In The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police, award-winning historian and journalist Jacob Dlamini tells the very human story of apartheid’s afterlife, tracing the fates of South African insurgents, collaborators, and the security police through the tale of the clandestine photo album used to target apartheid’s enemies.
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 was a journalist for 20 years and I switched to academia in part because I was getting frustrated at the amount of time and space I had to pursue what I thought were stories that needed telling. This does not mean that I know ahead of time if an idea is worthy of developing into a book. But it does mean that I have, as an academic, the time and the relative luxury to follow leads, find archival materials, speak to potential informants, and to look at the relevant secondary literature, if available. Only once I have done this, which sometimes takes years, am I in a position to decide if I have a book or not.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
To write, you have to read. Reading does not necessarily make one a good writer, but you cannot write if you do not read. So I am always reading, always looking at other regions of the world, other histories, to see how different writers have dealt with the concerns and themes at the center of my work: authoritarianism, collaboration, political violence and surveillance.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
Let me answer this question this way: the gap between my first two books was five years; the gap between those books and my latest is five years. In each case, that is five years taken up with research, reading, visiting different archives around the world and, crucially, speaking to informants. You cannot rush this type of research. Many of the things I write about involve people who are still alive; people who did unspeakable things. I must get my facts straight.
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?
I will spend years doing research and when I have enough material, I will start writing those sections for which I feel the information is most complete. I do not always start with the introduction.
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?
I have to write while supporting my wife in getting her work and research done – she is a PhD student in Public Health – while helping to take care of our three kids, and teaching. So I have to be disciplined about finding pockets of time to write. I also use scrap paper and notebooks to jot down lines and so on.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I can’t think of one. Starting a new research and writing project, maybe, instead of finishing the one at hand.
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 know that that is the kind of advice that people like Ernest Hemingway give. I do not work with word counts. I aim always for a complete draft of a chapter. I will write for as long as I can, and then spend a long time editing what I have.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
Separating the reading from the writing, so that when you sit down to write you are not looking for notes or references. Do all that beforehand, take good and detailed notes, and when it is time to write, turn off the internet and just have your notes about.
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?
There is nothing fresher than getting people, from a young age, interested in reading. But that is a long-term project. For now, helping people realise just how necessary books are, how important they are, might be the best marketing strategy available. But what do I know, I am just a teacher and a writer.