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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Markus Zusak discusses his new book’s origins and gives insight into its themes with Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Bridge of Clay *****
Markus Zusak, Doubleday, R365

Markus Zusak wanted ‘glories and tragedies and courage, all in a suburban setting’. Picture: Supplied

What was the genesis of the story?

I was 20 years old, and always felt really committed to being a writer. I used to take long walks around the neighbourhood I lived in and, once, on one of those walks, I saw in my mind a boy building a bridge. I named him Clayton. I thought I would call the book Clayton’s Bridge, and then a few months later, I thought: No, not Clayton’s Bridge – make it Bridge of Clay. And that was the instant when a whole new depth of meaning and emotion entered the idea.

I saw a boy making a bridge of stone or wood, but also of himself. He would mould his whole life into that bridge and within that idea there was the idea that Clay is both a name and a material – and clay (the material) can be moulded into anything, but it needs fire to set it … I was seeing new beginnings forming, and a definite ending. I just wasn’t ready yet to write it.

Which elements of the book were there from the start, and which came later?

I actually did write a version of this book in my early 20s, but I knew already then that what I’d produced wasn’t what I was looking for. You’re always looking for what you feel in your mind is what you then feel in the pages.

It was in 2006, after The Book Thief, that I started collating new ideas for the book, including a family of five brothers, a mother who had travelled to Australia from Eastern Europe, and a father who had once been obsessed with Michelangelo and, in particular, the Statue of David and his unfinished works, the Slaves (or Prisoners).

The elements of The Iliad and The Odyssey greatly enrich the story. Are these works that have influenced your own life?

It started because of nicknames. I seemed to immediately gravitate towards giving all the Dunbar brothers nicknames (for example, Clay is the Smiler, Rory is the Human Ball and Chain, Matthew – who narrates the story – is the Responsible One, and so on), and it reminded me of how in The Iliad and The Odyssey, Achilles is never just Achilles; he’s the fast-running Achilles, and Hector is the tamer of horses, or Hector of the glittering helmet.

I started to feel a sense of suburban bigness to things. We often think our lives are small and mundane, or that we live in places or houses where very little happens. But then you start to realise the amount of travels that have been made to arrive in these places, and that we all fall in love, we all have people die on us. We laugh and live and love, and all of these things loom hugely, at times, inside us. And I wanted to write about those things.

I wanted to write a big and big-hearted story in what Matthew sometimes calls the suburbs-world. I wanted glories and tragedies and courage, all in that suburban setting.

Can you expand on the use of the bridge as a metaphor?

I think I’ve always thought of bridges being part of books and stories. As the narrator of Bridge of Clay, there are times when Matthew talks to the reader a lot, about the distance between him as the writer of the story and the reader as the recipient. I’ve always imagined that as well – that I’m writing in one place, and the words are stretching to wherever the reader is reading the book. In that way, the reader is part of the book, even in the act of writing it.

In a more direct and story-oriented way, the bridges in Bridge of Clay are everywhere. Clay, especially, is building a bridge for his family, to bring it back together, but he’s simultaneously finding his own way of leaving. It’s both a bridge towards home and beyond it. And Matthew is building his own bridge, not only to an understanding of his brother, but to a new understanding of just how much he loves him. It’s why he’s writing the story: the words are a proof of love.

I read Bridge of Clay directly after finishing Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut and I feel it raises similar themes of masculinity, the question of how to channel young men’s energies and sensibilities. In short, how do we raise good men? Could you comment on that?

Probably the first way is to tell the truth, which isn’t to say that boys will be boys, and be done with it. My first priority is always to write from the inside out, which is to serve the characters of the book, and the story. What I’ve arrived at later is an understanding that if I was subconsciously trying to do anything, it was to write about boys in a way that shows them both how they are, and how we’d like them to be.

The Dunbar boys are rough and boisterous and raw, but I hope they’re beautiful too, and full of love and loyalty, and even tenderness. Maybe the first way to address this idea of positive masculinity is that it’s actually pretty complex.

One of the bigger lines in Bridge of Clay is when Matthew says, “It’s a mystery, even to me, how boys and brothers love.” Like everything else worth fighting for in our lives, the idea of raising good men feels to me like something that never ends. It will to and fro between triumphs and failures, but the centre feels a lot like Clay and his brothers themselves; they fight and scrap and argue their way through the world and each other, but they never give up on each other either, or on themselves. @michelemagwood

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Read a Q&A with bestselling author, Lucinda Riley

Published in the Sunday Times

Lucinda Riley, author of The Moon Sister. Author pic supplied.

