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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac – recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz

Published in the Sunday Times

Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac – recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz


Sam Wilson (Penguin Random House)

Sam Wilson’s debut novel Zodiac deserves to be a smash hit: set in an alternate universe in San Celeste, a generic US city, the book features a society governed by an absolute belief in astrology, where an individual’s future is predetermined by the date of his birth.

Like most cops in San Celeste detective Jerome Burton is Taurus, and when he starts investigating a series of particularly nasty murders he looks for the killer among the Aries underclass who are responsible for most of the city’s brutal crimes.

Wilson (a dodgy Aries himself) is not a believer. “I read a study that found that your zodiac sign really does match your personality, but only if you already believe in astrology and know what it says you should be, otherwise it’s no better than chance.”

With the help of profiler Lindi Childs (a Leo), Burton discovers – certainly in his own case – that the sign system is flawed, but reason cannot beat belief.

“I made a world in which it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. If enough people believe, then it becomes an unavoidable part of life,” says Wilson.

The victims are born under various signs and are killed in different ways – a chief of police (Taurus) is disembowelled then buried in the ground (the Taurus element), the host of a popular TV show (Leo) is shot and burnt (Leo is one of the fire signs).

Wilson says “beliefs and society shape who we are”, but says he had fun turning Burton into someone who firsts doubts the status quo and then has personal reasons for rejecting it.

The “signism” in Zodiac can be seen as a form of racism or anti-Semitism. However, Wilson says he had no overt political agenda.

“I thought that the zodiac world would be interesting and fun to write, and I came up with a story that wouldn’t work anywhere else.”

In this world a school called the True Signs Academy teaches problem children to embrace their true element; people live in designated areas according to their star sign; and a police “ram squad” (get it?) is tasked with dealing with the notoriously criminal group born in Aries.

Wilson makes it clear that signism is a bad thing. But despite the parallels a reader might be tempted to draw between the zodiac world and other oppressive regimes, the Cape Town author does not consider himself a political writer.

In fact, his influences are readable, accessible and popular.

“I was inspired by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz for their high-concept thrillers, although I can’t compare my work to theirs,” he says.

“And I loved … some of the great writing on TV shows like Black Mirror and The Wire.”

Wilson is researching another thriller set in the same universe, but with a different situation and characters.

However, his message to those who loved Zodiac is that Burton and Childs may get a cameo. Fingers crossed! — Aubrey Paton

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The long arm of Reacher: Joanne Hichens talks to Lee Child about his latest book Night School

Published in the Sunday Times

Night SchoolNight School
Lee Child (Bantam Press)

Lee Child is chatty, generous with his time, this genius author who created Jack Reacher, possibly the most enigmatic series character in contemporary thriller fiction.

For the uninitiated, Jack Reacher is ex-military police; six foot five inches tall, with rugged good looks. He’s now a drifter hitchhiking across the US, inadvertently becoming embroiled in nailbiting life-and-death action.

Men, in fictional and real worlds, respect his innate cunning and the physical agility with which he keeps the bad guys cowering. Women are intrigued by his reserve and fall for his seductive allure, but he remains a loner.

“His most obvious emotional issue,” Child explains, “is the duality between enjoying and needing his solitude but at the same time experiencing heartache and alienation.”

What secret, then, lies in Reacher’s past?

“You can infer he’s been unlucky in love. He’s condemned to a life of loneliness.” But not even Child fully knows Reacher. “I’m not one of those writers who works out a mock biography. I don’t know where Jack went to school. I don’t care what his favourite colour is. I treat him as I would treat a real person. You never know everything about somebody. Even with good friends it may take many, many years before you unravel all the incidents of their past.

“Perversely, a lot of readers would be very pleased if Reacher settled down. Readers worry about him. They’d be gratified if he found happiness but of course it would bring an end to the series.”

What was the catalyst in creating Reacher?

“His experience parallels my own. In the mid-’90s I was fired from my job in television at a time the industry was reorganising. I tried to give the same back story to Reacher. Because of circumstances out of his control he was turned out into the civilian world, and dislocated from what he was used to.

“On the overt level I’m obviously separate from him, but there’s an awful lot of autobiography in a main character, so in a sense Reacher is a little of me, and he does what I would do if I could get away with it. I resist the temptation to make him too good.

