Book Dashing (aka making magic happen)
 One of the reasons Book Dash exists.

One of the reasons Book Dash exists.

We're in the appropriately sunny Sunflower Library at Zonnebloem Primary on the edge of District Six in Cape Town, and it's exactly like stepping through the back of the wardrobe, except that this very South African Narnia is a completely happy place.

For me, taking part in a Book Dash day -- when groups of creative professionals get together to create free, open-access online and print books for children all around the world -- is worth a truckload of therapy and happy pills. The mission is simple: to put good books with local content into the hands of tens of thousands of small children, with the goal of every child owning a hundred books by the age of five. Does that sound impossible? Not if the Dashers have anything to do with it. Not only are the print books free, but you can download them onto a phone or tablet, translate them, print them and distribute them anywhere in the world.

How does it work? The rest of this blog will rely on pictures to convey the energy and yes, the magic.

 Julia welcomes the teams: each consists of a writer, illustrator and designer. With the help of an editor and amazing logistical support, they create an entire book in one day.

Julia welcomes the teams: each consists of a writer, illustrator and designer. With the help of an editor and amazing logistical support, they create an entire book in one day.

 It takes four generous and creative souls to make a good children's book. Here's Team Five putting together  The Dream Pillow.

It takes four generous and creative souls to make a good children's book. Here's Team Five putting together The Dream Pillow.

 Make no mistake, this is serious work. Here's Team Eight, creating  The Fish Who Couldn't Swim .

Make no mistake, this is serious work. Here's Team Eight, creating The Fish Who Couldn't Swim.

 Everyone cares about what they're doing. Matthew and Ingrid ponder  Grandpa Farouk's Garden .

Everyone cares about what they're doing. Matthew and Ingrid ponder Grandpa Farouk's Garden.

 "Quick! Catch that idea before it escapes!" Team Six pinning down  You! Yes, you!

"Quick! Catch that idea before it escapes!" Team Six pinning down You! Yes, you!

 Writing runs on coffee. Harry doing a great job of keeping us fueled.

Writing runs on coffee. Harry doing a great job of keeping us fueled.

 Something the support team always gets right: very superior snacks for all.

Something the support team always gets right: very superior snacks for all.

 There's a lot of laughter: Mazi and Clyde joke around, and that's Alex chuckling in the background too.

There's a lot of laughter: Mazi and Clyde joke around, and that's Alex chuckling in the background too.

 It helps when the support team keeps smilling: here's Neo live-tweeting the event.

It helps when the support team keeps smilling: here's Neo live-tweeting the event.

 When you score one of the country's best children's book illustrators for a story you've wanted to write for EIGHTEEN YEARS. Alex Latimer busy drawing scenes that existed only in my head yesterday.

When you score one of the country's best children's book illustrators for a story you've wanted to write for EIGHTEEN YEARS. Alex Latimer busy drawing scenes that existed only in my head yesterday.

 And the brilliant Jennifer Jacobs neatly and efficiently turning ideas and images into a Real Live Book. Meet  Toast , everyone!

And the brilliant Jennifer Jacobs neatly and efficiently turning ideas and images into a Real Live Book. Meet Toast, everyone!

Helen Moffett
A Wandering Star: Catching up with Alexandra Fuller
 Photograph of Alexandra Fuller in Wyoming by Laure Joliet,  The New York Times /Redux. No copyright infringement intended.

Photograph of Alexandra Fuller in Wyoming by Laure Joliet, The New York Times/Redux. No copyright infringement intended.

I met Alexandra (Bobo) Fuller for the first time at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in 2009. It was a blustery wet night back when winter still delivered plentiful rain. The fanfare accompanying her memoir of her Zimbabwean childhood, Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, preceded her everywhere. So I was star-struck, and even more so when overhearing someone ask her how her visit to Zambia had been – she’d just come from visiting family there: “My parents are fine, and there was a puffadder living under my bed.”

I had grown up with boomslangs in the attic. Common ground? I loitered closer. And then the kind of opportunity fans dream of presented itself: Fuller continued, in the carrying tones of those educated in anglophone boarding schools: “I’m having the most appalling period pains. I want to curl up and howl. Truly, I might be dying, and I’ve got this whole effing evening to get through.”

Hallelujah! In my handbag I carried extremely effective meds for this very purpose. I stepped forward and offered them. I gave her one to take immediately, washed down with the glass of red wine in her hand, another to swallow if no relief within 30 minutes, and a third for the next day. She gulped down the magic pill with profuse thanks and zero qualms about accepting drugs from a stranger, and then tides of people took her away. Half an hour later, there was a tug at my arm. “It’s a miracle! I feel human again.”

So after that bonding experience, there was affection and connection whenever our paths and years crossed. She came across an anthology on landscapes of Southern Africa (Lovely Beyond Any Singing) that I had compiled; living thousands of miles from her heart-home, it became a portal to Africa for her. Meanwhile, I gobbled up everything she wrote.

Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight introduced readers to her piercing combination of honesty and generosity (“she looks back with rage and love,” said one reviewer), as well as a sometimes near-hallucinatory style. I found Scribbling The Cat, an account of her travels with a veteran of the “Rhodesian War” too intense and unguarded to bear, but her next book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, is a small masterpiece of biography. In it, she tells the true and haunting story of a young Wyoming roustabout who fell to his death from an oil rig because the drilling company had failed to install safety rails.

She told me she’d written her first three books because silence has never been an option for her: the first was an attempt to give voice to what had until then been unspoken, the second the unspeakable (“an impossible project”), and in the third, she tried to speak for the speechless dead.

It’s hard not to admire the honesty with which she writes of a dysfunctional (“operatic”) but loving home, of the struggles to locate herself within adopted, adored and ultimately alien countries. Her Africa memoirs culminate in Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness, a loving account of her mother’s extraordinary, messy and bravura life. One of the most striking scenes involves Nicola Fuller, who insisted on flying lessons, singing “Fly Me To The Moon” under a swollen gold moon as she comes in to land on a patchy Zambian airfield. 

Relocating to Wyoming after marrying an American, Fuller forged ahead with writing the stories of yet another adopted home, and so came The Legend of Colton H. Bryant and Leaving Before the Rains Come. When she read from the former at the Cape Town launch at the Book Lounge, her audience held cans of Mountain Dew in one hand and tissues in the other.

Until I read her most recent work, her debut novel Quiet Until the Thaw, I found Leaving her most absorbing book: a memoir of the corrosive effects of unresolved trauma, displacement and financial disaster on two generations of family. But this is no kitchen-sink drama; the book charges towards a cliffhanger that would be improbable in fiction. Against the backdrop of their crumbling marriage, she fights like a tiger to save her husband’s life after a riding accident leaves him on the point of death. It’s clear that even if she made a lousy wife (she is brutally honest about her failings), she’s a very good person to have in your corner when things go wrong.

Now, after producing memoirs of a range of unforgettable people, ranging from her closest kin to a stranger, she has turned to fiction. She is in South Africa to attend Stellenbosch University’s Woordefees, a festival that celebrates and attracts a wide range of cultural and literary artists. This gave us the chance to spend an hour talking about the past, her new novel, and the life she has recrafted in Wyoming, where she now lives in a yurt: “Impermanence has become important”, she says.


The thing about Alexandra Fuller is that if you ask her how she is, she will tell you. She is unflinchingly, almost unnervingly truthful. We pick up from our last conversation as if years, an ocean and two books haven’t intervened. She tells me of the shattering breakdown that followed the death of her father, to whom her novel is dedicated: of the family upheaval that followed, the self-medicating with alcohol, the flashbacks to childhood traumas, the struggle to come to terms with her parents’ failure to protect her from a predatory neighbour, which for her is wound up one of her lifelong tasks: comprehending and atoning for the complicity of her settler history and its embedding in colonial racism.

The connection might not seem obvious to the casual bystander, but it’s all about cycles of violence, she keeps telling me. They keep repeating, and so we have to understand how deep they run, the places they have their roots. Few people hold so squarely in their sights the mechanics of how patriarchal exploitation and abuse of women and children is tied into the structural violence of racism and colonialism, of the exploitation of the planet’s resources to the extent of making our only home uninhabitable, of genocides and the way military, political and cultural forces enact these, and then blame the victims for the host of ills that follow.

This brings us to her most recent work and first novel, Quiet Until The Thaw. Set on an Indian reservation (“The Rez”) of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation, in South Dakota, it tells the story of cousins who choose different paths in response to their experiences of being pushed to the barest margins of society in their own country. Written with deceptive simplicity, it engages with all the issues mentioned above, most especially the perennial problem of violence, and the only solution: to recognise the interconnectedness of all things and peoples, and thus to grasp that any violence we perpetrate will haunt, twist and scar us, and our children, and their children.

When giving testimony against the oil company on whose rig Colton H. Bryant died, she discovered that different procedures were followed when drilling on Indian land. She began to visit, to listen, joining in endurance rides where she was “invisible”. I tease her about rushing in again where angels fear to tread: a white woman, a double settler, trying to tell the story of another culture, another way of life. She acknowledges the enormity of this task, that she strove above all “for humility”. It shows in her writing.

I ask how it felt, making the jump from memoir to fiction – a stumbling block for many writers – and she laughs: “This is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.”

This might seem strange, especially if one reads the blurb on the back cover, which repeats all the familiar tropes of a multi-generational Cain-and-Abel story, of “broedertwis”, giving the impression one has picked up a family saga with an extra dollop of liberal earnestness. Nothing could be further from the truth: the book has no epic thrust or sprawling narrative. Instead, it is a series of beautifully wrought vignettes, written in chapters of no more than 250 words at a time, with chapter headings that advance the story. These near-fragments are funny, searing, lyrical and wise.

“They’re all true,” she tells me. “Everything in that book, all the characters: they’re real – it’s all reportage. I just listened and stitched the pieces together.” She goes on to explain that the structure of the book is modelled on Indian storytelling, where one voice will speak, and another will chime in with a detail or the addition of a character or event, and then another; the story belongs to all. Even when creation myths are told, they are spoken quietly to sleeping children.

