By BRUCE DENNILL
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.
The pleasure of writing a book of essays or long columns is that you move from one idea to the next fairly quickly. But in this case the book started with the idea of a frog in a pot. It’s a political allegory we keep hearing – we’re passively floating in a national pot as the water gets hotter and hotter around us – but it turns out that it’s nonsense: as I explain in the book, the actual experiment plays out very differently indeed. Which got me thinking about how we think about South Africa, and how easily we slip into arguments and attitudes that feel sensible but which might be worth examining in a different way.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
I’ve been very lucky over the past decade to have been given carte blanche on some fantastic platforms, but there is a big difference between touching on an idea in 800 words and having a whole book in which to follow my thoughts wherever they lead. So the “unpacking” process has been a process of fermentation – lots of walking and thinking and endless voice notes on my phone – rather than a conscious effort to sit down and bang it all out in one go. As for the themes I focused on, most will be familiar to most South Africans. These are the conversations and arguments we have every day on social media and with friends and family: why the ANC can’t govern its way out of damp paper bag; what the largest opposition parties are doing when they’re not screaming at Hugo to bel die polisie; politics and sport; the death penalty; where we go from here… I hope I’ve managed to introduce some new perspectives into some of these conversations. In the chapter on corruption, for example, I suggest that what we need is a new kind of sophisticated theft I call ‘sustainable corruption’. I also come to the defence of local TV and explain why it’s so much better than it might be.
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?
It’s taken me a very long time, but I’ve finally learned that if you’re trying very hard not to do something, you probably don’t want to do it, so you probably shouldn’t do it until you’ve figured out what you want to do instead. Even if you do want to do it, the Romantics left us with the destructive notion that the only worthwhile creative process is to make art, and that making art requires suffering, and that suffering is noble and therefore attractive. The upshot of this cultural hangover is that I think many people sit down wanting to create something, tell themselves it has to be art, and immediately slip into performance of being tormented by self-doubt and loneliness and all that Sturm und Drang jazz. Which is no way to get anything done.
I used to be susceptible to that approach, mainly because it gave me a posh reason for not producing anything. But since I started learning how to take pleasure in writing, I’ve freed myself from the art-making nonsense and started thinking of writing as a pastime like carpentry or rock-climbing. Yes, they’re solitary. Yes, they can be difficult and frustrating and end in failure. But ultimately they are pleasurable, quiet, engrossing processes of creating small problems for yourself and then solving them in your own time in a way that pleases you most. Having said that, there are some things that can get in the way of putting finger to keyboard, like earning a living or getting sucked into the internet.
Writing is also a physical process. There’s a kind of muscle you develop, but it has to be warmed up every day when you start writing again. I think it’s quite rare for writers to just sit down and start producing publishable prose. So that’s a tricky moment: when you’re mis-hitting the same tennis ball you were hitting sweetly the day before, it’s easy to give up and do something else.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
If I tell you I won’t be able to use it again.
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 don’t do daily targets. It really is just a case of pointing the boat at the horizon and seeing what happens. As long as the total required word count isn’t ballooning out into silliness, it doesn’t really matter.
If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
Writing this book never felt like something I had to fit into my schedule and it certainly never felt like a chore, perhaps because I understand what a huge privilege it is to be asked by a large publisher to write down your thoughts about things and to sell them for money.
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 should preface this by saying that I have never run a publishing company or a bookshop, so I am fully aware that I know almost nothing of the art and science of selling books. I do know that what you’re talking about is a vastly complex, interwoven web of social, economic and historic factors. The most obvious answer is that books need to be much cheaper. In countries whose “reading cultures” we admire, books feel like disposable pleasures, as affordable and pleasant as a bottle of plonk. Here, buying a new book is a major financial decision.
The trouble is that books can’t really cost a lot less. Writers get around 7% of the cover price. The rest goes to publishers, which carry the financial risk of printing, storing and shipping books, bookshops already running on desperately thin margins, and VAT. It’s a Catch-22: the only way books can become cheaper is if sales increase dramatically, but the only way sales rise is if books get cheaper.
The only thing I can suggest is for books to be sold a little harder as cultural events, the way literally everything on TV and in the music world is sold. Last week I went into my local bookshop – part of a small national chain. The front window was taken up by stands selling postcards. Inside the door, a table was covered with books on sale. Halfway to the back of the shop was a single shelf marked “African Fiction”, a jumble of new, newish and older titles. You needed to walk halfway to the back of the shop before you saw Lauren Beukes’s brand new novel; and current bestsellers were hidden out of sight. It wasn’t even on a stand at the counter. I understand why there was no large print of the cover on the shop window – these things cost money – but it struck me that this bookshop was relying 100% on established readers to actively seek out new books. Not one book in that shop was being actively sold to passers-by.
Again, this might be because the shop has figured out that its only customers are established readers. Maybe it’s tried putting bestsellers in the window, and people only ever came in and asked for postcards. But I can’t help feeling that if books were actively sold, and actively sold as little cultural moments – “Look! The New Lauren Beukes Is Here!” – it couldn’t hurt.