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.http://www.kalahari.com/Books/Imperfect-Solo_p_48079288

  • www.kalahari.com

    Shop for Imperfect Solo online and with Kalahari.com, 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:http://www.kalahari.com/Books/Paradise_p_48448181

    www.kalahari.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Paradise Book Launch, written by Liesl Jobson

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

 

Book Launch

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

book lounge launch

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

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

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

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

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

damon galgut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Baby

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

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

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

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

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

This excerpt from The Book of Jacob seems apt:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

paradise book

Paradise by Greg Lazarus

Excerpt from Paradise, coming out in May

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

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

Paradise cover small

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

“You said no?”

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