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.
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
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_48448181Buy 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.