REVIEW: City of Circles by Jess Richards

This poignant coming-of-age fantasy, which made me weep a little, deserves more praise than it’s received. Here’s why…

City of Circles by Jess Richards

City of Circles was published about a year ago. But it didn’t garner nearly enough buzz, IMO. The book’s author, Jess Richards, also wrote Snake Ropes, which was shortlisted for the COSTA award in 2012. The Guardian described Snake Ropes as “visceral, evocative” and “haunted by the influence of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood”. Such comparisons say something.

Many readers would enjoy the themes, messages and motifs in City of Circles. There’s alchemical and astrological imagery; and crows, horses, magpies and tarot cards feature (as do signs, omens and superstitions). Part of the story is set within a circus community, bringing other popular titles to mind (think The Night Circus and The Queen of the Night). It’s for readers who appreciate the fantastical, the magical and mysterious, with a lovely love story in the mix.

Given how much I enjoyed this read, I was surprised that it seemed to have fallen under the radar. But who knows … perhaps I missed some convos about it, or maybe it’s one of those slow-burners that’ll go on to be a sleeper hit some day.

City of Circles by Jess Richards

WHAT HOOKED ME IN

I’ve grown to understand the appeal of ‘ugly sexy’ men, so I was drawn to the hunchback character (the romantic lead) mentioned in the book’s blurb:

Danu, in mourning for her parents after a disease ravages the circus she calls home, begins a high-wire act with Morrie, a charismatic hunchback who wants to marry her. When the circus returns to Danu’s birthplace, the magical city of Matryoshka, she discovers the name of a stranger who may hold the answer to her past and reveal the secret of the locket her mother entrusted to her as she died. When the circus leaves Danu stays behind.

Will she and Morrie ever be reunited, or will something unexpected be waiting for her in the mysterious heart of the city of circles?

On opening the book for a squizz, I felt the impact of the book’s first line: “Dying faces are the colour of soiled linen”. Flipping through, the chapter titles gave an indication of the book’s themes. They read like blessings, or lines from a folk rhyme, and point to a transformational ‘Hero’s Journey’ structure, too:

One for Sorrow
Two for Learning
Three for Refusal
Four for Yearning
Five for an Element
Six for Sold
Seven for Secrets, Never to be Told
Eight for Heaven
Nine for Wealth
Ten for Your Own True Self

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

Danu loses her parents to illness, which ends their “safe group of three”, living together in their circus caravan. She’s frozen in grief, as if “behind glass”, and hunts for her parents in her dreams.

Danu needs a new place to call home. At first, she thinks she should leave circus life and join “the flatties” (as the circus folk call outsiders).

She knows some family secret could help her find solace in her grief and believes a locket of her mother’s holds the key − if only she had the courage to open it. She also remembers the name ‘Rosa’ being spoken by her folks in hushed tones. Who was (or is) she?

The answer must surely lie in the place she was born, where the circus will soon be headed: The City of Circles.

WHAT I LOVED ABOUT THE BOOK

The author’s writing style: Here’s an example:

“A warm breeze blows across her face. She exhales and rises from the wall. Going against the flow of pedestrians, she walks back towards Wringers Street. As she passes an alleyway, a tin can rattles along cobblestones. It’s the kind of sound stars might make if they’d fallen loose, and dropped to roll along an ordinary street.” (p. 250)

They gypsy theme: City of Circles shows you the best and worst of circus life, from the claustrophobia of living in such close quarters (“There’s never enough air in a caravan,” Danu says) to the warmth of singing songs around the fire at night.

I appreciated some of the wise words hidden in the folksy ditties. Take this chorus from a song Danu writes for an acrobatic sequence she and Morrie will perform:

“When threat of annihilation fills your lover with dread
If you’re not the same size then you’re ill-advised to wed
the bed’s a mile down when your wings get frantic
and rushed never lie with a lover who’s small enough to be
crushed” (p. 91)

Says something true about finding a partner with an equal fighting’ weight’, right?

The unlikely love interest: There’s great vulnerability in the intimacy between Morrie and Danu, and satisfying tension in her push-pull reaction to his desire for her.

Their moments of learning to tightrope walk as a duo are like an extended (and poetic) trust exercise, which works well as a device for helping build the tension and chemistry.

