My Interview with Henrietta Rose-Innes about her new novel, Green Lion

This interview took place online on the Good Book Appreciation Society.

Lisa Lazarus Hello everyone. Hello, Henrietta. How are you?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Hi! I’m excellent. I am sitting in the library eating a chocolate orange.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But I have to be very quiet, so you can’t make me laugh out loud. I have already had my coffee confiscated.

Lisa Lazarus Now you tell me.

Lisa Lazarus Okay, let’s get started.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I’m psyched.

Lisa Lazarus Green Lion is Henrietta’s latest book. It’s both a simple story and a multi-layered exploration of extinction, guilt, loss, and desire. At one level, it tells the tale of the last remaining black-maned lioness in the world and her effects on the people around her. One of Henrietta’s great skills, and of course there are many, is that she is an exceptionally visual writer who captures a moment in a strikingly lyrical way. She also, by the way, takes amazing photographs on Instagram. These things seem connected. From insects to lions, that’s quite a shift. Why?

Henrietta Rose-Innes why thank you! (If anyone is interested, there is a picture of my chocolate orange on Instagram right now).

Lisa Lazarus Animals, animals: we’ll get to those. [See Henrietta’s picture above.]

Henrietta Rose-Innes Partly it is a sentimental, romantic thing. I’ve always been very attached to the figure of the Cape Lion.

Henrietta Rose-Innes When I was a child I was fascinated by a photo of a taxidermied specimen that was in the SA Museum, on of my favourite places.

Lisa Lazarus Do you happen to know if it’s still there?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Also, it is a bit of a self-indulgence to write about lions: they are such sensually and aesthetically appealing creatures.

Lisa Lazarus That’s true. The tones of Green Lion and your previous novel Nineveh are fairly different. Whereas Nineveh is, in parts, humorous, and perhaps more hopeful, Green Lion seems more pessimistic in tone. Would you agree? Has your world view become darker? How did it feel to produce these different worlds? (Answer all, none or some of these questions.)

Henrietta Rose-Innes And in this book I wanted to write about idealised, symbolically potent wildlife – unlike the mundane creepy-crawlies in Nineveh. And you don’t get much more potent a symbol than an extinct lion.

Henrietta Rose-Innes oh sorry, i was running on. I’ve just refreshed and seen your other questions.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Let me catch up …

Lisa Lazarus I think I’ve also fallen behind.

Henrietta Rose-Innes The lion photo is still in the Museum; but the specimen itself is in storage in the Natural History museum in London. I went on a little pilgrimage last year to visit him.

Lisa Lazarus (I want to ask you about research but later on.)

Henrietta Rose-Innes Nineveh did have a darkly funny tone, or at least that’s what I was going for … it was quite jocular. The point of that book was that the world turns regardless, things are built and destroyed, and the natural world lives on, often in strange, tough, not always welcome forms.

Lisa Lazarus Whereas the tone of GL felt much sadder in parts.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But in green Lion I wanted to examine the other side of our relationship with the natural world: the fact that we are also rapidly emptying it of many of our fellow creatures. I wanted to write about how, as we lose these companions, we seem to also revere them more, and give them intense, almost religious or fetishistic significance. Many humans are animal crazy in a way we never were when we actually dealt with animals in our daily lives.

Henrietta Rose-Innes And yes, that is sad to me. I’m afraid the book doesn’t offer much in the way of redemption or relief from environmental pessimism.

Lisa Lazarus Yes, animals are roaring inkblots in your book.

Lisa Lazarus For example: for the animal group, viewing animal videos is compared with people “saying grace”. It’s spiritual / religious. Of course you’re making a point here about the disparity between the inauthentic (“watching videos of animals”) and the authentic experience. But aren’t people also projecting all kinds of things – their needs, hopes, desires – onto animals?

Henrietta Rose-Innes That’s a good name for a band, the Roaring Inkblots

Lisa Lazarus Band of writers, perhaps

Henrietta Rose-Innes Yes, indeed. The main character, Con, in particular: he is a lonely figure because of various personal losses he has experienced; and he projects that loss and the desire for connection onto the lioness in his care at the zoo.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Of course this is terrible choice. You cannot fall in love with an animal that mostly wants to eat you.

Lisa Lazarus Well, reminds me of some guys I’ve known.

Lisa Lazarus Sorry

Henrietta Rose-Innes hmm

Henrietta Rose-Innes I was actually wording that quite carefully to avoid any smut

Henrietta Rose-Innes so much for that

Lisa Lazarus Yes, the relationship between Con and the lion is very erotic. I wanted to talk about that.

Lisa Lazarus The novel is largely about loss, but there is also a strong element of erotic desire that pulses through it.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It is. The book is also quite a lot about desire. And desire as an answer to the fear of death, I suppose.

Lisa Lazarus Can I quote you something from The Tale of Genji? About time we turned to eleventh century Japanese literature.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Con is very sexual. He struggles to connect emotionally, but he falls easily into sexual relationships.

Henrietta Rose-Innes oh ok

Henrietta Rose-Innes But in English please, my archaic Japanese is rusty.

Lisa Lazarus Let me just quickly translate spontaneously.

Lisa Lazarus Compare this from a recent New Yorker article on the eleventh century Japanese masterpiece, The Tale of Genji: “One reason that physical contact between men and women is hardly ever described in “Genji” is that courtly lovers almost never saw one another clearly, and certainly not naked… A male suitor could be driven wild by the sight of a woman’s sleeve spilling out from underneath a shade, or by the mere sound of silk rustling behind a lacquer screen.

Now look at your description of Con feeding Sekhmet, the lioness, her bloody meat: “His communion with the lioness was unpredictable. Sometimes, he was allowed to glimpse only significant parts: a paw, a flank, an eye…he could never see the whole. She’d wait for him to look away, then slip out and snag the meat, pulling it inside or into the shelter of a rock or bush…Sometimes she’d lift her eyes momentarily from her bloody meal to meet his gaze through the glass.”

Lisa Lazarus Can you speak about the erotic in the book and how it seems to manifest in the deeply unfamiliar, the foreign?

Henrietta Rose-Innes nice quotes!

Henrietta Rose-Innes hai

Lisa Lazarus thanks

Henrietta Rose-Innes I like the idea of powerful glimpses … the lion is particularly frightening and magnetic to Con because she is so elusive. A lion barely seen in the undergrowth is much more terrifying than one you can easily locate. And I think desire is the flipside of that: the strongest lusts are for things not completely seen or comprehended.

Lisa Lazarus True. Even I like a lady’s ankle.

Henrietta Rose-Innes The lioness Sekhmet is an illusory desire; Con can never attain her, just as he can’t bring back his mother from death or his childhood friend (who he also desired) from age and physical damage.

Lisa Lazarus But the erotic component in GL seems more than that. When Con has an encounter with Mossie outside the lion’s cage, he describes the effect of the lion – “the spike, the rush, the beating heart” – on both of them.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Sometimes I feel that that kind of rush is the only thing that keeps us going!

Lisa Lazarus The erotic pulse is often equated with a sense of being alive, high, open to the world: the opposite of death.

Henrietta Rose-Innes The rush of desire, of wanting.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Yes exactly.

Lisa Lazarus Yep.

Henrietta Rose-Innes And in this book it is also represented by the very real adrenalin rush of being in close contact with a big, beautiful, very dangerous animal.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Again, not an experience humans have very often these days; it can be addictive.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I am fascinated by people who want to put themselves in close proximity to that kind of danger.

Lisa Lazarus And particularly for Con, who is frequently described as a ghost. (I guess ghosts especially need that thrill to feel a little bit alive.)

Lisa Lazarus How was it writing about a character like Con?

Henrietta Rose-Innes In Green Lion I try to poke a little gentle fun at that desire too, with the club of nature fanciers who meet up monthly to pet an interesting animal.

Lisa Lazarus Ja, that was funny.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It was interesting. I haven’t often written from the point of view of a man before, and never in a novel.

Lisa Lazarus They did get a snake at their last meeting. That was lucky.

Lisa Lazarus Speaking of snakes then, tell us about writing from the point of view of a man.

Lisa Lazarus Did it feel different?

Henrietta Rose-Innes And he is quite a lonely and emotionally numbed character. he needed to be, in order to want to feel something so badly.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But my characters are always weirder and less likeable than I think they are. I am fond of them and find them completely understandable, but people often tell me they’re strange and unpleasant.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I don’t quite understand my own reasons for choosing a male protagonist this time.

Lisa Lazarus Haha. I don’t think Con is unpleasant, but one does want to shake him out of it. At least I felt that way, at times.

Lisa Lazarus Perhaps you can explore the issues at a somewhat removed level. I think it’s quite helpful as a writer to work via a different gender.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It’s got something to do with the fact that a central dynamic in the book is his unrequited crush on his childhood friend Mark. I wanted to write about the intensity of that kind of adolescent longing and desire; and it was easier for me to write about feeling that for a boy. But I also wanted Con and Mark to be almost doubles of each other. So they are both male.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It’s just a temperamental thing too, really. I do find repressed characters much easier to relate to.

Lisa Lazarus This could take us back to your very first novel Shark’s Egg, which included such a powerful evocation of adolescent longing. Do you find that the well of those intense childhood and adolescent teenage years is still deep for you?

Henrietta Rose-Innes sigh!

