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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

“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.

Darrel Bristow-Bowey, author of the Trade Secrets story ‘An Act of God’

 
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.

“Ordinary lives are rich and full and fascinating.” Bristow-Bovey on the significance of obituaries.

 

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

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Meet the two women nurturing a love of stories among Deaf children

A previous version of this article was published with a language error: ‘Deaf’ was spelled with a lower case ‘d’. This article refers to the Deaf community as a whole and the difference Kerrin Kokot and Jayne Batzofin are making in encouraging a love of storytelling among the Deaf community in South Africa.

Carla Lever recently conducted an interview with filmmakers, storytellers and language activists Kerrin Kokot and Jayne Batzofin for Nal’ibali’s weekly column. The three of them discussed Kerrin and Jayne’s latest TV project focused on nurturing a love of storytelling among Deaf children, the education opportunities for Deaf children in South Africa, and heartwarming stories of working with Deaf children.

Kerrin Kokot and Jayne Batzofin, ©Pascale Neushchäfer

 

Your latest TV project and envisaged accompanying book for Deaf children – Let’s Pretend With Fumi and Friends – is pretty groundbreaking in South Africa. Can you tell us a little about the story?

KK: In extraordinary storyteller Jay’s home, a curious rabbit called Fumi discovers how to use its imagination to help make-believe creatures solve problems and, by doing so, learns valuable life skills.
JB: Let’s Pretend with Fumi and Friends is a world where stories come to life through imagination and sign language, and problems are solved through creativity and team-work.

What stage of development is Fumi at?

KK: The first project phase (concept development) is complete. We developed everything with Deaf education partners and a television script editor and adapted the story concepts and artworks with feedback from children. Those visuals would feed straight into our visual if we ran a book later.

We’re now in project development stage, working with excellent film and education partners to finalise the project and distribution plan, budget and schedule. Our partners are helping us raise finance for production, as well as a training programme to upskill Deaf animators, designers and other production staff. It’s incredibly exciting!

Concept art for Let’s Pretend with Fumi and Friends

 

In your experience, Jayne, what are education options and resources like for Deaf children in South Africa?

JB: In the last few years there has been a strong focus to develop teachers’ signing skills and capacity by organisations like SLED (Sign Language Education Development). Sign language resources are still incredibly limited for choice and often outdated in material, though. Deaf children deserve as much variety as hearing children.

Are there enough qualified SASL teachers in South Africa?

JB: For me, we really need more qualified teachers who are Deaf themselves. I watch Deaf teaching assistants make huge progress with children because they share the same mother tongue language, but because of the way our education system is structured, they don’t have the means to qualify as teachers.

How are you using your skills to tackle the problem?

JB: In addition to Fumi, I’m using theatre productions and drama exercises to create playful resources as alternative tools to developing sign language literacy. How dull to only learn a language in a formal classroom setting! Language is learned through acquisition, which is strengthened when taught in a variety of mediums.

Are there any unique considerations to bear in mind when creating literacy resources for Deaf children?

KK: Deaf children seldom get development in creativity and abstract thinking skills – learning is often extremely functional. SLED (Sign Language Education and Development) pushed us to develop unique tools within the programme to boost those skills and animation is a great fit for doing that.

Kerrin, you’ve got tons of experience in making stories visually compelling and fun. What have the challenges been in conceptualising this kind of project?

KK: One of the challenges has been making this series accessible to Deaf children around the world. Sign language is like any language: It is specific to regions. A South African Sign Language (SASL) programme won’t be easily understood by, say, British Deaf audiences, who use British Sign Language (BSL). To combat this, we’ve made the most expensive parts of the production – the animated parts – universally accessible. The show’s live-action presenter, the only character that communicates in sign language, can be sourced regionally and inserted into the animated world using relatively inexpensive post-production techniques.

Jayne, are there any moments working with Deaf children over the years that you’ve found particularly heartwarming?

JB: So many! Obviously the children when they laugh or light up from within because adults besides their teachers are signing with them. But I also love watching the teachers be amazed by how bright and creative their students can be when given a different way to learn sign language.

How can people find out more and get involved with Fumi?

KK: We’d love to share resources with, and learn from, other organisations seeking to promote Deaf literacy. Please get in touch on email at hello@fumiandfriends.com. Fans can follow the project on Facebook: @fumiandfriends.

Why is storytelling so important – for adults, as well as children?

KK: Adults and children gain valuable skills through storytelling: language, social, abstract, conceptual, and so many more. Stories are integral to human society, shaping our worldviews, our very existence. A world without stories would be a world of robots!
JB: It evokes and develops imagination, creativity and fantasy! These skills are of fundamental importance in childhood (and literacy) development, and equally essential for adults to connect with each other and their often neglected playful selves.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.


