Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

"Obviously no one but a fool writes fiction for money" - a Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Darrel Bristow-Bovey

Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a screenwriter and columnist who lives in Sea Point. He was won the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize and a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, as well several South African Film and Television Awards, and was a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. His most recent book is One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo, a memoir about growing up and falling in love and trying to swim from one continent to another.

Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently interviewed Darrel who’s currently in southern Spain. In between sips of rioja, Darrel shared his disdain for authors having to explain their stories, why melancholy and poignancy are naturally funny things, and a short, sharp (sorry…) writing trade secret.

Darrel Bristow-Bowey, author of the Trade Secrets story ‘An Act of God’

 
In your story, ‘An Act Of God’, journalist Andrew misses a working lunch with the lead of a touring Irish dance troupe; he loses his job and begins to write obituaries. Is this tongue in cheek? Has he been diminished by writing the lives of ordinary dead people, in contrast to exploring the lives of celebrities?

No, not tongue-in-cheek at all. I also don’t think he’s diminished, although it might appear that way to the world, and even at first to him. I think he finds far greater dignity and creative purpose and fulfillment in writing the stories of ordinary people. Ordinary lives are rich and full and fascinating, and contain far more than the thinly presented lives of celebrities. The most interesting things don’t happen in public – they happen unseen in the lives of those going about their days around us. I also think he found his real material, and his real voice, writing about ordinary people and giving them the dignity and consideration that we all deserve, no matter who we are and what we have or have not done.

Your protagonist, Sarah, meets Andrew who happens also to be disabled, at an Italian class and so begins their affair… until Bella Lennon appears, a movie star of note! Andrew’s career again picks up, and he miraculously begins to walk again. Is there deeper meaning here?

No, I don’t think so.

Short and sweet! Let’s skip to the last line of the story, which ends with the words ‘…this is what it looks like and this is what it feels like…’ Is this a means to reinforce the ‘flow’ of life? To show an acceptance of what ‘is’?

I don’t know that I specifically wanted to show anything. I just wanted to tell a story about two people and a portion of their lives.

I often advocate, to newer writers, that a short story should stick to a time-frame, but yours transgresses this boundary as Sarah and Andrew, as time goes by, are married and divorced… the story spans time and place. What are your thoughts on this?

A time-frame is just the length of time something takes, isn’t it? Are you saying that time should pass at the same rate from the beginning of the story to the end? I can see no compelling reason why that should be the case. I think whatever a story needs in order to be told is precisely what it should have.

The story is coloured by a certain poignancy, melancholy even, a self-deprecating humour. Is writing humour a natural instinct for you?

I think poignancy and melancholy are naturally funny things, and vice versa. I think writing that is without humour, and without a degree of self-awareness, tends to be pompous and dull and life-denying. I am painfully aware that these answers fall into that category.

“Ordinary lives are rich and full and fascinating.” Bristow-Bovey on the significance of obituaries.

 

Surely some readers are interested in the writer behind the story? Why would you think the answers dull and life-denying?

By that, I mean that I am aware that I am not answering with any great verve or sense of humour, and I think the upshot of that is that the answers feel dull to me, and I find dullness to be a little life-denying. Why am I answering without any verve or sense of humour? I’m not sure – partially because I am writing this from southern Spain, in between other commitments, especially a commitment to a fine bottle of rioja in the small bar opposite the bullring in Ronda. Partially because I have a horror of sounding self-important or self-indulgent, and so as a counter-measure I am perhaps tending towards the non-committal.

Is it your opinion that stories be left to speak for themselves? (That bottle of rioja, by the way, sounds delightful!)

Look, obviously the purpose of these interviews is to publicise the book, so I totally get the point of them, and as far as that goes I think they’re a good thing. I also think the questions you’ve posed to people have been good and thoughtful. I am all in favour of the questions; it’s the answers I think we can all live without. I don’t think any story was ever improved by having its author explain it. In these our times, I see authors (or aspiring authors, more precisely) endlessly talking about their writing or themselves writing or their relationship to the writing life on social media, and I think it’s a little pitiful and doesn’t do their work or them any favours.

