My First house - John van der Ruit

In South Africa you have to sell a minimum of 5 000 copies of a book in order for it to be considered a best seller. But when your sales exceed 200 000, you become an overnight literary sensation.

With his colossal success as South Africa’s new best-selling author, you would expect John van de Ruit to have his head in the clouds. Quite the contrary, he seems to have his feet firmly on the ground – and in his first house, to boot.

John, who changed literary history when his books, Spud and Spud – The Madness Continues, shattered the country’s benchmark for book sales, lives in a stylish yet modest flat he inherited from his grandmother, who just so happens to live on in his books as the lovable character, Wombat.

‘My first flat was a gift from above and one of those things you feel extremely fortunate for having received,’ John says. ‘I think Ben [Vos, fellow actor and business associate] and I had lived in each other’s pockets for too long, and this, for me at least, was a moment of intense freedom. I had no preconceived notions of what I wanted in a first house. I was an itinerant theatrical, and, really, the idea of having my own place was thrilling enough.’

For John, who now shares the space with his girlfriend and fellow actor, Julia Clarence, ownership also meant overlooking the somewhat ramshackle appearance of the place. By his own admission, when he first moved in the flat was lamentable – an old granny’s lair with drab carpets and curtains, dull colours, various pieces of antique furniture and dodgy watercolours. The kitchen and bathroom were antiquated and dilapidated. And then there was the horror of pink floral wallpaper on the bedroom walls. ‘There was the feeling that my grandmother’s ghost was lurking around in the shadows watching me disapprovingly,’ he jokes. ‘It was a rather creepy experience. The flat was in a state of slow and steady decay, which I think accurately reflected the building and its former owner.’

John says that as a young actor and playwright he was more concerned with meeting the monthly bills than dreaming up renovations. He did swear, however, that should he ever strike it big, he would turn it into something beautiful, warm and welcoming. Prophetic musings, it would seem.

‘There have been two major periods of development,’ John explains. ‘The first, on the back of the success of Green Mamba [a critically acclaimed stage show with Ben Vos], involved the complete reconstruction of the bathroom and kitchen and a number of other, smaller alterations. This was inspired by my good friend and fellow thespian Stacey Taylor, who came up with some wonderful ideas. The kitchen became an ultra-modern, open-plan arrangement, and the bathroom evolved into a decadent affair with a distinctly Moroccan edge. The handmade bath is a massive piece of grandiose thinking.

‘The second wave of changes, sponsored by Spud Milton [the protagonist in his books] was far more decorative and subtle, and Julia and creative designer Cara Markewicz supplied much inspiration in this regard.’

John says that the bathroom and the little enclosed veranda where he wrote both Spud books are, without a doubt, his favourite rooms in the house. From his seat at the table in the nook, he is able to watch the passing trade on Musgrave Road, the birds outside on the lawn and the blooming acacias and azaleas out in the garden.

‘I share this little nook with countless books and my house plant called Lee Harvey Oswald,’ John grins. ‘I think it reflects my personality, which is interesting, dynamic and creative. It also makes me laugh. I suppose it’s the place where my creative engines have roared and it feels infused with the spirit of magic, and, I hope, work of merit. I have a feeling that I won’t be the last person to write something of note in this space.’

But while he is sentimental about his first home, John says he’s seriously thinking of moving on. ‘I never like staying too long in one place and I feel like it might be time for me to live elsewhere and not necessarily in Durban,’ he says. ‘It will be difficult to leave, because I have so many happy memories here, and, obviously, having written my books here, it may well prove to be the most important place that I have ever lived in.

‘The rising interest rates make it a buyers’ market currently, but I would probably sell the flat if I received an exceptional offer. Otherwise, I may hold onto it and see what happens in the future. It’s a sexy pad that exudes love, warmth and creativity, and it has old-world charm.’

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Words: Terence Pillay Photograph: Angela Buckland: