David Robbins is the bestselling author of the award-winning The 29th Parallel and the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Literary Award from the South African Ministry of Arts and Culture. David tells us what inspires him to write and shares his advice for writers looking to get published.
BY EUGENE O’ RYAN
What inspired you to start writing? Tell us a bit about your development as a writer?
In 1945, my family moved to Durban where I began school. Five years later, we moved again, this time to Kimberley where my school career went from bad to thoroughly indifferent. One teacher saved me from complete ignominy, igniting an interest in history and a passion for English composition. So much so, that by my mid-teens I had somewhat optimistically decided to become a writer – a novelist, in fact. In pursuit of that aim, I succeeded in publishing my first short story at age 19. By 22 I had published six.
How did your writing progress when you moved back to Durban?
I wrote 115 short stories. Some of these, with one or two later additions, were collected in The Wall and Other Stories, finally published in 1989 and reissued as Rooted – Stories of Land and Dislocation 20 years later.
I began to write novels that were specifically South African in theme and setting. This contrasted with my early Durban short stories which, heavily influenced by American writers, tended to be set more generally in ‘the city’ and sometimes on dusty country roads.
What has been your greatest writing achievement?
I’ll leave that to the critics.
You have written 18 books, including travel, history, biography and socio-political issues. How do you decide what to write about? Where do you get ideas?
The ideas have flowed to me out of my own experiences and perceptions. As I have grown so have the ideas. I’ll never finish my own ‘to do’ list.
How easy is it to make a living as a writer?
Not all that easy, I’m afraid. Certainly NOT for the first 25 years – although it’s possibly easier these days with the expanded markets our ICT technologies provide.
What general advice would you give aspiring writers just starting out?
Respect your own individuality. Don’t blow the same bugle as everyone else. Find what is unique in yourself and let that part of you sit by your side when you write. The late Doris Lessing talked about the small personal voice of the writer. People will eventually tire – I’m paraphrasing her – of the international best sellers and their generics and will long for the quiet personal voice to be heard in the best books. This, in turn, will encourage writers to be themselves. This combination of reader interest and writer integrity will herald another great literary age.
What tips would you give a writer about getting published?
Don’t rush it, especially if you’re thinking of self-publishing. That first book can make or break you.
Finally, what do you consider to be the most important writing tip you’ve ever received?
Read more than you write; and when you write, do so with humility and bear in mind that you are trying to communicate rather than stroke your own ego.
About the Author
Eugene O’ Ryan is currently a project manager for a national retailer in Johannesburg and has written a manuscript about Vitiligo.