I wrote my first book at ten. It was forty pages penned on the back of worthless stock certificates tossed out by my parents. At sixteen, I finished a full-length novel. I still have a slew of rejection slips for this effort.
That manuscript landed me my first newspaper job when I included it with my application to work as a cub reporter on the Johannesburg Star. I spent the next 15 years as a reporter, feature writer and editor on newspapers and magazines in South Africa, England and the United States.
In 1977, I left my birthplace and immigrated to the United States. I had started work on a South African novel before coming here. When James A. Michener and I met, it was clear that we were thinking along similar lines. I spent two years with Michener, including four months during which I lived at his Maryland home. We put our heads together on every aspect of The Covenant, from the plotting to the final manuscript. -- What I gained above all was the faith that I could go out and write a vast historical novel like Michener.
Riding the Rails was inspired by 3,000 letters received from the boxcar boys and girls of the 1930s. Their stories reveal nothing less than the spirit of America — youthful optimism, the will to make the best of things, the love of freedom.The Great Depression was a heinous time that left deep scars. Letter writers express life-long fears of going broke again. When they left the rails and got a hold on their lives, they never let go. Many tell of keeping the jobs they found for 30 or 40 years. And the girls they met, too: many write joyously of their enduring devotion to the sweethearts they married when they settled down. None speak of the pluck and courage they showed in going to seek a better life. —To me, they are all heroes of America.
Whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction, I strive to understand, to feel and touch the lives of people I write about. It is a rare privilege that writers have. It is also a deep responsibility.