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“Writing Isn’t so Much About Place as It is About State of Mind”: Mark Winkler on the Ins and Outs of Writing Wasted

Mark Winkler’s new novel, Wasted, is a pop culture Crime and Punishment set in a dark and twisted version of Cape Town.

Books LIVE recently spoke to Winkler about the compelling inner life of his main character, Nathan Lucius, the young man at the heart of the story of what it means to be human.

Winkler is a Rhodes University graduate and a creative director at M&C Saatchi Abel. Here is the second part of the interview with the author about writing spaces, setting and advice for aspiring authors:
WastedAn Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything)When and where do you like to write?

I’m lucky enough to have a very comfortable study at home, where I try to get most of my writing done. But I have quite a demanding day job, so time is always an issue. I’ve learned that writing isn’t so much about place as it is about state of mind, so I’ve taught myself to shut out surroundings, which helps me write in coffee shops and airports. The proviso is that I can’t write if my screen is in anyone else’s line of sight. I keep a Moleskine with me 24/7 so that I can scribble down ideas and thoughts and observations just about anywhere.

As a former Rhodes student myself I’m curious to know if you’ll ever set a book in Grahamstown? How did your time there affect your writer’s voice?

I haven’t really thought about setting a book there. I was at Rhodes a long time ago, and the town has changed a lot since then. I majored in Journalism and English, and was already trying to write, but even then I knew that it was all awful, undergrad stuff. The exposure to various forms of literature must have sunk in to some degree, I suppose. One of the most valuable things I learnt at Rhodes was how to touch-type, thanks to a lady who looked like Margaret Thatcher and whose name I’ve forgotten. It means that today I can write almost as fast as I can think.

Who are your literary heroes and what’s the one book you’ll always go back to? What are you reading at the moment?

I have a long list of literary heroes, from Grass to Fowles, Coetzee to Faulkner. I’d say that it was Peter Carey’s early short story collection, Exotic Pleasures, that opened my eyes to a way of observation and writing I’d never seen before. The one book I have re-read five or six times is the little-known post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. It’s astonishing how Hoban conflates mythologies and reinvents the English language for his post-nuclear world.

I’ve just begun Jim Crace’s Harvest, which is a welcome antidote to the tedium of Carey’s forgettable Amnesia and McEwan’s facile The Children Act. (So sad when long-term heroes fail to deliver!)

I read your blog post about African literature being marginalised in local bookshops and it’s a point that comes up again and again. What do you think is the underlying problem (besides making money) and what can local authors do to get more shelf space for their work?

Don’t get me started on that. Some of the independents do a lot to promote local writers, but for the bigger guys it’s about the money. And they seem to share a perception that SA literature is somehow not as good as fiction originating anywhere else in the world, which is utter rubbish – Jeffrey Archer a better writer than Etienne van Heerden or Ivan Vladislavić? Really? I haven’t yet figured out what local authors can do – it’s a tough one, as we’re also competing with each other for shelf-space and recognition and our share of the meagre fiction-market pie.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? If you could go back in time what life advice would you give 25-year-old Mark Winkler?

Plan. Every writer, I’m sure, has their own way of approaching a book, but what works for me is a loose and directionless exploration of character and scenarios. I’ll write this for 15 or 20 pages, and if I feel it has potential I’ll stop the writing and start the planning. It took me a large pile of meandering manuscripts, unfinished and unfinishable, to realise the importance of planning. Other advice I would give aspiring authors, as well as my younger self, is to explore every idea you have while being prepared to abandon it if it’s clearly stillborn. Be honest with yourself about this. The upside is that it’s all practice, and the more you write, the better you’re going to get.

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