THE BOOKSELLER: André Sales – Clarke’s Bookshop

André Sales

Situated on Cape Town’s bustling Long Street, Clarke’s Bookshop has a wide range of new and used titles (including a particularly fabulous selection of Africana). We chat to André Sales who has been selling books there since 2003.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

The book that I’ve just read which I recommend to everyone is Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang. It’s the sort of book I always enjoy reading, a personal history which manages to broaden my understanding of our country’s past. I particularly like the chapters describing the optimism of the early days of democracy, and later her experience of trying to come to terms with her place in middle-class suburban Johannesburg. It’s an honest perspective of a time in our country which I think we are still trying to understand.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

I think shoplifters have a wide range of interests just like customers who buy books. We did a stock check recently and couldn’t really pinpoint a genre of missing books.

The biggest seller of the past year?

The easy answer to this is The President’s Keepers – it was impossible to keep this book in stock for the first couple of months. But a book which we have actually sold more of is Collective Amnesia, a first poetry collection by Koleka Putuma and published by Uhlanga Press.

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

I’ve made it a rule not to read underwhelming books. If a book doesn’t catch me I have no shame in putting it down and forgetting about it. There are so many amazing books that I don’t have time to read, so why waste time on reading a book that isn’t?

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Country of my Skullby Antjie Krog. We have a lot of tourists who come into the shop asking for a book about the history of apartheid, and I always suggest this. It gives a very visceral account of the atrocities of apartheid through the testimonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but Krog also engages deeply with her own identity as white and Afrikaans in post-apartheid South Africa. She also writes beautifully. I would recommend it to anyone who needs an understanding of how apartheid affected so many lives on a personal level.

The last thing you read that made you cry? 

Probably Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel places you very closely within the human experience of war, and it is devastating.

Is there a book you’d never sell?

I think the one book that I would never ever sell is Mein Kampf. I feel uneasy whenever someone even asks for it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

The thing that most people get surprised by is how much space we have behind the scenes. We send a lot of books to customers overseas, so the processing of that all happens behind closed doors. We also have a little garden upstairs at the back which is one of my favourite places to take time out and think.

The three writers you admire the most?  

Sindiwe Magona, who fought hard for her own education and is still working hard for the education others.

Thando Mgqolozana, for not just complaining at the Franschoek Literary Festival but actually doing something about it by starting the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto and Binyavanga Wainaina, for establishing Kwani? and creating a platform for new authors to get their work out.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

It’s boring to go into too much detail, but the short answer is cash flow, and admin.

Describe your archetypal customer. 

We have such a huge range of customers. Being on Long Street means we have a lot of tourists coming into our shop, but we’re also just around the corner from the court, so we have lawyers who regularly spend their breaks browsing the shelves. Because of our focus on South African books we have a lot of younger customers who are interested in South African and African fiction, as well as academics who find books on very specific subjects. We also have occasional politicians visiting the shop who like to browse both the recent political non-fiction as well as the second hand and out of print South African books.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The book as an object is one of my favourite things in the world. When I first started working with the antiquarian and collectible books in the shop I had to catalogue all the private press publications that we had which really made me fall in love with the processes involved in creating a book. Letter-printed pages make me happy every time I feel them. A couple of years ago I catalogued an old customer’s library of mostly collectible Africana which was also incredibly satisfying.

I get to open the front door of the shop each morning and be surrounded by books in every room for an entire day, every day. I can’t think of a better way to spend my working life.

And the worst part?

I’ve been trying to answer this all day, but it seems I reeeeally like my job.

WORK/LIFE: Paul Mendelson

The British author of four crime novels chats to us about his writing life.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing is the brushstrokes of a piece of art. I am trying to create something which will transport my audience into a different world for a period of time, hopefully entertain and absorb them, perhaps excite, frighten or stimulate them.

If you meet me, you might well say that I am outgoing, gregarious and self-confident, but this is only half of my character. Writing allows the introverted, privacy-seeking, introspective side of me to tell stories.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a psychological crime novel set in the UK, having spent the last few years solely writing about South Africa. It features a new set of characters and a brand-new protagonist which, having written four books in a series (to which I will return) is liberating and exciting, if somewhat daunting.

After focussing on intense heat, water shortage, political turmoil and blinding sun, it is strange to be back in the dark, damp, dank world of England in the winter. South Africans love cloud, precipitation, dark – I hate all those things. However, the English countryside is an interesting setting and my characters also spend time in London around Christmas, with all its desperate attempts to look festive and bright. I find it all dismal, and therefore an ideal world for my disparate collection of witnesses, suspects and villains to inhabit.

Describe your workspace.

In London, a tiny spare-room study at the back of my house; in Cape Town the sofa in a beautiful little house, half way up the slopes of Table Mountain, with views for miles. Perhaps you can guess which I find the more inspiring place to work? However, for non-fiction writing which, for me, is just a matter of getting my head down and putting in the hours, London works really well. For creative writing, there are just too many distractions, as well as being under the flight path into Heathrow, surrounded by traffic, and coping with dusk at 3.30pm.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I don’t have a particular time of day although, in the past, it has certainly been after 9pm and into the early hours. If I have prepared myself the day before, I can sit down after a hurried breakfast and the words come. Again, there is a big difference between non-fiction – which just requires discipline and application – and creative writing for which I have to be in the right mood, with my ideas in order, my mind undisturbed by the pressures of the real word, and wholly absorbed in the world I am trying to create.

