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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

“Books are an investment in a child’s life” – a Q&A with award-winning edu-designer and social activist Paul Talliard

Nal’ibali column published in: Sunday World (25/02/2018), Daily Dispatch (26/02/2018), Herald (01/03/2018)

By Carla Lever

Paul Talliard

Hands of Honour is project that trains unemployed people to build furniture, like your beautiful mobile classroom units that encourage children to read and learn more in schools. How did you get the idea for starting Hands of Honour?

Actually, rather like our classroom furniture, the idea “unfolded” in front of my eyes. Hands of Honour started as a support group run by me for young and adult men who found it difficult to return to mainstream society after making wrong choices in life. In my case, my fondness for crack cocaine cost me my job as a fireman, as well as my loved ones and home. One day someone told me of some artificial Christmas trees that a large retail chain wanted to dump. Together with some friends at our soup kitchen we collected, fixed and sold the tree. We made R8000 rather quickly and were hooked!

But then I then had a brainwave. The soup kitchen was held in two dilapidated classrooms at the local primary school. I used R4000 of the money and we gave the classrooms a makeover. We sent photos of the makeover to folk in the retail chain, and the rest is history. Our donations of unwanted goods became bigger and better and our makeover projects became bolder…but the real makeover was happening with the men. In the seven years we’ve been doing this, dozens of men have come through our program, never to return to the soup kitchen or drugs and crime again.

What adaptable features make the Angel Classroom design so special and useful for practical classroom activities?

There are so many! The Angel Classroom on Wheels not only has books, but has educational toys installed that were chosen by early education expert. It has a secret fold out bench that doubles as a work-desk. It’s mobile and in one swift move it transforms into a puppet theatre, complete with puppets! The front section is chalkboard. The rear is a painting easel complete with canvass, paint and brushes as well as fold-out activity boards. It’s basically a mobile storytelling and learning unit.

You build many beautiful upcycled designs with Hands of Honour. What made you realise that there was a very specific need for classroom tools?

We donated one of the first units to one of a local township school. When we arrived, I got the shock of my life – the class we visited only had six “readers” for over thirty children. One of the little boys, a skinny lad of about six, had a huge black eye. When I asked him what happened to him, he just hugged me. This experience drove me to do some more research and what I discovered was downright sad. This is now my life’s mission, that with our Angel Classroom on Wheels, and with other likeminded people, we will transform these children into the next generation of leaders and problem solvers.

What personal feedback have you had from teachers and young learners?

So far, we have built and delivered 88 Angel Classrooms and have received great feedback. Teachers are full of praise, while it is always a moment of joy when a unit is folded one to reveal the delights and adventures inside.

In 2014, you won the Spark ‘Changemaker of the Year’ award and it’s easy to see why. Can you tell us a little about the social and community impact that you’ve found particularly heartwarming?

For a start, many really good men don’t spend their days in soup kitchens anymore. I’m glad I had the chance to speak hope into people’s lives, although actually it’s them who have given me hope to carry on. One guy stands out in particular: a member of the notorious 26 prison gang who once lived in a car. Nowadays he travels the country as a Safety Officer for a rigging company. Well done!

Why is access to books for children so important and how can we all help?

Of all the resources we put into the Angel Classrooms, we find books to be the one of the most expensive. We have many good people who send us books, but we would love more! They are an investment in a child’s life, but we as a country also reap responsible, capable citizens at the end of the day.

How can people support building these classroom resources?

We’d like to invite anyone to sponsor a unit. The social impact is huge – children will have a better chance of succeeding academically and more jobs will be created for people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to support themselves. Take a look at our website or contact me if you would like to assist in any way at

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

“I think a child without anyone to tell them stories is an abandoned child” – a Q&A with author and JRB City Editor, Niq Mhlongo

Nal’ibali Column 6, published in the Sunday World (18/02/2018), Daily Dispatch (19/02/2018), Herald (22/02/2018)

By Carla Lever

Niq Mhlongo, author and City Editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books

How do you think storytelling helps us understand place – can it make sense of where we are from?