Henrietta Rose-Innes yes

Lisa Lazarus Good for you. Me too.

Henrietta Rose-Innes you can’t always choose the things that drive you. last thing in the world i ever wanted to write about was high school.

Lisa Lazarus Haha

Henrietta Rose-Innes but it sometimes feels to me that I am sequentially processing my life in my novels. It feels like each one has dealt with the preoccupations of a particular time of my life.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Maybe one day I will catch up with myself.

Lisa Lazarus I want to talk about the fence and it does kind of connect to the issue of adolescence and adulthood.

Lisa Lazarus Might you move ahead of yourself?

Lisa Lazarus And find out what you’ll be up to next?

Lisa Lazarus Martian exploration?

Henrietta Rose-Innes (I don’t really like writing about children or young people even. I would like to get away from it but somehow they keep creeping into the backstories, the little buggers)

Lisa Lazarus Now let’s a grip on ourselves. The fence.

Henrietta Rose-Innes the fence

Henrietta Rose-Innes what about it then

Henrietta Rose-Innes Context:

Lisa Lazarus Hang on. In GL, the ‘fence’ is a potent motif. It rings Table Mountain and it divides your Cape Town into permissible and prohibited areas. No South African can see such a fence without a political reminder of our fraught history. Does it have this kind of resonance for you? Or is it more psychological? One can also see the fence as the demarcating of the id: the wild, the ungovernable. It’s an exciting area. The reader is itching for Con to break through the boundary and go on through to the other side.

Henrietta Rose-Innes In the book, Table Mountain has been fenced off by the authorities to preserve the ecosystem up there. A few wealthy people can buy permits for guided tours, however.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Yes of course, it is a hugely loaded symbol. Impossible, in this city and this country, to write about fencing off land and barring people from access without referencing forced removals and apartheid demarcations. I do try to acknowledge that history in the section of the book where an informal settlement is destroyed to make way for the fence.

Lisa Lazarus I saw that, sure. But for me, the fence felt powerfully psychological.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But although the fence feels powerful, it is in fact revealed to be a bit of a farce, by the end. The mountain is not preserved; the scheme is corrupt and inefficient; it is not possible to control the human and/or the natural world in this managerial way.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Which is also a kind of critique of a kind of bureaucratic style of conservation which tries to remove people from the equation.

Lisa Lazarus Yes. But the meaning of the fence seems to alter. In adolescence, what’s behind the fence is something genuinely terrifying, and tragedy ensues. In adulthood, there is nothing much beyond the fence, and what Con hopes to find there – wildness, perhaps even a roaming lion – is not there. At some level are you making a comment about those life stages, perhaps contrasting the excitement (danger) of adolescence with the dull predictability, and inevitable loss (death), of adulthood?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Although a little girl goes missing, we don’t know why. And I don’t know if there is anything genuinely terrifying behind the fence in the childhood section. I tried to keep it quite ambiguous – we never really are sure if there is a lion on the mountain or not. The real fear is, simply, mortality; and that is what is waiting for Con behind the fence in adulthood too.

Lisa Lazarus You’re a slippery customer, Henrietta. In the best possible way.

Lisa Lazarus Lastly:

Henrietta Rose-Innes But there is a sense too – and I’m thinking this for the first time now – that the fence is a kind of barrier between childhood and adulthood.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Literally: the young, small children can slip through the gaps , and also slip more easily into a world of fantasy and make-believe; once they grow older, the barrier is not so permeable.

Lisa Lazarus That’s interesting

Lisa Lazarus Yet the hunters seems able to slip into a fantasy world, maybe?

Henrietta Rose-Innes They are trying. (There is this group of rather inept hunters who are being taken on safari on the mountain – Con runs into them)

Henrietta Rose-Innes But they are entirely unsuccessful. They are trying to enact the big-game hunting fantasy, but the quarry is just not there any more.

Lisa Lazarus Yes, thanks for the context. They are also engaged in a pretend game.

Lisa Lazarus A kind of Wishing Chair for adults

Lisa Lazarus From Enid Blyton to HRI

Lisa Lazarus Okay, lastly, because we have now run out of time

Lisa Lazarus It’s an Ali G type question

Henrietta Rose-Innes In the end of the book, all that is left is the pretend game. The zoo has abandoned its project to create actual animals, and has fallen back on theatre and art . Grim!

Lisa Lazarus If you could be an animal, what animal would you be?

Henrietta Rose-Innes hahaha

Henrietta Rose-Innes *blank*

Henrietta Rose-Innes i used to always say polar bear, but things are not looking so good for them these days.

Lisa Lazarus It’s a trick question. You already are an animal.

Henrietta Rose-Innes pigeon maybe. They do alright.

Lisa Lazarus I got that from Douglas Coupland.

Henrietta Rose-Innes yes, but not the animal I want to be

Lisa Lazarus Pigeons have a lot of fun.

Lisa Lazarus Henrietta has written a terrific book and we could talk about it endlessly. You peel away one layer, you get another. But time to open it to the floor.

Bea Reader What are you working on next HRI?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Another trick question …

Henrietta Rose-Innes I have started a new book but it’s in very early stages right now. So far the main character is … a bridge.

Henrietta Rose-Innes A concrete overpass bridge.

Bea Reader Hmmmmmm

Henrietta Rose-Innes But very passionate and emotionally engaged.

Lisa Lazarus Hahaha Somewhere exciting? Is it like the Bridges of Madison County?

Máire Fisher Ooooh – what might lurk there … besides trolls.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I am trying to stay clear of animals and children

Máire Fisher Oh, so no billy goats.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I think there are a couple of skeletons, and probably some stone tools.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It’s a kind of archaeological romance between inanimate objects.

Henrietta Rose-Innes This is sounding less and less sexy.

Lisa Lazarus  No characters at all I hope. They just get in the way of things, I find.

Henrietta Rose-Innes ja I might just tell the story entirely on instagram.

Lisa Lazarus So, you’re living in the UK at the moment. Is this influencing your writing?

Máire Fisher Great interview Henrietta and Lisa. Flipping load-shedding now – will catch up on rest later.

Lisa Lazarus Cold, damp milieus?

Henrietta Rose-Innes I wonder that myself. It is having the effect of making South Africa feel removed (obviously) and more abstract. Which is not necessarily a bad thing., but different.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I don’t know if I’m ready to write about England itself, just yet. I don’t have that confidence.

Henrietta Rose-Innes What I do have here is lots and lots of time to write, which is quite a transformative thing.

Lisa Lazarus I understand. I don’t like going beyond Newlands.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Rain is flooding down now. I find rain very good for writing.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But I am not here for long now – will be back in SA in a week’s time, for the M&G festival, and then for Open Book.

Henrietta Rose-Innes You haven’t got rid of me yet.

Lisa Lazarus And with the soundtrack of heavy rain, we now leave Henrietta Rose-Innes, one of South Africa’s most distinguished writers, as she looks pensively onto a drenched, green English landscape, and eats a chocolate orange.

Henrietta Rose-Innes oh the choc orange is LONG gone.

Henrietta Rose-Innes thanks Lisa – it was great chatting.

Bea Reader Massive lion paw-print sized thanks to you both for a fascinating hour dissecting Green Lion. An incredible, layered novel by a phenomenal author.

Lisa Lazarus Good-bye, viewers. Good-bye. Remember, you can experience more of Henrietta by reading her remarkable books.

Bea Reader Our wonderful interviewer, Lisa Lazarus, is a psychologist and freelance writer. She has Master’s degrees in psychology and creative writing, and diplomas in higher education and in information systems. Lisa has co-written three books with philosopher Greg Fried: the novels Paradise (Kwela, 2014) and When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes (Kwela, 2012), and the memoir The Book of Jacob: A Journey into Parenthood (Oshun, 2009). She has written for many publications, including Men’s Health, Femina, Shape, Cosmopolitan, Cape Town’s Child, Psychologies, and Mail & Guardian. Lisa tutors Magazine Journalism, Feature Writing and Memoir Writing for SA Writers’ College.And blogs over here:

Henrietta Rose-Innes Thank you, Bea Reader – it was a pleasure. x

Bea Reader And the fascinating and talented Henrietta Rose-Innes is an award-winning novelist and short story writer based in Cape Town (Currently in the UK). Before Green Lion, Henrietta wrote Nineveh (published in 2011 by Umuzi), which followed Shark’s Egg (2001) and The Rock Alphabet (2004). Her story Poison won the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Envy and loss

This piece (Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One) has caused a lot of controversy about whether writers are born or made. I don’t have an answer to that question. Is a plumber born or made? It could be that no one is born with a predetermined talent for plumbing, but then why would it be different for writers?

If I don’t know what makes a person a writer, I do know what made me a reader. I remember my best friend, aged four, climbing on her dad’s lap with a book and reading it to him. The idea that one could read a book had never occurred to me before! This is a worrying thought, because it must have meant that nobody ever read to me. I went home that day, driven by envy, opened a book and tried to read it.

Naturally I couldn’t, so my brother, aged about 12, taught me. His methods were simple, if brutal. He showed me the letters and their corresponding sounds before presenting words to me. If I couldn’t read a word, he hit me.  More precisely, he boxed me on the shoulder joint. Luckily, I learnt fairly quickly. letterland

A little while after that, my parents decided they needed a holiday and so off they went to Italy or Greece or the UK (in the terminology of 1980s South Africa: ‘overseas’). I was dumped with my best friend for three weeks – an eternity when you’re six – and I cried each night. Every few days my mother would phone me; she sounded like she was very far away, and possibly underwater. My friend gave me a book to read. I have no recollection of the story or the characters, but I remember that the book looked impressive with its hardback cover, its many pages. I’d carry it around with me, tenderly placing a bookmark in the last spot read.

