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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Trade Secrets contributor, Michael Yee, on Auschwitz angoras, writing violence, and second chances

Michael Yee was born in Pretoria. His story ‘Mouth Full Teeth’ appeared in Short.Sharp.Stories Incredible Journey and he’s thrilled to be included again. He’s had the privilege of working in Joburg, Prague, Frankfurt, London, and most recently as a freelance creative director for an ad agency in the Ivory Coast. He looks forward to living in a world where things are more equal. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently conducted an interview with Michael during which they discussed the cruel history behind his entry, having to stay detached while writing scenes of violence, and why short stories shouldn’t be age-restricted.

What was the initial spark for your short story, ‘Satins and Giants’?

I received a horrific video about the angora fur trade from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that I wanted to write about for this year’s competition.

Your story is a hard-hitting exposé of your protagonist, Achim, who gets caught up in a cruel family system as well as the taint of the worst of European history… How did you marry these ideas?

I would love to take credit for that, but really, once the protagonist appeared it was just a case of staying out of his way. He showed up after some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.

The story, influenced as it is by Nazi war crimes, highlights this evil in a visceral way. Was it difficult to write?

Having to stay detached while rewriting those scenes of violence was really tough, many nights I went to bed seeing double.

Your protagonist, Achim, perpetrates a kind of unspeakable cruelty to animals. It has been suggested that your story should come with a ‘trigger warning’. Do you agree with this? (Or are we too molly-coddled as readers?)

I guess movies and music albums use warnings, but that’s a legal requirement to protect minors, which is not the case for short stories, so I would tend to disagree. I hope nobody is ambushed by the cruelty though, as I tried to avoid that with a pretty dark tone from the start. (Having said this: I’m even more thankful now that the story was included in the collection, given the subject matter.)

“Some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.”

 

Did you feel you were taking a risk with this subject matter, a risk which might exclude you from publication?

Definitely, I was nervous when the time came to submit and with so many excellent writers with great stories to tell, the risk of not making it always looms large. But a year on, I’m very grateful to have a story included that I cared about in the collection.

Back to Achim. He does find some kind of redemption. Was this important to you as writer?

Yes, I’d like to live in a place where people get second chances, no matter how badly they messed up. Plus, after everything Achim had been through, he deserved a break. He had earned it!

Is the setting an echo of the concept that ‘wealth corrupts’? Yours is a fascinating scene …

Very much so. After realising what this story was about, it guided many decisions: the setting of structural rot, mansions overlooking other decaying mansions in ‘Sol Kerzner’ country in Johannesburg, and props, dialogue, Achim’s relationships, his motivations. The order that this brought was comforting because the protagonist was so chaotic!

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Be kind and patient with whatever arrives on the page.

Trade Secrets

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Jacket Notes: Maxine Case tells of why she needed to write about her ancestors and their lives as slaves in a Softness of the Lime

Published in the Sunday Times

Softness of the LimeSoftness of the Lime
Maxine Case, Umuzi

As a descendant of slaves, this was a story I always wanted to write. My grandmother’s grandmother was born to a slave and her master. “But theirs was a real relationship,” Ma, my grandmother, insisted. “He loved her.” Even though I was quite young when I first heard the story, I always wondered about this. I wondered further when Ma admitted that this master had a wife, and children from that marriage.

“She grew up in their home,” Ma offered, as if this was proof. “The family was quite fond of her.”

“Then why didn’t they free her?” I demanded.

“Those were different times then,” Ma said. “They took care of her, even after the old man died.”

From Ma and her cousins, I heard how the family supported my great-grandmother Johanna financially. Ma or one of her cousins would call at the house in Wynberg to collect their grandmother’s living allowance. The building burnt down years later, and all I had was Ma and her cousins’ word.

But there was something else – real proof of his love for her and her descendants, according to Ma and others in the family who repeated the tale. The proof was inscribed into the cover of a yellowwood Bible and later, in the form of a newspaper cutting from the Sunday Times of September 2, 1973.

According to this article, “Bantjes millions: now Coloureds stake claim”, this man had placed a fortune in gold to be inherited by his descendants 100 years after his death.

The article confirmed my family’s claim. It confirmed that with many of her children living as white under apartheid, Johanna destroyed all evidence pointing to this slave heritage.

