How a picture inspired a novel

2011-12-08 00:00

Pamela Sherriffs, the Pietermaritzburg author and artist known for the best-selling pocket book ‘Forgive Me I’m an Impatient Mlungu’, has brought out her first fictional book, ‘Anaximander’s Reproach’. TRISH BEAVER spoke to her

Q: Have you always wanted to write a novel?

A: I think so. I’ve always assumed that I would. I had quite a few false starts that never got anywhere because basically they weren’t proper stories, just half-baked my own life in disguise kind of things that fortunately didn’t see the light of day. This one is a real story that has nothing to do with me.


What gave you the idea for this story?

I was killing time in a second-hand book shop, and to stop the owner looking at me with what I felt was suspicion, I bought an ancient book on landscape gardening. A few months later, I happened to glance through it, and the main character walked into my head, fully formed, through a photo of an old garden with an arched gate.


How did you write a historical novel without getting stuck in a specific time period?

It’s not really a historical novel. It’s just a story that needed a place and a time. I looked and looked for the right setting, and finally settled on a few decades in British history. But it could have happened in lots of different settings.


How would you describe this book — what genre is it?

I hate the word genre. It’s hard to say and makes a book sound boring. But I suppose if Anaximander had to choose somewhere to sit in a library of types, it would be on a shelf with Gone With the Wind and maybe A Tale of Two Cities. It’s about good people under extreme circumstances. It’s certainly not an Aga saga.


Did you have to research any aspects before writing it?

Yes. I read and read and read. I took piles of books out of the varsity library and ordered stacks on the Internet. My discarded notes are much longer than the book. It’s a skill you have to learn — to leave out things. Nobody wants to be impressed with how much work you’ve done.


Who are your favourite authors?

Charles Dickens. I read him over and over. I like Agatha Christie. I’m a big fan of Deon Meyer. My favourite literary character I’d say is Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher. I love Reacher. I’m outraged that they’ve chosen Tom Cruise to play him in the movie. Everybody knows Tom Cruise’s forehead is not thick enough to stop a speeding bullet.


What books do you like to read?

I love good detective stories. If I’m gripped I’ll read until I finish. If I’m not, I won’t finish the first page. I don’t give books chances, which is a bit sobering considering that the boot’s now on the other foot.


Most South Africans write books about South Africa. Why did you choose such a foreign topic?

It was only when I realised that I didn’t have to write about South Africa that I was freed to write a real story. Before, I’d always thought: “It’ll just be a story. I won’t say a thing about politics.” But then you’re restricting your possibilities before you even start.


This book is so different from your last book (Forgive Me I’m an Impatient Mlungu). Which idea came first?

Anaximander, actually. Impatient Mlungu took me about six months to do. Anaximander took at least six years. Three of those trying to perfect the beginning. Finally, I just deleted it and started on chapter two.


Why did you self-publish?

After about the 20th rejection slip from agents and publishers, I got tired of getting them. I knew it was a nice story so I thought I might as well take a punt on it. But first I just put my toe in the water by printing a few copies to give out. Often people thought they’d better plod through it to be polite, then they’d get into it and forget it was written by me.


Will you write more books?

I hope so, but I don’t know. It’s hard to know where good stories come from. Some people say they are already out there somewhere, fully formed. You don’t make them up. They come to you and you write them down. I don’t know if another good story will come to me.


How does the writing process work for you — what inspires you?

Again, I’m not sure. Anaximander is a complex story with lots to hold together and tie up. It took masses of planning, but I didn’t write it systematically from beginning to end. Some of the most important parts I scribbled down late at night. Often parts would come to me while I was driving up the north coast for work. I built my house while I was still writing, and specially designed a spot where I planned to finish the book. Then I never could write a word there, and finished the whole thing on one end of my dining-room table.


How has the book changed your life?

It hasn’t, actually. But there’s a relief in knowing that I have written something I like and am proud of. I won’t go through life thinking I’m sure I could have written a nice book if only I’d tried.

• Anaximander’s Reproach is available at Exclusive Books.

• For more information visit Sherriffs’ blog:

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