So I’d say envy and loss were the spurs to my reading. I can’t say I’m sorry it happened that way, because those are very powerful stimulants, and I still love reading.

Breaking Bread

Because so much of this blog is written by me, I thought I’d put up something written by Greg. Faith, mysticism, religion, whatever you want to call it, is also emerging as a theme in our new book. croissant


‘When I was a bachelor,’ my father says from his armchair, ‘you know what I used to do in hot weather?’

We are in my parents’ flat. My father is sipping a glass of whisky while I lie on the sofa leafing through a copy of the Jewish Times I have found in the entrance hall. Lisa and my mother are in the bedroom, playing with Jacob on the bed.

‘I drove along Chapman’s Peak,’ my father goes on, gently swilling his glass. ‘Then I made a braai by the side of the road and sat on my deckchair.’ From the open window comes the tumult of Friday-night traffic. People are making tracks all over the city.

‘The best part was being alone,’ my father adds. ‘I laid out my chops and sausages on the braai, and drank some wine, and at the end of the day I packed it all into my boot and went home. Hell, those were the days.’ He finishes his drink.

I have inherited my father’s temperament. My social skills are inauthentic and short-winded: sometimes I burst into parties chattering, joking, laughing, but soon I am sitting alone, drained and morose, eating the mini quiches from an abandoned platter.

My mother, a more social soul than her husband and youngest son, shouts to us from the bedroom, ‘Come and listen to Jacob!’ We go. My son is lying on the bed, producing his rainforest call, a high, sharp sound that brings to mind a forest canopy and parrots.

Overcome with love, my mother presses Jacob’s stomach, and he unfurls a long peal of goblin laughter. She looks at my father and me, her face lit with pleasure. ‘Come on, Darl,’ she says to my father. ‘Tell him a poem.’

‘Okay,’ my dad says.

Once upon a time

When the birds ate lime

And the monkeys chewed tobacco,

The devil ran past

With a chisel up his arse …

‘Not that one,’ says my mother.

‘But he likes it. Look, he’s laughing.’

My mother turns back to Jacob to savour his glee. My father and I edge out of the bedroom. Jacob is enchanting, but we want some peace.

‘I’ve always been a loner,’ says my dad as we return to our places.

‘Me too. Remember when I was a child, and I wanted to live in a mountain hut in Switzerland?’

‘I just wanted to stay in a single room with a nice paraffin heater,’ says my father, looking wistful.

Back in the bedroom Jacob is wowing his fans: there are claps and laughter from Lisa and my mother. ‘He loves his jokes,’ I hear my mother say. Jacob is her comedian, her rock star, her Dalai Lama in diapers. She holds him with the tenderness of a pilgrim fondling a sacred relic. Sometimes, unwilling to dissect his radiance, she says simply that he is perfect.

‘Come on, everyone,’ says my mother, striding from the bedroom towards the dinner table with Jacob cradled on her shoulder. Lisa trails behind them. The three of them look like a parent, a baby and a slovenly adolescent. My mother is a born leader, and Lisa and I find ourselves fitting naturally into her scheme. ‘Isn’t it great to have the kids here?’ she asks my father. All of us – Lisa, Jacob and I – fall into this umbrella category. It is soothing to be counted as one of the children.

‘Jacob and I will do the candles,’ my mother says. She and the pygmy marmoset turn their backs to the company, and she makes a blessing over the lit candles to welcome the Sabbath. Jacob tries to get at the flame, but his hands are held tight. For once he is not angry to be thwarted, but instead stares at the light.

My son is entranced, held by the candles in this moment. Friday night at my parents’ is his favourite event, and it’s good to see him happy. But I can’t help feeling that I’m being rebuked: this ritual is meant as a remedy to the godless household in which Jacob is being raised.

I sit Jacob on my lap and Lisa breaks off a piece of challah for him to play with. He grips the bread tightly in both hands. When he is old enough to eat it, Lisa and I will flake off morsels of bread to make a pile of scraps in front of him. (As he eats, Jacob’s face will become solemn; only his hands, cycling rapidly between heap and mouth, will reveal his opinion of this soft sweet thing, too delicious to regard lightly.) But for now, this chunk of challah is a plaything. It falls onto the carpet, grey and doughy with the impressions of his fingers.

‘Jacob just loves Friday nights here,’ my mother says. Suspiciously I watch her, but she seems not to be speaking to anyone in particular. Her smile is directed towards everyone, to a whole table of people she loves.

How, then, did I become this wary figure with arms folded and senses alert, vigilant for implied criticism, all the while passing salt and platters of food with cruel efficiency? Why am I the ice cube of the Sabbath table?

It was not always so. Friday evenings were glorious for me too as a child. The experience is so deeply lodged in my mind that its components are fused together. (Even now I confuse the smell of fire with that of challah, and when someone lights a match, I think of bread.) As the youngest chorister in the synagogue, I soared with an unbroken voice above the adolescent mooing of my mottled peers. Though I didn’t understand the words, I sang with a conviction that stirred the congregation, and that I felt too.

Yet my commitment was wearing away. After the first year of twice-weekly attendance at Hebrew school, where everything was new – the festivals, the biblical stories – I began the second year and found, to my puzzlement, that it was the same. All the festivals were identical, and I’d heard the stories. There was more detail, but it felt like we were going over familiar ground. As the years went by, attending Hebrew school felt like working in a fish factory. The head, the tail, where to cut, how to pack – it was always alike, and even if now and then a strange fish came down the conveyor belt, my curiosity had long since departed.

The principal of the Hebrew school, a refugee from General Franco’s Spain whose accent was a challenging synthesis of Spanish and Yiddish, and whose name (confusingly) was Mr Franco, said one day to my mother, ‘Tell me, Mrs Fried – Gregory doesn’t like Hebrew school?’

‘No, Mr Franco,’ said my mother, whom he had caught in the synagogue parking lot. ‘Gregory loves Hebrew school.’

‘Then why he doesn’t come?’

My mother was stumped and speechless. Of course, since one should tell a teacher the truth, especially a religious teacher, the appropriate reply would have been: ‘He doesn’t come, Mr Franco, because he can’t find it in his heart to listen one more time to the festive story of Purim, or to learn the Hebrew word for “goat”. His eldest brother is an atheist and you can’t compete with his brother, Mr Franco, for cool. And finally, whenever Gregory loses his place in the synagogue service, the beadle grabs my son’s prayer book, loudly licks his thumb, and flips through the pages with a wet digit.’

I associate religious education with outrageous stories and flabbergasting boredom. Yet my son too is now being led along the first steps of the path. ‘It’s the social contract,’ says Lisa. ‘Mutual obligations. Your parents do so much for Jacob; they love him so. And he’s their grandson.’

My wife’s parents are at it too. The next week, as we play a CD of children’s songs, Lisa’s mother pleads with us to buy Jacob a collection of klezmer music from Eastern Europe. ‘Just look at him,’ she says. (People often urge us to look at Jacob, as if a good stare at his chubby cheeks will provide the answers.) Lisa’s mother is standing over Jacob, clapping rhythmically. He sits, propped up against a pillow in his inflatable plastic boat as he watches her, an unblinking audience.

‘Heritage, Lisa,’ says her mother.

‘Why don’t you get him some klezmer music then, Mum?

‘I’m so busy.’ Lisa’s mother is suddenly all efficiency; her back straightens and she must go.

‘And if you’re interested in Jacob’s Jewish education,’ Lisa goes on, ‘then why didn’t you arrange any for me?’

‘You were a girl,’ says her mother, walking to the entrance hall to pick up her bag. ‘You played at my feet for all the years I taught at Hebrew school. And anyway, you didn’t need something like that, growing up in our house. My mother tongue is Hebrew.’ Her hand, as she walks, gestures outwards to indicate the pulses of language and culture that she transmits.

I have scooped up Jacob to say goodbye to Bathsheba, and from my shoulder he is absorbing this new scene, trying to extract its significance. He sees that the occasion is balanced between humour and tension, and doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

‘We’re not religious at all,’ I say to Lisa’s mother as she turns to leave.

‘Don’t goad her,’ Lisa tells me.

‘Why should Jacob be educated in superstition?’ A centimetre from my ear, my son begins to cry. The situation has become clear to him.

‘You have a bad attitude towards Judaism,’ says Lisa’s mother.

Lisa, attuned to the limitless potential for escalation in this clash between two proud and stubborn loved ones, ushers her mother out of the door. I stand in the entrance hall, fuming and ashamed. Jacob is crying all the while, and when I try to put him on the couch to get away from his screeching in my ear, he clings to me as if I am dropping him from a great height. My attempt to put him down has failed, and now I must make up for it by holding him tighter. I must hug him very close while he yells as loudly as he can.

My wife returns from the garden, where she has been patching things up with her mother before waving her off. ‘Honestly,’ she says. ‘Don’t you know when to be quiet? You’re not going to change her mind. Anyway, she came here to take care of Jacob. She adores him.’