I often wondered why Ma held her slave ancestry in such high esteem – especially when so many people, South African or not, denied theirs. From Ma’s stories, I too became proud of my slave heritage.

Shoving that yellowing Sunday Times cutting at me from time to time, and telling me where to look, Ma encouraged me to write the “real” story of Lena and Geert, insisting that we were born out of love and not abuse, as is commonly believed. But could it be love?

Researching this book, I don’t believe so. As much proof as I found to substantiate Ma’s claims, much was negated. So, while in writing this book I took the liberties of fiction, I hope that ultimately, by reimagining their worlds, I’ve succeeded in portraying what life under slavery at the Cape might have been like.

Sadly, Ma didn’t live to see this book published.

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Private tragedy is now national tragedy: Salman Rushdie tells Michele Magwood why he wrote his latest novel The Golden House

Michele Magwood finds Salman Rushdie on fine and furious form in his latest novel. The Golden House is a glorious fusion of knowing social commentary and compelling mystery, packed with wit and cultural references. She spoke to him in New York.

The Golden HouseThe Golden House
Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape
*****

In Salman Rushdie’s previous novel, the antic, phantasmagorical Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the city of New York is overcome by “strangenesses” – lightning crackles from fingers, a gentle old gardener begins to levitate, an abandoned baby causes boils to erupt on the faces of anyone who is corrupt. In his new novel, however, there is none of his trademark supernatural fancies or magical realism. Instead he has written an up-to-the-minute, drenched-in-zeitgeist panorama of New York and America. This time, the strangeness is real.

“When I finished writing Two Years I thought this probably pushes this kind of writing as far as it can go, so I thought I’d try to write a very different novel, a realist social novel about the last decade or so.”

Rushdie is speaking from his home in New York, where he has lived for the last 17 years, the city that has enabled him to live what he calls “a perfectly normal life”, after the many years of hiding in the UK with a fatwa hanging over him. He said he chose New York because it reminded him of his hometown Bombay with its noise and bustle, but also because it is a place of re-invention. “Everybody comes from somewhere else.”

In The Golden House a man arrives in the city with his three grown sons. They arrive on the day that Barack Obama is elected, a time of optimism, “when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess”.

They seem to come from nowhere, or anywhere. There is no sign of a wife or mother, but it is clear they are stupefyingly wealthy. The men take outlandish new names for themselves. The father is Nero Julius Golden, the eldest son Petronius, known as Petya, the second Lucius Apuleius, or Apu, and the youngest Dionysus, or simply “D”. “Who should we say we are?” the boys ask their father. “Tell them nothing. Tell them we are snakes who shed our skins,” Nero says.

The novel may be sharply contemporary, but there is something ancient to the story. “In Greek and Roman tragic plays we know from the beginning that some terrible calamity is about to befall these characters and then it hits them. In this book the reader quite rapidly understands that this family is hiding something serious, and you know that secret is going to blow up in their faces. So in that sense it has the shape of a classical tragedy.”

Notes of foreboding are sounded early on by the narrator, a young filmmaker named René who lives in the same moneyed, sylvan enclave as the Goldens and who decides to make a film about them. Buried in the narrative, a clever mise en abyme, is his script for the documentary.

The fuse is lit when the septuagenarian Nero takes a young Russian bride, Vasilisa. Beautiful of course, just 28 years old, but with a preternatural cunning. This being Rushdie, he has her harbouring, Alien-like, the rapacious witch Baba Yaga. Nero’s sons are dismayed.

The doomed Golden sons channel the dark materials of Rushdie’s current preoccupations: Petya is a lumpen alcoholic, a shut-in savant who designs video games. Apu is a gifted artist, handsome, priapic and fashionable with the Manhattan élite, “famous on 20 blocks.” And then there is D, painfully gender-confused.

Here’s Apu loose on the town: “He followed a Canal Street Kabbalist named Idel, who was adept in the ways of the forbidden Practical Kabbalah, which sought through the use of white magic to affect and change the sphere of the divine itself… he also went eagerly… into the world of Buddhist Judaism, and meditated along with the city’s growing cohorts of ‘BuJus’ – classical composers, movies stars, yogis.”