It’s really fundamental. If Joseph Conrad didn’t write Heart of Darkness I don’t think people like Donald Trump would have had the audacity to call African countries ‘sh*tholes’. Perhaps is he had been forced to read Emecheta, Laye, Mphahlele, Ngugi and others he would have had a clear understanding of Africa.

So much of our cultural geography is imported – TV shows and novels glamorise places like New York or Paris. At the same time, African cities tend to be written about, often in negative terms, by outsiders. Why is it important that we write about African places and cities and create our own literary maps?

Someone once told me that the biggest commodity that America was able to sell to Africa was its culture. I agree. Cultural geography, as you call it, is a very powerful tool that powerful countries have used to dominate other countries. When South Africans today talk about ‘decolonization’ I think it is a legitimate appeal to break away from, among other things, the shackles of cultural dominance. So when authors write about African places and cities they contribute a lot in creating our own literary maps that have been disregarded by the imposed colonial narratives of places and spaces that we live in.

Your upcoming book Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree, takes us into the places you were born and raised in. Can you tell us a little about why you wrote the book and how it felt to be making a place meaningful to people through your writing?

I wrote Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree because I could not find a good written story about Soweto that I could read and actually identify with. I was tired of the meaning of Soweto always being confined to Vilakazi Street and the Twin Towers. I decided to write that story I was searching for myself – in fact, as an insider, it made perfect sense that I do it!

You have weaved African oral traditions, cultural practices and storytelling traditions into your previous novels, too – I’m thinking here particularly of your novel Way Back Home. What does it mean to you to be called an African author? Is that a useful description or one you find unnecessary?

There is no problem being called an African author. It all depends on the context in the context in which the name is used. If it means that my writing is inferior compared to the so-called ‘European author’ or ‘American author’, then such a name is already loaded with negativity.

I know you write adult fiction, but you have written for children too! Can you tell us a little about writing for the TV series Magic Cellar and why projects that get young people excited about stories are so important?

Ah, let me not exaggerate my involvement with Magic Cellar. In fact, I only wrote one script for them. But the project trained me as a children’s story writer. During the same period I actually wrote a script for children based on African folktales. It was animated for a children’s program on SABC 2…so I suppose I learned something!

I think a child without anyone to tell them stories is an abandoned child. Stories make all of us happy, and give us a sense of belonging in society. They guide us and give us hope in the world. Any project that give young people that kind of wholeness deserves full support from everyone.

What changes would you like to see in the South African literary scene? Are there things (maybe organisations, new spaces for writers or publishing initiatives) that you find exciting?

I would like to see a full government involvement in the South African literary scene by supporting any literary project, especially projects that make children read. I would like to see government officials and schools reading and prescribing more South African literature. I would like to see more political leaders at the ABANTU Book Festival this year and years to come. The JRB, ABANTU, Nal’ibali, Longstory Short are some of the most important literary projects in South Africa today which give me a right to write.

How can we get more children excited about reading, particularly proud of our own, rich African literary heritage?

We need to prescribe more South African books and make things like Shakespeare optional in our school curriculum. In that way we can show them our rich African literary heritage.

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:

Book details
Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree


Way Back Home

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Read Carla Lever’s Q&A with Wade Smit, founder of the isiZulu publisher Kwasukela Books

Nal’ibali Column 4, Term 1, 2018: Published in Sunday World (04/02), Daily Dispatch (05/02), Herald (08/02)

Wade Smit, founder: Kwasukela Books

How was the idea for Kwasukela Books born?

It was after seeing so little new isiZulu fiction published and marketed, and having nowhere to submit my own isiZulu fiction.

It seems quite unbelievable that there are not more indigenous language publishers in South Africa. Why do you think English is assumed to be the only marketable language for cultural expression?

African-language literature is not yet seen as a valid expression of culture. It is seen, by those who can’t or don’t read literature in South African languages, as more of a curiosity. Retailers have only just caught on to the huge possibilities in the local market – I think publishers haven’t quite caught up yet.

Do you plan to expand into other indigenous languages or are you solely an isiZulu imprint?

It’s definitely an idea we’ve thought about a lot, and I wouldn’t rule it out, but for now we want to focus on quality isiZulu literature.

Your first title is a collection of short stories titled Izinkanyezi Ezintsha (New Stars). What kinds of stories can readers find inside?

