keep this book in stock for the first couple of months. But a book which we have actually sold more of is Collective Amnesia, a first poetry collection by Koleka Putuma and published by Uhlanga Press.

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

I’ve made it a rule not to read underwhelming books. If a book doesn’t catch me I have no shame in putting it down and forgetting about it. There are so many amazing books that I don’t have time to read, so why waste time on reading a book that isn’t?

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Country of my Skullby Antjie Krog. We have a lot of tourists who come into the shop asking for a book about the history of apartheid, and I always suggest this. It gives a very visceral account of the atrocities of apartheid through the testimonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but Krog also engages deeply with her own identity as white and Afrikaans in post-apartheid South Africa. She also writes beautifully. I would recommend it to anyone who needs an understanding of how apartheid affected so many lives on a personal level.

The last thing you read that made you cry? 

Probably Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel places you very closely within the human experience of war, and it is devastating.

Is there a book you’d never sell?

I think the one book that I would never ever sell is Mein Kampf. I feel uneasy whenever someone even asks for it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

The thing that most people get surprised by is how much space we have behind the scenes. We send a lot of books to customers overseas, so the processing of that all happens behind closed doors. We also have a little garden upstairs at the back which is one of my favourite places to take time out and think.

The three writers you admire the most?  

Sindiwe Magona, who fought hard for her own education and is still working hard for the education others.

Thando Mgqolozana, for not just complaining at the Franschoek Literary Festival but actually doing something about it by starting the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto and Binyavanga Wainaina, for establishing Kwani? and creating a platform for new authors to get their work out.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

It’s boring to go into too much detail, but the short answer is cash flow, and admin.

Describe your archetypal customer. 

We have such a huge range of customers. Being on Long Street means we have a lot of tourists coming into our shop, but we’re also just around the corner from the court, so we have lawyers who regularly spend their breaks browsing the shelves. Because of our focus on South African books we have a lot of younger customers who are interested in South African and African fiction, as well as academics who find books on very specific subjects. We also have occasional politicians visiting the shop who like to browse both the recent political non-fiction as well as the second hand and out of print South African books.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The book as an object is one of my favourite things in the world. When I first started working with the antiquarian and collectible books in the shop I had to catalogue all the private press publications that we had which really made me fall in love with the processes involved in creating a book. Letter-printed pages make me happy every time I feel them. A couple of years ago I catalogued an old customer’s library of mostly collectible Africana which was also incredibly satisfying.

I get to open the front door of the shop each morning and be surrounded by books in every room for an entire day, every day. I can’t think of a better way to spend my working life.

And the worst part?

I’ve been trying to answer this all day, but it seems I reeeeally like my job.

WORK/LIFE: Paul Mendelson

The British author of four crime novels chats to us about his writing life.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing is the brushstrokes of a piece of art. I am trying to create something which will transport my audience into a different world for a period of time, hopefully entertain and absorb them, perhaps excite, frighten or stimulate them.

If you meet me, you might well say that I am outgoing, gregarious and self-confident, but this is only half of my character. Writing allows the introverted, privacy-seeking, introspective side of me to tell stories.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a psychological crime novel set in the UK, having spent the last few years solely writing about South Africa. It features a new set of characters and a brand-new protagonist which, having written four books in a series (to which I will return) is liberating and exciting, if somewhat daunting.

After focussing on intense heat, water shortage, political turmoil and blinding sun, it is strange to be back in the dark, damp, dank world of England in the winter. South Africans love cloud, precipitation, dark – I hate all those things. However, the English countryside is an interesting setting and my characters also spend time in London around Christmas, with all its desperate attempts to look festive and bright. I find it all dismal, and therefore an ideal world for my disparate collection of witnesses, suspects and villains to inhabit.

Describe your workspace.

In London, a tiny spare-room study at the back of my house; in Cape Town the sofa in a beautiful little house, half way up the slopes of Table Mountain, with views for miles. Perhaps you can guess which I find the more inspiring place to work? However, for non-fiction writing which, for me, is just a matter of getting my head down and putting in the hours, London works really well. For creative writing, there are just too many distractions, as well as being under the flight path into Heathrow, surrounded by traffic, and coping with dusk at 3.30pm.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I don’t have a particular time of day although, in the past, it has certainly been after 9pm and into the early hours. If I have prepared myself the day before, I can sit down after a hurried breakfast and the words come. Again, there is a big difference between non-fiction – which just requires discipline and application – and creative writing for which I have to be in the right mood, with my ideas in order, my mind undisturbed by the pressures of the real word, and wholly absorbed in the world I am trying to create.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I try to work on non-fiction instead, or do something practical or physical. I have suffered from chronic depression my entire life and, for me, even tiny incremental achievements, which I can mark off in my mind, help to dissolve the threatening black wave that is rolling towards me. I treat being stuck with my writing in the same way. I try to achieve something, anything, and build from there.