‘She never gave you a Jewish education. You said it yourself.’

Lisa sighs. ‘I did tell her that, but I was sort of joking, and she knew it. Then you got involved, and you were so aggressive. Can’t you stand back and just accept things?’

‘I hate unreasonable behaviour.’

‘Oh, come on.’ Lisa goes off to the kitchen, where she opens a cupboard and removes, with much banging, a muffin tray.

‘What kind of muffins are you going to make?’ I ask. She does not reply. Her baking has nothing to do with me. Jacob’s cries have now subsided into helpless sobs, his ribcage juddering. My son still won’t allow me to put him down. I must keep carrying him around, holding him as I listen to the sobs I have caused him. It is like some biblical atonement.

‘Let’s see what Baba is up to,’ I say. The sight of Jacob’s Chinese plastic doll – naked, pink, as stern as a Beijing factory manager – has often calmed him before. When he sees Baba, though, he pauses for a moment and then wails. If even Baba can’t help, he seems to be thinking, what is to become of me?

I go over to Jacob’s shelf of second-tier stuffed toys – Doggy, Teddy, Chicken – and sit down with them all in my lap. Jacob is now seated in a congregation of fluffy animals. With his stout tummy and round face he looks somewhat like them, except that he is weeping. Yet he soon calms down enough to give Doggy a tentative hug. I’m not sure what has pacified him. Has he been surprised into silence by the crowd, or is he comforted by it?

For six months I have done a lot of fruitless puzzling. Why did he start screaming? How can I stop him? Why did he stop? But now I have a wonderful opportunity to forget about these puzzles for a week, because Lisa and I are leaving for a trip to Paris. We have taken money from our house bond – not sensible, but irresistible.

We drop Jacob off at my parents’ flat on the way to the airport. ‘Thank you, thank you so much,’ I say to my mother and father repeatedly as I drag Jacob’s suitcase into his temporary bedroom, equipped with a mini cot.

‘The poor little sweetheart,’ says Lisa in the plane. ‘They’ll treat him so well, though. Do you miss him?’

‘Well, I’m sure I’ll miss him soon. Not yet, though.’ I’ve forgotten how quiet a plane can be. I relax into my chair, looking down at the clouds through the window.

‘It’s amazing,’ I say to Lisa after a while, ‘how bad I often am at dealing with Jacob.’

‘Really?’ she says with a toneless neutrality, playing it safe.

‘Like a robot. I’ll make a decision – say, time for a bath – and then carry it out regardless. He’ll be in the bath, yelling and writhing, while I’m just spreading that liquid soap over his arms and legs.’

‘Sometimes you do have a robotic quality.’

‘I’m a sort of mechanical husband.’

‘Well, you’d better get your parts oiled up for Paris,’ says Lisa, putting her hand in mine.

One of the best things about Paris is that old connections between cause and effect, unreliable in recent months, sturdily reassert themselves. If we decide to eat a chocolate flan, we go to a pastry shop and do it. When we want to see the Latin Quarter, we simply walk over. No one becomes suddenly enraged or unexpectedly falls asleep. We carry out our plans with uncanny ease.

Lisa and I stand in the crowd on the great plain in front of Notre Dame. ‘Look at those teenagers,’ says Lisa. ‘What a good-looking group. Spanish kids on a school trip, maybe? It’s funny to watch them, the boys trying to impress the girls, and the girls flirting and then pulling away.’

I am peering at the facade of the cathedral, trying to discern the figures. I feel the chill of the March wind through my coat. ‘Let’s go in,’ I say.

We enter, and shuffle around the cathedral, moving with the slow crowd.

‘It’s terribly depressing,’ Lisa says. But I am entranced: the stained-glass windows give light to the innards of this stone monster, and I have a sense of a weightless soul floating within an ancient body. The crowd has disappeared for me, and I am left with this strange vision.

‘I’m actually a spiritual sort of person,’ I remark to Lisa afterwards, sitting indoors in a café. She is drinking a giant mug of hot chocolate.

‘Remember a few winters ago,’ I say, ‘when I was lying on our leather couch, looking out at the bare branches of the oak tree under a white sky, and I suddenly felt that the world was good, that it was somehow unified, everything was one, and the universe seemed to be dropping me a wink?’

Lisa puts down the mug to eat her complimentary croissant. ‘So if you like that kind of thing,’ she says, ‘what’s wrong with a Jewish education for Jacob?’

A bowl of French onion soup arrives for me. Croutons and gooey cheese are moored in the brown soup, and the steam is fogging up my glasses. Jacob would enjoy this scene. I wouldn’t mind him sitting on my lap now.

‘Nothing,’ I say, ‘if it involves spiritual experiences and transcendent moments and so on. Who wouldn’t wish that for their child?’

Lisa focuses for a while on her croissant. It’s still cold outside, and French pastry is so warming and delicious. Then she says, ‘It’s not religion that bothers you at all. It’s people. You don’t like the idea of classes and synagogue visits and festivals; all sorts of communal activities. You’re happy for Jacob to be religious as long as he does it alone, like you.’

Surprisingly on a day like this, the café isn’t yet full. Apart from us, there is just one other couple. The owner keeps moving between us, anxious to keep his customers content. I ask for a croissant from his basket.

‘Now you’ll tell me,’ I say, pointing my pastry at her like a boomerang, ‘that I shouldn’t take Jacob as a small copy of myself.’

Lisa smirks. We are halfway through our holiday, four days until we go home, and when we arrive at my parents’ flat, Jacob will not want to leave my mother’s arms. I’ll have to disentangle him and transport his dense, wriggling form into the car, the holiday mood of sensuality and serenity gone in an instant – but at this moment I am sorry he isn’t here. I wonder whether a croissant will stay fresh if we take it home, and if he’s old enough for a bite.

From: The Book of Jacob

Could writers hate readers?

There’s a fascinating article (The Outside Game), written by Adam Gopnik, in this week’s New Yorker about the sociologist Howard Becker. He studied deviance, specifically ‘out groups’, like strippers or dope smokers. Becker found that such groups, like all groups, also follow a set of rules. That’s no surprise.

However, he also pointed out that any social group, whether a ‘deviant’ group or not, tends to become irate with the group it’s meant to be serving. So, jazz musicians start despising their audience. Nurses start to hate their patients. Certainly it appeared from my school days that many teachers hated their students. Do writers start to hate readers?

Writers certainly want praise from readers, but could that desire be tinged with something darker, more difficult to define? It’s quite possible, I think.

Happy Birthday, Big Boy

My beautiful big boy Jacob is eight today. He’s smart and funny and often interesting. This is what happened eight years ago, from my and Greg’s perspective. jacob birthday

The Crumbling Castle

‘You feel this?’

Some guy is down there, fiddling around with my vagina, putting a catheter in. I’ve never met him before. Above his surgical mask, I see only his eyes, blue and watery.

‘It’s cold.’

A hand appears in front of me and there’s a blur of colours. ‘Hey, what do you think?’ The anaesthetist has hauled out a slim volume of photographs from somewhere – perhaps his pocket, his briefcase, or a corner of the operating theatre, kept always at the ready. I’m paralysed and naked from the waist down, yet I treat his photos with great politeness, even feigned interest. ‘She’s cute,’ I tell him. His little girl has curly blonde hair – certainly pretty, like a doll.

‘Here’s another one.’

I suppose he’s bored. He’s done his bit: jackhammered my back with a chemical cocktail, leaving me limp and warm, spread out against the coldness of the steel operating table. Except I don’t feel the cold, just a druggy warmth – a slackness. It’s the morphine. Now he’s thrust a photo of his son in front of my face: the boy is dressed in a Superman outfit, the bright blue cloak flowing behind him. For a moment I’m him – a flying Superman, staring at my white half-naked form, my pale blue hospital gown flapping behind me.

I know they are going to cut me open now. The morphine is strong; it stands guard in my brain, a burly bouncer blocking the fear, letting just the good stuff through – blissful.

‘You’re going to feel some tugging.’

‘My God!’

I don’t panic. I locate the voice, taking my time. It’s Greg.

‘All that stuff is coming out of her.’

I want to tell him that it’s called amniotic fluid, but it’s too much of an effort. I know he has picked up nothing from the antenatal classes. He’s clearly struck by my flooding uterus – I wonder, idly, if he’s disgusted, or whether the thrill of anticipation bites into him knowing he’s about to meet his son for the first time.

The gynaecologist and his assistant play rugby with my belly. They heave it this way and that until finally my ball-shaped uterus releases its treasure. They hold him high.

‘He’s beautiful,’ says Greg, his voice catching.

Then: ‘He’s weeing.’

That’s the story that will be passed down. Jacob, we’ll say, you came out making a wee, or, as he gets older, we might say pissing, a man-sized word. It could be taken to mean anything: he’s comfortable with his body, he has no decorum, he’s free-spirited. The interpretation will come later, when Jacob’s personality is known.

I’m calm, as if it’s a painting or a pot that I’m about to view. In fact, I’m still not convinced that there was a baby in there. If they held up a lovely kelim rug, rich and velvet-red, I’d be pleased and probably not too surprised. These drugs are amazing, I think.

