What Writing Tips Can Take From Trevor Noah’s Successful Memoir? Great mix of social statistics connected to a relatable, real person plus an awesome introductory chapter and good narrative throughout.
The Ups & Downs of Success
I love Costco’s tables and tables covered with piles and piles of books. I know that, as a small publisher, getting into Costcos or stores like it can be a dream or a nightmare: they order loads and loads of books, but if they don’t sell them, they end up going straight back to the publishers. I experienced that back in 2009. I remember that day too well: I had a home office in the country back then and I was in my car about to leave when a massive truck starting coming up the long narrow drive. It was a snowy day, and the lane was treacherous during the winter, but this day was unusually bad. I got out of the car and the truck stopped. A guy wearing one of those recognizable brown UPS jumpsuits came to me with a sheet of paper stating the store was returning many, many, many boxes of books. I gulped, moved my car, and let the unloading begin.
By the time they finished, that credit of returned books meant that the next book I released would be pretty much free to that retailer. Bummer. But I survived. Although, let me tell you, on that day, I did not think it was possible!
Devoured Faster Than Costco Food Samples
But, as usual, I digress. Back to my great find at Costco: I picked up Trevor Noah’s book at Costco for a mere $12 – wow! The story telling was brilliant. I could not put it down. I finished the book in two days.
When I go to a bookstore whether bricks and mortar or online, I’ll know quite a bit about the book I’m choosing because I’ve gone in (or signed in) with the objective of purchasing that book. But when I go to Costco, because the books are so inexpensive, and piled so attractively that I want to bathe in them, I’ll pick something up just because it intrigues me at the moment. I assumed Trevor Noah’s book would describe how he became the TV star and comic that he is. But it wasn’t. Noah’s first book is about his childhood in suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa just as Apartheid was ending. He was born six years after Nelson Mandela was released, just as the system was being dissolved.
That important first chapter of his book tells us within three pages that:
- Trevor Noah has been thrown out of moving vehicle;
- His mother is the person who saved him by throwing him;
- The reason they were in danger was because his mother drove crappy, unreliable cars;
- Being an owner of crappy cars is what puts them in danger when he was a child and in much greater danger later.
He tell us all this within the first couple of pages of his book. And he tells us this with humour so we gasp when we realize we are reading such horrors yet laughing. Many writers don’t give up their best stuff right away — but in this book, we knew from the start what type of book we were settling into. I think he’s a great example of “don’t try to keep stuff back that will provide the reader with the information that will tie them to your book right through to the last page.” Keeping things secret may be the reason that a bookstore browser may put your book back down rather than putting it in their basket and taking it to check out.
South Africa was rightly vilified for how seriously it invested in creating institutionalized systems and processes to deny the majority of its citizen basic human rights. Through Noah we learn that South Africa did a lot of research and continued to in order to make that system thrive like the people classified as white, at the expense of everyone else in the country. We learn the crazy position being mixed-race was for him and his family during a period defined by race. After all, his conception was against the law and his existence was proof that his parents were criminals! Trevor Noah’s book is the first one I have read that does such a fantastic job of helping us see behind the statistic and facts many of us have read in newspapers or through history and social science courses. His book makes me want to seek out other South African memoirists and fiction writers on this topic. If you know of a great one, please add the title and author in the comments below.
The structure of the book was a bit odd to me. I liked that he had a prologue to each part of the book that provided the legal and social changes in South Africa during the period to which the chapter relates. Then, through his writing, he makes the stats personal. But in each of the three parts of the book, he retells parts of story of his teenage years. That’s three times that you read and think, “didn’t you tell this bit already?” but each time he added different details. I found that part of the structure annoying.
I like that Trevor Noah was open about having a ghostwriter. Of course, with his schedule now, it would be difficult to sit down and write his story. But it remains his story, despite the fact that he had someone do the writing for him. I feel that shows the value of having a ghostwriter. It allows you to get your story out and if you do not have time to focus on the actual writing, you can hire someone to do that part for you. Having a ghostwriter does not make it less your story.
I look forward to his second book, as do the many fans, I’m sure, that made this book an International Bestseller and a NYT Bestseller (the best type of best seller, in many opinions. In fact, my dream is to one day wear a fact-checkable t-shirt stating that I’m a NYT Bestselling Author!). The expected date of arrival of his follow-up memoir was November 2018, but clearly that deadline has passed. I’m sure this late book will be the story I was expecting when I picked this one up. Stories of how a little known comic in North America who was actually an internationally celebrated comic from Africa got the opportunity of taking over a highly-rated American show. And how, despite its initial hiccups, he has kept it going and made it his own. Trevor Noah has created a kids version of Born A Crime which is expected to be in bookstores in April this year.
Worth Your Time?
I rarely finish a book I wouldn’t recommend. I stop reading and throw the book across the room if something in the reading experience makes me go “blah”. This book wouldn’t let me sleep — I had to keep reading. This one is well worth reading. Just an education about the weirdness required to keep the South African Apartheid system going makes it worth five hours or so of your time. Read it! You’ll find that Trevor Noah is even more interesting, more of a risk-taker, and funnier than you thought!