The City of Circles itself: Danu takes the bold step of starting over (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given that the title of the book suggests she’ll journey to the city she was born in!).

spice souk spices

Spice souk (photo by Katina Rogers, Wiki Creative Commons).

The author has created quite an original world here: The City of Circles is built on a volcano, named after a doll, and made up of three circles (each of which is a different sub-city/neighbourhood). The circles move around each other, “like a vast mechanical toy”. In the outer circle, the main trade is in spices. This made from some evocative scenes, like this one:

“In the glow of streetlamps, coloured dust swirls in red, orange, ochre, yellow, black, white … Mist descends through the night sky, magnified around the lights … Flavours and smells compete as colours dance. Allspice, cardamom, chilli … cinnamon, curry, pepper … cinnamon again, ginger … she’s drunk with it.” (p. 95)

Sounds like a place I’d want to spend a few fun nights in!

“The main street must be the hub of the outer circle. It looks to be a circle inhabited by rogues, entertainers and pleasure-seekers. Café tables are crowded with enthused and argumentative conversations. Thieves snatch and scarper, the drunken swagger, lovers kiss, and vagabonds plot in huddles on corners.” (p. 94)

It’s exploration of loneliness and isolation: This is where it got me in the feels. The book introduced me to the concept of The Anchoress. I’d never known of the term:

Anchoress in isolation medieval times

Anchoress Saint Madelberte-Maubeuge (Wikimedia Commons).

According to Medieval Life and Times, during the Middle Ages…

“An Anchoress was a deeply religious woman who chose to live a solitary life in confined quarters called an anchorage or and anchorhold, which usually consisted of a single small cell. The anchorage or anchorholds were similar to hermits but rather than living alone in forests or caves the anchoress lived within populated communities. The anchorhold was often attached to the wall of a church.”

Danu remembers meeting an anchoress once, when she was nine. The woman had lived alone in a cave for 20 years. Danu asks if she gets lonely, to which the anchoress replies:

 “As long as I’m still curious, I don’t mind loneliness. I’ve deeply considered all the types of loneliness that there are, and invented some new words.”  (p283)

The anchoress then shares her list of these 15 words with Danu. I particularly related to:

Ignornly: The kind of loneliness which others comment on – as in, ‘I think he’s lonely’ and their expression shows sympathy, but also a little wariness, as if loneliness could be contagious.”

Idealone: A hankering for an imagined scenario – where it’s the idea of the situation that causes the loneliness.”

Upwrench: The rational side – loneliness needs to be felt and solitude is needed even if it’s not always comfortable. Letting loneliness come, but giving it a time limit: not wallowing.”

The story behind the story: It was clear that the author knows what it is to feel adrift, grieving, and lonely. An author’s end note tells of Jess Richards’ journey in writing the book, which involved the end of her marriage and her father’s death. These heavy, heartfelt experiences resonated throughout the book; I could sense emotional truth behind it.

Her marriage ended in the early days of writing, so she packed up her life and became transient, looking after people’s houses and pets. This is something I’ve been doing (I read this book during a housesitting gig).

Says the author: “At its core, City of Circles is about love and grief. It’s been a beautiful and truthful and difficult tale to write during my own strange journey. Perhaps all fiction is in some ways autobiographical, even while telling its own story.”

(There’s more to her story. But I’ll let you read about her Happy Ever After yourself.)

SO, HOW DOES IT END?

Like the best of endings, it’s bittersweet. Danu finds what she seeks, but not without a serious sacrifice. Which is pretty much how transformation works IRL, right?

While the character’s outer journey is in some ways the literal opposite of mine, I took it to be representative of Individuation, of finding the Self. It’s also about belonging; trusting and loving your Self; finding your centre of gravity, your foundation, on this earth.

This book is for all of us who seek a soul mate, love, care and nurturing – in other words, a place to call ‘home’.

 

 

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5 Things to do in Hopefield, on the Cape West Coast

I’d never been to Hopefield, until my latest house- and pet-sitting gig landed in my inbox. It’s one of those small West Coast havens in the heart of Fynbos country, where people flock to, come Spring, to see the land covered in wildflowers.

wildflowers western cape

In Spring, parts of the Cape West Coast are covered in a multi-coloured blanket of wildflowers that draw scores of snap-happy tourists.

