Barbara Bleiman, a recent graduate of Birkbeck’s MA in Creative Writing, has published a compelling first novel, Off the Voortrekker Road. Set in South Africa in the years just before apartheid, it draws upon her father’s childhood and early career as a barrister. She talks here about transforming family stories into fiction, why memory can be more powerful than research and the importance of embracing the revision process
PJ: You’ve explained elsewhere that the novel grew out of family history, stories you’d heard from your father. However, simply collecting those stories didn’t make a dramatic narrative – can you say more about the process of moving from fact to fiction?
BB: I started writing the book chronologically, putting together several stories I remembered my father and mother telling me about my father’s early life in South Africa, as the child of Lithuanian and Russian Jewish immigrants. The first draft was episodic in its structure. But soon I came to realise that I was being lured into re-telling those familiar stories for my own nostalgic pleasure, rather than thinking about creating a more coherent narrative structure, with a clearer narrative arc for the main character. I wanted readers to be eager to read on but didn’t feel the episodic plot was providing that tension, and I also felt that there were underlying themes and motifs that needed to be brought more sharply into relief. So, having written a substantial chunk of the novel, I went back and took my red pen to all the childhood stories that were just entertaining for their own sake, rather than contributing to the narrative thrust of the novel.
PJ: That sounds like a bold and brave thing to have done - something many first-time novelists would find hard to do.
BB: Yes, but in the process I started to discover for myself the key themes of the book, and began to see that a second parallel narrative of the protagonist as a young man, would allow me the best of both worlds – to conjure up an innocent child’s eye view of a highly complex personal world and to present a more mature account of the rise and impact of apartheid and its policies. I wrote a whole new, entirely fictional plot – that of the trial of Johannes van Heerden and Agnes Small, which allowed for a much more adult angle on the iniquitous and abhorrent practices of the apartheid era in South Africa.
PJ: I notice that you’ve kept your father’s name, Jack, for the main character – was it too difficult to call the character by another name?
BB: Its title in my early drafts was ‘Little Jackie’ and it took me a long time to relinquish it. Psychologically, parting with the title was the moment at which the book became a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. But I suppose that even now, with all the fictional additions, it remains closely based on actual events in my father’s life. I still feel that the book was only written because of my father and who he was. He died over twenty years ago, at the age of 70, and the book is, in no small measure, my tribute to him. He would have been immensely proud of my having written a novel at all, let alone to think that he was the inspiration for it. Calling him Jack kept that idea alive for me.
PJ: The scenes from Jack’s childhood are vivid – the period detail, the specific details of South African life – how much research did you do to get such details?
BB: I decided from the outset that I would not over-research. I wanted to see what I could make of what I had absorbed from my own experiences and memories and from the stories I’d been told as a child. And for someone who now regards herself as very ‘English’ – who came to this country at the age of five, went to English schools, married a British man and has lived an English, rather than an ex-pat South African life – I was quite shocked at how much I knew about the country my family had left behind and the kind of life that my parents and forebears had led. I set myself a rule that I wouldn’t use any Afrikaans or Yiddish words that I hadn’t heard used, or couldn’t summon up from my own memory. Amazingly, they all came flooding back, whether it was the word for knickers (broekies), or little insects (goggas), or expressions of pity (ag, siestog!). Memories of childhood trips back to Cape Town helped with descriptions of the landscape, as did photographs. My mother was a great critical reader, though both of us were amazed at how little she felt needed correcting. I have to say that there may well be people out there who could poke holes in the detail – I’m South African born but not bred after all – but I decided that, in writing a novel rather than a work of non-fiction, I’d give myself the licence to get the odd thing wrong. Rather that than end up doing lots of research that might sit heavily in the novel, drawing attention to itself in ways that didn’t feel natural.
PJ: Jack’s not speaking until he was five compels the reader to him. We watch with him, knowing that the boy who won’t speak, will eventually have to be bold with words. His muteness is never accounted for yet it’s totally believable – is this fact or fiction?
BB: My father’s muteness is fact – he only spoke at the age of five. Truthfully, I think he wasn’t talked to very much by his parents, who were far too preoccupied with making a living in the store and too absorbed in their own troubles to pay much attention to him. He was often put onto a sack of beans and simply left there to watch the to-ing and fro-ing of the customers in the family store. I felt, as you say, that it was a wonderful way of allowing him to be a silent observer, who acts as witness to events and to a complex social world. As the book progresses, speech and silence becomes a very significant motif for exploring the idea of both the power of language and the dangers of speaking out. Both personally, as a child, and then as he grows into adulthood, Jack discovers that when he does speak, it can be fraught with risk. What he tells his mother, as a little boy, has awful consequences that he doesn’t fully understand. Later, there are serious moral issues at stake, about whether or not to speak out for moral decency and against an immoral and repressive political system.
PJ: Again, with the court scenes – did you read court transcripts from the time, newspaper reports?
