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Alex Smith

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Secret Gardens of Cape Town #17 Soil for Life



Vegetables growing, lush and abundant, are as beautiful a sight as any bed or bank of flowers. Well some do have the loveliest of flowers too, like artichokes and cauliflowers. Although I do not seem to have green fingers, I so envy those who do – people with patience and wisdom who know how to make beans and pumpkins and squashes grow and carrots and cabbages and lettuces thrive. Perhaps in time, I will become one of those clever souls. For the moment though, I can but marvel at gardeners who are good at their jobs.

sqaure foot

Like baking cheesecake, I never imagined I would one day set foot in a garden club of ladies, but this weekend past, I did. And what a wonderful gathering it was, of people who know the scientific names of plants, who know F1 seeds from open pollinated seeds and how to cure a snail problem with the jam-jar lid of beer (yes! Snails love beer and it’s a better way to go than salt, so they say). It was a very professional club and there was a fantastic guest speaker, a woman, named Christine Stevens, who has been an organic farmer for fifteen years. She has written two books about harvest and kitchen.
soil for life

From all these amazing women, I learned so much, but perhaps one of the most precious secrets I gleaned was that about the Soil For Life education centre garden. It is more than a secret, it is a treasure: glorious vegetable garden, a way of life and an organisation. In particular, it is an organisation that focuses on teaching people how to create healthy soil and grow organic food. They empower people. In their words: ‘we teach as many people as we can how to grow their own food and to care for the earth. The majority of Cape Town’s households are food insecure, and for these families the ability to grow their own food and generate some small income represents a genuine step up in the world.’
They welcome visitors to the education centre garden – you can wander and be inspired; participate in workshops about creating healthy soil; buy seedlings if you need them, or if you are like Elias, you can pretend to drive the wooden tractor, test out chairs made from trees and roll in the gooseberry bush.
Whatever you do, visit it!
Soil for Life is a charity, and it is so worth supporting.

War Gardens: Edens Beyond the Razor Wire

Edens beyond the razor wire An astonishing image and article by photojournalist Lalage Snow: . There are 27 images from the War Gardens collection here. I first came across the image at the website for the Garden Musuem.

Secret Gardens of Cape Town #15: Rust en Vreugd

No matter how lovely the surroundings are, when one feels glum, not even all the sugar birds in the garden will cheer one up. That’s what Elias and I discovered at Rust en Vreugd, which translates as peace and happiness. Elias and I were not happy as we rambled through the gardens of the rococo-influenced homestead built in 1778 by the Dutch East India Company. However, I do have fond memories of place, of picnicking on the lawn one hot summer workday, when Andrew and I first met. This garden really is secret: it is surrounded by city and a high wall (presumably to keep out the Cape Lion in its day), you have to know the right driveway and then, if you are in the right frame of mind, it is as the Iziko webpage suggests ‘a soothing and fragrant oasis’. Unfortunately, both Elias and I were coming down with a 24hour bug when we visited, and so were both unaccountably miserable even though the lemons in the lemon tree were the biggest we’ve ever seen. I thought of this garden and our visit when I heard about Robin Williams last week, because at first it seemed unfathomable that somebody so loved and so brilliant could end it all in lonely sadness, but then I remembered how it was to be in what seemed like a heavenly place and yet be so unhappy. If one’s body and one’s mind are in distress, nothing seems beautiful. Elias cried the whole time as we strolled down the lavender-lined pathways; he wouldn’t even eat his favourite ginger biscuits.
We will have to visit again.
And Robin Williams wherever you are now, rust en vreugd. I’ll never forget Good Morning Vietnam.

