Marianne Thamm

WORK/LIFE: Marianne Thamm

Journalist and award-winning author Marianne Thamm discusses her working life

Marianne Thamm is an author, columnist, satirist, and the assistant editor of Daily Maverick. Her several non-fiction books include the bestselling  I Have Life – Alison’s Story; her two most recent publications are To Catch A Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story and Here I Am – the memoir of singer PJ Powers. She lives in Cape Town.

What does “writing” mean?

Essentially using language to make sense of the world and setting this down somewhere relatively indelibly…. Language is a code. Writing also earns me my living.

What book changed your life?

James A Michener’s The Drifters. I read it in the 1970s in South Africa when I wanted to be anywhere else in the world but there. I found six imaginary friends in the book and travelled through Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Mozambique from the wendy house in the back of the yard in Pretoria where I grew up.

What are you working on at the moment?

Apart from writing for Daily Maverick, I am contemplating the fact that my dear friend, the Belgian author Tom Lanoye, has created an opportunity for me to think about writing about myself and my strange family in some way. It is a terrifying prospect because so far I have felt most comfortable writing about the world outside of myself – as a journalist and author of non-fiction. My ghostwritings have been exercises in discipline in relation to capturing the truth of others.

I am also currently working with another author – a collaboration of sorts, being a sort of sounding board for a very exciting book on South Africa’s recent history and the role newspapers and various journalists played in the politics. The book also explores exactly how a small Afrikaans-speaking minority managed to capture power in all spheres of life.

I’m thinking about two scripts: one for someone else and one for myselfsome new comedy material, but these projects sort of have to page through magazines in the waiting room of my mind while I get on with whatever’s necessary next.

Describe your workspace.

An extremely safe space – an office at home, furnished with items from my childhood including my father’s old desk, all my books, odd knick knacks that mean something to me, and tons of New Yorker magazines stacked up all over the place. It’s my “woman cave”.

The most important instrument you use?

My MacBook Pro

Marianne Thamm Workspace

What’s your most productive time of day?

Whenever I find myself in my office behind my laptop, which is most of the day and often late into the night.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I have never been stuck. Remember, I am a writer of non-fiction mostly so the story exists. I just have to get on with telling it. I always work with music on in the background. Music grounds me. What I listen to depends on my mood – I have a very, very large collection and I am a bit of a slut when it comes to music. My taste is very eclectic: I love Elbow, LP, Beyonce, Arvo Part, The National, Hugh Masekela, Simphiwe Dana, The Brother Moves On, Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Gill Scott Herron, Oscar and the Wolf, xx, Sam Smith, Skrillex, and lately PJ Powers (I rediscovered some of her greatest songs while working on her book).

How do you relax?

I play with my daughters who are 11 and 9. I listen to music, I read … I also love snuggling with my dogs. I should walk more in the forest. I fantasise about living alone in a loft surrounded by my books and my music and nothing else.

Who or what has influenced your work?

Tom Lanoye, Jane Raphaely, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Thierry Cassuto (creator of ZANEWS), Branko Brkic (Editor of Daily Maverick), Zapiro, and my partner of 21 years. They have all pushed me, forced me into a position where I challenge myself and find something I didn’t know was there.

Then the writings of authors like Adam Gopnik, AA Gill, Njabulo Ndebele, Achille Mbembe, Mark Gevisser, Joan Didion, and many others….

South Africa as a geographical space has influenced and shaped the architecture of my mind. I am influenced by the moon … I love the moon – both sides of it: the face it shows us and the face it hides away.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Do the work.

Your favourite ritual?

Sitting in my office reading while listening to music. I try and do it as often as possible.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding the silence and privacy to do it.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I can be remote and unavailable to the people who love me most.

What are you afraid of?

Not paying enough attention to my children’s needs … Being torn between nourishing them and myself.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Just do the work. Take nothing personally. Be curious.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Surviving 30 years as a journalist and having adapted to the changing publishing landscape. Finding much joy in every new discovery along the way. Of stretching myself when I least feel like doing it.

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