One of the pleasures of the book is Fuller’s trademark lyricism: “Snow around the tepee became like mashed sweet potatoes, then like kernels of corn, then granular sugar, and finally it melted completely and puddled up in the tufts of last year’s old grass.” Even the throwaway phrases – “tiny wrens with their big songs” – are polished to perfection.

This is not to say that Fuller doesn’t also recount the bad, the ugly, the bleak and the frankly hideous: she pulls no punches about life on an Indian reservation, and the ills that bloom like black mould in these contexts of despair and deprivation. She manages that rare trick: effective sarcasm, and although the book spans seven decades, from McCarthyism to Standing Rock, trenchant commentary on current events is never far away: for instance, she writes that the absence of incest taboos among white settler Americans eventually created “a class of chinless, insecure, wig-wearing golfers”.

The book distills a great deal of wisdom, but this extract showcases both the extreme pragmatism and idealism Fuller learned from the Lakota – the “much madness [that] is divinest sense”:

Even if we stopped everything right now, all the war and abuse and hurt and injury, and treated each other with nothing but love.

We’d still have generations to go before we settled into real peace, but it would be real peace.

The question isn’t “Why bother?”

It’s “Why not?”

Perhaps the answer is that most people don’t believe in themselves enough to imagine one or two or seven generations down the line, the way the Lakota are trained to think. Perhaps they refuse to entrust the possibility of peace to some as yet unborn descendants because their own ancestors no such respect for their possibility of peace. An eye for an eye in ever-increasing cycles of violence going all the way around to where this all ends, and all begins.

So when I ask her about recent events in Zimbabwe, her message remains the same: while she is encouraged, even overjoyed by the departure of two Southern African despots, Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma, her question is: will these changes, upheavals even, break what in a National Geographic interview she calls “the half-life of war”, the pattern of violence that haunts both countries?

We also speak about the water crisis afflicting Cape Town in particular, but with the drought so severe that three South African provinces have been declared national disaster zones. We speak about the myopia of the middle classes, the consumerist grasshoppers who go on devouring resources as if they were as limitless as our appetites for stuff, for profligacy, for waste. This numbness, the profound disconnection between we who live on the earth and our immediate surroundings, as if we are not interlinked and inter-dependent, is something she tackles head-on in Quiet Until The Thaw.

We return, finally, to the yurt that is now her home. I tell her that she has come full circle: that after a life of wandering, she is now a permanent itinerant. She yelps with laughter: “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right.”

I wish her the peace she deserves. And look forward to reading about her future inward and outward journeys.





Helen Moffett
Watergeddon: An open letter to the Mayor of Cape Town

Dear Patricia:

(Forgive the informality – we’ve been introduced several times.)

You’ve really, truly, deeply stuffed this one up, haven’t you? Yes, #WaterCrisis. I’m not blaming you for the fact that it hasn’t rained, btw; and it’s not your fault the middle and moneyed classes of Cape Town treat water as an infinitely endless resource which they are entitled to abuse. I’m talking about the way-way too little and late response of the City to the fact that we’re about to run out of water (something every successive city administration has known about since 2001). I’m won't mention the fact that as little as seven months ago, you were still sitting on your Queen Canute throne shouting “I will not allow a well-run city to run out of water!”

But at least in the last few months, the penny has dropped that no human agent on earth can fly up to the clouds and wring precipitation from them. So now you’re saying we’re almost certainly going to reach a day when the taps will be switched off. Well, yes; some of us have been trying to tell you this for a very long time now.

I read your statement of yesterday (18 Jan) with disbelief. As a means of communicating with a frightened citizenry – about a coming apocalypse, no less – it was one more in a long line of spectacular fails.

Alas, you are not to get us to save the tiny bit of water we have left by scolding. That’s just going to alienate those who’ve been doing their best, hauling water from springs, saving every drop of grey water, wearing dirty clothes and letting our yellow mellow. We are hot, tired, scared, smelly, and our backs hurt from lugging buckets.*

Now this, and frankly, these lines take the biscuit: “Despite our urging[…], 60% of Capetonians are callously using more than 87l per day. It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending us all headlong towards Day Zero[….] At this point we must assume that they will not change their behaviour[….] We can no longer ask people to save water. We must force them.”

“Callous”? Do you think the callous, by definition, care about being called names? Did you believe you could simply ASK these people to do the right thing, and they would? How did you think this was going to go down in a city with Cape Town’s particularly toxic history of disparities and injustices, and a particularly arrogant and entitled middle class?

You needed to launch an arsenal of sticks and carrots yonks ago. It was YOUR JOB to force the uncaring and oblivious to save water. Surely you understand that the kinds of people who guzzle water sans conscience respond to only one thing: being hit really, really hard in the goolies (err – I mean pocket)? That, and fear – particularly of having to smell their own ordure (of which, more later).

The rest of us – we are only human – respond to encouragement, clear and helpful information, and incentives. Including financial incentives. Remember when we got rebates and subsidies and tax credits for gas stoves and solar panels? Why has there been nothing similar for those installing rainwater-harvesting systems and composting toilets? Or even tanks and greywater-trapping devices?