Three Cats

Three Cats labelI once was adopted by a cat called Ramon. He was a unique feline: he spoke Spanish and he was a maths professor. I don’t mind if you don’t believe me. Last week, over dumplings, author Karina Szczurek and I discussed the matter of cats on Facebook. She said that as much as she adored her cats, she had banned herself from blogging about them. And so I decided that in order to live up to my aspirations of being quite contrary, I must with some haste write a blog about cats. That very evening I did a reading at one of Cape Town’s most beautiful book shops, Clarke’s, on Long Street. And among the second-hand children’s books I found ‘The Curious Cat’ by Nicola Bayley. curious cat The cat, painted by Nichola Bayley, sleeping on the brown quilt above this sentence looks exactly like Ramon did (he lived with me until he moved on to other more interesting humans). So, I snapped up ‘The Curious Cat’ for baby Elias along with ‘Anatole and the Cat’ (which has proved a hit). Anyway, The Curious Cat is fascinating – for example in it I discovered that ‘Three Cats’ was the most popular brand of Shweshwe fabric, and that originally it was designed and manufactured in England and exported from there to South Africa.
As a former textile merchant, it amazed me when I discovered that a fabric and print style so connected with Africa, the look of Africa (in terms of style and beauty), actually came from overseas. Thankfully now it seems that local mill Da Gama, is making Three Cats (however I know that one of the most popular wax print brands in Africa is still made in Holland). There’s a wonderful trawl through the fabric shops of downtown Joburg here…along with a mention of Three Cats.

bongiwe walaza shweshwe dresses stylesShweshwe-dagama1
More from The Curious Cat later…

Love Plumdog

elias reading The current hot-book in our household is Eliza and the Moonchild by Emma Chichester Clark. Elias, 2 years and 3 months old, adores it. And I adore Emma Chichester Clark because everything in her picture books is a garden: she has a wonderful gift for patterns: clothes, cushions, table cloths, you-name-it, they’re all covered in flowers and leaves. When it comes to actual picture-book gardening, she is a genius at making gardens that enchant Elias, Andrew and I. My favourites are the roof-top garden in Eliza and the Moonchild and the hill-garden in Chichester Clark’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.elizaPiper

Her stories are a sheer delight too. For dog-lovers, Piper, the tale of a puppy who escapes a cruel owner and finds happiness after all, is a must-have. Elias wanted that one read dozens of times before it had to go back to the library and if I find it in a bookshop, I’ll snap it up.

Anyway today I was thrilled to discover that Emma Chichester Clark has a blog called Plumdog. And it’s no ordinary blog; it’s a watercolour-a-day featuring the ordinary adventures of Plumdog. Even if you are unlikely to seek out her picture books, take a look at this blog for a happy distraction from the various horrors of the day.

A Tale of Two Covers: Illustrators on two continents discuss inspiration, art and their cover designs for ‘Devilskein & Dearlove’

Cover, Title, Opening Paragraph: these create the ‘first impression’ a novel makes upon a reader perusing bookshop shelves. But as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and cover comes first. Not surprisingly then covers can be a contentious, even traumatic matter and authors generally get very little say in the final appearance of a book. In my publishing past, I have one cover I so disliked, that I painted my last remaining author’s copy of the novel in turquoise, a colour I am particularly fond of, and so I do not have to see that dastardly jacket ever again.

When it came to Devilskein & Dearlove, I could not have dreamed of a more handsome and elegant pair of covers for the UK and SA editions. What is fascinating is how totally different the covers are from each other. There’s an elusive idea called ‘Writer’s Voice’, but I think Victor Hugo pretty much summed it up when he wrote that ‘Every man who writes, writes a book; this book is himself. Whether he knows it or not, whether he wishes it or not, it is true. From every body of work, whatever it may be, wretched or illustrious, there emerges a persona, that of the writer. It is his punishment, if he is petty; it is his reward, if he is great.’ And this must be true of artists, illustrators and cover designers. Surely there is such a thing as ‘Designer’s Voice’. After interviewing the cover designers Bia van Deventer who designed the South African edition published by Random Houseand Ed Boxall who designed the UK edition published by Arachne Press, I am convinced that their designs are a beautiful reflection of themselves. I daresay then: Every woman or man who designs, designs an image; this image is her or himself. Whether she or he knows it or not, whether she or he wishes it or not, it is true. From every body of work, there emerges a persona, that of the designer.’

And what’s more, having asked Bia and Ed to each send me an image of their desk and workspace, it seems to me too that desks are a reflection of the worker!

