A
 
Web www.artsmart.co.za
A R T S M A R T
arts news from kwazulu-natal

literature
www.artsmart.co.za
enquiries@artsmart.co.za
 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
 

NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

JOHN VAN DE RUIT (article first published : 2005-09-20)

The first time I saw John van de Ruit, he was a schoolboy with bleached blond locks singing the role of Oliver in Lionel Bart's musical in a Michaelhouse production. With that behind him - long behind him - and having made his name as an actor and playwright (War Cry, Green Mamba, Black Mamba - the last two with Ben Voss), he is about to launch his first novel, Spud, in which a schoolboy with bleached blond hair finds himself singing the role of Oliver in a school production at an unnamed private school in the KZN Midlands.

So - just how autobiographical is Spud? "Well, I obviously drew on a lot," he says, "but it's fiction." That is something Michaelhouse may be glad to hear. Spud is often an outrageously funny book but its cast of peculiar characters - boys, parents and staff alike, some of whom are completely round the bend - might not fit the image a school likes to have of itself. John van de Ruit insists that his characters are invented, not real people from his schooldays.

He is adamant he did not want to write a book that maligned his old school. "I'm not trying to get back at the place for anything," he says. "I admit it was an ambiguous experience - I hated the first year, but I went on to stay for post matric, and loved it." He sees the book as the story of narrator Spud Milton's journey from boyhood, from the viewpoint of his 13 year-old self, not with adult hindsight.

I ask van de Ruit what made him write about Michaelhouse for a second time. His first play, War Cry, which premiered in 2000, was also set at the school. "I spent five years there at an important time of my life - it shaped the human being that I am. I have so many stories of my time there, and I see myself as a storyteller." He insists that he is making no ideological points about whether private schools are good or bad - he has simply written a comic novel. "First time writers cling to what they know. The second novel is a huge test - you have to go into the world of the imagination. But for the first book, Michaelhouse is an institution I know well - the characters and their stories."

So, would he send a son of his own there? Van de Ruit pauses: "If I had the money ... it would depend on the child. The extrovert, sporty, leader type, yes I would. Not otherwise. A school dormitory can be a war zone, and it's something no school can really control." In Spud, this war zone is peopled with embryonic psychopaths, wierdos, nerds and nuts, all out to make Spud Milton's school career as complicated as possible. His home life is not much better, with embarrassing parents and a loony grandmother, known as Wombat. For Spud, school is an uphill struggle until he becomes noticed as Oliver.

"Oliver, singing and cricket are drawn from my own life at school," says van de Ruit. "Oliver was a great thing for me. It gave me the status of being someone - the dude with the long blond hair - and girls liked me for the first time. At school, you have to take on an identity if you don't want to be anonymous. You have to find a way to be noticed." Then van de Ruit leans back in his chair. "I would like to think of Spud as a book boys could read at school. Maybe it would be a help. You feel so alone when you are homesick, feel nobody understands what you are going through. You are under enormous pressure and have to fight your way through it. Maybe Spud should be a setwork?"

It is quite a thought, and we seem to be getting serious when the discussion is meant to be about a very funny novel. And then he adds that, despite all the exaggerations in the book, if he had it all over again, he would not have gone to any other school. "I might never have made the theatre my career, and I wouldn't have been as happy as I am if I hadn't gone there." It is great to talk to an author who is happy and not ashamed of it. No authorial angst here.

"I never imagined Spud would be published," he admits. "I used to dream about launches and signing books, though I didn't believe it. But Penguin were the first publishers I sent it to, and they seem to like it - they told me it 'has got something'. "And this," he says happily, "is my first Spud interview."

Spud is written in the form of a diary kept by the hero and detailing the triumphs and disasters of his first year at boarding school, both in term and holiday time. Inevitably, the format recalls Sue Townsend's Diary of Adrian Mole, which even gets a mention in the text. Van de Ruit says he was very conscious of trying not to turn his book into a South African Adrian Mole, although he knows that a book in which a schoolboy writes a diary will lead to comparisons. "Adrian Mole is only a window into himself - Spud is the introduction into the other characters as well as himself, and the world they live in."

Van de Ruit says he found novel writing a very different thing from writing for the theatre, which can be limiting, bound by what will work on stage. "It's like sculpting - you write and then pare it down. For a novel I could write what I wanted, and though I expected them to, the publishers hardly cut it." He plans to get started on a second novel next year, when his stage commitments allow. So far, he's not sure what form it will take but I am not surprised when van de Ruit says that even if it is not another out and out comic novel, humour will play a major part. It is hard to see this cheerful character tackling anything too gloomy.

Spud by John van de Ruit, published by Penguin, was launched at the official opening of the Witness Hilton Arts Festival on September 15 and is now on sale in all bookshops shortly afterwards. Margaret von Klemperer




 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
a co-production by caroline smart services and .durbanet. site credits
copyright © subsists in this page. all rights reserved. [ edit ] copyright details  artsmart