Early Reading Experiences

As part of Short Story Day Africa, we’ve answered these questions.


What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

Greg: A book called The Blue Banana. An enterprising boy finds a blue banana and takes it to the king. A villain called Grizzlegrub tries to steal the banana but ends up in the moat. Grizzlegrub had a bald patch on the top of his head, like the one I have now. children reading

Lisa: I was the last of three kids and so nobody could ever be bothered to read to me. I remember that I had an old fairytale book at the bottom of my cupboard – heaven knows why it was there or even if I’m correct, but that’s my memory – and it terrified me. At one point, in complete fear, I tore off the cover, but that didn’t seem to make the book any less petrifying – if anything, it made it worse. So you could say that my early memories of books were in fact very negative.


As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

Greg: The Famous Five, by a mile. I was completely swallowed up by them.

Lisa: Ah, at last, something in common with my spouse – I also loved The Famous Five, but George alarmed me a bit – she was so brave and always up for adventures. I loved boarding school stories as well – Malory Towers, etc. – there was something both intimately cosy and scary about the set-up. I read anything; I was very undiscerning as a kid – I guess I’m still a bit like that.


Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

Greg: I did not grow up. I imitate maturity, but still feel a lot like I did when I was six: authorities unsettle me, and I like to be alone on my bed, eating copiously and reading.

My childhood was in Claremont, Cape Town. I paid many fines over the years to the Claremont Library, where I often took out And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and Yertle the Turtle. In later years I haunted the shelf at Dewey number 737.4, the section on coin collecting. I was obsessed with Thalers – big European coins of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – and with German hyperinflation banknotes of the nineteen twenties. Dr Seuss and chunky old coins… such things influenced me deeply, though it’s not easy to say how. In general, large parts of my identity stem from my childhood reading. I recently reread a seventies thriller called Shibumi, by Trevanian, which I took from my eldest brother’s shelf when I was around ten. I was shocked to see how directly the character of Nicolai Hel – Russian-German-Japanese mystic, international assassin, man of shibumi – had shaped my long-term aspirations.

Lisa: I loved the library at my primary school. The sheer number and range of books was exciting – in reality, the library was probably extremely small, but very soon I picked up that hanging out in the library was nerdy, and I had to pretend to hate the place. I loved the Claremont Library as well, but my mother took me there very erratically and we’d always have to face massive fines and a stern, disapproving librarian. Another memory in common with my spouse: stern librarians.

Unlike Greg, I never read non-fiction as a child. I only wanted to lose myself in stories.


As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

Greg: I love, love reading with the children. We enjoy favourites from my childhood (like J.P. Martin’s eccentric and delightful Uncle), brilliant new books (Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series makes us laugh) and classics that I’ve never read before (The Wind in the Willows – as a children’s  book, as close to perfect as I’ve read yet). One great feature of many children’s books is that they unashamedly try to be thrilling or funny.

Lisa: I never read to my children. I’m terrible.

If a tree falls down in the forest, is it your fault?

In Newlands forest this morning, I felt my usual vague mixture of paranoia and uneasiness. The forest was quiet – I was there just after eight – and I only had the seven-year-old with me. As I trudged wearily up the mountain, he chatted on about Clash of Clans, his current computer games obsession, and I observed my surroundings for any danger.  Living in South Africa, you get used to that ‘anything can happen in an instant and change your life forever’ feeling. What can you do? Something bad could happen, but then again maybe nothing bad will happen. Freud

So while Jacob went on about gems and elixir and witch battalions, I listened with less than half an ear, not even a quarter. It’s a good skill you pick up becoming a psychologist – the appearance of interest. In fact, one of my psychologist friends once admitted to dropping off to sleep during a session – it was a straight-after- lunch session and the patient was very dull. These things happen. Another psychologist friend told me she’d been doing couple counselling and all she imagined while the couple complained was what she would have liked the man to do with her. It was an exciting fantasy but she probably embellished it a little bit for my enjoyment.

Anyway. We were about half-way to the contour path when the child refused to walk any further. I had no choice but to turn around. He also refused to go down the alternative route, because that would take us right past the ‘tramp’s house’ – a derelict house in the forest that we’d taken him to when he was about four, and it still scared him. So we went down the way we’d come up.

The moment we started going downhill the forest no longer seemed dangerous. The change was practically instantaneous. My paranoia dissipated immediately and what had seemed shadowy and potentially dangerous, all those trees behind which people could hide, now appeared green and fresh and cheerful. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

It struck me then that I’d been projecting on my way up – the discomfort of the uphill walk had made the forest seem treacherous. The forest hadn’t changed on the way up from how it was now, on the way down – it was no more or less dangerous – but my perception of it had completely shifted. The external world had taken on my own unpleasant inner sensations. An excellent example of projection.

Powerful Urges

Paradise was born from a set of powerful urges. We were itching to write about a lot of things, all in one book. This was previously published on The Spark, Lauren Beukes’ blog.