“In my new book he’s under a lot of pressure. He’s got to deliver for the organisation and faces a situation that’s extremely serious.”

If Child recognises himself in Reacher, equally then, he recognises a little of himself in all the bad guys he’s ever dreamed up. “Although,” he’s quick to add, “I prefer writing about Reacher doing the right thing rather than the bad guys doing the bad thing.”

Certainly a cast of ruthless criminals appear in Child’s hard-hitting thriller, Night School. Stolen nuclear warheads, sold on the black market to unscrupulous Saudis, are a threat to millions.

“I wanted to explore the pre-millennium years. The Cold War was over – this is only 20 years ago. The threat of nuclear war was replaced by a new threat. A sense of fluidity, improvisation, and panic became fertile. I’ve revisited the roots of what we’re dealing with now, the terrorism factor.”

I ask about biographer Andy Martin’s description of Child as “an evil mastermind bastard”. He laughs. “I took that as meaning I supply really good gut-wrenching plot twists. I was pleased. There’s nothing better in a book than when you’re following it along eagerly and then you say, ‘Wow, this is something else!’”

No Lee Child interview is complete without referring to the casting of Tom Cruise in the movie series – an actor about 10 inches shorter than the character. Child is forthright: “No actors look like Reacher, none at all. Here’s a guy,” he says of Cruise, “who gets the inside of Reacher on screen. I’m thrilled and delighted that people would be so concerned about who’d play Reacher. I see it as a badge of honour.”

Ex-Major Reacher, highly decorated himself, will remain forever the wanderer, so unencumbered that he has no suitcase (although he clearly has baggage), buys clothes on a need-to-change basis, and carries only his toothbrush and credit card in his pocket.

Follow Joanne Hichens on Twitter @JoanneHichens

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Lessons from a heartbreaking Zulu heritage: Jennifer Platt chats to Nomavenda Mathiane about her book Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story

Published in the Sunday Times

Nomavenda Mathiane


Eyes in the NightEyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story
Nomavenda Mathiane (Bookstorm)

Nomavenda Mathiane is one of those people you immediately feel comfortable talking to, but at the same time you want to impress her. Her book Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story sticks in your head and plays with your emotions. Mathiane was one helluva journalist who worked on most major South African newspapers. She started off at The World during the uprisings of 1976. Later she worked at Frontline magazine – one of the few black women journalists who wrote about how people really lived in Soweto and other townships.

In her latest book, Mathiane tells the story of her grandmother. It’s a story she didn’t know, one she stumbled upon at her mother’s funeral.

“There was no other time I could have written it,” Mathiane says. “Because I didn’t know about my grandmother’s life. I heard about the story two years before I retired. In retrospect, if I had known the story a long time ago, I wouldn’t have done a proper job. I would’ve been too emotional. I found my voice and now I am able to sit back and look back at my life and their lives.”

It’s the story of how her grandmother, Nombhosho (which means bullet), survived the Anglo-Zulu war as a young girl. “A tale of woe and triumph,” Mathiane writes.

It’s a story of hardship and dispossession that traces the fate of one Zulu family since 1897. Mathiane says the British colonialists were “ruthless” with the Zulus. “The English torched their homes. People had no homes. That narrative [of what] happened to the Zulu people still hasn’t been told properly.”

During the time of the Anglo-Zulu war, after their land was stolen by the Abelumbi (literally “sorcerers”, the term King Shaka used for white people), her grandmother and great-grandmother and their family had to live in a cave. They had only roots and rats to eat.

There’s a heartbreaking moment when Nombhosho’s mother realises her husband is dead. She finds his shield and assegai at the entrance of the cave. That was a sign from his fellow warriors that he had died.

“It was challenging to write,” Mathiane says. “I was an alien coming into Zululand and listening to the stories. We hardly know where my grandmother’s home was. All we know is she lived next to ‘the shadow mountain’.” Mathiane had to question family members and make many visits to KZN to piece together Nombhosho’s life.

The accounts of what Nombhosho was subjected to as a young girl make the reader angry and sad. Her mother is forced to marry a man she doesn’t know and work with him on a farm, “hell on earth”, as Mathiane describes it. The white farmer beats Nombhosho and tries to rape her.

