Writers are traditionally said to lead a quiet life. But my diary has recently been spectacularly full. I have been in Sydney on Man Booker International Prize business, which ended with a very public literary bloodletting, on a book tour of South Africa, out film-making in the Karoo with Athol Fugard, and I have written a script of one of my books for a scandalously beautiful and talented actress.
In Sydney I gave what was billed as a masterclass to bright students of writing at the University of Sydney. But the term ‘masterclass’ was possibly over-egging the pudding. All I could do was pass on some lessons from my own life, and the most obvious is that if you want to be a writer you must first have been a reader. It is surprising how many people who don’t read believe they have a book in them. Why? Nobody would imagine that Alfred Brendel took up the piano on a whim at 25 when he found accountancy unpleasant. I also advise — how easy it is to affect arcane knowledge when you have had a few books published — prospective writers not to follow the advice of Don Marquis, who said, ‘If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that’s read by persons who move their lips when reading.’ I suggest that they should attempt to find their voice, mine that little lode for all it’s worth and hope that the readers follow. Reading is the thing: as John Updike said — to me — the only excuse for reading is to steal. But I did tell these Australians that I believe utterly in the transformative power of literature, and I believe too that it is serious work, way more important than the law or banking. And probably more difficult.
There have been many questions about digital downloads. In Sydney, Nigel Newton, founder of Bloomsbury, my publisher, said that the digital revolution was either the start of a wonderful new era for publishing or a disaster. The problem is, he said, that no one knows. We authors certainly don’t know what is going to happen to our books. Are they going to disappear into the ether, following music downloads, or are ebooks going to open up a whole new world of readers? And how much are we being paid per copy? We haven’t a clue.
When I haven’t been in Johannesburg for a while I imagine burning buildings, armed gangs, drug dealers with hyenas on chains, sirens wailing day and night. I tend to forget the immaculate lawns and the swimming pools and the lavish restaurants and the BMWs. My first engagement was to speak at a dinner in the seedy and besieged southern suburbs in a former miners’ hotel and bar. This place was authentic Jo’burg, a universe away from the sanitised suburbs and security communities to the north. As we arrived at the hotel and we were let in through an iron grille of a door and then led through a vast bar where miners (whites only, of course) once gathered, I felt a surge of electricity: Daunt’s is fine and great, but you don’t have the adrenaline rush of wondering if you are going to get out alive. The dinner was chaotic and boisterous. I was introduced by a delightful man, who told the audience that the most important thing in the book was that the very minor South African character had a bigger willy than the very minor Australian character. One nil to South Africa. As we left late into that cool and familiar crystal night, I felt uplifted. This is the strange thing about South Africa — for all its corruption and crime, it seems to offer a stimulating sense that anything is possible. Sadly, the violence was not far away: a few days later I was asked to stand in at the Franschhoek Literary Festival for a fine writer who lives near that hotel. When he came home from Europe, he found his house-sitter strangled.
After the festival I headed off into the interior with my friend Eric Abraham to film the playwright Athol Fugard in a remote Karoo town called Nieu Bethesda where he has a house. For Athol, whose 80th birthday will be celebrated next year, it is a little paradise — dirt roads, donkey carts, wind pumps, immense empty landscapes and hardly a hint of the new South Africa. More and more I seek the company of large-minded people. Some whose company I do keep, I have never met, some are dead and some are fictional; the list includes William Maxwell, W.G. Sebald, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, Marilynne Robinson and Moses Herzog. And I will be meeting Philip Roth soon in New York. Carmen Callil, sadly, will not be there.
Justin Cartwright is a novelist. His most recent book is Other People’s Money.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.