Readers can expect to find an interesting mix of seven stories. Fans of Nnedi Okorafor-style fantasy will like uZuzile and uNtsika eZweni leseThembiso. Another story iMpi kaSikhulumi noHlokohloko is a lot like a Southern African Lord of the Rings. And, of course, we have Fred Khumalo’s Kwakungcono eGibhithe – his first published isiZulu short story.

How hard was it narrowing down your selection?

The submissions we received made it very easy for us. We were sent a number of well-written, compelling stories, but ultimately it was the writers who followed the speculative fiction theme that produced the most standout work.

You’ve talked a little in a previous interview about “colonial economies” embedded into the publishing industry. What kinds of sticking points did you encounter with publishing your first isiZulu short story collection?

Well, we have only just begun on our journey, but so far the biggest obstacles are people’s assumptions. Oddly enough, you have to convince them that complex isiZulu literature exists and deserves to be appreciated.

Tell us a little about the kinds of existing opportunities and communities for indigenous-language writers and readers in South Africa?

For creative writers there are radio dramas, screenwriting, and school set works. But these are highly competitive and there is not much space for new authors. For readers there are public libraries and, slowly, retail stores that sometimes stock copies of local indigenous-language literature. There are also thriving communities of tens of thousands of isiZulu writers and readers on Facebook who support each other, provide feedback, and hungrily await the next serialised installment in their groups.

How are you distributing and selling the collection?

We do direct sales at, and we are currently working on getting our books into more and more independent bookstores. Bridge Books and will soon be stocking Izinkanyezi Ezintsha, so you can follow us on social media to find out when that will be.

What has the response been like so far?

It’s been exhilarating – not too long ago this was all just an idea, and now it’s real. I’ve had so many ideas come and go that when people just acknowledge Kwasukela Books and Izinkanyezi Ezintsha I want to ask, “Who told you?” People are excited and so am I!

What’s up next?

We have more titles that we’re working on getting published, including Izinkanyezi Ezintsha Volume 2 and a collection of short stories by a familiar writer. You’ll have to follow us on social media to keep up with what we’re doing next.

Why is it important for people to have access to quality literature in their mother tongue?

Art is a way of breathing. As far as art in our own languages goes, in South Africa we are gasping.


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

And our sunshine noir author for February is … Fred Strydom!

A new month calls for a new sunshine noir author sending shivers down the spines of local thriller fans…

This month, the co-author of the popular Detective Kubu series, Michael Sears, had the opportunity to interview Fred Strydom for The Big Thrill – the magazine for international thriller writers.

Critics and readers alike raved about Strydom’s latest novel, The Inside-Out Man, a psychological thriller exploring themes of alienation, identity and madness.

Here’s what the two thriller aficionados chatted about:

Fred Strydom’s debut novel The Raft caused a big stir on the South African literary scene in 2015, and The Inside-Out Man is just as intriguing. It starts with a simple premise – a rich man seeks absolute isolation to come to grips with his life. But after that, the novel twists and turns until we come to realize that everything we thought we knew about the characters and the plot may also have been inside-out.

Fred studied film and media at the University of Cape Town and works as a scriptwriter in Johannesburg, where he lives with his wife, son, two dogs, cat, and two horses. I asked him a bit more about himself and his remarkable book.

What drew you to writing novels, when did you start, and how does the process work for you?

I think it’s fair to say I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been reading. Even as a kid, I saw in the books I read the freedom and potential to create stories of my own. Writing is immediate in that way – there’s a long way to go before attempting your first film, for example – and a pen, pad, and some version of a sanctuary is all you need to get started. As privileged as I have been to collaborate in other creative spaces as an adult, from doccies to film to songwriting, in the end, writing remains my most borderless, accessible, and honest form of individualistic expression. If anything, I can say that even as a published author, I’m probably less of a writer than I used to be as a kid. My craft may have been honed, but there’s a reckless abandon I had as a kid that I miss – free of pretense, insecurity, and conformity. In some ways, I believe I’m working towards finding my way back to that beautifully careless, uninhibited state of creativity I once had, applying the tricks of syntax and semantics I’ve learned along the way, but coming home to a truer, bolder me.

