Survival training for local readers

2012-08-22 00:00

COMBINING romance with the thorny issues of white guilt and black anger is risky for a writer, but Elana Bregin, whose Survival Training for Lonely Hearts (reviewed on this page) has just been published, does exactly that, and carries it off.

She agrees it was a challenge, but says it is all part of being a writer in South Africa.

“The context is so overwhelming that it’s easy to lose the narrative, but you can’t ignore the context. It’s a balancing act.”

At the book’s core is a romance, and while the audience for romance might normally resist the idea of the country’s politics being incorporated into the genre, Bregin explains what she has done by saying that South Africa is a wounded society, one that has been dominated by politics for a long time.

“But now, we have to use our personal interactions to take us forward.”

And, of course, in novels as in life, personal interactions can — and often do — mean romance. Bregin says: “I believe that romance is what makes the world go round, even if in South Africa, politics overshadows it a bit.”

Bregin says that what she has ended up with was not what she really intended to write when she started.

“The story hadn’t revealed itself: it happened through the characters. I’m a chaotic writer. I don’t write spatially. I write scenes and characters, and later on I put it all together. Then I leave it, and come back to it. I’ve had a lot of fun with this one — I enjoyed putting my characters into certain situations.”

Bregin works as a publisher’s editor for UKZN Press, and says that her editing work has given her an insight into the lives of people from backgrounds other than her own. “I meet authors to thrash through their stories, and this gives me a sense of where they have come from and why they write as they do.”

Her characters are fictitious, but, as with most writers, the people she has met contribute to their creation. She will admit that with one character — in fact her favourite — there is a little bit of authorial revenge. But the references are embedded in a way that only she will understand.

In the novel, the main character, Kate, tries to meet a soulmate through Internet dating — without much luck. Bregin says this part of the plot is a blend of fantasy and hearsay. “It’s the experience of others, though very elaborately fictionalised — and I did take the trip myself. It didn’t work for me. I came across stumbling blocks similar to the ones Kate faced. Sitting spending an evening with someone with whom you have nothing in common can be extremely painful, but I’m not knocking it — it works for some.”

But one part of the novel does come more closely from personal experience —– dog ownership.

“The first dog in the book is the only real, unfictionalised character,” says Bregin. This dog is an Africanis puppy, and without wanting to give anything away, hers is a sad story. “I had to go through a similar experience to Kate, and I was very cut up about it. But I really do find that dogs are a humanising experience, especially when you are living a self-absorbed life. They are something that comes into your life and needs you and your attention. Africanis and Alsatians in particular read your face, know your mood.”

Bregin has written in various genres —– for young adults, biography and short stories. Writers, particularly in South Africa, tend to get pigeon­holed and Bregin admits this can be a problem for someone who enjoys experimenting.

“But I really enjoyed writing this book. I wanted to capture a moment in this country, in our lives. That was such a challenge — until it reached the stage where the characters were taking me along. And now, adult fiction is probably where I would like to stay.”

Local readers should be grateful if she does.

• Elana Bregin will be one of the speakers at this weekend’s Midlands Literary Festival (see story on this page).

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