But it’s not all dire. Mathiane tells her own story of discovering the past, and discovering who she really is. There are light moments when she talks about her family and her visits to them. “There we were, young and old females sharing this huge bedroom. We were like high-school girls having a pyjama party.”

Mathiane hopes that Eyes in the Night will inspire readers to examine the past more closely.

“I want my book to make young people question who they are. When we were told about the Zulu wars at school, we were taught superficially about what happened. We never learned about the Zulu warriors.

“My father was Christian, we lived in the townships. My sister [Sis Ahh] was different, she lived with my grandmother. She was in touch with the soil. She was brought up in the Zulu rituals. None of us other six girls performed the rituals. But I’m richer for knowing what happened. I know who I am now, after writing this book.

“There are so many stories still to be told about that era. This book is just a drop in the ocean. We need people to tell and write these stories.”

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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Genesis of a drummer: Michele Magwood interviews Phil Collins about his memoir Not Dead Yet

Phil Collins’s excesses were mild by rock star standards, but he still feels plenty of guilt, writes Michele Magwood

Not Dead YetNot Dead Yet: The Autobiography
Phil Collins (Century)

“Music made me, but it also unmade me,” writes Phil Collins towards the end of this absorbing autobiography. “I carry guilt over each of my kids, I carry guilt for everything, frankly.”

On the shelf of rock memoirs it’s comparatively mild: there’s none of the anguish and glamour of Eric Clapton or the visceral swagger of Keith Richards. There’s no heroin or groupies or smashed hotel rooms. Only late in the book – and late in his life – does he tip into alcoholism, bored by retirement and depressed by his patchwork family, shuttling between three ex-wives and five children all over the world, trying to be a presence in their lives.

There are blackouts and falls, pancreatitis and smashed teeth, stints in hospitals and rehabs and eventually – and only recently – sobriety.

Most of the book, though, is an entertaining chronicle of the making of a maestro, a musician whose songs have formed the soundtrack to millions of lives. He is one of only three recording artists to have sold more than 100 million albums both as solo artists and as part of a band (the others are Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson). He’s won an Oscar (for the song “You’ll Be In My Heart”, from Tarzan) and a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order medal from Buckingham Palace for his admirable charity work. (He donates all royalties in South Africa to the Topsy Foundation.) He counts rock gods and royalty as his friends.

Collins sounds tired on the phone from London, vague and slightly rambling. Recent photographs of him show him to be frail. His back is, by his account, “completely shot” after 50 years of drumming, his hands have seized up and he’s deaf in one ear.

We talk about the process of songwriting, whether it starts with a melody or a line. “Basically it starts with improvisation on a piano,” he says. “If it’s Disney you have some kind of guideline, but otherwise you can do what you want. I just improvise and play around with it and record everything until it starts to become an idea. It’s fairly haphazard.”

The early chapters cover his love affair with the drums. He was given his first toy set when he was barely three, moving on at age five to a homemade set that consisted of biscuit tins and a triangle. He’d set it up in the corner of the lounge and play along to all the TV shows. “I’ll play to anything, with anyone,” he remembers. “I’m a versatile jobbing drummer.”

It was a comfortable, lower-middle class upbringing in the dull suburb of Hounslow in London. He had a difficult, distant father and a doting mother who ran a children’s theatrical agency. At the age of 13, young Philip was cast as The Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver!, attending school by day and performing at night. It ingrained in him a steely work ethic that has remained with him all his life.

“I can count on one hand the number of shows I cancelled,” he writes. “I will do whatever I can to ensure the show goes on – even if that means dodgy doctors, dubious injections, catastrophic deafness and sustaining injuries that will require major, invasive, flesh-ripping, bone-bolting surgery.”

He would have carried on acting were his head not turned by the emerging – and golden – music scene of the ’60s. He hung out in the clubs watching Cream, The Who and Led Zeppelin, often paying his way by sweeping the club floors. He played in a series of dead-end bands himself until answering an ad in Melody Maker for a drummer for a new band. It was the birth of Genesis, and Phil Collins was launched.