Granted, it’s autumn, so no flowers. And the severe drought we’re having has dried up the river that runs through the town. Still, I had nine days to slow into the Hopefield pace of life, on a plot on a dirt road just outside town. Keeping me company were two dogs, a kitten (!), and shelves and shelves of books. (One of the homeowner couple is also a freelance writer.)

The house had no alarm, and the gates to the property are left open (both rare in South Africa). I worked with the doors open, looking at views of horses and alpacas. Amid all the farm murder and land grab discourse circulating the land, it was a privilege to be in open space, sans high walls, noisy city neighbours, and Cape Town’s howling southeaster. I made a retreat of it by reading very little online, turning off the radio, watching the sunset each evening on the veranda, and walking the property under the night sky.

zoute river hopefield

The oddly soothing view of the dry Zoute River from the main house overlooking horses, alpacas and sheep.

The owners, who rent out a cottage to creatives needing somewhere quiet to work, are great people. We spent an evening drinking wine and chatting under the stars, as they filled me in on the house, pets, and local amenities.

succulents

cottage kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unsurprisingly, the town boasts a Pep store and (more surprising) a basic Spar − which the owners jokingly call “Sparse”. (True, it’s not fancy pants. But the staff are super friendly, and it does stock things you might not see in a city Spar, like a section for wool, and Jigsimur – that vile-tasting but effective aloe drink helping many a tannie’s ailments.)

Other than that, it’s mostly churches (and a newish Internet café where I could do printing and scanning, etc.). Hopefield was started as a church community in the 1800s, and it still boasts a ridiculous amount of churches for the size of the population – including the iconic Dutch Reformed Church built in 1879, where you can still hear the antique Foster & Andrews organ installed in 1911 being played during Sunday services.

Dutch Reformed Church Hopefield

The NG Kerk on Hopefield’s Church Street.

On my first trip to the Spar, I was thinking: This really is a one-horse town, when a man came by trotting on a horse in the middle of “the high street” (Voortrekker Road). So it’s more a one-horse, one-man town 🙂 And therein lies its appeal. Hopefield looks like a Karoo dorpie, but it’s just a 1.5 hours’ drive from the Mother City. You may literally see a chicken cross the road, like I did, and have to let sleeping dogs lie where they are, in the middle of the road in the middle of the day. Another indication on the smallness of the place is that the police station is on Stasie [station] street; the main church is on Kerk [church] street. So you’re not likely to get lost 🙂

Here are five other ways to while away the (slowed-down) time on your visit…

Bees and propolis products

Inside the sweet-smelling Simply Bee shop of affordable natural products.

1 SIMPLY BEE

The morning I left for Hopefield, I’d been admiring the new Simply Bee range of solid perfumes at a health shop in the city, not knowing that the beauty brand is based in Hopefield. The beekeeping family behind Simply Bee are passionate about bees, which is evident when you visit their observation centre, on Church Street. There’s a hive behind glass, and other educational material for tour groups or individuals to browse and observe. Fascinating stuff, and the friendly staff are right there to answer any of your bee-related questions as you watch the activity of the hive. They also stock products for beekeeping, which is becoming increasingly popular as a hobby in the Cape. Next door, there’s the rather pretty Simply Bee shop, packed with their honey, propolis and beeswax products.

farmer market hopefield

Fresh finds — yummo!

2 THE SATURDAY MARKET

Every Saturday, locals catch up at The Mill Country Fair Market, organised by the Merry Widow guesthouse, also on Church Street. It’s a farmer’s market, so you can get fresh produce, yummy breads, homemade condiments and the like. I went with a small shopping bag, but when I saw the wares, I immediately grabbed one of the huge baskets they have for you to fill – which I did in about 15 minutes. The food is seriously good, and seriously cheap. One of the recent locals in town later told me that’s one of the reasons she’s loving her move to the country. Local food is affordable, and she watches a lot of it grow right next to where she lives. I bought biltong, organic meat, a quince, figs, cheese, pesto, wild mushrooms, sweet mustard and more… (the mini milk tarts and mince jaffle griddle toasties are divine, BTW).

Langebaan kitesurfing lagoon

The dreamy, desolate beauty of Langebaan Lagoon.

