I hand the baton in the MY NEXT BEST THING circular to Barbara Erasmus. She is the author of several absorbing novels (the kind you do not want to put down until you reach the very last page); her settings are South African, her writing is like a breath of fresh air, but the subtext is always deeply thought-provoking. Her first novel Kaleidoscope deals with the tragic topic of autism and her latest offering Below Luck Level confronts the issue of how families cope with the problem of Alzheimer’s.


What is the working title of your book?

My Next Best Thing is my new career in marketing. My fourth novel Below Luck Level is headed for the dizzy heights of the New York Best Sellers List – once my campaign clicks into gear… It’s first billing was Fishhoek. Then Greyton. Pinelands is next. New York may seem distant but any traveller knows that it’s best to go via the scenic route.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

She lives below luck level is from a Kay Ryan poem that caught my fancy. It goes on to mention a lottery. And ends with wings. I thought I could fly with that idea…

What genre does your book fall under?

My strength is humour but I have a predilection for tragedy. Small-scale domestic tragedy. Nothing Shakespearean. Not a gun or a sharpened blade in sight.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My story is set in Cape Town so I’d opt for local talent. I need an eccentric mother and an under-achieving daughter so I’d go for Janet Suzman and Karin van der Laag who plays Maggie in Isidingo – I’m a long-term follower of Horizon Deep.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

My heroine’s career is finally taking off as she evolves from a waitress to a sous-chef but she has to shift her focus to her mother, a semi-famous struggle writer, who loses her way through Alzheimer’s.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Below Luck Level ( 2012), even with insects (2005) and Kaleidoscope (2004) were published by Penguin. Chameleon (2008) was first published in installments on Mike Nicol’s Crime Beat blog, www.bookslive.crimebeat and then self-published through Mousehand.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

My first three novels were all based on first-hand research which was a lengthy process. For example, I worked in a school for autistic children while writing Kaleidoscope and on a prisoner rehabilitation programme at Pollsmoor while researching Chameleon which is about white collar crime. I wrote Below Luck Level far more quickly because by then, I had become very dependent on the internet for instant, up-to-date medical-research. Also, because Alzheimer’s affects so many families, I had easy access to friends who gave me insight into their own situations as carers.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I have aimed all my novels at a women’s book club market. I’d like to follow the example of writers far more skilled than me who have a light take on serious subjects, The novel I would most like to have written is Brother of The More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido but wishful thinking is as far as I can stretch a comparison.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Any pensioner worries about Alzheimer’s. I’ve been unable to remember where I parked at Pick’nPay since I first got my driver’s licence at 16 but once I hit 60, it took on more sinister connotations.  There was also a spate of newspaper articles around the Dignitas Clinic. I try to research topical issues which would be of interest to my target market.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I hope that it’s not a bleak book, despite the Alzheimer’s angle. I have tried to write a character-driven novel and hope that readers will root for my non-achieving heroine whose major skill is the sleight of hand required to shop-lift; and her mother whose maternal skills are decidedly slap-dash; and then there’s always a couple of friends and lovers – and Cape Town of course.


The next writer in the line-up is Liz McGregor, a local journalist with a international background in Asia and Britain. Her first book Khabzela : The Life and times of a South African gave fresh insight into the AIDS crisis while At Risk and Load-Shedding which she co-edited, are collections of stories by leading South African writers, providing an invaluable perspective on contemporary South Africa. She surprised her readers with a new dimension  in Touch Pause Engage, a meticulously researched journey into the heart of South African rugby. To learn about her Next Big Thing, visit
















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    Please don’t write me off because my New Year’s resolution to post a blog a week hasn’t even seen out January.. I have been helpless. My ADSL line has been down all week which rendered me completely hysterical. I am obviously addicted to the internet. I hurled abuse at whichever luckless employee answered the phone at Telkom so it was very humiliating when one of them pitched up this morning – a Sunday, no less – to find our new handset plugged into the wrong slot…

    Anyway, back to blogging. I was diverted from the ADSL crisis by a friend’s birthday tea. I sat next to woman who told me about her ninety-year old sister’s recent death in Holland.  She’d been suffering with incurable cancer but that wasn’t the cause of her death. A doctor had come to the family home and administered a lethal injection – a release that both she and her family had chosen.

