The Next Big Thing

My friend Liesl Jobson, a respected poet and writer, has a new collection of short stories out Ride the Tortoise, published by Jacana. She stepped out on The Next Big Thing, an interlinked blog affair. Liesl asked a bunch of questions about my book:

What is your working title of your book?

My book is called Thinking Up a Hurricane, which refers to  my ability to influence global weather systems.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My book is a memoir, based on a childhood spent at sea, sailing around the world. I put off writing my story for several decades, but I finally decided to go ahead because the tale of sailing around the world, as narrated by a child, had not been told before.

What genre does your book fall under?

Thinking Up A Hurricane is a mixture of genres – travel, memoir and maritime adventure.

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

My mother would like to be played by Meryl Streep but I think Charleze Theron would do a better job because she also comes from Benoni and will know how to do the accent. I think Jack Nicholson would be perfect as my dad.  An unknown skinny child, with long blonde hair and a sunburned, peeling nose could play me.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A family from Benoni sets off to sail around the world, allowing neither the a cow of a boat, lack of navigation skills, entirely absent sailing skills and insignificant finances to deter them.

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

In South Africa, my book is published by Penguin. Hoping for big name agent to land me a plum internationally.

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

Five years, followed by a year of editing.

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

The Mail and Guardian compared my book to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexander Fuller and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. The Sunday Times compared by book to Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum and Dove by Robin Lee Graham.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Writing a book was just one manifestation of my rather drawn-out mid-life crisis.

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

It’s one hundred percent true.

* * * *

Now see what the next big thing is by Toni Strasberg and Lisa Cheby


Book details
Thinking Up a Hurricane

Ride the Tortoise

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Falling Overboard

Falling overboard is every sailor’s fear. Single-handers dread the thought of treading water as they watch their yacht sail away under the helm of an oblivious self-steering mechanism. Even with others aboard to notice the accident, retrieving a lone swimmer in an unsettled sea may prove an impossible task.  There is no guarantee of recovery.

In the 1970’s when the sloop Donella sailed through the Gulf of Mexico she met with a severe storm which worsened as night fell. Christain Eckhoff, the skipper, took the helm while Johnny, his daughter Heike’s boyfriend, went on deck to reef the main sail. A high sea was running and Johnny was careful to wear his harness, which he clipped into the safety line. A heavy wave rose up, breaking across Donella’s decks and pushing the yacht over. Once the spray cleared and the water had sluiced through the scuppers, Christian saw that the safety line lay slack and empty. Johnny had been swept overboard by the wave, and Christian couldn’t see him anywhere in the dark sea.

Christian went below to break the news. Hiis wife Hannelore began screaming and his daughter Heike collapsed in tears. After dosing Hanelore with Valium, Christian and Heike began sailing back and forth in the night, shouting above the wind for Johnny. It all seemed quite futile, but in the early hours of the morning, four hours after losing Johnny, Christian spotted a small, dark shape in the waves.  With difficulty they sailed closer, often losing sight of their target in the heavy sea. At last they came alongside. It was Jonny, exhausted, cold and bleeding from a gash across his neck. They threw a rope and winched him back aboard. An unlikely story, but true.

This week I visited old friends who tracked me down after the publication of Thinking Up A Hurricane. David and Esther Jordan sailed the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea for 15 years and they had an unbelievable adventure which will be the subject of my next blog. Watch this space.

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Almost sold out in the Western Cape

Thinking Up A Hurricane is almost sold out in the Western Cape (thank you for the amazing support!). The reprint is expected to arrive at the warehouse tomorrow and will be delivered to bookshops from Monday onwards.  If you need a copy now, then pop into The Book Lounge or Exclusive Books V&A Waterfront as they still have copies on their shelves.


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The ups and downs of writing travel memoirs

Writing is not for sissies. Getting accepted by a publisher is thrilling but the anxious wait during which your manuscript is considered by a potential editor feels a lot like being becalmed. And rewriting something for the 6th, or 7th or even 10th time is like running a marathon – not that I’ve ever done such a thing – but I understand one tries not to think of the whole race and just focuses on getting to the next tree. I try to take it one sentence at a time.

All in all writing a book pretty much puts you through the emotional ringer. Probably one of the least stressful and most enjoyable parts of creating Thinking Up A Hurricane was working on the map with James Berrange.

James is an illustrator who was once with Getaway Magazine and who now does freelance work. He has an interest in anatomy and has drawn wonderful pictures of hands holding cricket balls and skinless models showing the correct stance for hitting golf balls. He was in fact commissioned to produce an anatomy colouring book for medical students. James also has a passion for maps.

James lives in a quiet road in Pinelands and his property is bordered by one of those old knee high brick walls that were common before we began barricading ourselves in. His house crouches in a garden teeming with strange, contorted plants and piles of driftwood and carvings. James’s studio is in the back yard, past more strange plants, and it was here that we spent many happy hours plotting Vingila’s voyage using the ship’s log, various almanacs and Google Earth.

Although the map in the book has been published in black and white, James painted the original in watercolours, and as you can see, it is lovely. I insisted he add the rust stains to Vingila’s hull.

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I’m not the only one.

A short while after I was interviewed by Jenny Crwys-Williams on her 702 radio show, Jenny received this email from a listener:

Dear Jenny

As I climbed into my car this afternoon, I heard the tail end of your conversation with Martinique Stilwell. I finished reading her book recently, and have been trying to get in touch with her, so was very excited to hear you speaking to her on air.

My family sailed from Durban to the Caribbean on a yacht from 1971 to 1973. I was 12 when we moved on board and 15 when we flew back to SA. The family included my older brother (2 years older), and my baby brother who was 4 at the time.

