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Fred Strydom Talks about The Raft, Identity and His Secret Love Affair with The Far East

Fred Strydom

The RaftFred Strydom burst onto the book scene this year with his debut novel, The Raft.

The premise of The Raft is deceptively simple; one day in the near or distant future a global event – known as Day Zero – wipes away everyone’s memories. After a while people start to remember scraps of their old lives and one man, Kayle Jenner, goes off in search of his son.

There are of course those who believe that the collective memory loss is a good thing, that the former age of consumerism was what lead to the world’s demise in the first place. This mysterious group, known only as the New Past, oversees the communes on the coastlines and spreads their gospel through a text called The Age of Self Primary.

Set in parts in the Tsitsikamma Forest, Kroonstad and in unspecified coastal and desert regions, The Raft is as philosophical as it is epic. It grapples with existential questions and borrows beliefs and schools of thought from across cultures; yet it’s easy to read and difficult to put down.

Books LIVE spoke to the author about his whirlwind adventure, and what it all means. Read Part 1 of our interview:

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Anyeonghaseyo, Fred?

Anyeonghaseyo! Nice to chat with a fellow ex-teacher from South Korea. Although I think we know each other well enough to greet with a far less formal “Anyeong” …

In a nutshell, who was Fred Strydom before Day Zero … I mean The Raft?

I’ll avoid speaking about myself in the third person, as tempting as you’ve made it. I suppose I always knew I’d be a writer of some sort. The only question was the form. I did a lot of hopping from one form to the next – from songwriting and kids’ poetry, to theatre scripting and short stories. After school, I studied Film and Media at UCT with a plan to be a scriptwriter or director (I’m possibly more fanatical about film than literature), ran around the world for seven years, returned to Cape Town, got married and adopted three dogs, a cat and two horses. And now here we are. A published novel later. It’s been fun.

How did the experience of travelling through Asia shape your inner storyteller?

I spent three years in South Korea, with lots of travel in-between, and I have a secret love affair with the Far East. I mean, going there really is as close as you can get to being on another planet, right? It’s so paradoxical too … we can see how the old ways constantly wrestle with the new ways: the principles of Buddhism and Shamanism vying for attention with a very progressive and corporate consumer culture – a bizarre mishmash that ended up influencing The Raft in many ways. Also, in the book you may remember a massive gleaming super tower with hundreds of floors in the middle of an endless stretch of desert. This was inspired by a road trip I once did through China – traversing this immense and desolate, rural nothingness before arriving in the shimmering, futuristic, postcard-perfect city of Beijing. I’d never seen such a polarised country in my life, and I’m from South Africa!

At this year’s Kingsmead Book Fair you said that The Raft is a metaphor for asking questions. What did you mean by that?

Well, The Raft is about people who have lost their memories and are trying to reclaim their identities, which got me thinking about how we form identities at all. I’m not so sure we entirely define ourselves by our statements, such as “I like the colour blue” or “This makes me feel pain”. All animals can do that. I reckon we define ourselves by the questions we’re capable of asking: “Why do I like blue?” or “Why does this make me feel pain?” We’re quick to form opinions about the way things are or should be, and then we board up our minds like the windows of an old house, proudly calling everything in this house “our convictions”. The problems arise when different groups with different convictions try to occupy the same space. Wars begin this way. One group’s convictions wrestle with another group’s convictions, and when nothing budges, the only option is for everyone to wipe each other out. I do think it’s important to orientate ourselves with beliefs, but to keep our beliefs in liquid form, available to possibility. In a way, The Raft proposes that the key to our evolution is our willingness to stay open, to question things – our feelings, intentions and actions – even if it means questioning the nature of our questions.

When you finished writing The Raft was it what you expected?

You have an idea of how your book will turn out. It’s guided by a vague, overarching feeling of who’ll be there and what will happen. Like a memory in reverse. You can plan to a degree, but if you’re not surprising yourself along the way, you won’t surprise anyone else. The Raft did turn out the way I imagined, but only because I thought I managed to capture the kind of experience I was going for, as opposed to the fulfillment of a preconceived plot.

Autovehicles, citi-scrapers, advertisements in your condiments, corporate world domination – how far from true is this pre-Day Zero world that you created?

Pretty close, I think, but who knows? One of the most interesting things about life before the turn of the century was how we thought the world would look by 2015. We kept thinking about these big infrastructural changes – flying cars and hover-boards and all us living like the Jetsons. Now we realise the world doesn’t look all that different; there are a lot of the same old buildings, houses and beat-up old cars driving between a few slightly futuristic-looking ones. Our “sci-fi future” isn’t necessarily aesthetic and grandiose, but functional and personal. It’s happening in our pockets and our homes … functional tweaks to our phones, appliances and TV sets. The Raft doesn’t give us an exact year of when it’s all taking place, but offers a hint by how things could be, like the smart-toaster than etches an advertisement in a slice of bread. It could be next year or in a few decades time; it’s hard to be accurate. As for corporate domination, well, that’s not really futuristic, is it? That’s happening right now.

Who was the first person you called when you heard that The Raft had scooped up an international deal? How did it feel to achieve this with your debut novel?

I immediately called my wife. I give her bits and pieces of my writing at a time and she tells me exactly what she thinks. She’s incredibly supportive and has tremendous literary intuition, mostly because she reads three times the amount of books that I do. Of course, we were thrilled to hear the news, but I find that it’s mostly just surreal. I find myself living vicariously through the excitement of others because I spend most of the time struggling to believe it’s even happened. No, but really, it’s just too cool, and I’m really looking forward to the adventure to come.

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Next week we will bring you Part 2 of our interview with Fred Strydom

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