2e19b492e75a2485fb6ca32cb83a4f3dBia van Deventer’s design for the South African cover features a double-dolphin-headed key surrounded by a whimsical, shadowy lace of elements from the book: keyholes, trees, scarabs, peacocks, roses, crocodiles and giraffes over a broody indigo background.

Alex: Bia, what got you into this line of work?

Bia: I come from a very creative family, with fine art always playing an important role in my life, so it was natural that I enjoyed oil painting at school, but I felt I needed to learn a new skill when I had to choose a career. Graphic design was a natural choice, as I could still apply my artistic skills and mindset but I could use them in a new way. I enjoy mixing real, photographic and digital mediums to create a new entity.

Alex: In terms of illustrating, who are your greatest inspirations?
Bia: The Australian company Mash Design. Their delicate use of texture, layout and typography combined with interesting new ideas keep me in awe. I love how they take every opportunity available to use raw elements in their design. Whether it’s interesting photography or experimenting with different types of illustration, they always seem to achieve an amazing free flow of elements with an underlying structure in their fonts. I also adore the work of Finish illustrator Sanna Annukka. I love that graphic design/illustration can be applied to so many mediums, from printed cards and wallpaper, to fabric, crockery and fashion. Sanna’s characters have even been made into cookie cutters, which I think is fantastic. It’s great that something so typical can be used to take the design just a little bit further.

Alex: How would you describe your style?
Bia: Creative, fun, fantastical and very very detailed. I spend a lot of time perfecting every single element.

Bia's desk

Bia’s desk

Alex: Where do your ideas come from in general and in specific for this cover?
Bia: I visualised the story as I read the book, made notes and then researched a font and elements that I used to create the desired elements and look. I knew I wanted the key as the main feature, but I felt the animals and plants were just as important. I used an existing key image but totally reworked the colour and design of the key until it looked like the key that was referenced in the book.

Alex: Can you describe the process of developing a book cover?
Bia: I made notes of every detail whilst reading the book. I also made quick sketches of how I see different scenes, this helped me create a visual map of the story and it was then easy to see which elements would work best for the cover. I worked on two different cover designs from which the final cover was chosen.

Alex: Have you designed covers for other novels?
Bia: No, this was my first and hopefully, not last book cover.

Alex: What kind of illustrating/design do you most enjoy?
I enjoy collage designs, as I love the layering of objects and combining different elements to create a new look.

Alex: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Bia: Every single project is different. I love working with people. Even though every brand starts with the same components, the client’s idea and input are always different. I enjoy working on projects that are challenging and mastering new techniques. The world of design moves so quickly and it’s great to have a dose of new (almost daily!) inspiration, while finding the timeless solution within each trend.

Alex: Is there anything you dislike about the work you do?
Bia: No.

Alex: What would be your advice to anyone wanting to get into design and illustrating?
Bia: I would suggest job shadowing at an applicable agency so that you can see what the job really entails. Luckily, there are so many different avenues in graphic design so you can really find one that fits your personality perfectly, be it in a more corporate environment, or more creative like fashion, stationary or lifestyle products. You can really make design work for you.

Alex: Do you have a favourite website?
Bia: At the moment my main source of inspiration is Pinterest People I follow are: michele alemanno iara principe & ariadna rivera

Ed in StudioEd Boxall’s design for the UK edition (published by Arachne Press) is bold, stark and windswept and characters from the novel, Erin Dearlove, Albertus Devilskein and Zhou the Cricket, are rendered in woodcut like gashes that remind me of the work of one of my favourite artists, the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirschner.

Alex: Ed you’re an author and illustrator, what got you into this line of work?
Ed: It’s what I’ve always wanted to do- particularly the art side. I’ve drawn loads since I was a kid.

Alex: In terms of illustrating and art, who is one of your greatest inspirations?
Ed: I love Samuel Palmer. Palmer was a great religious artist from the late 18th and Early 19th Century. He drew the British countryside in a very personal way that invested it with a subtle spiritual energy.

Alex: How would you describe your style?
Ed: Romantic, spiritual, figurative, rural, primitive, personal, domestic, poetic, direct, British

Alex: Where do your ideas come from?
Ed: Daydreaming walking in the countryside, remembering childhood experiences, my children, the poetry of WB Yeats, Celtic Mythology, Folk Music.

