Writing can be dangerous – it might just change your life

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog


Twenty years ago, I was a young mother scribbling away in a back room. The next thing I knew, I was spirited away to launches in London, in Germany, all over South Africa.

It was my first book, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, which changed my life.

I’m so proud that Pan Macmillan has rereleased it, as part of their prestigious Picador Africa Heritage Classics Collection, where it has joined books by writers such as Ellen Kuzwayo, Frank Chikane, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Pallo Jordan and Johan Steyn.

If you’re in or near Cape Town, please join me on 7 November at Exclusives Cavendish, at 6 for 6.30pm, where I’ll be in conversation with novelist and poet Finuala Dowling – both about the book, and the new material included with it.

She was generous enough to have this to say: ‘On its debut, The Innocence of Roast Chicken was the perfect herald of South Africa’s transition. It remains an enduringly lyrical and evocative landmark novel, both coolly rational and achingly nostalgic in its depiction of the beloved country.’

I said it changed my life and it certainly did. So there I was, sweeping past Trafalgar Square in a black cab to South Africa House, where it first launched, and I had to face this array of literary, journalistic and arts figures.

I’d love to leave you with the impression that they all came to see me. But I’d probably have to admit that, in 1996, the High Commission was an extremely sexy destination to be invited to. Besides which, there were rumours of a fabulous wine cellar, stockpiled by the previous regime.

I had spent the afternoon boning up on all the people who were to attend, and asking my publicist over and over – “So now this one was nominated for this literary award, right? And that one wrote . . . Oh God, what did she write?”

Eventually, in exasperation, he said: “Oh for goodness sake, don’t mention their titles. Just say you saw a lovely display of their books at Dillon’s.”

So the instant I met Deborah Moggach, I launched into: “Oh how do you do. I saw a lovely display . . .

“Which Dillons? Oh . . . Well, I have such a terrible sense of direction you know.”

And then I had to speak. I stepped forwardly confidently…

Actually, I lie. I was paralysed with terror. I find that breathing is extremely important in such situations. I always end up forgetting to breathe altogether, or breathing too much and wanting to vomit.

But by then I’d swallowed two glasses of good South African wine, (excellent stockpile it was too) so I decided to try for that air of London ease they all wore with such sophistication.

“Well, that was a nice speech,” a well-known journalist said afterwards.  Ah, I thought, I knew I’d got that casual confidence to a tee.

“But I think,” he continued, “it was that air of the frightened gazelle which gave it such je ne sais quoi. London’s so jaded you know.”

I think my publishers were concerned that I absorb some London culture. So after the launch, I was whisked away to a famous Soho haunt of writers in the ’50s where I was sure, I was told, to meet some very famous authors.

My hands grew clammy. Would I disgrace them all? Would I know who they were; remember their book titles? I couldn’t use the Dillon’s Display trick again.

As it happened, there was no-one in the place, but for an incoherently drunk man who had written a book in 1952, and another who, for no apparent reason, removed every stitch of clothing while talking to us.

But we all pretended not to notice. Such sophistication. Such insouciance.

I doubt there’ll be such excitement at my Cape Town relaunch, but please do come and celebrate with me over a glass of wine and a snack. Please RSVP to events@exclusivebooks.co.za

The book is available in all good South African bookstores. If your local doesn’t have it, they’ll be happy to order it. Alternatively, have it delivered by Takealot.com, who are offering a launch discount. If you prefer to read digitally, the book is also avalaible as an ebook on Amazon or  Kobo.

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