By BRUCE DENNILL
David Bristow‘s new book Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists: 20 Environmental Stories from South Africa covers environmental topics include pesticides, poaching, petrol, plastics, population, pollination, pollution, pods, politics, pharmaceuticals, people, prophets, power and poop.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
I seem to have been born an entertainer and storyteller. At school, I was the kid whose essays would be read out in class – I just fished some made-up idea out my brain and concocted a circular story around it. One, I recall, was about going to church, falling asleep and dreaming of being at a lavish banquet. I woke in an uproar, having tucked into the faux fruit display on the lady’s large hat sitting in front of me. So clearly that worked. Most of my books have been nature- or travel-oriented, so there was not the problem as with fiction – wondering whether your idea was worthy, or if it would lure a publisher. Around 35 years ago, when I started writing as a full-time gig, there weren’t so many writers feeding the local book industry, so I hit it really lucky that way. However, I now have strong yearnings to write fiction. Watch this space – I’ll let you know.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
Again, here I have been fortunate. Having found a publisher for my first paperback – non-fiction narrative – I have been able to discuss with them various options about what to do next. They have a better nose for what is commercial and I have been writing and travelling most of my working life, so I have more ideas than I have years left. But, as they say in Hollywood, you are only as good as your last rodeo. Each one is a commercial gamble, but so far so lucky. On the other hand, my first paperback, Running Wild: The Story of Zulu, An African Stallion, took me a full year and 174 rejections from agents and publishers around the world before Jacana picked it up and ran with it. Not to mention three rewrites. You’ve just got to keep riding that horse.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
My books are all about the research, and it’s the part I love the most, not least because in most cases, it involves travelling. I also spend a lot of time in libraries, including the National Library, going to first principals as they say in science. As a writer, few things thrill me more than sitting in the rare books section of the National Library, under the gaze of several original, large Thomas Baines oil paintings, waiting for a librarian to bring out the old manuscript I requested. Wikipedia is at least as good as Encyclopedia Britannica ever was. Even Google Search is a powerful tool when used wisely. While researching a character for one of my books – a Trek Boer – following the threads of the footnotes in a scholarly work led me to a secondhand book store in Youngstown, MO, USA. I paid for it online and it arrived within two weeks.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
Usually my book ideas have been in fermentation and development for a long time. I take them out and work on them from time to time: it’s one of my hobbies. However – and I know this from experience – if you don’t know where you are going before you set off, you will get lost. You need to be some kind of genius to write your way out of quicksand. One way of making it easier is to do what every English teacher ever told you: start by making a skeleton, then slowly flesh it out one organ and limb at a time. Have a strong beginning, middle and end. There has never been better advice.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
There’s a romantic notion about being a writer, but make no mistake, it is a sitting job. Writing is hard, especially on your butt and your waistline, and then on those around you. It tends to become an obsession so you need to find ways to deal with each of those if you don’t want your outer life to unravel. But the chasm between the idea and the written words is wide and deep. The hardest part, and also the key, is getting the right voice. You need to write for someone, as though you were telling them the best story you have. If you don’t get your voice singing from word one, you’ll be floundering in mental quicksand all the way. But the admin of life – the bills, spam, rates and taxes, speeding fines, lawyer’s letters, final demands, broken cars, broken doors – that’s the stuff that grinds you down.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I’m like an old rocker that’s been on the road a long time, in my case with some 30 albums – books – under the bridge. My advice is just say yes to the drugs… Only kidding! My nursery training was on big newspapers and magazines, working my way up the ladder, and there is one inviolate law of the trade: you never miss a deadline. I’m an old dog in the game and I don’t seem to need any other motivation, or potions other than coffee and wine, or tricks. And then there’s the fact that I love what I do. There has also been a heck of a lot of travelling, from the Antarctic to Alaska, Nepal to the Seychelles, and most of Africa in-between. There are worse jobs.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of word count or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
I keep a notebook and my laptop at my bedside so I’m ready when the muse wakes me. When I’m working on a book, it’s pretty normal for me to get up at 3am and go into my study when I’m gripped by an idea. Some time after sunrise, my partner will pop in with a steaming hot cup of tea, and on I go. You cannot stop the rollercoaster of ideas once it’s set. I can write anything from 1,000 to 3,000 good words a day, depending. I throw out about as much again. I know there are very rare writers who craft books like poems, one hard-wrought word at a time. But for the rest of us plodders, we need to be able to slash at least half of what we write in order to distil it down to good stuff.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
Discipline and passion. I exercise every day, and write every day I can. Lockdown was no hardship for me. I simply sat down and wrote a book, with time-outs for surfing or cycling. I started in March and it was published in October. Luckily, our wine stocks held out.
If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
In writing, I have found my passion, and luckily I have managed to feed and educate a few children along the way with the proceeds. But I lead a balanced life and try not to let a good opportunity pass to travel and exercise. I am, or was, also a part-time specialist tour guide so that’s been a diversion. Enthusiasm, energy … I don’t know what the magic formula is, but I seem to have found a certain sangfroid. Sometimes I call it serendipity.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
I have found a formula that works well for me – it combines print books, travelling and talking. I’m like a travelling book salesperson. My market is essentially middle age and older readers who still prefer paper, as do I. A book person is something different from a device reader. Books have a smell and a feel, like a baby or a lover. Kindles don’t. Then again, if you don’t get your work into e-book form, you will lose out on a big and growing market. I could try harder marketing my e-books, but a lad has only so many hours between tides.