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'Burning rubber and black smoke': Bridget Hilton-Barber on how she almost lost her manuscript - by baking her laptop

Published in the Sunday Times

Student, Comrade, Prisoner, SpyStudent, Comrade, Prisoner, Spy
Bridget Hilton-Barber (Zebra Press)

I have lost many laptops to theft, and my external harddrive was recently pinched, so in the end throes of writing my latest book I became very protective over my laptop and its contents. I emailed myself the latest changes to my book every day and whenever I went out I hid my laptop – in different places to avoid the possibility of thieves and pilferers detecting my hiding patterns. I hid it in the bookshelf, I hid it under the bed, I hid it in the vegetable rack, I hid it in the clothes cupboard and then I hid it in the oven.

One lazy weekend I took a break from writing. A good friend was visiting in the guesthouse next door, and we decided to make a collective Sunday lunch. I was tasked with cooking the sweet potatoes, so I slicked down said potatoes with olive oil, draped them in sprigs of fresh rosemary, set them aside, turned on the oven to preheat and went for a glass of vino next door. After 20 minutes I went back to my oven to load the potatoes …

As I walked into the kitchen I was overpowered by the smell of burning rubber and the sight of thick black smoke curling out of the oven. Nooooo. The laptop. I stopped dead in my tracks, I screamed, I leapt many metres in the air, I went pale and sweaty, I clutched my madly beating heart. This was all in the nano second before I yanked open the oven door, seized the steaming laptop, tore off the burning rubber case, prised it open and stabbed at the “on” button.

OMG it was working! All downloads, documents, photographs and yes, my entire book, were still intact. The laptop’s CD drive had melted completely as had most of the bottom casing, giving it a rather Salvador Dali-esque appearance, but everything else seemed just fine, albeit hot and steamy. I dropped to my knees and gave thanks to every god and deity I could think of, tears of sheer relief sliding down my face.

Then I took a deep breath, put the sweet potatoes into the oven and went unsteadily back next door. Wine, I cried, wine. Now. There were shrieks of laughter as I recounted the sorry tale of my near death experience and downed several glasses to steady my shattered nerves.

You’re lucky it wasn’t an Apple Mac, chortled my friend, they have metal cases and you could have blown up the whole house never mind the entire block. But my laptop is a Samsung, which also makes a range of cooking appliances – haha – that promise a reduced cooking time and an even, thorough bake.

Mercifully I didn’t have one of those. Just a squishy, working laptop and its rubber case with my desperate handprint indelibly melted upon it.

As one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, once self-righteously pointed out, diligence is the mother of good luck, but then as English novelist Thomas Hardy said, some folks want their luck buttered.


Book details

Black cat

So I Iost one of my four temporary charges–three black cats and a black dog–for a day and it was a short trip from there to despair and searching of the soul and such matters. I got to thinking about how I should be somewhere else, in my own home (with my own dog) and not wearing someone else’s for a week like a sorry hermit crab, talking to someone else’s beloved pets like a crazy man–they just stare back in what looks like alarm and then bolt and hide for as long as they’re hungry–and to hell with cats anyway, who just want to run away for good as soon as they find the gap to a better life.

Charlie's good food

I drove a ski-boat down to Alexandria, Minnesota for something called “winterization”, listening all the way to the country music stations popping up from town to town: Tim McGraw singing how he’ll always be, and another man singing them pantyhose ain’t stayin’ on for long if the DJ puts Bon Jovi on.

Don't miss a short story Literary Crossroads event with Martin Egblewogbe, Nick Mulgrew and Ndumiso Ngcobo

Don't miss Martin Egblewogbe, Nick Mulgrew and Ndumiso Ngcobo at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg
Mr Happy and the Hammer of God and Other StoriesThe Myth of This Is That We're All in This TogetherEat, Drink and Blame the Ancestors

The Goethe-Institut invites you to a Literary Crossroads event in Joburg tonight, titled: Life is too short not to read short stories.

Invited guests Martin Egblewogbe and Nick Mulgrew will explore everything that a collection of short stories should be, in conversation with Ndumiso Ngcobo.

Egblewoge will also read at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley on Thursday, September 8 at 6 PM, and will also be participating at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town.

Egblewogbe is a lecturer in Physics at the University of Ghana and lives in Accra. He is the author of the short story collection Mr Happy and the Hammer of God and Other Stories and the title story of the 2014 Caine Prize anthology The Gonjon Pin.

Literary Crossroads is a new series of talks where South African writers meet colleagues from all over the continent and from the African diaspora to discuss trends, topics and themes prevalent in their literatures today. The series is curated by Indra Wussow, in cooperation with previous guests of Literary Crossroads.

Event Details

  • Date: Tuesday, 6 September 2016
  • Time: 7 PM PM
  • Venue: Goethe-Institut
    119 Jan Smuts Avenue
    Johannesburg | Map
  • Guests: Martin Egblewogbe and Nick Mulgrew
  • RSVP:, 011 442 3232

Book Details

1 book, 3 covers, 3 titles

A funny thing happened to me on the way to getting published.

How does one book get published with three different titles and three different covers?

I finished writing Dutch Courage in January 2015.

Incredible agent and selling machine, Oli Munson of AM Heath, sold Dutch Courage to Penguin SA. And to Harper Collins in the UK, who scheduled it for digital release in April 2016.

