From pointy-head to page-turner

Not all academics are pointy-heads aloof from the world. Henry Trotter converted his PhD into the page-turner Sugar Girls & Seamen (Jacana). He tells us how.

Describe yourself in a sentence.
I’m a passionate scholar of South African history and social life who likes to take a street-level approach to research. (I’m also married to a lovely Capetonian woman who is not a sugar girl, even if we did meet at the Waterfront.)

Describe your ideal reader.
One who buys more than one copy of the book. Kidding (kind of). My ideal reader is curious and open-minded, not just hoping to reaffirm prior certainties.

What was the originating idea for Sugar Girls & Seamen?
My dad was a sailor in the United States Navy, so I grew up in a maritime family. And I guess I’ve always secretly wondered what he might have got up to while abroad. (Thankfully, he never said.) But when I started doing research for my master’s in Cape Town, I lived with a dockside family. The man of the house, Edward Jones, was a salty old sailor from District Six who dazzled me with his tales of adventure abroad. His wife, Charlotte, came from the Waterkant Street area where her aunty was a “madame” who ran a brothel catering to foreign sailors.

Entranced by their stories, I realised that I almost never read about this side of Cape Town history in academic books. So I decided to write my PhD dissertation on South Africa’s port culture, especially concerning the lives of sailors, dockers, and prostitutes since World War II. Initially my foray to the dockside nightclubs was just to help me better imagine what historical hooking looked like. I thought I’d spend two or three months at the clubs, max. But Russell Martin and Bridget Impey of Jacana heard about my research and invited me to write a book about this shadowy world. Since I was completely fascinated by what I was learning, I couldn’t say no.

Describe the process of researching, writing and publishing the book.
When I first started going to the dockside nightclubs, I worried that the bouncers might bounce me, or the women would douse me in whisky for prying into their lives. But once everyone got used to me (and I’d bought ‘em all numerous rounds of drinks), they relaxed. I went three or four nights a week, usually from 11 pm to 4am. I’d sometimes just sit and observe everyone’s behaviour, but usually I’d engage with the sugar girls, sailors, club owners, cabbies, bouncers or barmaids in conversation.

Many were keen to share with me their understanding of “the game”, their term for the nightlife racket. Inevitably, after perhaps some months of casual interactions, each woman would sit me down one evening and tell me their life story. They came to see me as their confidant, an emissary from the “straight world” who would listen to them and validate their lives. By spending lots of time with the women, by acting generously towards them (giving money for drinks, cigarettes, food and taxi fare) and by not sharing their stories with the other women, I gained their trust and access to a lot of quality information.

I ended up spending 150 evenings at these clubs in Cape Town and Durban. The morning after each excursion I hand-wrote my notes about the previous night’s events, then typed up different sections of the book. I wrote at my computer for about five hours every day.

After the book was published I gave copies to everyone at the clubs. They were thrilled. One woman said: “Henry, I read this book in two sittings. I laughed, I cried and I now see my own life at these clubs in a totally different way.”

Another said that she was going to give her daughter the book to read when she grew older: “I can’t explain my life to her. I don’t have the words. But this book will help her to understand why I’ve been doing this work.”

Of course, all the sugar girls think that I will become an instant millionaire through the sale of this book. If they only knew how far from the realm of possibility that is. I’d be happy if I was able just to recoup all the money I spent on drinks for the docksiders during my research.

How long did it take?
Fifteen months. (Far too long, by my wife’s calculations.)

Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how?
Jonny Steinberg, for tackling the most pressing social issues of the day with gutsy research and brilliant analysis.

Malcolm Gladwell (of Blink and Tipping Point fame), for distilling weighty academic knowledge into accessible prose.

James Scott (my adviser at Yale who wrote Domination and the Arts of Resistance and Seeing Like a State), for changing the way social analysts understand reality through creative and original insights.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just started Steffen Jensen’s book Gangs, Politics and Dignity in Cape Town. He writes about Heideveld, a coloured township just opposite the one I lived in for two years (Bonteheuwel). Fascinating. I’m also deep into Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. Eye-opening. And just to remain current, I’m reading David Smith’s The Dragon and The Elephant: China, India & The New World Order. Important.

Do you write by hand or use a typewriter or computer?
I take extensive research notes by hand, but use a computer for all my writing.

My penmanship is atrocious.

What is the purpose of non-fiction?
To bore people senseless ... oh wait, that’s not its purpose, but it’s often its effect. At its best, non-fiction should help us re-evaluate our understanding of reality so that we can better engage it. It need not provide all the answers, but it should equip us with the tools necessary for dealing with our world in an effective manner.

Is there anything you wish to add?
We academics are sometimes criticised for being out of touch with reality.

Cynics complain that we’re trapped in ivory towers, captivated by shiny faddish theories. Our work is then dismissed as unintelligible or boring. This is sometimes true, but it need not be the case. Indeed, professors should encourage students to take risks with their research and writing. For while it’s important to write for our academic peers, it’s also crucial to make our findings available to the public in an accessible way. To do so allows us to be educators in the broadest and best sense of the word. That’s one of the lessons I learned while writing Sugar Girls alongside my academic work.

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