“Obviously no one but a fool writes fiction for money” – a Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Darrel Bristow-Bovey
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a screenwriter and columnist who lives in Sea Point. He was won the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize and a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, as well several South African Film and Television Awards, and was a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. His most recent book is One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo, a memoir about growing up and falling in love and trying to swim from one continent to another.
Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently interviewed Darrel who’s currently in southern Spain. In between sips of rioja, Darrel shared his disdain for authors having to explain their stories, why melancholy and poignancy are naturally funny things, and a short, sharp (sorry…) writing trade secret.
In your story, ‘An Act Of God’, journalist Andrew misses a working lunch with the lead of a touring Irish dance troupe; he loses his job and begins to write obituaries. Is this tongue in cheek? Has he been diminished by writing the lives of ordinary dead people, in contrast to exploring the lives of celebrities?
No, not tongue-in-cheek at all. I also don’t think he’s diminished, although it might appear that way to the world, and even at first to him. I think he finds far greater dignity and creative purpose and fulfillment in writing the stories of ordinary people. Ordinary lives are rich and full and fascinating, and contain far more than the thinly presented lives of celebrities. The most interesting things don’t happen in public – they happen unseen in the lives of those going about their days around us. I also think he found his real material, and his real voice, writing about ordinary people and giving them the dignity and consideration that we all deserve, no matter who we are and what we have or have not done.
Your protagonist, Sarah, meets Andrew who happens also to be disabled, at an Italian class and so begins their affair… until Bella Lennon appears, a movie star of note! Andrew’s career again picks up, and he miraculously begins to walk again. Is there deeper meaning here?
No, I don’t think so.
Short and sweet! Let’s skip to the last line of the story, which ends with the words ‘…this is what it looks like and this is what it feels like…’ Is this a means to reinforce the ‘flow’ of life? To show an acceptance of what ‘is’?
I don’t know that I specifically wanted to show anything. I just wanted to tell a story about two people and a portion of their lives.
I often advocate, to newer writers, that a short story should stick to a time-frame, but yours transgresses this boundary as Sarah and Andrew, as time goes by, are married and divorced… the story spans time and place. What are your thoughts on this?
A time-frame is just the length of time something takes, isn’t it? Are you saying that time should pass at the same rate from the beginning of the story to the end? I can see no compelling reason why that should be the case. I think whatever a story needs in order to be told is precisely what it should have.
The story is coloured by a certain poignancy, melancholy even, a self-deprecating humour. Is writing humour a natural instinct for you?
I think poignancy and melancholy are naturally funny things, and vice versa. I think writing that is without humour, and without a degree of self-awareness, tends to be pompous and dull and life-denying. I am painfully aware that these answers fall into that category.
Surely some readers are interested in the writer behind the story? Why would you think the answers dull and life-denying?
By that, I mean that I am aware that I am not answering with any great verve or sense of humour, and I think the upshot of that is that the answers feel dull to me, and I find dullness to be a little life-denying. Why am I answering without any verve or sense of humour? I’m not sure – partially because I am writing this from southern Spain, in between other commitments, especially a commitment to a fine bottle of rioja in the small bar opposite the bullring in Ronda. Partially because I have a horror of sounding self-important or self-indulgent, and so as a counter-measure I am perhaps tending towards the non-committal.
Is it your opinion that stories be left to speak for themselves? (That bottle of rioja, by the way, sounds delightful!)
Look, obviously the purpose of these interviews is to publicise the book, so I totally get the point of them, and as far as that goes I think they’re a good thing. I also think the questions you’ve posed to people have been good and thoughtful. I am all in favour of the questions; it’s the answers I think we can all live without. I don’t think any story was ever improved by having its author explain it. In these our times, I see authors (or aspiring authors, more precisely) endlessly talking about their writing or themselves writing or their relationship to the writing life on social media, and I think it’s a little pitiful and doesn’t do their work or them any favours.
As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, what does fiction offer you that non-fiction might not?
I write non-fiction for money. (Well, to be honest, I don’t actually write non-fiction, I write opinion pieces and personal columns, which isn’t fiction, but it also isn’t quite the medium implied by ‘non-fiction’.) Obviously no one but a fool writes fiction for money, and the act and process of doing something not for money, not because you have to, is freeing. It frees you from calculation and from the demands and constraints of professional work. When you’re writing fiction you can write whatever you want, and take as long as you like, and end it however you want, and there is no pressure from anyone else or yourself to do otherwise, or to account for it or justify it. Fiction gives me freedom, which is sometimes joyful and sometimes obviously not, but is something that I need.
Please share a writing Trade Secret…
Do some every day.
Follow Darrel on twitter at @dbbovey
- Trade Secrets edited by Joanne Hichens
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