I grant this would mean co-operation between local, provincial and national government, and you’re trying to roll this boulder up a hill at the same time that national government is trying to kick it down again, because they would rather hang Cape Town out to dry (LITERALLY) in the hopes of grubbing a few votes than uphold their sworn duties to their citizens.

Nevertheless, apart from a City poster here and there, and the water restrictions reported in the media, I’ve had to turn to civil society resources to find out HOW to keep cutting my water usage. But there are a thousand things I want my local government to tell me. For starters, which natural springs in Cape Town are producing potable water? Who tests this water, and how regularly? How are you going to manage these (parking, queues, amount of H2O permitted) in the coming months?

Now, apparently, a crew led by Tony Leon is going to be paid a fleet of wheelbarrows filled with leopards to manage the PR/info side of this trainwreck. Yet on the day Level 6B water restrictions were announced to us, we had to rely on an NGO unrelated to the city (thank you, WWF) to explain what Day Zero is actually likely to mean in our daily lives, and how to prepare for it.

Well, here’s a PR tip for free. If you had started telling people at least a year ago that come Day Zero, they WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO FLUSH THEIR SHIT, we might not now be in the shit. Why haven’t you hired planes to fly this message across the skies? Why still so dainty? We’re seeing pics of the water collection stations, but where are the pics of the mass communal portaloo stations that YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO SUPPLY? (You DO know you’re going to have to supply these, don’t you?)

The bottom line (sorry about the punnage) is that ordinary folk HAVE to have water for drinking and cooking (at least 2 litres per person per day) and flushing shit (5-9 litres a day). Everything else can go by the board: we can get filthier by the day, wear dirty clothes, pee in a pot and empty it down the shower drain: humans have always done this in times of crisis.* But we cannot stop drinking or shitting, and our shit needs to be safely disposed of. If you’d been warning water guzzlers that the toilets in their en-suite bathrooms are going to block up; if you had been showing pics of the portaloos they’ll have to hire; if you had supplied info on composting loos and encouraged the middle classes to install them years back – we might not be in this pickle.

And yet still not a single squeak from the City on this subject. For the love of all that is holy, START HARPING ON IT NOW, and don’t stop until the 60% get in line.

And all this stuff about forcing water-guzzlers to cut back, and punitive measures: if you had been cuffing water-abusers aggressively for the last two years, and if you had instituted sooner the punitively high tariffs for over-consumption you are only now rolling out, we’d have more water, and you’d have more much-needed lolly.

I actually feel bad about being so harsh, and I guess it’s no good crying over spilled water, but could the City PLEASE do better from now on? Those of us who are trying our best feel isolated and confused. Because it’s important to do more than moan, I’ll be starting to gather and publish every water-saving tip I can find: something the City should surely be doing too (there’s precious little on your website: some pretty pics, and instructions on how to find leaks and use greywater – that’s about it, and I had to go digging for it). I still hope that this is something we can all do together, rather than residents feeling that we’re on our own, or worse – pitted against City Hall.

For more on how the middle classes – the biggest guzzlers – can save water, click here.

*NB to remember: the poor of this country live in conditions close to Day Zero ALL THE TIME.


Helen Moffett
Dear Client, you owe me money

Dear Big Client [in my case, usually a publisher, university, parastatal or government department]:


You owe me money. I sent you an invoice over a month ago, and it was promptly processed by the relevant in-house editor. More than thirty days have passed, and you still haven’t paid me the money you owe me (get used to this phrase, I’m going to be using it a lot), even though you knew from the invoice that my terms are 14 days (and that’s a concession I offer monoliths like you in spite of the fact that equally monolithic clients are able to pay me within 48 hours).

Today I was told that because someone in your finance department didn’t process my invoice in time, it’s being held over for payment until the end of next month. Yes, I have to wait for another payment cycle for you to pay me the money you owe me. For a project I worked on for three months, starting over four months ago.

I swore the next time a client pulled this one on me, I’d write a public blog about it. At this stage of my career, by the mercy of all the gods, I no longer have to chase after work. I also have grown-up resources like credit cards and an overdraft, so I’m not going to starve while you take your sweet time about paying me the money you owe me. But you and your ilk do this all the time to struggling freelancers who don’t dare complain, and someone needs to hold you accountable.

There are parallels with the phenomenon uncovered by the #MeToo movement; the reliance on a culture of fear to silence people often desperate for work and afraid to be seen as troublemakers or boat-rockers in the industry. This is the reason I am publishing this: I am old and established enough to make a noise – not a luxury available to many freelancers. It should be obvious that tardy payments disproportionately affect women (who make up the majority of writing/publishing freelancers) and make it even harder for young black freelancers sans financial safety nets to break into the industry, thanks to your casual assumption that we all have the kind of capital resources that make it possible for us to suck it up when you’re late paying us the money you owe us. Unreliable payments also make it impossible to service debt, so that rules out recent graduates paying off burdensome student loans. Congratulations: you’ve set it up so only the independently wealthy, privileged or those with other financial support sources can afford to work for you. So much for “transformation”.