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“It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material” – Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Michele Magwood

Famed US novelist and birder Jonathan Franzen was recently in South Africa, where he shared literary insights, and a defence of the LBJ, with Michele Magwood.

Jonathan Franzen is, as is his wont, talking about birds. Specifically, South African birds, and, even more specifically, the Cape grassbird. This is a bird that is usually dismissed at a glance as an LBJ – a little brown job, one of those ubiquitous dun-coloured birds that fade into the landscape and live in the shadow of rarer, more colourful birds. But not by Franzen. “I like the little brown ones,” he exclaims. “The Cape grassbird is the epitome for me of what a great bird is – it’s small and unobtrusive and yet when you look at it carefully with binoculars it just explodes with detail and subtle colours.”

Looking carefully and finding subtlety in seemingly ordinary things that then explode with detail is precisely what Franzen does as a writer. He comes heavily garlanded and routinely described as one of the US’ s greatest living novelists, but in Cape Town last week there wasn’t a trace of ego or the testiness he is famous for.

He was in the country for a National Geographic story on seabirds. South Africa, he says, is doing “very good things” for seabirds. He’d added on a 19-day birding tour of the country, and was now planning on getting out into deep water to see what he called the incredibly diverse seabird life off the coast.

Franzen is tall and rangy, woodsy in a way in scuffed boots and a checked shirt. He has beautiful, expressive hands and a mind like a sheathed blade. He has been interviewed countless times but there is none of the well-oiled shtick that many authors inevitably slip into. There are Pinter-long pauses as he considers a question, sighs and glances out of the window as he carefully composes his thoughts. Every now and again a teasing, self-deprecating humour ripples out.

He says he is less angry than he used to be, and less depressed – although he does refer to himself as a “depressive pessimist” – but concedes that there is still simmering anger at “the stupidity of the world and the meanness of people”. What human beings are doing to the natural world, the “atrocious political times in the US”.

He’s dismayed at the Trumpian effect on reading and writing. “A lot of people who used to read books are no longer remembering why they did, because they are so focused now on the outrage of the day. I blame devices. It seems to be an excuse to be distracted by your phone. People claim they have to remain up to date with what’s going on in Washington, but really they’re dependent on the stimulation from that phone.

“To me it makes the role of the writer all the more urgent. People need a haven from this ultra politicised, ultra angry nonsense that is coming at them every waking minute through their phones.”

Since Trump won the nomination, he says, book sales have collapsed in the US.

Franzen has written five novels. The first two, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, were well-received critically but not commercially. It was the third, The Corrections, that broke out, picking off literary prizes and selling more than three million copies. The infamous spat with Oprah helped, of course, but the two made up when she anointed his next novel, Freedom, for her book club and this time he appeared on the show. His latest novel, Purity, was published in 2015. In the lengthy gaps between books he writes astringent essays in such publications as the New Yorker and the Guardian.

Fiction, though, is clearly his first love, and he returns to it again and again during the course of the conversation, whether pointing out the historical correlation between liberalism and the rise of the novel, his belief that reading fiction is an opportunity to be somebody you aren’t – “very important if you’re living in any kind of diversity as a society” – or the value of escapism. “It’s good to be reminded that there’s a world in which meaning is possible – sophisticated, nuanced meaning, that doesn’t have to reduce to political simplicities. There are other more humane ways to make sense of the world.”

He calls writing “purposeful dreaming” and describes the intimacy of the relationship between writer and reader. “It’s the magical quality of the written word, that what you do as a writer, the process of investing imaginatively in a character or a story in order to put the words on the page, that that experience then gets replicated when you read that page, that the same investment springs up on the reader’s part. That is unique to the written word.”

One of the hallmarks of Franzen’s fiction is his intense characterisation. He leans in and drills down into his characters, excavating them with forensic skill. And when he’s done with excavating them he throws in a hand grenade. Life, he shows us, is messy. He is uncommonly perceptive about the human condition. What is the source, the spring of this perspicacity?

“I wish I could say something completely, brilliantly original,” he chuckles. “But I do go back again and again to my position in the family.” Franzen was a laatlammetjie, his two brothers much older than him. “So by the time I was 10 years old there were four adults in the house and me. They all had powerful, different personalities and although there was never any doubt they loved each other, they didn’t get along all that well. I grew up listening and trying to provide comic relief.”

When he discovered literature in college “it was like someone had handed me a key to understanding why people were saying the things they did. I suddenly had a magic decoder for my mother’s utterances. When I learnt to understand what Kafka was doing, I could understand the subtext of what was happening in the room. What was really going on when my mother would talk about the cranberry sauce. She’s not just talking about the cranberry sauce!” he laughs. “And that’s it right there – as a writer you want to present the cranberry sauce in its full specificity and vividness but you also want to understand what it signifies.”

