Prickly

Three-year-old, getting out of car: I can’t bear you.
Me: Why!?!
Three-year-old: Because I love you.

It reminded me of the book by psychotherapist Deborah Luepnitz, Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy And Its Dilemma: Five Stories of Psychotherapy. I looked up the original parable from Schopenhauer on Wikipedia and found that it was different  (and more intriguing) than how I’d remembered it from Luepnitz’ book.  I found the last line particularly striking.

Anyway, here’s Schopenhauer’s parable. He was apparently a pessimistic and sour man, but nice to animals.

“A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.”

Paradise Book Launch, written by Liesl Jobson

wallLovely summary of the launch of our book, Paradise, on BooksLive.

There is something that eludes facile description when a psychologist and philosopher sit down to discuss a novel. It gets weirder and funnier when the psychologist is married to the philosopher, and the topic of their dialogue is the book they have just written together, a book called Paradise. There were few dry eyes in The Book Lounge last week as many present wept with mirth at the hilarious commentary from Lisa Lazarus and Greg Fried, the duo known for publication purposes as Greg Lazarus. This remarkable husband and wife team have just penned and published their third book together to great effect.

Guiding the scintillating conversation was the multi-award-winning author Henrietta Rose-Innes who expressed her delight at being invited to join their discussion. She commented on the different tone of Paradise to their previous book,When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes.

She said their first novel was a stunningly suspenseful psychological thriller that explored the dark edge to the human soul. “Things in Paradise have lightened up. It’s partly a knock-about comedy, partly a heist with a twisty plot, and partly about international criminals descending on Cape Town intent on stealing precious artefacts. At the heart of the book are these flawed, warm, immensely sympathetic characters. Why so sunny?” asked Rose-Innes.

“Well the kids are a bit older now… we feel better! After the first book, (The Book of Jacob), people would say to us, ‘What a warped sensibility! You’re so cynical! Just living in the world must be such a nightmare…’ We wanted something warmer, that spoke to the heart. A lot of books nowadays seem quite dark and disturbing. Life is so hard that it’s nice to have something to cheer you and give some hope.”

Read more here.

 

Rude and shocking

Fuck, cunt. Cocks. Pussy galore. I feel a bit naughty writing these things, but not so much. Just a slight charge of shock. Not long ago, the effect would have been a lot more hard-core. Apart from some scandalous exceptions in fiction, like Portnoy’s Complaint, these words were mostly for magazines stuffed under teenage boys’ mattresses. Now they’re just part of the writer’s toolkit – maybe you’d use words like these to reveal character, for example. And sex in general, and of just about all kinds, is mainstream, in fiction and non-fiction. No more passing around copies of Eric van Lustbader’s The Ninja, pages folded over on the dirty bits, with even those passages a little bit coy (“By what magic had she accomplished that?”). Or The Thorn Birds.

Still not as popular as ‘Jared’ or ‘Samantha’

Now any old book has got dirty bits, even lots of highly-respected lit. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections contains a scene of someone called Chip sniffing up and down a sofa, nosing into the seams to find the elusive scent of quim from an ex-girlfriend. And let us not forget the anal sex memoir, The Surrender. Or The Sexual Life of Catherine M, in which a disaffected Frenchwoman has anonymous sexual encounters with multiple men.

An erudite friend says that our civilisation reminds her of Ancient Rome. We are totally decadent, everything goes.

Naturally, for a writer, it’s important to be able to shock the reader – one of the things you might hope to do now and then – except how do you do it anymore with sex? Where do you go? Cannibalistic bondage orgies? Nah, been done. Well then, what happens if you take the sex out of a novel altogether and write a love story? I certainly haven’t read one of those recently. Could it be that we’ve reached a situation where love, written about without irony or friction (no pun intended), is more shocking than fucking?

Book Launch

In the car before the launch, Greg said, ‘Maybe don’t do the downbeat earnest thing, okay – ?’
I nodded. ‘Sure.’
Earlier, I had told him not to wear the new black Converse tekkies he’d bought for the event. ‘You look like David Kramer,’ I had said.
If he had listened to me, surely I should do the same for him.

book lounge launch

Me – trying to look calm and composed, but I really feel like that cartoon character behind me on the poster.

Half-way through the launch, I found myself saying, ‘We’re all losers. Everybody loses at life. There’s no winning play.’ Or some such rubbish. People looked like they wanted to cry.

Luckily, Greg moved quickly into an anecdote about Amsterdam as a place of ‘semi-naked women and bookshops, a paradise of lewdness and literature.’ We had segued seamless from death to sex, and everyone was relieved. 

