THE BOOKSELLER: Griffin Shea – Bridge Books

Griffin Shea

Griffin Shea is the founder of Bridge Books, which recently opened in Joburg’s CBD. A retail store with a thoughtfully edited selection of predominantly African titles (both new and secondhand), Bridge Books also sells to the inner-city’s street booksellers.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

I’m loving Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night. It’s her retelling of her grandmother’s experiences as a child during the Anglo-Zulu war, and the story is part of the of amazing work that South Africa as a whole is undertaking in understanding history from more points of view.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

Actually, not a single book has been stolen yet. I think this is partly because we run a “pay it forward” scheme, where customers buy books to give away to others. Also, if anyone asks, I’ll loan them a book for a R20 deposit if they promise to write a review.

Once someone did lift a copy of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like from a pop-up we ran in Soweto on Youth Day. But when we asked if anyone had seen it, he returned it the next day. He’d thought we were giving away the books as part of the Youth Day events.

The biggest seller of the past year?

I Write What I Like, by Steve Biko, which sells consistently week after week, on both the retail and the wholesale side. We run a wholesale trade to connect small booksellers (even smaller than us!) with publishers so they can get new books, and Biko is always in demand.

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one, only because I did a lot of reading for my PhD work at Wits, which focuses on South African young adult novels. Unfortunately, that means I read a shocking number of heavy-handed, preachy books that we inflict on our young people. Also, of course, several real gems. But it’s no wonder young readers gravitate toward “adult” books if they have any passion for reading at all. The books aimed at their age bracket often talk down at them from a very high pulpit.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith. Like the best young adult books, it explores themes too big for most adult fiction: the nature of evil, the legacy of trauma, the difficulty of change, the hidden layers of meaning in everyday places. Think The Secret Garden or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set on Long Street in Cape Town.

The last thing you read that made you cry?

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher. The Star Wars films leave me cold, but when the latest one came out and the world was awash in commercials and merchandise, I decided to read Carrie Fisher. I laughed so hard, tears squirted out of my nose too.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

A couple people have asked for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. But I can’t carry it. He’s the antithesis of everything Bridge Books is trying to do. And honestly, even the ghost writer Tony Schwartz has renounced it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

This building was originally Barclays headquarters for South Africa. The vault is still downstairs. Also, we have a great roof space for readings under the stars.

The three writers you admire the most?

Toni Morrisson, whose books often explore love and its boundaries. She’s shaped the way I think about human relationships, and the reasons we treat each other the ways that we do.

Assia Djebar, who writes about the ways we can seek freedom, including through storytelling. She also introduced me to the idea of the Bechdel Test, before that phrase was widely applied to the idea.

Mark Twain. Did you know he’s really funny? I’ve been reading Huckleberry Finn out loud to my 11-year-old son, and it’s funnier, sharper and actually quite a lot darker than I remember it being.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Geometry.

Running a bookstore is a lot like Scrabble: it’s a math game masquerading as a word game.

Our indoor shop space is only 60 square metres. We have 12 bookcases. The limits of that geometry and its implications for which books we can carry continue to confound me.

Describe your archetypal customer.

Twenty-something, smart, creative, professional. Oh, and black.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The readers who come shopping, or simply visiting. I meet so many new people every day, and I love hearing their stories and the stories they’re looking for.

And the worst part?

You open a bookstore thinking it’s going to create this glorious life of the mind. And that’s true, but frankly it’s just as much about quads and glutes. There’s a lot of carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs.

Read more about Bridge Books over on 2Summers and in the Mail & Guardian.

WORK/LIFE: Chris Riddell

Chris Riddell, the 2015-2017 UK Children’s Laureate, is an accomplished artist and author, as well as the political cartoonist for the Observer. His books have won a number of major prizes, including the 2001, 2004 and 2016 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medals. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse won the Costa Children’s Book Award 2013. He lives in Brighton with his family.

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Ottoline and the Purple Fox is published by Macmillan Children’s Books.

WORK/LIFE: Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson is an internationally acclaimed writer and theatre director. His novels include Last Summer (2010) and The Landscape Painter (2014) which, like 2015’s The Dream House, won the UJ Prize for South African Literature in English. His published plays include Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Jungle Book and Little Foot.

What does “writing” mean?