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

I try to work on non-fiction instead, or do something practical or physical. I have suffered from chronic depression my entire life and, for me, even tiny incremental achievements, which I can mark off in my mind, help to dissolve the threatening black wave that is rolling towards me. I treat being stuck with my writing in the same way. I try to achieve something, anything, and build from there.

I used to be very rigid when writing, and not allow myself to jump ahead or re-visit work until I had completed a draft. I find that a more relaxed approach seems to be working better now, so if I can’t move forward, I might review scenes I have written earlier and try to enrich the start of the novel with the legend of the character as he, or she, has developed in my mind throughout the process.

How do you relax?

With great difficulty. Half my brain is creative; half logical, deductive and never resting. So, I rarely relax, but instead seek to distract myself as much as possible. I love reading, movies, theatre, playing golf, dog-walking, even driving. In South Africa, I treat myself to a weekly massage. Even then, my body may be de-stressing, but my mind is racing

With so many non-fiction books under your belt, what inspired the move into crime fiction? 

I have always loved crime fiction, especially that of James Elroy, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais; Mark Billingham, David Peace, Val McDermid, so I have been inspired by reading them. The playwright, Sir David Hare, wrote that the form of a crime novel is a reassuring one: both author and reader know what, ultimately, they are going to get. Simply, however, I write books that I think I would enjoy to read, and I hope that others enjoy them too.

What has inspired you to set your novels in South Africa?

South Africa is an amazing setting for a crime novel because of its turbulent political past, and present, it’s recent history, the underlying crime rate, the proximity of rich and very poor. It also helps enormously to love the place you are writing about – it certainly makes it a hugely pleasurable experience for me – so there is the contrast between the Cape Town which visitors see, and some residents inhabit, and the dark underbelly which every city hides. Here, in Cape Town, however, the contrast is so great, because the city is so beautiful, the people so friendly and warm, to stay there so uplifting and inspiring. To contract with this, just read Jacques Pauw’s ‘The President’s Keepers’ to see the depths to which certain echelons of society have sunk.

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

William Goldman writes in his seminal work, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ that no matter how diamond-bright your ideas may be in your head, when you try to put them on the page they become earthbound. This may not be advice, but it is a warning, and it is a battle which, I guess, all writers face.

My ‘literary’ editor, Martin Fletcher, advised me with my first novel – and I have tried to remember this advice from then on – that characters must live not simply within the confines of the novel, but have lives before it, and at least a hint of how their lives might be afterwards. For characters to be believable, to absorb and engage the reader, we have to try to make these two-dimensional beings seem truly alive, and that is what I strive to do.

Actually, I have thought of the best piece of advice: Never tell anyone the story you are writing. Once you do that, the urge to tell it on the page dissipates. Keep it to yourself, and reveal only when you are ready.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

I am sure that authors all have different aspects of the craft which they find hard. For me, it is maintaining interest in the story once I have written it, re-written it, honed it and submitted it. I react to the comments and observations my editors give me. This is all fine. Then, proof readers and copy editors ask me questions. At this point, I’m thinking about the next story, full of excitement and optimism, and I just wish they’d leave me alone. However, I am lucky to have very patient proof and copy editors, and eventually they get out of me what they need to do their jobs.

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

First and foremost: Write. All the time. Don’t agonise, or procrastinate, or make excuses, just write. One line, one paragraph, a scene, a chapter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s rubbish or genius, one way or another, it will help you to develop as a writer. You may want to forget it, or you may use as the first line of your masterpiece. Just write.

Next, read. It doesn’t matter what, although I think it should be writing of the genre that you want to inhabit. Learn what you enjoy and try to analyse how your favourite authors achieve that effect. Then, try to emulate them.

Don’t fixate on others reading what you’ve written. If you like it, if you think it has merit, that’s wonderful. However, maybe wait six months or a year after finishing it before deciding your opinion on it.

Finally, don’t expect to make much money: do it because you love it.

Mendelson’s latest book, Apostle Lodge, is published by Constable.

WORK/LIFE: S.A. Partridge

S.A. Partridge is a three-time winner of the M.E.R Prize for Youth Fiction and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Short Story Prize. Mine, her fifth novel, has just been published by Human & Rousseau.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing means making sense of my life and my perception of myself and the world around me. All writers try to capture that, I think, from the humble slice-of-life stories to the hard-boiled crime thrillers. Every story allows us to look deeper, think differently and understand more about the world.

Which book changed your life?

This is a very difficult question to answer as there is no one book from my childhood that stands out. I read everything. Our house was filled with books. My parents read. We visited the library weekly. So, growing up I was always surrounded by books. My tastes also varied widely, so in one month I could read anything from Stephen King, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett to Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Thomas Hardy.