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, what does fiction offer you that non-fiction might not?

I write non-fiction for money. (Well, to be honest, I don’t actually write non-fiction, I write opinion pieces and personal columns, which isn’t fiction, but it also isn’t quite the medium implied by ‘non-fiction’.) Obviously no one but a fool writes fiction for money, and the act and process of doing something not for money, not because you have to, is freeing. It frees you from calculation and from the demands and constraints of professional work. When you’re writing fiction you can write whatever you want, and take as long as you like, and end it however you want, and there is no pressure from anyone else or yourself to do otherwise, or to account for it or justify it. Fiction gives me freedom, which is sometimes joyful and sometimes obviously not, but is something that I need.

Please share a writing Trade Secret…

Do some every day.

Follow Darrel on twitter at @dbbovey

Trade Secrets

Book details

Book Bites: 19 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Tin Man
*****
Sarah Winman, Tinder Press, R275

This is one of those books that lures you in gently, and then grabs your heart and won’t let go. The book follows the intense friendship and love between two men, Ellis and Michael, from the age of 11 until one of their deaths. Set against the backdrop of Oxford and the gay scene in London in the ’90s, it is alternately idyllic and terrifying, as Aids takes so many young lives. It’s a heartbreaking, beautiful read, and one that will stay with me for a long time. – Bridget McNulty @bridgetmcnulty

The Fall of the ANC Continues: What next?
****
Prince Mashele & Mzukisi Qobo, Picador Africa, R175

Reading this book, one is left thinking that the struggle movement will be dead come the 2019 elections. The governing party has allowed and promoted greed, corruption and self-enrichment. According to the authors, as it falls the ANC will also take all of its wings down with it – the Women’s League, the Youth League and the tripartite alliance: Cosatu and the SACP. The authors say that if a survey were to be conducted on whether the ANC is corrupt, most honest citizens would probably answer yes. “This answer stems from what people see. Meetings of ANC structures increasingly look like luxury car shows. Those who live in the rural areas and who are bused to conferences must wonder which ANC they belong to that is so indifferent to their own conditions and yet so generous to the cadres who live in the cities.” – Khanyi Ndabeni

Secrets in Death
***
JD Robb, Little Brown, R275

When you get to book 45 in the series, you’d think it was time to pack up all those worn characters. Yet Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her mononymous hubby Roarke still have their loyal following. It’s not bad dipping into one again although some parts feel hackneyed. Ruthless gossip star Larinda Mars is murdered at a bar in New York. There’s a long list of suspects – all of whom were blackmailed by Mars. Eve finds it tough to narrow down the list but, thank goodness, Roarke once again has enough time to help her out. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

Black blues in Marico Town: Lesego Rampolokeng revisists Groot Marico. Just don't expect Herman Charles Bosman, writes Jo-Ann Bekker

Published in the Sunday Times

Bird-Monk Seding
Bird-Monk Seding: A Novel
****
Lesego Rampolokeng, DeepSouth, R160

In his third novel (and 12th book) poet and performance artist Lesego Rampolokeng inverts the “black man hits the big city” trope immortalised in the 1948 film African Jim. As the jacket reads: “Jim came to Joburg so Bavino goes to Marico. Man in the bush in quest of Bosman’s ghost.”

But it is no neat inversion. Rampolokeng’s Bavino finds little rural tranquillity in Groot Marico.

Bavino (ghetto-talk for everyman) is a child of Soweto. His family’s lodger turns out to be a serial killer; Bavino’s teenage friends gang rape his girlfriend; his MK guerrilla cousin is betrayed by a revered comrade and killed by police. “I grew up between a guerrilla and a serial killer. If I didn’t write I could have become either one,” writes Bavino.

