GRANT DE GRAF SPEAKS OUT (PART I)

The author of Cavalier's Call provides a candid account of his personal life and writing his historical novel.



What prompted you to write Cavalier's Call?
Mostly, I was encouraged by friends and colleagues, who were always egging me on to complete a novel. But, more than anything, I actually enjoy writing and articulating aspects about life's experiences.

Do you have any formal training in writing?
No. However, I came from a family that was rooted in entertainment. My parents were impresarios who were probably the first to bring out international artists, singers and dancers to South Africa. This was a greater achievement than it may appear. Forty years ago we didn't have the access to air travel that we do today.

"I was weaned on song and dance."

Were flights less frequent?
That's an understatement. Travel was much more expensive and not as common. By comparison, about twenty years ago a train trip from Durban to Cape Town, which is about a thousand miles, took three days. International travel was a major undertaking, rather than the bus ride that it is today. As South Africa was much more isolated, even before sanctions, bringing out international celebrities to a local venue was a novelty. I recall very fondly, the regular Sunday braais (barbeques) that my parents would host. There would be well over a hundred guests at each event. I was weaned on song and dance. Also, when my father passed away, I was pulled into the family business for a brief period. So the entertainment industry is not something new to me.

Do you see writing as entertainment?
I would categorize it as entertainment on a sophisticated level. If a novelist can't hold or grab an audience within the few first pages, the writer has probably lost them. Obviously, I very much aspire to engage my audience, in a way that has them hanging and desperate to turn the next page.

Why did you choose the dawn of Portugal's Age of Discovery, as the backdrop to Cavalier's Call?
Really, I wanted to write a historical novel that involved the development of the mining industry in South Africa, and the Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato conflict. However, that topic has been extensively covered. When I started to turn the pages of South African history, I was taken back to Portugal, to Joao de Aviz, Henry the Navigator and Bartholomew Diaz who was the first explorer to set foot in South Africa.


What motivated these explorers to sail towards Southern Africa?
They were essentially seeking a new passage to India, which previously was fixed on an arduous land route through the Middle East. The Venetians held somewhat of a monopoly over this turf. Additionally, the cost that caravans had to pay to third parties was prohibitive.

"...you had every man with a compass and piece of timber trying to make his way around the Cape of Good Hope."

Did discovery of the new trade route to India change things?
It was revolutionary, beyond all imagination. Obviously silk, spice and the host of goods that originated from that region were able to find its way to the European market, quicker and at a much lower cost. The Portuguese initially held a monopoly over the route, given their expertise, silver-lined pockets and sovereignty of the high seas. As a consequence of their success and the profits they generated through colonization, you had every man with a compass and piece of timber trying to make his way around the Cape of Good Hope.

Did other countries follow?
Certainly. Castile (Spain), France, Holland, and England jumped on the bandwagon. The mood for exploration changed the entire ship building industry and the way people thought. Every mother suddenly wanted her son to be a navigator – my son, the navigator. Suitable candidates attended Henry the Navigator's school of navigation at Sagres on the Algarve, which was like going to Harvard.

Can we find any active remnants of the mind-set or process that existed in the days of Portuguese explorers, today?
That's a very interesting thought. I think that we can say that America (U.S.A.), as a country, has probably been the most significant driving force in technological advancement in history. There are several factors that have helped advance the process. These include (1) creativity, (2) the ability to source and to commit capital to projects, and (3) the ability to bring goods to market. It was precisely these very factors that initially drove the Portuguese to achieving the success that they did, in establishing an alternative to the existing silk and spice route. The same entrepreneurial qualities found in the United States today, responsible for the technological boom that is being experienced, were precisely the qualities that inspired the search for the new route to India.

Can you be more specific?
When Joao de Aviz and his son Henry the Navigator first inked the idea of a new sea passage to India, people sincerely believed that that they had lost their mind. Such an initiative had previously been unthinkable. The cost of constructing the vessels that would survive such a trip was astronomical. The navigational skills that were necessary, would need to be of a sophisticated standard and were literally off the map, and the possibility that a ship could be wiped-out by a storm, had to be seriously considered. Additionally, any attempt to group together a crew that would embark on such a voyage was met with failure. There just were no takers for love or for money. In short, they had to source funds for a task that was impossible. I don't doubt that the Bill Gates' and Steve Jobs' of this world, had to endure similar hurdles in their quest for success within their industry.

How were the Portuguese ultimately able to succeed in soliciting the funds?
Henry the Navigator had several qualities that earned him his title. Firstly, he had an extensive range of contacts from which he could draw. These existed in the church and extended within economic, political and social circles. Secondly, he could talk a good game. He had the gift of the gab. Initially, he approached wealthy monarchs who were able to commit themselves to his cause, but then he found a rainmaker – the church. He made them an offer they couldn't refuse. "You provide us with the funds, and we'll convert the rest of the world to Christianity." It was a no-brainer.


Do you cover these issues in Cavalier's Call?
Not directly. I was interested in capturing the spirit and mood that existed, immediately prior to the Age of Discovery. I wanted to identify the aspects of the era that facilitated the initiatives on which Henry, the Navigator embarked. The re-creation of those details is subtle. Also, Cavalier's Call is Volume I of a two-part series. Initially I have dealt with Joao de Aviz' impressionable years, growing up in the royal palace in Coimbra as a rookie courtier, where he is commissioned to defend a villain and argue his case against the bench of the prosecution led by the talented Don Antonio Esteves. Joao's escape from a band of bondoleros follows. His love for Ines Peres Esteves ensues, daughter of his most vehement opponent, climaxing in his appointment to lead Portugal to independence. Of course there are many twists, turns and mystery to keep readers hanging onto the edge of their seat. It's an engaging, easy read. Remarkably, this specific era in history has not been extensively covered by historians or novelists.

I'm aware that Joao de Aviz lost his father, the king, as a boy. How were you able to relate to this and articulate the emotions that he felt?
I lost my father when I was fourteen, so hopefully I was able to suitably describe and identify with the feelings that Joao may have experienced. Readers will find it interesting, because the emotions for me anyway, were not entirely what one may expect under those trying circumstances.


"...I would gallop into the setting sun at breakneck speeds..."


Are you able to describe any specific incidents that you've experienced, which helped you in creating and relating certain aspects of Cavalier's Call, to your readers?
It's hard to say, because as you know we are all products of a chain of experiences, rather than one incident. However, the novel does provide detail of the advanced horsemanship and polo games in which Joao de Aviz and his childhood friend Nuno Álvares Pereira participated. This facet of the novel was cultivated from the fond memories that I have as a boy of about ten, of visits to my grandfather's property in Paarl, near Cape Town, and to my uncle's farm in Wepener, near the Lesothu border. On these occasions my cousins and I would gallop into the setting sun at breakneck speeds, as if there was no tomorrow. My grandfather was a thoroughbred enthusiast who for several years held the South African champion title for his show of Cameos Thunderbird. The horse was a stallion of the American Saddler strain, a magnificent creature.


Have you ever worked on a ranch?
During a visit to Australia about twenty years ago, I worked as a jackeroo on a sheep station in Yarrawongo-Mulwala, which is on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. It was real Ned Kelly country. The owner of the property was a cockie by the name of John Sloane. I established my relationship with John when we traveled to Australia on the same plane. It was an amazing experience.

TO READ PART II CLICK HERE