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A Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Andrew Salomon

Andrew Salomon has received the PEN Literary Award for African Fiction and the Short.Sharp.Stories Award. His debut novel, now titled Tokoloshe Song was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award and his short fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He is the author of the Young Adult thriller The Chrysalis and his latest publications are the dark fantasy thriller The Equilibrist and the short story collection Dark Shenanigans. He lives in Cape Town with his wife, two young sons and a pair of rescue dogs of baffling provenance. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently chatted with him:

What was the inspiration for your story, ‘The Entomologist’s Dream’, a quirky, yet deadly serious tale which brings into focus the atrocities of genocide?

This story was primarily shaped by three disparate things: the memory of intense pain while hiking through the jungle in the Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, after being bitten by an acid-injecting ant; reading about the Rwandan genocide; and angrily catching myself out trying to guess what kind of stories publishers might be looking for. I then made a conscious decision to write only what I want, even a story with a ridiculous-sounding title like ‘The Entomologist’s Dream’. Of course, as I wrote, the title became more serious and nuanced as the story took on its own shape.

Indeed, as this all too real account of grotesque suffering is gradually unpacked, the reader is taken on an unimaginable journey into the history of Rwanda. What was it in reading about this particular genocide that fuelled the fire?

I had read a travel piece about Rwanda and about what a beautiful country it is and how hospitable the people are. But the writer then described driving out of Kigali and seeing all these posters with photos of people still being sought for atrocities committed two decades earlier. It got me thinking about the desire for retribution and how sometimes a major driving force for continued existence after extreme trauma can be the planning for revenge.

As Liesl Jobson commented, you took ‘the merciless form of the police report to imbue it with a shimmering, and entirely unpredictable transformation’. How did you decide on the format of the story? – in essence, one half of an interview script. What were the considerations while writing?

I borrowed the format from a Neil Gaiman short story. I think it’s in his latest collection. The format intrigued me and I wanted to see if I could pull it off. It was challenging since you have to write a story that hopefully makes sense while also being pretty much all dialogue, but with half of that dialogue omitted. So there have to be hints and nudges in the interviewee’s transcript that allows the reader to reconstruct for themselves what the interviewer is saying.

Would you consider this point-form story experimental?

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it experimental, but it could be seen as inventive, and it’s a fun way of constructing a story since you have to be at least as concerned with what’s not written (the interviewer’s questions and comments) as you are with what is.

The statement is made from the point of view of Rwandan Yasmin Ingabire, a refugee in South Africa. How did you marry these different facets to create this complex character?

It’s always more interesting to write from the point of view of an outsider, and Yasmin, being a foreign refugee, isolated by her trauma and her desire for retribution, along with the Xenophobia that was rife in KwaZulu-Natal at the time of the story, made her an über-outsider. In the course of writing the story I really came to like and empathise with Yasmin, although I doubt she would welcome any sympathy.

‘The Entomologist’s Dream’ is a quirky, yet deadly serious tale which brings into focus the atrocities of genocide

 

As Yasmin vacillates between revenge and forgiveness… why choose revenge?

Yasmin tried forgiveness first and found that it granted her no respite from her pain. So, being logical and meticulous, she decided to dedicate herself to accomplishing revenge – if one approach proves unsuccessful, try another; she is willing to try all avenues to find any kind of peace.

How can she be so cool and collected as she reports on what has transpired?

Being an entomologist and experienced in applying the scientific method makes her a methodical type of person. So while she found the revenge act satisfying, she found greater solace and a kind of transient serenity in the process of planning and preparations for her revenge. It is the reprieve from her pain that this process gifted her that allows her to be so composed in the police interview.

And as an entomologist of course Yasmin knows about ants…

Years ago I went on the hike previously mentioned, in Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, to try and locate the world’s biggest flower. An hour into the hike I got bitten by a rainforest ant that injects you with acid as it bites you. It’s a brutally sharp pain; like being jabbed in the ankle with white-hot knitting needles. Thankfully we cannot remember the sensation of pain, but unchecked screaming in the rainforest is something that’s hard to forget. The ants made such an impression on me they were bound to end up in a story.

The telling is sparse, yet the senses are powerfully exploited to heighten the reader’s awareness. Consider Yamin’s descriptions related to boxing, for example: …the ‘flat smack’ sound of a gloved fist hitting someone’s ribs… when a hook lands cleanly there’s a doof sound… Do you do this consciously, as a writer?

Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, I came across the advice that the more senses you employ in your writing, the more immersive you can make a scene for the reader. I subscribe to this, although I think I do it less consciously now since it’s become part of my writing style, but I do consciously edit the writing to be sparse since I think that works better than loading too many descriptions into a short paragraph.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

You don’t need to write a story – and this counts for novels and short stories – in sequence from beginning to end. Write what’s vivid in your mind on that day and trust that you’ll find the bridges to link these temporarily disparate scenes as you go along.

Visit Andrew’s website here.

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