Alex: Can you describe the process of developing a book cover?
Ed: I don’t do many commissions at all- I mostly make my own books and prints but when I do complete a commission I always come up with lots of very rough solutions, looking for bold graphic images from the text. I need to get really into the ideas so I’m as motivated as if it was for my own work.

Alex: Have you designed covers for other novels by authors other than yourself? How is it different designing a cover for a book you haven’t written?
Ed: Not many- I learnt a lot about book cover design when I did some books for Walker Books years ago- they drummed it into me how quickly people decide about books. The inside of a book should be subtle and real and personal but you can be a bit more of a salesman with the cover. People aren’t going to find your brilliant work if they don’t pick it up in the first place!

One of Ed's early sketches for the Devilskein cover.

One of Ed’s early sketches for the Devilskein cover.

Alex: Would you do it again?
Ed: Yes

Alex:What do you enjoy most about your work?
Ed: I love it all- I love all the working in sketchbooks generating ideas but also the relaxing repetitive activity of making printing blocks and the surprise of how they end up.

Alex:Is there anything you dislike about the work you do?
Ed: I’m not too keen on the digital stuff. I don’t much like sitting in front of a computer. I prefer drawing, cutting, sticking and printing.

Alex:What would be your advice to anyone wanting to get into writing and illustrating?
Ed: Just do it and make work you enjoy and makes you happy.

Alex: Do you have a favourite website?
Ed: I’m afraid I’m very unoriginal- the only website I use daily is Wikipedia. It’s amazing to be able to get a good introduction to pretty much any poem, myth or historic event. But one blog I genuinely find inspiring is this London based liberal left wing Christian blog: Resistance and Renewal . The rise of the far right in the UK terrifies me and I find this blog practical, wise and humane (although I’m not a practising Christian)

Thank you Bia and Ed for answering my questions.

Bia’s webpage is
Ed’s webpage is here:

Secret Gardens of Cape Town #14 Deer Park Cafe & Park

deer parkThere may have been snow on Table Mountain, but the day dawned glorious and clear with sky truly cerulean. It’s a strange thing to want to work, but to have to play. And it would be foolish to fight the toddler impulse for happy explorations, for clambering up ladders, through rosemary hedges, over logs, under bridges and along stepping-stone snakes. I would like to sit down and write another chapter of a new novel, but I have no regrets about failing to work in favour of playing with my son. Who knows how long he will want his mum tagging along as he delights in the universe. He has shown me so much already. Without him, I would never have discovered the tiger who unravels into a deer, that simply splendid piece of wall art at the bottom of what I call Deer Park. The park seems to have another official name, but it’s the park at the Deer Park Cafe, and in Deerpark Drive, so it doesn’t seem too uncouth to think of it as Deer Park. Anyway, Deer Park is our new favourite secret garden. Because it has the best mountain views in town, the best jungle gyms, the best coffee and other yummy things, and an awesome tiger unravelling into a deer to boot.

‘Devilskein & Dearlove’, a Secret Garden for the 21st Century, is in bookshops in SA now! And will be available in bookshops in the UK shortly.
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Andrew Salomon reviews ‘Weird Lies’ winner of 2014 Saboteur Award

Weird Lies2

I must confess that I love short story collections. And I must also admit that, more often than not, I’m disappointed by them. Of course literary tastes differ, but most short story fans are only too aware that with the majority of collections featuring stories by different writers, the stories are usually divided between two or three you think are great, a handful that are average, and the rest leave you cold. Weird Lies is a noteworthy exception to this division.

The Liar’s League is a monthly fiction night (originally from London and now also in New York, Hong Kong and Leicester) and it ‘brings together the best liars we can find – actors and authors – to tell great, brand new stories.’ Weird Lies represents a selection of Liar’s League’s finest sci-fi, fantasy and strange short stories.

When you know your story is going to be read out loud by an actual actor to a real, live audience, I’m sure you make certain to trim off anything superfluous that doesn’t directly contribute to the vigor of your story and while reading Weird Lies I got the sense that the writers whose stories made into this collection gave of their best.

