Real fiction: The revival of the Franschhoek Literary Festival

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Jeffrey Archer and John Maytham (photo: Karina Szczurek)

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The mystery remains unsolved. Even after 300 million books sold, when he is writing the next one, Jeffrey Archer, at the age of 82, still works eight hours a day and reworks his novels with up to 14 drafts until he is content to have hit the sweet spot that will satisfy his readers. The sales numbers don’t lie. He seems to get it right every time. He could have already rested on his laurels after the seven-digit advance he received for Kane and Abel in the late 1970s. The earnings from this title alone could have kept him going comfortably for the rest of his life. But he did not stop. What drives him?
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The mystery remains unsolved. Even after 300 million books sold, when he is writing the next one, Jeffrey Archer, at the age of 82, still works eight hours a day and reworks his novels with up to 14 drafts until he is content to have hit the sweet spot that will satisfy his readers. The sales numbers don’t lie. He seems to get it right every time. He could have already rested on his laurels after the seven-digit advance he received for Kane and Abel in the late 1970s. The earnings from this title alone could have kept him going comfortably for the rest of his life. But he did not stop. What drives him?

Archer’s was one of many famous names featuring on the star-studded programme of the revived Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) which took place last weekend – the first one since 2019. Archer still appeared virtually, streaming live from his Majorcan villa called Writer’s Block. But most of the festival’s events were in-person – masks, vaccination certificates, negative PCR tests, limited capacity and all. “How wonderful it is not to be on Zoom,” Deon Meyer said in one of his sessions. Everyone present agreed! Other international guests who joined virtually included Charlie Mackesy, author of the beloved sensation The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse, one of the most cherished books published in this century, and the award-winning British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, whose work has been translated into more than 50 languages. But Zimbabwean novelist, playwright and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose most recent novel, This mournable body, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, and the American author and journalist of We need to talk about Kevin fame, Lionel Shriver, made it to Franschhoek (albeit not without difficulties – because of a passport technicality, Shriver had to be rescued from airport detention).

A home-grown literary festival would be nothing without our own stars illuminating the Franschhoek firmament, and the programme also delivered in this respect. Benny Griessel fans can rest assured that Deon Meyer is not thinking of any fatal exits for South Africa’s most cherished fictional detective: “My readers are now in control,” he said. “Their attachment to Benny influences what happens to him in the story. However,” the author warned, “we are all in the service of The Story.” (It sounded as if the words were spoken in capitals.) Meyer was interviewed by local activist and publishing powerhouse Jackie Phamotse (her Bare novels are selling like hotcakes) and crime-writing colleague Andrew Brown, whose most recent The heist men was delayed by the lockdown, but is now finally out for readers to enjoy.

Our long-time favourites – among them Zakes Mda, Marita van der Vyver, Damon Galgut, Fred Khumalo, Finuala Dowling, Sindiwe Magona and Mandla Langa – returned to the valley to talk about their incredible achievements. They were accompanied by stars in the making – Mohale Mashigo, Qarnita Loxton, Karen Jennings, Bongani Kona, Mia Arderne, Sue Nyathi and Yewande Omotoso, to name only a few – who all allowed us to wallow in the vibrancy and future promise of the contemporary local literary scene.

Mohale Mashigo, Qarnita Loxton, Mia Arderne and Alistair Mackay (photo: Karina Szczurek)

In one of the first sessions of the festival, Máire Fisher was interviewing Daisy Jones and Lucinda Hooley about their delightful epistolary novel, Love you madly. Opening the conversation, Fisher asked for applause just to congratulate everyone for having somehow made it back to the FLF. I saw Jones and Hooley after their event, and they glowed with joy in the late morning sunshine. Most of us strolled around Franschhoek in a state of relieved wonder. I had visited a few times during the lockdown, when the touristy place had turned into a ghost town, so it was simply wonderful to see it thriving with visitors again – world-class cuisine and wines, views and tourist attractions to live for.

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Other people do not walk around with fictional characters and stories occupying the majority of their headspace. Writers do. Tuned into alternative realities, often the most intimate relationships they have are with their Muses. As readers, we are fascinated by them and the beauty, perception, solace and entertainment they can offer through their stories. We attend literary festivals to rub shoulders with these strange creatures and to discover what inspires them, what makes them tick.
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Other people do not walk around with fictional characters and stories occupying the majority of their headspace. Writers do. Tuned into alternative realities, often the most intimate relationships they have are with their Muses. As readers, we are fascinated by them and the beauty, perception, solace and entertainment they can offer through their stories. We attend literary festivals to rub shoulders with these strange creatures and to discover what inspires them, what makes them tick. Through them and the stories we have in common, we find ourselves. As someone in the audience said to Finuala Dowling: “Thank you for sharing the story of the creation of this book.” The man was talking about her latest novel, The man who loved crocodile tamers.

