Tell us about your book?
Okay. It is the mid-1980s, the era of so-called “reformist” apartheid, and South
Africa is in flames. In the townships, the children at the forefront of the struggle
march under banners like OUR BLOOD WILL WATER THE TREE OF LIBERATION,
and are gunned down in the street by the police and the military. Far from such
action, it seems, a small party of four is traveling by minibus to the north of
the country, close to the border with Zimbabwe. Their aim is to shoot a small
documentary video on the discovery, twenty years before, of a prehistoric skull of
such anomalous proportions that it caused Professor Digby Bamford, the star of
the show (such as it is), to boast: “True man first arose in southern Africa.” But
boozy, self-absorbed Professor Bamford is unaware that his young lover, Vicky,
brings with her some awkward complications. There is to begin with Rian, the
cameraman, once in love with her, and now for some reason unable to let her go.
And then there is the fourth member of the party, Nando Killing Boy Ndhlovu,
called Bucs, a young man from the townships, who on this trip is doing his best
not to be involved in the increasingly deadly tensions developing among the
“abelungu,” the whites.
And that is just the surface narrative. There is an underground narrative, too,
as we flash back to the childhood of Rian, the videographer, who tells the entire
story. The novel moves between these two levels, toward its inevitable climax.
What/who inspired you to write this book?
In a sense, I was “writing back” to Margaret Atwood’s brilliant first novel,
Surfacing. But had lived all my life under the apartheid régime. I knew it
Describe the route to your first book being published?
I spent many years working on The Unspeakable. The project was repeatedly
interrupted – by leaving South Africa, by studying for a Ph.D. in mid-life at an
American university, by helping to raise my two children in Boston (my wife
worked at night, and I had the kids from 5 p.m. until bedtime), by my own neurotic
perfectionism, by the difficulty of saying what I knew I had to say, by a bout with
cancer, by, oh, multiple things, a.k.a. life.
I finally completed the novel when I settled in North Texas. Then, over a period of
three years, 50+ publishers turned it down, my agent gave up and withdrew her
services, but finally, C&R, a small Southern publisher committed to high quality
literature, picked it up.
Did you enjoy the writing process?
Like hell I did.
What’s the hardest part of writing a book?
As Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”
What advice would you give to people trying to write a book?
Don’t stop trying.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Oh, I’m a blockhead, all right.
With regards to writer’s block, can you offer some methods you have used to get back to writing?
Julia Cameron is right when she points out in The Artist’s Way that writer’s
block is caused by fear. Personally, I suspect that fear is the negative flip side of
desire, just as anxiety is of excitement. It is like male-pattern impotence, where
you want something (read: someone) so much that you just can’t. Fantasy can
help. Just daydreaming, maybe. Personally, I also read – Nietzsche, for instance,
particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for the spur it always gives me. Nietzsche,
Jung, Hillman, Eigen, psychological thinkers who dare.
And then the great writers: William Faulkner, Annie Proulx, Joseph Conrad,
James Joyce, Marguerite Duras, D.H. Lawrence, Margaret Atwood.
What one book has changed your mind or your life, or simply amazed you?
Out of ten thousand? Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.
Would you recommend indie book publishing and why do you believe the traditional route is still preferred by many?
The problem with indie publishing (if, as I take it, you mean self-publishing), as
everyone knows, is that it’s a free-for-all. The internet knows no bounds, and one
bit of data is the equal of the next. The question becomes, how to stand out?
And therefore, how to be read? I believe that instead of setting up an either-or
between indie and traditional publishing, we have to hold hang onto a both-and.
The internet won’t kill books as such – e-books are books, too – but it may kill
literature. We need canons, otherwise, we are stuck. Or, more likely, we wander
aimlessly through the infinite network of social media without any real certainty
as to what is best.
How did you feel when you published your first book? And, how did you celebrate your achievement?
Weirdly, because of my isolated personal situation, I had no one to share the joy
with. It is far better if you have a circle of friends and family. I had a one-sided
discussion (he didn’t say much) with the shade of Friedrich Nietzsche. I told him
I wished I had a moustache like his. I told him I wished his sister hadn’t given his
walking stick to Hitler. I told him I wished Texas had some great mountains, but,
hey, what can you do? It’s the bottom of a prehistoric sea.
PART 2 – Getting to know the author…
Describe yourself in five words?
I’m a hêppie Wit Hotnot.
Describe your perfect day?
A day spent in the company of the woman to whom I once sent a copy of Rilke’s
poem that opens: “Beloved, lost to begin with. . .”
If you could invite five people to dinner who would they be?
The above-mentioned woman. No one else.
And what would you serve at the meal?
Tricky Q. She was strong to overwhelming on animal rights and vegetarianism,
no, veganism. Romaine lettuce and ice water? (Just kidding. A rich mushroom
What is your favourite topics of conversation with your friends?
Politics. Personal histories. Emotional understanding. Literature.
How do you like to relax after a busy day?
Now you’ve got me. As an academic and a writer, I just keep working.
What were you like as a child?
Read my novel, and you’ll see.
What’s your mantra in life?
It changes by the day. Today, from Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund:
“To love God is not always the same as to love the good.”
Your favourite quote ever?
What is what is? (Heidegger)
What drives you crazy about modern life?
Fashionable poses claimed as pluralistic identities.
If you had the power to change anything in this world what would you change?
The linear lockstep of Time.
If you had a super power what would it be?
To make you sparkle with delight at a glance.
What three dreams are on your bucket list – and have you achieved any yet?
1. To complete The Unspeakable. (Done.)
2. To rewrite/revise my critical study: Stone, Paper, Steel: Poetry in Prison
Under Apartheid. (Far from done.)
3. To write my second novel, Lords of Misrule. (Not yet commenced.)
*Thanks Peter, all the best with you book. Great to meet you.