Ask him what he is proudest of in his life, aside from his children, and he doesn’t mention his charity work, the platinum records, the deafening applause of heaving mega stadiums. Instead, he remembers playing drums in a temporary band with his friend Eric Clapton. “We called it The Heaven Band because we all just loved every night, going on stage and playing those songs.”

Ultimately, he says, “I’m a musician. I got a chance to play with a few great people and that’s all I wanted to do. To play. Whether I was a pop star or not was irrelevant.”

He’s not dead yet, and he’s not going quietly yet, either. He’s announced a comeback tour of Europe next year. It won’t be him behind the drums, though. That honour will go to his 16-year-old son, Nic, who’s shaping up to be a mean drummer. Bred in the bone, it seems.
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood
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African kids are hungry for relevant, local books – Read an interview with Bontle Senne, author of Lake of Memories

Bontle Senne
Shadow Chasers Book 1: Powers of the KnifeShadow Chasers Book 2: Lake of Memories

Bontle Senne, author of the Shadow Chasers series, chats about stampeding children, bullies, academic dissertations and things that go bump in the dark ..

Senne’s latest deliciously creepy book for tweens is now out – look out for Lake of Memories, Book 2 in the Shadow Chasers series.


Bontle, you describe yourself as a literacy activist – and you’re now a published author – has anything shifted for you since publishing your own book?

I’ve never been one to buy into the “Africans don’t want to read” hype. I’m not saying that there isn’t a huge challenge for trade publishers and booksellers in South Africa. There is, of course. But the absence of relevant, engaging, local and accessible literature is something that is improving pretty slowly.

My former life at Puku Children’s Literature Foundation taught me that parents are especially hungry for those kind of books for their children. What surprised me when Shadow Chasers came out was how hungry kids are for that change. I spoke to five year olds at Kingsmead Book Fair, shooting apologetic looks at their parents for the nightmares I was afraid I was causing. I spoke to matrics in their last year of school and trying to do everything they could to get me to keep reading to them and postpone going back to class as part of Franschhoek Literary Festival. I spoke at St Dominic’s School for the Deaf, aided by an incredible sign language interpreter, for the full school and their teachers. Every time I was amazed by how children of different ages got caught up in the story, how they begged me to keep reading, how they stampeded their librarian to find out when they would have the book.

Part of it must have been the novelty – a story set in a township, an adventure between a taxi owner’s boss and the orphan who lives on her dad’s property, a girl who doesn’t care that she’s not pretty and a mystery that spans back generations. And let’s not forget about the supernatural elements: I had a great time trawling through academic texts and dissertations, some almost 100 years old, describing the myths and monsters that our children should know but that most of our urban society has forgotten. South African children know to be scared of vampires and werewolves but would laugh at the idea of the tokoloshe and blink in confusion at the mention of Mami Wata. Things that go bump in the night are as much a part of our heritage as art, music, language and I was glad to discover that kids think so too.

What does literary success look like to you?

I got asked this question at Open Book and in a sense, I already have it. All I wanted was to have my book-babies out in the world for children to read and enjoy. I wanted to write about and be able to travel the world and talk about other people’s books and I’ve done a fair bit of that too in the last five years. But the more practical part of me also recognises that being able to financially support myself entirely as a writer is the ultimate literary success – and one that not many African writers get to experience unfortunately.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Research for Book 2 involved rewatching every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and reading a lot of academic texts on monsters and rituals across the continent. I also try to ask adults about the supernatural stories that their grandmothers told them as children. When I was media fellow of Golden Baobab in 2014, I wrote about the sense of loss I felt at the stories about my culture and (supernatural) heritage that my grandmother never shared with me because they seemed to have no place in my formal or informal education in her mind. I’m still pretty bleak about it.

I spent six months in Sierra Leone last year so there was also a fair bit of trying to understand what local myths I could dig up and rework into Lake of Memories. I wasn’t very successful. As it turns out, many in Sierra Leone are incredibly superstitious and viewed chatting to me about terrible, dark, and maybe magical things as highly inappropriate.

What were the most surprising things you learned after Book 1 was released?