Interviewing Dowling, John Maytham proclaimed her work his “best read of the year”. While writing the story based on her father’s life, Dowling saw herself as a chef “with only a few ingredients in her kitchen: memory, research, imagination”, making “a meal with them and the pantry staples”. Her pantry staples include some of the most beautiful prose ever written in South Africa, and a sensitivity and insight into the writing process that few can match. Her fiction and poetry are delicious literary feasts. “When fiction comes to you and it comes fully, it is so real,” she said. Apart from being a brilliant story, her novel is a remarkable meditation not only on biographical fiction, but writing in general. And often, the occupation can be relentless. “I wanted to show my readers how hard it is to be a writer,” Dowling said of her fictional alter ego in The man who loved crocodile tamers. “A sense of failure looms at every moment” – a sentiment that even Jeffrey Archer can relate to: “I don’t think any writer is ever confident about their latest book until it is published.” So, why write? “I wouldn’t be writing at 82, if I didn’t love every moment of it. … The day I no longer enjoy it, I will stop.” (Or when his novels no longer average 4,5 stars in readers’ reviews, he said.)

Karina Szczurek, left and Karen Jennings, Karina Szczurek and Bongani Kona, right (pictures provided by Karina Sczcurek)

I humbly admit that I have never read any of Archer’s bestsellers, but after listening to him talk about his creative life, I might. What convinced me most was the generosity with which he spoke about other writers and his passion for words.

Listening to SJ Naudé – who described himself as “an activist for short fiction” – talk to Michiel Heyns about his craft and latest collection, Mad honey, I felt at home. Heyns referred to Naudé’s work as “visionary realism”, a kind of expansion of the consciousness of the story – not realism, not magic realism, but a form in its own right. The two writers made us reflect and they made us laugh, and it was impossible not to feel encouraged by the respect they showed for each other’s work.

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It was the kind of appreciation that was heartening to observe among authors throughout the festival. (The good ones are always great readers!)
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It was the kind of appreciation that was heartening to observe among authors throughout the festival. (The good ones are always great readers!) Whether it was Jeffrey Archer talking about Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and Stefan Zweig; Deon Meyer about Michael Connelly and Dan Sleigh (“one of my heroes”, he said); Fred Khumalo about Mandla Langa; Lionel Shriver about Lawrence Osborne; or Mohale Mashigo about Alistair Mackay (“you will become an eco-warrior when you read his It doesn’t have to be this way”) – the admiration was palpable.

“As the autumn light filters through the stained glass window of the church, Malika Ndlovu begins to sing: Take your time, take your time …. At first, I shift a bit in the pew. Oh, God, I don’t feel ready for a performance. But as she continues to intone the words, Take your time, take your time, something happens to my body. My shoulders relax, I sigh,” wrote Cathy Park Kelly, an author who attended the festival purely as a reader, on her Instagram feed after an event. She continued: “As Bongani Kona (my new writer crush) begins the conversation about the beautiful anthology on loss and grieving that he edited, Our ghosts were once people, and Karin Schimke and Malika Ndlovu share their pieces, something happens in the room. In between the fancy houses, in the cracks between bricks, past all the branded shoes and fancy cars, and in among the autumn leaves, spirit comes tiptoeing in. I wipe away tears and feel my heart expanding. This is why I come to the Franschhoek Literary Festival. For moments like this.”

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A sense of community, a tribe, is created when writers and readers come together. It is not only readers wanting to look behind the creative curtain, but writers themselves attempting to understand what they are doing – it is a mystery even to us ourselves. For writers, festivals are a time of seldom-experienced togetherness. A mostly solitary profession, writing leaves many feeling lonely and lost. The process of creation can be torture.
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A sense of community, a tribe, is created when writers and readers come together. It is not only readers wanting to look behind the creative curtain, but writers themselves attempting to understand what they are doing – it is a mystery even to us ourselves. For writers, festivals are a time of seldom-experienced togetherness. A mostly solitary profession, writing leaves many feeling lonely and lost. The process of creation can be torture.

During his interview with Karen Jennings, Bongani Kona read an excerpt from a Rolling Stones article about a dedicated musician who for years continued to perform for audiences, no matter how small, believing that you could never know who one of the three people listening to you might turn out to be and what your music might mean to them. A few other writers sat in the audience, and I could feel our solidarity growing while Kona was reading about the plight of the unacknowledged musician. He asked Jennings whether she could relate. Her latest, An island, was longlisted for the Booker last year. Before the recognition, only a handful of readers knew her work in South Africa. When one of them told Jennings in another session how much she could relate to her writing, how quintessentially South African it was, Jennings was moved to tears by the comment. Published mainly abroad before An island, Jennings says that she belongs here and all she ever wanted was to be read at home and to give back to the African literary community, which she continues to nurture as a writer, an editor and now the initiator of the Island Prize for African debut fiction.