3 LANGEBAAN

The place where many learn to kitesurf is a 20-minute drive away, so off I went for a day of beach reading and kitesurf watching. The area has seen a lot of development since I was last there, thanks to the influx of kitesurfers, but the beach was still pretty quiet on the weekday I went. I found a seashell shop, called Neptune’s Cave, the likes of which I haven’t seen since childhood, which made my heart happy. And looking at the blue of the seascapes there made me completely get the West Coast’s particular appeal. I had mussels and a glass of vino at the beachfront bar this time, but would recommend going to Die Strandloper, if you’re after a serious seafood feast nearby.

dollhouse miniature

This grand little design beckons you in…

4 THE DOLLHOUSE SHOP

On my way out of town, I spotted a dollhouse outside shop next to Moose, another gift-shop-come-café popular with locals. What a find! Inside, there are haberdashery and craft items, alongside a row of dollhouse ‘box rooms’, including a garage, a fabric shop, a grocery store, and a medieval-style chamber, complete with four-poster bed. The book The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, came to mind. I asked the owner/dollhouse-maker if she’d read it. (She had.) And she told me about the Mouse Mansion.

“Do you have daughters and granddaughters,” I asked.

“I do,” she replied. “But dollhouses and miniatures aren’t for children. They’re for adults.”

I tend to agree 🙂

tart tapas

5 T’ART

The homeowners were glad to have found someone who takes pet-sitting seriously, but they didn’t want me getting cabin fever, so they reminded me about the new local tapas spot (yes, you can even get tapas in small towns these days). T’Art is situated overlooking the river, at the town’s small theatre, Monte Christo. It’s currently only open on Wednesday and Friday evenings, and it’s BYO until they get their liquor licence. So take a good bottle and select titbits from the blackboard options, while the resident cat entertains you with his antics on the Moroccan-tiled stoep. I had octopus with potatoes, a veg phyllo pastry one, and the most delicious mini burgers I’ve ever eaten – seriously juicy! The chef, Werner, trained as a pastry chef, so if you like sweet things (I don’t), I’m told they’re to die for. (His pretty creations are also on sale at the Saturday market).

Hopefully, I’ll be back in Hopefield in Spring for the wildflowers and annual flower show, and to visit the fossil museum, and have a beer at Die Plaasmol.

EXTRAS:

  • If you’re interested in staying in the cottage of the property I looked after, check out the listing, here.
  • Read more on the architecture of Hopefield (and get a pear pavlova recipe!), here.

A personal essay on the healing power of gardens, inspired by centenarian author Diana Athill

Athill

For years, my dear friend Rayne has urged me to read the memoirs of Diana Athill, the 100-year-old former literary editor and writer who penned her first memoir at 83.

As the MD of a company that provides catering for old-age homes, and the South African representative for the Eden Alternative, an international non-profit dedicated to changing the way elders are cared for, ageing with dignity is something Rayne is passionate about.

I resisted, and I’m not really sure why (likely owing to some deep-seated ageism or denial of my own mortality). But last year, when I was house- and pet-sitting for Rayne and his partner, I saw his collection of her books in his study, and felt ready.

As I’m facing 40 – single, childless, and not too happy about the state of my personal life – I’m desperate to hear stories of older women who’ve lived full lives despite never being married, nor experiencing motherhood.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Athill’s Costa-prize-winning account of ageing.

I read it in almost one sitting. (Well, sitting’s not the right word, TBH. I was sun-tanning, butt naked, in a secluded spot in the garden.)

What I read gave me some hope. I appreciated Athill’s frank and upbeat way with words, and her love of earthly pleasures, late into life. Her thoughts on the importance of gardens, and gardening, inspired me to write this personal essay for the Bulbophile magazine…

A GARDEN (NOT) OF ONE’S OWN

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said women needed spaces of their own from which to write. Thankfully, the world has changed, and many women do. But in these urbanised, stressful times, having access to a garden is a luxury that should be appreciated.

It needn’t be your own. I’ve realised this recently. As I’m facing 40 as a single, childless woman, it’s been a year of contemplation, most of which has happened in a garden friends have ‘loaned’ to me, when I’ve looked after their pets while they travel.

Aptly named Shalimar, like the famous Lahor gardens, the garden is large, private, forest-like. It’s high on the slopes of a narrow valley, with views of the mountains across. I’ve relished the refuge it has provided, and the opportunity it has given me to be completely alone in nature, safe.

Shalimar gardens

One weekend, I sunbathed and read a memoir by former publisher Diana Athill, in which she says a garden a relative let her tend was a source of immense pleasure later on in her life as a single woman.