They hold Jacob above the screen and, true enough, it’s a baby. Yet it is just that – a baby. Not specifically my baby, or our baby, but a kind of generic baby. One that has dark hair, and is really tiny. The first discernible feeling that trucks through the morphine – one that isn’t only simple serenity – is pride that the baby doesn’t look like me; his hair is dark like Greg’s. I’ve always coveted dark skin and easy tans, being so pink and pale myself, and now finally here’s a part of me with this capacity. Behind the pride is a sigh of relief: he looks normal, his fingers and toes are all there, and he has what he’s meant to on his face – a nose, a mouth, that kind of thing. Despite the scans, despite the reassurances of the doctor, a part of me had always believed I’d produce something deformed, monstrous.

The morphine chugs cheerily through my intravenous drip; my family and Greg’s come to visit. Every now and again a nurse wheels a baby into my room – the baby is in a transparent crib, heaped high with blankets, even though it’s very hot outside. They attempt to latch the baby onto my breast. Nothing much happens. They wheel him away. I have a cup of tea. Greg’s mother, Arlene, grips my arm and tells me I’m wonderful. I shrug, not agreeing, but not disagreeing either.

‘Yes, it’s a beautiful baby,’ I hear myself say throughout the day.

Time loses its usual rhythm. Many hours seem to go by though it’s still light outside, but then everyone leaves, so I know that night is approaching. I desperately want them to stay. They tell me I need my rest. I ask for pills to help me come down, to sleep. I crave a shield between myself and what has just happened – if it’s not to be people, then chemicals will do.

Suddenly, I’m standing, looking out the window. The scene is like something from a Brontë novel: windswept, desolate, wintery. A howling wind flattens the grass; the sky is black, no moon or stars. In the distance stands a castle, roofless, with stone walls that are crumbling from age or neglect. My drugged-out brain asks something; the question ebbs and flows. I can’t quite catch it, but I know it’s imperative that I find the answer. Slowly, it comes together: Have I had a baby? Now it thumps in my head, over and over. I mightily hope I didn’t have one; I remember being pregnant. Like a deranged accountant, I struggle to reconcile these two entries. It seems ludicrous that I could have had a baby, and yet …

‘Too much anaesthetic,’ says the doctor the next morning. He says it like he would say ‘It’s a sunny day’, bright and upbeat.

‘I was hallucinating. I didn’t know I’d had the baby.’


His interest is more invested in the external, in my caesarean wound, positioned just above my pubic mound and stretching its length, than in my internal flights of fancy.

‘You must have overdosed on the morphine.’

I shift in the stiff clean sheets of the hospital bed, feeling foolish, embarrassed by my desire not to have a baby. My unconscious is clearly too stupid to hide my wishes in something more impenetrable.

It reminds me of the times I’d take a child to my lap when pregnant. I’d hold the little one close and parody being a mother. I’d stroke the infant’s soft hair and say baby-friendly things about animals or colours. It was an act of deception, designed to show myself and others that motherhood came naturally, and that the tremor of disgust, sparked perhaps by a snotty nose or a gummy eye, didn’t exist.

The baby doesn’t care about my hallucinations. How I wish that he didn’t exist. Instead, he craves existence – it pulses through him in the sharp outrage of his piercing cries. Existence requires food, which requires me.

It’s very early in the morning, three or four o’clock; the nurse stands beside my bed like an evil demon there to extract her pound of blood.

‘Baby can’t feed without a proper latch.’

You think I’m doing it on purpose? My nipple, plump and full, taunts the three of us. Impatient, or tired, the nurse has had enough of this masquerade. She grabs my offending body part, letting it rest for a moment between thumb and forefinger before roughly squashing and palpitating it like it’s a lump of Plasticine, into a more appropriate shape. Now she stuffs the nipple back into Jacob’s mouth. He spits it out, not satisfied. For just a moment I feel a spark of empathy: he seems as out of place outside me, in the frightening hospital surroundings, as I feel beside him. His world is as terrifying as mine.

The nurse sighs loudly and tries again, a yanking, twisting motion: again failure. Tired of turning my nipple into a straw, she uses her fingers to milk my breast – it’s agony. The nipples are forced to release their thick yellow colostrum.

‘What are you doing?’

‘It’s late, Mommy, and your baby needs this now.’

Drop by drop, the yellow goo fills a teaspoon. It reaches the rim and she crams it into the baby’s mouth. Not caring about its artificial presentation, he sucks greedily.

With what rationality remains, I come to realise that my mindset is wrong: against my baby’s needs, mine are insignificant. The three-hourly torture – the sharp, agonising pain of breastfeeding – is there to teach me self-sacrifice. My body’s priority is not to look sexy or to get aroused; its only function is to serve my offspring. I’m a disciple of motherhood now.

On 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 (the birth has done nothing to shift the beach ball of my belly).

Hospitals, like schools, like prisons, have a rhythm that is quickly learnt by their inhabitants. Jacob and the catering woman, Brenda, dictate my rhythm – their beat is food. Brenda doesn’t speak, at least not in the conventional sense, using words and sentences. Her communication consists of a list, which she thrusts into my hand: chicken with salad, roasted chicken, chicken sandwich, chicken schnitzel – a common denominator of chicken.

Jacob visits with an equal and regular determination. He is wheeled in periodically, yowling, in his plastic box. Because it’s day two, no one stays to help me.

‘He’s hungry, Mommy,’ says the nurse, and then she’s gone. I hate being called ‘Mommy’. It’s just him and me. His body is terrifying to touch, limp and soft and helpless. I don’t know what to do with him; his mouth slips away when I put him to my breast and his howl quickens alarmingly. My throat tightens. I, too, want to cry.

I ring reception: ‘I need someone immediately. The baby won’t latch.’

There’s a pause, an inward sigh: another rich white woman completely incapable of breastfeeding her child.

‘Don’t worry, Mommy. Someone will come and help you.’

A momentary sense of reassurance; someone will help me. The baby won’t die; they’ll get him to eat. It will be okay.

A tap-tap on the door.

‘Come in.’

It’s Brenda. Above the baby’s cries, her eyes make their habitual request – the list is thrust at me. I’m not hungry; I’ve hardly eaten since the birth, which makes her presence even more superfluous.

‘Can you get some help? Please. I can’t feed the baby.’

I feel desperate. She seems to notice the crying for the first time, but her task supersedes any human suffering.

‘I’ll have a cheese sandwich and a salad. Please call someone …’ I plead to her retreating back.

Jacob’s cry does not sound human to me. It’s more like a small, desperate animal clawing to life. It creates the most intense feeling of anxiety I have ever known. Months later, I’ll read about the relationship between the release of anxiety hormones and a baby’s cry. Right now it feels like a giant hand is squeezing my belly, releasing toxic acid that rises to my throat.

Another knock and a big, bulky woman enters. She cranks up my bed with a lever.

‘Support his head with your right hand and bring him cross-length to your body.’

I’m a useless dancer and this feels like a dance: Jacob is my partner and I’m meant to lead.

‘Perhaps the football grip would work better for you.’

The football grip! Male words in this most womanly of pursuits stress the craziness of this new world I’m in. She tucks the baby to my side as though I’m about to run for touch with Jacob bobbing beside me. It’s no better: he howls desperately. She does the twisting thing with my nipple again (later, a black bruise spreads outwards from those heavy fingers; it takes days to disappear) and Jacob finally latches. His anxiety diminishes instantly; his tiny cheeks inflate and deflate.

With the baby latched, my attention shifts to the door, which appears to be edging open. A tray makes its way in, behind which stands Brenda. She deposits her offerings by my bed: a piece of roasted chicken and some potatoes. No cheese sandwich.

I say nothing; it seems fitting. Each time Brenda appears she presents a meal, always including chicken, not of my choosing. Sometimes it’s tasty, sometimes it’s not. In my freaked-out mind, I wonder if the chicken lady has been sent to teach me a life lesson. You thought you wanted a cheese sandwich, or a baby, but actually you don’t know what you want. Here’s what you’re getting, now make the best of it – and while you’re at it, surrender yourself to something larger out there that isn’t about you or your comfort. I eat what she gives me and don’t complain. I’m learning to be a mother, I think, as I persevere through some soggy bread pudding or a meagre square of salad that tastes of crunch and water.

I visit Jacob in the nursery because I remember being told that I must watch how they bath and change him. My back has collapsed under the strain of the additional twenty kilograms I carried in the last few weeks of pregnancy, the ligaments and tendons stretched paper-thin. I hug the walls as I limp through the hospital, unable to walk without support. People look at me in a vaguely interested way – like what the hell’s wrong with her? – until their features settle into a bland, compassionate stare. In the nursery I’m not sure which baby is Jacob; luckily, they all come with labels. I try not to make it obvious that I’m reading them. I watch as he is bathed, which seems so arduous a process for no clear upside. His pink little body is scrubbed clean – of what? I wonder.

And then it is time to leave.

I’m still unable to breastfeed, but this doesn’t seem to worry the nursing staff. Nobody, in truth, seems to notice. I request a flask of formula. They keep forgetting to make it up for me. Even asking for the stuff seems tantamount to killing the baby slowly. Breast is best; it’s been hammered into me. Breastfeeding is natural: ‘I loved it,’ says my mother, whose memory of it dates back a third of a century. I have no idea how to make up the thin, pale liquid I finally extract from the nurses. All I know about feeding the baby I’ve learnt from the antenatal teacher: ‘Take the baby,’ she whined, holding up a plastic doll whose head she had twisted backwards (it stared at us, unblinking, with its inscrutable face), ‘then take your breast.’ She pinched hers for those of us unsure of its whereabouts. ‘Tjoeps.’ As she said it, plastic baby and breast met, a forever-happy union.