The premise of The Inside-Out Man is that a guy is to be locked into a room in his house for a year with absolutely no contact with the outside world except having food supplied through a slot in the door. It’s solitary confinement, but the twist is that the rich, bored victim wants it, indeed is passionate about it. He hopes to be able to find himself once all the world’s distractions are removed. Then things go horribly wrong.

How did you come up with the idea?

Every idea starts as a seed. The seed could be an image, a song, a moment. For this book, the seed was the image of a door, and by virtue of this fact, a room. I can’t tell you why the image of a door intrigued me, but that’s for the story gods to explain. If the image is captivating enough (and you’ll know, because it’s the one you can’t let go of), you’ll begin a process of internal questions, each serving to extend a stem from the seed. What’s behind the door? Is it a person? Did the person get locked in there by someone, and if so, why? That’s one potential stem. Now that you have it, you take a couple steps back and explore the alternative: the person wasn’t put in there by anyone, and took it upon himself to do it. Okay, here’s your second potential stem, and in some inexplicable way, a more intriguing one. From that point, you run with it, question after question, choice after choice. Bottom line, ideas don’t fall like pennies from heaven, waiting to be caught. They claw and crawl from the dirt, fighting for the light.

The Inside-Out Man is impossible to pigeon hole, but let’s call it a psychological thriller. It explores alienation, identity, and madness. Was the premise a means to that end or did you start with the premise and allow Bent to develop?

I try not to decide what the themes of the book are going to be before I write it. If I do, the themes end up contrived, superficial, even preachy. Also, I believe themes should be what the reader derives, not necessarily what the writer deliberately infuses. I’m gunning for entertainment first and foremost. Along the way, as the plot unfolds and the characters are fleshed out, the choices in what they say and do (or don’t say and don’t do), lean towards particular philosophies and themes and whatever else. In the end, if the characters are real enough, if enough respect has been given to their motivations, the subtexts will come through naturally.

Continue reading their conversation here.

The Inside-Out Man

Book details

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“We think it’s important that the world becomes more aware of what readers in Africa are thinking” – a Q&A with the Johannesburg Review of Books editor, Jennifer Malec

By Carla Lever

Originally published in the Sunday World: 28 January, 2018; Daily Dispatch: 29 January, 2018; Herald: 1 February, 2018. (Nal’ibali Column 3: Term 1).

Jennifer Malec, editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books

The Johannesburg Review of Books was introduced to local (and international!) bibliophiles in May 2017. Carla Lever recently conducted an interview with editor, Jennifer Malec, discussing the impact of an African critical voice, why they don’t italicise South African languages in their stories, and how we can get more South Africans to start reading for pleasure:

What is The Johnnesburg Review of Books and how did it come about?

JRB is an independent monthly literary review based in Johannesburg. We publish reviews, essays, poetry, photographs and short fiction from South Africa, Africa and beyond. You can subscribe for free at

There are many hugely respected reviews of books globally – the Paris or New York reviews spring to mind – but this is the first African city to claim a space. What kind of impact does the presence of an African critical voice have?

When a new ‘big’ international book is published, we know very quickly what the ‘big’ literary centres of the world think of it. But there is no city-based literary review in Africa, so we don’t hear the opinions of Lagos, Cairo, Kinshasa and so on. We think it’s important that the world becomes more aware of what readers in Africa are thinking.

What role do you see The JRB playing in global and African cultural debates?

In a global context we like to think we are writing back to centres of power as well as demonstrating the value of African voices.

You have an interesting editorial policy about not italicising South African languages in stories. Can you tell us a little about the thinking behind that?

In South Africa most people understand two if not three or four languages, so the question becomes, to whom are these words ‘foreign’? In South Africa, non-English words are not adding ‘flavour’, they are simply a demonstration of how we speak.

We want to give our writers and readers the opportunity to inhabit the story. And our philosophy is, if you don’t understand something, you can always ask. We’re readily available on Facebook and Twitter, and on our website comment section.

What has reader response been like?

Very positive! It’s great to see people responding to longer writing online, when the dominant view seems to be that people want their reading shorter and simpler.

Tell us a little about the kind of work you’ve been able to feature.