There are many kinds of writing – and you are a different kind of writer for each of these activities – like playing a range of musical instruments. But when I call myself a writer I am talking about the real activity – the one that ignites me in a place that no other activity does. When I’m writing for TV, I am writing my way into something outside of me – helping it along the way with a word or two of support or encouragement. But when I sit down to try and follow my own internal wood grain – which is as specific and un-chosen and unique as an internal thumbprint – then I am writing in the true sense. This kind of writing is about trying to fit untested language into an untested situation. You are going in the opposite direction of the already-written (which is the direction so much TV writing in South Africa tends to go in). Of course, most writing as a writer is an act of rewriting – of working through another draft, of going down a pathway you have already travelled before. But each draft is a new journey and the landscape around you has always shifted, so there are always new and surprising things to be found along the way.

What book changed your life?

It sounds pretentious, but Ulysses made me think I could be a novelist instead of a poet. Or, more specifically, that a novel can be a great poem. That some of our greatest poems are not, in fact, going as poems, but are novels – and are symphonic, narrative-driven prose poems.

What are you working on at the moment?

An adaptation of John le Carre’s novel The Mission Song for two UK-based production companies.

Describe your workspace.

It’s a little room that extends off our bedroom. It’s elevated above the ground and has light coming in from three sides and wooden shutters separating me from the bedroom. I have started painting again so there are two desks – one for writing and one for painting.

Craig Higginson

The most important instrument you use?

My computer, I suppose. I also have a lamp next to my computer and the first thing I do when I sit down to write is switch it on. I switch it off when I’m done. It’s only ever on when I’m writing. These small rituals help to give one a sense of structure – without which the act of writing might appear too frightening – like a boat in a dark sea with no paddle.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning – when I’m still fresh. I have about 45 minutes of gold dust in me each new day – and if I write straight after dropping my daughter off at school I can use it – and transmute it. But if something gets in the way first, if I sit down a bit later, I find the gold dust is often gone. If I try to carry on with my novel or poem in these circumstances, I am in danger of sounding or feeling like just anyone else.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

We usually get stuck when we don’t know what story we are telling. I don’t force things. If I’m tired or disconnected I do something else. I aim to write for an hour or so each morning but I often fail at it. But I try again and – to quote Beckett – I try to fail better.

How do you relax?

I watch TV series, I drink wine or whisky, I walk, I go to the gym, I try to sleep for at least seven hours – but I never quite relax.

Who and what has influenced your work?

The worst things that happen to me – and the least happy things I have experienced in my life – often get made into a novel or a play – even if indirectly. I write in order to survive, to make sense of things that have felt senseless – that have, at their worst, made me want to be dead. I use these places to start something afresh – like the first leaves after a veld fire. They are brighter and softer and have more space to grow thanks to the devastation that has passed through there not long before. But as Bernice Rubens once said to me: You must write with yesterday’s blood. So I am influenced by my own life and the lives around me – and I have wanted to push light back into those places that have grown – or are growing – dark.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Peter Shaffer said he wrote first and researched later. In other words: give yourself the opportunity to imagine before concerning yourself too much with what other people have imagined.

Your favourite ritual?

Switching on that lamp.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

How long do you have? I suppose the hardest thing about it is protecting it – making sure that nothing else comes in the way of it. There are a thousand forces inside you and all around you constantly encouraging you not to do it, to do something else – something easier, something more urgent.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I am all about middle spaces so it’s always hard for me to isolate one thing above anything else. I also think there are many versions of me – and some I dislike more than others. I find it impossible to watch myself on video or hear myself talk in public. I think: Who is that awkward man with the large staring eyes and indeterminate accent? Who does he think he’s speaking to and why does he imagine they’re listening? I prefer my private selves to my public ones – as I have the illusion that I have more say over who those selves might be.

What are you afraid of?

Dying before I have written a good book. Dying before my daughter is grown up and able to look after herself. Dying before I’m dead. The third is especially difficult to achieve: to keep yourself open to the world, experiencing things as if for the first time. It’s perhaps difficult because you have to keep doing it, refreshing it, re-inventing yourself each time in order to encounter yourself. We run out of selves, we use them up too quickly when we’re young – and then we have to do what we can with the selves that are left to us, which grow heavy, and weigh us down with their aches and pains and their difficult questions.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Not to listen to the advice of those who have come before. Each person must bash through their own bundu and discover their own landscapes.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Not giving up.

The Dream House is published by Picador Africa. Read our review here

 

10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally

BY GARETH LANGDON

Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.