Here are the reasons why when big companies delay paying the money they owe, it stinks. It’s unethical, it’s a form of bullying, it’s unprofessional (it undermines the ability of your staff to do their jobs), and in the final analysis, it hurts your bottom line (I’ll get to how that works in a minute).

Remember, I have heard it all: “This is how the system/computer programme/ accounts department works, our systems are designed for maximum efficiency in big companies,” and so forth. I told this to a lawyer who specialises in bankruptcy, and he’s still laughing. He says there is only ONE reason companies take 30 days to settle accounts (the maximum legal period before the creditor is entitled to start charging interest – not that I have ever received interest on late payments): it improves their cash flow. 

So it seems you feel entitled to withhold money you owe me to improve your cash flow, but my cash flow needs are irrelevant.

Let’s consider the ethics of this, shall we? First of all: YOU OWE ME MONEY. I performed a highly skilled service, at your request, to impeccable standards. Over a month later, you have still not paid me for this service. Now, we all live with debt. But most of us consider ourselves not only legally but morally obliged to settle those debts. I make certain that the ONLY entities to which I owe money for more than a few days are big, faceless and in absolutely no way financially inconvenienced, much less imperilled, by my debt to them. Which I always pay within 30 days, in any case. (In other words, banks, and – well, that’s it, really. Even my electricity is paid up-front.) If I employ or commission a service from anyone with a face, I pay them immediately, or within 48 hours, even when this hurts my cash flow. This is because I OWE THEM THAT MONEY. This goes for the computer techie, the plumber, my accountant, the freelancers who work for me. Tomorrow I will pick up my car from my mechanic and pay him a vast sum for repairs. On the spot. I will not airily tell him that because of my “in-house accounting system”, I’ll only be able to pay him in five or six weeks’ time. If it’s more money than I have, I’ll put it on my credit card and wince at the interest. That’s because I owe him the money, you see.

Companies like you need to understand that when you owe us money, it’s not your prerogative, but ours, to set the terms on which you settle your debt. Have you stopped to think about the arrogance involved in telling an individual to whom you owe money that because someone at your company “made an admin error”, you are going to delay paying them the money you owe

Exactly the same thing happened the last time I presented you with an invoice – it took almost two months to settle because “someone in finance forgot to process it”. I’m going to be charitable and assume this is pure coincidence (my bankruptcy lawyer friend is now laughing his head off). Seriously, though; shouldn’t the appropriate response be strenuous efforts to pay the money you owe as soon as humanly possible?

And now for the more subtle, but no less ugly side of this practice: the way you shelter behind the skirts of the often lovely in-house staff your subcontractors/ freelancers work with. You bank on our affection and respect for these people, our unwillingness to make trouble for them, our desire to be re-employed by them, to keep us quiet. This is a particularly insidious form of emotional blackmail.

When companies pull this kind of stunt, they undermine the abilities of good staff members to do their jobs, as well as their authority. Your employees should not have to worry about whether their freelancers are getting paid on time, or chase after the in-house finance department, or write apologetic emails to their suppliers. They have better things to do with their energy and time. Worse, your conduct makes it awkward, and sometimes impossible, for your employees to continue working with us, even though we might both benefit from an ongoing professional relationship. And one of the sadder things about your delaying paying the money you owe is that it often brings a sour note to an otherwise rewarding work experience. 

At my most cynical, I might assume that you have no concern for the ethics of your behaviour, and are untroubled even by undermining your own staff, and hampering their capacity to do their jobs. So let me turn to something that might penetrate: this kind of behaviour hurts your bottom line. 

First off, I always do the job to the very best of my ability, and (there is no modest way to say this) my best ability is damn near legendary in this industry. I never rush, skimp or edit mechanically. I work with passion, total commitment, meticulous attention to detail, and three decades of experience under my belt. So you’re getting a top-quality service when I work for you. Maximum bang for your buck, and it shows in the final product.

Okay, maybe you don’t care about the quality of the edit, or the expertise and experience I’m able to bring to projects. But there’s something else I have a reputation for as a freelancer: I meet deadlines, sometimes impossible ones (go ahead, ask around) without compromising quality. As part of project management, I anticipate problems and revise schedules accordingly, even when this means weeks of working into the small hours. 

I know exactly what effect schedule slippage has on YOUR bottom line. And no one who employs me ever has to worry about this on projects I work on, at least not on my account. Consider the ironies of this: I bust myself making sure I won’t be even an hour late – much less a day, MUCH less any longer – in delivering a prepared manuscript and all supporting materials – for the benefit of your bottom line. You, however, have no trouble making me wait well past the legally mandated period to get paid – my bottom line is irrelevant. A little reciprocity would be nice, don’t you think?

This lack of two-way respect (if I honour your deadlines, I expect you to honour mine) will make me hesitate the next time one of your employees offers me a job tailor-made for me. And that’s one more extremely skilled and specialist freelancer, one who can be absolutely relied on to meet super-tight deadlines, potentially lost from the pool available to your in-house staff.