There’s much to be said for the generosity of those happy to share their gardens. When you’re feeling stuck, a garden gives you ‘time out of time’. Gazing over living greenery lets your mind drift, segueing with the rhythms of nature – the dash of a squirrel there, the dart of a bird there. Away from city noises, you become attuned to the tweeps of sociable birds, the cries of the geese who’ve taken over the owl house… it’s a surround-sound start to each day.

Indulging my senses and exploring the garden’s features has eased my anxiety. I’ve sat with my back to the trunk of a large pine and inhaled the scent of its needles; touched translucent leaves; sampled the tastes of the herb garden; watched the sun shine through the fluffy bottle brush.

My imagination has been revived by little details: the fantasy world of a gnarled tree stump; the colourful inside of a granadilla a bird had feasted upon; the potent plumes of a spunky caterpillar. I’ve been charmed by a row of nasturtiums rising optimistically despite being dwarfed by the pines, and bushes of proudly South African pincushions, arranged like a gospel choir.

succulents

Moving within a living ecosystem, like a figurine in a terrarium, has given me perspective. One calm Sunday, one of the dogs killed a squirrel. The flowers I was admiring last week have since wilted in the extreme drought we’re having; but the succulents live on, strong. And it’s roaring with rain as I write. Just yesterday, we evacuated as a mountain fire burned dangerously close. I thought the garden would be razed to the ground. But it lives. As do the little duck chicks I’m watching follow their mother.

Marvelling at the brutality and beauty of if all, in one garden, tells me not to be too sentimental about life’s passages. This garden – this life – is only ever ours on loan.

pine tree and lemon tree

To sample Athill’s writing, read her short UK Guardian article on the pleasure of gardening here.

 

 

 

Take-outs from Jonathan Franzen’s Cape Town talk, or: How NOT to interview a world-famous author

“For the first time in six months, she shaves her legs. Well, of course, Jonathan Franzen is in town.”

My friend’s Facebook status summed up how big a deal it was that Franzen would be in Cape Town to talk about his last book, Purity, at the city’s favourite indie bookshop on 3 November 2017.

It’s not that that nothing bookish happens in the Mother City. Lots does.

Each year, the Book Lounge (the bookshop in question) hosts the Open Book Festival, which has seen the likes of Patrick Gale, Earl Lovelace, Alan Hollinghurst, Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris pass through. Nearby, in the Cape Winelands, the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival also draws a notable international line-up.

But we’re talking Franzen. He alone, at a talk in the bookshop down the road, for no festival, on an arbitrary date on the literary calendar.

Jonathan Franzen on Time magazine

Turns out he wasn’t here just to bless us with the biggest non-festival-related book event of the year. He was on assignment, doing a report on sea birds for National Geographic. (Apparently, “If everyone would do what South Africa has done [for sea birds], they’d be in less trouble,” Franzen says.)

The talk got so many RSVPs, the hosts had to book a nearby school hall for the crowd. Afterwards, the friend-who-shaved-her-legs updated her post, saying while the convo was “a cringe a minute” (more on that a little later), she “liked” Franzen.

I did too.

He came across far warmer than general impressions suggest (that he’s “a weird, reclusive dick”), despite having spent the whole day doing interviews. From his opening joke at the size of the crowd (“I expected maybe 20 people. Speaking very personally, it speaks well of Cape Town”), to his closing thanks, in which he said he thought the school venue was “great” (despite its child-like crudeness possibly making the organisers blush), he was open, gracious − even cheery.

Below are some take-outs from the talk, followed by some tips on what NOT to do when interviewing a literary heavyweight on stage.

ON HIS LAST BOOK, PURITY

“Purity is essentially about the search for a missing parent, which is a totally nineteenth-century trope … Today, secrets still exist, but I thought it would be interesting to set a story in a regime in which secrets are no longer possible.”

“Purity started from something that wasn’t working for Freedom. I felt it was too shameful, which was the narrative of a marriage deep in the book – I piled up as many easier-to-take pages before it, so there’s a lot of padding – or should I say, ‘muscular storytelling’ [laughter]. I wanted to find a story to place that psychological narrative in, to offset its hard-to-takeness.”

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

ON WRITING

“I don’t write books that argue anything. I’m really just trying to tell a good story. I’m writing for people like myself who want to read someone writing about the world in an interesting way.”

