Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Born and bred in Cape Town, under Table Mountain. All of Africa to the north, Antarctica to the south, and an ocean on either hand.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
It was a bookish home – we were always retreating into fantasy in different corners of the house. My parents had various interests and they collected books on art, archaeology, rare plants, antiques, medicine, carpentry, bird-keeping . . . as well as poetry and certain kind of mid-century fiction that they discovered in their youth. I grew up reading Graham Greene and Hemingway and Carson McCullers and a lot of classic Science Fiction. It was an old-fashioned but solid education.
Why do you write?
I have little else to recommend me.
How do you choose your subjects?
It often begins with a visual image, a picture or an object that grabs me, or that surfaces from the past – like the photo of an extinct, taxidermied lion that I first saw in the South African Museum when I was little, and which returned to haunt my latest novel Green Lion. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously chosen a theme or a subject. Ideally, the writing of the book reveals its own purpose.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
I’m a terrible procrastinator. It’s tempting to fiddle around for months or years, “reading around” a subject, investigating this and that in case it turns out to be relevant. That meandering route is necessary and productive, but at a certain point I need to be terrified into action. Usually by a deadline.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I once edited / ghost-wrote a woman’s memoir, in which she related how her husband’s violent psychopathy was actually demon possession that she, being spiritually gifted, had successfully exorcised. Not a glorious moment, but I was young and broke and taking any work that came my way. I still wonder (gulp) what became of that author, who was rather nice and married to a genuinely chilling character, whose dangerous pathology I no doubt enabled.
Your views on success?
Whatever you achieve, you look up to find the real prize has scuttled a little further out of reach. Best to take it all with a large scoop of salt and remember that nobody cares too much about your success or failure except yourself, the people who truly love you – and your mortal enemies. I find this sobering.
Do you write every day? Do you do many drafts?
I go through patches of writing and not-writing. I’m O.K. with that. I know one is generally advised – sometimes in rather pious tones – to write every day, but I don’t believe in a work ethic for the sake of it. What I come up with when I force myself is often rubbish and the process is depressing and counterproductive. I’m not lazy when it comes to revising, though; once I have something I kind of like, I’m a devil for drafting and redrafting, and drafting again, and last changes and last-last-last changes & etc. It’s in the editing that my obsessive drives kick in, sometimes cripplingly.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a draft of a novel I’m calling Stone Plant. It concludes a loose trilogy made up of my two previous novels, which examine human relationships to the non-human world – whether grappling with teeming creaturely life, as in Nineveh, or mourning the loss of it in an increasingly denuded world in Green Lion. This new one turns its attention to the plant kingdom – its slow life cycles and strategies for survival – and it should be finished early next year.
Your views on book publishing?
I’ve been lucky and have loved all my publishers. My view is: bless them, particularly those with a weakness for obscure mid-list literary fiction and fiction in translation, and long may they continue to do this generally thankless task for reasons that are not often commercially discernible. Ditto the bookshops. I admire people who self-publish effectively, but I suspect that if I tried, the whole enterprise would collapse in chaos and rubble and ennui.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
Not really. They are handy when you need to access something quickly, and I’m grateful that people can find my books in places where it’s not easy to get your hands on a physical copy. I know they’re a boon for people who have difficulty reading regular print. But for myself, I don’t find the format comforting, convenient or much of a sensual pleasure, and my memory of books read digitally is less vivid.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Your views on social media?
I’m addicted, like everyone else. Sometimes I think it’s a problem, sometimes not. For one thing, my natural handwriting has long ago withered and died, replaced by Times New Roman (occasionally Garamond) – so much so that when I’m forced to write by hand (e.g. signing books), I’m often unable to decipher what I’ve said.
I do toggle continuously between writing and messing about online. I may be deluding myself, but I’m not convinced that it’s a bad process. A lot of my writing is fueled by pictures, for example, and I also write well when I’m distracted from conscious thoughts about writing. I like to imagine my writer’s coracle drifting along, randomly buffeted by digital wavelets.
