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Greg Lazarus

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Early Reading Experiences

As part of Short Story Day Africa, we’ve answered these questions about our formative reading experiences.


What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

Greg: A book called The Blue Banana. An enterprising boy finds a blue banana and takes it to the king. A villain called Grizzlegrub tries to steal the banana but ends up in the moat. Grizzlegrub had a bald patch on the top of his head, like the one I have now.

Lisa: I was the last of three kids and so nobody could ever be bothered to read to me. I remember that I had an old fairytale book at the bottom of my cupboard – heaven knows why it was there or even if I’m correct, but that’s my memory – and it terrified me. At one point, in complete fear, I tore off the cover, but that didn’t seem to make the book any less petrifying – if anything, it made it worse. So you could say that my early memories of books were in fact very negative.


As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

Greg: The Famous Five, by a mile. I was completely swallowed up by them.

Lisa: Ah, at last, something in common with my spouse – I also loved The Famous Five, but George alarmed me a bit – she was so brave and always up for adventures. I loved boarding school stories as well – Malory Towers, etc. – there was something both intimately cosy and scary about the set-up. I read anything; I was very undiscerning as a kid – I guess I’m still a bit like that.


Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

Greg: I did not grow up. I imitate maturity, but still feel a lot like I did when I was six: authorities unsettle me, and I like to be alone on my bed, eating copiously and reading.

My childhood was in Claremont, Cape Town. I paid many fines over the years to the Claremont Library, where I often took out And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street andYertle the Turtle. In later years I haunted the shelf at Dewey number 737.4, the section on coin collecting. I was obsessed with Thalers – big European coins of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – and with German hyperinflation banknotes of the nineteen twenties. Dr Seuss and chunky old coins… such things influenced me deeply, though it’s not easy to say how. In general, large parts of my identity stem from my childhood reading. I recently reread a seventies thriller called Shibumi, by Trevanian, which I took from my eldest brother’s shelf when I was around ten. I was shocked to see how directly the character of Nicolai Hel – Russian-German-Japanese mystic, international assassin, man of shibumi – had shaped my long-term aspirations.

Lisa: I loved the library at my primary school. The sheer number and range of books was exciting – in reality, the library was probably extremely small, but very soon I picked up that hanging out in the library was nerdy, and I had to pretend to hate the place. I loved the Claremont Library as well, but my mother took me there very erratically and we’d always have to face massive fines and a stern, disapproving librarian. Another memory in common with my spouse: stern librarians.

Unlike Greg, I never read non-fiction as a child. I only wanted to lose myself in stories.


As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

Greg: I love, love reading with the children. We enjoy favourites from my childhood (like J.P. Martin’s eccentric and delightful Uncle), brilliant new books (Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series makes us laugh) and classics that I’ve never read before (The Wind in the Willows – as a children’s  book, as close to perfect as I’ve read yet). One great feature of many children’s books is that they unashamedly try to be thrilling or funny.

Lisa: I never read to my children. I’m terrible.

Greg Lazarus website and blog

Excerpt from forthcoming novel Paradise, coming out in May

“Hey, big boy.” Black gave him a slap on the shoulder as he sat down. The physical contact was strangely helpful, energising. He kind of wanted to ask Black to do it again.

“Late night, Hershie?” Black leered at him.

Paradise cover small

Hershel almost claimed that he’d had a threesome, two women fighting each other for possession of his bod; but he felt too low for that kind of banter.

The People’s Republic, a socialist coffee shop, was Maurice’s unlikely favourite meeting spot. The music consisted of low, Tibetan-sounding horns and the service was not service. You might order a coffee on arrival, as an opening gambit, and the waitress might write it down – again, just a first move; and then there was nothing. Only when you’d complained once or twice, bringing some real anger to your tone – revolutionary fervour was valued – might your beverage arrive. The cappuccinos were surprisingly good, though (made, presumably, by a bourgeois machine hidden in the back), and anyway it was worth it for the waitresses. They were always seething, oppressed not only by living in a country that subscribed to neo-liberal capitalist policy but perhaps also by being obliged to labour in an anti-capitalist coffee shop that could not pay much, given that there were so few patrons. Hershel found their rage appealing. If he’d been a more energetic person, he would’ve liked to be as emotionally expressive as the servers.

This afternoon, the coffees came fairly quickly – some mistake, maybe; they might have been intended for patrons who’d already left. Hershel smiled at the waitress and was rewarded with her choicest scowl. She had curly black hair, putting him in mind of Camille and making him feel sad and horny. He looked at the foam pattern on the surface of his coffee. “Is this a heart? I think she likes me.”

Black checked out Hershel’s mug. “Maybe, man. But check,” – he gestured at his own blurred foam – “a vagina.”

Hershel laughed, despite the trepidation he felt whenever he had to spend time with Black. The guy was sometimes amusing, you had to hand him that. Also, his affection for The People’s Republic was in his favour. No one who enjoyed an angry socialist coffee shop with Tibetan horn music had completely bought into a corporate ethos. Maybe Black still regarded himself as a boy from the Cape Flats, an outsider, and this place was his way of showing that he wasn’t completely at ease with the lifestyle he’d carved for himself.

“Thanks for meeting me on a Sunday – appreciate it,” Black said. “We can get this out the way before the week starts.”

Out the way?

“Hersh, we’ve always levelled with each other,” said Black. “Let’s forget the bullshit for one second…

To continue, go to Greg Lazarus website.