Arts, Culture and Sport
Rapping with Rob Boffard
Rob Boffard is an author, journalist, sound engineer, snowboarder, hip-hop artist and more. He recently sat still long enough for Tseliso Monaheng to chat with him.
Rob Boffard loves rap music. That is something that cannot be said often enough. For more than 10 years he has been writing about rap-related subjects – from rappers to rap scenes and rap-relevant takes on the good ol’ mixtape. He has even hosted a podcast, called 20/20, which featured … yes, rap. Oh, he also has a rap album to his name. It is called African (http://robone.bandcamp.com) and has a song that features the South African rapper Zubz, one of his favourites. In short, his rapport with the culture is solid.
But Boffard also writes about other things, as one does. His debut novel Tracer (Orbit Books) was published in 2015, followed by Zero-G at the beginning of 2016. Both books, part of a trilogy whose final installment is due out in August, are concerned with what goes on in a space station named Outer Earth, where “everything is broken, rusted, falling apart. Nothing works anymore.” (http://www.orbitbooks.net/2014/11/07/meet-rob-boffard-author-upcoming-tracer/). So Outer Earth is the 2334 AD equivalent of, say, Kibera, Nairobi.
In Boffard’s world, tracers are messengers or couriers with the ability to out-run the gangs of Outer Earth. They will out-manoeuvre any opponent itching for a piece of whatever it is that they are delivering. Things explode – a lot. It becomes immediately obvious when you start reading the book that the fast pace of the narrative demands that you read the whole thing in one sitting. Or “read the first one, put it down, go outside and buy the other two” as the author put it when we spoke to him at his home in Canada via a Skype chat. (Boffard was born and grew up in Johannesburg before moving to London, where he lived for a decade.)
This is Africa spoke to Boffard about rap, yes, but also about the discipline of writing and what journalism taught him that made writing his trilogy the challenging yet fulfilling experience he says it was. This is how it all went down.
How has Tracer been received?
Overall, I’m really happy. I’ve had some fantastic reviews. It’s selling pretty well from what my publishers tell me. I’m starting to gather a nice core of fans; people who are really passionate about the books and the world I’ve created, and that makes me happy. I’ve never done this before; I had no idea how it would be received. So far, the response has been wild.
Is it true that you wrote the book in one go?
No, it took me six months to write the first book, six months to write the second, and then about five months to write the third. I wrote the first one in 2011/2012, the second one in 2013, and the third one last year (2015). So there were gaps in between them. When I got to the end of the first book, I was like, ‘I’m not done; there’s more story here.’ I knew I was [going] to write more, but it definitely wasn’t all in one fell swoop, mostly because I did not know what I was doing.”
“Inventing things is a hell of a lot more fun than reporting! Real life was never gonna be as good as stories.”
What did you learn from writing the first book that you then applied to the second and third? Did it require great discipline to accomplish the writing of all three?
In terms of discipline, that was never a problem. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid, then I don’t get to pay rent, and I don’t get food on my table. That sort of motivates you! Sitting down and cracking out [words] every day – that’s not an issue for me; it’s never been. What I did learn, though, and this anybody who writes a first novel will tell you, is that it’s a total clusterfuck when you have a finished draft. I finished the first draft of another book, which I submitted last year and I’m fixing it now. It’s a mess! When you finish it, you’re not aware of how much of a mess it is. You think it’s perfect: your flawless vision. Then you hand it over to other people to read. It becomes clear very quickly that not only is it not a flawless vision, but you have a shit-tonne more work ahead of you to actually make this even vaguely readable. So, really, the learning process for me has been a case of ‘how do I minimise that?’ How do I get the first draft closer to a finished product? Because that will minimise the work later on. So it’s been doing things like working in multiple perspectives and catching myself when I use my little crutches. I used to just breeze over them. Now I’ll go, ‘Okay, I see what’s happening here. Let’s delete that. Let’s try again.’ And that saves time later. You pick these things up. The more you do it, the better you get at it. It’s not that I’m particularly astute; it’s just a case of I’ve done it a lot now and I’ve learned some things.
“Journalism also gives you is the opportunity to write regularly, and to have your writing critiqued regularly, often quite brutally.”
What experience did you bring to the world of fiction from your background as a journalist?
Firstly, inventing things is a hell of a lot more fun than reporting! Real life was never gonna be as good as stories. In journalism, if your [interviewee] doesn’t come up with an awesome quote, you have to do backflips to make the story readable. When I’m writing fiction and it’s not doing what I want it to, I don’t have to worry about going back out to interview people. I can just make shit up. I can put a bomb in there and have something explode; that normally gets things moving!
Seriously, though, journalism has taught me a couple of things. The first is observation; looking for the little details that nobody else would think to look for. It’s a case of not just going, ‘Let’s just highlight a detail’. It’s going, ‘Which is the one detail that will give the reader as much information as possible with as little effort and as little time as possible?’ Journalists have an advantage here, because that’s what we do. That’s how we make our stories really good – we pick up those little details.
What journalism also gives you is the opportunity to write regularly, and to have your writing critiqued regularly, often quite brutally. You learn to be economical with what you write. You learn not to waffle. If I’d tried to write this book 10 years ago, it would’ve been pretty much unreadable. Now I’m pretty proud of it.”