One book our world leaders should read?

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It’s a slim volume which is perfect for someone who doesn’t have time to read anything cover to cover. It’s interfaith, exquisitely written and full of wisdom. It might help remind our world leaders of their humanity.

Do you keep a diary?

I kept a daily diary between the ages of 13 and 18; parts of it are hilarious, others tragic. No-one has read it but me, and I’d be horrified if it fell into the wrong hands.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?

Jay Gatsby. I’ve been in love with him since I was 17 and first read The Great Gatsby. It was the most romantic book I’d ever read – at that age, every young woman wants to be loved so completely the way Gatsby loves Daisy. As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen it as the dark side of obsessive love.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?

F Scott Fitzgerald – he’s both an obsession and an inspiration. As a writer, I’m fascinated by the way an author’s life feeds into their writing, and Fitzgerald’s relationship with his wife, Zelda, formed the basis for The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Charles Dickens, because he was a wonderful storyteller and a jobbing writer with a large family to feed, like me. He wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks because he needed the money. And JK Rowling because, despite her success and wealth, she continues to write.

What novel would you give to children to introduce them to literature?

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.

What is the last thing you read that made you cry?

Rather sadly, it was the last book I wrote – The Butterfly Room. Given that I never plan books before I write them, I’m as shocked and horrified as the reader when something tragic happens.

Is there a type of book you never read?

Anything about serial killers and grim murders. I read before I go to sleep and the last thing I want is to have my head filled with those kind of pictures. For me, reading is all about escapism.

What is your most treasured book?

When I received my first big advance, I bought myself a first edition copy of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

How do you select characters’ names?

I have a clutch of favourite names, so much so that when I got to the end of The Butterfly Room, I had to change the name of a major character because I’d used it so many times before.

A character you could be best friends with?

Ruth from Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway series. She’s a forensic archaeologist and a single mother who spends her life getting into scrapes, both personal and professional. She’s so real and warm and lives in an idyllic cottage just down the road from me. I’d love to pop round for a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day and talk old bones and kids.

The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley is published by Macmillan, R290.

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“It’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about” – a Q&A with playwright, director and storyteller J Bobs Tshabalala

Nal’ibali Column 31: Term 4 (2018)

By Carla Lever

J Bobs Tshabalala, as photographed by Jan Potgieter.

Congrats on your new publication – “Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars” is quite a title! Can you tell us a little about what it’s about?

Enkosi kakhulu for the congratulations, I really do appreciate it. This is an incredible milestone for me, and for my organization Kiri Pink Nob. Seeing also that it is my debut publication, makes it even more special for me and my team at large. So, for us, this is truly a moment!

“Khongolose Khommanding Khomissars” is a heightened period piece, only the period is very recent and very South African. It’s actually the playscript of a political satire we performed, written in what we call “Comrade-Speech” – elevated language synonymous with the Black South African aspirational discourse in the political and academic spheres.

As a young Black playwright, I think that it’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about. It’s incredible how people have taken to the first ever staging, and now, the publication. It is an important shift that we are proposing here!

It’s often a challenge to get plays published for a wider audience to read and stage them. We have powerful and interesting new theatre being made in South Africa, but are we doing enough to preserve and promote the scripts?

A simple, answer… No! We’re not doing enough – far from it. Amidst all the excuses there are some valid reasons, though.

One: some of our most interesting theatre, is physical, not text-based narrative, so it seldom translates to being a strong script offering.

Two: In the case of well written plays that are as engaging as performance texts as they are literary works, the question of commerce enters. Why spend some money on publishing for a market that I know will not spend any money on reading?

Three: There is very little collaboration between actors and publishers in South Africa. It’s a gap that needs to be closed, and my partner Monageng Motshabi and I intend to do just that! I can continue listing the ills, but my answer holds: NO! NO, we are not doing enough. Far from it!

What was your experience of self-publishing? Do you have any tips for people interested in doing the same?

It was glorious: an absolute dream! Hard work, yes. Kodwa, it was a very beautiful experience.

Monageng “Vice” Motshabi of diartskonageng is my co-publisher. This experience was such a pleasure because he and I gave it the time that it needed and we worked on it diligently at our own pace. He’s published independently before, so he knew the ropes and was more than generous in showing them to me as the process unfolded. Above all else, it’s his generosity of knowledge, contacts and spirit that made this experience so delightful.

