James Whyle: A lot of fiction, I just don’t find believable
Patricia J DeLois visits with James Whyle: Bookshed founder and winner of the 2011 PEN/Studzinski Prize. His debut novel, The Book of War, is due from Jacana Media in the first week of April. Rian Malan has called it, "A very good book. Possibly great."
How did you find out you'd won the prize?
It was announced. There was a ceremony in the Book Lounge in Cape Town. I was standing at the back of the throng, close to the door onto the street. For easy escape. Margie Orford made a speech. As she worked through runners up, third prize, second prize etc, the chances of getting anything became increasingly remote. I was starting to turn away to the street when I heard her say, first prize... The Story... I thought: The Story? It sounded so familiar.
You’ve signed a book deal. How did that come about?
During the first year of my MA course I was given a lovely bursary by a publisher. It was essentially an advance in that they got first bite at the book. A bite that they spat out before saying there'd need to be basic changes to the recipe. I disagreed. So did my supervisors. One of whom recommended another publisher. I approached them, and a third. Then I won the Pen/Studzinski. As a result, I presume, of the weight of JM Coetzee's reputation, those next two publishers were interested. I signed with Jacana.
Does this change your feelings about your soap opera writing?
I don't think so. Look, in the intellectual snobbery of writing gigs, soap must come close to writing the advertising copy on, well, detergent packages. On the other hand I'm a great fan of James Thurber and he wrote RADIO soap. I think it was reading Thurber that I learnt that soap is called soap because the morning radio serials where sponsored by the big soap brands. Hitting the American housewife while she did her housework. Remember that America?
No. Nor, for your information, do I have contemporaries who fought in Vietnam.
Of course not. I've been on the writing team on a South Africa serial called Isidingo since, I think, episode 40. Which I wrote around 94 when South Africa became a democracy. Sometime soon I must make a start on episode 3325. It is my job, something for which, in these times, one can only be very, very grateful. Few people make a living out of literary fiction. Even Tobias Wolff has a day job, right? And Patricia J DeLois works, like Phillip Larkin did, in a library. Most arty writers are supported by universities. That said, my ego does not like to be confined in a box marked detergent. I've been thinking of developing a standard answer to the prize/soap question: The award appears to be providing one vital secure belay on a dangerously exposed first route traverse out of television hack couloir onto the upper slopes of Mount Mystery.
Wow. You’ve reached the upper slopes.
I'm in a snow cave in the couloir. Trying to figure out how to get a rope up to the belay point. These are hard times. We must cling to the rock face. Put on our crampons before we go out into the blizzard for a shit. Lest we end up broken in Tibet.
You love mountain books, don't you?
I remember you mentioning in a conversation in The Shed that you had flu and you picked up Krakauer's Into Thin Air and you were just there.
Yes. But I didn't get Touching the Void.
Joe Simpson's book.
Yes. I liked the movie.
He won a Boardman Tasker prize for that book. Look, I'm terrified of heights.
Well there you go. So when a mountaineer says, the exposure was awesome, I get a funny feeling in my stomach. And mountain books are structured by their very nature. You have a clear goal, the summit. A small cast of characters. Great jeopardy. And you don't have some abysmal (the pun was unintended, but I'll take it) novelist making stuff up. And climbers are interesting. Disaffected often, searching for something. At their most dysfunctional, life only makes sense to them when death is a imminent. And then you get rare cases where an extraordinary writer, like Krakauer, is in an extraordinary situation on an extraordinary mountain. You get a page-turner of great literary merit.
How would you compare collaborative writing with the writing you do on your own?
Collaborating can be wonderful and it can be painful. I wrote a screenplay, Otelo Burning, since filmed and shown in London. This should be cause for celebration, but after some seven or so drafts there were creative disagreements, followed by legal disagreements. In order to get paid I had to sign a piece of paper stating I had no claims on the project, "in any known universe." The great thing about novels, or narrative nonfiction, is that you have creative control.
But any work you do informs other work. Work is good. Writing episodes on a daily, and other television, of which I have done a great deal, you are often given the content of the scenes and their order. You are given the breakdown of scenes and your job is to make those scenes work on the page. In actor’s terms, to make them play. With The Book of War, oddly enough, I realized I was often using my source texts as a kind of breakdown, trying to make the history play as fictional truth.
Would you say the formal education was worthwhile?
The MA in creative writing was a great adventure. The creative component was one year of approximately monthly meetings. Four students who read each other's work and commented, as did the supervisors, Marlene van Niekerk and Willem Anker. It was just entirely wonderful, the ideal way to work. We were very lucky in the composition of the group. Great heads all round the table. The academic component, a seventy page essay, was arduous. I learnt that I knew nothing about European literary criticism, Russian Formalists and Julia Kristeva. I didn't know my Derrida from my Foucault. Still don't, really, but it did refine my technical sense of point of view and focalization. (You see? I leant that last word.)
On the other hand, writing screenplays makes you think like a camera. You place yourself in the landscape and see the scene. This tends to make your natural POV, like Cormac McCarthy's, cinematic. Omniscient third person but limited in the sense of not going inside the character's heads.
How has doing the MA changed your writing?
I don't know if it has. For some reason academics seem to favor passive sentences, but that is an avoidable habit. On the other hand, the major task of the MA was the novel. And with the novel the input was just passionate, thoughtful help from writers. No one ever said, you should write like this. It was more, look X is great but I'm not sure about Y. And then we'd discuss how to make Y work. So, in so far as my writing is changing I think it's because I am, out of McCarthy, trying to find a way of writing that excites me.
