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 WRITER

The importance of being Ernest, or Joe

Some characters introduce themselves to you by name. Others you have to christen, and it’s a vitally important job, because the name is by far the most common label your character carries, far more than being dark-haired, brave or devilishly handsome.

The name has to suggest the right kind of personality.

Sometimes the writer or reader carries baggage, remembers a particular person in a certain way, and using their name evokes remembered feelings. It is, for instance, a temptation to name a villain after a person you dislike. I tried it in Parts Unknown, giving a villain the name of my high school principal, but fortunately I walked away from the idea later. Those subjective names aren’t great, because readers don’t share your feelings. They have their own likes and dislikes, of course, but there is nothing the writer can do about it. Best is to pick names with more public associations, so that they might evoke the desired emotion in readers.

I think Siegfried Bock, hero of Parts Unknown, was one of the characters who told me his name straight up. In the earliest story notes I could find, from 2013, his name is there. I liked it from the start.

This is all after the fact – I had chosen the name instinctively – but if I have to analyse it, I’d be able to find reasons why the name worked so well for me. Sieg + fried is German for the victory of peace, which fits nicely with the story. There is Siegfried from the Medieval myth, slayer of dragons. It also has links to my own name, which is a uniquely South African mangling of Siegreich. His surname, Bock (which I probably nabbed from the German field-marshal Fedor von Bock) makes a contrast with the lofty first name, bock being the German for goat. It might also suggest a sacrificial goat.

Mordegai Guruseb is also named in that initial scribble. Mordegai is Biblical, and hence realistic for the time and culture. The first syllable has an echo of death. His surname suggests guru, which isn’t a bad association.

Lisbeth Löwenstein’s surname was taken from someone I knew in my younger days. I wanted something distinctive and Jewish. Her married name, Kamke, was taken from a German tennis professional I’ve seen play. I chose it because it seemed neutral without being bland.

The doctor’s name, Albert Pitzer, was a mangling of Albert Schweitzer and a combative Springbok hooker from my youth, Gys Pitzer. Pit suggests something dark and untoward.

I devised Alvaus Luipert’s name by simply taking the first name of one of a list of historical Swartboois and combining it with the surname of another. Luipert is leopard in Afrikaans (slightly misspelled), so there’s that connection. And the name Alvaus is quite outlandish, suggesting a singular man.

Apart from suggesting personality, names also have to help the reader tell characters apart. If there is something memorable about the name, it can help, especially for minor characters. You don’t want characters to have similar names, especially if they only appear a few times. I even get nervous if names start with the same letters. (I have written elsewhere about how confused I get with some character names in books by the highly rated Australian novelist Philip Temple.)

In writing Parts Unknown, I was taken with the historical fact that there were Finnish missionaries in Namibia at the time, and wanted to use a Finnish name, especially one of those quaint ones with a double i. I considered the surname of an old schoolmate, Wiid. (Annalise, who had success as a gospel singer, sadly died in mid-2018.) Eventually, I settled on the, from a Southern African perspective, more exotic Viitanen. The missionary’s daughter got the name, Isa, of another girl who was a year or so ahead of me at school.

The point is not the origin of these names, but the emotional content they suggest by association or even just their sound. To me, for instance, Adendorff sounds like a more cultured fellow than Grajek.

As a writer, you hope readers will also have these instinctive emotional responses to names, that they will agree that Heidi is more wholesome than Morgana, Norman less confident than Victor, Fred funnier than Benedict. And so on.

BEING A WRITER

Gained in translation

More than a million words. That’s how much translation I’ve done in the last six years or so. It has taught me a lot.

The books I translated since 2012. The two Berlin Noir books are still in the works, and my novella Ek wens, ek wens (I wish, I wish) is due out in February 2019.

When writers give writing advice to aspiring writers, one of the suggestions I’ve encountered more than once is to retype some novels – your favourites as well as some you don’t like – so that you can see what the authors did and learn from it. At the time when I read this advice, I could not imagine doing something so tedious. There was no way I was ever going to do it.

But translating books has forced me to do this – retype existing novels, and render them into another language to boot. I actually engaged with the texts in an even more intense way than simply retyping them. And now that idea of retyping an entire novel doesn’t sound half as dumb as it did at first, I have become one of those writers who recommend this method. Seriously.

Before I get to some of the things I have learned by doing all this translation work, just an overview of the books:

  • 3 of my own novels
  • a novella I had written
  • the autobiography of cricketer AB de Villiers.
  • 2 historical crime novels by Philip Kerr
  • 3 early historical adventure novels by Wilbur Smith.

I’d like to think my translations have become better over time. After years of minimal practice, Afrikaans has become more readily accessible in my head again, my resources improved, and so did my practical processes.

Technique

I translate in stages. First, I get the text I have to translate into an MS Word document, in a format I like. That also gives me a consistent page count I can use to work out what milestones I have to achieve when to make the deadline. Then I create a separation in the text, usually a row of xxx in highlight.

