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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Alan Paton Award shortlist: Q&A with The Unlikely Secret Agent author Ronnie Kasrils

Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-01

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What are the challenges of writing about something factual or “real” as opposed to writing a work of fiction?

You have to make sure your facts are accurate and verifiable. Where supposition comes in you need to make that clear.

Do you think that because of South Africa’s troubled political past, we have more interesting stories to tell than other countries?

I would think so; although certainly every country, every age has its own uniqueness.

Are South African readers still keen to find out the truth behind the scandals reported in the daily media, or are they more interested in escapist fiction to immunise them against the chaos surrounding them daily?

One has to guess here. Certainly the appeal of escapism is reflected in the demands of the market. And unfortunately I don’t think readers in general are so discerning that the demand is for the “truth” as opposed to enjoying conjecture about scandal. In this respect I don’t think South African readers are that different from readers elsewhere. Even a so-called more sophisticated society such as the USA or Britain is testament to this. It does put a great responsibility on investigative journalism and in this respect our country has seen a great degree of progress, both during and since the apartheid years.

Is there room for non-fiction writing that doesn’t encompass our apartheid past in this country?

Absolutely. No doubt about this. However, it is historically and currently vital that we do have a focus on the effects of our long colonial era and the shorter apartheid years. I don’t think we need to be hung up about either.

Do you think non-fiction, by its very nature, should have more prominence than fiction in the bookstores? In other words, is it more worthy of promotion than fiction?

I am not an absolutist in this regard. We should not favour one at the expense of the other. I do not believe in determining what people must read. However, we do need to get non-fiction across in the schools to reinforce the history curricula. Of course, in dealing with the teaching of history, or a particular social period, a novel can make a tremendous contribution – novels like The Good Soldier Schweik, about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, First World War, and anti-militarism; For Whom The Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War; War and Peace; Story of an African Farm.

What does this nomination mean to you and is it really good enough just to be nominated?

I think it is tremendous just to be nominated. At this stage the judges will have been impressed by all shortlisted works and only one can win. I remind myself of that so as not to be disappointed. I am more than contented that my work has made it to the nomination stage anyway. Most of all I am delighted that a book about my late wife, which is a tribute to her, will have caught the panel’s eye and through that nomination will be noted by the wider reading public. For the purpose of my book was to make the extraordinary courage she exhibited known to our people.

Are you keen to keep writing in the genre of non-fiction or do you plan to write fiction soon? If so, what attractions does fiction offer you as a writer?

I have loved writing since schooldays. I wrote some short stories which were published ages ago in the Tanzanian press when I lived there. I have had five non-fiction works published – three on Bertrand Russell with a fellow author and my memoir Armed & Dangerous, which I enjoyed producing. I am considering a sequel to The Unlikely Secret Agent, but I am immensely attracted to the challenge of writing political fiction of the thriller genre. After leaving school I worked as a scriptwriter for a Johannesburg film company and see things in a very visual manner. I would say my latest work is an example of that.

I would base fictional writing on real lived experience. The genre gives one the scope to expand one’s imagination; to mix different characters; to get into the skin of the adversary; to raise awkward, secretive questions – without self-censorship. South Africa’s troubled history, and contemporary times, lends itself to such methodology. As a protagonist in this period, with all its sensitivities, I feel I would be liberated by the fictional form to delve far more deeply than otherwise.

Does receiving recognition like this not make writing your next book a bit daunting? 

No. But I would hate to be like Arnold Wesker who produced a trilogy of great plays in the 1960s and thereafter to forever mope for recognition on the margins. If I hit it right with my latest work and failed with subsequent attempts I know could accept the reality and go and do different things. Well then I’m getting to an advanced age, so what would it matter?

Which authors have influenced your writing?

I loved Hemingway in my early years. I read and reread For Whom the Bell Tolls every other year. I would love to write a book like that about South Africa. I think his terse, straightforward prose and dialogue has influenced me. I like to write in that direct way and not allow extraneous things to get in the way of the story. I am besotted by John le Carré, who writes sometimes in a meandering manner, so different from Hemingway – but that is so much part of the devious nature of his characters and plot. I graduated from Graham Greene to Le Carré and for me both are masters of what I seek to produce – strong plots, intrigue, human frailty, betrayal and courage. This is not for a “boy’s own” populous recipe but because I discern this as a way of dealing with our recent/current history.

What inspires you?

The courage ordinary people are capable of when faced by danger; the struggle for a noble cause; tenderness and love ...