Kung fu fighting. How lekker is Bruce Lee? When we were children, the thing to do was go to the Three Arts movie house for a martial arts double feature and then rush outside to the lawn en masse, an entire audience of seven year olds junked up on endorphins and kung fuadrenalin from the films and the Kit Kats, and do karate fights until our parents came for us. Which often took a while. So what’s the equivalent for writers approaching middle age? You put a judo fighter in your novel. A petite underdog who is damn angry.

Rapacious Dutchmen. Netherlanders nowadays may largely be liberal egalitarians, but they’re a lot less fun to write about than their ancestors in the Dutch East India Company. What a rapacious crew! Two centuries of ravaging the world’s goodies (at an impressive average of 16% annual return to investors) while espousing law and order. We had to write something about the Cape under the Company in the late eighteenth century: a well-established and brutal society, with unsettling vibrations of revolution from Europe. And we wanted a contemporary Dutch visitor to Cape Town, a woman with goals just as dubious as those of her forebears.

Salty wisdom. Yes, we are a psychologist and a philosopher, but we yearn for someone to tell us what to do. We have no idea. Someone who is strong but wise, tough but caring. How voluptuous just to let all your worries go and follow the advice of one who knows. So we decided to bring back Avram Tversky, a character from our novel When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, put him in another novel and dispense thoughts on how to act. Tversky is bad but we admire him.

A cool, ruthless criminal. A precious object, held in a secure spot, must be at risk. But no Die Hard type deed with machine guns and explosions. The malefactor should be a subtle, slinky shapeshifter – yet still ruthless.

Failure. When you’re twelve, you think you’ll get everything you might want. Great wealth? Coming up. Eternal life? Oh yes. I will not die. Ever. But by the time you are around forty (and by ‘you’, we mean ‘we’), you’re beset by the feeling of failure. What was it that I wanted? I can’t exactly remember, but surely…this isn’t it? Where did it – where did – go wrong? These feelings deserve exploration in writing, if only as a form of self-therapy.

Good times, bad times. We wanted to acknowledge evil in parts of the book, but out of the corner of our eyes. A glancing, coquettish look at slavery and bondage. There would also be a decadent party, featuring naked swimming amidst cheesy multi-coloured pool lights. And sexy encounters between intriguing people, some of whom may or may not regret what they’ve done later.

Dope and hope. Can writing about an ecstasy trip make you a tiny bit high? We had to see. As for hope, while our reading loves include dystopian fiction, misery memoirs, horrors, chillers, etc., we thought it would be nice this time to write something nice. A feel-gooder, to some extent. Maybe something like taking ecstasy but with none of the downers.

Therefore we wrote a book about Maja, an ex-convict who goes from Amsterdam to Cape Town on shady business; her interactions with Hershel, a middle-aged real estate agent afraid of being a loser; their intimate relations with Surita, a young, aggressive rising star in judo; everyone’s negotiations with Tversky, a mysterious older man in the import-export business; and an eighteenth century deed, done by the brash Menno and the idealistic Elisabeth, that echoes more than two centuries later. The characters are fighters – for love, freedom, cash and self-discovery. Chickens, nameless but characterful, also play an essential role.


Buy Paradise online (South Africans only) – http://www.loot.co.za/product/greg-lazarus-paradise/pskv-2865-g210 – or support your local bookstore.

Why blogs are better than novels

  1. Nobody reads my blog. (I know, I know, nobody reads my novels either, but let’s for the kinkysake of this blog post imagine that they do.) I follow this blog of a woman who has just become a ‘slave’ to her master – whatever that might mean, but it makes for quite a fascinating read. She used to write about her protracted separation from her husband and during this time, she claims she had no readers. Now that she divulges her kinky, weird sexual fetishes, she has a vast following.

But I find my lack of readers refreshing. It’s great to write into a vacuum, liberating, like screaming something in a canyon. Not that I’ve ever done that.

  1. I don’t have to rewrite stuff. Novels are not like that at all. You are constantly rewriting and every single word is minutely examined. It gives me a pain. I’m slap dash, and not a perfectionist. Luckily, my writing partner is neither of those things.

For example, I wrote this blog entry at a red light at the bottom of Dean Street. You just can’t do that with a novel – people will hoot you.

  1. With blogs, you get stats. I love stats. When I did my BA I found that I was mediocre at most things but brilliant at stats. Okay, it was stats for psychologists, and in the land of the blind and all that… psychologists are not known for their mathematical acumen.

You can also keep refreshing your stats. You can even tell yourself that you are working – you are ‘analysing your social media platforms’. Of course, I don’t have any readers, so constantly checking my stats doesn’t yield that much, but it’s more fun to do than writing.