We have a number of established literary voices as regular contributors. Soweto-based author Niq Mhlongo is our City Editor. In our June issue he wrote about how he was the one to name Joburg’s famous Maboneng district, inspired by a line in one of his novels. Bongani Madondois a Contributing Editor, and we’re very proud of his explosive review of Koleka Putuma’s debut poetry collection Collective Amnesia, which we featured in our first issue. Other regular contributors are Percy Zvomuya, who is our literary detective, finding fascinating and obscure African books to highlight, and Efemia Chela, who writes a regular series called the Temporary Sojourner where she ‘travels’ throughout Africa by reading the best fiction from around the continent. We also regularly feature Wamuwi Mbao, who we count as one of South Africa’s top reviewers, and have published some wonderful poetry, curated by our Poetry Editor Rustum Kozain.

What have been some of the most exciting moments or stories for you personally?

Some of our biggest thrills have come from publishing new and emerging voices. We were delighted to be the first to publish Love Back – a short story by East London-born writer Julie Nxadi in our July issue. It’s truly remarkable, and was extremely popular with our readers. We since featured Julie again in our December Fiction Issue, and she’s currently working on an anthology. One of the stand-out moments was publishing our first piece entirely in a language other than English, namely Fred Khumalo’s first-ever published story in isiZulu, which we featured in our January Conversation Issue. We hope to be able to do more of this in future.

How do we get more South Africans reading for pleasure?

We’re starting to see if that if stories are good, people will read them. Now it just remains for us to establish what ‘good’ is for a current South African reader, because it may not be what has been considered ‘good’ in the past.

Also, the importance of reading aloud to children and introducing children to books they enjoy cannot be overstated. A common thread in many of the interviews we do with African authors is that they fell in love with reading as a child, usually through reading ‘popular’ books like Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl or Sweet Valley High, and then solidified that love when they were teenagers through books they could relate to in some way. What that says to me is that if we create children’s books that children can relate to, we can get them hooked on reading.

Help Nal’ibali read aloud to one million children this World Read Aloud Day, Thursday 01 February! Visit the Nal’ibali webpage at to sign up and download the brand-new story by acclaimed South African author, Zukiswa Wanner, in any official South African language. You’ll be joining a wave of adults across the country reading to children and raising awareness of the importance of this simple yet effective activity.

» read article

“It’s a spectacular feeling!” Acclaimed author Katherine Rundell on winning the Costa Children’s Book Award for The Explorer

By Mila de Villiers

Katherine Rundell has been announced as the winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award 2017!

Originally established as The Whitbread Book of the Year, the Costa Book Awards honour some of the most outstanding books of the year written by authors based in the UK or Ireland.

Rundell, the niece of the late Tim Couzens, was recently awarded this prestigious award for her riveting adventure story, The Explorer, published by Bloomsbury.

Here she discusses her lauded book, recounts swimming with pink river dolphins, and offers us a sneak peek of her forthcoming titles…

What does it feel like to be the recipient of an award which has been awarded (please excuse my redundancy!) to the likes of Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman, JK Rowling, Chris Riddell, and Frances Hardinge?

It’s a spectacular feeling! To have won the award that was given to so many of my heroes is staggering enough – but, most wonderful of all, the publicity that comes with it means that the book might make its way into more children’s hands – which is the thing that every writer longs for.

Were you expecting this response at all?

Not at all! The shortlist was formidable – three writers whose work I love, all of whom are very different – so to have won was a real shock. A very happy one!

Could you tell our readers a bit more about The Explorer? What inspired you to write it? Can we expect something similar from you in the future?

The Explorer is about four children, whose plane crash lands in the Amazon rainforest and find themselves surviving alone, making cocoa grub pancakes. They find a map, which leads them down the river on a raft, to a ruined city. They discover there’s an explorer living there, and that he has a secret.

I went to the Amazon myself a few years ago, and swam with the wild pink river dolphins, and it remains the most beautiful place I have ever seen – I wanted to offer children that landscape, and that excitement.

The next book will be very different, but will, like The Explorer, have adventure at its heart – and, for the next book, a bit of crime, as well.

The Explorer

Book details

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The managing director at Cover2Cover Books discusses SA’s publishing industry, literacy development in children and the joy of reading

Published in the Sunday World (21/01/2018), Daily Dispatch (22/01/2018), Herald (25/01/2018)

By Carla Lever

Palesa Morudu, managing director at Cover2Cover Books


What was your own personal journey to the world of writing and publishing? Why are books important to you?

My journey started with a book! Reading helped me to round out my understanding of how human beings interact with the planet, which sparked my interest in writing. In fact, I soon came to understand that readers make better writers. So books are important to me because they help me expand my knowledge about the world; they also help me be a better writer.

A recent global study placed South African literacy levels as the worst in the world, with 8 out of 10 grade fours being unable to read for meaning in any language. Are there any good examples of industry leaders responding to huge national challenge?

The recent PIRLS results were shocking. Perhaps this has the potential to galvanize a national effort to finally deal with what is essentially a national crisis. The Nal’ibali reading for pleasure campaign as well as the FunDza Literacy Trust are very important interventions to build on – take a look at their work and free resources online. However, to build a culture of reading, South Africa needs business and government to get on board on a massive scale to make sure that books are available in each and every household.

What will it take to get SA reading for enjoyment, not just for school?

It has to do with what the publishing industry puts out in the market. Readers want to see themselves in stories, and even better if the stories are well told. I’m excited by content that’s relevant locally but with themes that resonate universally.

You’ve said before that there’s huge potential in the South African market. Are there any special interest gaps you have identified and what kind of material is proving a success with these?

In 2010 Cover2Cover Books identified what we termed the “township teen” as big gap in the market. Apart from school textbooks, no one was writing for this large and exciting demographic. That translates to millions of teenagers not reading for pleasure because no one was writing for them. That same year we launched our flagship series ‘Harmony High,’ which is set in a fictional township high school. It has been a major hit, with thousands of previously reluctant readers now being hooked on the ten titles in its series. We are inundated with feedback from high-school teachers and librarians, whose students just can’t get enough. The formula is simple: the kids see themselves in the characters, the plots are pacy, there is tension and drama, and the stories are well written. We intend to scale up in 2018, working with our partner the FunDza Literacy Trust, to set up more township and rural reading clubs so we can get many more of our books to South African teens.

You’ve even been using social media to promote literacy through mobile reading clubs! Can you tell us a little about how you’re combining hard copy books and virtual worlds to get readers engaged?

FunDza runs “library on the mobile” programme. Because many young people are hooked on their mobile devices, what better way to bring them books and stories than on their favourite platform? FunDza downlaods some of Cover2Cover’s content on its mobisite and readers can access stories through the FunDza app on their mobile devices. It’s a great new way to engage and it ultimately means more people get to read in a way that works for them.

National Read Aloud Day is on 1 February and there are a range of exciting initiatives planned. How can people get involved?

Nal’ibali will go big on February 1 with a campaign to get South Africans to read aloud to one million children with the #WRADChallenge2018. I encourage everyone to take part in the campaign by going to, downloading the free story ‘The Final Minute’ especially written for the day by Zukiswa Wanner and pledging to read it to children on 1 February. It’s available in a range of South African languages, too!

Help Nal’ibali read aloud to one million children this World Read Aloud Day, Thursday 01 February! Visit the Nal’ibali webpage at to sign up and download the brand-new story by acclaimed South African author, Zukiswa Wanner, in any official South African language. You’ll be joining a wave of adults across the country reading to children and raising awareness of the importance of this simple yet effective activity.

» read article

Man Booker Prize winner, Richard Flanagan, on his new novel

Published in the Sunday Times

First Person
Richard Flanagan
Chatto & Windus, R290

Richard Flanagan has long been an eloquent advocate for the novel form. Soon after his sixth novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, garnered the 2014 Man Booker Prize he reiterated his belief in the indestructibility of novels, and declared “they allow us to come closer to certain truths for which we have few tools to otherwise comprehend”.

So it’s no surprise that he should peer deep into the nature of lies and truth, memoir and fiction in his seventh novel, First Person. But that it should speak so presciently to the nature of our times is something the 56-year-old Australian author shrugs off as “an accident of history”.

