Jacket Notes: David Cornwell on using ‘common language in uncommon ways’ in his debut novel Like It Matters
Published in the Sunday Times
Like It Matters
David Cornwell (Umuzi)
Like It Matters was, in a sense, born out of a collection of short stories I wrote while studying a Masters in Creative Writing at UCT in 2011. The timbre and the sad, but optimistic, quality of Ed’s voice I had originally discovered in a story called “Movers”, while (a version of) the central event of the novel first appeared in a published story from that collection called “Honey Truck”. In the beginning, before Ed’s story got a life of its own and my job came to feel, gloriously, like transcription – as though I was simply writing down the story Ed was telling me – this is how I proceeded: with the sound of Ed’s voice, and a concrete narrative situation to drive towards.
Stylistically, the book is influenced – as it must be – by my literary heroes, many of whom belong to the “Dirty Realism” school of American fiction. I hope – if you like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Denis Johnson, et al. – that you will recognise similarly gritty and acutely-observed narrative detail in my work, and will experience the same curious joy of witnessing common language used in uncommon, surprising, at times poetic ways.
What I hope will be distinct, however, is the irreducible South Africanness of Ed’s voice. It was my greatest labour with this book: how to write a voice that was capable of being lyrical, while always preserving inside it the real sounds, textures and rhythms of South African English. There are not many literary forebears in this regard. I was about two chapters in when I discovered that experimenting with the punctuation of the narrative – specifically, the use of run-on lines – seemed an effective way to manipulate the “reading rhythm” of the story. I am lucky to have a publisher brave enough to print the book with this eccentric punctuation in tact, and I hope the result is that anyone who reads the book will have to do it with a South African twang.
Why this preoccupation? I’m not sure I can explain it, so much as aver that it was there throughout the construction of Like It Matters. Stephen Watson’s essay “A Version of Melancholy” has been profoundly influential on my thinking: perhaps, in some way, everything I write – novels, plays, songs, films – is a form of response to his thoughts on the “thinness” of (particularly English-speaking) white South African culture. I should probably also acknowledge that I read a lot of Kierkegaard and Camus trying to get to the crux of what’s eating at Ed, and the book’s central philosophy – a kind of world-weary argument against fatalism – owes much to the thinking of these two men.
Finally, I will always be grateful to Damon Galgut for editing the book. I have learned so much from Damon over the last five years (he also supervised my MA dissertation), but he was finally able to teach me the most valuable lesson of all during the lengthy revision and rewriting stages of Like It Matters: never to be afraid of better ideas. It’s difficult advice, requiring honesty, devotion and persistence, but it is lapidary all the same. Never be afraid of better ideas.