Just as Franzen excavates his characters, so he excavates his own self, and one gets the sense of how hard the work really is, how psychologically gruelling it is for him.

“The process of trying to find a new character who is vivid to me, who I instinctively love, is in part finding some part of my existence that I have not explored. That relentless question of ‘What does the character want?’ is the medium of self-investigation, really. It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material.”

He has what he calls “shadow documents” for each novel, drawers of abandoned pages and jottings. “The shadow documents are much longer than the books – they consist of almost daily note-taking, relentless psychoanalysis done in the symbolic language of fiction. It’s tedious and repetitive.”

He’s started a shadow document for a new novel he’s working on. “I’ve got, like, two and a half characters and a few pages.

“Each time it feels like I can never do this again.”

The Twenty-seventh City

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Strong Motion

 
 
 
 

The Corrections

 
 
 
 

Freedom

 
 
 

Purity


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“I am always amazed by the way in which women artists articulate pain” – a Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Megan Ross

Megan Ross is a writer, journalist and poet from the Eastern Cape. Her work has appeared in New Coin, New Contrast, Prufrock, Aerodrome, Itch and in several award-winning collections and anthologies. She is the winner of the Brittle Paper Literary Award for Fiction, and also the second runner up of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize, for her short story, ‘Farang’. She is a Miles Morland Writing Scholarship shortlistee. In 2016 she travelled to Reykjavik as the first-ever winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. Megan is most herself when she is in the Indian Ocean. Her debut poetry collection, Milk Fever, is forthcoming from uHlanga. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and Megan recently discussed ‘Eye Teeth’, the body as memory, and subverting the patriarchy.

 

‘Megan Ross’s ‘Eye Teeth’ is a lyrical psalm of recovery written from the worst type of betrayal. This story reminds one that abuse all too frequently takes place in the home, by those we know and love. At a deeper level, this story is a rewriting of a trauma narrative by a narrator who reclaims the geography of her body, effecting both a re-imaging and a re-imagining of her past.’

You planted a question (or several questions) at the heart of your commended story ‘Eye Teeth’: how to speak the unspeakable? Did clarity come with the writing? Or did you have an idea of how you’d proceed?

I think because my process in life and in writing is rushing straight to the heart of things, which I think I do unapologetically, because it’s so personal, and so urgent a task for me, that clarity did arrive, eventually, mostly because it had to. Something cannot be spoken if it is unspeakable, but perhaps it can be shown, in another way, find life in new forms. I think this was where the tattoos came in. They are not just images: she specifically used motifs and scenes from her past that came to symbolize the horror she couldn’t verbalise, a private language she wrote across her body, with care and love. No matter how difficult it is to confront, my protagonist finds release, and nourishment, in realizing what has really happened to her, what her father has been doing, all these years, which has been blanketed by the gauze of denial, and of course, a life of being gaslit. I wrote the germ of this story years ago, and returned to it just last year, when the series of vignettes became known to me.

The story, about abuse so very much in the news, is also a reflection on memory. Can you tell us a little more about your understanding of memory, and concepts of time, ways in which memory is recreated as words, or images, and how memory is central to this story?

The idea of dipping into and out of the past came naturally to me because I find that time is most days, more circular than linear. The past is always very much disrupting and interacting with the present, which impacts on the future. I wanted to explore the idea of memory being its own entity, a ghost almost, but more living than that, something embodied, in the way that we carry our memories with us, our pasts are always present, in our bodies, in our minds, we take our emotional and psychic baggage along with us into every relationship, into every exchange with people. We also know that childhood trauma impacts the memory quite significantly, and anyone with PTSD will understand how a traumatic event is not returned to us as a flashback, as it is explained, but that the traumatic event is very much relived.

So there is this idea, for me at least, that until something is properly dealt with, which I am not sure is actually possible, by the way, that it will return, again and again, not as a reminder, but as itself. I myself have given birth only once, but I have relived its scariest moments many times: in the bank, in bed, in restaurants, in moments when I’d rather be doing anything but having a PTSD flashback. And during those moments it is not a flashback, perhaps that would be a comfort for people who experience them. No, it’s very much the moment, the hour, the day itself being reborn. So, for my protagonist at least, there is this sense of legitimizing her own passages of time, as circuitous as they are, with signposts and symbols personal to her, that form part of her own mental and emotional constellations.

You talk of the body’s memory too, ‘memory lives in the bloodstream’. Do you believe that memory is stored in the cells?

