BY SARAH LAURENCE
“I’ve had a very charmed life, really. I’ve been very lucky. Obviously I’ve had ups and downs but I did all right in advertising and my books have sold quite well,” Justin Cartwright tells me. We are at the Franschhoek Literary Festival where he has been participating on various panels as well as publicising his most recent novel, Lion Heart.
Born and raised in South Africa, educated at universities on several continents — including Oxford — the London-based Cartwright’s career has spanned advertising, film, politics and writing. He has won awards for his work in each of these spheres.
Reading Lion Heart was a slow process – not because it wasn’t captivating, but because many of the paragraphs were arresting in their beauty and power and demanded to be reread. Although the novel centres, as many Cartwright novels do, around a youngish to middle-aged male protagonist on a quest of self-discovery, he maintains that the novel is a departure from his usual books. He tells me that he has “written a relatively modern historical novel but in this one I was trying to make some kind of analogy between what’s going on in the world in general and what happened back in the crusades all those years ago”.
“The protagonist, Richard, is trying to get to the heart of what happened and he fails, of course,” he says. “I’ve read a huge amount about Richard the Lion Heart and I couldn’t make up my mind about what sort of person he is – he’s obviously a fierce warrior [but] there are contradictions even to the point where some people say he’s six foot seven with red hair and later when he died in a siege he was very fat, although still young. So it’s very hard to even get a picture of him.”
When I question him about the obvious parallels between himself and many of his similarly-placed protagonists, he says, “Richard is quite young but I also like doing old roués. I don’t think anybody’s really like me but on the other hand there’s no other way of writing except through what you know and what you’ve experienced so you don’t have a hell of a lot of choice.”
I ask him about growing up in South Africa.
“There are certain things that you know if you are a South African that British people haven’t experienced,” he replies. “My father was editor of the Rand Daily Mail and they delivered a dog to our house one night. These things don’t happen to everybody. So we were pretty well aware of the seriousness of ideas and what was going on during the middle period of apartheid – I felt, when I went to university, a release from this kind of turmoil of ideas, from the misinformation of apartheid.”
Going to study at Oxford “was a great relief” — away from entrenched prejudice and discriminatory attitudes. However, he says, “I’ve always felt very happy in South Africa in a strange way, and exhilarated, and it’s such an inspiring country.”
England has been home for much of Cartwright’s life. “Soho is my favourite place in the whole of England, possibly in the whole world, because it’s quite democratic, even when England was quite class-defined. When I started working in advertising it was this enclave of reasonableness. It didn’t matter where you came from or what school you had been to – it was entirely about how you performed. I had a great time at Oxford. Oxford had a joke culture – the sort of Brideshead Revisited culture. When asked what I thought of Oxford and if I liked Brideshead I said I thought it was a documentary. When Kate Mosse, the writer, went to Oxford she said that in her college they didn’t know what to do because they hadn’t had women there before.”
I ask him if his father’s writing life had influenced him.
“[My father] didn’t write novels,” he says. “He left the Rand Daily Mail and was deputy editor of the Star after that and then he started to write out of necessity really so he did a lot of histories of the mines and that sort of thing on commission. He was a very good writer, very fluid, very straightforward. There were a lot of books in our house – a huge amount of books. It did influence me. He never really influenced me with the writing I was doing. When I was making commercials and making documentaries, he sort of didn’t know what I was doing or really approve”.
The South Africa of Cartwright’s childhood is a world apart from the one he visits occasionally now. What does he make of the country’s progress?
“I think that it is almost certainly going to survive and flourish but I don’t think that it’s going to achieve a kind of full-blown democracy, not for a very long time,” he replies. “As South Africans, we have to accept that there can be ideas which are going to be in conflict and that they may never be reconciled. People of a Western frame of mind think that everybody wants to be like them – they don’t! So I think that in South Africa there seem to be two major factions and I don’t think that they are reconcilable, except possibly by serious, decent education.”
Photograph: Jaime Turner