I have a friend named Iain Thomas. Iain has several distinguishing features. One is that he slightly resembles a yeti who has killed and eaten a lumberjack, dressed in his clothes and randomly shaved parts of his own body in an attempt to take his place. Another is that he’s an internationally best-selling poet.
By that I don’t mean he’s a poet who sells better than other poets. He’s a poet who sells better than pretty much anyone you’ve met. He sells in the hundreds of thousands around the world, in Asia and South America, in Malaysia and Australasia and the Philippines. He takes North American book tours and reads to sold-out crowds. His latest collection opened at the top of the Amazon poetry lists. Arianna Huffington quoted him in her book and begged him to write for the Huffington Post. On small islands in the Sulu Sea the tribespeople worship him like a hairy god. Here at home no one knows him. His books aren’t published or sold here, he’s never been invited onto a literary panel. I don’t know why that is, but it might partially be because he doesn’t write about politics or the landscape or the past. I can’t exactly say what he writes, but whatever it is, it’s not what South Africans expect South Africans to write about. He’s big in America but here he’s just a weird guy in a beanie. He calls himself the Reverse Rodriguez.
Iain’s a big fellow but gentle, with spooky eyes and a cask-mellowed, resonant voice, and it’s the voice that matters here, because every week I drive to his house and we drink some wine and have a conversation for an hour or so with very few pauses, and we laugh a lot and often I find myself telling him things that I haven’t ever thought about before and haven’t said to anyone else. A conversation is a mysteriously powerful instrument of intimacy, when the people involved trust each other and are willing to connect. That’s what our conversations are, despite or maybe because of the fact that we’re seated several meters apart with microphones between us and every word recorded.
Each conversation forms an episode of a podcast series we call A Series of Things, because each week we start off talking about a randomly selected thing, and also because we don’t have a better name yet. If you aren’t familiar with a podcast, it’s a kind of radio show that’s available entirely free over the internet, so that you can download and listen at your leisure.
We try to make the conversations entertaining but also honest and intimate – someone wrote to tell me that she thinks of us as a couple of her old friends in a cabin, chatting beside the fireplace while she settles down elsewhere in the room to rest after a long drive up into the mountains. Obviously, listening to two chaps yakking away isn’t everyone’s thing, but there’s no money involved and while we would obviously like people to like it – that’s the point of doing anything creative – even if no one listened I’d do it anyway.
It’s an extraordinary experience to hear yourself speaking when you haven’t thought about what you’ll say. There is of course the awkwardness of hearing your own voice – do I really sound that way in real life? Like a slightly congested U-boat commander drowning in a flooded torpedo tube? How can anyone hang around me without sticking celery in their ears? – but more interesting and sometimes more embarrassing is the degree of discovery and revelation. You can’t talk spontaneously for a long time and still keep up a pose. As politicians and contestants on Big Brother have long learnt, talking is the enemy of concealment. Sooner or later the effort’s too much and you lapse into who you really are; I’ve learnt that it’s less painless to just start from that point. But it’s interesting to hear yourself as a voice, and to think about where that voice comes from, what it’s saying and where it belongs.
Iain is the senior partner in this collaboration. The recording equipment is his, and the wine and most of the pep and energy and can-do attitude come from him too. (I really must bring some wine next time.) I find his calmness soothing, and his optimism and compassion and his low, rumbling insistence on being decent and caring about his readers and listeners and people in general. I like the way he listens as much and as carefully as he speaks. Later this year, regretfully, he’s leaving home and moving to the USA, where his publisher is, and his public. He’s leaving not because of politics or Eskom or the rand. I think he’s leaving because he likes conversation.
The Times, 21 May 2015