We also sailed with little to no knowledge of sailing, had one set of sails, a plastic sextant, no maps (stolen) a lifeboat that hadn’t been checked for 8 years, just about no money, 3 months worth of food, and where educating my brothers and me was considered totally unimportant to my mother and stepfather. We were forced to leave SA because my stepfather was about to be arrested, and left Cape Town while the harbour was closed to shipping because of severe storms and bad weather.

The first five days of sailing was done by myself (I was 14 at the time) and my stepfather. We had no automatic steering gear. My older brother was sea sick and had severe asthma, my mother couldn’t sail the boat, and my baby brother was too little. I have no idea how, but we somehow managed to survive to tell the tale, after many moments where I thought we were going to die. We only reached the Caribbean, and after much drama, left my stepfather and the yacht to come back to SA.

Reading Martinique’s story brought back a flood of memories for me, and so many deja vu moments. I would love to chat to her about her experiences.

I live in Johannesburg, and will be visiting Cape Town in December and would love to connect with her, and hope you can help me do that.

Many thanks and kind regards,

Michelle Hoffman

Michelle has a few photos from that time on her Facebook page. They are faded and stained by salt water and the people in them have bad seventies-style haircuts and pose with a bravado I’m not sure they felt. The pictures bring back memories for me too. I’m looking forward to meeting Michelle.

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A memorable SAfm interview …

Because I occasionally write feature articles for the Mail & Guardian, I was more accustomed to interviewing other people than being interviewed myself, but all that changed after the publication of Thinking Up a Hurricane. One of the more memorable interviews I had was with Nancy Richards of Otherwise, which airs weekdays on SAfm. It was my first time on radio and I expected to be shown around a little and be given a bit of preparation before we went on air. I think I even expected to be walked through the sort of questions I was about to be asked. Nothing of the sort. Which I have since discovered is normal for radio.

As the clocked ticked by, rapidly approaching the time I was expected to go on air, I sat downstairs at the Seapoint studio on a waiting-room type couch, from which I could look outside through the plate-glass window at the surf break of Rocklands, which was glassy, huge and beautiful on that day. I’m far too much of a wimp and not nearly skilled enough to surf at Rocklands – which didn’t get its name for nothing – but faced with the possibility of going on air unprepared – or even prepared for that matter – Rocklands started looking quite appealing. Just before I bolted through the front door, fully intending to throw myself into the waves with or without a surfboard, I was called upstairs to the studio where I was to meet Nancy.

Although I had heard Nancy’s voice so often over the airwaves that I felt I should know her, when a tiny, harried woman with big eyes shot into the room, clutching a copy of my book, it took me a moment to work out who she was. I asked her right away if she had read Thinking Up a Hurricane, to which she replied, “Read it? Of course I’ve read it! I couldn’t put it down. I’m still traumatised by the coconut crabs.”

Before I could say anything more we were arranged on either side of a mic, Nancy held up her hand for silence and launched into the introduction for her show. After a quick break for the news, she fired questions at me. I answered as best I could with Nancy staring somewhat owlishly back at me across the microphone. She really is such an intelligent, experienced radio presenter, it was liked being whisked around the dance floor by a ballroom dancing champion and I tried not to step on her feet.


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How long it took to write Thinking Up a Hurricane.

In 2006 I was working for an NGO which provided ARV rollout services, and when the organisation changed focus and no longer employed doctors, I began writing a memoir of my unusual childhood.

I wrote for almost a year before I submitted a few chapters of my manuscript to UCT for the MA degree in creative writing. I was accepted into the program and had a fantastic first year, where I met all sorts of local writers on a weekly basis, and was given various writing assignments. It felt like the ultimate book club, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in reading and writing.

That year sped past and I kept working on my story, for two more years, meeting my supervisor Justin Fox once a month so that he could criticize my use of the semi-colon and sigh about the structure of my sentences. I in turn taunted him about his inability to eat mussels. In spite of both our fears that I would fail, and the growing length of the manuscript, I graduated with distinction. Surprisingly, Justin and I are still friends.

I then spent another two years completing the book, first under the guidance of my agent Anne McDermid in Toronto, Canada, and then with the help of my wonderful editor Alison Lowry, the previous CEO of Penguin South Africa.

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What I’m reading at the moment …

I love non-fiction and travel writing and one of the most exciting books I’ve read this year is John Gimlette’s Wild Coast, which won the Dolman Travel Book prize for 2012. Gimlette, an English barrister, goes sloshing through the “drenchingly fecund” Guianas in South America where the jabiru storks stand in “tatty coachman’s livery” and toss back frogs “like shots of gin.” He visits many isolated outposts and communities, including the site of the Jonestown massacre where 900 followers of the cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide in 1978 by drinking cyanide-laced cool drink, thus giving corporate culture the phrase “to drink the Kool-Aid.”

I also read a lot of short non-fiction. American GQ publishes very high quality and fairly long pieces on topics ranging from serial killer truck drivers, to the working life of porn stars, to incredibly moving and powerfully written pieces on the gang rape of underage girls from disadvantaged communities.

Each week I buy the Sunday edition of the New York Times on my Kindle. It’s crammed so full of articles I barely get through them all before the week flashes by. I love the book review section and the magazine, which has fantastic, high quality non-fiction pieces. This week I read about a pair of elfin sisters Heather and Kaytlynn Welsh, aged 10 and 12, who run, and win, grueling long distance endurance trail races against a field of adults. The youngest sister often cries throughout the race, particularly when other runners pass her, but she refuses to stop. They’re creating quite a bit of controversy as some sports scientists believe running so hard at such a young age may damage their joints and tendons for life.

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