This is Rushdie at his Dickensian best: keen-eyed, plucking shining observations from the streets like a magpie. His treatment of the troubled D is more sober, however, as he assays the field of gender identity. “The more I dug into it and talked to people I realised how much hair-splitting hostility there is between people who 99% of the time would be on the same side.”

D is depressed by the choices he is being forced to make: “You could be TG, TS, TV, CD. Whatever feels right to you.” Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser. None feels right to him and on they go. If he doesn’t identify as male or female, there is ze, ey, hir, xe, hen, ve, ne, per, thon or Mx. As one gender worker says regretfully, “My field should be a safe, soft space for understanding and instead it’s a warzone.”

Rushdie is at his most damning, though, at the end of the book when a new president is elected. This is the age of fake news, truthiness, bawling rhetoric. It is the age of grotesques and comic characters in power – a green-haired cartoon Joker is in charge. The times are toxic.

As René says: “What does one do when the world one believes in turns out to be a paper moon and a dark planet rises and says, No, I am the world… when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge… and then all of that, education, art, music, film becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington DC, to be born.”

Yes, this time Rushdie’s strangenesses are real.

“The story of the Goldens is a private tragedy surrounded by what is turning into a national tragedy,” he sighs. “I think that’s really in a way what the book is trying to say.”

Follow @michelemagwood

Listen to Michele and Salman’s conversation here

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“A satisfying and intelligent read” – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Paula McGrath’s second novel

Published in The Witness

A History of Running AwayPaula McGrath is making a name for herself in literary circles as someone to watch. A History of Running Away is her second novel, and is written with considerable assurance, despite a complicated structure.

There are three strands: two set in 2012 and one 30 years earlier; two in Ireland and one in America. Each has a female protagonist, and all of them are either actually escaping from something, or contemplating escape. One is an unnamed gynaecologist, angry at Ireland’s abortion laws and looking to move to London, a new job and a man who wants her there. But she is held back by her mother, old and suffering from dementia, and the guilt she still feels at having once run away from her before. Not that this time it is likely her mother will even notice.

Next is Ali, an American teenager who has been orphaned by the death of her single mother and is desperate to escape the stultifying life her previously unknown grandparents are mapping out for her. Hers is an escape fraught with danger and unwise choices.

Finally, back in 1982, Jasmine, having run away from her distant mother, her controlling uncle and her education, arrives in Dublin via a dangerous stay in London. Rootless but feisty, she discovers boxing – not allowed for women in the Ireland of the time – and hooks up with a Kenyan medical student who allows her to train with him. Jasmine is the most realised of the characters and the most endearing, and it is her story that is central to the development of the novel.

In the end, McGrath draws her three strands together – some of where she is going becomes pretty obvious, but that doesn’t really detract from the book. What the reader enjoys is not suspense, but story. My only quibble would be that the good characters – George the Kenyan, Jasmine’s upstairs neighbour Deano and the mother and daughter duo who rescue Ali – are so saintly that it is hard to believe in them. Even saints have to have the odd flaw, surely? But all in all, this is a satisfying and intelligent read.

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Mysteries, myths, and military facts: Archie Henderson looks at two books that cover the Angolan civil war

Published in the Sunday Times

Cuito CanavaleCuito Cuanavale
Fred Bridgland, Jonathan Ball Publishers
*****
 
 
 
 
 
A Far Away WarA Far-Away War
Ian Liebenberg, Jorge Risquet and Vladimir Shubin (Editors), Sun Press
**

It’s been 30 years since Cuito Cuanavale became a landmark in the Angolan civil war. South African and Angolan troops, some of them just boys, died there. So did many Cubans. The full casualty toll in a war that was fought mainly in secret is still unknown.

Along with the mysteries are the myths, one of them being that a decisive battle was fought around the little town between 1987 and 1988. There certainly was some fighting, but the big battle was fought 170km to the southeast on the Lomba River and it ended decisively in favour of South Africa and its ally Unita.

An entire brigade of the Angolan army was wiped out at the Lomba, forcing a retreat by the Angolans and Cubans back across the confluence of the Cuito and Cuanavale rivers. There, in 1988, the fighting ended in either a stalemate, if you accept the military facts, or in a victory for the MPLA and Cubans, if you believe Fidel Castro’s propaganda.