For those who are keen to do the same, my best advice would be find someone who is equally passionate about the project and pursue it as a collaboration. Having that other person makes the brutal parts of the journey easier to endure and overcome. People should not mistake self-publishing as a synonym for “I did everything by myself as a solo project” – that’s a dangerous narrative around being independent. That’s not what it means at all.

Do you think there’s been a cultural shift where we’re telling – and listening to – our own South African stories enough, or do South Africans still tend to be more interested in international plays, books or films?

In the spaces that I operate in, the shift is tangible. People are demanding local content, and many are even demanding it in indigenous languages. That said, we need to compete for market share with the international players who have way more money than we do. What they spend on marketing one product, is what we spend on making ten, so a long way is still to be travelled when it comes to making our stories the products of choice (for the middle-class market, that is). In the working classes however, South African content is treasured. This is where I am looking to play mostly.

Your theatre work has often explored the ways we understand – and misunderstand – each other in South Africa. What interests you about this?

I’m very interested in the ways that I understand and misunderstand the country and its people. In the many ways that the country and its people understand and misunderstand me. South Africa is incredibly rich with heightened complexity and complicated nuance. I aspire to make work that captures that, so that its signature is unique to Mzansi as a character and my brand of theatre as a creative undertaking. What an amazing offer it is to be a theatre practitioner in a land that is this fertile with gems of content, concepts and people so ready to engage!

You’ve been very innovative in the ways you’ve chosen to explore socio-political issues with people. Can you tell us a little about your successful use of the game show format to draw people in and make them question their own cultural assumptions?

The Game Shows are gold for me. They took me very long to create and refine, and I feel as though only now am I getting to the heart of what they really are about and for.

Their success is based on rewarding our connections more than our divisions. On highlighting similarities in the veil of exposing our differences. On being scathing in a way that is cathartic for all, and on being funny in a way that is laughable only to our national humour. They are about using theatre to explore the theatrics of our reality.

Kodwa, my proudest achievement is that they have been made what they are by the multitude of South Africans who have witnessed them. Audiences have co-authored this journey with me, and at best, I have been very attentive and careful to be their dedicated scribe and dramaturge. It honestly feels like a commissioned work, by the people. I love doing them. The Township one, and The Suburban one – as I call them. They are triumphs. They remind me that South Africans are ready handle any concept that you may throw at them, as long as you trust them with it, they will delve in deeply.

Why is storytelling – whether through film, theatre, books or poetry – an important way for us to connect and explore our histories and realities?

It is a true monument of who we are as a people, in the time that we live in. Of all the stories to be told, the untold South African story is the most critical of them all. We want to talk about us now. We are ready to hear ourselves. We have watched as the world fantasize about us and we’re done with that!

How can people get their hands on a copy of your book?

From me! The book costs R150 a copy. In Gauteng, I deliver. In other parts of South Africa and the rest of the world, I post, which costs extra. Drop me an e-mail to

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

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“Having the luxury of reading for pleasure is something we’d like everyone to have” – a Q&A with Open Book School Library Project facilitator, Frankie Murrey

Nal’ibali column: 14 November 2018

By Carla Lever

Frankie Murrey, facilitator of Open Book Festival’s Open Book School Project

What made the team at Open Book Festival decide to take up the challenge of giving young children access to quality books?

From the start, we have been committed to doing whatever we are able to in order to increase learners’ access to books. Books have such a far reaching impact on one’s life and understanding of the world in which we live.

Can you tell us a little about the school book project – what it involves and how it works?

Initially the Open Book School Project saw us putting libraries into schools, but we came to realise that those libraries were underused. What we do now is put boxes of library books – we call them Open Boxes – into classrooms so that teachers and learners have access to books throughout the day. We work with the teachers to ensure that the books are relevant to the learners.

Are there any grades you strategically choose to target, or is it different for every school?

We piloted the Open Box project at St Mary’s Primary in Cape Town and there we went through the entire school, donating boxes of books grade by grade. This year we worked with Siyazingisa and placed Open Boxes in each of their Grade R classes. We’re looking to work with another Grade R group in Gugulethu in 2019.

Of course, it’s not just books you give children access to, but also a culture of reading for enjoyment and fun. Can you tell us a little about the mentoring and event side of the project?

At each of the handovers, we run some kind of book related activity that’s designed to get the kids excited about reading. This depends a lot on the age group we are working with, so this past year has been a storytime and drawing which is always loads of fun.