Then the real work starts, what I consider as Stage 1. Above the bar, I start translating the words below it, rendering the English into Afrikaans as efficiently as I can. I find it easier to work with all the text on one screen. It also makes the project portable and I have even translated while travelling by bus or when waiting to see someone.

As I finish translating a paragraph or group of lines, I delete them. It’s like a worm coming down from above, eating English and excreting Afrikaans. I use some typing shortcuts such as automatic replacements of recurring words that are hard to type, especially the Afrikaans words with diacritical signs on some letters. I also keep notes of issues to take up with the publisher.

That is by far the most time-consuming stage, taking perhaps three-quarters or more of the total project hours.

After this is when the real fun starts, when I put the original text aside, and work fully with the translation. This is where I concentrate on style and idiom. Occasionally I might look at the original if a passage is problematic, but mostly I operate wholly immersed in Afrikaans.

Challenges

While the process is consistent from book to book, each project presents its own challenges.

My own books were the easiest to translate in the sense that I knew what the author meant, and where I didn’t understand the bloody idiot (this happened!), I felt free to change it. Actually, with unpublished books I ended up translating both ways, because when I found something awkward in the original or had an idea that made the translation better, I’d often back-translate that to the original. The biggest challenge was to render the more poetic passages or ones with word-play into the other language. Some thoughts are only striking because of the words with which they can be expressed in a particular language.

The AB de Villiers book threw up two unique challenges: One was procedural – receiving the text piecemeal while working against a tight deadline. The second was cricket terminology. For instance, I had a chart with 40-something fielding positions, and still AB managed to mention a couple of positions not on my chart, or any other I could find. The names of specific cricket shots were equally dumbfounding at times.

And there was also the oddity that I had received originally Afrikaans dialogue from his family life rendered into English, and had to back-translate that. I always wondered how the words have changed in the process.

I am still working on the second of two of British crime novelist Philip Kerr’s Bernie Günther novels. The biggest challenges here are the inconsistent rendering of German (and Russian in the third book) in the originals, and some aspects of Kerr’s style. His characters’ über-cool slang is sometimes impossible to decode. From a writer’s perspective, I found some of his choices between telling and showing a bit mystifying. And he occasionally goes to extraordinary and complicated lengths to make a simple point. When he becomes convoluted, it gets hard to translate.

Actually, here’s a general rule: If the original is written well, it is relatively easy to translate. It is when the original is terrible or brilliant that you struggle to translate it.

Translating Wilbur Smith

I left discussing the Wilbur Smith books for last, because they were by far the most problematic – and instructive.

They were mostly early novels by Smith, and perhaps he had become a better writer over time, but I’ll confess that, unlike Kerr, Smith is not a writer on my reading list and I’ll never find out what his other books are like.

What struck me about those early novels was firstly how badly they have been edited. Some of those books have been in the market constantly for 50 years, and still there were blatant inconsistencies, lapses of logic, etc. In one book, for instance, a character who cannot read, kept cut-outs of newspaper stories. This is unusual enough, but these newspapers were only pubished after the guy’s death! Some of these lapses did provide light relief during the translation.

I also spotted quite a few historical errors, but I suppose before Google those were easier to make.

The narrator sometimes casually makes a sexist or racist statement that was probably unexceptional in the 1960s, but which really grates on the reader now. Together with the publisher, we made the decision to tone down the offending sentiments where possible, though we couldn’t do it to the extent where it would affect events in the story. In Donderslag (The Sound of Thunder) the main character, who recently returned from a safari where he shot 500 (!) elephants, still gives one of his lovers a hiding, for instance.

What I learned

So, what did translating Wilbur Smith teach me?

First, that readers of commercial books like stories, and that little else matters. Smith is good at telling stories, especially at making historical events come to life. Even if, in one case, he carried on for a good hundred pages after the natural end of the story. He also has a knack for honing in on the strongest, most basic human emotions. And he exploits the African milieu well. These are, I believe, the main reasons for his success.

Hopefully some of this has subconsciously rubbed off on me.

I always thought that the aspect of writing that interested me least was plotting, but having read Smith, I am less sure. It is something one can get right as a writer and, when you do, it helps to make the book more attractive for readers. I believe it is possible to marry literary merit with good plotting. To be fair on myself, Half of One Thing was written before I translated Wilbur Smith, and has a smart, tight plot.

Smith’s prose never rises to any heights, but is effective, especially in action sequences. When he goes for lyricism or internal monologue, it tends to bog down. And there are shoddy aspects to his writing, perhaps a factor of working at speed. In one book, almost every brown object is described as “chocolate brown”. I’m fairly confident that in terms of prose, my translation improves on the original. So, in a sense, what I learned in terms of prose was how not to do it.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from translating the Wilbur Smith books in particular, is to be far more confident in my own writing.