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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Alan Paton Award shortlist: Q&A with The War for South Africa author Bill Nasson

Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-01

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What are the challenges of writing about something factual or ‘real’ as opposed to writing a work of fiction?

In the first place, I think that it’s self-evident that writers of fact and writers of fiction both do research into their chosen subject. The difference is that of scale and purpose – good factual writing requires a lot of research to provide it with a heart. Obviously, I can’t speak for fiction writers, but my sense is that the real information, whether it’s the model of a car or the right location of a beach, is a kind of scenery which you try to get right. In fiction you probably always start with a story plotted out, and the challenge is to make it come across in an engaging way – it doesn’t have to be credible. The big thing is that you can make it all up. Non-fiction can’t pretend to be definitive, nor the last word on anything, but it has to come across as reasonably convincing or credible in its portrayal of human behaviour. The really big challenge in non-fiction writing is, actually, the writing. Research and preparatory reading can be so beguiling that it becomes an end in itself, an excuse for putting off the hard slog of trying to make sense of it all in your own prose. And then you have to strive for fairness, balance, empathy and accuracy. And to try to show a world that’s complicated and messy, not one in which heroes sort out villains or in which love conquers all.

Do you think that because of South Africa’s troubled political past, we have more interesting stories to tell than other stories?

There’s an old South African problem, which is a belief that our society is unique, or so exceptional that our stories are always more interesting than those of other places. I wonder about that, sometimes. In its racist apartheid past and its continuing inequalities our country may well be much worse than other places. But it’s not necessarily all that different in kind. Lots of places have two divided pasts and malformed presents, are burdened by ethnic domination and discrimination, massive income disparities, language problems and so on. Many other societies have their own kind of troubled political pasts, from Ireland to India, with wonderful writers who express their own dilemmas and deformities. If we have stories about the Anglo-Zulu and the Anglo-Boer wars, then New Zealand has its Maori wars and America its Civil War. Undoubtedly, we have different stories to tell with a distinctive South African flavour, but they are not necessarily more interesting than those from elsewhere.

Are South African readers still keen to find out the truth behind the scandals reported in the daily media, or are they more interested in escapist fiction to immunise them against the chaos surrounding them daily?

Impressionistically, there certainly seems to be an appetite for investigative reporting and analysis of the daily shenanigans which we’re having to endure. In its crudity and excess it’s almost as if we’re stranded midway between Berlusconi’s current Italy and Germany’s Weimar Republic of the later 1920s.
So being keen on escapist fiction as an antidote to grubby reality is fair enough. Ultimately, what matters more than what is being read is that people read. I’ve always loved crime novelists like Ruth Rendell and Elmore Leonard for the pleasure they provide. That may be why I’d want to read about Jackie Selebi or Brett Kebble.

Is there room for non-fiction writing that doesn’t encompass our apartheid past in this country?

Historically South Africa is a very, very old region of human habitation and there are many underlying things about the nature of life here, how things are seen culturally or experienced socially, that have little or nothing to do with the bad apartheid decades. Just because the apartheid past still weighs so onerously on the present doesn’t mean that it has to come to stand for absolutely everything. That way lies absurdity or an economical truth, like the President blaming apartheid for the 1916 Land Act. For that, non-fiction needs to provide a trained, knowledgeable scepticism, to say no, that’s not right. And as much as that, it would be nice to see writing that tackles a more catholic range of factual topics about our past, so that eventually it will add up to more than just the familiar grim post-1948 story. When our writings become more of a house of many mansions we’ll be turning into a more normal and less obsessive place.

Do you think non-fiction, by its very nature, should have more prominence than fiction in the bookstores? In other words, is it more worthy of promotion than fiction?

Well, this is obviously a tricky one, as it involves self-interest, especially around the position of history in our bookstores. I certainly wouldn’t see it as a case of non-fiction having a greater claim to being in the front of the showroom. Most readers would always fancy stories which grip them rather than, say, A History of the Lower Vaal Irrigation System. But I do think that non-fiction merits greater bookstore prominence than it enjoys at present. What could be more rewarding than seeing the rural history of Charles van Onselen up there with the short stories of Herman Charles Bosman? Or Hermann Giliomee’s The Afrikaners with Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf? Ideally, readers should have greater bookstore encouragement to sample the rewards of both sorts of writing.

What does this nomination mean to you and is it really good enough just to be nominated?

I’ve always considered myself to be an artisan or journeyman kind of historical writer, crafting this and that to the best of whatever ability I have. Frankly, I’m as humbled as I’m thrilled by this recognition of my scholarly labour. Just to be acknowledged as a candidate for so prestigious a literary award is hugely rewarding, and it’s an honour to be shortlisted alongside such leading company.

In my own case, I can’t help but be reminded of that early circus film by the quirky German director Werner Herzog, Even Dwarves Started Small. I also feel a very personal poignancy about this Paton nomination. As an undergraduate student in Britain in the 1970s I studied Cry, the Beloved Country in a Commonwealth Literature course. Later, for an MA, I did a long essay on Paton’s novel as an example of the liberal moral imagination in South African literature and history. And very recently I’ve been reading his autobiographical novel, Towards the Mountain, for a little book I’m doing on South Africa in the Second World War. It’s several unexpected and touching coincidences.

Are you keen to keep writing in the genre of non-fiction or do you plan to write fiction soon? If so, what attractions does fiction offer you as a writer?

I’ve neither the inclination nor the ability to try my hand at any kind of fiction. Non-fiction has always been my trade, and I’m quite content to stick to it. I would, though, love to have a real go at satire or comic writing. To be a Jonathan Swift or an Auberon Waugh is a secret, stillborn ambition.

Does receiving recognition like this not make writing your next book a bit daunting?

No, to be honest. Instinctively, it feels enormously encouraging, I think writing is a really haphazard business: you never know when you’ve hit the spot. Recognition that judges think that you’ve accomplished a decent piece of work is an inspiration to try to make your next book not only better but different. In a way, isn’t that what writers of any kind do? The big thing is not to keep on writing the same book, which may be more of a dilemma for some novelists than for some non-fiction writers.

Which authors have influenced your writing?

Over the years I’ve been influenced by a small crop of both non-fiction and fiction writers, although, naturally enough, mainly the former. In style they run the range from overripeness to finely measured terseness – I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, probably. When it comes to historians the hardy perennials are EP Thompson, Gwyn Williams, AJP Taylor, Bernard Porter, David Cannadine, Roy Foster and Charles van Onselen. In fiction, William Boyd and the historical novelist JG Farrell. For mixing up fiction and non-fiction and carrying it off, the limpid prose of Bruce Chatwin.

What inspires you?

When writing feels like trying to get through a bowl of cold porridge there’s a long list of little things that work as a tonic. As I work in Stellenbosch, obviously wine would be one. There I’d plump for Boer and Brit from Alex Milner and Stefan Gerber and Hartenberg Shiraz. Then there’s the music of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and The Webb Sisters. There are few things to beat razor-sharp wit, so I also resort to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as well as Alan Bennett. I also admire top-notch journalistic writers who write with flair and can make virtually anything interesting, like Simon Hoggart and Ian Buruma. Lastly, and far from least, there’s the cherished memory, the poetry and the prose of my recently deceased friend Stephen Watson. It’s an abiding illumination.