Standouts include the humorous and harrowing ‘ChronoCrisis 300’ by Andrew Lloyd-Jones; Alex Smith’s sharp and no-nonsense ‘Icosi Bladed Scissors’; the bittersweet ‘Derby of Lost Souls’ by Barry McKinley; ‘Haiku Short, Parakeet Prawns, Konnichiwa Peter’ by David Malone is a potently bleak tale that offers a life-affirming glimmer; ‘Free Cake’ by Peng Shepard will bring cringeworthy recognition to any office slave; and there is rich and dangerous texture to the classical fairytale-styled ‘An Account of Six Poisonings’ by Nichol Wilmer.

There are twenty four stories in this collection and you can open it at any one of them and be in for a good read. To me this is the mark of an exceptional short story collection and Weird Lies is a worthy winner of the 2014 Saboteur Award for Best Anthology.

Here Ray Newe reads ChronoCrisis 3000 by Andrew Lloyd-Jones (from Weird Lies)
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Weird Lies is published by Arcahne Press, edited by Cherry Potts and Katy Darby.

Tokoloshe songAndrew Salomon is the author of the young adult novel, The Chrysalis. His first novel for adults, the fantasy thriller Tokoloshe Song will be released by Random House Umuzi in July 2014.
Sarah Lotz declares Tokoloshe Song a “fantastical, fantastic and fun read – highly recommended.” And I can definitely second that! It’s a sheer delight, a real adventure.

Door Porn

door of books For anyone with a door fetish the Fuckyeahdoorporn site is bliss.

‘You’re full of secrets aren’t you – like what’s behind all those doors in your entrance?’
‘Zoos, gardens, an infernal limbo and time-traps, mostly. And now that you know, I will probably have to kill you.’ Although he said that, and could have done it with the greatest of ease, Devilskein was not yet ready to kill Erin. And surprisingly, too, he was enjoying her company. For although he was an esteemed Companyman, company, for him, was in fact a rarity. And perhaps it was needed.
‘That’s too bad,’ said Erin, oblivious of the immeasurable power of the Companyman sitting across the table from her. ‘Can I go inside one of them and see? I used to have a huge garden where I lived before and now there is nothing but concrete, tar, shops and nightclubs. It’s sordid.’ Her feet dangled.On that grand and imperious chair, her legs were not long enough to reach the floor.
Devilskein frowned, floored – and amused – by her lack of trepidation. What could it harm to let her see?, he thought. …. Now that Devilskein had pinpointed the whereabouts of her soulmate, the boy in the corridor she called Kelwyn, the grumpy girl was not much longer for this earth. ‘Go in at your own risk, if you dare, but there is nothing at all to see, unless you happen …’ His voice trailed off.
With half a scone in her hand, Erin hadstood up and wandered back into the gloomy entrance where the claustrophobia of shoebox towers continued. She chose to open the third door; it was yellow. As Devilskein had said, there was not much to see but six more doors in an empty chamber.
‘Clearly this is not a zoo, nor a garden,’ she said. In the centre of the room the marble tiles made a circular pattern. ‘So it must be a time trap. And where do those other doors go? And what is that sound?’
From ‘Devilskein & Dearlove’, which is all about doors too! And will be in bookshops in SA from 1 July

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Short Story Day Africa Interview with Nerine Dorman, Nick Mulgrew & Cat Hellisen

short story day2

Happy short story day, Africa! A while back I did a series on the formative reading experiences of African authors for the Little Hands Trust. And as a result I got an email from Rachel Zadok one of the driving forces behind the brilliant Short Story Day Africa competition and anthology. In her email, Rachel asked if I would curate a blog roll for this years SSDA Interview using those formative reading questions. In a blur of novel edits, student assignments, and toddler related sleep deprivation, I eagerly responded that I’d love to curate the blog roll. It sounded like a good thing, didn’t mention that I didn’t have a clue what that meant and I hoped that by the time Short Story Day Africa arrived, I would be more in the picture.