Covers and titles are tough for an author. Well for this author in particular. I’m in the ad industry, so I have a strong visual aesthetic (read: opinion).

I don’t know which is worse for a publisher, an author with design experience, or one without. Just about all my covers have been torture.

The amount of influence an author has on their cover depends. Generally, the publisher presents a few options to author, there’s some discussion and tweaking, and on (rare) occasion a second round of options. The author gets a say, mostly, but not entirely and sometimes not at all. Publishers have research and strong opinions on what sells and what doesn’t sell.

I instantly LOVED the SA cover of Dutch Courage by Penguin SA. Which is a first for me. We did minor tweaks and sent it to print:


(PS: you can buy this book here)

Harper Collins UK changed the title to Like A Virgin (They wanted to change my name too, but that’s another story for another day). I liked the new title. But the cover wasn’t as easy.
I didn’t love it. I didn’t even like it. They did. We negotiated some tweaks. I still didn’t like it. In the end we agreed to disagree, and off it went into the world. You can’t win ’em all:



Cut to July. An email from Harper Collins. By now, the full team I’d worked with on the original edit, cover and launch had left, some already replaced twice. No surprises, it had been over 18 months since they bought the book and publishing is fast-moving. When I read the email I wanted to vomit. Sales of Like A Virgin were tragic. Worse than tragic, dismal. Wait, worse than dismal, pathetic… wait… worse than pathetic… you get my drift.

Mistakes had been made, they said. I waited for them to say a polite but understandable farewell to me and my dreams.

I was wrong. They said they believe in this novel and they’d decided to give it a new title, a new cover, and another shot.

Introducing The Wrong Knickers for a Wednesday. launching in the UK today. 

Same book, new title, new cover, new marketing plan. Who knew.

Whoever said ‘you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’ never had a ballsy, ethical, can-do publisher.

Thank you for the second shot Harper Collins UK, Eloise Wood, Helen Huthwaite, Helena Sheffield, and Oli Munson. And godspeed fun stripper book with lots of faces:


Click here to buy this book in the UK (please, please, please buy this book. I’m not sure they’ll give me a 3rd shot).

One book, three covers, three titles. Which is your favourite:

1 book 3 covers.001

PS: Dutch Courage/Like A Virgin/The Wrong Knickers for a Wednesday is a book about what’s left behind when your clothes come off. It’s set in a strip club in Amsterdam, where all the strippers are celebrity impersonators. Some say it’s smart with a heart (coined by genius editor, Helen Moffett). Which I think is a cute, rhymey description that sums it up nicely.





Book Bites: 31 July 2016

Is it Just Me or is Everything Kak?Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? The Zuma Years
Tim Richman (Two Dogs)
Book bru
It’s been seven years since the third of the Kak books, which was intended to be the last, but Tim Richman now offers us a fourth, which covers the corruption and chaos of Zuma’s presidency. The book also dips into international topics, though it misses some of the most controversial. This makes for a welcome break as the bulk is decidedly South African, which has the unintended effect of becoming exhausting. It’s best read in small doses to allow the humour to override your sense of outrage. — Mandy Watson @mandyjwatson

My Name is Lucy Barton My Name is Lucy Barton
Elizabeth Strout (Penguin)
Book buff
“I have no memory of my mother ever kissing me. She may have kissed me though; I may be wrong.” Thus speaks Lucy Barton, who spends much of this tender novella in hospital, being treated for a mysterious ailment by a doctor so kind he makes Lucy want to weep. For some of the time her mother visits, sleeping in a chair next to Lucy’s bed, and they talk. They don’t talk about anything important; they talk of Elvis and people from back in the day, but somewhere in this talk of commonplaces they reach an understanding of each other. Sort of. Strout writes with the ear of a composer, both in passages of vivid dialogue and in the internal musings of Lucy’s mind, switching between her sick bed, her alienated childhood and her difficult adult relationships. Comparisons with Virginia Woolf have been made. Strout is much more engaging and easier to follow. — Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Guide to Trees Introduced into Southern AfricaGuide To Trees Introduced Into Southern Africa
Hugh Glen & Braam Van Wyk (Struik Nature)
Book trek
This book fills the niche of a guide to the exotic trees that have been introduced into southern Africa, covering 600 species out of an estimated 2 000. They’re all around us in the suburbs and parks, contributing substantially to Joburg’s famous “urban forest”. The book uses the same model of identification as Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa, with 43 groups and the identification of trees based on leaf and stem attributes. There is a map for each showing where it can be grown, and a brief description, including common names, place of origin, whether it is invasive, and its cultivation and uses. For tree-lovers it’s a great dip-into read. — Andrew Unsworth

The TeacherThe Teacher
Katerina Diamond (HarperCollins)
Book thrill
Katerina Diamond’s debut is delightfully different and, although it’s labelled a psychological crime thriller, the character’s reactions to evil are refreshingly uncomplicated. First the headmaster of an exclusive school, then a host of high-profile residents of a Devonshire town are murdered using agonising methods, and partners DS Imogen Grey and DS Adrian Miles – both of whom have troubled pasts – battle to find a connection between the killings. The book comprises innocent victims and unrepentantly cruel, twisted villains. Murder is always wrong and we should leave justice to the law – yet some crimes cry out for revenge and demand retribution. — Aubrey Paton

Book details