I used to be very rigid when writing, and not allow myself to jump ahead or re-visit work until I had completed a draft. I find that a more relaxed approach seems to be working better now, so if I can’t move forward, I might review scenes I have written earlier and try to enrich the start of the novel with the legend of the character as he, or she, has developed in my mind throughout the process.

How do you relax?

With great difficulty. Half my brain is creative; half logical, deductive and never resting. So, I rarely relax, but instead seek to distract myself as much as possible. I love reading, movies, theatre, playing golf, dog-walking, even driving. In South Africa, I treat myself to a weekly massage. Even then, my body may be de-stressing, but my mind is racing

With so many non-fiction books under your belt, what inspired the move into crime fiction? 

I have always loved crime fiction, especially that of James Elroy, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais; Mark Billingham, David Peace, Val McDermid, so I have been inspired by reading them. The playwright, Sir David Hare, wrote that the form of a crime novel is a reassuring one: both author and reader know what, ultimately, they are going to get. Simply, however, I write books that I think I would enjoy to read, and I hope that others enjoy them too.

What has inspired you to set your novels in South Africa?

South Africa is an amazing setting for a crime novel because of its turbulent political past, and present, it’s recent history, the underlying crime rate, the proximity of rich and very poor. It also helps enormously to love the place you are writing about – it certainly makes it a hugely pleasurable experience for me – so there is the contrast between the Cape Town which visitors see, and some residents inhabit, and the dark underbelly which every city hides. Here, in Cape Town, however, the contrast is so great, because the city is so beautiful, the people so friendly and warm, to stay there so uplifting and inspiring. To contract with this, just read Jacques Pauw’s ‘The President’s Keepers’ to see the depths to which certain echelons of society have sunk.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

William Goldman writes in his seminal work, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ that no matter how diamond-bright your ideas may be in your head, when you try to put them on the page they become earthbound. This may not be advice, but it is a warning, and it is a battle which, I guess, all writers face.

My ‘literary’ editor, Martin Fletcher, advised me with my first novel – and I have tried to remember this advice from then on – that characters must live not simply within the confines of the novel, but have lives before it, and at least a hint of how their lives might be afterwards. For characters to be believable, to absorb and engage the reader, we have to try to make these two-dimensional beings seem truly alive, and that is what I strive to do.

Actually, I have thought of the best piece of advice: Never tell anyone the story you are writing. Once you do that, the urge to tell it on the page dissipates. Keep it to yourself, and reveal only when you are ready.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

I am sure that authors all have different aspects of the craft which they find hard. For me, it is maintaining interest in the story once I have written it, re-written it, honed it and submitted it. I react to the comments and observations my editors give me. This is all fine. Then, proof readers and copy editors ask me questions. At this point, I’m thinking about the next story, full of excitement and optimism, and I just wish they’d leave me alone. However, I am lucky to have very patient proof and copy editors, and eventually they get out of me what they need to do their jobs.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

First and foremost: Write. All the time. Don’t agonise, or procrastinate, or make excuses, just write. One line, one paragraph, a scene, a chapter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s rubbish or genius, one way or another, it will help you to develop as a writer. You may want to forget it, or you may use as the first line of your masterpiece. Just write.

Next, read. It doesn’t matter what, although I think it should be writing of the genre that you want to inhabit. Learn what you enjoy and try to analyse how your favourite authors achieve that effect. Then, try to emulate them.

Don’t fixate on others reading what you’ve written. If you like it, if you think it has merit, that’s wonderful. However, maybe wait six months or a year after finishing it before deciding your opinion on it.

Finally, don’t expect to make much money: do it because you love it.

Mendelson’s latest book, Apostle Lodge, is published by Constable.

WORK/LIFE: S.A. Partridge

S.A. Partridge is a three-time winner of the M.E.R Prize for Youth Fiction and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Short Story Prize. Mine, her fifth novel, has just been published by Human & Rousseau.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing means making sense of my life and my perception of myself and the world around me. All writers try to capture that, I think, from the humble slice-of-life stories to the hard-boiled crime thrillers. Every story allows us to look deeper, think differently and understand more about the world.

Which book changed your life?