Well, in a flurry of tweets, the day has arrived. Hooray! I’m not sure sure I’ve been a good curator of the blog roll, because I’m shoddy at Twitter, I don’t Reply and Retweet as I should, but it was great this morning to see many of the authors who originally answered the Formative Reading Experiences questions on the Twenty in 20 longlist, including:

Henrietta Rose-Ines – read about Henrietta’s formative reading experiences here
Cynthia Jele – read about Cynthia’s formative reading experiences here
Sarah Lotz – read about Sarah’s formative reading experiences here
Diane Awerbuck – read more about Diane’s formative reading experiences here.
Alistair Morgan – read about Alistair’s formative reading experiences here
Sindiwe Magona - read about Sindiwe’s formative reading experiences here
Lisl Jobson – read about Lisl’s formative reading experiences here
Zukiswa Wanner – read about Zukiswa’s formative reading experiences here
Arja Salafranca - read about Arja’s formative reading experiences here
Gabeba Baderoon – read about Gabeba’s formative reading experiences here

Also on the Twenty in 20 longlist is Nick Mulgrew, who is one of the authors who completed and Tweeted his formative reading experiences for the SSDA Interview earlier in the week. Nick answered the questions as follows:

1) What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

I can’t remember, and I suppose that’s because books, while not exactly abundant, were very much present in my house – something that I know now, as an adult, is a tremendous luxury for any South African. I suppose what helped me first and foremost in one day giving me the option to choose writing as a career was that I had ready access to books. They were always just part of my life. There is no beginning. Every child should have that.*

2) As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

By all accounts, I was a very early reader, and I remember my Grade 1 or 2 teacher giving me copies of Roald Dahl books – James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc. – to read when I had motored through the bookshelves of our classroom. Knowing me, I probably only pretended to read a lot of the books we had in class – either way, I loved Roald Dahl and devoured every single one of his books for children.

Later, in my tweenage years, I remember loving this awful crime-fiction book called Don’t Look Behind You by Lois Duncan. I was so lazy (read: obsessed with Pokémon and Magic: the Gathering) at that time that I must have used the book for no less than three consecutive English book reviews for different teachers.

3) Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

I grew up in Glenashley, a suburb of Durban that’s groggy and slow-paced, even by Durban’s groggy and slow-paced standards. I was a fortunate kid in that there was a satisfyingly muggy and sun-damaged library just a few hundred metres from all the different houses we moved between when I was a child.

I used to go to the library with my mother quite often. I suppose I must have read a lot of books from there, but my overwhelming memory is it was the kind of library in which nothing looked exciting: many of the books looked like they were donated when the library was built, which I’m going to guess was sometime in the 1960s, and I remember just not reading a lot of the books I took out.

What interested children in the sixties in white suburban South Africa was very different to what I found interesting as a white suburban child in the nineties. I liked computers. I liked modern fantasy – and I don’t even think the library had a copy of The Hobbit! I had to borrow that one from my friends.

For all the faults of the municipal library, my senior primary school library was great. They had a full set of Animorphs and Goosebumps books. What more could you want?

Both experiences have taught me that children don’t just need access to books, they need relevant books, too.

4) As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

I’m not a parent, and I haven’t been in the position of looking after children much in my short adulthood thus far, but something I do know is that children need books. My God do they need books. And if things carry on in this country like they are right now, it’s no exaggeration to say that most children in South Africa will never own their own book. (Click that link for a brilliant blog post by my old boss, Arthur Attwell, who breaks down the reasons behind this.)

It’s a tragedy, an indictment not only of the dehumanising monolith that was the apartheid state, but also of our collective inaction today; our non-attempts at making sure more children have more books, and recognising how awful this is for everyone in our country.


*Book Dash is a project that wants to flood South Africa with free, high quality children’s books, created by talented volunteers. Volunteer your time and get involved here.

ja11 Brilliant Nerine Dorman also replied to the Formative Reading questions this week:

What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

The house where I grew up was filled with books, and one of my earliest memories involves pulling books down from the shelves and being frustrated because I couldn’t read the stories. The whole idea that someone might have the wherewithal to sit down and write an *entire* book seemed magical to me. I couldn’t wait to read, and was able to do do so from a young age – I was way ahead of my peers in that regard.

