Author John van de Ruit is a runaway success. There’s no doubt about that. In the past 10 years he’s written four books in a series, the likes of which this country has never seen before. The books have spawned two full-length feature films and he’s broken nearly every literary record in SA since he first put pen to paper.
The final book in the Spud series, Spud – Exit, Pursued by a Bear, has only just hit the shelves and is already tipped to be a bestseller by industry insiders.
For Van de Ruit, it’s the culmination of a decade of dedication to just one project, so the experience is somewhat bittersweet.
“When finishing this final book there was a real sense of an ending, and I’ve written it as such,” Van de Ruit said in an exclusive interview.
“I think it’s a closing of a really big chapter in my life, and I’m a different person to the person who got into this, having unknowingly stumbled into this weird world.
“I hate using the words celebrity and fame here in South Africa – I mean, we’re just a small little pond here – but the thing is, I’ve reached a lot of people and those people love me for the humour that I’ve brought to them, the stories that I’ve shared and the fact that I’ve reawakened their youth in a weird way.”
When he began work on Spud 2, The Madness Continues, he always knew there would be four books. While he is adamant that much of the work is fiction, the loosely autobiographical series of books do reflect his years at a private school in the leafy KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
“The moment I went over that line and did the second Spud book, I knew there had to be four to reflect my four years at Michaelhouse,” he said.
“I’m hoping in time that people will see it as four very distinct steps in manhood, and every book has a different theme – the first book is about the coming of age, the second book is about rebellion, the third book is about boy politics and learning to play the system, and the fourth book is about awakening.”
Van de Ruit said what he’s achieved in this final instalment is the tonality, and a sense of finality. He said Spud’s is a growing voice and that’s always a challenge for a writer because readers don’t necessarily reflect that – they just read and buy into the voice that Spud has and grows from his experiences, seemingly without ever becoming subtly older.
His biggest challenge was finding a way to age Spud’s voice and get that over in a comedic and dramatic way to keep people reading.
“When you write a series, the further you go into it, the more restrictions you seem to have,” he said.
“You still are compelled to stick to your characters and the world you have created, and in the place of a boarding school that doesn’t change dramatically from year to year – but how do you find that dynamic that’s going to be interesting and mostly funny and not repeat all my old jokes? I think this time I had a lovely writing process – lovely in the sense that it was on my terms. I was able to structure it from the beginning and know what I needed.”
Van de Ruit was quick to point out that it wasn’t a solo effort. He said his long-time girlfriend, Julia Clarence, who also often doubles as his unofficial handler, was pivotal in his writing process.
“It’s difficult for people on the outside to grasp how important Julia is. She is, at times like these, something of a manager and when I’m not touring, then she’s my girlfriend. But she’s also that person who at that end of every day, reads through what I’ve written. So I edit what I’ve written that day, whether it’s 2 000 or 3 000 words, and we’ll have a glass of wine and read it, and that’s become our ritual, and it’s fantastic. I get to test material on her without doing anything overt – like just observing the way she laughs at something, or sometimes she would ask me to clarify something and I realise if she needs clarifying then the reader is going to need clarifying and I go straight back there, fix those little holes and move on.”
With four books and two movies – starring British actor John Cleese – under his belt, Van de Ruit has sealed his success as a force to be reckoned with on the SA literary landscape. His work has also allowed him to create a comfortable financial nest egg, something most writers only dream of.
“I have made money from Spud,” he said. “Obviously money is very relative. I’ve made what I regard as a lot of money out of Spud. So whether I’m writing or on holiday, I still know that for the last seven years of my life, I got two good cheques a year, which has not only been able to keep me doing what I want but also allowed me to buy a house and buy a car and also pay off things that some people spend their whole lives paying off.
“And obviously the movies are great too, because that’s a lump sum payment that you get for the rights to each movie. So I was thrilled with just one movie and now there’s another one – so there has been bounty.”
But for Van de Ruit it’s never been about the money. When his editor told him if they sold 5 000 copies of his first book, that would constitute a bestseller, he was more than happy. Now, 10 years down the line, he’s sold hundreds of thousands of books and still all he wants is to leave nothing more than an indelible mark on the SA literary world.
“I’m aware that to create a legacy, you have got to end it,” he says. “For the rest of my life I’ll probably be confronted by people who want it to go on, but right now I’m very aware I want to end this chapter. My entire experience of this whirlwind also frees me up as a writer to determine whether Spud is the beginning or the pinnacle. And I like to think that it’s just the beginning of my writing journey.” - Cape Argus
• Spud, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is on shelves at selected bookshops. The movie, Spud: The Madness Continues is set for release next June.