An Interview with Errol Uys
How did you come to write "Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the move during the great depression"?
The book is a companion volume to the documentary, Riding the Rails,
made by my son, Michael, and his wife, Lexy. When Michael and Lexy began work on
the film seven years ago, their first step was to get a notice published in Modern
Maturity, official magazine of AARP, the Association of American Retired
Persons. They asked for stories from former boxcar boys and girls. They hoped
for 100 or so replies. They received 3,000 letters. I had access to the letters
plus 500 follow-up questionnaires and the transcripts of the filmed interviews.
What touched you most about the letters?
The total sincerity and honesty in the recollections of the boxcar boys and
girls. Whether they rode the rails once or twice or hopped freights endlessly
searching for jobs, the experience profoundly affected their lives. Not only
when they were kids, but in shaping their character as adults. What struck me
especially was the simple pride of letter writers in looking back on those hard
times and how they handled them as mere children.
Describe some of the ways in which they coped with life on the road?
"Street smarts," we call it today. Many took off with little but
the clothes on their backs. "I left home with 2 loaves of bread and 2
pounds of Romano cheese," says one letter-writer. Hunger quickly drove a
boy or girl to beg for food at stores and at the back doors of houses. Sometimes
they went away empty-handed. Many tell of going two or three days without a bite
Coping with fear and loneliness was as tough as trying to get something in
their bellies. "More than once I cried. I felt so sad, so utterly
alone," said one former rider. "What kept me going was the freedom of
it the desire to see what lay on the other side of the mountain."
What perspective do these stories bring on the Great Depression?
We see the decade of the Great Depression entirely through the eyes of young
men and women growing up on a landscape of ruin. We ride the rails with them,
setting out from homes shattered by unemployment and poverty and hitting the
road. We learn of their struggle to survive on the streets of America and know
their bitter disappointments, their sense of loss of childhood, their
frustrations at the lack of opportunity. "When I think of all this
traveling across the land, searching for the things we had lost, there is a
place inside my chest that still hurts," recalls one rider.
What does the book tell about America?
The story of the boxcar boys and girls reveals 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. They are the forgotten heroes of our century.
Could you share some details about your writing? How did you begin your
I wrote my first book at 10. It was 40 pages written on the back of worthless
stock certificates thrown out by my parents. At 16, I finished a full-length
novel. I still have a slew of rejection slips for my effort. But that manuscript
landed me my first newspaper job when I sent it along with my application for
work as a cub reporter in Johannesburg, South Africa. Of course, it also meant
that I would spend the next 15 years as a reporter, features writer and editor.
You worked with James A. Michener on his South African book, The Covenant".
Is this when you got your break?
Yes. I left my birthplace and immigrated to the United States with my family.
I had started work on a South African novel before coming here. When Michener
and I met, it was clear that we were thinking along similar lines. I spent two
years working with him, including four months during which I lived at his
Maryland home. We put our heads together on every aspect of the book, 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.
Why did you choose Brazil as your subject?
I came from South Africa where racism was entrenched. Brazil was a land where
the races mixed from the beginning. I was personally drawn to find out why the
Brazilian "thing" was so different. I was also appalled to discover
how little people in the United States knew about their biggest neighbor to the
south. It was and sadly remains a lack of understanding similar to what
proved disastrous for the different communities of South Africa.
How did you write Brazil?
I gave up my job as an editor at Reader's Digest. I spent the next
five years working on Brazil. I traveled 15,000 miles by bus to do my
research in Brazil and then returned to the U.S. to begin writing. After a
year's leg-work and with 200 pages in hand, I got an advance from Simon and
Schuster. The original manuscript was 2,700 pages or three-quarters of a million
words written in long-hand on kid's scribbling tablets. When it was published in
the U.S. in 1986, Brazil was 1,000 pages.
What was your experience with Brazil?
My editor left Simon and Schuster a month before the book was published. It
became what the trade calls an "orphan" book. Six weeks after
publication, I was told "Brazil didn't take off, so Simon and Schuster
dropped it." Exactly one year later, the novel was hailed by the critics
and became a best-seller in France. (La Forteresse Verte.) The book
enjoyed similar success in every other country where it was published.
Back in the United States, I found myself in that valley of lost writers
wandering between first novels and works-in-progress. For ten years, I battled
to get back into print, including two major fiction projects on Mexico and
Florida. What made it impossible for me to give up was the knowledge that I'd
climbed the mountain twice before, once with James Michener and once alone.
What matters most to you about writing?
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.