BB: My father actually defended someone on an indecency charge. I mention the details of that case in passing in the book. There was a man accused of sexual relations with a ‘coloured’ woman and my father was successful in winning a not guilty verdict, arguing that the street lighting was too poor for him to see what colour she was. My father was utterly appalled by this, as I was when the story was told to me as a child. It was the spark for the court case in the novel. I read one or two newspaper reports and came across an account of an early trial, in which a Dutch Reformed Church minister had been charged with an offence under the new indecency laws. It seemed like such a powerful and intriguing idea to me, that someone in his position, a figurehead for Afrikanerdom should be accused under this, of all laws. It highlighted for me all the contradictions and absurdities of apartheid. Once I’d decided to create this courtroom plot, I relished the opportunity to imagine and invent the lives of the people in this white Afrikaaner community and to explore all the complexities of their personal and political stances.
PJ: Can you say something about the shifts in tense/pov? Eg the adult Jack is narrated in 3rd person, past tense; the child Jack is first person – at moments of intensity in that childhood – the unpleasant scene on the beach involving Walter, you slip into present – was this consciously planned or just how the writing demanded to be written?
BB: The shifts in point of view were very consciously planned. I wanted the boy to witness things that he didn’t understand, things that the reader would be much more acutely aware of, so that there’s a level of irony, sometimes amusing, sometimes acutely painful. A good example of this is the end of the scene at the beach, where the little boy returns home and is called on to keep a secret from his mother. He’s very pleased that he’s managed to achieve this but quite oblivious to the other damaging things that he reveals to her in the process. The reader of course understands this. When I read this section aloud at a reading, the whole audience audibly groaned! The child’s eye view can be highly illuminating but is potentially a bit limiting, if you can never escape it. In the adult scenes I needed a more knowing narrative voice, that could present an adult perspective on sex, adultery, prejudice and politics. In terms of my use of the present tense, by contrast, I’d have to say that this was more of an instinctive, in the moment choice, arising out of the intensity of some of the experiences in the book. In a moment of pain, or fear or crisis, the present just felt right to me!
PJ: Your agent chose to publish the book on Kindle via Amazon – can you say something about the relationship agents have with Amazon – is this something quite new?
BB: It is quite new and I think the jury’s out about how much difference it makes to publish for Kindle via Amazon, through a literary agent or to do it entirely on your own. There seem to be some small advantages to doing it through an agent, around promotion opportunities and a certain smoothing of the way for you. I’ve seen some people questioning whether there’s any advantage but personally I’ve found it fantastic to have the enthusiastic involvement, advice and moral support of an agent. Elly James, at HHB Agency, has been a complete delight to work with and Jack Munnelly, who works with her on the ebook side of things has been terrific at all the practicalities, including dealing with Amazon over a few glitches, or making suggestions for ways of publicising the book. I’m well on the way with a second novel too, for which I hope Elly will represent me. People do self-publish on Kindle without the help of a literary agent but for me personally it’s given me such a lot of confidence to feel that there’s someone there, in the industry, who’s really rooting for me!
PJ: How important to you was the course at Birkbeck in finishing the novel?
BB: I loved doing my Creative Writing MA – it was a wonderful opportunity to write, to be read, to read other people’s work and to gain a sense of confidence in myself as a writer. But, paradoxically, it put back the writing of the novel for the two years of the course. I’d started the novel before going to Birkbeck but I ended up doing much more short story writing there. I’m not sorry about that – I think the short story writing was a really great apprenticeship in fiction-writing. As far as the novel went, though, I found that the multiple voices of tutors and other students commenting on it along the way was problematic. I was gaining confidence as a writer but losing confidence in the novel, getting conflicting comments from too many different sources, so I put it to one side. It felt too important to me to put it at risk. I’m really glad I did that. I think, with writing a novel, to some extent you need to find your own way, to get yourself through a draft and receive feedback at that stage. Hard though it is, you need to grapple with the fundamentals yourself before finding out what other people think.
PJ: Is there one [or two] piece[s] of advice you might offer to someone struggling with a first novel, particularly one that’s emerging from family history?
BB: I think it’s helpful to recognise that any reconstruction of real life or events is a narrative and that the boundary between fiction and non-fiction isn’t a hard and fast one. Being true to one’s subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t invent. In fact, no memoir or biographical work or family history is free from creative invention. The minute you write a bit of dialogue, you’re imaginatively reconstructing. The minute you describe a scene, you’re doing so through the filter of your own imagination. So, my advice would be to allow the creative, fictive, narrative potential to have free rein, rather than feeling overly constrained by the ‘truth’ of what actually happened. Of course, if what you write then seems ‘untrue’ or unrealistic, you need to think again. But narrative shaping, structuring and invention is vital in a work of fiction. That, rather than the minutiae of truthfulness, should be what guides the process of writing.
One other piece of advice is to tell yourself from the outset that you’re going to have to do much more re-drafting than you ever imagined was possible. Expect that and embrace it, rather than resisting or resenting it!
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
BB: I’ve just finished reading Americanah. I thought the ideas were fascinating and Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s whole project was really admirable but I was disappointed not to be more wowed by the writing itself. By contrast, for my book group I’ve been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, which is brilliant at creating a world of decadence and despair, with some quite magnificent writing but I was shocked and disturbed by the Anti-semitic tone and characterisation. My absolutely favourite recent read is a not very well known but brilliant book called Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi. In this book both ideas and writing are just wonderful.