I think that if one has experienced a traumatic event, and has or has had PTSD, then we can really agree that memory is a very physical thing, at times. Certainly an experience can be lived countless times over a lifetime, simply because the body refuses to forget something that perhaps someone would rather not confront. But that’s the nature of abuse, and of being abused: there is sadly no escape. At some point, no matter how deeply trauma is buried, it will arrive, and demand to be felt and acknowledged. I was speaking to a friend who is a neuroscientist, and he was explaining how every single thing someone does, feels, thinks, believes, can be brought back to neuroscience, to the brain.

We know that events that occur at certain points in a baby or child’s life can impact their psychological health later on, perhaps precipitating a predisposition to being on the schizophrenic or mood disorder or autism spectrums. So in terms of memory being stored in the cells – there is definitely evidence to prove how memories both positive and negative will affect the chemistry, and makeup of some of the body’s most important cells, which is difficult for some people to understand because we still view so much of emotional and mental health as being these ethereal concepts quite detached from the body. Which they really aren’t. Serotonin and dopamine are physical, depression is physical: these are all events that take place within the body.

You talk of the body as an archive, of writing experience, over the experience already stored in the body’s memory. What do you mean by that?

The body already has its scars: its pains. It doesn’t lie. For instance, if you’re around someone who you don’t trust, you might tell yourself you’re being silly but you may experience a really visceral reaction to them – an aversion to their touch, a need to cross one’s arms over one’s body when they move closer. So, there is this intimate, instinctual knowledge that our bodies possess, an intuition that we should heed more often than not, and so writing the body is really narrating what is already playing out in the form of physical sensations; acknowledging that yes, this person gives me the grils, here I am, writing to that, and yes, this person hurt me, here lies my hurt, in the belly ache I get when I know I’m going to see them, in the inexplicable headaches I have before this meeting. Here I am, honouring that, by giving it verbal and written expression, by articulating it. I think great relief and catharsis comes from finally listening to one’s body.

My own experience with self-harm has taught me that sometimes inflicting physical pain on one’s self, and leaving a scar, creating a physical site for emotional trauma, is powerful, and addictive, because it feels healing somehow. In the same way that a tombstone can be a site for mourning, a place to locate and cement one’s grief, probably because, as I said in a prior answer, we still view so much of our emotional lives as being nebulous and untethered from the body. I don’t want to link tattoos to self-harm in any way, but I think what is interesting about creating a permanent web of images on one’s body, is that they are a private and wholly personal superstructure that command one’s body, that change its appearance and perhaps create for someone a stronger tie to their body, to their experience of it. Perhaps externalizing values and beliefs and memories that might not otherwise be known to anybody else, were they not plainly visible.

“I use writing to make sense of my life, and my past. The body is an archive, of writing experience, over the experience already stored in the body’s memory.”

 

The protagonist remaps her body with tattoos in order to tell her story and to reimagine her past. The reader is treated to a masterful insight into the artistry inherent in the process of creating tattoos. Do you have tattoos? Did the experience of having tattoos etched under skin influence the writing of this story?

Funnily enough, I don’t have a single tattoo, but my boyfriend is a tattoo model, and so I’ve watched as his body has become this incredible expression of his life over the last decade. He is also the father of my child and so the experience of his body is intrinsic to how I have experienced my own body; perhaps this is why tattoos interest me so much. Maybe if I had my own I wouldn’t be as fascinated by them, but being a voyeur in this instance, of his and my sister’s tattoos, and what they have meant to both these very significant people in my life, who have shaped me so much, influenced the way I wrote the story, and how I knew I might create these homing beacons for my character, who feels lost in her own histories, and needs some kind of lighthouse to guide her back to her sanity, to her sense of self. Which is not to define tattoos in this single light, far from it; but rather, I thought it an interesting way, and perhaps a method of creating understanding, and initiating healing, that I could get on board with, being a visual person who also very much admires the artistry of tattooing and the beauty of permanently altering one’s appearance.

In what way is this a process of reclamation? Is it possible to reclaim the body from trauma?

Tattoos, for my protagonist, are a way of making her body her own, and changing how it looks, as well, transforming it from the naked naiveté of its childhood incarnations to this vessel that is more in line with her spirit, using images from her past that are so vivid, and immediate to her, that they become this comforting armour when she wraps them around her body. Talismanic, in a way. Certainly I think she feels that she has taken steps to reclaiming her body from her father, whose distortion of her childhood, and body, and sexuality cannot be erased, but, perhaps, can be set apart from her. She steals her body back from his gaze: I think she manages to view her body away from his terrible, powerful gaze, and begin working against its distortions. The tattoos are another skin, a new body, as if she shed the old one to which so much happened, growing into this new, albeit scarred body, in terms of its history, that gives her confidence.