He packs his notebook, pen and a six-pack and rents a former railway house in the small Marico town of Leseding. He documents his interactions and observations as he hangs out in the shebeen – where he does much of his writing – and goes about his everyday tasks, returning from the post office empty handed, being ignored by shop assistants, and trying to extract apologies from the family of a boy that robbed him.

Bavino’s observations are often very funny – particularly when he describes the overtures he receives from women. But the Krisjan Lemmers he encounters aren’t spinning yarns while puffing pipes on stoops anymore. They are picking up township schoolgirls for an hour while their wives debate which township boy to take home for afternoon tea. Bavino speaks to a flamboyant man who describes how fierce farmers turn to submissive putty in his room.

Apart from transactional sex, the rift between races seems greater than ever. Whites may no longer have political power, but they control the town’s stagnant economy and the new black bureaucrats and policemen. Racism is so violent and endemic and farmworkers so exploited that people believe human flesh is mixed into the protein sold by a fast-food outlet.

Nature offers Bavino no consolation. “Sad looking vegetation, here. I gaze at the scene just once in the morning, upon waking & quickly look away before the trees spot me.”

Only jazz and the poetry of radical writers help Bavino survive (the title pays homage to Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk) and the book is filled with quotes from musicians and poets about their art forms.

The novel’s 192 pages erupt with the poetic gymnastics that have earned Rampolokeng a worldwide following as a performer. And there are moments of haunting tenderness.

“The touching, the heat, the wetness. The throb & pulse of this … Our Thing. & lying there, watching you sleep. The beauty of this being. I feel deep wretchedness. Filths me down. & I sink. Into the septic tank of … my self. It flays me, rubs the skin off my bones. I feel like a psychopath. Killing you each day, over and over./The veins shut down. At the point of bursting. Eaten up & out by my inability to love you.”

It is an unflinching book. Bavino looks squarely at the violence done to him, the violence around him – and the violence he does and could do.

Bird-Monk Seding
should be read by anyone who thinks racism is over. Anyone interested in explosive writing.

Book details

Launch: New Times by Rehana Rossouw (22 November)

From the acclaimed and award-winning author of What Will People Say? Rehana Rossouw takes us into a world seemingly filled with promise yet bedevilled by shadows from the past. In this astonishing tour de force Rossouw illuminates the tensions inherent in these new times.

Ali Adams is a political reporter in Parliament. As Nelson Mandela begins his second year as president, she discovers that his party is veering off the path to freedom and drafting a new economic policy that makes no provision for the poor. She follows the scent of corruption wafting into the new democracy’s politics and uncovers a major scandal. She compiles stories that should be heard when the Truth Commission gets underway, reliving the recent brutal past. Her friend Lizo works in the Presidency, controls access to Madiba’s ear. Another friend, Munier, is beating at the gates of Parliament, demanding attention for the plague stalking the land.

Aaliyah Adams lives with her devout Muslim family in Bo-Kaap. Her mother is buried in religion after losing her husband. Her best friend is getting married, piling up the pressure to get settled and pregnant. There is little tolerance for alternative lifestyles in the close-knit community. The Rugby World Cup starts and tourists pour up the slopes above the city, discovering a hidden gem their dollars can afford.

Ali/Aaliya is trapped with her family and friends in a tangle of razor-wire politics and culture, can she break free?

Told with Rehana’s trademark verve and exquisite attention to language you will weep with Aaliya, triumph with Ali, and fall in love with the assemblage that makes up this ravishing new novel.

Rehana Rossouw was born and rooted in Cape Town, but is currently in self-imposed exile in Johannesburg. She has been a journalist for three decades and has also taught journalism and creative writing. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Wits University.