The other pre-launch advice came from my mother.  She’d phoned about an hour before the launch. ‘Oh my god,’ she had said, ‘how many people are coming? ‘
‘I don’t know mum, it’s not a barmitzvah.’  
Well, I just hope some people come,’ she said darkly, before adding, ‘Don’t say anything insubstantial.  You did that last time at the previous launch. Say things that people will find interesting. Think about what you’re going to say beforehand.’

With my mother, maybe it’s like that with most parents, the best is always to take her advice and do the polar opposite.  We weren’t going to prepare at all. No five point plans. We’d just be ourselves.

damon galgut

Thanks to a friend who posted this before the launch – it was a much needed boost. It’s also the closest we’ll ever get to Damon Galgut, and so I plan to enjoy the moment.

The problem with no planning is that you can be struck with Empty Head Syndrome (EHS), an unpleasant malady at any time, but if you’re at home, you can always go and get a snack and a cup of tea. Not so when you’re in front of an audience,  their faces upturned and full of expectation, each  silent moment of EHS stretching into infinity.  

Unfortunately, EHS struck when the interviewer asked – ‘Lisa, perhaps you could tell us…’ – and here she outlined succinctly her question: something to do with the literary dilemma of writing authentic 18th century letters, with reference to other novels that had attempted this. I grasped painfully at the lack of thoughts in my brain before saying that we’d tried to make the eighteenth century part sound nice and smooth and readable. Nobody was convinced.

But come to think of it, you’re really asking a lot from people when you invite them to attend your book launch. I mean, nobody has a lawyer launch party after they’ve been an articled clerk for a few months, where they discuss their recent drafting attempts. Or a doctor launch after their first year of work, although medics do tend to take the opportunity to discuss that kind of thing at parties.

Maybe writers, erroneously, think they deserve it. After all, they tell themselves, they’ve been sitting all alone for months, years even, attempting to create something from nothing.  But actually, they haven’t.  Most of them have been yakking away on Facebook and email, complaining about writing and who has sold what to whom, and for how much.

But launches can be fun. Interesting people come up to you afterwards. Like the vibrant-looking couple who approached me, the wife introducing them. She told me that her husband was also a philosopher and that he ‘reminded her of a hobbit’. It’s hard to know how to respond to that without disappointing one of the parties.

The post launch supper is naturally much less stressful, and as a result, sometimes deeper conversations emerge. I arrived at the table to find Greg discussing the weighty heft of a bull’s scrotum. It’s true we had seen, and marvelled, at such a beast in a secluded pen on our last holiday at a farm, but I hadn’t known that it had had such a profound effect on him.

But in summary, people were kind – they came out on a cold night to listen to us talk about a book they hadn’t read, and some of them even bought it afterwards. That’s loyal.  

And lastly, if anybody wants a pair of Converse takkies, please speak to me. Just make sure you can tap dance, while singing Kramer’s Stoksielalleen.

The Blue Baby

They say that publishing a book is like having a baby. You conceive (granted: not as much fun with book writing) and then you give birth, you publish.

At some point, you have to introduce others to your creation.  I remember asking my sister-in-law’s domestic if she found Joshie cute. Okay, it was more of a statement than a question, something like this.

Me, cradling baby in my arms:  ‘He’s really cute, isn’t he.’
Domestic gazes at baby, takes a step back, screws up eyes, assesses the situation objectively: ‘The eyes are too big.’
Me: ‘What? No! They’re cute.’
Domestic: ‘Too big.’

In a similar vein, I remember when Greg’s friend came over to us for a drink. He’d just read our first novel. Convivially, pleasantly, on entering the house, he said: ‘I read your book last night. Didn’t like it. Anyway – you got some whisky?’

The thing about books and babies, I think, is not that the process of creation is similar, but that a part of oneself exits the world through the book or the child, and exists independently. It feels as though one is suddenly distributed and that makes one feel vulnerable.  With children, the feeling usually runs much deeper and is longer lasting.

This excerpt from The Book of Jacob seems apt:

BOJ_Cover1On the second day the paediatrician comes to visit. ‘I’m ready to leave,’ I tell him. My thinking goes like this: if I can get out of this place and go home, then things will go back to how they were, magically reversed. ‘I’m feeling much better,’ I say. This is not true, but the painkillers are devious – they return my body in snatches. I reach for a glass, sip some water: see, I’m okay. Now let me out of here.

‘It’s not you I’m worried about – it’s your baby. He’s losing weight. There are two of you now, remember. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the hospital today.’

