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Liesl Jobson

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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.

Book details


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Invitation to Launch Ride the Tortoise and Toast Her Frank O’Connor Ambitions

On the invitation below is a photo of me, toothily grinning. It was taken well before I heard that Ride the Tortoise had made the long list for the Frank O’Connor Award International Short Story Award, but it serves pretty well to show how pleased I am to be rubbing shoulders with my absolute favourite authors – Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy, Junot Diáz and Steven Barthelme.

It would be terrific if you could attend one of my Cape Town launches in the next few days, where we’ll be raising a glass, courtesy of Leopard’s Leap, to welcome the Tortoise to the world and wish her a steady plod onto the short list!

Invitation to Ride the Tortoise

Please note RSVP details on the invitation.

Book details

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Ride the Tortoise has been published by the Jacana Literary Foundation (JLF), which seeks to promote and foster excellent writing from South and southern Africa, and to advance the writing of fiction in the region. This has been enabled by generous funding from the Multi-Agency Grants Initiative (MAGI)


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Ride the Tortoise steps out on The Next Big Thing

A sage friend with 30 years’ publishing experience sat me down recently, just as Ride the Tortoise was about to hatch. She reminded me of my staggering good fortune: getting a book published in this day and age is a big deal. “It comes with responsibility,” she said in a tone that brooked no shilly-shallying.

“Your job is to promote your own book… to sell it,” she said, shuddering as she recalled me giving away all my author’s copies of 100 Papers. “You don’t write for love, do you?” I blinked. The question wasn’t rhetorical.

“Times have never been tighter; marketing budgets have shrunk to invisibility.” Barely suppressing a wagging finger, she cautioned: “If you do not endeavour to publicise Ride the Tortoise with every recalcitrant fibre of your being, it will drop like a stone down a well, never to be seen again!”

Strong words indeed. Suffice it to say that being tagged in The Next Big Thing by the American poet, professor, and co-editor of The Ecopoetry Anthology, Ann Fisher-Wirth, was just the prompt I needed to initiate my promotional effort.

What is your working title of your book?

The working title was “The Edge of the Pot”, which referred to a Zulu idiom featuring in one of the stories. However, a recent short story collection edited by Arja Salafranca came out with the title The Edge of Things, so my editor put on her thinking cap and recommended Ride the Tortoise. Rather pleased with the new title.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A great motivator for getting things done is to make it a game, to enter a competition. Writing for the sheer love of writing, doesn’t wash, perhaps because it’s so damn difficult. Writing for the purposes of fame and glory, however, usually gets me started. To that end, I put together a handful of published stories and sent them off to a couple of writing competitions where the prize included publication. Happily, this manuscript was awarded an “Honorable Mention” the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. This coincided with the invitation from Maggie Davey to submit the collection for consideration.

What genre does your book fall under?

Short stories. Literary fiction. South African interest.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

In Werner Herzog’s 1976 classic, Heart of Glass, all the characters appearing in the film, except one, have been hypnotised. I’d leave it to Herzog to decide who would play leading roles in a movie made from the title story – as long as they’re all in a trance. In fact, I’d let Herzog decide whether to present the narrative as a movie or an opera – which another interest of Herzog. Perhaps the female lead could present her bewilderment as an extended aria. There’s enough Mahlerian angst in the collection for that.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In each short story the narrator picks apart her experience of contemporary South Africa in all its beauty and horror, emerging sufficiently intact, despite the odds, to tell the tale with a pinch of wit and a modicum of redemption – even if I say so myself!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Self-publication is for those who are made of far stronger stuff than I am. I daily rain blessings down upon the team at Jacana Media, who invited me to submit this book, endured through my foot dragging, and chivvied good-naturedly. In particular thanks to Helen Moffett for holding my hand through the final push of this sweet little beast entering the world. May they live long and grow strong. May they have many fine books go out into the world and make pots of money.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

My first literary endeavour, aged eight, was an account of the near drowning of my silkie hen and her nest of chicks when the Umbilo River rose and flooded our cellar. It was published in Fair Lady and contained the seeds of every other story of terror and redemption that I’ve ever written. I’m almost fifty, so shall we say the drafting process took a round forty years?

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Diane Awerbuck’s short story collection, Cabin Fever, is an utterly exquisite book. I love her quirky, whimsical narratives that slice through the shifting psyche and expose what remains when there’s little left to lose. Karin Schimke, books editor of the Cape Times, one likened my short stories to those of Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. I’m still dining out on that.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The need to comprehend this bizarre country is at the heart of my book. How else, but by writing about it, does one make sense of its disturbed inhabitants, their collective unconsciousness and schizoid amnesia? Equally baffling is the weird resilience, the unanticipated acts of grace that permit ordinary people to transform a brutal history and hideous present into lives yet worth living.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ride the Tortoise roves through territories that are deep and wide, personal and collective. Whether the lens is on a teen tending her sick parrot or a photographer stealing an image, a sex deprived wife swallowing her rage or a would be émigré to Canada, these stories aim to transcend the barriers of religion, culture, race and nationality. They are, hopefully, universal.

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As this is a blog roll, I’m handing over to Diane Kendig, Consuelo Roland, Martinique Stilwell, Jo-Anne Richards and Pat Fahrenfort. Check their blogs next Monday for the next installment of The Next Big Thing.

Ride the TortoiseBook details


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Doorknobs & Bodywhat?

doorknobs & bodypaintDoorknobs & Bodypaint is a quirky name for a journal. Their submissions guidelines are no less eccentric. For example, the editors are currently looking for stories under 250 words for their next issue. Additionally, the sub-theme is “exuberance” and the year is 1929. Within the story, you must use this text: uninhibited enthusiasm. Make of that what you will but I dare you to have a go. Submissions close October 26th.

Similarly, the journal Tattoo Highway, invites writers to respond to a given picture. This device also appeals to me. I entered some years back and won second place there back in Issue 11, receiving a $20 Barnes & Noble voucher for my effort.

It might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but for me it does indeed raise “uninhibited enthusiasm”. Working from prompts, whether a list of words, an image, or a set of odd-sock criteria is all a way to trick myself into writing. I approach the page as a kind of game, a way of getting the story underway while my inner critic is checking to see that I’ve obeyed the rules of the game.
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August Bounty: Book Launch, Wigleaf and an Interview with Karabo Kgoleng

looking-over-my-shoulder.jpgAugust has been kind, starting with the launch of View from an Escalator at the Jozi Spoken Word Festival which was very well attended. Launching a book is always a turning point and the sense of completion that ensues was, once again, a terrific relief.

I really like this photo because it shows who’s looking over my shoulder. The muses that emerged in this artwork that formed the backdrop of the reading sure have teeth – somehow that encourages me.
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Ready, not-so-steady, go!

100 Papers is here at last. Its presence surprises me and I feel a bit self-conscious. I catch myself stealing surreptitious glances at the copy sitting on my husband’s bedside table. I try to pretend I’m not waiting for him to laugh at the funny bits when he reads in bed, and I hardly bother to conceal my delight when he does.

I never quite believed it would happen, but now, like the new mother consumed by the exquisite beauty of her offspring, I feel quite wobbly in the head.

I’m also rather flattered by the invitations to read this week – tonight at the English Academy conference alongside luminaries Sindiwe Magona and Lynette Hlongwane (6.00pm at Oom Gert se Plek, University of Pretoria) and at Writers 2000 (Saturday, 28 June at 2.00pm at Elphin Lodge, Edenvale.)
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