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Liesl Jobson

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Dear Writer in Africa

“Dear Writer in Africa”, wrote Rachel Zadok.

How nice, I thought, to be able to claim the title of an African writer. Really a welcome point to consider. It’s not that one forgets, exactly, but one does fail to remember that as an African writer, a person in most excellent company!

What a privilege to claim a heritage alongside the foremothers and fathers who put African literature on the map. It is a great point of celebration to know that Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Steve Biko, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nuruddin Farah, Breyten Breytenbach, Nadine Gordimer, Buchi Emecheta, John Coetzee and Okot p’Bitek have laid the tracks before I came along. It is amazing to point to my writer sisters from across the borders, Petina Gappah, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, knowing they are finding ways for their voices to be heard in the world.

Ride the TortoiseSo now, bringing my short story collection, Ride the Tortoise, to its place at The Interview table…

Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?

Do you like sweating blood? I know this question shouldn’t particularly elicit a snarl, but it’s one of those days that writing feels like flaying oneself alive. It is an exceedingly narcissistic and simulataneously masochistic endeavour. It really is no fun.

What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it? (No cheating and saying something that makes you sound like the intelligensia).

I’m reading Lewis Pugh’s 21 Yaks and a Speedo and thoroughly enjoying it. I’m plodding along, trying to love Roger Webster’s At the Fireside: True Southern African Stories, but not managing either the content or the style too well. Robert Bly’s Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey is fabulous – I’m presenting a creative writing workshop tomorrow in aid of the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary, based on the title poem in Robert Bly’s collection. Antjie Krog’s Skinned is powerful and visceral. She reminds me why I am also a poet.

Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?

Killing isn’t my thing. I tried to write a crime story for Joanne Hichens’ short sharp stories competition, but I couldn’t actually kill the character, so I never finished the story. Do I regret that? Not so much. It’s important to write what you know and I don’t think I can stretch to that.

If you could have any of your characters over for dinner, which would it be and why?

Much as I wish to retain the notion that my fiction is fiction, it is not. I have failed dismally to write of purely invented realities. My character is always an extension of myself, so my dinner guest will be me – and as I rather like my own company that would be no hardship.

Which one of your characters would you never invite into your home and why?

I wish I could say that I would never invite the former lovers over for fear of the reprisal of their jealous partners, but there is no such drama I can lay claim to. Truth is that I don’t like children very much so I probably wouldn’t invite those characters in. Their music doesn’t appeal and they always gobble the biscuits. There is a tramp in one of my stories. I definitely wouldn’t invite him back. It’s the smell of the street that distracts me so.

Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?

Alcohol is such a vexed matter. I do love to drink. I enjoy getting drunk, but it plays havoc with my mood, ruins my sleep and I get fat at the drop of a cork. So, no booze for me, writing or doing anything else. But I do feel sad, saying that.

If against, are you for any other mind altering drug?

Ritalin about three times a year when I absolutely have to get something done and my concentration needs a chemical straightjacket. Sugar is a good drug. It makes me happy, then sleepy.

Our adult competition theme is Feast, Famine and Potluck. Have you ever put food in your fiction? If so, what part did it play in the story?

I really a hard time remembering what is in my stories. In fact, I try to forget them as I have a visceral squeamishness about my content. Well-meaning people keep reminding me, so I redouble my efforts at forgetting. I am grateful that they want to talk about my stories at all, so don’t actually point out that I haven’t remembered too well what they’re talking about. Food in stories. I think there was an anorexic patient in one. See? Now why would you want to go back to that?

What’s the most annoying question anyone’s ever asked you in an interview?

A lot of questions are annoying at heart, but talking about the writing is inherently difficult. Also, most people ask with pure intentions so I jolly myself along, grateful for the attention. It is usually worth remembering that people talk to writers because they want to write themself. When I find myself feeling annoyed, I usually turn it around and ask the person what they are writing. I might ask the questioner how he or she would answer their own question.

If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?

That is tricky as nobody can write another’s narrative. I envy the style of other writers. I wish I had the flair, wit, style, humour and elegance of Diane Awerbuck (read her 21 Questions here), Alice Munro, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Annie Proulx, George Saunders and Etgar Keret, but they are probably wishing that had Soweto police band stories up their sleeves, the very sort that only Liesl Jobson will ever have. In fact, they probably whatsapp each other all night long, because they will never have my particular blend of cluelessness at the contrabassoon.

If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?

No. Not allowed. You have to take ownership for every written fuck-up you ever penned. Everything has made you what you are: the mean note about that fat girl in Standard Three that made her cry when she found it, to the bumpy first poems that somehow made it past an editor to an online journal in 1997. Now you can rewrite them in a kinder light, in a smoother line, but you can never un-write them.

What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?

Many. Far too many to recall specifics.

If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?

What is a bad review? Somebody doesn’t get your work? Doesn’t like it? Doesn’t fully appreciate your genius? They tell you why you suck? If your work is weak, you probably know this already, so a reviewer who points it out to you is only the messenger. Sharpen your pencil and put it back to the page, not through the reviewer’s eye.

What’s your favourite bad reviewer revenge fantasy?

See above. Revenge is not on the menu.

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?

Answered in full over at the Short Story Day Africa blog

Have you ever written naked?

Regularly. I write in bed and the laptop is hot. Despite wearing nothing it is still a battle to keep the bones of my sentences bare. I have a tendency to bulk things up and spend a lot of time removing overstatement.

Does writing sex scenes make you blush?

Not particularly. If you write what you know it’s easier. Shame is costly. It serves no story well.

Who would play you in the film of your life?

Grethe Fox.

If you won the Caine Prize for African Fiction, what would you do with the money?

I’d buy some time in a quiet place in order to write more short stories. Time is hard to come by. Quiet is a precious commodity. Or maybe I’d be an ocean-going single scull, which is another way I restore myself.

What do you consider your best piece of work to date?

The unpublished story I’m working on now. Self assessment isn’t my strong suit though, so it’s hard to say.

What are you doing on 21 June 2013, to celebrate Short Story Day Africa?

Answering these questions and driving to McGregor to celebrate the poetry festival there.

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