Indeed, First Person was seeded back in 1991 by his experiences when, as a young novice writer, he agreed to ghostwrite the memoir of Australia’s then most notorious conman and corporate criminal, John Friedrich, in six weeks for A$10 000. “Half-way through the six weeks Friedrich shot himself,” recalls Flanagan, “and I was left having to invent his memoir”.

Flanagan completed Codename Iago, declaring: “I can vouch for the veracity of none of it” before going on to carve out a luminous literary career with novels that include Gould’s Book of Fish, Wanting, The Unknown Terrorist and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as the years passed, he says: “I thought often about Friedrich and this bizarre small delirium he’d created that had fleeced millions of dollars out of banks and investors and how, in so many ways, he spoke to the coming age, this new world we’re now living in. I wanted to use that small experience to create a larger story about the world that was coming into being.”

He’s done that and more besides in First Person, which tells of a ghostwriter who is haunted by his conman subject. Narrated by Kif Kehlmann, a reality-TV producer who recalls when, as a young, penniless writer, he agreed to write the memoir of notorious conman and corporate criminal Siegfried Heidl in six weeks for $10000, it is an elegantly written tale. Sometimes comic, often dark, even disturbing, it lingers in the mind long after reading. For Kehlmann enters a Faustian bargain the moment he enters Heidl’s world, a world built on lies and which Kehlmann himself believes presages the world to come, resonant with names like Enron, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns, and where “a malicious future was already with us … a world of compounding fear”.

Despite completing First Person before fake news became an everyday term, before Trump was elected, Flanagan dismisses notions of prescience, pointing out that “the world that allowed Trump to reach the position he has was already in place. And when we talk about ‘fake news ‘and ‘alternative facts’ the question we should be asking is ‘why do so many of us want to believe in these untruths?’ People have to understand how, in the absence of stories that speak to the truth, we will search for stories that speak to lies and the worst in us.”

What intrigues him now “in a world that seems to use the word reality in place of the word truth”, he says, “is how novels seem to be the new counter culture. Novels, when they’re done with enough craft and honesty, they’re not a lie, they’re a fundamental and necessary truth about ourselves. Because a novel is not just what the author intended, it’s what others make of it. It’s in that act of reading where people discover not what the writer intended,” he adds, “but an aspect of their own soul.” @BronSibree

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Sam Wilson on the importance of reading to your children, the power of words, and the value of storytelling

Nal’bali column No 1, Term 1: Published in the Daily Dispatch, 15 January 2018; Herald, 18 January 2018

By Carla Lever

Scriptwriter, director and Zodiac novelist, Sam Wilson. ©Matthew Brown

Your output is amazingly varied – you’ve penned everything from a conceptual thriller to a comic book series commissioned by the Welsh Rugby Union. Your knack for storytelling has spanned different ages, genres and media. What’s the secret ingredient?

Honestly, it’s poor self control. I can’t say ‘no’ to a project if it sounds interesting, no matter what it is or how much I’m already doing. Occasionally it’s a disaster and I won’t sleep, but at least I tried something new.

You have a lot of fun with words, whether it’s for work or play. For instance, there’s your @genrestories Twitter account, where you pepper us with 140-character short stories in wildly varying styles. What is it about stories and language that gets you excited?

Words are incredibly powerful. You can create thoughts and emotions and ideas out of nothing. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

You’ve written four children’s stories for the charity Book Dash, volunteering with other writers, editors, illustrators and designers for a day of intense work to create open access stories for children that are also printed and distributed locally. What makes you so passionate about this cause?

Literacy is a huge issue in South Africa. Book Dash creates books that are free online, and can be printed and sold by anyone. It’s an amazing way to give every child in South Africa their own books. And I get to do something I love for a great cause.

What was your most recent 2017 Book Dash experience like?

Every Book Dash is great. A large group of people makes new books in a 12-hour sprint. It’s a highly creative environment, and as you can imagine, the kind of people who would do it are the kind of people worth spending time with. It’s a blast, and this year the quality of the final books was extremely high.

A recent PIRLS global report put literacy in SA at crisis levels – 8 out of 10 grade fours currently cannot read for meaning in any language. Where on earth do we start as regular citizens?

The simple answer is, read to your children. It takes time, but nothing will have a bigger impact on their enthusiasm for reading.