Veteran journalist Fred Bridgland, author of Cuito Cuanavale, says: “If anyone won, I’m afraid it was the South Africans because [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev gave Fapla a final £1-billion. ‘Go and take out Jonas Savimbi and his headquarters in Jamba. But if this doesn’t work, that’s it. No more money.’”

Since Angolan independence in 1975, the country’s recognised government, the MPLA, had been fighting a civil war against Savimbi’s Unita. The two liberation movements had fought the Portuguese. Both needed outside support: the MPLA got it from Cuba, East Germany and the Soviet Union; Unita from South Africa and the US.

Bridgland’s book remains one of the best accounts of the war. As a Reuters correspondent assigned to Lusaka, he arrived as a young idealist filled with notions of “liberating the whole of southern Africa by the power of my pen”.

He made an auspicious start. Being in the right place at the right time, he got a scoop on South Africa’s invasion of Angola in 1975. “I began to realise that the war was a lot more complex than the musings of an undergraduate,” he says. “This was a grown-up story. Very complicated things were happening.”

Bridgland became enamoured of Savimbi, made many friends among the Unita commanders and covered the war mostly from their side. It put him in touch with the South Africans, whose military commander, Jannie Geldenhuys, allowed him to interview his troops. Those interviews make for a compelling story.

Bridgland has two big regrets: Savimbi turned out to be not a charismatic guerrilla leader, but a madman who murdered his own people; and the other side of the story – that of the Angolans and Cubans – was closed to him. Apart from a limited budget that prevented him from reaching the Havana archives, the Cuban bureaucracy was “horrendous”.

This should have made Far-Away War, which had the benefit of Cuban and Russian editors, a welcome addition to the war’s literature. Sadly, it’s disappointing. There is too much academic pontificating and no personal stories from commanders in the field, or soldiers in a trench or tank. Its value is the photographs from Cuban archives and the extensive bibliography.

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Q&A with Nathan Hill

Published in the Sunday Times

The NixThe Nix
Nathan Hill, Pan Macmillan

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?
For my own country’s leader, I would recommend Trump read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, not only because of its lessons in introspection and self-knowledge, but also because, as one of the longest books in history, it might keep him occupied and away from Twitter for like a year or two.

Which books are on your bedside table?
After the success of The Nix, I’m being asked by editors and writers to “blurb” their books, which has been a great pleasure – it’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to read books before they come out! And for free! So my bedside table is filled with advance copies of novels that will be published next year.

What do you snack on when you write?
If the writing is going really well, I usually just completely detach from the world of physical things: I won’t hear the music playing, I won’t notice how long I’ve been sitting, and I won’t realise that I haven’t eaten anything in many hours. Which means that when I finish writing for the day I suddenly feel famished and cranky with hunger, which is pretty frustrating for my wife.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I did a lot of research for The Nix, but I’m not sure any of it would qualify as “strange”. I visited all the places where the riots of 1968 happened in Chicago. I read as many studies as I could find about the neurobiology of video game addiction. I watched YouTube video of American soldiers in Iraq traveling inside Bradley Fighting Vehicles. I found a certain Atari game from the ’80s so I could describe the noises it makes while you play it. I figured out the bureaucratic process by which the government places a person on the “no-fly list”. I walked around the campus of the University of Chicago for a whole day just to be able to accurately describe how terrible its architecture is. Things like that.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
This happens to me all the time, and I hope it happens to a lot of other readers too. I think it’s a requirement for being a good reader, that you have a mind that’s open enough for change. Otherwise, you’re just reading things you pre-agree with, which would be pretty boring.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
I like to laugh over dinner, so I’d probably invite my favorite funny writers: Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth is not only brilliant but also hilarious; BJ Novak, who wrote a hysterical story collection called One More Thing, and also wrote a pretty funny TV show called The Office; and David Sedaris, who’s just as fun to listen to as to read.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
When I was young, my parents found this set of books at a garage sale, which included reprints of books like 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, even Moby Dick. I wouldn’t say that reading any one of those books in particular made me want to be a writer. Instead, it was the thrill of reading all of them – all the adventures I had, all the friends I made, in my head, in those pages – that made me want to write.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Once on Christmas I received John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, and I finished it before New Year’s.

