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A wordsmith-of-all-trades

We have coffee with Nick Dall (1999B) to find out what it takes to be a successful writer.

Nick Dall (1999B) achieved superb academic results at school, and a successful corporate or legal career appeared just a box-tick away. Instead, he took the path less travelled and is, by way of teaching English as a foreign language, now a… journalist. In fact, he is better described as one of South Africa’s finest young writers – of popular history books, a wide variety of articles that have appeared in more than 100 publications locally and abroad, and a twice-weekly news roundup distributed to five million Americans. He has written on “everything from Cameroonian blood banks to pollinating lizards”. We asked the author of the historical bestsellers Rogues’ Gallery and Spoilt Ballots to share a bit about his own past for a change. 

(This is the unabridged version of the interview that appears in Issue 9 of The Old Diocesan.)


Summarise your academic career at Bishops – did you win all the English prizes?

I did well academically, but I don’t remember winning any English or writing prizes. The one prize I did win was for the “most improved geographer” in matric – as a language stickler, I found that annoying, because I came second in Geography every term! I always did well in general-knowledge quizzes and at stuff like reading, public speaking and debating in Eisteddfod. Musically, I was one of the guys asked to lip-sync during interhouse singing. Probably my proudest achievement at Bishops was being part of the U16C rugby team, which went unbeaten for an entire season in 1997.

Were there expectations that you would pursue a more expected career path – something in finance, perhaps? And why didn’t you?

Yes, probably… But I was never into taking advice. After school I was able to take a gap year. I first worked as a general dogsbody at a Timbavati game lodge for a few months (my visit coincided with the once-in-a-lifetime floods of 2000; I’ll never forget floating down the Nharalumi River in a tractor tube), then I went to Perugia to study Italian. Before my gap year I thought I’d probably end up studying law. But while I was away, I decided that – despite loving a good argument – I didn’t want to be argumentative for a living. I decided to follow my passion for literature, even if it meant being unemployable.

You studied at UCT. Who were your writing influences there?

I majored in English and Italian literature. On the English side, Prof Stephen Watson (1971S) – who died tragically in 2011 – was a constant and supportive presence. He also ignited my passion for South American magical realism (more on that later). After my undergrad, I did a master’s in creative writing under Ron Irwin, who taught me loads about narrative, character development, plotting and all of that. He also implored me to include “a murder on page 1”! Back then Ron was still an aspiring novelist – he’s now a bestselling international author.

You then wrote your first novel. Were you tempted to pursue writing as a career?

I was only 23 so I was convinced I would make a wonderful living as a novelist. That book, Holiday Town, made it into the Top 5 of the Sunday Times/EU Literary Award, but only the winner got a publishing deal. I tried sending it to a few local publishers; then I left SA and slowly forgot about it. A few years later, when I reread it, I suddenly became very glad it had never been published…

You did a CELTA course after varsity. How did you view your venture into teaching English – a calling, a ticket to travel, something else?

I got into it for one reason and one reason only – I wanted to live in South America, the land of magical realism. Once I had my qualification, I flew to Brazil and got on a bus, direction Chile. I decided to get off in Mendoza, Argentina – and ended up staying two years. Teaching English exposed me to different viewpoints and made me aware of the immense privilege I’d grown up with. The focus on grammar helped my writing in terms of how different tenses, voices and sentence structures can impact the message. And, of course, I did get to travel. I spent my weekends fly-fishing in the Andes and my summer holidays exploring Argentina and beyond. One highlight was spending a month traipsing around the old Jesuit missions of Bolivia and Paraguay, the setting for the Jeremy Irons film The Mission – even if it did end up giving me a flesh-eating parasite.

Tell us about that.

I was hitching a ride with a boatload of Brazilian cowboys when I noticed a small lump on my arm. A couple of weeks later it had become a gaping hole filled with smelly green gunk, and a few months after that there was talk of gangrene and possible amputation. It was eventually diagnosed as leishmaniasis by Professor Mendelson of the Groote Schuur HIV clinic. The last traces of the disease were exorcised by a stiletto-wearing Peruvian almost two years after I became infected. You can read the full story here

And your subsequent travel to Vietnam?

Teaching English in South America provided me with fantastic life experiences, but not much cash. That was all very well as a single nomad, but once I was married, I started to think a little more practically. My wife and I both got jobs at a language school in Vietnam. It paid well, and still gave us plenty of opportunities to see weird and wonderful places, and eat weird and wonderful food. Reality only set in properly in 2012 when we decided to come back to SA for the birth of our first child.

How did you parlay a teaching career into journalism?

While I was living overseas, I’d published regular articles back home about my travels. I wrote for SL Magazine (now defunct, but great while it lasted), Go! and various South African newspapers. When I got home, I started pitching story ideas to anyone I could think of. Some of those early commissions were pretty dire, but I soon had enough work to pay the bills. And now I’m in a position when I can choose what I write and who I write for.

And the published books?

I write my books with a friend, Matthew Blackman, whom I met on a UCT creative writing course way back when. A couple of years ago we started selling craft rum for a tiny distiller in Gqeberha. After about a year we realised that a) the long-awaited rum revolution wasn’t ever going to happen, and b) we were atrocious salespeople. But we’d enjoyed working together and we still had some cash in our joint bank account – so we decided to put it towards something we might actually be good at. That is, we decided to write a book together.