“It does start with things kept in a drawer. My advice for someone wanting to write a novel: It’s good to try join point A with point B … and if point B is rather distant from A. And in general, as a reader, I enjoy the experience of not knowing where a story is going. You want a sense of: Oh my God, where is this going?”

“Process wise, one way of doing that is not knowing yourself. Have a destination, but how you’re going to get there … if it’s a stretch, it’s more enjoyable. There’s this mystical faith I have that things that are fun to write – fun in a real way, not a masturbatory way – translate into a sense readerly fun. With my books, I’ve tried to write the book I’d like to read.”

“It’s not socially useless to do the entertainment [as well as confront social issues in non-fiction] … I do think there’s an arguable social utility in continuing to write literary fiction and personal essays. The parts of being human I appreciate – our capacity for self-doubt, self-reflection, empathy – find a home in literature.”

ON THE DIGITAL AGE

“I think some of my worst fears of social media have been richly borne out by political events in my country. I’m still a bit of a techno sceptic, because it represents the hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist model.”

“There’s a lot of good writing by young writers out there [online], and I’m not worried about it. I’m more worried about the pressure to promote. The internet is the latest guise of consumerism. The persona/e itself becomes the thing to be marketed. I’m that rare person, my pulse rate lowers when I see an audience – as long as I get to be alone in my hotel room afterwards … but it’s hard for other authors. Having to bend your personality into something that’s likeable, that’s where I hear the cries of young writers. The production [side of writing] has changed. I think social media is bad for fiction writers. My criticism of social media is in defense of the novel.”

ON JOURNALISM

“Post Trump, people suddenly seem to appreciate journalists. Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing, but I believe in journalism. It’s an expertise, to separate signal from noise … there’s no algorithm for that; that’s a human skill.”

[Doing long-form journalism is] “a real job as opposed to being like a sick child in a bedroom … I got to save my receipts, and was forced to pick up the phone.”

“When you’re writing a novel, the facts are in the way. It’s completely the reverse with journalism. There’s also a sense of patience that comes with it.” [When gathering information for a story]. “You float through, then the thing happens. The waiting part of journalism is really the fun part.”

[The above was in relation to his experience of writing this New Yorker story, the journalism piece he is most proud of, “from a process point of view”.]

ON THE TOPIC OF SHAME

“Shame has become a verb in social media and online discourse … For some writers, it’s THE problem. We have these carefully crafted online personae, but there’s still something behind that façade that’s potentially full of shame. The argument I have regarding real writing is that it’s done by the writer who goes to the shameful places and then tries to make something of them that isn’t unbearable to read … Even if it resonates with just one other person who feels the same, the writer has succeeded.”

ON HIS BIRD OBSESSION

“People think I write too much on birds. My agent says they do, she says readers flinch when I mention birds, and I feel like saying, ‘You mean wince?’”

ON ‘THE NEXT BIG THING’ IN BOOKS

“Bill Finnegan’s book on surfing, Barbarian Days. He went around the world chasing waves.”

Book Barbarian Days A Surfing Life

And … HOW NOT TO INTERVIEW AN UBER AUTHOR

While the overall impression of Franzen was warm, the overall impression of the event was less about Franzen, and more about the awkwardness of the interview itself. It was all I heard from people after, and in conversations overheard from the departing crowd.

As another friend put it so succinctly, also on Facebook:

“This was supposed to be an author interview between a great American writer and young local literary mind. But it turned into a dick duel between two dudes. Franzen, of course, sliced [the interviewer] into tiny neat pieces. #awkward”

Jonathan Franzen on stage

Franzen being introduced to the crowd, 3 November 2017 in Cape Town.

Apart from Franzen’s response to the interviewer’s first convoluted question (“I’m trying to find the question … give me something to work with here…”), the awkwardness didn’t make me squirm as much as it clearly did others. Part of why I like going to book talks are the moments of chemistry and little frissons of tension between whoever’s on stage. But also – empathy.

I’ve been up there before − admittedly NOT to interview a name as big as Franzen. But I’ve had one-on-ones with bestselling authors in front of many sets of eyes. Fortunately, they went well. But as an introvert, I’ll admit the build-up … wasn’t fun.

