Words: Nancy Richards
“Rusty Bell is my favourite character. At face value, she’s really mean-spirited, but if you read her microscopically she’s a charmer – and enigmatic.”
And so it was that Nthikeng chose the name of this hot, sharp wife as the title of his book. But while she’s essential as a foil, it’s really through Michael that we hear the story. Troubled, sometimes depressed and alcoholic, porn-addicted, respected but haunted, corporate laywer Michael.
So who is Michael based on? Not Nthikeng that’s for sure, “I tried to write or compose a character that is very unlike me, so I built Michael from observing social trends.” Something he learned from French writer Albert Camus, who he identifies as one of his favourite writers. “I’m a great fan of existential philosophy.” Not surprising, then, that he describes himself as ‘a cerebral idealist, allergic to sport, unashamedly and obsessively drawn to life, sometimes frustrated by its limitations’.
But if not like Michael, what is Nthikeng Mohlele like? Among those included in last year’s Africa39 list of the most 39 promising authors under the age of 40 in sub-Saharan Africa, in his day job Nthikeng is corporate communications manager at a development agency in Limpopo. He started writing in 2000 because, he says, “I felt I couldn’t express myself in normal conversation, and needed to reflect or say the things I wanted to and in the way I wanted to say them.” He’s certainly getting in some practice.
Rusty Bell is his third novel (previous titles are The Scent of Bliss and Small Things). But the writing really began way back at school. “My Sotho teacher at St Bede’s Catholic School said I wrote beautiful essays.” But that apart, there wasn’t a huge amount of encouragement to write – his mother neither reads nor writes and his father died back in the 80s. “But my mother has great wisdom, and my late father was a very clever man – I hope some of that has rubbed off.”
Despite the fact that he did an MA in literature and publishing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, he says wistfully, big brown eyes staring in to the distance, “I would like to have a music qualification. I’d like to be a composer, a songwriter.” Music is big in his life – and in his work which is “littered with it”. He’s learning to play the guitar and cites Miles Davis, Sibongile Khumalo, Hugh Masekela and the band ACDC as his muses. His ten-year-old son is named after his musical hero. “Young Miles is very artistic, I think he’ll make a great artist. He can do whatever he wants and I will support him. We talk about everything he and I.” (Rusty Bell is dedicated to Miles).
Notwithstanding his musical leanings, writing is Nthikeng’s drive. “I wouldn’t know how not to write. I try not to over-research, though. As a writer you have a duty to create well-drawn characters who must ring true, but you don’t want to overwhelm the reader.”
So given it’s not his core business, when does he do it? “I write between everything else. But first I get it all together in my head, so when I write it happens very quickly. It took me eight months to write Rusty Bell.” Reading, however, takes a little longer. But it’s his fuel and he immerses himself fully. So fully in fact that he’s started a Facebook page called The Brilliant Novel Opening Lines & Phrases Senate. “I follow the writers and they lead me to other writers.” And his own opening line? “I wrestled with life and lost.”
I have to ask – what about his mother who is not able to read his books? “We read them to her and leave out the unpalatable bits. But she gets it. She’s very, very wise.”
Rusty Bell (R150) is published by UKZN Press, www.ukznpress.co.za