What has the feedback been like, from teachers, kids and parents?

From teachers and kids, the feedback has been fantastic. It’s been particularly tricky this year to source a range of books in isiXhosa, though. Teachers we’ve worked with have understood that at times we have had to put English titles into the boxes, but we always try to stock a variety of fantastic, exciting stories in the children’s mother tongue.

What have some of your favourite moments been, working on this project?

Watching the kids get hooked into the stories that are being read to them is amazing. I don’t think it’s something anyone can get tired of! Lwandiso Ntanga of the Book Lounge has been central to the smooth running of the project in 2018. Watching him interact with the Grade R learners has been an absolute delight. The world missed out on a very gifted teacher when he went the route of bookseller! As a mother-tongue Xhosa speaker, he’s ideally suited to speak to the children and share his passion for books, too.

Lwandiso Ntanga and a group of riveted young bibliophiles

Why is it so important for young people to have access to exciting books in their own languages from an early age (and throughout their lives)?

Having the luxury of reading for pleasure is something we’d like everyone to have. Without books that resonate in one’s own language, though, that becomes more difficult. It’s through books and stories that so many of us are able to recognise ourselves. When books that speak to who you are in the language that you speak are missing, that’s a failure we are all responsible for fixing.

What can we all do to support and develop all SA children’s love for reading, no matter where we live in the country?

There are a number of organisations that work to get books into schools – Nal’ibali and Book Dash are great examples. See what’s happening in your area and double check that the books are actually well matched to the learners. See if you can join a group that visits schools. Check with your local public library what their youth programme is like.

How can people get involved with your specific project?

They can get in touch with me at

So often we make our literacy challenge the problem of individuals – people should donate more books, support more charities and so on. This often lets the big players off the hook. Ultimately, of course, today’s children without books become the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs supporting our economy. What role do you think businesses and government should be playing to take responsibility at a macro level?

I would love to see government increasing budgets to allow schools additional salaries to employ librarians. I would also like to see them putting money into growing children’s publishing across all languages in South Africa. On the corporate side, many companies already have projects of their own that target school learners in different ways. It would be fantastic to see more companies involved in supporting increased reading in some way, whether it’s through putting a book directly into someone’s hands, or whether it’s through supporting the creation of kids content.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

» read article

South African teen author’s debut novel goes international

Via Suvash Sooriah

Deliverance written by Christine Pather – is a compelling read as it tells a tale of survival of victims of abuse. The novel focuses on three teenage siblings and their far from glamourous lives despite being a part of an elitist family in New York City.

Christine Pather, former Wingen Heights (Durban) student, matriculated last year and has taken a gap year to pursue her literary dreams.

Christine wrote Deliverance when she was sixteen-years-old and has dedicated it to her mother.

Christine grew up being raised by a single mother and as a child, she was the first to witness her mom’s unyielding determination, strength and drive to go after what she wished hence Christine was strongly motivated to be and do the same. She’s always been an avid reader and this is what ultimately inspired her to write stories of her own.

While Deliverance is her first official publication, Christine is currently working on other projects.

Deliverance explores common but very rarely spoken about realities in the lives of our youth when it comes to issues such as abuse and homosexuality.

The story itself is unique in its own right and as are the characters.

The siblings each go through different transitions.

Kylar learns that he’s adopted which causes him to internally question himself and his life.

Skylar swore she’d never fall in love because she’d always been wary of the mere thought of getting close to someone but when she meets Evan that all changes.

Evan challenges her in ways she’d never thought possible and he also has the uncanny ability to see past her high-raised walls.

And lastly, Cameron who is the youngest of the three siblings, has the hardest time breaking free of the perception that he’s still a child that needs to be protected when in fact he is not.

Troubles further arise when Cameron is forced to deal with his own insecurities and even more so with his reluctance to accept who he really is. But, despite their differences (new and old alike), the trio eventually find themselves banded together on their quest for truth when they go in search of Kylar’s birth parents. As their questions and search gets deeper, they end up discovering more than what they’d originally bargained for.

Deliverance is now available on Amazon worldwide as both an E-book and a paperback and is also available as a nook book from Barnes & Noble – the world’s largest leading book retailers.

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Some people take Susan Lewis’s novels with them to the grave, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

The Secret Keeper is veteran author Susan Lewis’s 43rd novel.


The Secret Keeper ***
Susan Lewis, Century, R215

There are people who love Susan Lewis’s novels so much that they ask to be buried with them.

