Midnight oil burners

The midnight oil burners, 11 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


There is no magic trick for turning yourself into a full-time writer, observes Ndumiso Ngcobo, somewhat drily stating what he already knows as a novelist himself.

"There is a magic formula," pipes in Petina Gappah, "you just have to be really lucky."

Gappah knows. Of the three panelists discussing with Ngcobo how they manage to write books while working at something else all day, she is the only one who has found that holy grail of most writers' missions: enough success to write full time – if she wanted to.

Yewande Omotoso and Richard de Nooy still divide their lives between making money and writing, the two things remaining – for most African writers – mutually exclusive activities. Omotoso is an architect and De Nooy works as a translator.

Gappah says it was pure luck that her novel, An Elegy For Easterly, came out in 2008. Zimbabwe was imploding and the election that wasn't really an election had gained international attention.

"The book also seemed to tie in with universal themes. I have now been published in fifteen languages. I could become a full-time writer. But that would mean working on advances. A publisher got excited about my next book based on three chapters and a synopsis and offered me an advance. Sounds like a good problem to have, huh?" she asked her fellow panelists, who, it wouldn't be a stretch to say, were looking a little stunned.

"Well, it's not. I found it incredibly stressful. You get all this money, and you spend it before you've finished writing the book. It got so bad I completely stopped writing for a while. I decided that from now on I'd first write my books and then sell them."

When Gappah wrote her successful book she was a single mother working in Europe as a lawyer. She woke at 3.30am every day and wrote until 6.30, when she woke her son and took him to school. Her day job started at 8.30. She sometimes used her lunch hour to revise, went home at 5.30 and went to bed early.

"I lost all my friends during that time, but it was okay, I got them back again when I won prizes."

Omotoso, author of Bom Boy, said: "I also feel a lot more intelligent in the mornings, so I get up around 4 or 5am and would write until 8am."

De Nooy, author of The Big Stick, said that after he gets the children off to school in the morning he spends a lot of time "holding out and procrastinating".

"It's a short walk between my little office and the place outside I go to smoke and the parquet on the floor there is worn through."

Omotoso and Gappah like their day jobs. Unlike De Nooy.

"I truly despise translating."

He might spend some of his day planning a book, but the real writing happens when he occasionally disappears to a friend's country cottage and spends up to sixteen hours per day writing. Which, he says, is better for his family because "I'm not a very pleasant person when I'm writing a book."

Predictably, the conversation turned to whether the authors were writing books people were buying and whether they wouldn't be able to support themselves better if they wrote Dan Brown type novels. All three authors agreed that writing something that didn't feel like it was true to the stories burgeoning inside them, they wouldn't bother. Even if it did mean they'd then be able to spend all their time writing.

Ngcobo offered each writer an imaginary twenty million dollars and asked what they'd do with their writing in a situation like that. De Nooy would probably give up translating. Gappah would not give up her community work or local politics in Zimbabwe.

Omotoso said: "I'd just spend the rest of my life reading."

De Nooy, Omotoso, Gappah and Ngcobo at the event