I think one of the most terrible things about being abused or hurt is that one loses one’s sense of self; it’s either distorted or simply lost, and a lot of people spend years trying to figure out who they are, why they have been hurt, if they are deserving of love, how to treat people with kindness when you have not always received it yourself, and it means that knowing what you want, what you like, your ambitions, your dreams, your goals, your talent, it all takes a back seat, because you’re just trying to survive. Knowing that you can choose, that you can have likes and dislikes and interests, that you can create a life very different to the one thrust upon you, takes a long time to understand, and accept.

Can you comment about feminism in your work in general, and the way women articulate pain?

My feminism and my writing cannot be separated. I believe that in writing – in bringing my subjective experience into the world – I am subverting the patriarchy. Writing is resisting silencing, and writing about the things that I want to: girlhood, womanhood, motherhood, the body, themes that are considered to be ‘domestic’ when written by women, are my own particular stake in the fight against the male gaze, in fighting for my right to express myself and to articulate freedoms and beauty and pain and wonder that are particular to me, to young girls, to women, to mothers. I feel fortunate to write and have my work recognised without having to use a male pseudonym, and in that way I am always amazed by the way in which women artists articulate pain: there is always such inventiveness, and creativity, and almost cruel incisiveness. Women have largely not had the luxury of articulating pain without being pathologised for it. And I still feel that now, very much. But I think that things are changing, and looking at the crop of young writers and visual artists that are rising to the fore on this continent, there is certainly not only a wealth of talent amongst women and non-binary artists, but an ambition, and single-mindedness, and sense of community that is making it possible for many, many more people to create.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

I’m just going to drop one of the old clichés which has served me well the last two years, which is: persist. Through every heartbreak, through every shitty story, shitty rejection, shitty everything, persist. Keep writing. Never stop. If you want this, then you’re going to get your heart broken a couple times and it does every writer good to grow as thick a skin as humanly possible and keep focused on the end goal. Which is personal to every writer. Persist through trying times with your notebook in hand, and write all the junk out of your system, keep writing and writing and don’t feel like you have to publish everything you write because some of it is just the starter and you have to get to the main course, to the dessert, because that’s where the goodness lies, that’s where story is.

So, if you end up with an entire book, be it a novel or short story collection or collection of poetry, and you don’t like it, it’s not the end of you. You’ve just been writing out all the gunk, cleaning house. Write to the end of yourself and you will see that you too are round and the world doesn’t end at the horizon: you can keep sailing and writing and you will eventually, always, reach new land, discover new stories, articulate new truth, find a new way to describe something. It is the most exciting part of writing, this pushing-through, and part of it is being okay with failure, because it’s only by getting through each let down and rejection that we can get to the heart of what it is we’re trying to say, and improve and evolve as artists.

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A crime plague to cherish: Bron Sibree talks to Minette Walters about her new debut historical novel, The Last Hours

Published in the Sunday Times

Minette Walters has combined her talent for psychological thrillers with the Middle Ages, writes Bron Sibree.

The Last Hours
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Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin, R330

It’s no secret that British crime writer Minette Walters has re-directed her talents to historical fiction. Now, on the eve of the release of her debut historical novel, The Last Hours, Walters, whose crime novels have sold in excess of 25 million worldwide and have earned her the epithet “queen of the psychological thriller”, attributes her genre swap to a desire for change.

“I do love to challenge myself,” says Walters, 67. “I love the way the crime genre has developed but I worry sometimes that people aren’t innovative enough, that everybody is producing similar things so you get a trend, like my psychological thriller trend, which I’m told I was a pioneer of. I love change, constantly refreshing it all.”

Indeed, the extraordinarily gripping The Last Hours owes as much to her driving curiosity as it does to her quest for writerly challenges. It is a novel, Walters says, “that I’ve had on my mind ever since we moved down to this tiny hamlet in Dorset 18 years ago. The idea started the moment we were told there is a plague pit somewhere around the houses. Shortly afterward I saw a plaque on a wall in Weymouth harbour that said ‘This is where the Black Plague entered England,’ and from then on, even when I was writing the crime novels, I was thinking,’Gosh that would make a fabulous story.’

“But then I had to persuade publishers to publish it, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world if they want you to write crime novels. But it would have been awful to have this idea in my head and never to have written it.”

Set in Dorsetshire, The Last Hours opens in July 1348, soon after the Black Death has entered England. It revolves around events at the demesne (pronounced as domain) of Develish where something unheard of happens following the death of its brutal overlord, Sir Richard, from a mysterious illness. An illness that has, in a matter of days, killed dozens on the neighbouring demesne, their rotting corpses left lying by the thoroughfare. Lady Anne, Sir Richard’s long-suffering wife, takes control of Develish – including the lives of its 200 bonded serfs – and refuses entry or exit to a single soul. Even more scandalous, she chooses a bastard serf to act as her steward, instead of the Norman steward appointed by Sir Richard.

