Unearthing a writing talent

Sven Axelrad became an accountant because he liked numbers and disliked reading. Twenty years on, he reads 65 books a year, travels, plays the guitar, is covered in tattoos and writes with a fuelled passion.

They say magic usually always happens in the space between … and for Durban North author Sven Axelrad, this lies somewhere between accounting and writing. During the day, the ghost of the writer haunts the accountant. At night, they switch places. The outcome. A really charming, page-turner that’s hit the shelves of most major bookstores.

Buried Treasure – Sven’s debut book – is an enchanting adventure that explores what our names mean to us and who we are without them. It features an old man and his dog, a homeless girl, a lonely cemetery and a whole lot of graveyard shenanigans that make it both an erudite and a magical and quirky read.

Photo: Misha Lee Tame

“Don’t tell when you write this, but my first love was always music. My brother and I found a beat-up old guitar in the garage, fixed it up and taught ourselves how to play it. My brother, who grew up to be an engineer, approached the instrument almost mathematically. For me, it was all about melody and lyrics.”

Music might have been his first love, but like most first-loves, Sven says it was beautiful but doomed to end badly. Truth be told, Sven is an exceptionally skilled accountant, albeitone who has been quietly chasing his dream of publishing a book for over a decade. He reads a lot, loves watching all genres of movies and series, and spends weekends writing in local coffee shops.

“The switch came when I was about 20. I went to visit my dad in France and ended up, as one does, milling around a bookstore in an airport. Call it fate, providence, blind luck or a combination of the three … I casually bought a book that would change my life.”

Sven wrote a lot in the next five years, at least three novels, none of which he tried to publish.

“I existed this way for years, halved and haunted, until my wife Shannon, no doubt tired of living with my ghosts, begged me to choose. Either option was fine, she said. She wanted only that I choose and be happy. We spent a morning walking beside the ocean from Sea Point to Camps Bay, talking through the options. I didn’t even realise I was having an epiphany. I suspect that’s how it is with miracles. Fast forward five years and I have a book being published, so you might assume that in the end, I chose writing, but I didn’t. I chose to get organised.”

And by organised, it meant being still, making coffee (black), putting on a playlist of songs chosen with care while working on his book, and writing as though he was telling a story about something he really believed in.

“Inspiration is everywhere. I get a lot of it from music. Besides that, I try to listen carefully when people speak, because everyone has an interesting story to tell.”

The idea for Buried Treasure came to Sven while he was on honeymoon.

“I woke up early one morning and scribbled a scene in my notebook … something along the lines of: Imagine the trouble it would cause if you needed Home Affairs to issue you an ID to get to Heaven? I have always enjoyed magical thinking. In my book, people are being buried in the wrong graves and as such, are stuck in an administrative backlog, unable to move on to the afterlife without knowing who they are.”

On having many an eyebrow raised at him when people ask what he does for a living and he tells them he’s an accountant, Sven says it gives him a good laugh and it’s a gentle reminder of how never to judge a book by just its cover.

“Maybe it’s the tattoos, my posture, or the feint smell of coffee and unrequited hope on my skin. Whatever the reason, I love that people are surprised by what I do. In fact, I often wonder how I ended up spending my days working with numbers when, for most of my life, I’ve been convinced that if answers do exist, they exist in prose.”

These days, though there’s a tentative friendship between Sven’s two ghosts. He says they have hashed it out and agreed to haunt him politely.

“The early mornings are my time. I wake clear-headed, ideas gummed in the corners of my eyes, a Yorkie on my bed and I’m careful not to speak. I have words written on my skin – one for each book I’ve completed. In this way I am becoming a book myself, and as such, I continue to write. My café coffee bill alone must be astronomical, but worth it as I am finally on the shelf in all the big bookstores, so dreams do, against all the odds, occasionally come true.”

Details: Follow Sven on IG: svenaxelrad or visit www.svenaxelrad.com

About the book

Set in a little town called Vivo, which has a single cemetery run by an old man named Mateus, and his dog, God,  Buried Treasure weaves the story of this old man with poor eyesight, who mistakenly buries bodies in the wrong graves, and trips over a young homeless girl named Novo. Determined to help reorganise the cemetery, she becomes Mateus’ apprentice. But, she has to work fast. Buried awry, divorced from their names, the ghosts of Vivo are piling up, unable to move to the afterlife without knowing who they are. Also, someone, or something, is on the loose, killing people and closing in on the one person who can make things right. Vivo is a town with a pigeon-messaging service, a phone booth used for romantic encounters, and residents who are not quite what they seem. Oh, and the coffee is hellishly strong. Available online and at most major bookstores for R290. Penguin