10 QUESTIONS: David Bristow

David Bristow, who served as Getaway magazine’s editor for 14 years, has authored more than 20 books, including Running Wild, an account of Zulu, the horse who became leader of a herd of zebras in the Tuli Block, Botswana.

David Bristow

Running Wild features a colourful cast. How did you identify and track down the humans that feature in the book so that you would be able to tell Zulu’s story?

I knew most of the characters before I started to research the book, having been to Mashatu [in the Tuli Block] numerous times before. I had even met Zulu on safari, although I did not really remember much about him from that time. The rest of the characters I had to track down. The research took the better part of a year.

What is the most inspiring thing for you about Zulu’s story?

Obviously the most WTF! aspect to the story is how was a domestic horse not only able to join a wild zebra herd, but become the alpha stallion. Answering the question was the crux of the whole book and most of my creative and research effort went into answering that question. I researched not only the actual life of Zulu, but everything I could about horses from Black Beauty to Exploring Equine Intelligence, Evolution and Behavior. Then I tried to work out what it is about horses that they become such almost magical creatures. For example, why will a horse obey its rider and charge into blasting canon fire without flinching? Or, carry a rider thousands of kilometres until it drops down dead? It is a mystery and I am still not a 100% sure if it’s because they are super sentient creatures, or really thick.

Can you tell us about the significance of the book’s setting, the Tuli Block?

I guess the story could have occurred anywhere, but it just happened that Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris set up shop there, and bought Zulu along with a few others from Onderstepoort as their start-up herd back in 1997. However, it had to be there or else the “great storm” would not have figured in the story, Zulu would not have escaped to “run wild” in the Tuli region and likely hitch up with the wild zebras there.

What are the most meaningful insights we can learn from Zulu and his life?

The most obvious one – did Zulu breed with the zebras – is one that will forever remain unanswered. When he was recaptured none of the humans took any notice of the zebra herd or checked to see if there were any offspring in attendance. Zebra males mating with horse and donkey females is known to be possible, but has always bred a sterile zonkey or zorse. But a male horse and female zebra mating, or at least producing offspring, is unknown. Not even the boffs at the Equine Research Centre at Onderstepoort could shed light on that one.

Then there is the matter of what knowledge Zulu brought back with him. He returned a horse extremely wise in the ways of the bush and survival. He would find predators in just about every ride. More than once he saved his rider from close encounters with elephants and lions, which any other horse would not have been able to do. Then there is the whole matter of African horse sickness and what Zulu taught his owners about its treatment. This knowledge is still being used to treat safari horses.

Are there any other examples of horses integrating with another species as Zulu did?

No, not so far as I know. Firstly, horses are extremely skittish animals; most domestic horses die from colic, which is essentially a nervous disposition. Then there is the small matter of horse meat: can you image how all the predators of the African bush would have loved to get a bite of that! How was it that Zulu was not eaten is amazing. In captivity horses can and will bond with other animals, but out there in the bush it’s every horse for itself.

If you could ask Zulu one question, what would it be?

Did any of the females in your zebra harem bear your offspring?

What was the most difficult aspect of working on this book?

To date I have written more than 20 books and I have always maintained that writing is the easy part, just like making bricks or bread. It’s selling them that is hard. I got 174 rejections from agents and publishes around the world before I got the “yes” from Jacana Media in Johannesburg. Even so, the research took a year as I mentioned, writing took another year, then a year to find a publisher and finally a fourth during which there were three rewrites.

What makes horses such compelling animals — both as companions to humans and as figures in literature?

Interesting that, and there is no easy answer. That is the question which is explored in the play Equus: why did a teenage boy stab out the eyes of several horses one night in the stable where he worked (true story)? I think mostly it has to do with horse anatomy. Horses are extremely powerful animals and when we interact with them, and ride them, this power is evident and can be overwhelming. They can run further than any other animal. They can jump astonishing heights. Most of these characteristics are derived from their unique back leg geometry; they have very light spring-loaded lower legs powered by extremely large buttock and thigh muscles which makes equids unique in the animal world. But the matter of the connection between humans and horses, that’s one I’m still working on. Best you ask a teenage girl.

To what do you attribute the human fascination with “being wild”?

We’ve spent the better part of the past 10 000 years or so trying to tame nature in order that we might lead more secure, predictable and increasingly comfortable lives. Suddenly in the past hundred years or less, taming has turned to destroying in our unrelenting urge for material comforts. It was not only Bob Dylan who said, but I remember he said it so well, that “I never knew what I had, till I threw it all away.” We’re a funny animal, in the worst way.

What is the next story you will tell?

No food for lazy boy! My next book is already on the store shelves. It’s called The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep and it contains 20 stories about some of the most curious characters I could find in South African history. And I’m working on the one after that, about 20 amazing places in South Africa, a kind of adventurer’s bucket list. That will be out around this time next year, and I’m already planning the two after that. I guess you could say I’ve got the writing bug. And lucky for me I finally found a publisher who encourages me to scratch that itch.

Running Wild is published by Jacana Media.

POEM: Morning Sketch

BY LEMEEZE DAVIDS

She was chopping cutting slicing
a papaya next to the kitchen sink,
using absolutely no force,
but a sort of clumsy choreography
that had the fruit red-sea-parting
as the blade sunk into it.
It had a steady beat too –
the knife hitting the chop-chopping board steady,
the birds chat-chatting with each other steady,
the leaves of every green thing moving with it,
and I pretended for a second
that it was all there was in the world at 8 AM –

She turned around,
having scooped all the pieces of fruit in a little green bowl,
and offered me some.
There was nothing in that moment, but exactly what it was.
So, I smiled at her, thanked her.

POEM: Holding water

BY HELEN DOUGLAS

A small girl sitting on the ground with hands cupped. Holding water. Little Sisyphus in a cotton dress sits on the ground. Water makes its way through her cracked cup and falls to the ground.

She pulls in her ankles to hold the water that falls to the ground. Rich thick mud spreads a widening ring around her. Between her knees the water pools and sinks into the earth.

The sky across the flat earth goes clear to the horizon. The clear water precious in her hands. The water she holds in her cupped hands. She holds it and it falls. She is holding it. It falls.

Her legs the shores of a pond, the walls of a well that bears the water to the ground. It seeps into the earth. It seeps into the earth, the earth knows it and the ground becomes mud. Clear the water that muddies the ground.

She holds clear water in her hands, it pools between her legs, sinks beneath her and is received by the earth and the soil spools rich and thick around her. Thick wet earth. The still air. The clear sky. Small birdcall. Concentration, diffusion. She holds the water in her hands. She is learning her craft.

Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.