I’m not inflexible: I’ll sometimes agree – IF this is negotiated upfront – to a tiny independent press or NPO taking time to settle my invoices because I know they are literally waiting for funds to flow into their accounts, or because the sole proprietor needs to pay their mortgage first. Big clients, however, do not fall into this category. Many of them (including publishers, NPOs and think-tanks) pay me within days (four to five maximum, some within 48 hours) of being invoiced. There is no (legitimate) reason the rest of you can’t do the same.

And another thing: do not EVER send me an email saying you “can’t” pay me the overdue money you owe me just yet because of your systems, or your admin error, or [insert excuse here] and then add: “apologies for the inconvenience”. Bouncing stop orders, being unable to pay the bond or rent, driving a suddenly uninsured car or losing medical cover: these are not “inconveniences”: they can be catastrophic. 

One last #MeToo-inspired thought: why are we the ones made to feel shame for insisting that you pay us the money you owe us? You’re the ones squarely in the wrong, morally and often legally. Yet we’re somehow grubby and greedy for making a fuss, we’re being “difficult” and should sweat it out in silence, and – this has always made me hop with rage – after we’ve had to do the chasing and the begging, we’re expected to be grateful when you eventually pay us the money you owe us. I’ve lost count of the times finance departments have behaved as if they’re doing me the most enormous favour by paying me MONEY I AM OWED. Let’s put the shame back where it belongs, shall we? In. Your. Corner.

I’ll leave you with a hadith to consider: “Pay the labourer [their] wages before [their] sweat dries.”

Helen Moffett
How to conduct an author interview or moderate a panel at a book festival

We’ve all seen this particular train-wreck – a badly moderated panel at a book fair, or an author interview that goes pear-shaped. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is the airy assumption that all authors and academics know how to do both. Ahem. NO.

Frankly, the best people by far for performing these surprisingly tricky tasks are professionals, especially journalists with radio/podcast miles under their belts. In other words, people who ask questions and draw people out for a living. When they love books as well, and make themselves available for book launches and literary festivals, we all heave a sigh of relief.

But what about the rest of us mortals who are asked to perform these tasks from time to time? Recently, a lovely and generous friend, herself a published author, had to do her first book launch where she would be doing the author interview, rather than sitting in the hot seat herself. Wanting to put her best foot forward, she wrote to ask advice, and thanks to her, this blog began brewing.

For starters, never assume that because someone’s words sparkle on the page, they’ll be equally entertaining in real life. Some authors are hermits, some freeze or fall apart in front of audiences, some are just plain difficult (fortunately, these are rare). Some of the funniest writers I know are absolutely wooden when asked to speak off the cuff. So never think that your author/s will do the heavy lifting, and all you’ll have to do is sit there and supply the occasional prompt. You have work to do. 

The Golden Rules


You have a little more leeway if it’s a panel on a more general bookish topic, but the rule is that you are there to showcase the author and their book, with the focus on their most recent book (or play, or column, etc).

This means it is a grievous sin to bang on about YOUR books. This is especially the case if you have a full panel (three or more people) and some of them have come a long way to be present. I have never forgiven a moderator who took up more than half the panel time talking about himself and his work when his panel consisted of a Caribbean author who would almost certainly never be in South Africa again, my favourite Ugandan writer, and a much-loved local author who rarely appeared in public. I came to hear THEM, not you, I raged inwardly. Do not induce similar rage in your audience.

Start by introducing yourself briefly, so that the audience knows what makes you qualified to speak. Here you are allowed to say “I’m a Joburg-based author raised in Zambia, I have published four novels – a thriller and three romances – and a travel book, and my latest book, published by X, is XXXXXX.” But that’s it. Now introduce your authors at greater length, all upfront. Speak for at least two minutes on each one, if it’s a panel; a little longer if it’s a single author. Ask them to send you a recent bio ahead of time, but this won’t replace research, which you must still do.

Academics, this is especially for you, and I speak as a recovering academic and battle-scarred veteran of many academic conferences, seminars, and workshops. In your usual environment, you are expected to “perform” your expertise, your knowledge of your topic AND the tools – analytical frameworks, discourses and theories – you use to process and present that knowledge. But this is NOT a graduate seminar, and these are not your students or colleagues. When moderating a book panel, you need to switch to an entirely different mode. Heed the golden rule of the book industry: the most important element in the room is the AUDIENCE, i.e., the readers. What you say needs to be appropriate for and accessible to them. If yours is a contentious or nuanced view, this is a wonderful opportunity to put it across with clarity and conviction rather than burying it in your flair for trendy discourse. But even then, let’s go back to our mantra: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Most of the audience is present because of their interest in the speakers/authors. Get them to make the interesting points and arguments. Take a whirl on Google to see how professionals extract this kind of response from people.

2) Do your homework.

This may seem obvious, but hands up all those who have attended an author interview or book panel where it was clear that the interviewer hadn’t read the book, or had read only the blurb and maybe flipped a few pages. (Okay, you can put your hands down now.) This is unfair to everyone: authors, publishers and organisers alike. Remember the television interviewer who infamously said, “Let’s talk about your book. I haven’t read it, of course, because it’s a very big book.” If you don’t have time to read the book, politely decline to do the interview.