“I’ve never had this happen to me before. I don’t know how many writers this has happened to. But a reader told me recently that she just buried her sister-in-law and that her sister-in-law’s request was to take some of my books with her. Isn’t that amazing? I am so blown away by that – that you can touch someone with your books so much. It’s so extraordinary how readers do respond.”

No doubt people will respond to her latest book as well.

The Secret Keeper is Lewis’s 43rd book (including two memoirs). Set in Lewis’s fictional Kesterly-on-Sea, this time the focus is on Olivia, who is unwittingly drawn into intrigue. Her first love Sean is back on the scene, after she learnt to live without him for years. He is disrupting the life she has made with her husband, Richmond, and two children in the picturesque seaside town. Like Cabot Cove, there are quite a few murders in Kesterly-on-Sea but this book focuses more on how this tiny town gets dragged into the higher stakes of corruption and money laundering.

Lewis said she invented Kesterly-On-Sea when she started writing books about child abuse and social services.

“The best thing was to make it fictitious so I was never pointing a finger at any specific social services department. And then it moved on to writing something about the police, someone in the medical world, and I realised this was an extremely useful place to have as I didn’t offend people. And now I feel like I’m the mayor of Kersterly. The hilarious thing is that people write to me and say that they love Kesterly and want to know how to get to the city. People latch on to it.”

Lewis wanted this book to focus on how crime and corruption seep into our lives.

“Money laundering is a big issue. My book is a story of gullibility, and of how a man can get himself into a complete mess. I think it’s a warning to men.”

Lewis brings back one of her readers’ favourite characters, the ex-detective with a heart of gold, Andee Lawrence.

“When I introduced her in Behind Closed Doors, I never thought she would be a recurring character. Readers enjoy her and feel comfortable with her. Each time I bring her into a book it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.”

As for the title of the book, Lewis said she came up with it before she wrote it. “But having said that, I do think there is one person keeping a lot of secrets.”

Lewis is a prolific writer who releases two books a year. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I get into a rhythm. I have to deliver a book in June and one in December. I think the pace of that keeps me going. If I only did one book a year maybe things would collapse. Although maybe I’d have a life …” @Jenniferdplatt

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“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story.” Jonas Bonnier discusses his first true crime novel, The Helicopter Heist, with Mila de Villiers

Published in the Sunday Times

The Helicopter Heist is Swedish author Jonas Bonnier’s riveting first true crime novel. Author picture supplied.

The Helicopter Heist ****
Jonas Bonnier, Bonnier, R270

Nordic noir is all the rage nowadays – from Jo Nesbo to Henning Mankel to The Killing – yet Jonas Bonnier, author of the Scandi true crime thriller The Helicopter Heist, is “not at all interested in crime or crime novels”.

The Helicopter Heist is an exhilarating read based on the 2009 Västberga helicopter robbery; the heist was executed by four men and one spectacular helicopter roof-landing. The foursome broke into a Group 4 Securicor (G4S) cash depot in Stockholm, making off with 39-million kronor (about R88m). The criminals were caught. The money was never retrieved.

Marketed as “true crime fiction” (much to the affable Swede’s amusement), Bonnier states that he never considered writing a non-fiction account of the heist, reasoning that “I’m not a good non-fiction writer”.

Bonnier was approached by his agent to write the book; hesitant at first, he was persuaded when his agent asked him whether he would be interested in meeting the perpetrators.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve never met any of the characters in my book before’,” he laughs. (The Helicopter Heist is his ninth book.)

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story. I can’t even imagine this novel written by me if I hadn’t met them.” Meeting with them convinced him to write the book.

The eccentric millionaire character known as Zoran in thenbook (Bonnier provided pseudonyms for the four perps) made a profound impression on Bonnier. He describes the man as a “larger than life character” who had “just stepped out of a novel”. This owing to the fact that “Zoran” ordered a glass of lukewarm water which he didn’t touch once (a trait shared with the fictionalised version of the criminal) and his wealth and extravagant lifestyle (think annual trips to the Cannes Film Festival and horse races in Monte Carlo.)

“I fell so in love with this character!” says Bonnier.

The other three perpetrators who, despite previous incarcerations, remain involved in Sweden’s underworld, were eager to meet Bonnier.

“There’s this hierarchy in prison in Sweden and if you’re a robber you’re the shit,” Bonnier explains.

