Vivian de Klerk on writing 'Not To Mention'

20 September 2020 - 00:00 By VIVIAN DE KLERK

Published in the Sunday Times (20/09/2020)

At first it was just the freedom to write fiction, to let my imagination run wild, unconstrained by the need (in academic writing) to be precise, pedantic, to quote and to display my knowledge of the field. I could make things up!

It started with the seed of an idea born of my unease about obesity - a growing problem worldwide - and gradually Katy Ferreira emerged, the person who would speak about what it was like to be in her enormous body, who would devise her own "jumbo" crossword, choosing solutions that would enable her to express her shame, her anger and her frustration about the way she has been treated by her mother, her school "friends" and by various medical staff.

I did a fair amount of reading
and research into the physiological and psychological characteristics
of obesity and watched a few TV documentaries on the topic. There
are some excellent novels on the subject, and I had access to the Cory Library at Rhodes University, where I could browse through copies of the Herald newspaper from 1980-81. These are what kept Katy going every day, trapped in her room, on her bed. I enjoyed gleaning evidence of the political turmoil in the country at the time, and selecting juicy and often grisly headlines to weave into Katy's story.

Then there were the sometimes serendipitous discoveries I made as I went along: the report of the discovery of the skeleton of a local butcher, submerged in his car at the bottom of Grey Dam. He'd been missing for 21 years. And how many meanings there actually are for the word "period".

What was surprising was the tendency people have to assume that this novel must surely be about me, my life, and my own hidden secrets. Of course I have drawn on my personal experiences over 60-odd years, and my observations of the thousands of people I have encountered during that time, and my reading. But I have also given my imagination free rein.

The easiest part was choosing the words I wanted to use to form the structure of the novel, and fitting them into the jumbo crossword grid. Then came the daunting task of massaging all the separate ideas and memories into something coherent and interesting, and devising a plot, building up suspense. It forced me to become much more aware of how a reader might respond to too many medical details and too many delicious descriptions of food and eating. It was hard to cut them, but very necessary.

And then, when I felt the manuscript was ready, it was difficult to find anyone to read it and give me any critical feedback. I found it embarrassing to ask, and I think some of my friends and colleagues found it difficult to tell the former professor of linguistics that they didn't much like her book.

Not to Mention by Vivian de Klerk is published by Picador Africa, R290