I often read the first chapter of my book when I do events. In it, my main character Nom gets surrounded by some bullies and fights back. Most kids in the audience love it but there’s always that one, pure soul who reminds me that “it’s not nice to hit anyone or call them ugly”. I always agree that that’s true and then get asked why I wrote about it then. I wrote it to establish that Nom was a character who could stand up to bullies even if she wanted to cry as much as she wanted to punch someone being mean to her. I also wanted to write about the subtlety of bullying someone by attacking their self-esteem, how words could be more damaging than fists and how unexpected people can stand up for you but you have to be willing to fight for yourself.

Inevitably I’m asked if I was bullied at school. I was tall and gangly like a weed with braces and glasses and literally all I wanted to do was read so, yeah, I definitely got bullied. Didn’t get to punch anyone until years later though, but that’s a story for another time …

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‘The best piece of writerly advice? Never give up.’ – Q and A with David Gilman

Published in the Sunday Times

The Last HorsemanThe Last Horseman
David Gilman (Head of Zeus)

What books are on your bedside table?
My House in Damascus by Diana Darke, Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz, A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare, A Hero of France by Alan Furst, and Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner.

The last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?
The late, great Tom Sharpe was always guaranteed to make me laugh. So too, Joseph Heller and his Catch 22.

Which book changed your life?
No one book has done that. But George MacDonald Fraser (Flashman, in particular) has been a constant companion and cannot be bettered. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood made a strong impression, as did Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.

What keeps you awake at night?
The current book I’m writing, and thinking about the one that I am not.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?
Dickens and Beethoven.

What is the best piece of writerly advice you have received?
Never give up – from my father when I was a boy, but it has served me well.

Do you keep a diary?
No, but there’s a visual record fairly well lodged in my mind.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
I have never subscribed to the idea that books should be age-related. I would take them to a library and let them choose.

What phrases do you overuse?
I’ve no idea/Haven’t got a clue. (These being the phrases.)

What are you working on next?
Two or three things are bubbling along. More historical fiction, a crime/thriller novel and a novel set in World War II.

Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why?
Nonfiction fascinates me. It plays a big part in my life because of my research, but to read a well-written work of fiction is a joy.

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Arresting accounts: Andrew Brown and Paul McNally discuss their books Good Cop, Bad Cop and The Street

Published in the Sunday Times

Arresting accounts: Andrew Brown and Paul McNally discuss their books Good Cop, Bad Cop and The Street
The StreetGood Cop, Bad Cop


In our latest “aeroplane conversation”, Andrew Brown and Paul McNally discuss their books about bribery, honesty and hardship in the police service:

Brown: How fortuitous is this, Paul? To end up sitting next to you on this plane, me flying to Johannesburg with the usual trepidation, you fleeing the sleepy Mother City to return home. I’ve just finished The Street – great book, congratulations. An important book, I think. Interesting – and difficult – for me as a cop to read this perspective on corruption in the police. Do you feel the research confirmed existing fears you already harboured? Did you go out looking for – or anticipating – this story?

McNally: Thanks very much. Even though I discovered a range of corrupt relationships between the police and drug dealers in Johannesburg, writing the book and interviewing police officers in their homes made me incredibly sympathetic towards them. The conditions and lives we force on our police is astoundingly horrid. I set out to write about corruption, but found stories of how everyday South Africans are pushed into a world of drugs and murder and how they are forced to adapt and survive. I’ve just finished reading your book, Good Cop Bad Cop, which I loved. I was fascinated by how you balanced your duties as a police reservist with those of a suburban father. In The Street I found people really battling to reconcile a mission of fighting against crime and personal goals, and yet you seem to have managed it. Tell me more?

Brown: One of the chapters in the book is titled “Schizophrenia” and that is really what it feels like sometimes. The chapter describes me saying goodbye to my 20-year-old son as I go on duty – all kitted out in bullet-proof vest and heavy boots – and his habitual refrain, “Don’t get shot, dad.” It hits my heart every time, week after week. You never get used to it. I think he knows that, he wants me to be awake, to be conscious about what it is I am going into. And all around the country, every evening, every morning, hundreds of policemen and women are bidding their children farewell and getting the same poignant reply. Most of them will come home. But not all. And it takes its toll. You describe that in The Street – policemen like Khaba, trying to do the right thing, trying to stay sane, trying to keep the moral compass working.