What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?
Touch by Courtney Maum, which came out in the States this summer. It’s a novel about a trend forecaster, and it has some hilarious things to say about technology.

What keeps you awake at night?
Binge-watching Game of Thrones. If I see an episode or two right before bed, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll start obsessing about what Cersei’s up to, or start imagining assassins in the room.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been on tour for The Nix for more than a year now, and all this time the next novel has been marinating in my head. So when the tour is finished this fall, I’ll be able to get to work on this new story.

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Book Bites: 10 September 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Gather the DaughtersGather the Daughters
Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press
****
Given how long it takes to write and publish a book, it is unlikely that Jennie Melamed timed her debut novel to benefit from the popularity of the TV series based on The Handmaid’s Tale. Melamed is probably sick of having her book compared to Margaret Atwood’s. But it can’t hurt. Melamed’s fictional world, like Atwood’s, can be read as a dark allegory of patriarchy. Her central characters are children living on an island in a religious community cut off from “the wastelands” – the wider world into which only select male elders, the “wanderers”, may venture to bring back supplies and occasional fresh recruits. On the surface this is a gentle, pastoral life, but every time a girl-child is born, all the womenfolk wail and weep. The island way is to give fathers free access to their daughters until the girls reach “fruition”. Far from looking forward to the day when they can kick dad out of their beds, the daughters dread it because it signals no more summers of freedom. Until puberty bites, children run unfettered for a quarter of the year, roaming the island in naked, muddy packs. When one of these wildlings sees something she shouldn’t, it triggers a rebellion led by a 17-year-old who has staved off menstruation by starving herself. Melamed tells a stirring story in lucid, luminous language. – Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

GraceGrace
Barbara Boswell, Modjaji Books
*****
This gripping story tells of how a woman from Cape Town was subjected to abuse from her father. Later in life, Grace thinks she has overcome her hideous childhood until two people from her past make a reappearance in her life. Her suburban lifestyle is on the brink of collapse and it is only Grace that can save herself. The graphic details of the abuse that Grace endures is chilling. Her relationship with her father, and how she thinks she has “beaten” her past, makes the story so relatable and even more worthy of a reread. This book has earned every one of its five stars. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Koh-i-NoorKoh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond
William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, Bloomsbury
****
The Koh-i-Noor brings out so many angry emotions, because it is at the centre of important historical issues: why is it still part of the crown jewels of England? Where does it belong? Dalrymple and Anand investigate the history, dismissing the mythology around the diamond. What they find, is what one suspected – there has been misappropriation by all sorts, along with plenty of torture and murders. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist announced

The six authors shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize have been announced. First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is recognised as the leading prize for high quality literary fiction written in English. Its list of winners includes many of the giants of the last four decades, from Salman Rushdie to Hilary Mantel, Iris Murdoch to Ian McEwan. The prize has also recognised many authors early in their careers, including Eleanor Catton, Aravind Adiga and Ben Okri.

As per the Man Booker’s website release:

Paul Auster, Emily Fridlund, Mohsin Hamid, Fiona Mozley, George Saunders and Ali Smith are today announced as the six shortlisted authors for the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Their names were announced by 2017 Chair of judges, Lola, Baroness Young, at a press conference at the offices of Man Group, the prize sponsor.

The judges remarked that the novels, each in its own way, challenge and subtly shift our preconceptions — about the nature of love, about the experience of time, about questions of identity and even death.

The shortlist, which features three women and three men, covers a wide range of subjects, from the struggle of a family trying to retain its self-sufficiency in rural England to a love story between two refugees seeking to flee an unnamed city in the throes of civil war.

In the fourth year that the prize has been open to writers of any nationality, the shortlist is made up of two British, one British-Pakistani and three American writers.

Two novels from independent publishers, Faber & Faber and Bloomsbury, are shortlisted, alongside two from Penguin Random House imprint Hamish Hamilton and two from Hachette imprints, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and JM Originals.