In creating The Last Hours, which is, in effect, a riveting psychological thriller that runs to 555 pages, Walters has deployed the same analytic techniques she applies to her crime novels, cannily calling into question the thinking of the day in relation to class and gender as well the disease itself. “It’s so hard to get your head around the level of devastation that it brought,” says Walters.

“War never brings that level of devastation. And of course, everyone believed it was a punishment sent by God. Within three days to a week people were dead.”

In keeping with her reputation for tackling controversial subjects on the page and off, Walters also touches upon paedophilia, one of her most enduring concerns, in the novel. For while she has abandoned what she calls “the whodunnit part” of the crime genre, she says “real crime still does, and will always, fascinate me. I’m deeply interested in motivations, in psychology, in why things happen. So in a sense I don’t feel the move from the crime genre to historical fiction is so great,” she adds, “because human nature does not change.”

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A Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Olufemi Agunbiade

Olufemi Agunbiade is a Nigerian living in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape. He is married, and has two children, a pigeon pair. He is the author of the short story, ‘The Miracle Maker,’ in which a city-dwelling youngster travels back to his grandmother’s village in order to expose a shady clergy. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and Olufemi recently discussed his Trade Secrets entry, crazy things congregants do to ensure being in the good graces of the Lord, and the influence of his Nigerian roots on his story.

‘The Miracle Maker’, an entertaining whodunit, highlights ‘corruption’ in the Pentecostal clergy. Is it as rife as the story makes it out to be?

Yes, if not more. Being that our societies are naturally religious and superstitious, grounds for instant miracles are easily established. Traditional beliefs and fears are heightened. People are encouraged to have more hopes in heaven than on earth. The smart clergies claim they have the knowledge to the paths and keys to the glorious home up there. For fees (tithe, Sunday offerings, first fruits offering), they can lead/show the way. To really drive in the message and convince seekers, instant, incredible miracles will do. The interested congregant will not mind forking over many amounts, all in a bid to be reassured of the heavenly home. It is not, therefore, surprising to find Pentecostal clergies now owning mansions, limousines, jets, financial corporations, all acquired by donations from mostly poor donors. It is a huge business.

Outlandish methods are used to siphon money from congregants. What crazy things will congregants do to ensure being in the good graces of the Lord?

The inspiration for my story came from observing Pentecostal clergies in Nigeria who are always out-doing others in performing miracles (curing HIV/AIDS, curing cancer, making septuagenarians become pregnant, raising the dead etc). It’s no less the case here too in South Africa where smart-alec clergymen are asking congregants to eat grass, gobble down rats, be sprayed with insecticide; the pastors talk to God on the phone — the more a pastor feigns closeness to God, the more gullible are the congregants. It’s all a ploy to show extraterrestrial powers, which will then attract huge fame and money. So, I connected situations in the two climes and decided to write about it.

Ah, so many ways – TRADE SECRETS – of how powerful men of the cloth convincingly part congregants and their pretty pennies.

A penny for your penance…

 

In your story, Sipho, the protagonist, pays a visit to his Makhulu to find out why her savings are ‘disappearing’. Sipho is, in fact, an ‘amateur detective’. Tell us more about his methods and motivation.

I love detective books, especially the ones with explosive twists at the end. I always fancied writing my own stories, but really, I considered myself more of a ‘reader’ than a ‘writer.’ Writing, of course, is a whole lot more than just reading. Then, Short.Sharp.Stories came along and I told myself, Why not? So, I created Sipho, who left the city to visit his grandmother, who had been enthusing about her ‘Prophet.’

Sipho is just an everyday, normal guy who is painstaking in finding out the truth. He is a rough round the edges amateur who is out to expose the truth, no matter the stress and time and mistakes involved. He is learning, like me. I hope to write more about Sipho and his exploits.

Do you perhaps see yourself as a mystery/ thriller writer in the making?

Oh, no. I am still the same ‘reader.’ Reading voraciously and learning the craft of writing along the way. Being published by Short.Sharp.Stories is a massive encouragement which I, indeed, cherish a lot. It is my first attempt and I struck ‘gold.’ Right now, I am trying my hand at writing more and honing the craft.

Makhulu, who lives in a rural village, is feisty and takes no nonsense. She gives Sipho a hard time! Although the story is a classic whodunit, does it also reflect a certain reality? Not only religious corruption, but a disconnect between the older and younger generations?

I patterned Makhulu after my mum! Though younger and feistier, she fits in perfectly well. I only need to tap into my memory bank and she’s there in words, actions and expressions.