The up-and-coming poet/author/publisher interviewing Franzen was likely both star-struck and intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? This is the man who famously snubbed Oprah (more on the truth behind that, from Franzen, here).

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen

That time they kissed and made up (oprah.com).

Still, there are lessons to be learnt from the failure of others. Below, as both a ‘note to self’ and advice for anyone who may need it, are some tips for interviewing authors, based on what NOT to do.

DON’T make it a battle of egos

Sure, from a psychological viewpoint, putting your ego aside is easier said than done. We need that pesky thing so many self-help columns diss.

But to stop it from tripping you up, remember the event isn’t about you − it’s about the person the audience came to see. This guide-on-the-side approach actually helps by taking any sage-on-the-stage pressure off of you.

Don’t show off. Don’t overcompensate for feeling insecure by boasting of your own travels/writing. Don’t resort to snorting cocaine in a panic. Just focus on bringing out the best in the author, for the audience’s sake.

DON’T ask long, layered ‘questions’

The process of prepping for an interview is a bit like the process of writing itself. You research, generating information; then you distil all the info, reducing it right down into direct yet nuanced questions. This takes time, some of which must be spent AWAY from the research, so you can gather your thoughts on the themes it has generated.

Allowing time for digestion/incubation can be hard when there’s an event deadline and you’re so worried about stuffing up, you’ve way over-prepared. Your head is buzzing, and all the little threads you’ve gathered have turned into a ball of energising yet confusing half-formed thoughts.

But the layering of such thoughts in a philosophical soliloquy, rather than a direct question, can aggravate an author, especially when they’ve been talking all day.

As Aussie commissioning editor and professional reader Angela Meyer says: “It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move …”.

So leave the bits and bobs ‘on the cutting room floor’, and go in with some key, clear questions. Don’t fear: the research won’t have been in vain. As SA author of The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange, said on research at #OpenBookFest2015: “The ghost of what you cut from your novel remains there – it adds authenticity”. The research helps give you go ‘off script’ confidently, whether to follow an interesting tangent the author’s answer has raised, or to push further on what seems to be an insight.

DON’T reveal what really went on behind the scenes

In what was possibly an effort to be self-deprecating, or anecdotal, the interviewer spoke of his friend shoving one more thing about Franzen at him, which he read that morning in bed.

Avoid doing something similar − no matter how late you were up reading your notes, how close you came to unravelling, how last-minute your arrival may have been, etc. Keep the messy details to yourself.

And use cue cards, rather than concertina-like folds of A4 paper that will distract both the author and audience when you read from them. (When Franzen grabbed the interviewer’s notes to see the quote he was reading out for himself, the interviewer must’ve died a little. Who knows what hot mess of scribbles were set down there?)

DON’T forget your place in the pecking order

As authoritarian as that sounds, there are times in life when you need to graciously defer a little. As one book reviewer was overheard saying after the talk: “You don’t speak to someone of that level as if they’re your equal!”

This is not to say you shouldn’t hold your own beside someone higher up in the hierarchy. Or to suggest that you suck arse the whole way through (“don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much,” as Meyer says).

But do listen, more than talk; and acknowledge your place, to yourself.

In the words of Maya Angelou: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”

I suspect women, long raised to be more aware of social pleasantries and what not, may have been socialised to be better at this. While I can see why the organisers chose an up-and-coming male literary author to interview Franzen – and just before the interviewer’s own book release, effectively killing two publicity birds with one stone − a more mature woman book reviewer, perhaps someone with the broadcast experience to steady any wayward nerves, would’ve been a better choice here. (It would’ve eliminated the ‘dick duelling’ aspect, in any event.)

DON’T beat yourself for any ‘oopsies’

So you’ve made a gaffe or generally stuffed up the interview.

Get over it. Don’t nurse that ‘loser’ wound.

This can be hard to do, especially if you’re an introvert and the failure has been publically witnessed. But while your error may loom large in your mind, it’s likely quickly forgotten by others. And if not, at least the lesson you learnt may also have allowed some vicarious learning in others.

Just do better next time. Or wait until it’s your turn to be the star in the spotlight.

(I have no doubt that the interviewer in question here will one day command the same size crowd. He’s done brilliantly onstage at literary events before, and is a great writer. This just wasn’t his best effort at showmanship.)