The 2017 shortlist of six novels is:

4 3 2 14321 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)

Listen to Michele Magwood’s interview with Auster on 4321 here
 
 
 
 
 
History of WolvesHistory of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
 
 
 
 
 
 
Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan) (Hamish Hamilton)
 
 
 
 
 
 
ElmetElmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
 
 
 
 
 
 
Autumn
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
 
 
 
 
Lola, Baroness Young comments:

With six unique and intrepid books that collectively push against the borders of convention, this year’s shortlist both acknowledges established authors and introduces new voices to the literary stage. Playful, sincere, unsettling, fierce: here is a group of novels grown from tradition but also radical and contemporary. The emotional, cultural, political and intellectual range of these books is remarkable, and the ways in which they challenge our thinking is a testament to the power of literature.

Ali Smith makes the Man Booker shortlist for the fourth time (she was previously shortlisted for Hotel World in 2001, The Accidental in 2005 and How to Be Both in 2014). This year also sees a repeat shortlisting for Mohsin Hamid, who made the list in 2007 with The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Hachette imprint JM Originals makes the shortlist for the first time with Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which was the first ever acquisition of assistant editor Becky Walsh. Mozley is also the youngest author on the shortlist, aged 29, and one of two debut writers to make the list – the other being 38 year-old American Emily Fridlund with History of Wolves.

The other two American authors on the shortlist are Paul Auster and George Saunders. 4321 by Auster, who turned 70 this year, is the longest novel on the shortlist at 866 pages and, according to the author, took three and a half years, working 6 and a half days a week, to write. Lincoln in the Bardo, the first full-length novel by Saunders — an acclaimed short story writer and Folio Prize winner — completes the list.

Luke Ellis, CEO of Man Group, comments:

Congratulations to each of the authors who have been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. The list represents a celebration of exceptional literary talent, ranging from established novelists to debut writers, that we are honoured to support. As well as playing an important role in recognising literary endeavour, the prize’s charitable activities underscore Man Group’s charitable focus on literacy and education and our commitment to creativity and excellence.

The judging panel, chaired by Lola, Baroness Young, consists of: the literary critic, Lila Azam Zanganeh; the Man Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Sarah Hall; the artist, Tom Phillips CBE RA; and the travel writer and novelist, Colin Thubron CBE.

The 2017 winner will be announced on Tuesday 17 October in London’s Guildhall, at a dinner that brings together the shortlisted authors and well-known figures from the literary world. The ceremony will be broadcast by the BBC.

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Ja, offices are the home of intrigue, back-stabbing and old-fashioned dishonesty” – Trade Secrets contributor, Sean Mayne

Sean Mayne works for Cape Town’s favourite coffee company. When he can, he snatches minutes, sometimes seconds, to write. In 2014 he cracked the nod for the Adults Only Short.Sharp.Stories collection, picking up an accolade for Publisher’s Choice and simultaneously getting his piece of smut published in Playboy SA. In 2015, he was again published, in Incredible Journey. He is beyond thrilled to make the cut for 2017 as getting published is like tik for his frail ego.

Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Sean’s recent kaffeeklatsch was a telling one to tell the least, e.g. did you know that Sean has been submitted to – and passed – a polygraph test? And once sold a waterless urinal to Pollsmoor Maximum security? No? Read on…
 
In your story, ‘The Unbelievable Truth’, the tension builds as Lenny and Doon – a couple of salesmen – await a polygraph test for a theft in their office. Have you ever been submitted to a polygraph?

Yes. And I passed. The interview starts innocuously: “So you live in False Bay? The sea views must be lovely, but seriously, how many times have you been to jail?” (Twice.) Then they delve into childhood. Like, “Did you ever pinch money from your mother’s purse?” (Yes.) Or reverse-psychology questions, like “Explain why you don’t fill up your car from petty cash?” (Because I catch the train.) Or “What do you think of the boss?” ( . . . ) I wondered at the time about using a polygraph for marriage vows, or marriage counseling. It got me scheming.

Was that the only inspiration for your story?

No. If there’s a lonelier profession than writing, it’s salesman. The entire psychology of selling is based on overcoming a fear of the word No! Probably because ‘no’ is the first word we learn after ‘mama’ and each working day is spent mentally preparing for rejection (kind of like entering a writing competition). This is done by clinging to a belief in the law of averages, which dictates that one in ten will buy from you. Or in reverse-psychology speak: only nine more ‘no’s’ before I make the first sale of the day. All sorts of kak swirls round in your brain before you pick up that scary phone and make a call (or submit your story) and it’s this mental anguish I tapped into.