Your favourite fictional character?

This is another tough one. There are so many – mostly detectives, like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. I like strong, memorable, charismatic characters with a bit of an eccentricity. Even Christie’s Ariadne Oliver counts among my favourites for her absent-mindedness and peculiar obsession with apples. I lean towards characters that stand out, like Dracula.

What are you working on at the moment?

Two different projects, which is not unusual for me. So, I’ve got a crime novel and a young adult novel going at the moment.

Describe your workspace.

I have a desk, covered in the usual writer paraphernalia. Sadly, I don’t spend a lot of time there and mostly write on the couch.

The most important instrument you use?

My first instinct was to say thesaurus.com but it’s actually a ruled notebook, for capturing images and snatches of conversation as well as the occasional doodle. I carry it with me everywhere, along with plenty of spare pens.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning, from around seven to midday. I like starting the day with a clean slate and devoting that time to writing. The afternoon is for everything else.

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

I read or walk around beautiful places with some sort of historical significance – the harbour, Simonstown, Babylonstoren. I love the “old town” feel of Cape Town and actively seek out the bygone buildings. It inspires me and gets me into that creative state of mind.

How do you relax?

I read or cook. I love preparing a meal at the end of the day with a glass of wine. It’s a nice way to end off the work day.

Who and what has influenced your work?

I was a prolific reader as a child, so I was constantly surrounded by words. But if I had to choose I would say Stephen King’s early work really inspired me to write my own stories. I devoured his books as a child. It was wonderful to discover that stories could be simple things, and that you could just put pen to paper and tell a story from start to finish and not worry about all the complicated rules in-between.

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

Three things actually. Up the ante wherever you can. Show don’t tell. Imagine you’re writing a movie script. All three tie in together beautifully as they all require you to bring the characters to life, to add an explosive quality and to raise the stakes at every opportunity. It makes for very vivid prose.

Your favourite ritual?
When I’m lucky enough to have full day in front of me to write, I like to ensure the room is clean, I’ve had a small meal and a coffee, and that my diary is completely free. I love the natural light in my apartment. I’m fortunate to have a huge arched window that bathes every corner in wonderful natural light. So, when its quiet, and the light is good, there is nothing better than disappearing into a manuscript.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding quality time to write. By quality time I mean long, uninterrupted stretches – a rarity for me. I work in a busy office as a copywriter which takes up my whole week. Weekends are for admin and chores and seeing friends. It becomes a treasure hunt for snatches of time.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Laziness.

What are you afraid of?

Failing myself and my family. That after years of striving and selfishly pursuing my dream to write it all comes to nothing and I have to start over from the beginning.

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

Give in to your ambition. Believe in your talent. Know that it’s a hard road full of rejection and disappointment but all that matters is the art – whether you make it or not.

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

Not giving up.

EXTRACT: Outsiders

LYNDALL GORDON reflects on the five extraordinary women writers whose lives she explores in Outsiders.

Lyndall Godon

All five of my choices were motherless. With no female model at hand, they learnt from books; if lucky, from an enlightened man. Common to all five was the danger of staying at home, the risk of an unlived life. But if there was danger at home, there was often worse danger in leaving: the loss of protection; estrangement from family; exploitation; a wandering existence, shifting from place to place; and worst of all, exposure to the kind of predator who appeared to offer Olive Schreiner a life – marriage – when she went to work as a governess at the age of seventeen.

In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion. How far was it willed – how far, for instance, did Emily Brontë will her unpopularity at a Brussels school, or was it involuntary? Were the acts of divergence necessary if each woman was to follow the bent of her nature? Mary Ann Evans fled a provincial home where a brainy girl was regarded as odd. In London, she called herself an ‘outlaw’ before she became one by living with a partner outside the legality of marriage. Yet it was during her years outside society in the late 1850s that George Eliot came into being. Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) settled in Bloomsbury as part of a group. Her brothers, sister, and their mostly homosexual friends, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, provided a shield. In such stimulating company, Virginia and her sister turned themselves into unchaperoned young women, flaunting words like ‘semen’ and ‘copulation’ in mixed company until all hours of the night. It was scandalous, but not dangerous. Danger, for Woolf, was the threat of insanity, bound up with what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.
No one, of course, can explain genius. Women are especially hard to discern outside the performing spheres assigned to them in the past, the thin character of angels in the house. In contrast, Virginia Woolf explores the secret thing: women’s enduring creativity as it takes its way in shadow; in her generation and before, it did not proclaim itself.

What we now know is that after these writers’ lifetimes, families concocted myths, playing down the radical nature of these women. George Eliot’s widower presented a flawless angel; at the opposite extreme, Schreiner’s estranged widower branded her with his annoyance. The devoted son and daughter-in-law of Mary Shelley cast her in the Victorian mould of timid maiden and mourner. But voices sing out past the tombstones of reputation. The words of these five altered our world; certainly they changed the face of literature. We do more than read them; we listen and live with them.

To say I chose these writers was actually wrong; they chose themselves. For each had the compulsion Jane Eyre expressed when she said, ‘Speak I must’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read our review of the novel here.