    It would be different if she’d had Alzheimer’s. For a start, she could have been three decades younger. My research for Below Luck Level showed that it was perfectly feasible for the mother of my heroine to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 59. I’m not a doctor so I’m not sure about the degree of distress suffered by such a patient. I don’t think even the doctors are sure. But I am sure about the degree of distress for the carers. I empathise with anyone who has to watch helplessly as their loved one disintegrates daily. Not overnight. It’s more insidious than that; a slow erosion of traits integral to the person you’re watching.

    I don’t think i could bear it. That’s why I flew my heroine to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. But even there, nothing’s cut and dried . I spoke to Professor Sean Davison who is spearheading the campaign for Dignity SA to legalise assisted dying in South Africa. The bill he plans to introduce to parliament later this year won’t provide an outlet for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. The chances of legalising assisted dying in South Africa without informed consent from the patient are zero. And patients suffering from any form of dementia can’t give that. My heroine admits that her mother couldn’t choose between tea or coffee, let alone life or death…

    It’s not the same everywhere. Belgium’s euthanasia laws recently allowed 45 year-old deaf twins to receive a lethal injection when they learned that their sight was also failing. The courts agreed that their lives would be unbearable if they were unable to see the only person in the world with whom they could communicate. Belgian law is being amended to include children and Alzheimer’s patients with suffering that cannot be alleviated.

    I know what my choice would be in those circumstances. I just have to hope that crime and corruption aren’t the only reasons that might make me think of emigrating in the future.


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      The best thing about my new career as a blogger is instant gratification. Push Publish and hey presto – my words are beamed out over the entire planet. They can probably be read by a team of astronauts en route to Mars. Publishing Kaleidoscope was an entirely different ball-game.

      A blog is short. You can skim through for errors in the flash of an eye – it’s much more user-friendly than ploughing through a manuscript. Again. And again. I began to hate the story more every time I read it. I couldn’t make up my mind about the commas. Or the colons. The characters were even worse. Would they have said that? Could they have done this? When I could bear it no longer, I pressed print …

      This unleashed a new panoply of problems. My printer was used to short snappy instructions. Print the electricity bill. Maybe an email from the children for me to read again before I went to sleep. It had never been expected to print an entire novel.   It took DAYS . It couldn’t deliver more than about ten pages at a time without going into seizure. The paper jammed. The ink ran out. One chapter heading started half way down the page which threw all subsequent pages out of alignment. I was tempted to throw the entire project into the garbage but eventually – there it was! Two hundred and fifty pages! Double spacing! Single-sided!

      But then what?

      I didn’t have an agent. Penguin’s offices were down the road in Rosebank. I’ve been reading Penguin books since the days when all their covers were orange and white. Imagine if there was a penguin on the cover of Kaleidoscope? I fed the pages into a brown manila envelope and drove down to Penguin. I left my envelope at reception.

      It  was nearly a year before I heard from them. You can understand why I love to push Publish on my blog…

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        This year’s resolution is to write a blog a week on my brand-new web-site. I have a bad record with resolutions but I’m determined 2013 will be different. One click a week is all I’m asking…

        There’s one resolution I’ve stuck to as a researcher. Start at the top. Don’t interview the office clerk.  Make an appointment with the National Director. That’s Jill Stacey, if the subject you’re researching is autism in South Africa. I couldn’t believe the warmth of my reception when I pitched up at her office in Greenside, completely lacking in credentials with regard to either journalism or autism. She was immediately interested in my very vague concept of a novel revolving around a child with autism. Despite her demanding schedule, she talked to me for well over an hour, giving me my first insights into an enigmatic disorder which is still not fully understood, despite the millions spent on research all over the world.  Jill has a son with autism so everything she told me carried extra weight.

        And her help wasn’t confined to one interview.  I was introduced to parents, teachers and doctors. I was invited to an international conference to listen to specialists in the field. But most of all, I was able to work with individual children with autism – each one unique and special. I will always be grateful to Jill Stacey for the doors she opened – Autism SA is in excellent hands.

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          Adam Lanza came up often in conversations this weekend. How could he have gunned down little children? I felt defensive when I read an unsubstantiated comment from his brother that he might have had Asperger’s. Autistic people have enough to deal with already, without being branded as potential mass murderers.

