She says she still feels bruised by the whole affair. Publishing your first novel and finding it short listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award ought to have been an experience to cherish for Rachel Zadok.
But the South African author felt like someone caught up in a spin dryer. Her senses had been well and truly scrambled by the time the media circus spewed her out of the machine and moved on, leaving her much the wiser for the experience.
Zadok's book 'Gem Squash Tokoloshe', published at the end of 2005, thrust her into the celebrity world of publishing. The book has sold around 60,000 copies worldwide but the whole experience of being in front of cameras, the target for writers and newspapers, left her exhausted. When it came to writing her second book, she was happy to have retreated into a world away from the prying eyes and rapacious demands of publicity agents and the media. Valuable lessons had been learned and carefully digested.
The nadir, she remembered, came early one morning at her then home in London when the telephone rang for a pre-arranged radio interview, live on air. Weary, physically and mentally exhausted by the whole process, Zadok admits she was rude to the lady interrogator on the other end of the line.
"I suppose I was at bursting point" she tells me across the table, flicking back a clump of hair as we chat over coffee in a Cape Town café near her home. "I guess there was great expectation and that put pressure on me. I was promoted as some kind of glamorous writer and asked to do fashion photo shoots that I just didn't want to. That wasn't me – I'm a 'jeans in the back garden' type of girl who doesn't mind getting her hands dirty with chores.
"The Managing Director of Pan Macmillan told me I had to be the writer everyone wanted me to be. I tried, but made such a hash of it. Overall, I badly mucked up on the publicity but I wasn't comfortable with what I was doing. At the end, I didn't want to do it and everything was awful. I didn't want to wear the dress for the photo shoot and I felt terrible. I never saw the article in the fashion magazine, thank God. I'd been told I had to go home and change into something more glamorous for one interview. But I felt, 'what am I, a writer or a model' ? I was never cut out for the latter. The media hype was awful."
Her book had been spotted by publishers as one of the 46,000 submitted to the UK TV show, 'Richard and Judy', which had run a competition on how to get a book published. In one interview, she alleges, her words were so twisted that they seemed to imply criticism of 'Richard & Judy', forcing Zadok to write personally and apologise. Her words, she says, were taken completely out of context.
'Journalists' I grimace…………sure, we're a terrible people, a race apart.
It culminated in the radio interview in which, she concedes, she was so rude. "It makes me cringe inside when I think about it. I was so angry by then with journalists and the media, I was in a state and exhausted. In the end, the interviewer put the 'phone down. Being rude to that woman on air was one of the worst moments of my life."
Zadok's South African based book which, in the words of the publicity blurb, was 'a poignant and heart-wrenching story of the dissolution of a marriage seen through the eyes of an innocent child', captured popular imagination. And she admits many writers would die for that kind of publicity. But she wasn't experienced enough to manage it and didn't have either an agent or any media training. Too open and naïve, she reflects.
"You are a writer because you are in the background. It's actors who enjoy the foreground. Next time, I would lay down ground rules and would choose very carefully who to speak to. I certainly wouldn't run around in an evening gown for the 'Daily Mail'."
In truth, 2008 was a tortuous year both for South Africa and for Rachel Zadok. "So much is coming back to bite us now" she says. "There is such a lack of respect for life that stems way back, even before apartheid. It concerns human degradation. People don't know what their rights are."
Born in 1972 in South Africa, she lived originally in Johannesburg but then began to address the craving addiction common to so many young people, travel. In a fairly haphazard itinerary, she visited Central America and Cuba for three months and then flew across the globe to South-east Asia. Dangerous places to visit ?
She smiles in that half embarrassed way that she says reveals her childhood tendency towards extreme shyness. At times it has, in her own words, almost crippled her. "If you grow up in Johannesburg you tend to watch your back anyway. It's instinctive there."
London, where she ended up spending six years, she loved. The fact that she fell in love, with the man who was to become her husband, Julian, doubtless enhanced the pleasure. But always there was a deep sense of pull, an unidentified element like gravitational power drawing her back towards her own country.
She says she idolised South Africa and always envisaged a happy, comfortable return. Alas, the reality was somewhat different for, as she says, so many outrageous things were coming back at so many levels.
"There is more of a sense of community in Cape Town because it's a more lived in city and you are surrounded by people. Jo'burg isn't like that. Jo'burg erected high walls but no man is an island. And once someone is over that wall, you are isolated. That was one thing I loved about living in London. We had a few muggings in the street but if someone screamed, everyone would rush out to help."
By necessity, I suggest to her, a writer's life is intrinsically lonely. Few beyond the world of the written word can understand the alarming fluctuations in spirit, the wild mood swings, the sense of exaltation so often followed by creeping depression and, sometimes, anger. But for better or worse, she was probably inducted into the literary world by her mother, an avid reader. She can remember herself, reading stealthily in bed at night with a torch beneath the sheets and she excelled in English at school.
But her young life went off the rails at around 15, she concedes. "I became a Goth, smoked dope and cigarettes. When I think now what my poor mother went through….." and her voice tails off.
She was not getting on with her divorced mother, constantly arguing and fighting. So one day, she ran away. "Actually, it was only for about eight hours but I was picked up by the police. It was one of the luckiest moments of my life."
She had got talking to a man soon after leaving home. He offered to show her the way to a place she had talked of reaching but, suddenly, he grabbed her
breast. "Someone must have been watching over me because at that moment, a police car passed by. They saw me grappling with this man and stopped. I firmly believe that, had they not driven past at that moment, it would have been the end of my story."
Writing was a passion that became her passport to international success. How does she describe her style ? "Messy" she smiles. "I think it's an uneducated, naïve style. I never went to University to study English and was disappointed I couldn't get into University back here when I came home. I approached UCT hoping to be a mature student but you have to be 45. It was quite a shock and I'm still disappointed."
She feels she hasn't yet found the writing circle she wants to be a part of in Cape Town. The company of fellow travellers in this field is something for which she yearns, but in part, I suspect, to allow her to retreat into the group without fuss or misunderstanding. She talks of the need to grow as a writer and wants to see what is out there, that could perhaps stimulate and enhance her work.
Her book achieved international acclaim but she insists "I am not someone special, I don't feel that. That was why I felt I couldn't do any more about being rejected for a place as a mature student at UCT. I don't have a right to go in and say 'I want a place'."
Her follow-up novel, was late. Well, they always are, aren't they? That's writers for you.
"It's almost a journey of discovery. You start with one story and end up with something completely different. Of course, it takes over your whole life and it took me a while to fall in love with this way of life again after the first book.
"I think you have to be a bit of a masochist to be a writer. It must be awful to be married to one".
By Peter Bills
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