“And if you’re a robber and you used a helicopter – to some extent,” Bonnier interrupts himself, “I hadn’t used this word yet – but to some extent I think they’re proud of what they actually did.”

Bonnier maintains that the characters’ back stories are “very accurate”.

Zoran aside, the character of Sami is a petty thief-turned-family-man who reverts to his old ways; Michal, a charming and savvy Lebanese criminal who grew up in the impoverished suburbs of Stockholm; and the reckless adrenaline junkie, Niklas, whose appetite for adventure makes him agree to participate in the heist before one can say “Bloukrans bungee!”

During the “hours and hours” that Bonnier sat down with the four men, he did not once ask them about past crimes they’d committed, but focused on character sketches.

“I asked them if they played Nintendo or Sega as kids. I asked them very specific questions that I needed to get out of them, like ‘if you walk up to a bar, what do you order?’”

Bonnier believes two members of the heist squad have read the book and knows for certain that the Michal character had “loved it”.

“I specifically asked him what his friends thought and he said ‘no, no – everybody on every end-station likes it’.”

“End-stations” refers to the final stop of a Swedish subway route and they’re usually in very rough neighbourhoods. “So, the criminals enjoy it!” Bonnier relays with unbridled mirth.

As The Helicopter Heist is based on true events, Bonnier had to maintain a balance between fact and fiction; he says it is “tricky”. Readers would regularly ask him if particular passages were true, and after delivering his first draft to his publishers, he was told that a certain scene was not believable. “Well, that scene was something true!” says Bonnier.

Bonnier used the age-old adage of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction to his advantage: “I realised that nobody would be able to tell the truth apart from fiction and if I had presented the book as ‘pages one to five are true and then there’s some fiction’, I would have skipped the fiction parts. So I tell them it’s all true!” he chortles.

That the criminals were able to pull off the heist was “almost unbelievable”, says Bonnier. He was fascinated by how the foursome went about planning the heist: “I mean, to blow up a roof is not just to blow up a roof! You have to use so many different techniques and find roofs in Stockholm that are constructed in the same way [as the roof of the GS4] and try it out.

“It’s amazing! I really enjoyed listening to them telling their stories. I also learned a lot about explosives,” he says, cracking up.

This is the first time Bonnier set out to write commercial fiction and he describes the experience as more time consuming than usual as he had less free rein with the content and was reliant on the advice of his publishers and crime-fiction writers. “I didn’t know how to write a crime novel.”

“I tried! I really tried!” is the exasperated response when asked whether he read any crime novels as preparation for writing The Helicopter Heist. “I watched maybe 40 movies – I love movies, and I generally like crime and thriller,” says the Oceans 11 fanatic.

Bonnier isn’t the only fan of heist movies – his gripping romp has been commissioned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company and will be released as a Netflix film. Bonnier is credited as a co-producer which, according to him, means that “I might be copied in one of the many e-mails that go around.”

Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) will be responsible for the script.

“This is a large production, no way will they involve some amateur from Sweden,” Bonnier laughs. “But names are good. Big names are good, especially Jake Gyllenhaal.”

As for what’s next – if it doesn’t involve having to kill off a main character (“I get very, very attached to my characters, as long as they’re alive they’re interesting”), or a disillusioned, divorced drunkard of a detective as protagonist (this man really has it in for his fellow Scandi scribes!) – Bonnier’s definitely interested in trying his hand at a second true crime thriller. If only for the fact that the genre definition makes him snigger. Ja, tak! @mila_se_kind

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Which turn will the 21st century take? Michele Magwood talks to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari about the challenges facing humankind

Published in the Sunday Times

21 Lessons for the 21st Century *****
Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape, R320

“In a world deluged by irrelevant information,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, “clarity is power.”

The slight, unassuming Israeli historian shot to fame with his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind which was originally published in Hebrew. He followed it up with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Together they have sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into 45 languages.

Harari is a boldly original thinker and credits the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation for his focus and insight. He meditates for two hours a day and for one or two months of the year takes a silent retreat with no books or social media. He is a vegan and chooses not to use a smartphone.

Now, having scrutinised the course of human history and forecast the future of the species, Harari presents 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which drills into the here and now and the immediate future of human societies. What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? he asks. Where are we heading and what should we pay attention to? Divided into sections like “The Technological Challenge”, “Despair and Hope” and “Resilience” the book presents a deeply disquieting view. “As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try and offer some clarity.”

Yuval Noah Harari. Picture: Olivier Middendorp.


