| ’n Huldeblyk aan Bree O’Mara | A celebration of Bree O’Mara
Dit is met diep hartseer en skok dat ek verneem van die verlies van ’n goeie vriendin, die skrywer Bree O’Mara. Nog erger vir my is die onsinnige en stomp manier waarop haar lewe, en dié van 102 ander slagoffers van die rampspoedige Afriqiyah-vlug naby Tripoli, Libië, geëindig het. Skielik luister ’n mens anders na die nuusberigte, kyk ’n mens anders na die verskriklike foto’s van vliegtuigbrokstukke, goedere, bagasie en verstrooide besittings. Besonderhede kan oorweldigend wees as ’n ramp skielik persoonlik word.
Maar ek wil nie oor haar dood skryf nie. Ek wil graag vertel van wie sy was, beide as ’n mens en as ’n skrywer, want dit is hoe ek haar sal wil onthou. Hier is dus ’n huldeblyk aan my vriendin, Bree O’Mara, soos ek haar geken het. En al kon Bree Afrikaans verstaan en dit selfs uitstekend praat, skryf ek vandag in Engels. Dis die taal waarvoor sy die liefste was en waarin sy geskep het.
I met Bree in Johannesburg during a novel-writing course, which was part of the Citizen Book Prize she’d won for her satirical nove, Home Affairs. The irony is that I facilitated that workshop and at that stage I was little more than a nervous English postgrad with stars in my eyes. Bree was fantastic, though. She took part with such absolute conviction, humility and enthusiasm that it fired everyone up, including me. Bree was infectious, she had a razor-sharp wit, wisdom and insight far beyond her years, and I liked her immediately. I knew we’d be friends, I just didn’t realise what good friends we’d become.
What few people realise is that Bree had won the Citizen prize with only a synopsis – a concept summary – of Home Affairs, and was under considerable pressure to get the whole thing written once the euphoria of winning had worn off. But this, she said, was a good thing, else she’d never have finished anything. As a novelist, Bree thrived under the kind of pressure that would drive authors of a lesser calibre insane. We both came from a journalism, marketing and copywriting background, so we were both somewhat addicted to outrageous timelines. Incidentally, Bree was also a trained opera singer, a TV producer, South Africa’s entry into the worldwide Scarlet O’Hara search, and many other weird and wonderful things which, she told me once, she often did just to prove to herself that she could. We had that in common, too. That, and the fact that she was also master procrastinator, just like me. But once Bree’s head was in it and she got going with something, especially when her real passion for fiction took over, boeta, there was no stopping her. It must have been the Irish blood that took over then.
She also confessed once that her best way of getting a manuscript done – there were others besides Home Affairs – was to bid adieu to her husband Chris, her dogs, and all her friends and family for an undisclosed period of time, unplug the phone (she didn’t watch TV – “it’s too addictive and distracting”) and practically lock herself in a room with the drapes drawn and just the light of her computer screen (no web access!) for company, and then to write the bloody thing from beginning to end. She stopped only, she said, for a pee and maybe a snack when she was close to collapsing. Extreme, perhaps, but it worked. She wrote the whole of Home Affairs in literally a matter of weeks. (If you haven’t read it yet, find a copy somewhere and do yourself a favour. The book is clever, witty, eloquent, often hilarious, and South African to the core.)
Make no mistake, Bree was really a gifted writer, and that her future work is now lost to us is a tragedy the magnitude of which can’t be measured. Her best book was always to be the one she would publish next. And there were many still to flow from Bree’s pen, I know it. Great things lay ahead for her, such as finally cracking the British market, which she did. Bree was on her way there, halfway towards the biggest dream she had, when the accident happened.
What I admire most about my friend’s writing was her uncanny knack for writing local vernacular, that is, to make her characters sound so authentically Afrikaans-South African, or Zulu-South African or English-South African that you wondered how she did it. Their “voices” sound so real. And, as is always the case with true genius, she made it look effortless.
This is not to deny the countless hours of crafting and sweating and fretting and worrying – and reading, reading, reading – that went on in the background, because there was a lot of that too. That’s the part few readers are familiar with, the many years of hard work that actually goes into becoming a writer – it doesn’t happen a month before your first book hits the shelves – and then also the insecurities we share with only those who have been there themselves.