You’ve created several children’s books that are entirely wordless. What inherent value do you feel storytelling has for children and adults everywhere?

Wordless story books teach something more fundamental than reading: That if you look at them in the right way, a bunch of flat pieces of paper can become a world full of emotions and surprises and things worth knowing. If kids don’t understand this then they won’t want to learn the squiggly symbols we call words. But once children love books, they’re hooked.

What value is there to always playing with words and ideas?

Play looks messy, but it’s a great way to understand things on a deep level. And if you get really good at play, it becomes indistinguishable from work. People pay you to do it. It happens in an office. It can be really, really hard, and it can take years. The difference is that it’s fun.

You have a young daughter. Can you tell us a little about how you are introducing her to imaginative worlds through books and storytelling?

Matilda has just turned one, and we read to her every day. As soon as she can talk I’ll make up stories for her. I’m looking forward to it, but not as much as I’m looking forward to the stories she’ll be telling me.

Help Nal’ibali read aloud to one million children this World Read Aloud Day, Thursday 01 February! Visit the Nal’ibali webpage at to sign up and download the brand-new story by acclaimed South African author, Zukiswa Wanner, in any official South African language. You’ll be joining a wave of adults across the country reading to children and raising awareness of the importance of this simple yet effective activity.


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“I was in heaven!” Carina Greyling shares her experience of spending the night of her 60th birthday in Exclusive Books

By Mila de Villiers

One happy bibliophile granny!


Exclusive Books recently granted Carina Greyling her birthday dream of a lifetime – the 60 year old grandmother from Kempton Park was treated to spending a night in their Hyde Park branch! Carina’s daughter, Leeanne, mailed the bookstore asking whether they could realise her mother’s lifelong birthday wish of “being locked in an Exclusive Books for the night” and CEO Benjamin Trisk (who happens to share a birthday with Carina!) happily obliged. Here’s how she spent her night…

I’m curious to know what the first thing you did the moment your family left?

I looked around in wonder – I was amazed, overwhelmed and flabbergasted. Felt like I was in a dreamworld! My daughter, Leeanne, made me sit down on the bed and poured me a coffee so I could gather my thoughts!

What section did you make a bee-line for?

The new releases! Went back there about eight times.

How many books did you manage to read (or at least skim through)?

Not sure. I walked from shelf to shelf picking up and reading and moving on! Could be hundreds… Couldn’t decide what to read but eventually settled on a pile of about 30 books! Along with the books piled next to the bed of my favorite authors! Eventually I placed a shorter list of books on the bed to look through. I read half a Janet Evanovich book – and have asked Exclusive Books to hold onto six books for me which I can’t be without! Will be going back this weekend to get them!

Could you expand on what it’s like to have an entire bookstore to yourself?

Absolutely a dream come true! It was the most fantastic, exciting beautiful place I have ever been in. The smell of new books was unbelievable! Such a comfort and serenity – given an opportunity – I would live here forever and would never leave! Such a sanctuary – surrounded by 1000s of books was unbelievable! One night was way too short!

Was it ever slightly eerie?

Not at all! I was absolutely comfortable! Felt at home, at peace! Surrounded by my best, best friends in the world (books!) I’ve have never felt more at peace and safe in my whole life!

Or overwhelming (in the best, most epic sense of the word?)

The start was a bit overwhelming, but once the shock and excitement wore off, and I realized that this was my reality for the evening, being in the best place in the world, I was in heaven! Once I realized I could really stay there the whole night – I was so so happy and excited! I got stuck in straight away! Gulped down a cup of coffee and ran to the new releases section! Couldn’t wait to touch the books and read and explore! The snacks prepared by the chef were so delicious – I ate every single macaroon and cheesecake on the platter!

Did you do anything slightly frowned upon whilst perusing books? (Eg. sneakily eating, leafing through expensive magazines, etc…)

Aside from sitting in every couch I could, I just bee-lined to find my favorite books! I was so worried that I would run out of time exploring so I got stuck in! Kept thinking someone would come in and tell me I had to leave because the store was closed – but eventually realized I had the store to myself and started reading every cover I could! I had to pick so carefully because I really could’ve taken the whole store home!

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