BEING A WRITER

I had a police station in Africa, at the foot of Gamsberg…

Gamsberg dominates the landscape in my Hochnamib trilogy.

In 2013, I started with an idea for a miniseries about a policeman in German Southwest Africa. Eight years, three books, 819 pages, 270,000 words later, as I end this project, I cannot help but reflect on this era.

(I’ve been at it longer than any job I held, two thirds of the total years I spent at school. So, yes, an era.)

Brief

Just about the first thing I wrote down back in 2013 was a brief to myself. This hangover from my advertising days helps to crystallize my thoughts and keep me on track. I often refer back to it during the many months or years of writing a book – sometimes amending it, mostly simply reading it to remind me of my original aims and to help me achieve the right frame of mind.

Below is part of the brief I wrote to myself when I embarked on this series:

In the first place, this must come across as a real story about real people in real circumstances. It has to be a juicy story, languidly told, but full of incident, a throwback to 19th Century novels, an exotic adventure crime story, but told by Turgenev or Babel.

This is a book about Romantic dreams versus reality […]

Siegfried Bock is like a Romantic hero from the European novels of my youth, a Nabokov character. He is vain, just, uncompromising, self-possessed, well-meaning, sympathetic to the underdog, sometimes sentimental. He dreams of becoming a real man, a hero […]

There is also a sub-theme of empowerment. The weak and the strong, about ways power is exercised and how power is taken, how the weak takes power.

Looking at it now, I am struck by the literary antecedents I brought up: three Russians whose abilities, frankly, intimidate me. As they should. Turgenev and Nabokov are already canonised. And Babel may just be my favourite short story writer, a master of the craft.

To what extent I have achieved what I had set out to do, I’ll leave for others to judge.

Execution

The creation of such books can be separated into four components:

  1. idea
  2. research
  3. writing
  4. editing.

For some reason, readers tend to be most interested in the first two. As far as I can tell, the questions writers get most often are: “Where do you get your ideas from?” and “What research did you do?”

The question about ideas is hardest to answer – there isn’t a magical formula, no hotline to the muse. It’s different every time. The shortest, most accurate answer is: “I don’t know.” Of course, there is more to say about it, guesses to hazard, perhaps an inkling to share, but I won’t attempt it here. Perhaps some other day.

But I can answer the second question, about research.

To be able to write these books, I had to learn to read a new language, as so much of the research material was only available in German. My knowledge of Afrikaans helped me to find my way with this language, as they are relatively closely related, but it was still a tough task and I never quite mastered German to the extent that I feel I can make grammatically correct sentences in the language, let alone speak it. My hearing comprehension is also too patchy to be really useful. But I can get the gist of a written text.

I ended up reading at least 30 books on Namibian history – a few in Afrikaans, more in English, most in German. This included a facsimile edition of Hans Rafalski’s seminal history of the Landespolizei, Vom Niemandsland Zum Ordnungssstaat. This one is in blackletter font too! I had to make myself a cheat sheet to identify some of the more arcane letters.

The hours of online research I cannot begin to quantify, the time poring over maps and looking at every historical photograph I could find. Without these photographs, there probably wouldn’t have been a book, as they provide wonderful detail and feel.

Having done all this research, I tried to hide it in the text. A novel is not a history book, but a story set against a historical backdrop. Where history had to be conveyed to make sense of events, I tried to weave it into the flow of the narrative, to the best of my ability.

I also undertook two trips to Namibia – not so easy if you live in New Zealand, but I tacked them onto book-related trips to South Africa. Besides, I love it there, in the country of my ancestors, birth and early childhood.

As to the writing itself, for me it is a rollercoaster ride of slog and exhilaration – the most deeply satisfying thing I ever get to do. I appreciate that, while the art and craft of writing occupy my mind much of the time, it is not something I can expect others to appreciate. So, instead, I will simply quantify it: I have written many, many more words than the 270,000 that appeared in print, with all the wrongheaded drafts, abandoned storylines, etc.

And then there is the editing . . . When you’ve reached the end of the story, you’re halfway with the book.

My approach when I write is not that I am putting down the words that will appear in print, but that I am creating text for editing. (That helps keep the incapacitating demon of self-doubt at bay.) Many sentences and paragraphs make it to print unscathed, but as many do not.

You find stylistic problems in a cold rereading of your work, sentences that had lost their way or that jar against their neighbours in an unproductive manner.

There are cul-de-sacs you discover in the editing phase, potential storylines that didn’t pan out. The paragraphs that paved the way for them are now redundant and have to go.

And then there is the repetition. There are all the things you say more than once. You find that you have repeated things in different ways. (See what I did there?)