Event Details

  • Date: Wednesday, 22 November 2017
  • Time: 6:00 PM for 6:30 PM
  • Venue: Love Books, The Bamboo Lifestyle Centre, 53 Rustenburg Rd, Melville, Johannesburg | Map
  • Guest Speaker: Heather Robertson
  • RSVP: Savannah Lucas, rsvp@jacana.co.za
     

    Book Details

"It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material" - Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Michele Magwood

Famed US novelist and birder Jonathan Franzen was recently in South Africa, where he shared literary insights, and a defence of the LBJ, with Michele Magwood.

Jonathan Franzen is, as is his wont, talking about birds. Specifically, South African birds, and, even more specifically, the Cape grassbird. This is a bird that is usually dismissed at a glance as an LBJ – a little brown job, one of those ubiquitous dun-coloured birds that fade into the landscape and live in the shadow of rarer, more colourful birds. But not by Franzen. “I like the little brown ones,” he exclaims. “The Cape grassbird is the epitome for me of what a great bird is – it’s small and unobtrusive and yet when you look at it carefully with binoculars it just explodes with detail and subtle colours.”

Looking carefully and finding subtlety in seemingly ordinary things that then explode with detail is precisely what Franzen does as a writer. He comes heavily garlanded and routinely described as one of the US’ s greatest living novelists, but in Cape Town last week there wasn’t a trace of ego or the testiness he is famous for.

He was in the country for a National Geographic story on seabirds. South Africa, he says, is doing “very good things” for seabirds. He’d added on a 19-day birding tour of the country, and was now planning on getting out into deep water to see what he called the incredibly diverse seabird life off the coast.

Franzen is tall and rangy, woodsy in a way in scuffed boots and a checked shirt. He has beautiful, expressive hands and a mind like a sheathed blade. He has been interviewed countless times but there is none of the well-oiled shtick that many authors inevitably slip into. There are Pinter-long pauses as he considers a question, sighs and glances out of the window as he carefully composes his thoughts. Every now and again a teasing, self-deprecating humour ripples out.

He says he is less angry than he used to be, and less depressed – although he does refer to himself as a “depressive pessimist” – but concedes that there is still simmering anger at “the stupidity of the world and the meanness of people”. What human beings are doing to the natural world, the “atrocious political times in the US”.

He’s dismayed at the Trumpian effect on reading and writing. “A lot of people who used to read books are no longer remembering why they did, because they are so focused now on the outrage of the day. I blame devices. It seems to be an excuse to be distracted by your phone. People claim they have to remain up to date with what’s going on in Washington, but really they’re dependent on the stimulation from that phone.

“To me it makes the role of the writer all the more urgent. People need a haven from this ultra politicised, ultra angry nonsense that is coming at them every waking minute through their phones.”

Since Trump won the nomination, he says, book sales have collapsed in the US.

Franzen has written five novels. The first two, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, were well-received critically but not commercially. It was the third, The Corrections, that broke out, picking off literary prizes and selling more than three million copies. The infamous spat with Oprah helped, of course, but the two made up when she anointed his next novel, Freedom, for her book club and this time he appeared on the show. His latest novel, Purity, was published in 2015. In the lengthy gaps between books he writes astringent essays in such publications as the New Yorker and the Guardian.

Fiction, though, is clearly his first love, and he returns to it again and again during the course of the conversation, whether pointing out the historical correlation between liberalism and the rise of the novel, his belief that reading fiction is an opportunity to be somebody you aren’t – “very important if you’re living in any kind of diversity as a society” – or the value of escapism. “It’s good to be reminded that there’s a world in which meaning is possible – sophisticated, nuanced meaning, that doesn’t have to reduce to political simplicities. There are other more humane ways to make sense of the world.”

He calls writing “purposeful dreaming” and describes the intimacy of the relationship between writer and reader. “It’s the magical quality of the written word, that what you do as a writer, the process of investing imaginatively in a character or a story in order to put the words on the page, that that experience then gets replicated when you read that page, that the same investment springs up on the reader’s part. That is unique to the written word.”