I see the older generations as being set in their ways, watching in amusement as the younger, malleable youths grope about with their technological/developmental processes. This does cause friction in many ways, as it does in the Makhulu and Sipho scenes, but I see it as a form of learning, though healthy and educative — the two represent a blend of the old and new, past and present. Interactions between these two ends will always bring out something that can be interesting, out of which we can learn something.

I always ponder on how old folks get to be who they are in their old age. The adventures they have had, their joys and pains, the paths they have trodden on and the knowledge they harbor.

The setting of Port Elizabeth is evocatively described, yet the village in your story is imagined. Why go this route?

I have always lived in cities, from Lagos to here but, really, I love the outdoors where beautiful nature – thriving flora and fauna – is painted in living colors. South Africa is a beautiful country and all around me, I see nature still pristine and protected. Here, in my suburb in Port Elizabeth, seeing heavy morning mists, rugged green mountains, wild guinea fowl and rabbits right on my doorsteps nibbling at tidbits always evokes pictures of a natural village setting. So, I created one. I wanted the story settings to be a mix of the city and the village, a blend of old and new.

As a novice writer, how did you hear about Short.Sharp.Stories? And are you inspired to keep writing?

I saw Short.Sharp.Stories on Facebook and being interested in writing, I decided to try my hand. I passionately love reading, when I can leave the terrestrial earth and soar! I love short stories with a twist. I have been writing more since my Short.Sharp.Stories entry and I have many short stories in stock now.

In what way do your Nigerian roots influence your writing?

My writing is a blend of the two great countries, coated with past and current happenings around me. I must say it is a great advantage for me as I can switch between the two climes to achieve my aim.

What writing Trade Secret have you gleaned along the way?

For a new hand like me, it is a beautiful experience that I want to take up more seriously. Really, during the writing and editing stages, I felt like a surgeon at the operating table, snipping away, suturing up loose ends and packaging a body of story through tedious edits to make it convincing and readable.

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Light on the darkness: Elizabeth Kostova’s new novel paints a gripping picture of Bulgaria as it emerges from a grim past, writes Bron Sibree

Published in the Sunday Times

The Shadow Land
Elizabeth Kostova, Text Publishing, R360
****

How do you put an entire country into a novel? American novelist Elizabeth Kostova had done just that and more in her third novel, The Shadow Land. But not before she pondered the question for over two decades.

The country is Bulgaria, which she first wrote about in her bestselling 2005 novel, The Historian, and first visited as a 24-year-old student of Balkan folk music in 1989, a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She not only met her Bulgarian husband Georgi on that trip, but ventured to remote corners of the country collecting songs.

“I was fascinated by the place. I went back with him a lot to see his family, acquired friends there, and over the years made a lot of notes. I wanted to write a novel that somehow covered this chaotic post-communist world that I’ve gotten to know over 25 years but wasn’t sure how to do it, it just seemed overwhelming.”

It was 20 years later when she was completing her second novel, The Swan Thieves, that she awoke from a dream in which entire scenes as well as the narrative arc of an entirely different novel revealed themselves. “I woke from that dream just stunned. Not that I understood a lot of the detail, but it was coherent enough that I could work on it. And I worked on that same story for eight years,” says Kostova, who has deployed, just as she did so potently in The Historian, a rich blend of historical fact, travelogue and fictional detail to give shape and form to the labyrinthine mystery that is The Shadow Land.

A capacious, Victorian-esque novel with more than a whisper of romance, it deftly conveys the beauty and mystery of this ancient land, all the while ensnaring you in a web of intrigue that encompasses the darkest horrors of Bulgaria’s hidden history.

It begins when a young American, Alexandra Boyd, arrives in Sofia to teach English in the summer of 2008, and mistakenly picks up a funerary urn in a bag belonging to an elderly couple and their middle-aged son when she helps them into a taxi. Her subsequent attempts to return the urn to its rightful owners form the engine of the novel, which plies between the present and the past: between Alexandra’s story, and the story of the urn’s occupant, Stoyan Lazarov, a brilliant musician who suffered brutal repression in a secret labour camp during the communist era.

For Kostova, the man in the urn, who arrived in her dream, was an absolute gift.

“There is such a long tradition of literature that is about proper burial, which is why I chose an inscription from Antigone. And our ancient need to lay people to rest with honour, which Faulkner, too, wrote about in As I Lay Dying.

She has often described the myth of Dracula, which she wrote about in The Historian, as “a metaphor for the horrors of history that won’t go away”. But in writing The Shadow Land Kostova immersed herself in accounts of those who survived Bulgaria’s forced-labour camps, recorded in oral histories collected in the ’90s. “I felt like I plunged into real and worse history. In The Historian there is a lot of dark history but the essential story was metaphorical, but The Shadow Land, although fiction, deals with a lot of real things that happened – representative of some of the worst things that humans do to each other. It was really hard material to work with sometimes.”