For her, writing is like going to hell with a lunchbox every single day, Jennings told Finuala Dowling and Joanne Joseph in their discussion about the art of creating morally complex characters. Asked by an audience member what pushes her to write when it is so painful, “It’s something diabolical inside,” Jennings told her. The authors recalled Tsitsi Dangarembga’s comment in a previous session about her own work: “There is no joy,” she said, when asked where she finds joy in writing. “I do have moments of joy while writing,” Dowling confessed, but she still marvelled: “How do we do this, have a life, while writing – and keep sane?” How, indeed?

Being an international bestseller does not seem to alleviate the emotional plight. In one of the first sessions of the festival, “The nerve toucher”, Lionel Shriver, now living in the UK, discussed her knack for exploring social and cultural fault lines and her latest offering, Should we stay or should we go, a topical meditation on ageing and dying. The novel tells the story of a married couple, Kay and Cyril, who both work for the NHS and at the age of 50 enter a suicide pact to be executed three decades later. In twelve scenarios that she referred to as “arboreal”, Shriver explores different outcomes of the couple’s decision. Given Shriver’s contrarian and controversial reputation, it was remarkable to witness how vulnerable she was prepared to make herself when speaking about her own mortality and creativity. Talking about her love of art, her marriage, the pains of being stuck in an ageing body and still feeling like a ten-year-old inside, she became a heart toucher.

Even though she knew from an early age that she wanted to write, disheartened by lack of recognition, Shriver nearly gave up after several books, but then her “make or break” novel, We need to talk about Kevin, won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the rest is history. Or the future: a collection of her essays, Abominations: Selected essays from a career of courting self–destruction, will be published later this year. She does not like to talk about her work in progress, but she did share that the novel she is writing is called Mania. Shriver is outspokenly anti-woke, so it is not difficult to imagine what the book is going to be about. And, judging by her other fiction, it will be nuanced, thought-provoking and unputdownable. But first, the essays. Should they be anything like her “Advance directive”, first published in The Times and included at the end of Should we stay or should we go, we are in for a ride: “If diagnosed with a terminal illness, I wish to decline intrusive, torturous treatments sure to fail. Skip radiation, chemo and bone marrow transplants (ugh). Just keep me comfortable, which for me entails a paid-up Netflix subscription and a regular dosage of red wine. Only insert an IV in order to inject a good-quality Australian cabernet straight into the vein.” After Franschhoek, we hope she will change her mind about the wine’s country of origin.

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The last two and a half years have been – if not always creatively, then certainly financially – hell for most artists. And, with the idea of a giant 22 million rand steel flag rising on the horizon while many of us still do not know how to pay our bills after the lockdown, it was reassuring to see how strong our voices still project, no matter what the challenges. Personally, I would rather have 50 books exploring the human condition in all its facets than a flagpole. Nothing creates empathy and cohesion like the stories we share.
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The last two and a half years have been – if not always creatively, then certainly financially – hell for most artists. And, with the idea of a giant 22 million rand steel flag rising on the horizon while many of us still do not know how to pay our bills after the lockdown, it was reassuring to see how strong our voices still project, no matter what the challenges. Personally, I would rather have 50 books exploring the human condition in all its facets than a flagpole. Nothing creates empathy and cohesion like the stories we share. Our need for understanding ourselves and what goes on around us, especially in a world that is as turbulent as ours – locally and globally – never ceases. “There is no end to the bizarre stories coming out of our lovely country,” Andrew Brown reminded us in his interview with Deon Meyer. “Our crime fiction is steeped in the sociopolitical landscape of our time.”

Discussing Meyer’s latest, The dark flood, Brown asked, “Do you want to throw Markus Jooste down the stairs?” and continued, “I’m so disgruntled whenever a South African stabs our country through the heart.” Fiction can certainly provide a sense of justice where reality fails. (For those yet unfamiliar with The dark flood, look out for some divinely macabre freezer justice!) We turn to storytellers to make sense of it all and to show us the way when all seems precariously fragile or lost. And so it is not surprising, after everything we have been through, that readers returned to the festival in droves not only to listen, question, meet their literary heroes and get their favourite books signed, but also for a good dose of reality check. A literary festival caters perfectly for these needs, not only in fiction, but also in non-fiction and journalism, specifically when the event is sponsored by News24. Many of the talks focused on the state of the nation, with state capture a constant buzz phrase. Dennis Davis spoke to Bulelani Ngcuka about his book, Bulelani Ngcuka: The sting in the tale, and his reflections on the Zuma era and its legacies. Ferial Haffajee and Mark Gevisser discussed Mbeki – a brand new edition of Gevisser’s Thabo Mbeki: A dream deferred has just been released; it includes a detailed epilogue exploring Mbeki’s legacy since he fell from power. Adriaan Basson probed the ANC’s possible future with political trainspotters Ralph Mathekga (The ANC’s last decade) and Qaanitah Hunter (author of Balance of power: Ramaphosa and the future of South Africa, and co-author of Eight days in July: Inside the Zuma unrest that set South Africa alight, with Kaveel Singh and Jeff Wicks), and imagined potentially brighter possibilities with Tony Leon (Future tense – reflections on my troubled land).