          I remember my first day as a volunteer at the Key School for children with autism in Joburg. As soon as I entered the classroom, I knew the children were different. Different from myriad of kids I’d taught for over thirty years. They didn’t look different. Just kids in shorts and T-shirts, busy with puzzles at their desks. But no-one noticed my arrival. No giggling or whispering to the boy next door. They fingered the puzzle pieces with rapt attention. No hands up. No requests for help.

          Self contained. Inward looking. Mind-blind…

          I’d spent weeks browsing through every book related to autism on shelves of the Park View library, from encyclopaedias to accounts written by parents and teachers. I already had a bulging notebook about a complex, life-long disorder of development – more  common than cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome and childhood cancer.  And it’s not like asthma. You don’t grow out of autism. It’s not a stage your child passes through. It’s a lifelong disability – a cruel and devastating defect for both child and family – but it doesn’t turn its victims into mass murderers.

          Working with autistic children would have been an invaluable and rewarding experience, even if Kaleidoscope had never been published.


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            It was presumptuous to imagine I could toss off a quick novel on the strength of one published article of a thousand words. How would I dredge up another seventy nine thousand? On what?  ‘Write about what you know,’ I’d told my pupils but it didn’t feel as if I knew about anything at all as I lay bleakly on the bed, staring at the unresponsive ceiling.

            A stranger’s death notice caught my eye as I flicked through a newspaper. Someone had lost her son. A boy on a brand-new motor-bike. I couldn’t imagine how I would react to a loss of that magnitude. Or maybe I could? I wrote the first chapter. In long-hand. Then, because I hate books which feel as if the writer didn’t know how to end the story, I wrote the last chapter. Only seventy five thousand words left for me to find…

            I had no idea what was going to happen in my story. I didn’t even know who was in it. ‘Write to your strengths,’ I’d advised my pupils. My strength lay in the type of feature one finds on the back page of Fairlady. Would anyone publish a whole book of these pages? A compendium? A collected edition? I decided to start and see where the story went.

            It went nowhere. I wrote over a hundred pages with no sign of a plot. In desperation, I threw in a couple of the travel pieces I’d written which meant the story now made no sense at all. I seemed to have a predilection for tragedy. Several of the main characters were already dead.

            But I didn’t throw it away; I stored it in a deep drawer and resolved to try again. This time I decided on the plot before I started writing. I shared a Life Line shift with a Psychology Masters student from Wits who was writing her thesis about an autistic child. My exposure to autism at that stage was confined to Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man; I’d been fascinated by the curious mix of ability and disability which characterises the disorder.

            I’ll find out more, I decided, as I drove home. The seed for Kaleidoscope was sown.

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              CHANGING COURSE

              I stamped my feet and refused to go when my husband told me we were moving. Again. He phoned Stuttafords anyway and my fiftieth birthday found me newly arrived in Joburg, with one child in Japan and the other on the ski-slopes of Colorado. At least I still had the dogs. What I didn’t have was a job. I couldn’t face another blackboard. My mother warned me that a major in Social Anthropology wouldn’t open any doors.

              I began to tire of lounging around in my pyjamas. There’s a limit to the number of cappuccinos you can down in Sandton Square. The demand for fifty year old women who don’t like to get up early, yet need frequent travel breaks, was zero. There was only one option. I announced to my husband over his cornflakes that I was now a freelance journalist. I didn’t know at that stage that the package included such irregular salary cheques.

              My husband looked sceptical so I decided I better write something. I saw an advert in the Park View paper about a feature-writing course. One night a week for a month. Not too taxing, I thought. There were only six of us and I didn’t feel too inadequate because none of them had published anything either. I loved it! Our first assignment was to write a profile.

              I’d just been accepted as a Life Line counsellor and my first shift was with David Friedland – I asked him if I could write my profile on him because he is blind. He was my introduction to the joy of research. Our subsequent conversations were fascinating – and our teacher encouraged me to submit the piece I wrote to a magazine. They published it! And from that day on, whenever a form asks for my occupation, I write JOURNALIST in block capitals!

              And so I decided to try a book – I am easily encouraged….

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