Welcome to the Q & A with Wessel Ebersohn. If you have questions for the author you can direct them to admin(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)wesselebersohn.com

Q: Tell us about writing of The Classifier

A: It was at the time of the incidents in the book, some thirty-five years ago, that its first seeds were sown. By chance a person very close to me was employed by the Department of the Interior in Durban’s shipping office.

Within weeks she became aware of the Race Classification office at the end of the passage in which the shipping office was located. It was not long afterwards that she started to understand the nature of the work being conducted at the end of the passage. As soon as she did understand, her immediate reaction was to resign.

‘Please stay,’ I asked her. ‘Stay at least until we understand what they are doing.’

Over the next two years we gathered material about the activities of the Race classification section and the thinking behind those activities. Then in early 1980 I sat down to write the book. This was early in my career as a writer of fiction and I had an important lesson to learn. At that stage I had three novels published internationally, two of them having been banned by the government of the time. There was also a little thriller that had been published in South Africa only.

The lesson I learnt was that having all the background material at my disposal did not mean that I was ready. I wrote some four hundred pages, struggling all the time with the knowledge I barely admitted to myself, that what I was doing was not worth publishing.

In my eagerness to tell the story of race classification I had worked in every incident of which we had become aware and every method used to determine the race of the suspect individual. The result looked more like a political tract than a novel, an expose rather than a view of its effect on the people involved.

I have since come to believe that before I can start writing anything I need to be given the story. I cannot say by whom the story is given and how I receive it, but until I do no matter how much background material I have I cannot afford to start writing.

After a year of struggling I finally admitted to myself that my first attempt at The Classifier was a failure. I packed away the manuscript and have never revisited it.

In late 2009 I at last knew that I was ready and started working on an entirely new book, a human story this time, not a catalogue of political wrong-doing. This time I had been given the story and after much work and with the vigilant assistance of my editor, Fourie Botha of Umuzi, as well as the critical awareness of the members of my family, The Classifier is ready.

Ultimately it is both a love story and the story of a tragedy that has at its core the method the government of the day used to decide who belonged with them and who did not. For some thirty years I had been needing to write it and knowing that some day I would be able to. At last that day has come.

Johannesburg 2011