By the time I was 12, I’d read through The Lord of the Rings in its entirety, and I was completely smitten. I knew then that one day I wanted to write my own stories, in my own made-up worlds.

Second only to that was my voracious reading habit, of up to a book every two days, which meant I was constantly at the library. Wherever I went, I’d lug at least one or two books around with me. I also managed to avoid getting invited to all future family weddings, because I once took a book into the reception after the ceremony. What can I say? I was bored and books were (and still are) far better company than people. And I was never invited to family functions with *that* side of the family ever again. Achievement unlocked!

As a small child, what book/s were your favourites?

I absolutely adored my Story Teller tapes and listened to them until they were stretched. My favourite story was about Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams, that was one of the stories that had been adapted for the Story Teller format, but I remember crying my eyes out at the Oscar Wilde stories about The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince. Looking back now, I realise what a treasure trove this collection was, because it instilled a love for storycraft and introduced me to a wide selection of tales from around the world.

But I loved The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis’s Narnia books also captivated me. Charlotte’s Web by EB White was another favourite, but I also obsessively read anthologies of animal stories, especially if they had to do with cats.

Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

I grew up in the seaside fishing village of Hout Bay in the Cape Peninsula. Back then we were an isolated community. My family used to farm there, and I suspect I was of the last of the locals to eventually leave once the valley became fully yuppiefied. Nowadays Hout Bay is nothing like it used to be, which makes me sad. My mom used to teach at Kronendal Primary School and I’d have to hang out there and wait for her to finish. Bored out of my mind at the age of six, I started volunteering at the local library – just packing away the children’s books or sitting in a corner hunched over a book paging through pictures. Consequently, I’d spend large chunks of my time at the library, a place that was often a sanctuary for me, as I was often bullied by the “cool” kids.

Even during high school, I often spent more time in the library at Wynberg Girls’ High School than I did hanging out with my peers. I’d while away hours paging through old copies of National Geographic or even the high school journals. Even now, I’m able to digest facts at a glance and often surprise myself with some of the bizarre stuff I remember. Books are time capsules too, and offer fascinating glimpses into the past or possible futures.

I miss the time I had as a kid to just get lost between the shelves. When you’re young, you really live under the illusion that your time is limitless, and when I stepped into the pages of books, I always returned with the sense that I could go out and do anything.

As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience with children?

I don’t have children, but when young ones visit my home, I always go find a pile of books for them to look at. Some kids are like me when I was that age, and we don’t hear a peep from them for the entire time that their parents are visiting. I like those kids, and I get what they’re experiencing when they get lost in those books. And they’ll definitely be invited over again. If they’re reading, it means they’re willing to discover new worlds.

And as an aside, all these questions relate to my most recent release, The Guardian’s Wyrd, which is exactly about a kid who loves libraries a little too much… (But he’s no Bastian Balthazar Bux)


Very talented Cat Hellisen also responded to the questions this week, saying:

1 – What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

There are three things:

1) Lying on the floor for hours going through my Story Tellers over and over again.

2) My mom having to fight with the school librarian to allow me to take books out of the big kids’ section.

3) A huge fat book of illustrated nursery rhymes that I basically dragged with me everywhere.

2 – As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

I was hugely into talking animal books, like Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood books, and from there I came to fantasy and got really into Diana Wynne Jones. Her book Dogsbody was probably *the* book that made me a writer, and a writer of the fantastic and strange.

3 – Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

I started off in Cape Town, then was dragged across country on a train and ended up in Joburg, where I spent the rest of my childhood. I hung out at my local library a lot – I was reading six books a day. In the end they gave me a job as a library page, purely I think because I was always there and they didn’t know how to get rid of me.

4 – As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

I confess I hate reading aloud. I read pretty fast and reading aloud means slowing down and well…slowing down. I can find it rather frustrating. I made sure my kids could read as soon as possible so I didn’t have to read to them. They’re both massive readers so it doesn’t seem to have hurt them.

Thank you Cat, Nerine and Nick for taking time to answer the questions.