Ian Holding, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe and have lived here all my life.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
As a family we belonged to a small municipal library up the road and every second Saturday, religiously, we would go to the library and browse books, make selections. I think this is where my love of books and reading was fostered, really. At home I always remember there being a great deal of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Gerald Durrell, amongst others; some would have been library books; some we owned (or where perhaps “former” library books!). Plus there was this whole other unreachable top shelf of alluring paperbacks I suspected at the time were not intended for the eyes of a young, inquisitive boy. When I was finally old enough to reach that shelf, its contents were actually, on the face of it, quite disappointing. Except there was a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but I was such a pathetic loser as a kid I could never seem to find the bits that made it so notorious!
Who were early formative influences as a writer?
As far as I am conscious of it, I would have to say P.G. Wodehouse and Gerald Durrell as a boy. I was completely drawn to that wonderfully exaggerated British sense of humour, depictions of lives from a bygone age which, nonetheless, when I was growing up, still seemed to have a residual echo in my own childhood way of looking at life; the sensibilities of people around me. They always seemed rather quaint and innocent and, in Durrell, the ability to mix that with those languid, vivid passages describing the physicality and beauty of nature. Then a massive influence on me as an adolescent and young adult (and in fact to this day!) was Evelyn Waugh – that same sense of comedy, yet now underscored by the savage, the satirical, the devastatingly ironic, the bleakness of fate.
Do you write every day?
I wish. At best I would say I am an intermittent writer, only really snatching a couple of weeks here and there during the year when on holiday from my teaching job.
Do you do many drafts?
Yes, several. Often the first draft and the final copy bear only a passing resemblance to one another. I like to get things down quickly, deal with the sudden, stark reality that it’s awful and that I’m a terrible, really phony writer, and then slowly start to see what I can salvage from the wreck when my confidence gradually returns. Writing is very much a struggle against the self, or at least it seems that way to me whenever I engage with it. What Happened to Us went through at least ten complete rewrites, but each one I genuinely believe to be an improvement on the last.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
All three of my novels are very different, independent fictions in their own right; I’m rather proud of the way I crafted each of them given that when I approach a new novel I find I’m interested or drawn to trying to find new ways to achieve the same overall sense of narrative “completeness” or “what works”. I guess I like to experiment with style to the degree that, perhaps even, this is my style! When I was at school I once wrote a terribly pompous play which was loosely based on The Playboy of the Western World – it was awful in every regard with truly cringe-inducing dialogue and the most pedestrian plot imaginable! But, actually, writing for the stage – properly – has always been an incredible attraction to me. I’ve always felt that I have had some of my most fully immersive and transcendent moments with great writing for the theatre.
Your views on success?
Of course success is welcomed, but I’m not obsessed by the measure of success in terms of commercial considerations. Perhaps I used to be when I was younger and starting out, but my perspectives have changed. To me being successful as a writer is having the privilege of being published, especially the gift of having your words reproduced into a beautiful, lasting physical object of an actual book, of having someone else believing in your work, and finally in being able to ultimately share the product of my writing with a sincere readership, of whatever size.
What are you working on now?
I’m playing with an idea for a wicked satire on the state of affairs in Zimbabwe over the past few years. I’ve always wanted to try to write a broader narrative, many characters, many scenarios, bizarre and unbelievable, except that in this case most of it would be true! The older I get the more I feel I also want to write comedy of that wry, savage kind I grew up idolizing in those perfect novels of Evelyn Waugh. In fact, I find myself, for whatever reason, re-reading the entire Waugh oeuvre obsessively; my old Penguin copies are all falling to bits. I really think he’s a truly underrated master of English prose. I’m also still drawn to stories of ordinary characters who find themselves dealing with extraordinary events or circumstances, which, when I look back over my work and my concerns as a writer, I now realise has been my subconscious drive all along to a large extent. That and writing about what I term “white guilt” in its various guises. Zimbabwean society and life in general does tend to throw up these extremes. In this regard, amongst other things, I’m also interested in exploring the nature of the gay underworld in a country like mine; I think there’s an interesting set of dynamics and paradoxes to contemplate. Of course I’m always tinkering with the idea of writing drama, for the stage, but I somehow never have the nerve to take it seriously, although I do write plays for the kids in the Drama Society I run at the school to perform every year, and that’s great fun.
Your views on book publishing?