  1. You don’t need be coherent in a blog. Every entry can be about something else. I wrote about my trip to a spiritual lifestyle centre the other day. If you want to build something like that into a novel, it needs to make sense. You’ve got to think about the plot and the characters. Something major needs to happen at the spiritual lifestyle centre. A character needs to have an insight. None of this needs to happen with a blog.
  1. I can get guest bloggers – well, theoretically, I could do that, although so far, nobody has agreed to take up this illustrious task. I asked my writing partner Greg to write something sensible, but he refused, even though he had quite a lot of clever ideas about the way people spoke about spirituality at the lifestyle centre (combining terms used in science, hygiene products and something else I can’t remember). But I will carry on working with him.

The Path towards Enlightenment

Every now and again you need to view the world from a different perspective.  So we took ourselves off to the Celebrate Life Festival.   I mean, when you are asked a question like this: ‘Are you feeling out of whack, lacklustre and slightly off-centre?’, how can you not answer ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘YES’.  And anyway, feeling ‘out of whack’ is better than feeling ‘whacked’, at least in Tony Soprano’s world.


It’s difficult to read the sign behind Greg’s head. It says: ‘ACADEMY OF ENLIGHTENMENT’. Clearly, he needs to pay this academy a brief visit because a few minutes later I saw him giving out his name, email address AND cellphone number to a woman running a ‘Metavarsity’ (granted, a more catchy name than UCT), who would soon send him an animal spirit meditation and a personal inspiration message, based on the number 14.

The things with these places is that one is always waiting for something to happen, the penny to drop, the world to shift on its axis. One is looking for the big experience – after which nothing is the same again. I sat with the kids listening to ‘Marvelous Mouth Chris’, who played a very strange musical instrument – you can see it on his lap – before he spoke at length about Nostradamus and breathing. He told us that you can think of the seer’s name as a  play on words – it’s ‘Nostril-damus’.

Marvelous Mouth Chris playing a god-knows-what.

Marvelous Mouth Chris playing a god-knows-what.

I quite liked the music, which was rhythmic and soothing, and I found my mind stopped skittering neurotically around, at least momentarily. I guess that might be one of the functions of art – a soothing soporofic, like warm horlicks at night, although I do tend to prefer my art a little bit more edgy.

The kids seemed happy enough with motormouth Chris or perhaps it was the popcorn. Either way, I thought it was good of the kids to provide a few more bums on seats.

Kids enlightenment

Kids need enlightenment, too.




And then as a final treat we went to listen to a talk on Past Life Regression therapy. The presenter was lovely. The slide at the front says, ‘That was Then; This is Now.’ I quite warmed to the whole concept – it seemed like a concrete manifestation of Freud’s idea of the unconscious.  Something happened long ago and this causes some kind of blockage, but the person doesn’t understand what that blockage is about. Perhaps the reason I’m the way I am has nothing to do with my mother or my father but is rather a result of working long hours as a French maid in the Palace of Versailles, just as the French Revolution was about to happen. Who can say? It could be true.

I've always had a thing for French maid outfits. (No, not really.)

I’ve always had a thing for French maid outfits. (No, not really.)



Extreme Adventuring

My father is an extreme sportsman, or at least he believes he is. It’s true that at practically 77, he still kites surfs and has taken up motorised paragliding. His view is that things are unlikely to go wrong. (How very wrong he is about this!) And that he has always wanted to fly. In my own way, I’m also an extreme sportswoman. I’m very taken, for example, with Extreme Reading.

The latest New Yorker reviews a new memoir, called The Shelf: From LEQ to LES,  by Phyllis Rose, who, as my gossipy brain remembered, is the second wife of the guy who wrote many of those Barbar books for kids (he was apparently smitten with her laugh while across a dinner table from her in Paris, and clearly undeterred by his wife’s presence).  Phyllis has decided to read through a shelf of library books, sort of randomly chosen from a New York library, and equates this experience to Off Road or Extreme Adventuring, except she doesn’t have to sleep out in the open, eat raw fish or get muscle aches.

(The whole adventure almost comes to an end when her first book selected happened to be a South African author, an Afrikaans one, deceased, whom she describes as “artsy, self-conscious, pretentious”.)

But she pulls herself together and perseveres. Why would one want to do such a thing? Phyllis wants to do it ,because she’s worried that she’s missing good books – that other people are making selections for her. And certainly this seems to be the case more than ever. As a kid, I would go to the library and just browse through stacks of books, picking them up at random – based on a cover or a strange title, perhaps. What did I know about anything? Now, because we’re constantly connected and chatting, book recommendations come from all our many contacts – and I’m not even discussing Amazon, and the way it pushes books at one. Randomness has declined; we’re  squeezed in certain directions, without even being aware of this.

Okay – enough rambling. Would you do it? Extreme Reading? I thought I’d start at home and had a look at some of the shelves. – click them to get more clarity.

bookshelf oneR


Lots of SA books – thought this might be a good place to start.






Now this is not good. The only book that appeals is, ‘The Heart and The Fountain: An Anthology of  Jewish Mystical Experiences’. I might have preferred to have read, ‘Jewish sporting achievements’, instead. Shorter.


Or maybe this (I’ve always wanted to know more about wines): bookshelf 3R