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Alan Paton Award shortlist: Interview with David Attwell on his book JM Coetzee and the Life of Writing

Published in the Sunday Times

David Attwell


JM Coetzee and the Life of WritingJM Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time
David Attwell (Jacana Media)

What prompted you to write the book?
Eva Cossee, JM Coetzee’s Dutch publisher, approached me eight years ago to write a short biography that she could publish alongside Summertime, the third of Coetzee’s fictionalised memoirs. I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the job. In the end, John Kannemeyer took care of the biography on a grand scale, but Eva and I kept in touch. When the manuscripts became available at the University of Texas, I discovered the book I could write – a study of Coetzee’s creative process.

The subtitle of the book is “Face to Face with Time”. Can you explain this reference?
The phrase comes from a draft of Life & Times of Michael K. Michael escapes into the Swartberg mountains and when he is beyond reach of his pursuers, he thinks, “Now at last I am face to face with time.” I use that image to discuss how Coetzee uses fiction as a way of confronting one’s existence.

How is your book different to a biography?
Biographies parcel up writers and put them on the shelf. Often they do this by reducing the writer’s work to the personal life. Coetzee himself once remarked that biographers write about what writers are doing when they are not writing. I’ve tried to do something different by starting with the work, rather than the life, and by showing how the life is transformed in the work as it takes shape.

What insight do we gain of Coetzee through his writing, and how?
The public image of Coetzee is that he is austere, remote, inscrutable, and a bit judgmental of ordinary mortals. The Coetzee who appears from his writing – the papers and the published novels – is vulnerable, fallible, anxious. Having said that, no one is as hard on himself as Coetzee is. He is incredibly demanding of himself, disciplined, and totally committed to his craft.

Who should read your book?
Anyone who has read a novel by Coetzee and is curious to know more. The critics will find useful material, but it’s written for the general reader. I suspect that the readers who would get most from it will be other writers, because they will be most anxious to find out how it’s done.

Writing about a writer’s writing – what lessons did you learn about your own writing?
That the autobiographical impulse is not a bad starting point after all. Coetzee almost always starts with something personal. It’s the discipline that comes later – the writing and re-writing – that really counts.

How has your feeling about Coetzee and his novels changed?
I’ve admired Coetzee’s fiction for 40 years, since I read his first novel, Dusklands, as a student. (Incidentally, Dusklands is about decolonisation; better still, it enacts decolonisation. It requires a bit of stomach to read, but the violence speaks to the present.) Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate something of the journey Coetzee has been on. Having started as an admirer of his books, I’ve come to appreciate more the creativity and the processes that produce them.

Has Coetzee’s absence from South Africa affected his work?
Yes, I believe it has. South Africa tortures our ethical being, and the imagination. Coetzee was able to use the discomfort to create beautiful, compelling novels. He once made an odd comparison between Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, and Samuel Beckett, most famous for Waiting for Godot. Coetzee said that what Beckett lacked was a whale. He was implying that although in spirit he was closer to Beckett, he, Coetzee, did at least have a whale. The whale is being in a state of crisis, or feeling history under one’s fingernails. In Australia he is more at peace with himself, and that sense of crisis has gone.

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