This is a very difficult question to answer as there is no one book from my childhood that stands out. I read everything. Our house was filled with books. My parents read. We visited the library weekly. So, growing up I was always surrounded by books. My tastes also varied widely, so in one month I could read anything from Stephen King, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett to Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Thomas Hardy.

Your favourite fictional character?

This is another tough one. There are so many – mostly detectives, like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. I like strong, memorable, charismatic characters with a bit of an eccentricity. Even Christie’s Ariadne Oliver counts among my favourites for her absent-mindedness and peculiar obsession with apples. I lean towards characters that stand out, like Dracula.

What are you working on at the moment?

Two different projects, which is not unusual for me. So, I’ve got a crime novel and a young adult novel going at the moment.

Describe your workspace.

I have a desk, covered in the usual writer paraphernalia. Sadly, I don’t spend a lot of time there and mostly write on the couch.

The most important instrument you use?

My first instinct was to say thesaurus.com but it’s actually a ruled notebook, for capturing images and snatches of conversation as well as the occasional doodle. I carry it with me everywhere, along with plenty of spare pens.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning, from around seven to midday. I like starting the day with a clean slate and devoting that time to writing. The afternoon is for everything else.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I read or walk around beautiful places with some sort of historical significance – the harbour, Simonstown, Babylonstoren. I love the “old town” feel of Cape Town and actively seek out the bygone buildings. It inspires me and gets me into that creative state of mind.

How do you relax?

I read or cook. I love preparing a meal at the end of the day with a glass of wine. It’s a nice way to end off the work day.

Who and what has influenced your work?

I was a prolific reader as a child, so I was constantly surrounded by words. But if I had to choose I would say Stephen King’s early work really inspired me to write my own stories. I devoured his books as a child. It was wonderful to discover that stories could be simple things, and that you could just put pen to paper and tell a story from start to finish and not worry about all the complicated rules in-between.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Three things actually. Up the ante wherever you can. Show don’t tell. Imagine you’re writing a movie script. All three tie in together beautifully as they all require you to bring the characters to life, to add an explosive quality and to raise the stakes at every opportunity. It makes for very vivid prose.

Your favourite ritual?
When I’m lucky enough to have full day in front of me to write, I like to ensure the room is clean, I’ve had a small meal and a coffee, and that my diary is completely free. I love the natural light in my apartment. I’m fortunate to have a huge arched window that bathes every corner in wonderful natural light. So, when its quiet, and the light is good, there is nothing better than disappearing into a manuscript.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding quality time to write. By quality time I mean long, uninterrupted stretches – a rarity for me. I work in a busy office as a copywriter which takes up my whole week. Weekends are for admin and chores and seeing friends. It becomes a treasure hunt for snatches of time.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Laziness.

What are you afraid of?

Failing myself and my family. That after years of striving and selfishly pursuing my dream to write it all comes to nothing and I have to start over from the beginning.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Give in to your ambition. Believe in your talent. Know that it’s a hard road full of rejection and disappointment but all that matters is the art – whether you make it or not.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Not giving up.

10 QUESTIONS: Nancy Richards

Nancy Richards, executive director of Woman Zone, tells us about The Woman’s Library Cape Town which the NGO launched in 2015.

Firstly — why a Women’s Library?

Why not? Women’s Marches, Men’s Clubs… it’s a focus. But it’s more than a Women’s Library: it’s a hub – a meeting, workshopping, sharing space. And just to be clear, at this stage, it’s a reference not a lending library.

How did it come about, and who was involved in getting it up and running?

Working on a woman’s magazine and a woman’s radio show for many years, as a journalist (and founder of Woman Zone), I acquired a huge amount of books relating to women. As a collection and a resource, they cried out for a room of their own. The Woman Zone team – whose goal is to unite the women of Cape Town and celebrate their achievements – looked long and hard for such a space. Eventually, after partnering with Artscape and their Women’s Humanity Festival, CEO Marlene le Roux kindly offered us the cube-shaped office we occupy now, conveniently next to the Box Office on the ground floor of the theatre complex.

How many books are there and where were they sourced from?

We’ve stopped counting, but well over 1000 and the figure rises. So they’ve come from my original original collection, from donations, and authors who have had launches at the Library. Initially we had no shelves – just lots of boxes and a small mobile tin unit, courtesy Qualibooks which held 100 or so volumes, and at the launch guests sat on the floor! When the Cape Town World Design capital team broke up their office space at the end of 2014, they donated us some furniture and Steven Harris of Furnspace donated us book shelves. We’ve since bought more – but still more are needed (if you have any to spare).

What kind of books have been selected and what were the reasons for their selection.