Shame floods through me – of course, it’s not just about me: there are two of us now. And one of us is shrinking even if the other one is still as large as ever. (From: The Book of Jacob)

Of course, the idea that children or books are a part of oneself is really just a narcissistic perception, and it’s not really true at all. Books and children are separate from one. And, ultimately, one must toughen up, and as one becomes a more experienced parent and author, one does. But still… at some level, that’s how it feels.

Just a reminder about our launch next week, Wednesday at The Book LoungeParadisegreg-lazarus

 

And here’s the blue baby, fresh from the printers:

paradise book

Paradise by Greg Lazarus

Make Mother’s Day Meaningful

Children and Greg barrelling into bedroom this morning. ‘Happy Mother’s Day  to you, Happy Mother’s Day to you.’

chocs

Three-year old won!

Women and home

Gift from family: woman&gnome, as Greg calls it. I did ask for the new Damon Galgut; however, ‘Is your house making you fat?’ is one of the lead articles. Looks like a good one. I always like an excuse.

Me, after unwrapping gifts: What lovely gifts – thank you!
Three-year-old: Can I have a chocolate?
Seven-year-old (outraged): No!
Three: I want a chocolate, I want one, I want one.  I want two.  (Starts to cry. Grabs box and runs away.)

Mother’s Day is a sanctimonious affair. The kids are hustled at school to make gifts and write notes. It’s a day for mom to be ‘spoilt’ and ‘taken care of’ – part invalid, part child. The irony is that the rest of the year mothers are expected to be all-adult.

The odd thing is that fathers are really not held to the same level.  Greg thinks he’s a great dad – fair, involved, doing the best he can with a wide variety of competing commitments, and he’s right: he is all those things. It’s just that the bar for mothers is impossibly high, leading to feelings of deficiency, guilt and second guessing for all kinds of minor things.

If you genuinely want a ‘Mother’s Day’ concept, then start thinking about shifting the entire workplace so that part-time work is acceptable, insist on genuine paternity leave and include fathers in all school newsletters. And that’s just for starters…

Excerpt from Paradise, coming out in May

“Hey, big boy.” Black gave him a slap on the shoulder as he sat down. The physical contact was strangely helpful, energising. He kind of wanted to ask Black to do it again.

“Late night, Hershie?” Black leered at him.

Paradise cover small

Hershel almost claimed that he’d had a threesome, two women fighting each other for possession of his bod; but he felt too low for that kind of banter.

The People’s Republic, a socialist coffee shop, was Maurice’s unlikely favourite meeting spot. The music consisted of low, Tibetan-sounding horns and the service was not service. You might order a coffee on arrival, as an opening gambit, and the waitress might write it down – again, just a first move; and then there was nothing. Only when you’d complained once or twice, bringing some real anger to your tone – revolutionary fervour was valued – might your beverage arrive. The cappuccinos were surprisingly good, though (made, presumably, by a bourgeois machine hidden in the back), and anyway it was worth it for the waitresses. They were always seething, oppressed not only by living in a country that subscribed to neo-liberal capitalist policy but perhaps also by being obliged to labour in an anti-capitalist coffee shop that could not pay much, given that there were so few patrons. Hershel found their rage appealing. If he’d been a more energetic person, he would’ve liked to be as emotionally expressive as the servers.

This afternoon, the coffees came fairly quickly – some mistake, maybe; they might have been intended for patrons who’d already left. Hershel smiled at the waitress and was rewarded with her choicest scowl. She had curly black hair, putting him in mind of Camille and making him feel sad and horny. He looked at the foam pattern on the surface of his coffee. “Is this a heart? I think she likes me.”

Black checked out Hershel’s mug. “Maybe, man. But check,” – he gestured at his own blurred foam – “a vagina.”

Hershel laughed, despite the trepidation he felt whenever he had to spend time with Black. The guy was sometimes amusing, you had to hand him that. Also, his affection for The People’s Republic was in his favour. No one who enjoyed an angry socialist coffee shop with Tibetan horn music had completely bought into a corporate ethos. Maybe Black still regarded himself as a boy from the Cape Flats, an outsider, and this place was his way of showing that he wasn’t completely at ease with the lifestyle he’d carved for himself.

“Thanks for meeting me on a Sunday – appreciate it,” Black said. “We can get this out the way before the week starts.”

Out the way?

“Hersh, we’ve always levelled with each other,” said Black. “Let’s forget the bullshit for one second. What’s this market like? Terrible. What’s your performance been like?”

He paused, and Hershel, compelled by rhythm and truth, responded, “Terrible.”

