Hello, Hoffman Theon van Zijl here. I am an author working from South Africa and I am honoured that you would take an interest in reading about my work.
I was born in 1952. My early boyhood was spent in (a still rather uncivilised at the time) Kruger National Park of South Africa. When I was seven years old we moved back to our farm to the North-East of Johannesburg. It has been the family estate for six generations and I have lived here ever since.
I studied engineering, business science and politics, and since I had been let lose into the world, I have been a civil engineer, a soldier, businessman, cattle rancher, consultant to the military and business, big game hunter, adventurer and consumer of literature. I am a lover of the untouched wilderness, classical art and beautiful women, of which I has four in my life. I still farm with cattle, flowers and fruit – which seems to mostly mean hammering bits of old iron back into functioning shape – and then of course, I write.
If you wanted to classify my work, I guess you would call it action/adventure writing. It certainly is that. I like the protagonist(s) to be driven by some Herculean desire or necessity that could lead them into danger, and to have to cope with Nature in the process. However, it is my ambition to write really good action/adventure that also have literary merit.
My first attempts at writing was to tell the stories of some of my earlier wandering across wild Africa. It was partly written to celebrate my friendship with my boyhood and later manhood wandering companion, Gerhard, who had been killed in a robbery. Eventually, at the behest of friends who had read some of it, I compiled it into a book, The Wanderers. It is then a tapestry of stories, woven around one of the expeditions Gerhard and I had undertaken together into the wild north of Mozambique during the early eighties. It was published by Safari Press International.
Since then I had taken to writing novels. The first, Paths of the Tracker, is the story of a conceited young urbanite and an adventure-grizzled vagabond, re-united after many years by a strange last request from a relative. The request sets the scene for an expedition to deliver the spear of a one-time companion, killed years earlier by a buffalo, to his son. But it becomes more than just the mission of restitution it was intended. It becomes a physical and spiritual odyssey as the two are forced to dig far beyond their known selves to survive the events thrown at them.
A second novel The Disquiet of Discontent is about to see the light. It is the story of a man who discovers in his mid-life ease that he has become boring to himself and uninteresting to the world. He embarks on a journey to re-invent his life. As he is tossed about by the choices he makes, he slowly discovers what would add real meaning for him.
My writing life
As an intuitive realist that has further been fatally conditioned by a lifetime of engineering, business, war, life, mine is a pragmatic existence, governed by the actualities of survival – relationships (few, but close, if possible), food (fine, if possible), a reasonable level of comfort (refined, if possible), security, leisure (as cultured as possible), a healthy body for the healthy mind…
The kind of ambiance that make for writing a good novel is therefore largely absent. Getting into the right frame of mind, getting the right thought patterns to flow, getting into the heads of the characters, finding the rhythm of the language… It takes stretches of uninterrupted time. And this kind of time is in short supply. It has to be snatched from the claws of everyday life. And that carries its frustrations, its irritations, its share of poor writing and re-writing, even poor writing that is not recognised. But, I suppose, as for other aspiring big-name writers it is reality and we have to deal with it; make the best of it.
So for me it is early mornings (between five and seven) before real life kicks in. Then, with some luck, an hour or so around sunset; perhaps an hour or two, or three on Sundays… But, it must be said, for me during the non-writing periods, the story keeps on festering in the subconscious, sometimes emerging in the brief periods of quiet in the course of the day to demand ponder, often with fruit.
I am a compulsive storyteller – I guess formed over many hours of fireside stories from Grandpa and Pa and uncles and other old timers and by many eagerly devoured books of adventure. As a boy I would wander around for hours, knitting together stories in my head that often meandered for weeks along unplanned journeys into imagined worlds.
Living on a South African farm, my life is one of action, often danger in various forms. Many might consider it a drawn-out adventure in and of itself. But I have been blessed (or cursed) with a restless and adventure-seeking soul, and untouched Nature, its subtleties, its astonishing creativity, its honesty, its brutal reality, completely fascinates me. So whenever I can I load my ancient bush vehicle (the Old Man) and slip away from that life to remote and untouched parts of the African bush. There I love to wander for weeks on end, mostly alone, sometimes with African companions recruited along the way.
Impressions from these wanderings and from my life as a scholar, athlete, soldier, farmer and engineer permeate my work, but those are not the inspiration. The inspiration is quite simply an innate urge to create stories that I find interesting myself.
I know this is not the way an engineer should go about things. I know engineers move systematically, in precisely-calculated steps, towards a clearly-defined end point. But I do enough of that in my life, so the honest truth is, in my writing I don’t – not yet, at least. When I start I have only a rough idea of what the story will be about and a vague image of the main protagonist – no more than what I could write down in three or four simple lines. I don’t have a plan of how it will be developed, of what will be in what chapter, of the so-called heroes journey. I start more or less intuitively. And then I let the story develop itself; and the characters. I find this exhilarating, not knowing what will happen next, how the characters will re-act – I don’t know what today will bring in my story.
I cannot deny that this sometimes brings me to the point where I simply don’t know how to continue. What happens now? I find then I mustn’t force it. Rather leave the writing for a bit. Go and hammer at some old piece of iron or do one of the many jobs on the farm that need doing. Usually it comes by itself, when its ready. Would this be the feared “writer’s block”? I’m not sure. I suspect I am not a sufficiently professional writer to claim writers block.
The objective of my writing
From the above it might have become evident that I write stories that I like; that are interesting to live through as I write – otherwise, why bother? So, other than myself and those rare and unfortunate individuals that are like me, I don’t really have a specific segment of reader in mind. Again, I know this is not the professional way to do things, but that’s how they stand.
This is of course a convenient excuse to offer when one gets negative feed-back, and I do (get). But in the end I write because I personally enjoy it. Of course I want to get better at it all the time, and honest and intelligent remarks on one’s writing are hard to come by, so I eagerly take on board everything and try to work with it constructively. Sometimes it concerns style or one of the many rules of writing that most professional writers know from their studies, and those I try to follow as well I can. Sometimes it concerns the very fundamentals of what I write and how, and, well, in the end one has to decide who you are and stay true to it as possible, I believe
Having said all that, I certainly have the hope that people, lots of people, please, will want to read my work. I am not much concerned with what others think of me, but, no getting away from it, there is a certain degree of satisfaction in recognition by people.
So hopefully, by pure luck, I strike the right chords and people like and buy….
Having made all these flattering remarks about myself and my writing, I think it would be preposterous for me to offer any advice to any aspirant of other writer. To me it remains a very personal matter that one has to live through with oneself.
The one thing I think I can fairly safely state. In the military we used to tell each other as officers, “you cannot learn to make war by reading books. All they serve is to get everybody start of trying to follow the same procedure. But if you want to learn to make war, go and make it.” Sounds terrible and absolutely against liberal sentiment, but it’s true, and the same, I believe, is true for writing: If you want to learn to write, go out and do it!
Thank you for so bravely suffering through all of this.