In the years I spend writing a book, I have no more than the vaguest idea of what I am trying to explore, in terms of its general theme. I know that, for example, I’m writing about parents and children. And I also might have an idea that, since I’m placing them in a South African context, the book might say something about living in an extraordinary place like this.
In a way, every book does end up saying something. It can’t help but do so. If you’re writing about people in our time, it will explore the issues those characters face – as individuals, as citizens of their country, and of the world.
But I’m buggered if I know what that is while I’m writing it. Somewhere, in the back of my head I’m aware that my brain is constructing something, but I’m too busy focusing on my characters. That’s where I begin, with the characters. And then slowly, out of who they are, emerges the thread of a narrative.
When I finish and finally hand the book over, I am still so closely attached that those characters sometimes feel more real to me than many of the characters who surround me in life.
I am embroiled in their lives to the extent that it becomes hard to wrench free and take a breath. It’s a bit like the time I was taken kayaking on the Crocodile River. I panicked going over a weir, fell out and ended up in a wishy-washy.
Only when I finally emerged and managed to scramble to the bank, was I able to see the rapid from the outside and assess it dispassionately, for what it really was.
That’s what it’s like when you approach the whole publishing process. You can’t just have written the thing, you need to be able to view it dispassionately and speak intelligently about it. You need a narrative that explains what inspired you, the idea behind it, how you got there, what it all means…
You know, it’s often hard to remember exactly what the inspiration was. It was probably a host of impressions and observations, which all came together when you began writing.
But when the book is about to appear, you have to pinpoint the most important of those, and also work out exactly what your book was wrestling with. A theme does emerge and, with a blinding flash of light, you realise that, yes of course, that is what you were exploring all along. It’s what lay behind those characters, their lives and concerns.
A couple of weeks ago, I had two radio interviews in two days: one for the new Sunday Times books podcast with Michele Magwood and the other for a community radio station. I started to realise that the narrative you create for a book exists alongside the one inside it.
Naturally, interviewers ask different questions and you become drawn into conversation and chat about your writing process. But the book has an identity that comes through in every interview. It has a life and a back story, just like any of the characters within it.