“Is that your fault? Not entirely. In good times, we all pat ourselves on the back and say what geniuses we are, but a baboon could have rented commercial property ten years ago. In a downturn, we’re questioning our abilities, asking ourselves how to work on our flaws, feeling like losers.”

This was leading up to something not good. Black sipped his coffee and then sat fondling the mug.

“Hersh, these are harsh times. And at the moment, you’re weighing us down. We like you, but you’re ballast.”

Hershel had the confused, panicky feeling that if he just managed to lose some weight, he’d be okay.

Black gulped down the rest of his coffee. “Let’s give it a month. If you can’t increase your revenue stream to match Liam’s by then, we’ll need to put a retrenchment in motion.”

“Maurice, in this market, a month isn’t – I mean – it’s the end of the year . . .” He swallowed, trying to push away the nausea. This was Black’s cowardly way of firing his ass. Even if Hershel got Kaat’s business, he’d never reach Liam’s income level. He’d have to go stay with his mother. Sit at the dining room table on Friday nights, in a room still haunted by the absence of his unfaithful father, eating chicken and brisket brought over by Ruth and her husband.

The waitress, who’d been morosely staring out the door, wandered over. She was wearing a red Che Guevara T-shirt and black jeans, and she didn’t speak as she reached out her long, skinny arms to take the mugs.

“Can I have another cup, if you can make it quick?” Black asked.

She looked at him silently. Even for The People’s Republic, this was a new low in customer relations. “Tell you what,” she said finally, in a low voice. “If you don’t use our premises to fire people, I’ll bring you coffee. Otherwise, you can pour a jug of hot coffee straight up your arse.” She turned away.

“Jesus.” Black turned to Hershel. “Did you hear that?”

When Hershel, still floored by Black’s deadline, didn’t reply, Black took out his wallet, shaking his head, put some money on the table and got up to go. “My treat, Hersh. Keep fighting.” As he left, he touched Hershel’s shoulder.

“Don’t come back soon,” said the waitress. Without turning, Black gave her the finger.

“Thank you, I guess,” said Hershel when she came to give him the bill (Thanks – Chi was scrawled defiantly at the bottom) and take the money from the table.

“Yeah, fine. By the way, a guy phoned for you a few minutes ago.”

“Who?”

“Someone called Avram. He described you, asked if you were here. I said no.”

“You said no?”

“We don’t inform on customers. You want to tell him you’re here, do it yourself.”

 

3 misconceptions about writing fiction

 

  1. Writing is dignified

If you want to write authentic characters, they frequently won’t be dignified. People do squirmy and embarrassing things all the time.  It’s interesting that some writers, in my limited experience, tend to be quite taciturn in day-to-day life but appear fairly comfortable revealing secrets on the page.

Says memoirist Edmund White in My Lives,The most important things in our intimate lives can’t be discussed with strangers, except in books.’

Oddly, if you tell something authentically and well, I think the shame goes away. The nice thing about writing (unless it’s memoir, of course) is that you can transfer those horrible, shameful feelings to one of your characters, and thus, far away from yourself. You can then claim that your characters have nothing to do with you. Yeah. Right.

But even if the writing is explicitly about you – e.g. Edmund White’s grotesquely masochistic tastes or Tobias Wolff’s youthful fraud – the magic of good, authentic writing is that readers don’t regard you badly.

 

  1. Inspiration comes to those who wait

You know the drill: you’re trying to write something and everything distracts you –  the  lawn mower down the road, a door shutting in the house and  Facebook. RIGHT NOW you need to know if anyone new has liked your artistically rendered photo of the salmon sunset over Camps Bay. RIGHT NOW!

dracula

Yum

But if you stick with the writing through boring patches where you inch along, you sometimes, not always, hit gold. Suddenly, things starts to happen, the words gush out and the story plays – briefly – like a movie in your head. ‘We…will have to pass through the bitter water before we reach the sweet,’ as Van Helsing says in Dracula.

Some writers feel differently; they think you should only write when inspired. I disagree. I think inspiration creeps up and bumps one on the nose at unexpected moments but often only when one is actually writing. And if it happens when you’re not writing, you’d better rush to get it on the page. Because you’ll forget it. Particularly if you have young kids.

 

  1. Writing is slow and painful

Yes. Yes. It often is like that but don’t be frightened by a sprint-like first draft.  To quote Stephen King:

“Get the first draft done quickly…

I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months…Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”  stephen king

In a first draft you need to get lost in the world of the book, which begins to inhabit your everyday life, so that you almost get that discombobulating feeling of coming out of the cinema after a long movie, blinking, into the daylight. I think it’s about trying to make this fantasy world real, at least for yourself. If the world is not real for you, then it won’t be real for anyone else.