Since varsity, we’d both become interested in South African history. At school, I thought it was deathly boring, but that probably had a lot to do with the legacy of the apartheid curriculum. The more I read, the more I realised that out history is fascinating and nuanced and utterly bizarre. Why write fiction when you’ve got facts like these?

Why a book on corrupt South Africans?

We were both gatvol of having conversations with people – at braais or kids’ birthday parties – who’d say things like: “In any other era Zuma would have gone to jail.” Or: “The rot started when the ANC came to power.” We’d both read enough to know this wasn’t true, but we kind of assumed that someone would have already written a history of corruption in SA. We were thrilled to discover no-one had… Corruption was a hot topic in SA – probably the biggest-selling topic of all – but few books looked further back than 1994. The furthest anyone went was the Information Scandal in the 1970s.

When we started writing, we knew that Willem Adriaan van der Stel had built Nkandla 1.0 at Vergelegen in 1700. And that Cecil John Rhodes was one of the most corrupt people in world history. But the more we researched, the more skelms we unearthed. People like Sir George Yonge, Oom Paul Kruger, Lucas Mangope… And you know what? Of the nine people on the cover of Rogues’ Gallery, the only one to ever spend a night in jail on corruption-related charges is Jacob Zuma!

How did you get your first publishing deal?

We submitted the first few chapters of Rogues’ Gallery to the three main publishers of non-fiction in SA. Jonathan Ball rejected it fairly quickly. Being failed novelists, we took that in our stride. It was much more distressing when Tafelberg actually expressed interest in the idea. After a few months of back and forth, Tafelberg offered us a deal, and we were on the verge of signing – but later that same day Penguin emailed a deal of their own. Apparently, our manuscript had been sitting in their spam folder for months. We felt bad saying no to Tafelberg, but we decided we’d prefer not to write about the Broederbond for a publisher that was still owned by Naspers. Also, we liked the idea of having that little penguin on the cover.

What’s your writing partnership like? What are the pros and cons of writing in a team?

It’s been really great. It cuts the writing time in half, and it also means we can divide and conquer when it comes to marketing, admin and the like. The writing process itself is straightforward: Matthew writes half the chapters and I write the other half. And then we edit each other’s work. Over the years we’ve found our niches. Anything to do with Rhodes or the Broederbond, Matthew does. The Dutch East India Company and Paul Kruger’s ZAR, however, are my domain.

What was working with Robert Plummer (1986G) like?

We’re happy we went with Penguin. Robert knows more about publishing in SA than just about anyone, and more about South African history than any publisher. He’s been pretty hands-off… But if something needs to be said, he’s not afraid to say it. And he’s not yet been wrong.

Any Bishops connections in either book?

John X Merriman plays quite a big role in Spoilt Ballots. He was a towering figure in Cape history who believed passionately in multiracial democracy. He went into the Union negotiations (when the Cape and Natal joined the two Boer republics to form South Africa) thinking he held the trump cards, but Jan Smuts and Louis Botha pulled the wool over his eyes, and Merriman ended up agreeing terms that would eventually lead to black and coloured people being removed from the voter’s roll. [See the relevant excerpt from the Book in Issue 8 of The Old Diocesan.]

Even a best-selling book in SA doesn’t make a lot of money for the author, sadly. How do you measure the success of your books? Is there more to it – credibility, purpose, ego, publicity?

It’s been great for publicity, and building my “brand”, so to speak. But we also truly believe that if South Africans knew more about our history, and its many contradictions and complexities, we’d stand a better chance of making this country work. There’s that saying – how can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from?

You write accessible popular histories of SA. Could these books potentially serve as textbooks for history learners?

Absolutely. Marianne Thamm (of Daily Maverick) said Rogues’ Gallery should be in every school in the country”. But our second book, Spoilt Ballots, would make a better textbook – or at least a supplementary reader. We didn’t know it when we wrote it, but the book covers almost all of the Grade 10, 11 and 12 South African history syllabuses. We found this out from Shaun Hewett, the current Head of History at Bishops, who’d picked up a copy at Exclusive Books by chance. We gave a talk to the Bishops history class last year, and are keen to do more at other schools soon.

You’ve now written two novels – will either of them be published one day? Or another one?

Right now it’s low on my list of priorities – I’ve kind of gone off fiction. But perhaps one day I’ll want to tick that box. I’d want to rewrite both of my completed novels (I’ve come a long way since I wrote them), so it might be easier to start from scratch…

What’s next on your writing agenda?

Matthew and I have almost finished the first draft of our third book. It’s about a dozen South Africans we can all be proud of. We start with Moshoeshoe, the Basotho King and go all the way through to Thuli Madonsela. It’ll be out by Christmas this year. We’re hoping people who enjoyed Rogues’ Gallery will love this one even more. Even South Africans need to feel good about themselves sometimes!

Tell us about your reading habits.

At the moment almost everything I read is connected to my research. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. One of the best books I’ve read in recent years was by an OD – 1986 by William Dicey (1988F) is an elegantly written account of one of the bloodiest years in South Africa’s history. I’ve read a lot of books about apartheid, but I can’t think of another that left me with such a clear understanding of just how crap it was to be a black South African back then. And in between all the horror, Dicey somehow manages to be funny.

In terms of reading for pleasure, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan was fantastic. Writing about surfing – or any sport, for that matter – can be cheesy, but Finnegan’s book is something special.

Any advice for youngsters starting a career in writing or journalism?

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy way to make a living. And do it for the right reasons. The happiest journalists I know are the ones who view truth-seeking as an almost godly calling.

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