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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

New projects, new roads

I was going to write about horses. Was being the operative word. The horses in my life were to have formed a sort of structuring device within which I could frame a narrative. The problem with that was multifold:
a. There weren’t enough horses to allocate to chapters.
b. They didn’t fit that well with my narrative purpose (lots of horses from when I was a child, fewer from the years I wanted to focus on)
c. My failure to date to learn to ride properly. I was thinking Think Eat, Pray, Ride. This is not going to happen any time soon.

So I had to come up with something else, and I have. It’s less romantic, certainly. But a whole lot more practical and, in many ways, a better reflection of the reality I am hoping to portray in this work of creative non-fiction.

I’m going to write about cars. More specifically, the love triangle between me, cars, and Joburg itself. This is an obvious choice. After all, the single best thing in my life after two truly horrible years is a car. The place where I am happiest is in my airconditioned lounge suite on wheels, the same car which, as I wrote in an earlier piece, tethers me to a future.

Over and over again, fate (or call it what you will) has been telling me that if I want to write about anything, it’s the car. It was while walking on a treadmill in an office park gym overlooking the M1 that I experienced my moments of most profound despair last year. My new office overlooks the William Nicol offramp, so my view is dominated by the ceaseless flux and flow of traffic. I spend half my life in a car, I’ve collected many car-related insults over the years (granted, most of them are about BMW) and I am acutely aware of the way in which social status in this city is conflated with the car you drive.

Which means that my status is been raised quite considerably by the expensive SUV parked outside, and will be even higher thanks to the even more expensive one that will replace it later this year. As I describe it in one of the slides of a presentation I’m preparing for a social media conference next week, this is the best social media gig in the country, and I’m very lucky to be part of the campaign. Authors don’t usually get opportunities like this, which are usually reserved for celebrities.

All of this is too strange and too good not to write about, and it gives me a way to structure all of the other material which, juicy though a lot of it is, would otherwise be scattered and unfocused, meandering nowhere in particular. I suppose you could call it a memoir-meets history-meets social critique. Johannesburg has long been in a co-dependent relationship with the car, and I have a love-hate relationship with both. Et voila, allons-y.

This is one of the twp projects I am working on simultaneously; I would have had a hard time choosing which text to focus on for the Wits MA in Creative Writing I ended up not doing. The other is a novel which draws on the same core material ie those wasted 10 years of my life, which have to be good for something (and no pious lectures about what I learned from them, please). It’s an interesting experiment, this. I’m hoping that each project will catalyse ideas for the other, so that any inspiration that comes along my way will be suitably channeled either into fiction or non-fiction. There are things I simply cannot commit to a screen, ever, and things I can get away with fictionalising, and one of my challenges will be to decide which is which.

The novel is around 35,000 words of chaos; a lot of the material for the non-fiction already exists in blog form and simply requires adaptation. So I am hoping that finally, this time, I will produce something rather than just talking about producing it. As I wrote earlier, in an entry that was never uploaded,

The truth is that the novel is the book I feel I have to write, the book that must be written, and the memoir is the one I want to write, the one that will give me pleasure. Now it is up to me to will them both into being. Less talking, more writing.


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