Andrew Harding (Sunday Times/CNA Non-Fiction Award winner for These are not gentle people) told Shaun de Waal about his foreign correspondent experience of South Africa. Harding had just returned from Ukraine, the invaded and devastated country on everyone’s lips during the festival. I did not attend the event, but Tony Leon’s virtual interview with Bill Browder, author of Freezing order: A true story of money laundering, murder and surviving Vladimir Putin’s wrath, was much talked about among the attendees. Although I also did not hear them speak about it at the festival, I was grateful for the opportunity to thank Karyn Maughan and Kirsten Pearson for writing Nuclear: Inside South Africa’s secret deal when I encountered them in the writers’ Green Room at the stunningly refurbished La Fontaine Boutique Hotel.

Pumla Gqola and Kopano Ratele (picture: Karina Sczcurek)

The session that simultaneously inspired and chilled me the most was a discussion between two astute thought-leaders: Pumla Dineo Gqola and Kopano Ratele. We all live with fear – “a shared collective emotion”, in the words of Gqola – and violence in South Africa. Going into the discussion, I remembered the apprehension I had felt the night before when returning to Mont d’Or, the beautiful guesthouse that was my home for the duration of the FLF, after the festival’s opening bash – I was alone and it was well after dark, and a sign in the town hall had warned us all: “Please do not walk alone at night.” I relaxed only when I saw a night guard patrolling the street.

Gqola, author of the award-winning Rape: A South African nightmare and Female fear factory (among others), and Ratele, whose forthcoming book, Why men hurt women and other reflections on love, violence and masculinity, will be published in September by Wits University Press, made it clear how vital it is for our survival to understand the dynamics of the all-pervading fear and violence in South Africa and beyond, specifically when you are a woman or perceived as feminine. “Fear regulates how we act in public spaces, where we may or may not go,” Gqola said, and gave a simple but terrifying example: when you text the route you are about to run alone to a friend, one of the reasons you are doing it as a woman is that you “want someone to find your body”. She reminded us that, looking at the numbers, we can all assume that we are among survivors wherever we go. Violence is not “out there”; it is part of our everyday life, and perpetrators are not strangers: we all know and maybe even love a rapist, Gqola said.

“All writing is courageous,” Ratele quoted Dangarembga when introducing Gqola, “and one of the most courageous thinkers I know is Pumla.” Gqola aims to show what it means to think about these global topics “unapologetically, from here” – to make sense of the world starting from South Africa, not the other way around. She is a scholar who is not afraid to look at nightmares, to see evil for what it is in all its complexity, and she still manages to empower and give hope. It is a rare gift. “What could we do if we were completely unafraid?” she asked us to imagine at the end of the session. The thought feels too liberating to contain in words.

The discussion that gave me most literary pleasure was chaired by Mohale Mashigo, one of the best in the business not only as an interviewer, but also as a writer. She spoke to Mia Arderne (Mermaid fillet), Qarnita Loxton (Being Dianne) and Alistair Mackay (It doesn’t have to be this way) about Cape Town as a setting and a character in their novels. Mackay summarised it best: “Nothing can give us the emotional depth of a novel. I hope people will continue finding their way to books.” The comment was met with a resounding yes from the audience.

When John Maytham asked Lionel Shriver what the difference is between Lionel Shriver the novelist, and Lionel Shriver the “opinion journalist” (her term), she said that “one of them is a pseudonym” and explained: “I like the subtlety and dimension of fiction.” Maytham returned to the FLF with two new scripts written for him by Finuala Dowling: one about love, the other about death. Performing the texts in the Congregational Church, he reminded us about the power of literature to capture the most elusive of human experiences – even when Eskom turned off the lights during one of the events. In the words of Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

We all have crocodiles to tame. Writing – and living, ageing, dying – does take courage. One day, we will all end up in “the big library in the sky”, to quote Deon Meyer. But before we do, we will continue raging in the service of The Story. Thank you to the FLF, News24, Exclusive Books, Porcupine Ridge, the publishers, Franschhoek, the authors and, most of all, the readers, for reviving the possibility.

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