More worrying, you find discrepancies. In the last book, the Nama warrior Jager suddenly had two canteens, and I couldn’t work out where the second one had come from. It had to be surgically removed in a number of places fairly late into the final preparation of the text. A novel is a conglomeration of so many facts over so many months or years that it is a challenge to avoid contradictions in the text. Across three books, it’s even harder.

On the last book alone, in the home straight before publication, I cut 10,000 words. A few darlings were sacrificed, but it was better for the book. And I saved readers 40 or so minutes of reading time!

An unusual thing that happened in the third book is that while reading the proofs, I realised that there was a significant story detail in my head that I had never put down on paper… To accommodate it in the text at that stage, we had to cut the same number of lines elsewhere on the page, so we didn’t cause a domino effect on subsequent pages.

(This is the only irksome part of editing: Once the book has been set, you cannot do anything that changes line counts. Also, you sometimes have to cut a line simply to help with the flow of text across page breaks. It’s not all aesthetics – the physical medium can affect the text people get to read.)

For me, there is a fifth phase as well: translation. I translated all three books back and forth between English and Afrikaans too, in the hope that I’ll find an English publisher sometime. (Full disclosure: There is still a bit to do, so I’m not quite done with Siegfried Bock yet – the English version of the last book has fallen behind the last rewrite in Afrikaans.)

Evaluation

Was all of this effort worth it? one may ask.

The answer is a resounding YES in some respects, in another not, and part of it I leave to readers to decide.

The NO part has to do with the most readily quantifiable measure: money. If I had spent all those hours doing paid commercial work, my bank balance would be much healthier, no doubt. But financial gain, while it would be a welcome bonus, is not the point.

Writing the Hochnamib trilogy gave me purpose for many years, the joy of being creative. I explored a land and history I love. I discovered unsuspected complexities and learnt a lot about colonial history, languages, writing, and myself.

I also encountered many capable and well-meaning people who were willing to help me. Some of them have become friends.

A special joy was falling in love with the characters. For a few, such as Klawerjas, Eva and Mesuvere, I have stories in my head that never made it to paper. Others surprised me, none more so than Doctor Pitzer in the first book. He was supposed to be a villain, but his weaknesses won me over.

More than anything, I like the way the books turned out, how they all ended up being different, able to be read independently of each other, but hanging together in an overarching narrative.

Readers may, of course, decide that not only had I wasted my time on these books, they’re not going to waste theirs reading it. Fair call – there are many books I choose not to read.

But whatever happens to this series of books out in the world, however others respond to them, I will cherish them, and my time with Siegfried Bock and his neighbours in the wholly fictitious settlement at Hochnamib, where I lived off and on for the past eight years.

BEING A READER

The enduring appeal of Georges Simenon

Only three crime writers deserved a place in the history of 20th Century literature, according to a book I read back in the 1980s. The one that was presented as the obvious candidate was Georges Simenon. The others were acknowledged as more contentious choices, and I cannot remember who they were.

I’ve read the odd Simenon book over the years and always thought they were good. If there were a handful of books, I might have tried to read them all, but the man wrote 75 novels featuring his famous detective, Maigret, and more than 400 other books!

So, Simenon was not high on my reading list. But something happened to me over the years: I have become increasingly intolerant in my reading habits. A few weeks ago, I abandoned a promising book because the character walked for two pages, seeing this and that – well-written descriptions, but not moving the story along at all. That was too much for me.

See, I did say intolerant.

If it feels derivative, if the narration doesn’t have an appealing voice, if I sense emotional manipulation (especially of the “of Auschwitz” variety, the invocation of familiar horrors) I find something else to do, and the book mark stays in place for weeks or months until I finally accept that I will not pick up the story again and pull the marker from between the pages without even opening the book.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing in an op shop (charity second hand store, for those unfamiliar with the term) and in a box of books marked 3 for $1, I found two new-looking Simenon novels. I read both and ordered three or four more from the library. I’m now reading my fourth Simenon on the trot.

I can read them, because they’re not full of shit. (I know that’s not a literary term, but it captures my sentiments most accurately.) Simenon writes stripped prose. When he does spend a paragraph on a description, it is richly evocative. A fairly randomly chosen sample from today’s pages:

Maigret slept the sleep, at once troubled and sensual, that one only ever has in a cold country room that smells of stables, winter apples and hay. Draughts circulated all around him. And his sheets were frozen, except in the exact spot, the soft, intimate hollow that he had warmed with his body. Consequently, rolled up in a ball, he avoided making the slightest movement.

Simenon overdoes exclamation marks in the early books, but my sense is that they become less frequent later in the series.