What are your favourite literary journals?
I’ll take this opportunity to punt the newly formed and very exciting Johannesburg Review of Books, a journal that offers a southern African view on world literature: critical thinking, reviews, essays, poetry, photographs and short fiction. Issue 6 and going strong. (Disclosure: I am a contributing editor, although I have not as yet actually . . . contributed.)
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I would go to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, of course. It’s always had a strong hold on my imagination, ever since I first saw black-and-white photos of its excavation in those dusty old books of my mother’s; so much so that I engineered one of my novels specifically in order to call it Nineveh. The archaeological remains are even more precious and stirring now, since so much of Mosul has been tragically destroyed.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Buster Keaton. I’d love to hear his voice. I think it’s impolite to mix the living with the dead, so let’s stick to the departed. Josephine Baker. Boudicca, as discussed below. Caravaggio. And to mix things up a bit, Homo Naledi (I’d have to enquire about dietary preferences). I imagine it would be a riotous mess, there could well be casualties, but I’d just pass the wine, sit back and marvel.
Your favourite prose authors?
A problem with having favourite authors is that they die and stop writing your favourite books. The literature you encounter first cuts deep, and two children’s authors I was very sad not to meet were Maurice Sendak and Tove Jansson – both seemed like extremely nice, complex people, with deeply humane approaches to the trials and joys of childhood.
Other than that, I will say I’m delighted by the latest Nobel Prize, as I was undelighted by the one before.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
I don’t think I go to fiction – or life for that matter – for heroes. However, into my mind come two great anticolonial champions: Makana (Makhanda) was a military and spiritual leader of the Xhosa, who led battles against the British in the early 19th century. He drowned while attempting to escape from Robben Island, a century and a half before Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment there. And I’ve been living in Norwich for the last few years, home of the Iceni and Boudicca, the ruthless warrior queen who waged war against the Roman colonial occupiers round about AD 60. I must be in a martial mood, possibly explained by my current living circumstances (see below).
What other authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
The Cape Town literary scene is very small – most of us know each other pretty well, (in other words: more than my life’s worth to pick out friends and enemies). That said, having lived in the UK for a few years, I think I’ve realised that literary scenes anywhere are made of interlocking circles of influence, all more or less the same size.
I’m lucky in that a couple of writers whose work I really respect have been willing to read my work, and that’s been hugely helpful and encouraging. (The most useful readers are not always authors though, or exactly friends. . .) As a group, we’re quite good at promoting each other’s work and helping younger writers with access, I think. Although sometimes that comes uncomfortably close to nepotism. The circles of aid and encouragement could certainly be more diverse, more expansive, more bold.
Your chief characteristic?
I am generally kind to animals and babies.
Your chief fault?
Too much of a perfectionist. No, just kidding. I do have one hideous, almost demonic flaw, but I’m certainly not going to tell the world about it.
Your bedside reading?
Right now I have the supreme good fortune of being a fellow at the wonderful Civitella Ranieri writers’ residency in Umbria, in an actual 11th-century castle. So I’m reading a short history of Umbertide and Perugia, which is thrillingly eventful, with Game of Thrones levels of bloodshed and betrayal. Nothing like going for lunch and imagining the screams of people doused with boiling oil from the battlements. So far we fellows have kept the peace and the only oil being poured is the (very excellent) virgin olive.
I don’t have one, though I frequently berate myself with a silent “Ffs” or “Pull yourself together.” That said, there’s a motto here in the castle that I’m thinking of adopting. It’s carved above the massive fireplace, with an image of a diamond in the flames: Non me Domabis, “Do not dominate me.” Quite.
A BookBlast® exclusive. Format copyright © BookBlast® Ltd, London. Answers copyright © c/o BookBlast Ltd, London. All rights reserved. Photographs & graphical images copyright © their respective copyright holders. Unless otherwise specified, the content herein is only for your personal and non-commercial use.