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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Sunday Times Fiction Prize shortlist: Q&A with Deeper than Colour author James Clelland


Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-01

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What does it mean to you to be nominated for this particular award?

It means a huge amount. Awards are special, and being nominated is a kind of recognition that what you’ve been trying to say might be worth something or mean something to someone else, a type of validation. Writing is the ultimate back-room activity, something practised alone and often at night, after hours, never knowing whether what you write is worth anything to anyone except yourself, and maybe your family. Many writers collect nothing but rejection slips, those anonymous pieces of paper which can be a source of pain and suffering if you take them too seriously. Deeper than Colour was rejected many times, often with complimentary words, but rejections nonetheless. Now that it has been shortlisted for this prestigious award it is gaining some attention and that is so satisfying to me. I am honoured to be nominated for this award, and now feel that my four-decade-long apprenticeship has been justified.

Do you think it will change your approach to writing in any way? If so, how?

This is interesting. Yesterday I sent my final draft of the next novel to my editor, the marvellous Gwen Hewitt, and her response was that being on the ST shortlist meant we had to work extra hard on the follow-up. I understood what she meant, but the follow-up, Those Streets, had been completed before the publication of Deeper than Colour, so it had its own character already and thus could not be affected by this nomination. But we are polishing it exceptionally thoroughly!

What the nomination will do is encourage me to spend even more time writing, as opposed to the day job, the one that pays the bills. My writing time has increased since publication in November last year anyway, but now it’s set to take off.

The nomination has affected the way that others see my writing. It seems to have begun to convince my colleagues and friends that, hey, maybe this man can actually write, you know.

What do you think about the state of fiction in South Africa at the moment?

It’s very healthy. We have marvellous writers in many genres, from crime to literary and many others. In fact, we have novels in this country that defy classification in any genre, and that crash through traditional divisions. The state of reading in the country is the big barrier than needs attention, though.

Do you think South African fiction writing has come of age at last?

No, it has always been “of age”. If you look at our past, we have HC Bosman, Sol Plaatjies, Alan Paton – shew, what a history, what a background to know and be proud of. Whatever the current generation of writers do, this is the published background. Of course, this doesn’t include writers unable to publish, the lost generation created by apartheid, those whom we’ll never know. Certainly over the past couple of years more and more “previously marginalised” writers are being published and that’s great. We need to explore and then try to understand the cultures we share this country with. More understanding of one another and fewer insults from politicians would make this great country even greater. And novels are a wonderful way to learn about other people and cultures. I loved Niq Mhlongo’s Dog eat Dog, for example, the only way I could begin to know something about township lives.  

Do you think we will ever be able to write fiction without an awareness of our past?

I hope not. We dare not write without knowing what has gone before. Don Quixote tilting at windmills started the art of novel-writing and as writers we need to appreciate this. And as South African writers we have a further obligation, to know our own history. To ignore that is impossible if you wish to be relevant and read. Every country, every writer has a past, so why should we be any different?

What can we do to develop a stronger local readership?

This is tough, but I’ll suggest two things. We could start to create a culture of reading by ensuring that every school in the country has a library. This process is not happening fast enough, despite the efforts of worthwhile projects, such as the Franschhoek Literary Festival and The Bookery in Cape Town. And I’ll risk saying what seems silly: we need a better public transport system, as that would allow us to approach the readership of the UK, for example, where every station has a bookshop and many people read either novels or newspapers on the way to work. Just incidentally it would also unclog our roads.

Do South Africans appreciate home-grown literature as much as they seem to revere the work of writers from other countries?

No! Many of us have an unfortunate reverence for all things from overseas. For example, there seems to be an endless procession of antique pop groups coming here, people who can barely get a gig in their home country and yet arrive here with bells and whistles, heralded as hit pop stars, albeit their last hit was twenty years ago. The same happens in every sphere, including novels. Of course we need to be aware of writers from other countries – and not just the UK and the USA. But sometimes I read book review sections and find an entire issue is taken up with non-South African literature, which cannot be right. We have excellent writers here worth that space, whether we’re talking about crime writers – we have some of the best in the world – or literature. I’ve taken a conscious decision to read mostly South African writers just now and have definitely not dropped my standard of book. We have artistic talent here – no, let me repeat this: WE HAVE ARTISTIC TALENT. We should encourage it, develop it, revere it. I don’t mean we should ignore the outside world, far from it. But we don’t need to worship it the way we do.  

Is it really good enough just to be nominated?

Yes. In life I take nothing for granted, fearing laziness and arrogance. I’ve run a company for almost twenty years and worry every day that it might disappear. Maybe this worry has sustained it through these years, I don’t know, but that’s my nature, simple as that. This is a weakness in that it means I’m never settled or content. But on the positive side it means I’m always working hard to stay where I am or where I want to be.

In addition, actually winning awards is like a lottery, according to a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement: you need some luck. Justin Cartwright recently said that winning literary awards was a random issue, based on trade-offs between judges. And he should know, as a Man Booker Prize judge for several years. So, just to be on the shortlist is an important honour. Look at the two literary heavyweights on the list, Ivan Vladislavic and Deon Meyer. I love them both – and I’m on the list beside them! I am truly honoured.

Which authors inspire you?

Too many to list, but let me try and select a few from a long list. Johns appear early: John Braine, John Updike, John Fowles, as do the classics, which I read on train journeys from my home town of Ayr to Glasgow several times a week for years, Dickens, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, DH Lawrence, Tolstoy, Hardy, Austin … the list is endless and consumed many evening hours of rail travel. Lovely memories, reading while travelling, immersed in fiction, to the rhythm of the train, dara-darum, dara-darum. Now I’m fond of two Ians: Banks and McEwan.

Locally, JM Coetzee, another John of course, has been my main inspiration, closely followed by Damon Galgut.

Why do you write?

Sometimes I wonder! I started writing many years ago before I even began to question why I did it. In primary school I was heavily criticised by my teacher, Miss Ross, hair-bun and tweed skirt, for using words I didn’t understand – using ejaculated instead of interjected, for instance – but I guess it was all experimental at that age. Since then I’ve published plenty of short stuff for magazines, radio and newspapers, but the need for a bigger canvas, a novel, continued and Deeper, my fourth novel to be completed, although the first to be published, was it, the culmination.

Basically I write because I have to. It drives me crazy and yet keeps me sane. And it’s a fairly safe obsession to have, after all. There are many worse ones.

I am proud to be called a novelist.