My first novel, Off the Voortrekker Road, was published as an ebook at the beginning of July. Within a day or two a lovely red label appeared next to my title saying, ‘No 1 Bestseller’. My heart beat faster. Wow, my novel must be selling like hotcakes! Then I read more closely ‘…in the ‘Sports Utility and Four Wheel Drive’ category. It took a while for me to work out that the words ‘Off’ and ‘Road’ in my title, had sent me shooting up the charts for lovers of mud, spinning wheels and revving engines. A few days’ later, the excitement was a little more justified, as my agent emailed to tell me that I was up to no 6 in the Amazon UK Kindle Jewish Fiction category.
How did my novel come to be published? In no small measure thanks to Birkbeck’s Mechanics’ Institute Review. I did the Creative Writing MA in 2009-11, had a couple of short stories published in two different MIRs, then last year submitted an extract from my draft novel for MIR10, which was accepted for publication. The student editor I worked with, Pamela Gough, was great—full of enthusiasm and optimism about the book. Prompted by her, I decided to put my name forward to do one of the MIR public readings. One October evening, I pitched up at Waterstones Gower Street, along with a few friends and family who’d turned out to support me and read an extract from the book. It was a lovely event and thrilling to be reading with other writers, with the support of a warm and sympathetic audience. When everyone got up to go, a woman came over and introduced herself as Elly James, a literary agent at HHB Agency. She’d come across the extract in MIR10 and come along specially to hear me read. She asked me to send her my full manuscript and within two days she was on the phone to me, saying she’d read it, loved it and wanted to fix up to meet me to sign me up with the agency.
From the outset, I took to Elly. She has been a great person to work with and very energetic in her efforts to get me published. I knew from that first conversation with her, in a Costa coffee shop, that she absolutely understood the book; I felt that if anyone could sell it, she could. However debut novels, as everyone knows, are notoriously difficult to sell to publishers and despite a whole slew of very positive comments coming back, we couldn’t find someone willing to take a punt on the book.
What next? We agreed to publish it as an ebook, via the deal that agents have with Amazon. I was helped by Elly and Jack at HHB, and by my colleague, Lucy, who is a whiz with the technology and managed to do all the conversion of files to meet Amazon’s demands. With surprisingly little fuss, up it went! A book that had taken me a good few years to write, redraft, edit and re-edit was up there, in public, within seconds of Jack confirming the last few details over the phone and pressing a ‘send’ button.
What is the book about? It’s a story that started with personal family history and ended up as fiction. My father was a child of Jewish parents who travelled from Eastern Europe to South Africa in the early twentieth century. He told me stories about his difficult childhood in Cape Town and his equally troubled early life as a barrister with radical leanings, in the 1930s and 40s, the period of the rise of apartheid. What was too painful or difficult for him to talk about was filled in by my mother, in stories that I came to love hearing. When I decided to draw on these in my writing, I began with a reconstruction of what I’d been told but fairly soon realised that my personal investment in them was getting in the way of the writing. I was too focused on re-creating some mythical ‘truth’ about my father’s life, too concerned to do justice to him and not concerned enough about the development of a satisfying narrative. The little boy growing up in his father’s hardware store (Bleiman’s Handyhouse), sitting on a sack of beans and silently watching the flow of life, his parents’ marital struggles and the racial and political tensions so evident around him, had to stay. But I had to give myself the licence to invent new characters and events, new places and plots, in order to create a world that, while remaining true to the spirit of my father’s life, would not be limited by painstaking faithfulness to the facts. The boy on the sack of beans, the Handyhouse and much else in the novel are straight from the family tales; the trial that is central to the adult strand of the novel, is heavily inspired by a story my father told me about a white man he defended who was accused of sexual relations with a ‘coloured’ woman. But all of the characters and the events surrounding the trial are themselves entirely imagined. And I loved imagining them! The Reverend Johannes van Heerden, his wife Laura, the members of their church and community, the advocate’s secretary Vera, the woman Agnes Small, are all entirely invented and became as important to the plot as any of the characters who had their origins in real people. Fact and fiction became, for me, delightfully blurred.
I found myself, at rather a late stage, wondering (and worrying) about what my long-since deceased father would have thought about the liberties I had taken with his life. But my mother has reassured me, confirming my own feeling that I’ve been true to the most important things about him—not the small details, the ‘did he do this or that’ kind of questions, but the deeper truths about his sense of honour and justice, his beliefs about morality and racial equality that had always made me admire him as a man. I felt, in the end, that I’d managed to depict some essential ideas about the decent human being that Off the Voortrekker Road shows him struggling to become.
Off the Voortrekker Road by Barbara Bleiman is available on Amazon Kindle.