Guest speaker at the last Literary Tea at Fish Hoek Library for 2012 was author Barbara Erasmus. With a delightful sense of humour she gave her audience insight into her life as a writer and the creative process.
“I began my writing career as a journalist when I turned 50 and soon learnt the cardinal rule: To follow a career in journalism you must marry money!” said Barbara with a smile. “You won’t make money as a journalist, especially in South Africa. So few people buy books, newspapers or magazines. I took this advice more than 40 years ago and married the “Silver Fox’. I am attached to his pension like a blood sucking leech!”
Barbara has written four books and a screenplay. Her first two books were published by Penguin. “I have been reading Penguin books since their covers were orange and white! I type fast but badly, using two fingers. Penguin has a squad of proof readers so despite my bad typing there were no mistakes in my first two works. However, I decided to publish and proofread ‘Chameleon’ myself. The first copies arrived 15 minutes before my book launch – riddled with mistakes ! Not only were they badly typed but badly proofed as well! More money had to be drawn from the pension fund for reprinting!”
“Apartheid stalled my writing career for a long time – one could not find a South African book that did not deal with apartheid. I felt inadequate when it came to writing such a novel. But after 1994 I felt I could start writing about completely different issues – but then had to decide what to write about.” Barbara never writes about herself. Instead she tries to pick a topic with “intentional relevance.” She spends a great deal of time researching various subjects, an occupation that she finds very worthwhile. “The triggers for my topics are very random. The ideas for Kaleidoscope were birthed when I was on a Lifeline shift with a Masters student studying a child with autism. The death notice of a stranger triggered the ideas for Even with Insects. My latest novel, Below Luck Level, is about a daughter and her mother coming to terms with Alzheimer’s.”
Describing her modus operandi, Barbara said that she writes the first and last chapter of her book before anything else. “I need to know where I am going. Then I have to think about the way to get from my first paragraph to my last one. After this comes the research. My methods of research have changed since my first two books. For these my research was hands-on. I spent time with rehabilitated prisoners and at a school for autistic children. My latest book I researched completely on the internet.
The internet dazzles me. One can ask any obscure question and get up to date information. From the reports of this year’s conference on Alzheimer’s I learnt that by 2050 it is predicted that there will be two billion people over 60 years of age and within five years, 10% of them will have Alzheimer’s. This figure will double every 5 years. In the USA there is a huge budget for exploring the causes of Alzheimer’s and for sustaining the people with the disease. How will South Africa cope when we have such backlogs in education and other important areas?.”
In her novel Below Luck Level Barbara has tried to deal with the tragedy of Alzheimer’s in an empathetic way. “The ‘mom’ in the book was always eccentric. She was a political activist in Britain and at university with Thabo Mbeki. When her symptoms start showing, her daughter is not sure whether it is ‘just Mom being Mom’ or whether something more serious was happening. I have tried not to be depressing and to keep the writing light. Although Alzheimer’s can change a person, it cannot change who they were. That memory should be intact. Alzheimer’s was first diagnosed in 1906. The patient was 56. When you are diagnosed with early autism you know what lies ahead for you and your family. It is a very hard thing.”
Extracts from all her books are available on her web-site www.barbaraerasmus.com
In response to a question from the audience, Barbara spoke briefly about her other books. “Kaleidoscope is about two sisters, one an actuary and the other an actress. One has an autistic child The sisters come to terms with each other through the child.
Even with Insects is a story about careers, friendships and choice.
Chameleon is my attempt at a crime novel, based on a local case of insider trading. I swore I would not write another one! However, in 2013 I will be travelling by train in India. Who knows? Maybe I’ll write Murder on the Rajasthan Royal!’
Whatever the topic , booklovers can look forward to Barbara’s next book.
Although living in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, Barbara confessed to considering Fish Hoek Library to be the best library in the Cape: “It is a wonderful resource and has great atmosphere.” Her words gladdened the hearts of retiring head librarian Lyn Steyn and her colleagues who have invested much energy into the library over the past few decades. It is with great sadness that we bid Lyn, Kay and Jean farewell.