Like many of the best things in life, they were less selected than happened. As mentioned above, they are the fruit of collections and donations. Having said that, there are some we have declined, as you can imagine. What kind of books? Hmm, how do we single any out without showing favouritism? Well, there are books that can help – on law, self-assertion, rape, divorce, cooking etc. Novels that can inspire, transport, delight, reveal, charm, make you understand or angry. A very good selection from most of South Africa’s best known women writers – Antjie Krog, Matshilo Motsei, Rehana Roussow, Ingrid Jonker, Angela Makholwa etc etc – as we speak, the very latest addition is Always Another Country: memoir of exile and home by Sisonke Msimang. International authors are also well represented.  But special are the ones that have been donated by the authors – sometimes self-published. Like Surviving Lavender Hill – a collection of personal stories from the women living there and facilitated by the New World Foundation. And although we don’t have a hard copy, Frances Brown from Atlantis came in recently and brought her Afrikaans science fiction novel on a flash stick, motivational speaker Makini Smith from the US came to launch her book and leave behind copies and  another woman popped in to drop off her sister’s book written in isiXhosa… the list goes on. Modestly, might we add that you can also buy here a copy of our own book, Being a woman in Cape Town: Telling your story (Cover2Cover).

What kind of events are hosted in the space?

Glad you asked that question – because for the last year we’ve been hosting a series of Story Cafés. It’s a blanket term, coined by chief librarian Beryl Eichenberger, to cover book launches, panel discussions, story sharing, informal gatherings, writing and poetry workshops, tributes, book clubs, presentations etc. They’ve been very successful and we look forward to more. Our database and Facebook page keep everyone informed about what’s upcoming and the press have been good about putting out word.

Woman Zone is also working on the Everywoman Project – a collaborative textile artwork made out of fabric yo-yos. Yo-yo making workshops have been happening at the Library and elsewhere.

A poetry workshop
Jolyn Philips and Karin Schimke run a poetry workshop.

What have been some of the main challenges in getting the Library operational?

A: The challenges have been outweighed by the joy of having a home for the Library, especially at buzzing and creative Artscape. But it took a while – for a couple of years the books languished in plastic bags in a friend’s garage. Until we were donated the shelves, they burst out of boxes and the mobile tin unit – and even now they’re doubling up on shelves like refugees in an overcrowded tent. A big challenge was cataloguing them. Then a pair of winged libris angels came  along – Anna van der Riet and partner Ilse Arends rallied a team of retired librarians who corralled the titles into the Dewey system, dotted and stamped every one and add to the list with every fresh intake.  Phewy, thanka guys. Biggest challenge however is woman-power. Volunteers open up from 12-2 Thursdays and Fridays – for Story Cafes and other events or ‘by appointment’. Monday and Wednesdays mornings the Library is used for beauty therapy workshops. More volunteers mean more opening hours – and maybe, one day, lending facilities.

What has been the most rewarding moment of working on it?

Having people pop in and discover us. Hosting a Story Café workshop once, a woman got up and said ‘I’m so glad I bothered to get out of bed and come here today, it’s changed my life.’ I mean…!

Describe the library’s typical user.

Women of all ages, colours, backgrounds, beliefs and persuasions have been in an out of our Library. It kind of validates the Woman Zone mandate which is officially to “bring together all women from the Mother City’s cultural kaleidoscope. To get to know one another better, to share stories and experiences, work together, learn from each other – and above all to highlight and promote their past, present and future achievements, not their victimhood. Cape Town’s women are for unity.”

Are there enough women writers in SA? And if not, how can we change this?

How many is enough? Who knows. What we do know is not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.

What’s your vision for the Library’s future?

To take the concept of sharing stories, spoken or in print,  into other communities around Cape Town. We call it “sistering”, a female form of “partnering”. We did it in 2014 – every month for the year we went to a different community from Muizenberg to Nyanga, Woodstock to Kuils River and in each,  listened to one woman tell her story. We recorded and transcribed them into our book (co-edited by myself and Carol du Toit, designed by  Lorraine de Villiers). We would like to do more sistering – so get in touch if it can work for your community. We would also like to become a lending Library – and like our inspirational sister, The Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland, grow into a bigger and still bigger space to become a fully-fledged women’s centre with exhibition and archive space. Imagine that for the Mother City! Our other role model is the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. Breathtaking in its scope. If ever you’re in London, do visit. Meanwhile, if ever in Cape Town and you’d like to visit our own Women’s Library, give us a call on 083 431 9986/082 490 6652 or mail info@womanzonect.co.za.