Steven Boykey Sidley's new book explores whether facts matter if fibs are more entertaining

02 May 2017 - 02:00
By Bruce Dennill
Steven Boykey Sidley, author of 'Free Association', at his home in Johannesburg.
Image: ALON SKUY Steven Boykey Sidley, author of 'Free Association', at his home in Johannesburg.

Author Steven Boykey Sidley takes on the complicated life of podcaster Max Lurie in ‘Free Association’, writes Bruce Dennill

Steven Boykey Sidley's (Entanglement, Stepping Out, Imperfect Solo) new book Free Association focuses on the life, relationships, neuroses and complicated headspace of Los Angeles-based podcaster Max Lurie, whose cynical - and sometimes slightly warped - take on his own life and the community with which he interacts is responsible for an intrigued, and growing, audience.

"I listen to two or three podcasts a day," says Sidley. "It's changed my life. I have found such richness in that space. I found it hard to believe that nobody had - to the best of my knowledge - written a book about it.

"After Imperfect Solo, I wrote another book, but that one was unsalvageable, so I wrote a play with my wife Kate instead. When this one arrived, it felt like it arrived with an angelic choir. The first draft was easy to write."


Lurie's podcast allows Sidley to tell one story in two different ways: the author's take and Lurie's take. But, says, Sidley, the two streams don't always intersect, though they do bounce off each other in interesting ways.

''Max lives part of his life, which he tends to burnish, through his podcast. His real life is unpredictable, with everyone careening off each other. The book is, at its core, about the transformation of a narcissist. He's a guy who gets to pull himself out of his rectum - that's the big philosophical statement, really," says Sidley.

''The structure, which involves intermittent podcast transcripts and third-person perspectives, was a joy to write. I could burrow into Max's imagination and build up a cornucopia of small stories that would coalesce around him as the character developed."

And does writing novels fill the same gap for Sidley that podcasting does for Lurie?

''There's continuing debate among readers and writers about the extent to which an author is entitled to put his or her fingerprint on the story. I belong to the school of thought that says an author should be allowed to leave his own mark," he says.

''I'm unembarrassed to deal with themes that are close to my heart. The characters may argue against my central position on a subject, but the themes remain important."

The microphone and recording equipment in the story create a digital distance between Lurie and his listeners which allows him to create a legend that's difficult to scrutinise too closely. Lurie's world doesn't have to be 'normal' - that was useful to Sidley in developing the plot.

''There are a couple of conversations in the book where Max is called on his dishonesty. He responds by saying that audiences want entertainment and it is therefore acceptable to mash up fact and lies. He tells many fibs, but eventually he pushes it too far," Sidley says. ''The vague underlying message may be to keep more truth than lies in the stories that you tell, because lies can be dangerous."

''When you sit face to face with someone, you're less likely to troll them or to lie to them. Max is presenting an identity to people he doesn't know and he feels he has a right to embellish it.

"It's not, to him, as bad as the material you read when you go to the comments section of any major news site in South Africa, where the insults are beyond fiction. And it's hardly the fact-free myths put in place by Trump and Zuma," says Sidley.


'Free Association' by Steven Boykey Sidley is published by Picador Africa.

The book launch takes place in Joburg at Exclusive Books Hyde Park on Thursday May 4 at 6pm with Craig Higginson and in Cape Town on Thursday May 11 at Book Lounge at 5.30pm with Marianne Thamm.

This article was originally published in The Times.