Clutching the still-warm poison food, I hobble out the ward and down to the parking lot. Greg’s there – and Jacob. There’s also a nurse, Winnie, who has carried the baby to the car and is now meant to strap him in. She has no idea how to place the baby in the car seat. Surely she’s done this a hundred times before? Greg’s sweating, like he did at our wedding, and Winnie’s fat presence is not comforting. Jacob responds with his single solution to life’s problems: a plaintive, shrill bleat. It does nothing to reduce our sense of utter helplessness.

Eventually we drive off. A feeling of dread cloaks itself around me – perhaps Jacob too. My life as I know it is over.

Cut the Cord

It’s five in the morning and I’m wheeling Lisa’s blue suitcase through the empty hospital lobby. The wheels of the suitcase go tlicket between each tile. On the left we pass a cafeteria with a display of chocolates on the counter and You magazines stuffed into a wire rack. A cleaner sits at one of the tables, eating a packet of orange Chipniks, her mop thrust into the bucket of grey water next to her chair.

When we get to room fourteen, a dormitory with no one else in it, I take a picture of Lisa lying in her bed. A blanket covers her gigantic bump. Soon the sun will rise; now she stares ahead, frightened into silence. In a distant, toneless way she says that they are going to cut her open. A fat, smiling nurse comes to take some information, and slowly records it on her pad with a stubby pencil, an act punctuated by my repeated thanks. Then Lisa turns to me. ‘I’m scared of what I’ve made. I’m so slapdash. It’s ridiculous to think I can make a baby. What if he’s blind?’

So far I have avoided thinking about our lives after the birth, and I’m not prepared to consider whatever features the baby might or might not have. ‘He’s not blind,’ I say firmly.

‘How do you know?’ she asks. I sit next to the looming Lisa mountain, speechless. It occurs to me that I will have to give a lecture on fictional characters to my philosophy class tomorrow, and I wonder what I will say. I take out a notebook and begin to write, but I feel too distracted to think about philosophy as Lisa lies in misery, so I sit quietly with my notebook in my hand.

A male nurse comes to wheel her in. I give him a toothy smile. Why am I being so wheedling? Maybe I’m embarrassed by my giant wife, as if she’s done something stupid and I need some goodwill to fix things up.

I walk along the passage next to her trolley, and then she is pushed into the operating room while I am led into the changing room. A cheerful doctor gives me two rosy shoe coverings that look like Lisa’s shower caps, and a thin pink raincoat. Standing there dressed like a big salmon, I miss her terribly. Why am I in a locker room while she is being prepared for slicing? I feel a nausea of desperation, but when I look at the doctor I am silent. My fear of institutions conquers me. He leads me into the operating theatre, and there is Lisa sitting at the edge of the bed, surrounded by her gynaecologist, who greets me in his keen, boyish way (‘Good to see you again on this special day!’), the anaesthetist and a nurse.

I bustle over to Lisa in my rosy shower-cap shoes. I hold her hands with a dizzy wash of love and dearness and need. ‘I’m here for you,’ I say, but I am clinging on for dear life myself.

‘Ag, nothing to worry about,’ says the anaesthetist. He is wearing a martial-arts sweatband with a motif of cartoon turtles. The pattern goes all around the sweatband. No matter where he turns, some turtles are always visible.

‘I’m going to dope you up,’ he says to Lisa, touching her upper arm. I feel a sad tenderness for her. She seems alone among all these steely cutters, nattily dressed under their coats, and while the rest of them will finish their operations and then have lunch, my poor wife is going to be scissored and bleeding. As for the baby, I don’t want to think about it. All my worries are for Lisa, and there is nothing left to spare.

The Ninja Turtle anaesthetist puts up a screen, with Lisa and me on one side and her belly on the other. For a few moments we are secluded, my wife and I. We are both the youngest in our families. As toddlers we each sat under the table at mealtimes, warm and safe with a forest of legs around us. Now we lace our fingers together, with a screen for shelter.

There are vigorous movements behind the screen.

‘We can see the head! Take a look, now, Dad,’ says our gynaecologist heartily, ‘if you want to see him coming out.’

I rise. I see a knife, and a great gush of red fluid pours over all the sheets. ‘Dear God,’ I say. Then the gynaecologist’s hands pull out a bloody baby with black hair and closed eyes.

‘What does he look like?’ says Lisa. Although her voice is weak, I can’t believe she is talking at all after this enormous thing has been taken out.

‘He’s beautiful,’ I say, and I am crying. ‘He’s beautiful.’ The baby pees, his tiny penis sending a fine, clear stream straight into the air. The doctor holds him over Lisa.

‘He’s beautiful,’ she says too, in a voice like someone calling out from miles away.

‘Do you want to cut the cord?’ asks the gynaecologist. The baby is carried over to a side table, where he pees again. They hand me a pair of scissors, and I make for the gleaming blue-white cord snaking out of the baby’s stomach. I am about to snip when the doctor says, ‘Just a sec,’ and puts a clip over the cord on the baby’s navel. I’ve nearly killed him, I think, and he’s just one minute old. I imagine cutting that cord before the clip goes on, and a hose of fluids juddering out of my child. I cut. Snip, two snips, and it is done. With my scissors I make him ours. Then the baby is taken away and I am left with Lisa.

‘How do you feel?’ I ask.

‘Good,’ she says. I wonder whether everything will be fine after all, and if having a baby isn’t, in fact, quite simple.

Already the baby is back, now in a plastic box on wheels, ready for his trip to the nursery. ‘You’ll need to provide a nappy for him,’ says a nurse.

‘But didn’t you give us nappies when we signed in?’ I ask wildly.


‘Where do I get them?’

‘The pharmacy.’

Running to the hospital dispensary, I pass my parents and my parents-in-law. ‘He’s beautiful,’ I shout. My mother manages to kiss me as I run past. At the pharmacy, the computer system has frozen, and the clerk and I spend half a minute staring at a throbbing cursor on the screen.

‘I’ll pay later,’ I say, and hump a bag of one hundred nappies up to the nursery. A nurse tells me that she must measure the baby, who is still in his plastic box, now with his eyes open and confused to the depths of his being. I press my finger on the top of his box. His hand reaches blindly towards my finger. It is heart-rending.

The nurse is the same genial round person with the stubby pencil we encountered before the birth. She begins some futile task – moving a file, I think, from one cabinet to another – while my baby lies, alone in the world and stuck in a plastic box.

‘Sister,’ I say. ‘Sister, I want to hold him.’ I have been taught to say this by the midwife in her antenatal classes. I may not have listened much during those classes; I may have dozed off a lot, but I do recall her insistence that we shouldn’t let the nurses push us around. The baby has to go on the father’s chest straight after birth to experience the warmth and the heartbeat, and now I am letting the nurse stall me. I become frantic and outraged. No more wheedling.

‘Nurse,’ I finally say, as she is telling me that she needs to weigh the baby, ‘I want to hold him, on my chest, now.’ She looks into my mad eyes, opens the box and gives him to me. I unbutton my shirt and open his blanket so that we are skin to skin. Holding my baby is heavenly. His eyes are closed, and he lies damp and warm on me. I drowse into a kind of sleep, a primal swoon where it is just him and me.

After a timeless period of drifting along with my son, a woman comes up and asks if I am mister something-or-other. I say yes. She sits down on a chair opposite me and gently says, ‘We have the results from your son’s test. There seems to be a hearing deficiency.’ She looks at me kindly.

I stare at her with bovine astonishment.

‘Hey?’ I ask. She begins to say her piece again, this time more slowly.

‘My son has just been born,’ I say.

‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Wrong one,’ and she leaves.

Jacob and I continue, drifting unperturbed through space together in the corner of the nursery. I wonder briefly where Lisa is. I’m sure she is somewhere in the hospital, and that seems good enough. Then I notice a machine on the mantelpiece near my head. I watch it as Jacob lies on my chest. It appears to be a clot of iron tubes and glass pipes. A nurse passes. I ask her about it.

‘It’s old – we don’t use it any more,’ she says.

‘What’s it for?’


The ancient breast pump begins intruding on my idyll with my son. It is too rigid to be placed near our warm, fleshy union. So I begin getting bored and uncomfortable, and after a while I ask the nurse to put the baby back in his box. Then I go to find Lisa.

Both families are gathered. My mother is talking to Lisa, bent over her great round body. Nothing seems to have changed; her belly looks as if she will keep having kids, rabbit-like, for a while. My father sits on a chair next to them, looking uneasy. Taking up most of the space in the room are the Lazaruses, my wife’s family, who have opened up Lisa’s gifts and are unwrapping her chocolates, chewing from the fruit basket and telling jokes. I jump up: I have suddenly remembered, as I look at my wife, that the first thing she wanted to eat after giving birth was sushi. She couldn’t have it during her pregnancy in case she poisoned the baby. So I leave the hospital and drive off for food.

At Woolworths, roaming the shelves – where is the sushi? – and buying other snacks as I go, I encounter a breezy colleague from my first and most disastrous job in information technology, when I lived in a flat in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, growing fat with misery and loneliness until I came home to Cape Town. I haven’t seen him in a few years. As I approach he jiggles his cellphone to show that he is on a call. Strangely, I feel obliged to wait by his side until he has finished. Then he asks how things are going. I reply that I am very well; my wife has given birth this morning. This seems implausible, something I’ve made up in the middle of the pasta aisle at Woolies.