One of the hallmarks of Franzen’s fiction is his intense characterisation. He leans in and drills down into his characters, excavating them with forensic skill. And when he’s done with excavating them he throws in a hand grenade. Life, he shows us, is messy. He is uncommonly perceptive about the human condition. What is the source, the spring of this perspicacity?

“I wish I could say something completely, brilliantly original,” he chuckles. “But I do go back again and again to my position in the family.” Franzen was a laatlammetjie, his two brothers much older than him. “So by the time I was 10 years old there were four adults in the house and me. They all had powerful, different personalities and although there was never any doubt they loved each other, they didn’t get along all that well. I grew up listening and trying to provide comic relief.”

When he discovered literature in college “it was like someone had handed me a key to understanding why people were saying the things they did. I suddenly had a magic decoder for my mother’s utterances. When I learnt to understand what Kafka was doing, I could understand the subtext of what was happening in the room. What was really going on when my mother would talk about the cranberry sauce. She’s not just talking about the cranberry sauce!” he laughs. “And that’s it right there – as a writer you want to present the cranberry sauce in its full specificity and vividness but you also want to understand what it signifies.”

Just as Franzen excavates his characters, so he excavates his own self, and one gets the sense of how hard the work really is, how psychologically gruelling it is for him.

“The process of trying to find a new character who is vivid to me, who I instinctively love, is in part finding some part of my existence that I have not explored. That relentless question of ‘What does the character want?’ is the medium of self-investigation, really. It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material.”

He has what he calls “shadow documents” for each novel, drawers of abandoned pages and jottings. “The shadow documents are much longer than the books – they consist of almost daily note-taking, relentless psychoanalysis done in the symbolic language of fiction. It’s tedious and repetitive.”

He’s started a shadow document for a new novel he’s working on. “I’ve got, like, two and a half characters and a few pages.

“Each time it feels like I can never do this again.”

The Twenty-seventh City

Book details

 
 
Strong Motion

 
 
 
 

The Corrections

 
 
 
 

Freedom

 
 
 

Purity

Franz Marx se eerste roman tref die rakke!

’n Spieël is ’n vreemde ding, want in ’n spieël leef ’n koue leuen; alles is andersom, verkeerdom en plat. Regs is links en links is regs. ’n Spieël lieg, dink hy, want jy kan jouself nie regtig sien nie, nes mens jouself nie kan kielie nie. Tensy jy natuurlik ’n soort aap is, dan kan jy jouself kielie. En lag. Maar Dolf Eksteen lag nie. Daar’s min rede die laaste tyd om te wil lag.

Joe Minnie se lewe raak verweef met dié van een van die rykste besigheidsmanne in die land. Sy opdrag is om Dolf Eksteen met sy lewe te bewaak. Dolf se weelderige bestaan word versuur deur bedelbriewe, afpersboodskappe en doodsdreigemente, en die beeldskone Belinda Eksteen, ’n opkomende vermaaklikheidster, is soos ’n emosionele en finansiële tikkende tydbom aan sy sy.

Met ’n rolverdeling wat ’n deursnit van die Suid-Afrikaanse gemeenskap bied – die onaantasbares, die onderdruktes, die onderduimses – word Spieëlbeeld ’n intense en meesleurende, psigologiese karakterstudie wat nog vir lank by die leser sal spook. ’n Wêreldklas spanningsverhaal waartydens die leser die speurder is.

Franz Marx is ’n bekroonde akteur, draaiboekskrywer, regisseur en vervaardiger met verskeie films, televisiereekse, enkeldramas en minireekse agter sy naam. Hy is ook die skrywer en vervaardiger van Suid-Afrika se eerste sepie, Egoli: Plek van Goud. Sy talle toekennings sluit in die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns se SAUK-prys vir Televisiedramas vir die draaiboek van Die buitestaander (1986), asook die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns se Erepenning vir Rolprentkuns (1995).

Boekbesonderhede