There hasn’t yet been as much public discussion within Bulgaria about the labour camps as in other former communist nations, adds Kostova. “They were very secret, yet not so secret, in the way that totalitarianism used to be so that people knew just enough to be terrified of what might happen to them if they were arrested.”

Kostova is aware, too, that, despite not planning it that way, The Shadow Land serves as a timely tale about the perils of autocracy.

“I’ve had interesting discussions with American audiences…We’re courting this awful danger of repression and censorship and surveillance and a lot of other things that traditionally only totalitarian governments engage in. We just don’t understand what we have brought upon ourselves.” – Bron Sibree, @BronSibree

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“What did you edit out of The Cull?” “One sex scene” – a Q&A with Tony Park

Published in the Sunday Times

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?

Deon Meyer, the late John Gordon-Davis and Margie Orford.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

Biggles of 266 Squadron. Jingoistic and un-PC these days, but my mum gave it to me when I was young and it got me into reading.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, given to me by my mother-in-law – the best book written about how to write fiction. I re-read it every year before starting a new novel.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Anything by travel writer Bill Bryson.

What are you most proud of writing?

A friend in Zimbabwe, who lost his farm during the land grabs, said to me: “Please write one of your novels about what’s going on here so the rest of the world knows what’s happening.” His request moved me to write African Dawn, which charts Zimbabwe’s turbulent history from 1959 to the present through the eyes of three families.

What keeps you awake at night?

I am living a life I could never have dreamt of, writing for a living and splitting my life between Australia and Africa. I still feel insecure every time I submit a new novel to my publishers – I don’t want to wake up from this dream.

Books on your bedside table?

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling, The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson and The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr (his series about PI Bernie Gunther in Nazi Germany is brilliant).

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

I learnt how to sabotage a fighter plane and hijack a ship carrying cars.

What book do you wish you’d written?

Hold My Hand I’m Dying by John Gordon-Davis, probably the best action/romance/thriller/tragedy/historical novel set in Africa.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don’t listen to everyone who tells you you’re wasting your time. Be brave and quit your day job sooner.

What did you edit out of The Cull?

One sex scene.

How do you select the names of your characters?

I support charities promoting wildlife conservation, healthcare and aged care in various African countries so I offer the rights for people to have their name or that of a loved one assigned to a character. I get some brilliant names. I decide who they will be, although I did have one man, a policeman in real life, beg me to be an evil villain in my novel.

What words do you overuse?

Beginning sentences with “well” or “so”. It’s been pointed out to me that one too many of my heroines has “long tanned legs”.

The Cull

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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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Scrambled lives: Michele Magwood reviews Neel Mukherjee’s viscerally realistic A State of Freedom

Published in the Sunday Times

A State of Freedom
Neel Mukherjee, Chatto & Windus, R295
*****

At the beginning of this intricate, adroit book a man and his young son are being driven through the streets of Agra in India. He is a wealthy academic who left his country for the US 20 years before, his six-year-old son is entirely American. The visit has a melancholic tone about it: the man is uncomfortable and alienated, feeling like a tourist in his birthplace. The child is listless and overwhelmed by the crowds and the touts.

They are both sickened when they witness a worker falling to his death from the scaffolding of a high-rise building.
 

In the last chapter of the book Neel Mukherjee returns to this doomed worker, taking the reader into his head as he frets and sweats, dreaming of the money this dangerous job will bring, an agonising stream-of-consciousness lament that culminates in his falling, “everything pouring up around the rushing arrow that he cuts through the unimpeded air”.

Between these dramatic bookends Mukherjee interleaves several stories. Another returnee, this time a liberal hipster from London, is writing a book about regional food in India and tries to engage with his family’s cook in Mumbai, to the chagrin of his class-bound mother. Two best friends from a remote Bengali village are pushed in two radical directions: one as a servant in the city, the other into the Maoist guerilla movement.

In another poor village an abusive father finds a bear cub and trains it – cruelly – to dance, and abandons his family to seek his fortune. This man appears at the car window in the first chapter; his brother is the man who falls from the skyscraper. The young servant from the Bengali village is the cook’s assistant in the Mumbai house. Gradually, through echoes and recurring motifs, we learn the characters’ backstories and their destinies, but there are no neat endings. Rather, as the author implies, the frayed ends of their lives reflect the untidy nature of contemporary India.

At times acutely, viscerally realistic, and others dreamlike and fey, this is a startling book that reinforces Mukherjee’s reputation as a writer on the rise. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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