*BONUS MATERIAL:

In Praise of Sound City on #Netflix

Fans of contemporary music history should give Sound City, one of the ‘older’ doccies on Netflix, a go. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

SOUND-CITY.jpg

I’m loving Netflix, but it’s proving that whole theory about how having too much choice makes choosing a chore.

So, on a break from Stranger Things Season 2 – a rather rare case of me delaying gratification – I turned to some of their documentaries NOT #CurrentlyTrending.

A documentary buff friend recommended Sound City (2013), so I’m passing the good vibes along.

The film was created by Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, who got the idea when he bought recording equipment from Sound City, the infamous LA recording studio.

grohl

As a former 90s ‘grunge kid’ (oh how we hated the term at the time), it really got me in the feels. It features some of my favourite bands and musicians – think Fleetwood Mac, Rage Against the Machine, Frank Black, Trent Reznor and Nirvana. And its narrative structure takes you on quite the emotional journey.

“Sound City hits you like a shot in the heart”
−Peter Travels, Rolling Stone

There’s euphoria, sex appeal, sadness, philosophical depth, nostalgia, trippy moments and some epic jams with heavyweights including Paul McCartney. And it’s very much a tribute to the analog era.

I particularly enjoyed the behind-the-scenes insight it gives into the muso subculture – how the musicians talk in code, instantly getting what they mean when they communicate with sounds, not words. I admired their completely unself-conscious, joyous freedom to express themselves. Seeing Stevie Nicks singing sensually. Watching McCartney and Grohl rough-and-tumble affectionately after a successful recording. And the startled look on Reznor’s face at the moment Grohl interrupted their jam to say, “This is awesome” (or something along those lines). To which Reznor replied that they should just “get back to it” then. Don’t push him out of The Zone!

To remember magical musical moments in time, and feel the rush of powerful tracks from the past (won’t lie, I found myself doing a version of headbanging more suited to my age to RATM), put today’s trending series aside and get lost in Sound City.

*BONUS: Here’s a short interview with Grohl on the studio.

Sound City 1

Must-Read: The Finch in My Brain

Fan of triumph-over-tragedy medical memoirs? Check out this inspiring story, by a buddy of Russell Brand.

The finch in my brain Martino Sclavi

If you, like me, are a fan of ‘neuro memoirs’ like Brain on Fire, My Stroke of Insight, the work of the late Oliver Sacks, or just the tense surgical scenes of McDreamy working his medical magic on Grey’s Anatomy, you might want to read The Finch in My Brain: How I Forgot to Read but Found How to Live (Hodder & Stoughton), by Martino Sclavi.

Scali, an Italian-American film producer, credits his friend, the comedian Russell Brand, with saving his life. For a brief background, check out this YouTube video by Brand, in which he and other friends of the author talk about his story.

They remember him saying he wanted to “lie down and have a rest” while they were working on a film – something completely out of character for him. Brand talks about having to phone Sclavi’s family when he was going into emergency surgery (conducted while he was awake!), saying, “It was a bleak confrontation with mortality”.

So why the FINCH in his brain?

Martino Sclavi The Finch in my brain

Sclavi image from the author’s website.

Well, the grade-four tumour was apparently shaped like the bird. And while they cut most of it out, they also had to remove parts that enable him to read. Every reader’s worst nightmare, right?

But it’s not nearly as bad as the prognosis he received at the time: Doctors in both America and Italy said there was a 98% chance he’d die within a year and a half.

(That was something like six years ago. Oh, the miracle that is the human will to live!)

In an article in the UK Guardian, he says of the loss of his reading ability:

“It is a terrible loss. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I don’t think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive.”

In spite of, or possibly because of, his prognosis, Sclavi wrote a book chronicling his medical journey, typing with his eyes closed and using audio software to have parts ‘read back’ to him as he progressed.

He told The Guardian:

“I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: ‘This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology.’ I liked that, so I carried on … it saved me, psychologically.”

While the Guardian reviewer describes the memoir as “odd”, given the author’s condition and the fact that his first language is Italian, I’m going to decide for myself. My favourite books are those about real-life resilience, triumph over tragedy, and the “rage against the dying of the light”.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

*BONUS: To get a feel for the book, check out the eccentric author, his friends, and his computer-voice ‘reading companion’, Alex, read from Chapter One here.

Current favourite #BookMeme

The choice of author name is particularly amusing, given the apparent beef between the two 80s alternative musos 🙂

Book meme