Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Q & A: Donald McRae

What was the main challenge in writing Under our Skin?I've written six previous non-fiction books - with subjects ranging from pioneering heart surgeons and criminal lawyers to sporting icons and sex workers - and each was underpinned by years of detailed research about larger-than-life characters. It was a rather tricky challenge to place myself and my family at the heart of this very different book. But Under Our Skin is also meant to be a memoir of a particular era in SA from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.

Are you satisfied with the end product, do you have any reservations about it, would you do anything differently?The book has, at least so far, been generously received. But I'm not sure if I quite got the balance right between the "good stuff" and the more overwhelming "bad stuff" of life in SA during that very different time. As a writer, I'm inevitably drawn to more dramatic and often harrowing memories. Perhaps I should have included more on the sweeter days that also shaped our past. However, it was important to me that I devoted an entire section to the detention and death of Neil Aggett in 1982. So I wouldn't change too much if I had to write it again.

What drove you to write the book, what do you aim to achieve with it?I've been lucky enough to have made a living as an author for the past 20 years, but this is the book I've always wanted to write most. |I needed to reach the grand old age of 50 before I felt equipped to write it, and so I'm pleased that it has been published while my parents are still alive. The book is also, in the end, a tribute to them and to the work of my dad, Ian McRae, who brought electricity to so many previously disadvantaged people in the country. Equally, I was driven by a determination to highlight the sacrifice made by people like Aggett, Liz Floyd and Auret van Heerden. I hope the book reads, in a small way, as a memento to them.

What impact did the writing of Under our Skin have on you, what insights did it give you?It was, in many ways, painful to write. I realised again how deeply those years marked me and the whole country - and it also reminded me and my family of how we almost broke apart during some difficult times. The most powerful insight, I guess, was a stark reminder of the fact that SA has always been an extraordinary country. It remains so today; and even though the country faces many new problems and complexities, I hope my book also works as a reminder that we have all grown and changed from the era described in Under Our Skin.

What are you working on now?I'm close to completing a book about an intriguing and compelling Olympic champion, Victoria Pendleton, who won gold as a sprint cyclist in Beijing in 2008. She is trying to replicate the feat in three events at the London Olympics in August. But the book is less about sport than her riveting battle with some dark personal demons. It's also a love story and a gritty behind-the-scenes account of a very feminine woman (a self-proclaimed "girly-girl") striving to remain true to herself in the ultra-masculine world of professional sport. We've also made a BBC documentary, which will be shown in July? with the book to be published this September.

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