There is not much to do in the quiet village of Simon’s Town, Cape Town, best known as where South Africa’s naval fleet lies. It is the sort of home where you go fishing, walking on the beach, or else watching the penguins waddle onshore. It’s the sort of place where a news headline is a handful of break-ins over Christmas.
That’s just the way journalist Claire Robertson, 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and a South African Literary Award author of The Spiral House and The Magistrate of Gower, likes it.
“It feels like you are hiding away from life here, but then you write a book and you get dragged back into life,” she says.
“It shocked me rigid with all the attention… I thought I am not selling my writing to anyone anymore. I am writing for myself. I started doing that in my journalism, instead of writing the news story.
“A news story is Nelson Mandela made his long-awaited return to Robben Island yesterday, this time surrounded by a company of international news media. The real story is we trailed him around the island, and when we got to the quarry that had damaged his eyesight, where he worked for so many years breaking stones and the reporters yelled out ‘dance for us’. You saw him sigh and sink slightly and then he started his shuffle into this expected shosholoza dance. That is actually what happened. When you get old enough you start writing it.”
Meeting Robertson at her home, on the slopes of Jackson Road, is a real treat. We sit under the shade of a grape vine with sunbirds flitting through the leaves to the sounds of dustbin men at work.
For the 54-year-old, standing at the edge of the gentle lapping shoreline of Waters Edge Beach, a few hundred meters downhill from here, was the defining moment that led her to abandon the stressful urban streets of Melville, Johannesburg, five years ago.
“[Melville] was getting tough to go walk around at any time of the day or night, which is what I like to do. It was getting less and less safe. You know that feeling when your freedom is being curtailed in South Africa. Certainly everyone has a bloody minded moment and you can’t bear being hemmed in. I thought I wanted to find a place that I can walk at any time of the day, and it was here.”
The quiet life here is a world away from the height of Robertson’s career as a hard news political journalist in the 1980s.
“To be a reporter during the height of the dying days of apartheid in South Africa was the greatest privilege in my personal profession. There was nothing like it. Every story mattered,” she says.
Some stories where harder to write than others, one of them being the reclassification of races which under The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act, had denied families living together.
“Already as a young person you are trembling at the injustices of the world. Meanwhile you are working in a society where this is just being thrown at you all the time. Following that through to watching a country talk about how it is going to shape itself,” she says.
“Then you are reporting something like the Dutch Reformed Church not allowing black people to join in a service. They would open the [priest’s] garage for the services and shove the old tyres aside as a Christian duty.”
Other stories send a chill down Robertson’s spine on this hot Simon’s Town morning.
“I remember meeting with the commandant in the Pretoria Central prison and hearing this unearthly singing. And he said ‘oh, that it was condemned men singing on the night before they are due to be hanged’. I remember shaking.”
Robertson lived the reshaping of South Africa; she cradled her firstborn daughter the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison; she also covered the negotiations at Kempton Park which led to South Africa’s Constitution.
These days, it’s the calm of Simon’s Town. Robertson, the novelist, has just come back from a walk on the beach with her Scottish terrier, Henry, and a family breakfast. Her mind is more focused on her third book. The Magistrate of Gower (2015) – a prisoner of war in the South African War, disgraced in an illicit affair, who is now forced to confront his past as a magistrate 30 years later – is sold out and is now in its second edition.
“It’s about the rise of nationalism and what is the response when you see it rearing its head again. It’s very seductive. It takes the good that people have, in this instance the noble suffering during the Boer War and heroes of the Great Trek, it takes part of that and twists it into something else, which is what happened in Afrikaner Nationalism.”
It is rare to find an award-winning author who doesn’t punt their novel with pride. But Robertson’s pride is a small wooden chair in her lounge, finished by her own hand.
“It’’s quite comfortable actually and it’s made from some very cheap wood. I wanted to test out the design before I made one from oak. I am quite happy to say that no one has broken it yet either.”
She points to a wall of saws and power tools, glinting in the skylight, where the chair, two book shelves and a wardrobe were crafted by her from lumps of wood; a hobby she picked up at her parents’ knee.
Included in this home of self-made furniture is a portable writing board; filled with scribbles and doodles, one reading ‘push towards the problem’, and a sticker of a porcupine.
“It’s something prickly, that’s low slung who is just determinately going about on his way.”
Only a journalist would feel the need to say they write their stories longhand, like it’s a bad habit picked up after years of writing shorthand.
“I get lovely notebooks and sit down and write it in longhand. If you start by typing it out you are going to keep correcting yourself, you lose all your momentum and you have no record of your ideas. Things have to be aesthetically pleasing.”
“What I do is start with an idea. With The Spiral House, what was it like on a South Africa slave plantation when these two ideas of science and enlightenment are clashing. It was told through a French naturalist in my head, but what it became was a young female freed slave, whose voice spoke out.”
Robertson has always gone for the road less traveled. She was one of the first South Africans to go to Soviet Russia on a South African passport in 1988. The trip came after one of Robertson’s stories published in The Washington Post. She asked American teenagers what they thought Russia looked like, and Russian teens, in Moscow, what they thought America looked like. The newspaper liked the story so much they nominated it for a Pulitzer.
“You could see the world was changing. You could see that the ANC was starting to talk to people in South Africa. We thought lets just try it.”
“One thing that stuck, was in Leningrad, on one of the big roads, there was a department store. There in this glass case, enfolded in red satin, was a single disposible razor. It loooked like it had been carved out of a lump of Bakelite.
“They could build space rockets, and amazing awful armaments, but they could not bring a milk Glut and the cereal Glut to the market at the same time. Everything was just screwed up. It was that kind of economy. People wanted consumerist stuff so badly they would spend a fortune on American jeans and sneakers.”
Her journey through the Siberian tundra also foreshadowed where she would end up.
“I found recently an old diary from the late 80s. I said what do I want to do? I want to live by the sea, sub-edit and then write. I had completely forgotten about that. Having got down, unpacked my books to discover I wrote this blissful thing. Clearly I was working this through my system.”
Working on her first novel, through the night at her brother’s home overlooking the sea in Kalk Bay was also an existential moment.
“I remember the book going so well and being so wrapped up in the book. It was suddenly four in the morning. I was working furiously away at my laptop and I heard this guguguggugug, it was the fishing boats heading out before dawn. When you have made a big change in life, and things are uncertain, and you don’t know how things go, it feels like you are getting some form of confirmation. If you are working and the fishermen are working.”
It has been a long journey to a favorite chair in Simon’s Town, from the raging streets of Africa, to walking with Mandela, to a razor in Leningrad.