‘That’s great,’ he says.


Then he says, ‘So what’s going on otherwise?’

I say goodbye and go back to the hospital. ‘Well done,’ says my father, sitting nervously on his chair but wishing to show his support for me when I arrive with my bag of goodies for Lisa, most of which – apart from the sushi – I eat.

That night I go home. I have to get some sleep before my lecture the next morning. In fact, I still have to prepare my lecture. Our two dogs are roaming the garden, restless without their dinner. I pour pellets and mash some chicken jelly into two bowls, then sit in the lounge, looking at the wooden floor. The schnauzer pads in, licking her lips. Before I go to bed I sit with her on my lap, thinking nothing. My hand strokes her grey-and-white hair again and again, strumming at her softly.

I have swirling, smudgy dreams. At three thirty the next morning I wake up to prepare my lecture. I read with total focus, my mind narrow and sharp. By seven I am exhausted. I call the hospital to speak to Lisa. She picks up the phone next to her hospital bed and slurs into it. It sounds like, ‘I can’t move the bed.’ Then I hear a clunk; I picture the phone falling from her hands and dangling.

‘Lisa, Lisa!’ I shout, but there is no time to worry. I have to drive to university. At eight I stumble down the steps of the lecture theatre to the blackboard, thinking how I must look: blue shirt, untidily tucked into my pants; an uncombed thicket of hair with a bald patch in the middle. I spread out my overhead projector sheets on the lectern. The black words printed on them look spiderish and alien.

‘Sorry if I’m a little spaced out,’ I say to the class. ‘My son was born yesterday.’ I start lecturing with the feeling of abruptness I always have, a jerk from a fluorescent room into an abstract world. Soon I am warmed by my philosophical lullaby about fictional characters.

‘What sort of thing is Sherlock Holmes?’ I say. ‘Not a fleshy creature like you or me, clearly. But not nothing either, because we can say many things about Holmes – that he lives in London, for instance.’

‘No he doesn’t,’ says a clever boy in the front. ‘You can go to London, but you won’t find him.’

‘He lives in a fictional London,’ says his girlfriend, who is sitting next to him.

I take refuge in the ensuing discussion of how, exactly, Sherlock Holmes exists. The jangling events of the previous day recede slightly.

But after my lecture, I drive to the hospital and run into Lisa’s ward, feeling panicky. I find her looking desperate and pathetic in her gown, sitting on a chair. A nurse is sitting on the other chair, speaking harshly.

‘We didn’t give you too much anaesthetic,’ says the nurse. ‘We gave you exactly what Doctor said.’

‘Hello,’ I say, with as much authority as I can, hoping that my word will bring order to this miserable scene.

‘She’s accused us of giving her too much anaesthetic,’ says the nurse. Lisa looks at me, clearly scarcely able to think.

‘Can’t you see she’s confused?’ I say. This nurse is treating Lisa callously because there is no one to stop her. ‘Thank you, Sister,’ I say. ‘I’m here now.’ The nurse leaves and I’m alone with my bewildered love. I crouch next to her and stroke her hand. She looks at me, frightened, and says how sore she is.

‘Where?’ I ask, expecting that her poor sliced abdomen will be on fire.

‘My ankles,’ she says. Ankles? And before I can say anything else, she looks at me with her head cocked and asks, ‘Are you real?’

I try to prove I am real by stroking her hair. I can see that she isn’t convinced. For a few minutes we say nothing and I stay crouched with my hand on her arm. Then the baby is wheeled in.

‘Time to feed your son, Mom,’ says a nurse, and plunks the baby onto Lisa’s lap. The two of them struggle to clamp the infant’s mouth onto the breast. The baby reddens and squawks. The nurse bunches Lisa’s breast and pinches her nipple, and my wife groans.

The rest is crap

The other day I took myself out to breakfast. To Cassis. Very nice. The tables are too close together and you can hear everyone else’s conversation but that, of course, is part of its Parisian charm. The coffee is good, too. Besides eavesdropping and drinking good coffee (a pair of activities that are made for each other), I was struck, again, because it’s not a new insight – though that won’t stop me repeating it – by the fact that almost everyone there was engrossed in a cell zombiephone. They were tap tapping away like zombies. Myself included. Nobody reads books anymore.

Yet everyone has a story to tell.

Apparently, every five minutes a new book gets loaded onto Amazon. Of course, mostly, these books are never bought or read; they’ll be lucky to score a couple of sales. Authors are both prolific and redundant. Like Hello Kitty stickers. Granted, there may be scores of Japanese who wouldn’t agree with me about the HK stickers.

Chuck Palahniuk, in his book Stranger than Fiction: True Stories, lists five reasons for this “explosion” in the desire to tell one’s story. He comes up with these factors after attending the world’s most depressing writers’ conference, where people try to pitch their new screenplay or book idea. Participants have seven minutes in which to do this. I thought: seven minutes!? These days, you need to be able to pitch your entire story in about five words, the so-called ‘elevator pitch’, in order to attract anyone’s attention, so seven minutes sounds like forever.

Anyway, here are his reasons for the explosion in the desire to tell one’s story:

“Free time
And disgust.”

The first four are pretty obvious. We have more free time, technology makes publication simpler, we have more material because we live longer and we are supposedly more educated. But disgust? He says: “Disgust. Except for maybe six movies at the video store, the rest is crap. And most books, it’s the same. Crap. We could do better. We know all the basic plots… Instead of wasting more time and money on another crappy book or movie, how about you take a stab at doing the job? I mean, why not?”

But I think people are losing the plot. No point writing a book. Nobody reads. Ideally, you need to break down your story into a status update, a tweet or a free game. That way you’re sure to find an audience.

Interview – Good Book Appreciation Society

Here’s an interview we did with the Good Book Appreciation Society in real time over one hour. There were two of us, one computer – and two screaming children running around the house. We squabbled, held kids on our lap and fought for possession of the laptop. Lots of fun, although sometimes we miss a question or a get a bit confused – and sometimes other people chime in. We were interviewed by esteemed SA author Steven Boykey Sidley.

Steven Sidley: I had thought to ask each of you questions separately, but that started to seem dumb, so unless I address a specific question to one of you, I will let you fight it out, or both feel fee to answer. OK?

Greg Lazarus Sounds great, Boykey. We’re always up for a fight.

‪Steven Sidley Before I talk about the book, this is for Greg, mano a mano – I have got to get to the bottom of this – Kate and I started a play about 2 years and were basically nearly divorced after 2 pages. We finally got it together this year, but only by carefully separating writing tasks and swallowing great gobs of pride and biting our tongues. Who does what in your books and why are you not divorced yet?

Greg Lazarus We are already arguing and have just swapped chairs so hang on…

Greg: We take turns writing sections, and then pass the evolving draft back and forth millions of times. Divorce – I hadn’t thought of that. It would certainly be good publicity. I didn’t think I had that option.

‪Steven Sidley Threats are always good – like – whadddya mean that joke is not funny? I divorce you I divorce you I divorce you

‪Greg Lazarus Actually, writing is the one area we don’t fight about, for some reason. It’s our respite from marital combat.

‪Steven Sidley If my questions seem long, it is not because I am a fast typist – I was very diligent, and prepared them before. Here goes – stand by

Greg Lazarus Though we have noticed that our books seem to be about conflict and the struggle for power, among other things.

‪Steven Sidley Now I have to tell you that I thought that the book was funny and clever and tightly plotted and the characters were salty and unusual and I cared what happened to them, including the thief. This is not a question really, just a compliment

Greg Lazarus Coming from you, Boykey, we really appreciate the compliment. Though actually we appreciate all compliments.

‪Steven Sidley So the first thing that struck me about this book was the Maltese Falcon – a dangerous quest to acquire object of value. But then it spun off into multiple overlapping plot lines – a sweet, slightly overweight protag with a collapsing life, a dysfunctional family far away from the action (in Amsterdam), a lesbian affair, the re-appearance of an unknown daughter subplot, the world of judo, an animal rights subplot, and a most surprising and riveting underpin in the form of letters written in 1793 that interweaves with the current Cape Town main plot. All of this sounds complicated, but it all fits perfectly together in a sort of joyous tapestry. Did you guys do acid before working out the plot? Or did you sit together for 6 months and gingerly connect all the pieces? Or did it unravel itself under your pens?

‪Corinna Beamish I am busy working, so will post my first [!] question here now, if you don’t mind – or I might forget it! I am intrigued by people who write a book in conjunction with someone else. I have participated in Round Robin writing where one either pairs off and writes to and fro with someone else or in a larger group. It produced some weird stories and scenarios. I am interested to hear each of your thoughts on what working as a team brings to the books you write?

Greg Lazarus ‪Steven, we had certain obsessions we wanted to work out. For example, what to do about midlife sense of failure, the outrageous treatment of animals, sex and slavery in the eighteenth century Cape…and they sort of came together in the book, because in our minds they were also running together. We also worked hard on the characters – it was important to us that they felt real and that readers would care about them.

‪Steven Sidley So you plotted it all out first? Like covering one of the whole walls from the detective shows with themes and names and arrows?

