Every novelist needs a place. A literary hangout. A corner of the world conducive to free-range thought and fresh prose. For some, this might mean a laptop in a garage, away from the sounds of Top Gear and kids squabbling. However, if, like me, you’d prefer something a little more like Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice, consider retreating to the Winelands.
An ex-city journalist married to a tango-dancing farmer, I write in a sweet spot between Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, a neighbourhood heaving with all the ingredients of a novel.
We have Characters, from sabre-wielding winemakers and Méthode Cap Classique pioneers, to celebrity chefs like Reuben and Margot Janse, and a diamond mogul set high on a hill.
We have Conflict. Yeah, I also thought ‘harvest time’ sounded cool and rustic – until I realised it lasted seven months and is the annual Olympics of relationship endurance.
We have Heroes. Like me, when Tango Farmer phoned in the middle of the night to say, ‘Ag sorry, man, the motorbike’s run out of petrol’. I had to bundle the baby into the bakkie and rescue him from a neighbouring wine estate, where he was checking pumps by moonlight.
We have Romance. Though Tango Farmer spent Valentine’s Day pumping water from the Berg River into his parched dam, we did celebrate harvest’s end at the Wellington oesfees, lazing under oak trees while Die Heuwels Fantasties crooned, and savouring The Stone Kitchen’s wild boar burgers with sage and apple. While dancing tango at Slaley wine estate, we managed to fall in love again.
We have Drama. From farm attacks to raging mountain fires every summer to porcupines raiding the herb garden: take your pick.
We have Villains, such as the nonchalant Namibian syndicate who swept through the neighbourhood a few months ago, cutting holes in fences and whistling while they cleaned out farmhouses of computers and flat-screen TVs.
We have Plot, always thickening. Some say they saw a ghost bidder driving up prices at the auction of a Stellenbosch wine estate. And according to neuro-psychologist Mark Solms, the ghost of Tango Farmer’s great-great grandfather walks the garden at Solms-Delta, and flicks the light switches in his psychoanalyst wife’s consulting room (only after hours, though).
We have Setting. Jagged mountains, majestic valleys and purple-prose sunsets to make a book editor blush. You’ll have to tone everything down if you’re writing literary fiction.
We have Inspiration. Novelists need lavish inner resources to draw upon, ideally spending two hours a week filling the ‘inner well’, says Julia Cameron, creativity expert and author of The Artist’s Way. Catch an art movie and a glass of local wine at Le Quartier Français’s plush mini cinema, read French poetry in a Franschhoek chocolate shop, and partake of our seasonal pleasures. Autumn on the farm means black-skinned figs with opulent pink flesh, and porcini mushrooms blooming in the pine forest behind our house, their sexy, rich flavour best enjoyed in risottos or simmered in cream with tagliatelle, fresh herbs and parmesan.
Winter is drawing in, and I can almost hear the rustling of pages, the soft crack of book spines from the Franschhoek Literary Festival. It’s time to sip Terra del Capo Sangiovese beside a fire and catch up on reading, flirting, doodling, journaling. Hey, you might end up writing a book, or initiating some other passionate activity. As Agatha Christie remarked, ‘I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention; invention arises directly from idleness, possible also from laziness.’ So if you can’t go five minutes without checking your Blackberry, unplug from daily life and find your true place in the Winelands.