You not only have to read the book/s ahead of time, you need to research the author, and at least take note of their other works. (Ultimate clanger: “So, this is your first novel?” Author: “No. My fifth.”) Google is your friend. See if you can find fun bookish details or interesting biographical details. If there are any audio or visual clips, watch them to get a sense of how your author speaks. I did a book launch with the same lovely person mentioned above, and discovered she’d been a professional violinist. I was a distinctly unprofessional violinist in my youth, but it gave me a great lead-in, asking how being a musician helped her as an author, which segued beautifully into “It teaches you to apply bum to chair for hours at a time. Also: practice, practice, practice.”

3) Understand your role. 

You are not present as a critic. You are there, to be frank, to market books. It is no good being squeamish about this: if you agree to interview an author at their launch or moderate a book panel at a book fair, you are agreeing to help sell something, and heaven knows, we need people to buy books, especially local ones. Alongside this, you are there to entertain/enlighten an audience, whose members have often paid money to be present. Your job is to showcase the author and to brag a little bit on their behalf. 

However, while you should always be pleasant and upbeat, don’t be sycophantic. Generalisations like “This book is amaaaaaazing” or “this is the best book ever” will just make everyone feel faintly embarrassed. If you’re asked to speak about a book you consider to be weak or poorly written, this is NOT an opportunity to get out there with a hatchet. Just say no. (Unless the author is rich, powerful and famous, and has churned out a sloppy book -- but I still recommend politely declining to do the interview.) Beware of chairing a panel with both strong and bad/inexperienced writers; if you have a good relationship with the organisers, be frank about your qualms, and see if they can’t line up a more balanced panel. You do not want to preside over a bloodbath or (IMO, worse) a session in which everyone patronises the bad writer.

4) Don’t exclude the audience.

At launches especially, beware of going into a bubble where you and the author (who are both deeply familiar with the book) chat about details the audience – most of whom haven’t read the book yet – can’t relate to. This can be quite tricky: you don’t want the audience to feel left out, and at the same time you have to avoid spoilers.

So ask questions about things like the writing style, characters, pacing, politics, the immediate context of the book – how and why it is important now? What current concerns does it speak to? For every broad question, ask something more intimate: “You have three children under the age of six and a large dog. How did you find the time to write your book?” 

Remember to keep including the audience. Look out at them, make eye contact, and keep telling them how much they will enjoy X aspects of the book. I like to include them in a rhetorical question or address a piece of interesting information to them every third question. Or say something like “I have a question about X – but I should explain, for the benefit of all your readers here – that this interests me because...”

5) Ask the right questions.

Never ask questions to which the author can simply reply “yes” or “no” (see monosyllabic authors below). This is death, especially to single-author interviews. If your author is shy, try the overlap technique; when they say something, reflect it back to them and see if you can get them to take it a bit further.

By all means find nice things to say about the book (see 3 above), but make them specific and concrete, and see if you can lead them into questions: “I love the way you write about gardens and growing things in your novel – it’s so earthy. Do you like to garden yourself, or did you do a lot of research?” Encourage short anecdotes – these make everything more relatable.

I like to ask a few focused questions about concrete things, then invite the author to say something discursive: “explain the writing process you followed”. The idea is to coax them into chatting freely. Keep repeating this pattern until you run dry or the audience looks restive. 

Always come with more questions than you’ll need, even if you end up asking only half of them. It’s fine to bring a back-up list of questions, if you’re not getting good mileage out of the ones you think are important; sometimes the answers to those will be dry or predictable. Go off the beaten track, if necessary.

One way to end a panel or interview is to ask the author to read a passage; it’s a good idea to pick one or two juicy ones for them. Mark these clearly in your copy and hand them to the author, rather than asking them to start thumbing through their book. Another trend I’m enjoying is the practice, at book launches, of employing or asking a professional actor to read extracts, especially at the start of an event. 


Herding cats (specifically for panel moderators)

Make sure everyone gets more-or-less equal airtime. This is hard if you have great chatterers on panels alongside those who are agonisingly shy. This aspect of moderating is like being a good dinner-party host. Chip in pleasantly but firmly: “That’s really interesting, but I’d like to hear what Janet has to say about this.” Watch out for pernicious political habits: the famous, the privileged, politicians, and academics can be bad about hogging the limelight, and although it’s rare, some folks are guilty of appalling panel etiquette. These are my absolute no-nos: murmuring asides to others while another panelist is speaking, especially if you are a famous older white man and the person speaking is a nervous woman doing her first ever panel (you can tell I’ve seen this happen); mansplaining/ whitesplaining/ whataboutery; public drunkeness (yup, seen this, too). Be firm, fair and funny. Humour can salvage a lot of potential disasters. Don’t permit bad behaviour, but allow everyone to save face, too, so no public scolding unless you’re faced with egregious racism/ sexism/ homophobia. Try a comment to all the panelists along the lines of “Well, this is escalating rather fast, and I think the audience would like us to get back to the topic/ the book/ the question, and we can save the more intense discussion for afterwards when we all have more time.” For disrupters, try “It’s clear you have something to say, but I’d like Neo to finish answering her question, if you don’t mind.” If they persist: “I can see you’re bursting to say something, but I’d really like you to let Neo finish speaking.” With luck, Neo will have smacked the interrupter in the chops by now, saving you the trouble, but practice your lines just in case. Use body language: I find people often respond to hand gestures (and not just the smacking kind).