Apart from the no-nonsense style, it is the subject matter that is so captivating. They are crime stories, yes, but the focus is on the perpetrator rather than the detective. It is about what moves people to do terrible things. Like Inspector Maigret, we are led to understand, not to judge.

Maigret is a strangely nebulous character, clearly described in the first book Pietr the Latvian (1930), and as far as I can tell, not really thereafter. He is large, wears an overcoat and smokes a pipe, and that’s about it.

That first book is also where some key precepts are described:

Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being. In addition, of course, there is an opponent in a game, and it is the player that the police are inclined to see. […] Maigret worked like any other policeman. […] But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

In exploring these cracks, Simenon is not only a cut above his fellow crime writers, but many supposedly literary writers too.

Afrikaans

Na die maan met kuns

Eendag het ek ‘n bottel pickles present gekry by ‘n digter wat in die Chinese burgeroorlog kanker gekry het. (Dis die waarheid dié en het met verbeelding niks uit te waaie nie.)
Dit was in die dae toe jong witmans Suid-Afrika nog teen die ANC moes beveilig. Ek het my destydse vrou haarkapper toe gevat. Die haarkapper was in Groenpunt en ek was in uniform. Terwyl my vrou in die stoel was, het ek in die straat gestaan. Ek gee nie om om te wag nie. Dis een van my goeie eienskappe. Nog een is dat ek nie haatdraend is nie. Ek was ontuis in daardie uniform.
“Vrou by die haarkapper?” vra iemand. Dis ‘n ou man wat my oor ‘n tuinhekkie staan en bekyk. Ek knik. “In watter eenheid is jy?”
“Ek is nie eintlik ‘n soldaat nie.”
“Nonsens. Jy’t ‘n uniform aan. Dan’s jy ‘n soldaat, dit maak nie saak wat jy doen nie.”
Ek antwoord nie. Ek gaan nie die fynere punte van my self-verontskuldiging met ‘n ou omie bespreek nie.
“Ek was in die Chinese burgeroorlog.” Hy wys na ‘n groot seer op sy lip. “Dis waar ek die kanker gekry het, van die son in die Gobi.” Ek kyk hom aan. So wragtig? “Almal is so bang vir die Russe, maar ek sê jou die Chinese is gevaarliker. Daar is baie van hulle en hulle weet hoe om ‘n mortier te gebruik.”
My vrou se hare beter nou klaar wees.
Hy sien seker hoe ek hoek toe kyk. “My seun is die haarkapper. Ek en my vrou bly hier bo die salon. Dis eintlik baie lekker. Ons skryf musicals.”
“Musicals?”
“Ja-a. Ons het al ‘n hele klomp gedoen. Ek skryf die woorde. Ek is eintlik ‘n digter. My vrou skryf die musiek. Dan stuur ons dit vir Kruik. Maar hulle wou nog nie een opgevoer het nie …” Hy voel aan die roof op sy lip. “Eenkeer het ek amper ‘n gedig maan toe gestuur. Kom in, dit sal nie lank wees nie, dan wys ek jou.”
Ek protesteer, maar goeie maniere is nie genoeg om hom van sy storie af te kry nie. Uiteinde is ek word aan sy vrou voorgestel, netjiese vroutjie met haar hare in ‘n rol agter haar kop. Die klavier staan gereed met bladmusiek oopgevou. Terwyl hy soek na die gedig wat amper maan toe gegaan het, vertel hulle my van hul musicals.
“Ons werk nou juis aan ‘n nuwe een.”
“Dis regtig ons beste, die keer.”
“Dit gaan wonderlik wees.”
Uit ‘n kis kom die man met ‘n brief te voorskyn. “Kyk hier is ‘n brief wat ek by Nasa gekry het.” Dis op blou papier met Nasa se seël bo-aan. ‘n Beleefde relaas oor hoe hulle soveel versoeke kry om goed maan toe te vat dat hulle ongelukkig nie aan almal kan voldoen nie. Maar die ruimtevaarders het glo die gedig gelees en baie daarvan gehou. “Elkeen het sy gunsteling-stukkie vir my onderstreep, kyk net,” wys hy my. Daar staan hul name – Edwin Aldrin, Neil Armstrong en Frank Borman. “Hulle sou dit saamgevat het as hulle kon.”
“Ek is seker.”
“Jy wil nie dalk van my pickles saamvat nie, netnou as jy gaan?”
Ek het niemand om namens my nee-dankie-briewe op blou briefhoofde te skryf nie.
Eendag lank, lank gelede, het ek ‘n bottel pickles present gekry by ‘n digter wat in die Chinese burgeroorlog kanker gekry het. Sy naam is Paul Devere. Jy kan hom maar gaan opsoek.