McNally: Khaba was the officer who brought me into this world of watching the police and the bribes they receive from the drug dealers. For my first visit with Khaba he was “leaking” – he wanted to speak to someone about what he was seeing in the police. Khaba was on the run from KwaZulu-Natal for trying to prosecute two of his colleagues for torture. They threatened to burn his house down when he said he would talk. And when he fled to Joburg he was forced to live in the police barracks for his own protection. He lived in a single room not much larger than a double bed. His meticulous scrubbing with bleach of his tiny room and the sharp creases of his running shorts revealed Khaba as a proud man whose poor financial state didn’t sit well with him. He believed his poverty was a sign of him being clean and not taking bribes. He would tell me there were colleagues of his in the force who were swarming around, hungry to collect their bribes. He believed himself to be different from these men. He was offered bribes himself every day, but a more powerful draw was the opportunity to expose colleagues — and this could directly endanger him. I wanted to know how you stay motivated as a reservist when the police are so corrupted?

Brown: I think your book was challenging for me because my view of the police is not of an institution that is inherently corrupt, and you painted a picture that was unsettling. I struggle with senior police management who seem sometimes to have no structured plan, and with political interference in policy and decision-making. But on the ground, working where I do, I don’t see corruption as endemic. Maybe I am naïve, or just lucky, but I have never seen one of my colleagues take a bribe. I have been offered bribes many times – the drunk middle class are quick to offer their wallets. I was offered a considerable bribe by a drug dealer once – he had a lot of cocaine on him! I don’t know if the area you were working in was particularly bad, or if you were looking for it harder than I do (although it did seem to be pretty blatant). I was hoping that you had just picked the rotten part of the apple. But I fear that your depiction may not be inaccurate and that the problem is getting worse. What is your sense of that?

McNally: I am encouraged to hear that you have never seen anyone take a bribe, but I can assure you that Ontdekkers where The Street is set isn’t the only patch where cops and drug dealers have a financial understanding. What was most fascinating for me was how residents are asked to choose where they stand on a daily basis. And they feel that the more they protest against the police, the more likely they aren’t going to receive support and protection from the cops when they truly need it.


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Past imperfect: Michele Magwood talks to Marianne Thamm about her ‘memoir of sorts’, Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela And Me

Marianne Thamm struggled to come to terms with her father’s Nazi history, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Marianne ThammHitler, Verwoerd, Mandela And MeHitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me
Marianne Thamm (Tafelberg)

Marianne Thamm subtitles this book “A memoir of sorts” but it is less a memoir than an exorcism of some vexing ghosts. “I see it as a ritual slaughtering of a beast to my ancestors,” she laughs. “All of us require at some stage to go back and excavate a bit – to try and see who we are with the politics, the religion, the culture and everything else sloughed off, to try and find an essential self.”

Thamm is a towering figure on the intellectual landscape of the country, a ranging, incisive commentator with a quick wit and a gutsy mien. As the ghostwriter of such books as the bestselling I Have Life: Alison’s Journey she’s proved to be a fluent and sympathetic voice for harrowing stories. As a hard news reporter on the Cape Times in the ’80s she calmly covered appalling violence. She’s a one-woman fight club swinging at the bullies, the brainless, the venal.

It’s fascinating, then, to learn what forged this mettle. Thamm was born in the UK to parents who found refuge there after World War II. Her mother, Barbara, was a near-illiterate Portuguese woman who had fled the septic regime of the dictator Salazar to work “in service” in England. Her father, Georg, was a full-blown Nazi, first a member of the Hitler Youth, then a pilot in the Luftwaffe, who had been captured and interned in a POW camp in England. When the war ended he chose to stay in England, and met the gorgeous Barbara at a social club for immigrants and refugees. He proposed to her using a Portuguese-German dictionary. Like many who had walked out of the ruins of the war, they were eager to start a family, to live a “normal” life.

Her father’s past dogged Thamm from an early age, especially after watching The World At War series on TV. They argued about it constantly. She would ask him what his response had been to Kristallnacht. “I vas just a boy on a bicycle,” he replied. “I was very hard on him,” she says, “because for me he embodied Nazism. I was horrified that he was of me and I was of him.” But, she adds, “I see in retrospect that by casting him as the negative, the dark side, I could exonerate myself from exploring my own dark side, as a white South African.”