Here he answers questions for the Sunday Times:

What do you believe are the high-road and low-road scenarios in the 21st century? What is the best we can aspire to and what is the worst to fear?

The twin revolutions in biotechnology and information technology will give us godlike powers of creation and destruction. But technology doesn’t tell us how to use it. In the 20th century, some societies used the powers of electricity, trains and radio to create totalitarian dictatorships while other societies used exactly the same powers to create liberal democracies. Biotech and infotech can also be used to create very different kinds of societies.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that humankind will split into different biological castes, resulting in a situation far worse than apartheid. Artificial intelligence will push hundreds of millions of people out of the job market and into a new “useless class”. People will lose their economic worth and their political power. At the same time, bioengineering will make it possible to upgrade a small elite into super-humans. Revolt and resistance will be almost impossible due to a total surveillance regime that constantly monitors not just what every individual does and says, but even what every individual feels and thinks.

The best-case scenario is that the new technologies will liberate all humans from the burden of disease and hard labour and enable everyone to explore and develop their full potential. Bioengineering will focus on curing the needy rather than on upgrading the rich. Artificial intelligence will indeed eliminate many jobs, but the resulting profits will be used to provide everyone with free basic services, and to allow everyone the opportunity to pursue their dreams, in the field of art, sports, religion or community-building. State-of-the-art surveillance will be used to spy not on the citizens, but on the government, to make sure there is no corruption.

Which of these scenarios will come true?

At present, we seem to be heading towards the dystopian scenario, mainly due to growing global tensions. You cannot regulate bioengineering and artificial intelligence on the national level. For example, if most countries ban genetic-engineering of human babies, but China allows it, very soon everybody will copy the Chinese, because nobody would like to stay behind. The only way to effectively regulate such disruptive technologies is through global co-operation.

What role will religion, ethics and morality play in the 21st century? Are we “playing God”, for example, with bioengineering?

Ethics will be more important than ever, because humankind will be more powerful than ever. When you have the power to re-engineer life, your views on “right” and “wrong” acquire cosmic importance. But you don’t need religion in order to have a good moral compass. For morality doesn’t mean “obeying God” – morality means “reducing suffering”. In order to act morally, you just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.

Secular people abstain from murder not because some god forbids it, but because killing inflicts suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so”. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches or gays?

And it is noteworthy that secular morality really works. The most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world such as Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands are secular. In contrast, deeply religious countries such as Iraq and Pakistan tend to be violent and poor. @michelemagwood

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“I got inspired to write for children after I had my son” – a Q&A with poet Primrose Mrwebi

Nal’ibali Column 25: Term 3, 2018

By Carla Lever

Poet Primrose Mrwebi. Picture supplied.

You’ve written for magazines like Fair Lady, taught young up-and-coming writers and even performed your poetry at the opening of Parliament in 2004. Do you have a favourite experience of where your storytelling has taken you?

Every experience matters! Being a magazine journalist taught me a lot about looking at the world objectively, performing in Parliament meant that the whole country was listening to my voice and my art, and teaching young people gives me a spiritual feeling of finally coming to meet the purpose of my talent.

Now it seems you’re creating opportunities for others to find their talent. You held your own self-funded poetry competition – PrimPoetry – in Khayelitsha earlier this year. What was that like?

The competition left me with sleepless nights for days. I am so inspired by the talent that exists in our communities – the language skills of those poets are exceptional.

Why do you think it’s important for people to give back to their communities when they’re able?

It’s one of the ways that we can bring positive change in our world. It also eliminates the culture of complaining too much and doing nothing! One of my mantras is “If you want something and it’s not there, start it yourself and invite like-minded people to join you.”

PrimPoetry allowed people to enter for free and to perform poems in Afrikaans, isiXhosa or English. Why do you think we need more opportunities that are open to all, regardless of income or home language?

For so many centuries a lot of people have felt excluded due to their race or class. That’s not fair. If we truly want to live in a world without exclusion, we need to begin on a journey that leads us there.

Are there any more plans for competitions that people can enter?

We had one at the Rainbow Art Organisation in Delft on Saturday the 8 of September and we will be having others in the very near future. We always do a call out on our PrimPoetry Facebook Page, so keep an eye on that if you’re interested in entering.

Can you tell us a little about the children’s book you’re working on for isiXhosa and English learners?

I got inspired to write for children after I had my son. I suddenly wanted to speak in a language that children can understand. This is a collection of stories that I think will make an impact on children today. It’s also important that I write in my mother tongue because there is clearly not many books that are written in our home languages.