I am more or less entirely removed from the industry here in Zimbabwe, but I imagine publishing on all levels is going through a pretty tough time right now, and probably has done for the past decade or so. There seems to be a reluctance from mainstream publishers to invest in challenging writing these days, whether that be a certain “difficult” style or what the industry sometimes calls “challenging stories”. To me that seems antithetical to the whole idea of how publishers traditionally used to curate their lists. Also, and I know this sounds cynical, but I suspect the larger publishers are more and more inclined to want to foster “trends” in publishing whether it be a certain “type” or writer they see as particularly marketable, (middle-aged white men don’t seem to fit the bill these days!), or a certain kind of “fad” which, to me at least, always seems to end up as seeming to be increasingly formulated, or overly market conscious. What I do know is that in response there is, luckily, a vibrancy amongst small independent publishers who have taken over the mantle of acquiring really unique and interesting voices and who are more prepared to take a risk, to invest in writing for writing’s sake. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that when I look at some of the writing in recent years which has really intrigued and interested me the most, they all originally came from these wonderful small and independent presses. This is why I am extremely grateful to Andrew Latimer and Little Island Press for having the courage to publish my work at a time when I’m all too aware that it is a difficult market for “literary fiction”, whatever that silly term even means.
What are your favorite literary journals?
I can’t say I really have the time to peruse that many, but I do love the the interviews with writers to be found in the extensive archive on The Paris Review app.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Your views on social media?
I have always written on a laptop as it’s quicker and more efficient and I’m a slave to these modern conveniences, although I really wish I had the discipline to write longhand as it seems like a quaint and romantic notion and somehow more organic, more natural I guess. Perhaps that’s not really true, but I do like the idea that writing actually takes very little to really sustain it; just some paper and a pen or a pencil at its most essential level. I absolutely hate all social media. I don’t really want to hear a million and one people’s rapidly constructed, often very poorly expressed views on ten million different topics, most of which are too banal to even warrant lifting an eyebrow for. There’s a very dangerous trend setting in when it comes to social media in that far from being the liberating platform of free speech and expression it started out to be, it’s rapidly being hijacked by the most pernicious type of puritanical censoring agents of the whole the modern militant PC movement. It feels as though we’re rapidly regressing into an age of fanatical prudishness to rival the most pathetic Victorian one. It’s crazy how backward the world has suddenly seems to have become.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I can’t get into a book if it’s not a physical object, with texture, weight, a smell, something permanent to be valued and kept, collected. I know that sounds precious, but I’ve tried and just can’t seem to make the connection needed to sustain a feeling that I’m in any way invested in what I’m reading when it’s digital. I do, however, read The Spectator every week on my iPad which I really love!
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Somewhere along the Mediterranean, one of those idyllic little Italian coastal towns perhaps. Although I’d like to go back in time to when they were still relatively undiscovered.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Hmm. Schubert, Harold Pinter, Martha Argerich, Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, Susan Sontag. I would invite Beckett and Waugh and Beethoven and Houellebecq, but I just think they’d probably be in a really bad mood. But then again as I really hate parties myself, I probably would be as well so perhaps the five of us would slink off to a dark corner, order a bottle of whiskey and be contentedly pissed off with life together.
Your favourite prose authors?
Waugh, of course, Dickens, Hemmingway, Camus, Kafka, Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, Henry Green, Leonard Michaels. Of contemporary writers, the usual suspects: McEwan, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Banville, Barnes, Enright, Levy, Ondaatje, McCarthy, Ishiguro. But I think Michel Houellebecq, Damon Galgut and Elena Ferrante are the three modern day writers whose work just completely astounds me every time I read it; to me they are truly unique and unquestionably brilliant.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
In fiction, Don Juan. In real life, Roger Federer – the ultimate modern hero.
What other authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
I’m friends with several, but we seldom really discuss work. Or at least I seldom discuss work with them. I prefer to think of writing as a necessarily solitary business. Being part of a “community of writers” always seems like an entirely paradoxical and redundant notion to me.
Your five favourite films?
The English Patient, Dr. Strangelove, No Country For Old Men, Being Julia, The Remains of the Day. But I recently saw Call Me By Your Name which I thought was masterful, true, tender and a complete antidote for the bigoted cynicism of our times.
Your chief characteristic?
I love animals probably more than humans!
Your chief fault?
I love animals probably more than humans!
Your bedside reading?
Currently, The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst.
“Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
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