She could never understand why they chose to move to South Africa, and ultimately learned to her horror that he had been recruited by the Department of Defence in Pretoria to work on a “classified” project. Georg, a toolmaker, made the trigger for the first R1 rifle. Worse, he handed the first one to Verwoerd himself on the factory floor.

Thamm rages at this karma. “Not only six degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Now Hendrik Verwoerd had entered the orbit.”

Growing up in the depressing suburbs north of Pretoria, Thamm was wild, feral, running with a pack of children from the rough neighbourhood. “I became a tomboy because of the freedom boys had,” she says. “To move through the world without being harassed I figured I had to pass as a boy.” Not that it stopped the casual predation of adult men: when a neighbour felt her up her father refused to believe her. When a cafe owner did the same, she told her mother who accosted him furiously. Thamm would threaten men with a smashed bottle if they tried anything. “I abhor violence but you need to stand up for yourself at times.”

Barbara was an enigma to her daughter. She lived for Marianne and her brother Albert and was protective of them, but Thamm knew very little about her upbringing in Portugal. She had a stroke when Thamm was 21 and lived, speechless, for the next 14 years. “I lost all source of benevolent love and light. It’s interesting in terms of metaphor that when she could speak she was silent, and then she became silent.”

It was only when Thamm became a parent herself that she came to truly appreciate her mother. As a gay woman, she had never considered motherhood. “I didn’t long for it. It was something that I never thought I would be.” Settled in a long-term relationship, though, she and her partner adopted two black daughters. “It has profoundly shifted me. They’ve made me real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.” Like her mother, she protects them fiercely, especially against the racism and sexism that “comes at them” constantly.

She’s preoccupied with the question, “How do we learn to become decent, fair and just?”

We are shaped, she says, by historical forces, the personal is the political. Hence the title of the book. “Leaders bring out the best and the worst in us. Hitler and Verwoerd brought out the absolute worst in the people they led. But Mandela – while there’s much to fault about his first government – made people feel better about themselves at a very crucial time. He had moral authority.”

She’s come to terms with her father’s life and legacy. “We’d spoken through everything by the time he died. It was a blessed position to be in, to make peace with a parent. And I resolved that I was just going to try and be happy.”

•Listen to Marianne Thamm’s interview on the Magwood on Books Podcast:


Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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War, hate and sex: Bron Sibree interviews Anne Sebba on her book Les Parisiennes: How the Woman of Paris Loved, Lived and Died

Anne Sebba gives us new insight into the ordeals of women in wartime, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

Les ParisiennesLes Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s
Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

British historian and biographer Anne Sebba has been fascinated by the World War II defeat of France and the German occupation of Paris for as long as she can remember. But for as long as she can recall, too, she has also been troubled by one of the most abiding images of that war’s aftermath: Parisian women being publicly shaven, and often painted with the swastika, for the crime of collaboration horizontale.

“That is the abiding image, and it is so one dimensional. But what has happened historically is that that has become very cheap shorthand for what happened in France,” says Sebba, who has analysed the role of collaborators and resisters, and so much more, in her mesmerising (and richly detailed) social history of the period, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s.

From the outset, Sebba knew she wanted to write a different kind of history. She ignored a renowned male historian’s advice to use the most oft-quoted male diarists of the period, and set out in search of lesser-known women’s voices. The author of eight celebrated works of non-fiction, including That Woman: The Duchess of Windsor and the Scandal That Brought Down a King (2012) and Jennie Churchill (2007), Sebba knows her way around an archive.

Yet even so, she says, “I needed to do a lot of digging.” She spent five years combing the archives for letters and diaries, and painstakingly tracking down women now in their 90s who had lived through the occupation.

“I wanted a multiplicity of points of view. That was key to what I was trying to do so that women couldn’t any longer be given this one-dimensional tag.”

In giving voice to the countless Parisian women who suffered, died or were imprisoned in places like Ravensbrück, or endured the occupation through various degrees of compromise or resistance – mostly a combination of both – Sebba drives home the fact that it was women who were left to contend with the almost all-male Nazi occupiers.

