Steven ‘Boykey’ Sidley has played many roles in his adult life: from animator to private equity investor; chief technology officer of a Fortune 500 company to video game designer; jazz saxophone player to cryptocurrency fundi. But, it’s as a writer that he is best known to local audiences.
“I have wanted to write since my mother gave me Roth, Bellow, Updike and Mailer in my teens, and an English teacher encouraged me,” he says. “It took a little longer to gather the necessary chutzpah. Like decades.”
After spending much of his adult life in the USA (“I meandered through corporate boardrooms, which fit nicely into Dante’s version of hell.”), Sidley returned home to South Africa after meeting his wife, Kate, also a writer.
A late starter, in 2012 Sidley published his first novel, Entanglement, to great acclaim (it won the UJ Debut Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the MNet Literary Award) and continued to write three more in quick succession. “I am in a hurry because I started late,” he says. “It usually takes me six months to a year for first draft.”
Stepping Out (2013) was shortlisted for the UJ Main Fiction Award and Imperfect Solo (2014) was longlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the French version (Belfond translation) was selected for Le Grand Livre du Mois, France’s most prestigious national literary book club.
As proof of the esteem in which he is held in France, Elle magazine (France) compared him to Philip Roth – “Mortifyingly,” he quips in his trademark self-deprecating way. Sidley’s latest novel, Free Association, was published in 2017 and made it on to The Times Top 10 Books of 2017. Local critics agree that Sidley’s novels are not to be missed. Reviewing Free Association for the Cape Times, Jennifer Crocker wrote: “Sidley hands us a satirical tale of our times that is truly one of the finest books I have read in a long while.” Celebrated author Henrietta Rose-Innes concurs: “Microphone (the US/French title of Free Association) has profound — and profoundly entertaining — things to tell us about love, lies and storytelling in the age of digital celebrity.”
In Free Association we meet US-based Max Lurie, who hosts a podcast on National Podcasting Network. The idea for the novel came from Sidley’s passion for listening to podcasts on a wide variety of topics. “I listen to about three hours of podcasts each day — at gym, in the traffic, anywhere,” he says. “I am obsessive and addicted — every subject, genre, discipline. Sam Harris, the philosopher is current top of my charts. And More Perfect, about the US Supreme Court. And Radiolab. And New Yorker Fiction. And New York Library Podcast. And Skeptics Guide to the Universe. And Planet Money. And a17z. And…”
Max, a narcissist who has never realised his potential, is startled to find his podcast is a runaway success. His life, however, is pretty mundane and so the podcast becomes a blend of fact and fiction, which become hard to distinguish. The book intersperses narrative with podcasts, a clever vehicle that keeps the reader guessing which aspects of the podcasts are true and which are figments of Max’s imagination.
We have a heavenly choir to thank for this and other Sidley novels. “I am not a disciplined writer,” he says. “I write in the gaps, but I do write every single day to not lose a thread. The heavenly choir serenades at unpredictable moments. Then I yell at the third alto, because she is singing flat. Then I walk out in a huff, because they are singing a stupid song with only three chords. Then I put my head in my hands, because they are not risking anything more than barbershop harmonies. And then I grumble because of insufficient representation of minorities. Especially Jews. Then once in a while, everything comes into place and the voices reach for the infinite and I write an absolutely perfect sentence. Or two.”
And Sidley’s writing talents extend beyond the novel. As one of Daily Maverick’s Opinionistas he writes political analysis on topics ranging from ‘Julius Malema post Nasrec’ to ‘Are (white people) still welcome here?’. His most recent, ‘The New Order in SA: The world’s shortest political honeymoon’, assesses the first few weeks of Ramaphosa’s presidency with refreshing honesty. He is also a very thorough book reviewer, one of a few whose reviews are as lovely to read as the books they describe.
In an interview for South African Country Life Boykey told Nancy Richards, who will be back as a moderator for JLF2018, that he was unlikely to produce his own podcast one day: “Not sure I would be any good.” We beg to differ. It seems this polymath can do anything he puts his mind to.
Steven Boykey Sidley will present at JLF2018 both as a novelist and a political analyst.