What is it about McCarthy that inspires you?
His sentences. The mind behind them. His dedication. His detail. His care. The extent and depth of his reading. His rhythm, the noise of him. His grandeur is tantamount to the landscape and the savages in it.
The Book of War was waiting, I think, and Blood Meridian sparked it. What happened is, friends recommended The Road. I devoured it and went to the book shop to look for more. I came away with Blood Meridian which was the first novel since Ancient Evenings that really got to me. Blood Meridian is the bastard offspring of a super-realist western mated with some long suppressed arcane religious text. South Africa of course has no Western Tradition, and, if it did, it would have to be called an Eastern or Northern Tradition. (Your culture is so powerful that I grew up playing cowboys and Indians.) But the idea of an African “Western” was interesting. I was fascinated to learn that, although it reads in some ways almost as fantasy, Blood Meridian grew out of the first person accounts of people who knocked about in places like Nacogdoches in the 1830s. I have a long obsession with the history of the region where I grew up, the Eastern Cape, the border. I wondered if there were accounts that might open up the possibility of an equivalent book about South Africa’s history. There were.
So, you wrote a fictionalized account?
I'm not sure. I’ve never been happy making stuff up.
Seems like a funny thing for a fiction writer to say.
A lot of fiction, I just don’t find believable. It prevents me from reading many novels. I put them down at the point where I disbelieve something. A novel must be fictionally true before it is anything else. I think the less one makes things up... the easier it is to achieve?
Are you saying most fiction is bad?
Isn’t it? But then, how often do you see a beautifully made shoe? I read a extraordinary Johannesburg book recently, Ivan Vladislavic's Portrait With Keys. The library in Portland, Maine, should have a copy. No one knows if it's fiction or not. I believed every word of it.
What's with this Mailer thing?
Uncle Norm. My father died when I was three so perhaps I've searched for father figures in literature. I loved Ancient Evenings. It stopped me reading novels for a long time, because nothing seemed that big, that bold.
When did you discover Uncle Norm?
I started reading adult books at a time when South Africa labored under a fascist government. They censored political thought and they censored sex. So for me, sex was part of the attraction of books. Collette's Claudine and Annie stands out in my memory. Anyway, I developed the habit of skimming through a book to find the sex parts. With Wilbur Smith, for instance, one could have the titillation and also gain the useful knowledge that reading the whole book would be a waste of time. At some stage of the 90s I think, a friend recommended Ancient Evenings. I read the sex bits and they made me curious about the characters. I had to read the book. Often.
That’s probably the nicest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about Norman Mailer.
You are too hard on him. He loved women, despite stabbing one wife.
And that’s the second nicest.
I once heard Doris Lessing read in Johannesburg. I asked her, when she was taking questions from the audience, what she thought of Norman Mailer. She spoke very warmly of him as colleague and friend.
Mailer believed contraception was a cheat, an insult to the notion of sex. He had some strange ideas, but he worked very hard to support the wives and resulting children. Who seem to speak very well of him. (The children I mean. I believe Norris is pretty blunt.) The more I learnt about Mailer, the more I read of him, the more I felt I understood him. After I ran away from the army and wrote a play about it, I became an actor, a performer. National Madness was successful. It was published. I played a character that was essentially myself on stage. I had, on my own tiny level, in my own obscure region, an early success. Just as Mailer did with Armies of the Night. Early success is dangerous. I felt I understood Mailer's battles with his ego and his reputation. Just as I felt, as a farm boy who went to the big city and wrote a play, that I understood something about Willie Shakespere. To use one of his own spellings.
I’ve often heard you quote from King Lear. Is that your favorite Shakespeare play?
Lear is the greatest work of art ever created by any member or our species of killing ape.
What is it about Lear that makes it so great?
You know, I've been in it once, and "edited" it once, and directed it once and I'm not sure I know. I'm just aware of its ability to fascinate and to induce tears of pity and wonder. If I started trying to answer that question properly we might end up with a book.
We’ve talked a bit about masks, and how an actor disappears behind a mask. Would you say that writers hide behind their characters, or their narrators? Or just elaborate in general about masks?
Well, this is getting clubby but disclosure is always good, right? When I interviewed you for Identity Theory, before Penguin USA picked up Bufflehead Sisters, you spoke about getting lost in characters, losing your ego, and how with Sophie it went further, "almost like voodoo." At some stage when I was doing improvisation as a actor I learnt that when a person puts on a mask in certain contexts, they are inhabited by the spirit of the mask. Sometimes a person puts on a mask and nothing happens. Other times, a third factor enters the arena. Put a different way, the actor gestures, the mask becomes, for the watcher, alive. The watcher communicates this to the wearer. A spooky process starts. (Mailer's book on writing: "The Spooky Art.")
One of the things that came up in the MA classes was the question, who is the narrator? I gave a naive answer: me. But then it occurred to me that the narrator of the Book of War didn't talk like me. Who was it? So I suppose I learnt that a narrator is a mask one inhabits. Or is inhabited by. The impulse of the actor and the writer seem very similar. Although there's a distinction. Great English theatre actors hide in the mask and follow the script. Improvisers, like writers, have to dance with the mask. Let it take them. I think? Let this third factor dictate, if not destination, the journey?
Is that not why you are struggling to finish Penguins in Amsterdam? Because you don't know that destination?
I'm inclined to think the problem is that I DO know the destination. I don't feel the story holds any more surprises for me.
God speed your pen. Sophie in first person is wonderful creation. Even unfinished I suspect it's a better book than your first. And your first was very good.
It's been good talking.