Good time management is essential: keep a time-piece on the table, and make sure everyone knows where they are time-wise. “We have ten minutes left, so I’ll ask everyone to answer one more question...” Sometimes I like to chime in “We’re already halfway through our time-slot, and there’s so much still to say!” Slip panelists notes (FIVE MINS LEFT) if necessary. 

Exactly the same goes for taking questions from the floor: take charge before these start by saying “I’ll ask you to keep your questions short, so everyone gets a chance to speak.” I am brutal about chipping in when an audience member is in full monologue mode: “Is there a question there? Because I see a lot of other hands, and we’re almost out of time.”

On this note: if there are roving mikes, this is because the organisers know they are needed. Don’t let an audience member speak until they have one in their hand. A question almost no one can hear is a waste of everyone’s time. If there are no roving mikes, always repeat the question that’s just been asked (reason #574 long monologues from the floor are not a good idea) for everyone to hear.

The short version of the above: use common sense, and insist on common courtesy. In fact, never mind professionals, I sometimes think kindergarten teachers would make the best panel moderators.

Author/crisis management

Although these scenarios are rare, I’ve had to manage all them at least once.

* Author breaks down in tears. Solution: do NOT get embarrassed or awkward: say something like “I get tearful when I talk about that too; it’s a perfectly normal response.” Then pass them water and/or a tissue, and speak directly to the audience in very calm tones about the topic in general terms until your author has recovered enough to go on.

* Author reads utterly inappropriate passage. Solution: cough loudly and say “I’m afraid I’m going to interrupt you right there because there are small children in the audience, but this is an example of the visceral truth-telling you can expect from this writer, and I encourage you all to buy the book to find out what happens next.” 

* Author babbles at machine-gun speed. Solution: be very zen, and speak more slowly yourself – it slows them down. Be prepared to repeat things to the audience. “So what I just heard you say was...”

* Author is inept with mike. It’s a good idea to check that everyone’s mike is working, and that they are comfortable using them before you start – at a professionally organised event, someone will do this for you. Unless you are in a tiny room in a quiet environment, the correct answer to “Do I have to use this mike?” is always “YES”.

* Author responds to questions in monosyllables only. Solution: prayer. I generally abandon hope and read the audience all the liveliest extracts from their book. 

* Author launches into frothing rant. Solution: wait for them to snatch a breath, then jump in to say, “That’s fascinating! Moving along, my next question is...” Unless the rant genuinely IS fascinating, in which case, sit back and enjoy the show.

* Author is a politician – i.e., they refuse to answer your questions, but keep repeating what they want to say. (I am indebted to Fred Khumalo for this definition.) Not sure there is a solution, although sometimes this stems from the author being over-prepared or messianic. Keep saying, “Yes, but I’d really like to know...” until one of you cracks.

One last thing about preparation and crisis management: sometimes a book, an interview or a panel deals with a difficult and upsetting topic. People will often attend because they are battling with that issue and need help and support. But remember that a book fair is not a safe or professional space for dealing with trauma, and authors and panelists are rarely trained counsellors. Yet attenders will often want to speak to them about their particular demons. If you are dealing with topics like trauma, addiction, depression, suicide, dementia and so on, explain right at the start that the issue could be upsetting or triggering, and then supply the appropriate hotline numbers and web resources. I’ve done several panels on sexual violence, and I insist everyone get out their phones and enter the number and link to Rape Crisis before the discussion gets under way. I then add that authors are NOT counsellors, but that there is help for anyone who feels unsafe or distressed via the resources I’ve just provided.

Most of what I’ve said here is summed up far more elegantly and succintly by Michele Magwood, herself a superb moderator and interviewer: “As someone who does a quite a bit of interviewing, both at festivals and for print and podcasts, I feel my aim is simple: to make the author/s shine. In order to do this, one reads the book (and ideally any others they have written). Don't laugh -- there are many interviewers who just read the blurb. Then you read and watch as many interviews with them as you can to see what makes them come alive, and what bores them. You read about their lives, their influences. And then when you have them in front of you you talk about the story, about technique, their preoccupations, their inspirations, about their world view, all those things that will interest the audience and hopefully make them buy the book. At book festivals we, the interviewers/moderators/chairs are not critics. We are there to amplify the books and their authors. To make them shine. It's not about us.”

Don’t be alarmed by any of the above. The truth is that 90% of authors and panelists and book industry people are professionals, and will deliver the goods. Many of them are delightful people. A successful panel discussion or interview is an exhilarating experience, and can lead to long-term friendships. Enjoy.

PS: It may seem obvious, but always thank the audience for coming. The worst book events are those where no one pitches up. Be properly grateful when they do.

Nick Mulgrew