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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Spark: Walk by James Whyle

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.


James Whyle was born and bred in the Amatole Mountains in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Conscripted into the apartheid army, he was discharged on the grounds of insanity. He did everything in his power to assist the authorities in arriving at this diagnosis.

His story The Story was chosen by JM Coetzee as winner of the 2011 Pen/Studzinski competition. His novel The Book of War won the Debut Prize at the M-NET Literary Awards in 2013.

In this week’s The Spark, Whyle talks about shipwrecks and lonely journeys and cultural connections and disconnections in his book, Walk.

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The Spark for The Walk by James Whyle

It was more a smoulder than a spark, a long smoulder, like the fires that burn for decades in disused coal mines, inhibited only by scarcity of oxygen.

Sometime in the 1980s, the filmmaker Guy Spiller approached me with an idea for a project. He gave me a book with an unwieldy title, A Source Book on the Wreck of the Grosvenor East Indiaman. Buried deep inside it was William Hubberly’s journal, which recounts, day by day, his walk from the shipwreck in northern Pondoland, down the Transkei Wild Coast, to the great dune deserts just east of Port Elizabeth. It is a tale of unspeakable suffering and it has a fine and simple plot. Stranded in a strange land, 150 castaways set out for home and one by one they are left behind or they starve or they are murdered until in the end there is only one left and that last survivor must surely be accounted the loneliest person in the word.

At the beginning of 2012  had just finished an MA at Stellenbosch and the novel I had written for the course, The Book of War, was making its way into book shops and the world. I went to Stellenbosch on the recommendation of a friend, novelist and playwright Harry Kalmer, and I was lucky because The Book of War book found the best mentors it could have had in Marlene van Niekerk and Willem Anker. I inferred from them that there was some hope if I was prepared to keep writing. But what?

It was Cormac McCarthy that convinced me I should try my hand at fiction. Reading him I mean, we’re not friends or anything. Although God knows he feels like one sometimes but then so does Willie Shakspere and Norman Mailer. In any event, I came back to William Hubberly’s story with a thought. What if the book had, at its centre, an emotional relationship as powerful as that between the father and the son in McCarthy’s The Road? So I started writing, reworking the account of the shipwreck that is given in the Source Book and following William Hubberly step by step. In my mind was the hope that characters, as had been the case with The Book of War, might arise naturally out of the source material and take action to enrich the story. As I worked, however, I came to realise that any novelisation, any icing on the narrative, was fraudulent and unnecessary. I wanted to stick as close to the truth as possible, and I came to love the way Hubberly mentioned people’s names only when the died or were left behind. “In the night,” he writes, “John Howse, a seaman, died through great weariness.” It seemed senseless to try and improve on that.

There’s a mystery in William Hubberly’s story, and in Walk. The Nguni peoples along the coast treated the castaways with prodigious cruelty. They stole from them, stoned them and assaulted them with wooden clubs. In some cases they murdered them. Asked for food, they would bring out gourds of milk and pour it for their dogs. And yet, when they were approached singly, or in small groups, in their villages, they were capable of treating strangers with great kindness. As I worked I realised that this was the true theme and narrative of the book.

The first meeting of discrete cultures, each with their own mythology and world view and technology, is seldom a pretty sight. Even when the cultures are related, it takes a bit of time for things to settle. Thomas Babington Macaulay will tell you that England only became England centuries after the Norman invasion when the settlers’ Northern French dialect was finally absorbed into Anglo Saxon and modern English began to emerge.

Walk, like The Book of War, is an attempt to understand the slow, ongoing, forming of South Africa. It has only three characters: the boy, who is a version of William Hubberly, the castaways, and the people. The people being the various Nguni polities that inhabited the coast. Walk is about South Africa now. About how we got here, how we came to be what we are. That’s the spark, ultimately. How the hell did we get here, Lauren? How the hell did we get here?


Find James on:  Twitter

The Red Room



The Book of War

In the pipeline



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