“Wartime Paris was a feminised city. That’s a sine qua non to my book. I hadn’t even realised that until I started writing it, because two million men were taken prisoner of war. Others were with De Gaulle in the Free French and yet others, if they were Jews, were in hiding, or were elderly, so there were very, very few men in Paris. So here you’ve got a city where the women didn’t have the vote, they didn’t have the right to work without their husband’s permission, they couldn’t have a bank account. And without any fuel they couldn’t drive cars so had to ride bicycles, but they weren’t allowed to wear trousers.”

For Sebba, writing Les Parisiennes was a quest to understand the difficult choices forced upon these women – so obviously disempowered yet not cowed – and not to pass judgement. She even finds the word “collaborator” distasteful. “Although it was [Philippe] Pétain who introduced this word collaborate, I think it’s ugly and judgemental. I prefer some degree of complicity. You could argue that everyone who went about their daily business was in some way complicit. I don’t want to pretend there wasn’t collaboration, there were by some estimates more than 100000 Franco-German babies born. Some of it was of necessity – to feed your children you might sleep with a German – some of it was romantic. But did the women deserve to be punished after the war in this very gendered way, without a trial, publicly humiliated?

“It was aimed at the women,” she emphasises, “and has deep roots in the fact that the men felt so humiliated and ashamed that they had lost the military defeat, the way they reacted was to take it out on the women.”

Even the role women played in the resistance remained largely unrecognised until many years later, says Sebba, whose efforts in recording stories of feminine heroism in Les Parisiennes go a long way to redressing historical omissions.

Yet in writing such an intricately detailed history about les années noires, the dark years that divided French citizens, says Sebba, “I found huge resonance in what’s going on in the world now with all this fear that we have of refugees and people who are different from us. It’s so important that we understand that this has happened once before, and that we’re all human beings.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

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A life of striving and compassion: Tiah Beautement chats to Athol Williams about his memoir Pushing Boulders

Published in the Sunday Times

Pushing BouldersPushing Boulders
Athol Williams (Staging Post)

“Life is about the dream that lay on the other side of the boulders,” says Athol Williams, in his inspirational memoir Pushing Boulders. On its surface, it is a heartwarming tale of a Cape Flats boy making good. But it asks hard questions about the impact of privilege in education, the workplace and everyday life.

“I felt that we need records of the lives of ordinary South Africans who lived through apartheid,” Williams says of his motives in writing the book.

“While the stories of the Mandelas, Tambos, Sisulus, etc have been told, we are largely blind to what life was like for ordinary people struggling through the burdens of apartheid and who still suffer under the enduring effects of it.”

His path required great courage, tenacity and luck.

“Many of us forgo our dreams and thus live lives of mediocrity at best,” he says.

“I think this is because we have romantic ideas of fulfilling dreams rather than the appreciation that fulfilling dreams can require effort, struggle [and] sacrifice.

“To be alive is to walk a path to take a journey; it matters less where the path leads than that we have the courage to walk.”

Despite his tremendous efforts, Williams almost didn’t make it. His tale demonstrates why commitment to hard work and study is not enough when born into inequality. His achievements required others to boost him over the boulders of poverty, classism and racism.

He says: “A lot [of talented minds are] lost when we systematically oppress a group of people – we rob the oppressed group of realising their full potential which in turn robs society of this group’s contribution. At a spiritual level I think we also rob everyone of realising our unity as humanity.”

Much of Williams’s life has been focused on his own dreams. After the death of his father, however, he rethought his definition of success. He searched for ways to help those still living in the disadvantaged areas of South Africa.

He describes this time as, “A devastating experience, one that made me question so much for the first time – where should I live, what should I do … it was the start of me really looking away from myself and considering my place in the lives of others.”

Williams, an award-winning poet, is familiar with putting himself out there through his words. “I do reveal a tremendous amount in the memoir and have tried to reveal as much of who I am, my fears and desires, but the nature of poetry is such that reveals your soul, which I think memoir can hint at but not fully reveal.”

The book isn’t perfect; among other things, the prose could have been tightened. Despite this, Pushing Boulders should be widely read.

“I always hope that my writing serves as a catalyst for constructive conversations,” Williams says, and this book achieves precisely that.

Follow Tiah Beautement on Twitter @ms_tiahmarie

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