‪Greg Lazarus ‪Corinna, working as a team helps us to produce a varied group of characters and voices. But we do need to work hard on plot and coherence. Over time we begin to inhabit the same imaginary world – and then it flies. But before that, it’s a slog. Like dealing with that pushmi-pullyu in Dr Doolittle.

Greg Lazarus ‪Steven, one day we may be that organised. But actually we often had quite vague ideas and just moved forward to see what would happen. One writer compared this process to driving through the fog in a car. You can only see a little way forward in the headlights, but you can take a long journey that way. And then there are the many, many revisions after the first draft.

‪Steven Sidley Somebody asked me what the book was about, so I said – it is about this sweet middle aged unambitious guy about to get fired from a job he hates and then he finds out that he has a judo-loving animals rights activist daughter that he doesn’t know about and meanwhile there is the Dutch lady who had a criminal father who she loves, who gets sent to CT to steal….and also there is this old hippie who owns a building ….but in the end it is a book about… (you get to fill in the blank here – imaging you are doing a high concept pitch)

Greg Lazarus A book about…deciding what’s worth fighting for, and finding the courage to do it.

‪Steven Sidley Perfect. As a reader, that’s what I got. Note to readers – the book is filled with outrageous scene after outrageous scene. I completely loved the very small vignette of a socialist coffee shop with the irritable waitress, I laughed out loud at the utterly absurd first meeting of Hersch and Surita. The hospital scene. The spiritual insurance fraudster Twersky and his homilies. The chicken battery break-in. It reminded me of early Tarantino films, in which every scene was its own gem. Did you think film when you wrote this?

Greg Lazarus We’ve just done another chair swap so hang on…

I don’t think we thought film – we don’t watch many films. They are too long for our attention span and our shortened nights (we’ve got two small and restless children). However, we watch a lot of tv and have definitely been influenced by the American series in this golden age – Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, etc. Also, we were influenced by our extended families and memories of childhood. Someone once said that a writer is someone who looks back on childhood and thinks ‘What the hell was that?’

‪Steven Sidley HBO TV you mention series are (for Kate and I) like the second coming, I agree. Talk to me about the judo (note to reader – the protag’s daugher is into judo at the highest levels). I learned a great deal about judo. WHo does judo? Lisa or Greg? One of you has to do judo, because it was too authentic to have been paper researched. And I have to know who in order to know who not to piss off.

Greg Lazarus  Greg does judo. For several years, and very badly. He always finds it exhausting. And the two of us are about to try a class in wielding a broadsword. Greg says he always expected to marry a woman adept with a medieval weapon. warrior

Greg has his judo classes at home, in the lounge. His screams and heavy falls disturb the toddler, who comes rushing to Lisa for reassurance.

‪Steven Sidley Wielding a broadsword?????? Sounds like some weird sexual perversion. Greg and Lisa – (note to reader- this writing team is a Philosophy academic (Greg) and Pyschologist (Lisa)). The characters are all complex, and all somewhat psychologically damaged (like the rest of us), and many of them sprout all manner of philosophical comment, sometimes deeply buried in dialogue. Tell me about the effect of your other careers on your writing and your characters.

There will be some interesting future therapy sessions for Joshua. ‘ my Dad just used to fall down and scream a lot’

Greg Lazarus  Lisa’s career has been terrific for writing. Psychology makes you attuned to people’s quirks, and happy to accept a gap between what they say and what they are. Philosophy…well, Greg feels he has to shrug off his philosophy manner when we writes, because philosophy emphasises highly explicit, didactic, unambiguous writing which can make for dreadful fiction. There aren’t many philosopher-fiction writers – though Iris Murdoch was a great exception, and one of Greg’s heroes. 

Broadswords, Steven – you must try a class with Kate. Nothing like a long steel blade for getting marital tensions truly out into the open.

‪Steven Sidley Ha ha, Long steel blade, the mind boggles with….never mind. I have 2 psychologists in 3 books – best device to probe a character. Anyway… I found the 1793 letters fascinating. The book would have worked without them, but for me they added considerable depth because they were so contra-genre, and left me wanting to know more. How did this all come about, and did you both do special research about the slave trade for this book (even though it is a very small part of the book)? (And perhaps a book about the 1793 characters sometime in the future?)

Greg Lazarus Basically, our books will be helpful for both our children one day. No need to spend years getting their therapists up to date. They can just come into the first session and hand over the stack.

Yeah, therapists make for great fictional characters. For one thing, one thinks of them potentially as magicians, demons, charlatans. The Menno strand from 1793 began life as a short story and was then significantly changed for melding into the novel. We read a lot of letters from the late eighteenth century. It’s highly entertaining to read about Europeans complaining about the laziness, complacency and illiteracy of people at the Cape, but acknowledging that they’re good horsemen. Nothing has changed. The language of our letters was an interesting challenge: we wanted something flashier, more modern than you’d really see in the eighteenth century. So we made Menno quite an unusually driven and unconventional young man.

Sorry that took a while. We began to fight again.

‪Steven Sidley Those letters are fabulous – request from interviewer – more from Menno please, I was completely riveted. I wanted to read the first sex scene between Menno and his object of desire, but alas. OK- now the writing relationship. Greg and Lisa, when you are busy on a book do you talk about anything else? Like – ‘how was you day, sweetheart’ or ‘we need to get the car serviced’ or ‘OMG we forgot Paige Nick’s birthday’? Do you run dialogue with each other?

Greg Lazarus We’d also like to hear more from Menno. We sometimes get fond of our characters and put them in again. Tversky first appeared in our previous novel, When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, and we felt we needed more advice from the old rogue, so he went into Paradise too. When we are busy on a book, what do we talk about? Well. ‘The little one needs another nappy change.’ ‘God, I’m exhausted.’ ‘I’ve had a day beyond. Just beyond.’ ‘I’ve been up since three this morning.’ ‘Where are your five hundred words?’ ‘I just can’t anymore.’ And so the books get written. Someone once said to us, ‘Wow – a psychologist and a philosopher who write fiction! How fascinating your conversations must be!’ No.

‪Steven Sidley Ha. Who is more sensitive to criticism? I bet it is Greg. When Kate criticised my dialogue I wrote off for a brochure from the Thai mail-order bride company and sulked for a month.

Greg Lazarus Is that brochure online?

‪Steven Sidley And now the great unanswerable question. Why do we do this? Why do you do this? Why do you write novels? After all, you have other careers. In which there is real respect and money and little chance of humiliation and despair. Unlike writing novels

Greg Lazarus We don’t criticise each other at all in the first draft. We try to let it flow freely. As the drafts go on, we become more and more critical. By the end, we are incredibly harsh and cutting with each other. But by then, it doesn’t feel like one person’s work – it’s the work of that corporate entity Greg Lazarus. As for external criticism, harsh reviews cut to our soul like sulphuric acid. We have a list.

‪Steven Sidley Oh, the list. I have a list too. I bet it is the same people. I imagine exquisite tortures, fantasise public humiliations. Great characters in this book. Greg – are you anything like Hersch? I have met Lisa, but I don’t think I have met you. Are you a large, well muscled, slightly overweight, quite good looking, ex-surfer, once worked in real estate, flunked out of Accounting sort of guy?

Greg Lazarus What else are we going to do with our time? While we complain about how hard and thankless it is to write novels – and yes, somehow endlessly humiliating! – we also never feel that we are wasting our time. It’s something that fulfils us, and we hope that some readers will be absorbed or satisfied. We’ve both always loved reading fiction, and so writing fiction feels like we’re bringing something to the party. Also, we love hanging out with writers. An amusing, debauched bunch, with the acuity of psychologists but not the moral compass.

‪Steven Sidley Hanging out with writers – a joy indeed. We are near the end of the interview, so I have to get this in – Another Greg Lazarus book in the works? Anybody secretly thinking of going solo? (you may lie when you answer this).

(note to self – steal the Lisa idea for a book about a psychologist without a moral compass)

Penny De Vries: I am halfway through this book so think I’ll read the interview later. Enjoying it immensely

Greg Lazarus Thank you Penny. We cherish compliments! Our last one was from someone who said that Broad Daylight was the greatest book ever written, surpassing even Somerset Maugham in its style. We thought: finally, a discerning critic. Only to discover, on looking him up, that he was writing from a mental institution. In this field, you take what you get and you don’t get upset, as our children’s teachers tell them.

‪Steven Sidley Once again team – bravo. Look forward to breaking bread with you if anybody ever invites us to CT again.

Greg Lazarus Yes, another Greg Lazarus book in the works. This one will definitely feature a broadsword. More than that, we’re still arguing.

And thank you so much, Steven, for your excellent and stimulating questions. It’s an honour to be interviewed by such an accomplished writer.

Bea Reader Massive thanks to Steven Sidley for driving this conversation of many voices with such ease and characteristic lightness of touch. Click here to check out Steven Sidley’s latest novel, Imperfect Solo.


    Shop for Imperfect Solo online and with, South Africa’s most trusted online shopping destination.
  • Bea Reader And thanks to Greg and Lisa for sharing a chair so elegantly. For more information on Paradise, click here:

    Buy Paradise online. A world of safe, secure shopping from SA’s most trusted store online,
    To read the rest of this interview join The Good Book Appreciation Society by friending Bea Reader on Facebook, or emailing

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.

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) – – 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.