Maverick Life


Author James Hendry finds light in South Africa’s dark past

Author James Hendry finds light in South Africa’s dark past

South African everyman James Hendry is a conservationist, television presenter and musician, and the author of the bestselling novels A Year in the Wild and Back to the Bush. Fans – and they are legion – will be pleased to hear that Hendry’s new book, Reggie and Me, is out now.

Reggie and Me is set in the years from 1976 to 1994 – a time of turbulence as the struggle against apartheid reaches its zenith, pushing South Africa to the brink. It is the charming tale of Hamish Charles Sutherland Fraser – an odd child growing up in a conflicted, scary, beautiful society; a young South African who hasn’t learnt the rules.


The Reading List: Good afternoon James, and thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. Your latest book is a joy to read.

James Hendry: Thank you for reading the book – and then still asking for an interview!

TRL: In your first three books, you mined stories from your years of experience working in the bush. Reggie and Me seems to have a different area of inspiration. Could you talk a little about how the idea came to you?

James Hendry: I had it suggested to me that I write something more “meaty” so that I would be taken “seriously” as a writer. So, in my wisdom, I planned a non-fiction tome that looked at privilege, race and gender in South Africa – an attempt to make a contribution to depolarising SA society. The process was immensely difficult and the publishers (for various excellent reasons) advised (read: instructed) me to desist. The non-fiction work was always going to include my impressions of the tumultuous 1976–1994 period of South African history and so, one day, Hamish was born in my imagination and his story unfolded far more easily than the non-fiction version. I hope some of the messages I wanted to convey in the non-fiction work will come out in this.

TRL: One of the main strengths of the novel is that it is an extremely compelling, well-paced tale, one that you want to keep reading. Did your years as a wildlife guide hone your storytelling skills?

James Hendry: I think the publisher’s and editors’ years of experience honed the story more than my skills! It’s an interesting question that a few people have asked and I am not sure that my guiding experience had much to do with it. Perhaps the few years I’ve had as wildlife TV presenter have given me a better understanding of story arc and pace but actually I can’t really put my finger on it.

TRL: The novel introduces South Africa’s dark political past, but it’s not a bleak book. Was it difficult for you to maintain that balance?

James Hendry: Yes it was and, again, the book owes a lot here to the publisher’s superb understanding of the balance. The original drafts were much more in your face and the story was weaker because of it. The way it is now, allows people to take what they will from it. I suppose I was also mindful of the immense power of Chris van Wyk’s writing in Shirley, Goodness and Mercy – some hilarious anecdotes told with the dark politics of the day always close.

TRL: One scene that hits home particularly is when Hamish, a “privileged white kid”, and his father stop for breakfast in a small town, while travelling with their housekeeper, who is black, and are thrown out of the restaurant. It feels as if it was important for you to include these kinds of stories, despite the fact that they are uncomfortable and upsetting. Would you agree?

James Hendry: They are uncomfortable and upsetting on many levels. At face value, that particular incident is ugly and despicable but as a child of relatively liberal parents, the wrongs of it are easy to see for Hamish and therefore, while upsetting, the sense of righteous indignation Hamish feels makes for a comfortable binary response. Much more uncomfortable are incidents where Hamish is forced to see more grey, especially when he sees his privilege coming at others’ expense.

TRL: You got into writing by accident, and now have four books under your belt – and a knack for writing bestsellers. How has the experience of writing a book changed for you?

James Hendry: I am not sure that it has changed – I still start off with a very mathematical approach, literally a graph that approximates a story arc and then I write headings underneath it and begin. I suppose what has changed is my willingness to let characters develop in directions that I hadn’t expected.

TRL: It’s a well-known fact that writing humour is more difficult than it looks, and that trying too hard to be funny can result in the opposite effect. How do you approach it?

James Hendry: This is very instinctual for me. I find it helps to read amusing scripts if I get stuck (Blackadder is a favourite). Then I read a lot of the chapters to family – if they laugh then I know I’ve done okay. I suppose I really enjoy the editing process too (many don’t) and it is in the editing that the humour is carefully shaped.

TRL: Reggie and Me may be laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it’s also extremely touching, almost a tearjerker at times. Which is more difficult, writing humour, or writing emotion?

James Hendry: Almost a tearjerker? Almost? Have you no heart? I think I find flippancy or sarcasm easier than conveying emotion. The latter probably comes more easily to those who have what I call “the depth of tragedy” – people who have really suffered. In Hamish’s case, it was difficult to find a balance between feeling sorry for him but making sure the reader saw that many of his issues were of his own making.

TRL: In some ways, the end of this novel feels like a beginning. We’ve come to know Hamish so well, and I, for one, would like to follow him into the next stage of his life after school. Will we see the character again?

James Hendry: I hope so – I’d like to have another go at him. He was fun to write (cathartic in many respects). Perhaps he can go off to university next in the 1994–1998 period.

TRL: I’ve read that at one point you were interested in turning your hand to historical fiction. What can we expect to read from you next?

James Hendry: I think I need to find six months if I’m going to write something credible in historical fiction. I’d really like to set a story with the backdrop of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. But there might be another bush story in me and I think Hamish has some legs.

TRL: Thank you very much for your time.

Nay, thank you! ML

Reggie and Me is published by Pan Macmillan (R290). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily.


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