That is what Bree and I had: a writer’s friendship, often dotted with longwinded, comically self-pitying emails (on both sides) in which we confessed how much we absolutely hated the horrific atrocity we’ve just committed to pages of dead tree, this new ... thing .... we dared call a manuscript that no one in their right mind should use for toilet paper, let alone read or – God forbid – publish! Then it was usually the other party’s turn to console and encourage, to say how perfectly good the writing really is ... and then to threaten that there’ll be hell to pay if the work is not completed or submitted on time. Yes, sometimes writers resort to intimidation, but only because they know it’s the only thing that really gets another writer going. Vuur onder die gat. Well, that, and the implied support of at least one fellow sufferer, in whose eyes one can almost forgive oneself for committing to that Chinese water torture that is writing fiction.
Anyway, some years later I launched a small writing think-tank of my own. Bree was there every step of the way. She gave brilliant advice, she edited my press material, and most of my course material. She helped organise workshops and press interviews and on occasion even rushed back and forth with food and drinks and her inimitable sense of humour, while I sweated my way through yet another class. And she did all of this without accepting so much as a thank you for her trouble. She did it because she believed in what we were trying to do: inspire people through fiction and with words – and just because she was my friend. For no other reason.
It didn’t work out as well as we had dreamed with that project, for many reasons, some which were not within our control. But that’s beside the point. If nothing else, it was a vehicle through which we forged a valued friendship which will now be sorely and deeply missed.
Bree once wrote this to me: “So many books have a great idea or concept and start off well, only to peter out at the end. I read a (mostly) terrific book the other day, that was so enjoyable for four fifths of it, and then it was so obvious that the guy just didn't know how to end it, so it all but died at the end. Talk about coitus interruptus! I felt cheated.”
Bree, you’ve always make me laugh at inappropriate moments. But today, I cannot help thinking that we’ve all been done in, in a very big way.
To share with you Bree’s fantastic sense of humour, and her wisdom, here are a few of my favourite Bree-isms. I think she would forgive me for quoting her directly from some of the many wonderful, and now highly treasured, emails between us:
- I love villainous, outrageous female characters. Bitchiness is a bottomless well of literary potential.
- Really like the idea of email etiquette. It's woefully lacking in South Africa. A great start would be if people actually replied to email in the first place.
- How was Nataniel? I heard that it's a great show. I must be getting old. I remember when Nataniel had hair ... it was round about the time I didn't have any wrinkles! [And then later ...] Ooh, my dear, Nataniel had lonnnnng hair. Looked like a boere-Apache. Had the whole Boy-George-meets-Hiawatha thing going down. I truly admire how he keeps reinventing himself; very Madonna-esque, and he has parlayed himself into a marketable brand. Very, very clever of him.
- Telling an Irishwoman who she may or may not talk to is a bit like a red rag to a bull.
- When I first moved back to SA, I applied for a job and they shortlisted me, thinking that Omara (as they had it) was an Indian name. Silly twits. So perhaps you'll get some Indian clients without my apostrophe ...
- Aren't people weird? I spent an inordinate amount of time helping a woman in the UK, advising her about how – exactly – to approach an agent or publisher. I really have spent hours backwards and forwards with her and I advised her strongly not to send the whole manuscript at first approach. Having fine-tuned everything with her, she sent me an email last night that read: "Have sent the entire manuscript to the agents and publishers on the list as we felt why wait for them to ask for it? What do you think?" I didn't bother telling her what I think.
- And do please, please, please discourage these office lovelies from using cutesy email stationery. I get so many emails from PAs that are sent to me on pink email stationery with roses and pouncing kittens. Turns me into a fascist.
- You’ll always get what you pay for in this life. If you pay peanuts for a job, you get monkeys.
- Somebody needs to help Absa. "My bank is my warmth" ? Do me a favour!
- [Morné:] Congrats on winning that competition! Is it Luiz Vuitton luggage you won, doll? [Bree:] Nah, it's some unpronounceable German luggage. Which has me worried. Germany for cars. Japan for technology. France for food. Italy for shoes. But Germany for luggage? Really?
- Het jy gestem? Jolly good. Mr Zuma thanks you for your confidence in him.
- Personally, I stay away from sex scenes, the reason being that they either make me cringe with their inanities and force me to skip through to the next paragraph or, when written by men – sorry to say – are often ridiculous. I hate it when I read things like ‘her hair smelled of apples and magnolias’. Most men really couldn't tell you the difference between a bloody magnolia and any other pungent flower! And frankly, my dear, if she ‘screams in ecstasy', chances are she's faking it.
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