A novel idea

John Hunt enters the featureless conference room apologising profusely for being late: traffic has snarled his progress from his Sandton offices. The worldwide creative director of global advertising agency network TBWA\Worldwide, Hunt has squeezed me into his globetrotting schedule to chat about his first novel, The Space Between the Space Between, which was released earlier this year. Intensely moving and exquisitely wrought, this is the story of Jethro, a twentysomething man adrift in Joburg, coming to terms with a series of recent traumas – including the death of his girlfriend.

“I wanted to write a novel about South Africa now,” he says. “I think we’re in a very fluctuating country. I think it’s got good and bad, but certainly from a writer’s point-of-view, it’s probably got more going on than say if I set it in Brussels. I’m quite drawn to contrast or to ambiguity or to zigzag versus straight.”

He often describes our history to overseas visitors as “a rollercoaster narrative”. He didn’t want his novel to “be Pollyanna journalism but I also didn’t want to be what I call snot-and-trane soapbox.”

Hunt wanted to set the novel in the city where he’s lived for most of his life. “I have a strange love for Johannesburg. [It] gets a lot of bad press, but it’s so typical of South Africa which is so violent but is so full of generosity; you have such kindness on the one hand, and you have such coldness on the other.” He wanted to capture both extremes – as they’re equally true.

In depicting Jethro’s internal world, “I imagined me in my 20s – not in an autobiographical way, not writing about me, but [as] if I was going through this.”

The novel is structured as a set of chatty letters written by Jethro to his counsellor, Dr Chatwin, who is hoping these missives will facilitate catharsis. Hunt used this format to “resemble the zigzag” of the South African present: its rough edges and uncertainties.

*    *    *

Hunt was born in Livingstone, Zambia, to British parents. He has scattered memories of a big tree, and the badly built house his father constructed. Although he only lived until he was three, he suggests this could explain his “strong affinity to the bush”: it’s his “medicine”, he says.

After stints in England, his family moved to Hillbrow when he was 10; three years later his dad passed away. He would live in the cosmopolitan district until he was 21. He credits it with “layering” him in a way that many other places wouldn’t have. It was the late 1960s: a weed-scented oasis of urbane liberality, a blending of immigrants and iconoclasts – and also home to the flagship Exclusive Books store where he would spend hours reading.

In standard four (grade six), a teacher praised a composition he had written. “That went to straight to my heart – I wasn’t much good at anything else,” he says. Although he didn’t keep a diary, throughout his time at Parktown High, he wrote little stories and poems –expressing the “inner angst” of adolescence.

It is the authors he read at this age – JD Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck – who have proved lasting writing influences. Their books still sit, slightly battered, in his expansive library at home.

After school he joined the army. “I progressed wonderfully in the Oudtshoorn infantry from potential candidate officer to corporal to lance-corporal and I left the army as a rifle-man,” he remembers wryly.

His tertiary education is “on the minimal side” he confesses: he walked out of university on his first day and didn’t return. Instead, he started work at an insurance company as a claims clerk.

He fell into advertising: there was “absolutely zero strategy”. “All the time I was writing stories for little magazines,” he recalls. Most were rejected, but when his then-girlfriend’s aunt spotted – and liked – one of the ones that got published, she suggested he consider a career as a copywriter and helped arrange a few interviews with agencies for him.

As his advertising star brightened, he continued to write creatively: shortly after co-founding TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris (the South African arm of the global TBWA\Worldwide network which was declared Agency of the Century” in 2000) in 1983, he wrote Vid Alex – a response to government censorship. It was staged at the Market Theatre which “was too avant-garde, too niche” for apartheid apparatchiks to know how to censor. Several TV plays followed. “I’ve always liked dialogue,” he says; he enjoyed the way actors brought his words to life.

I ask him how he’s managed to balance work with his own personal creative projects.

“It’s not easy,” he admits, but “I find at one level, one relaxes me from the other.” The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive: “If you can do it, it’s quite nice to have an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or’.”

He normally writes by hand, from about six in the morning on weekdays. He can write notes on a plane, “but I’m a bit old school – I need the room, the quiet” to work.

Why has it taken him so long to try his hand at a novel? I ask.

“I’ve been quite busy,” he grins.

In 2009, The Art of the Idea, Hunt’s widely acclaimed paean to the power of original thinking, was published internationally. He consequently became fascinated with the publishing process and felt the time was right to write a novel next.

“I’m quite a believer in the rhythm of things,” he says. I don’t like overly forcing things.”

I ask him what’s it like for someone responsible for branding campaigns seen by millions to have worked so painstakingly hard on something that’ll be read by a few thousand people, tops.

He laughs.

“I love it, because you get the odd email from someone you don’t know and they love it and… they tell you how much it moved them or whatever. It’s very real. It’s like my day is made when I get one of those. They’ve taken the time – they’ve read it, they’ve thought about it, they have a point-of-view, and that’s incredibly satisfying. Somehow the individuality of” these interactions is an antidote to the “global and mass” aspects of his work.

The Space Between the Space Between is published by Umuzi.

Photo: Jurgen Marx

This first appeared in the November 2015 issue of Business Day WANTED.

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