So enter Doon, who’s having a bad run and is kind of desperate. Is he desperate enough to steal eight grand from his boss? That’s for the reader to discover.


 
 
Personal ‘office relationships’ are at the core of the story, as revealed through the eyes of Lenny. Would you agree that the office provides a pressure cooker when it comes to personal relationships? Did you capitalize on this?

Ja, offices are the home of intrigue, back-stabbing and old-fashioned dishonesty – similar to Survivor, except no one gets voted off – or not the person you tried to frame. Sales offices in particular are without morals because selling is concerned with manipulation. This is what makes crooked salesmen interesting. And isn’t story writing essentially a bunch of lies told in a manipulative way? Some people have a natural gift for selling, an aura, where customers magically say ‘yes’ to their offering. Of course the best of them are in jail for fraud. Sadly, I don’t have that aura, which is why I have to write instead.

Have you ever had a nine to five office job?

I had a sales job where the day started in an office. But the mornings degenerated into long breakfasts in cheap cafés as fellow salesmen and I dissected why that day, specifically, wasn’t good for knocking on doors. We’d reappear in the afternoon. Occasionally we’d sell stuff. Once I sold a perfume machine to Salt River Mortuary (there’s a braai grid outside the walk-in fridge, fyi); another time we sold a waterless urinal to Pollsmoor Maximum security and got to visit the kas (wyfie’s are real – high heels, lipstick, skirts, the works). Mostly I sold septic tanks (your shit is our bread and butter was my elevator pitch).

The office setting might be the most obviously associated with the concept of ‘trade secret’. Why choose this setting?

True. But nowhere in the story is there reference to ‘place’. The office could be anywhere. I did it to make the story dialogue-driven. The setting is stripped down to a bland corridor, a smoking nook, and a boardroom. I’m trusting the South Africanisms of the characters will provide context for the reader. It was a risk because I know how important ‘place’ is to a story – almost like it’s supposed to be one of the characters.

High on entertainment value, it’ a slick piece… As far as the writing goes, there are no inverted commas, the sentences often run on… Was this a conscious choice?

A wise editor once introduced me to contractions (I think it was you, Joanne). The idea of brevity snow-balled and soon any word ending –ly also had to go. It was inevitable that inverted commas would fall. But I love sentences that run on if it’s a first person narrative. It allows for an element of distraction (and manipulation), a key device if hoping to create a twist.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Make each word fight for its place on the page. Choppity chop chop.

Follow Sean on Facebook @lakesidemaynes

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Trade Secrets

 
 
 
 
 
Adults Only

 
 

Incredible Journey


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Paradise found: Rosa Lyster reviews Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy

Published in the Sunday Times

PriestdaddyPriestdaddy
Patricia Lockwood, Allen Lane
*****
Patricia Lockwood’s career has always seemed like an exception to the rule. She is a very famous and successful poet at a time when such creatures are presumed no longer to exist. It’s not just her career, though. She has been an exception to the rule since the day she was born. The title of her memoir, Priestdaddy, is a reference to her father, a former atheist who underwent “the deepest conversion on record” after watching The Exorcist 88 times on a submarine while in the navy, became a Lutheran minister, and eventually applied for the dispensation from the Vatican which allows married ministers of another faith to become Catholic priests.

This seems like enough to be getting on with already, ie: rich autobiographical material. Married Catholic priests are rare, and Lockwood and her four siblings grew up viewing the church from an almost unique perspective. Her family is also dementedly eccentric, and Lockwood has done a great service to this world by getting them down on the page.

This isn’t even the half of it, though. I would read Lockwood describing a trip to the bank. I would read 1000 pages of her just explaining how a very boring piece of machinery worked. She is inspiredly, unforeseeably funny, and her powers of description are unmatched. She is on another planet, and her writing makes you wish you lived there also.

Priestdaddy has been described as “kooky” and “quirky” and “whimsical” – all those words used to indicate that a writer isn’t to be taken totally seriously, especially if that writer is a woman. This is rubbish, obviously. It is a very funny book, but also a serious one, about family, and religion, and how it feels to be a writer, and about learning how to understand the world.

Follow Rosa Lyster @rosalyster

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