What kinds of resources and opportunities do our young people need to make sure they grow up loving books and confident about telling their own stories?

Children need to have libraries close to their homes. They need their parents or siblings to take the time to read to them, to be taken to storytelling clubs, book clubs or recreational centres. People like us need to bring the skills we have to our communities so that we can create that change.

Do you have any advice or encouragement for people interested in starting a poetry or storytelling event in their own communities?

Identify people that have interest in poetry and start a group. Share ideas and ask for advice from organisations, or people that work with poetry and literature. People are wonderful resources!

Nal’ibali’s annual multilingual storytelling competition is running this September for Literacy and Heritage Month. Aimed at reviving a love of storytelling amongst adults and children, and connecting South Africans to their rich and vibrant heritage, the theme of this year’s contest is South African Heroes. Enter by telling the story of your favourite SA icon, your personal hero, or a fictional hero in your language, and you could be crowned this year’s Story Bosso! To find out more about Nal’ibali and Story Bosso, visit,, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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In an exclusive interview, Kate Atkinson talks to Michele Magwood about spying, Brexit, and World War II

Published in the Sunday Times

Transcription ****
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, R290

Kate Atkinson was immersed in the National Archives in London when a set of documents caught her eye. Part of one of MI5’s periodic releases of historical records, they concerned a WW2 agent with the code name “Jack King” who infiltrated fascist circles. He posed as a Gestapo agent and would meet members of the so-called “fifth column” in an innocent-looking flat with hidden recording devices. Next door a junior agent transcribed the meetings.

On the telephone from the UK Atkinson describes how it sparked the idea for the new novel.

“I have to have a title before I can even think about a book, so as soon as I’d read those transcriptions I had it. And then I looked up the OED definition and found it is also a word for broadcasting so it fitted perfectly, because I wanted to write about the BBC in wartime.”

Atkinson’s last two books Life After Life and A God in Ruins – both winners of the Costa Prize – were set in World War 2 and she’s nowhere near done with it yet.

Transcription is a story about ambiguity and duplicity, about idealism, loyalty and the lifelong price of those.

Juliet Armstrong is just 18 and an orphan when she is recruited by the secret service in 1940.

Initially she is the typist who transcribes the interviews taking place in the flat next door. She’s a sharp young woman with a delightfully derisive interior voice: for example, her boss is describing the fifth columnists. “Our own home-grown evil … instead of rooting them out the plan is to let them flourish – but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.” A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. “Very nicely put, Sir,” she said.

“I never design a character,” says Atkinson. “I write very, very slowly at the beginning of a novel and that helps to get into that interior voice. I’m inside their heads. But I don’t construct them – they simply exist. I don’t understand the neurological process, the imaginative process that helps that to occur.”

Juliet is not particularly ambitious, she is more interested in romance and going to dance halls, but her boss promotes her to undercover agent. At first she thinks it is a bit of a lark but it quickly becomes deadly serious and she learns, appallingly, what the consequences of espionage can be. As the book moves forward to 1950 and even further to 1981, we wonder whether she can ever be free of the war.

“I’m really interested in the postwar period,” Atkinson explains, “the 10 years after the war. It was so dingy and hard, there was no sense of euphoria, no money, no food still.”

Romanian actress Nadia Gray in the BBC studios, London, England, December 14 1950. Picture: Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

Juliet goes to work for the BBC where she produces nostalgic history programmes for children. It’s a safe and uneventful life, until the intelligence services reel her in for one last job.

Atkinson is bemused by the prevailing Brexit jingoism, the idea of a brave Great Britain standing proudly alone in the war.

“I think the war makes us very nostalgic, and let’s not forget that our view of the war is filtered through the propaganda of the time: the Blitz spirit and so on. When in fact crime rates rocketed, illegitimacy rocketed, people complained a lot. Everything was destroyed. Also, we fought for Europe and now we want to let it go, that to me is slightly mystifying.”

Is there more to be revealed from archives?

“Yes, I think there is. The MI5 and secret service archives are sealed – it’s not like the public records where everything gets released after 40 or 50 years – they only release to the public what they choose to, so I imagine there’s a great deal more. But in a way it was an untried service in the war. They were still learning. When you think about what it must be like now, just the technological aspect of what they must be doing, we really don’t know.

“But we don’t know what we don’t know, do we?” @michelemagwood

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