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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Michiel Heyns grew up all over South Africa, and studied at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cambridge. He lectured in English at the University of Stellenbosch until 2003, when he took retirement to write full-time. In addition to a book on the nineteenth-century novel and many critical essays, he has published three novels. He reviews books for the Sunday Independent, lives in Somerset West and is at present translating Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk.
Russel Brownlee completed a journalism degree at Stellenbosch in 1991 and then spent several years working as a radio news writer and magazine sub-editor in Johannesburg. After a brief attempt at building a career as a shop owner in Prince Albert he moved to Cape Town, where he now works as a technical editor. In 2002 he enrolled in UCT's Creative Writing Masters programme, and the novel he wrote there, Garden of the Plagues, was published last year by Human & Rousseau.

Michiel Heyns in conversation with Russel Brownlee

  1. You have been very generous in acknowledging the guidance of your mentor at UCT, André Brink, who supervised the project that turned into your novel Garden of the Plagues. Based on your experience of the MA in Creative Writing, what do you think a creative writing course can and can not do?

    I think most of those who've been through the Creative Writing programme would agree that it can't teach you how to write, and it can't really turn you into a novelist, poet, or dramatist if you don't actually have the capacity to be one. At most it provides camaraderie, some mental stimulation, and certainly discipline. It's a cliché, but it's quite true, that the writing life can be very lonely. So much time and effort spent on something that nobody else might ever see. I decided that if I was going to write another novel after my first attempts, I would have to seek some company and some objective validation. In the end, André Brink provided exactly this role - someone to tell me to carry on, to trust my work, to delay jumping off that bridge for just a little while more. I think I learned more from André about the art of mentorship than about the art of writing.

  2. You have made no secret of the fact that Garden of the Plagues was not your first attempt to have a novel published. Now that you have succeeded, how do you feel about South African publishing? Is it too easy to get published? Too difficult?

    I think it's certainly easier now than a few years ago, at least in English. New writers are being launched all the time, and there seem to be many more publishing imprints than a few years ago. I know that publishers are crying out for good manuscripts, but the difficulty for the writer, as always, is to get to the top of the slush pile. In contrast, I think it's actually getting more difficult to get published internationally. Many publishers no longer take unsolicited manuscripts, and there's a strong trend towards "plot"-based novels. I don't think South African authors are generally much into plot and action - we tend to be more introspective. On the other hand there is some very good literary stuff being published abroad, and once again I don't think too many of us are up to that level. How many local writers really have the capacity to surprise one or to leave one humbled and awestruck? Perhaps I'm just jaded and need to read more.

  3. In the Mail and Guardian's book supplement you singled out Marlene van Niekerk's novel Agaat as, if I remember correctly, bringing something new to Afrikaans and to the novel in general. Would you care to elaborate?

    Thanks for reminding me - just thinking about Agaat restores some of my faith! It's a work of great psychological depth and subtlety, conveyed in powerful language and complex narrative form. This is a novel about language as much as about characters and events. So many novels treat language as merely the vehicle by which the content of the work is delivered, but this is one of those books one reads for the pleasure of the text itself. Much of the novel is really about small things - life on a farm, the thoughts of a paralysed woman - but it's written in such exciting language and in so many voices that a much larger world is created for the reader than is sketched at the level of plot and events. Some reviewers have chosen to focus on the content and its political implications, but I think they are missing out on the aspects that make this a great work of art.

  4. Garden of the Plagues is critical (though not blindly so) of the Enlightenment drive to categorise, to know and control the world by naming it. Do you see this as having renewed relevance to the world of the 21st century?

    Yes, this was my main issue in writing Plagues. I began writing it soon after 9/11 when large groups of people descended into an orgy of self righteousness and overweening confidence in the moral superiority of their cause. Labels like enemy, evil, terrorist were thrown around with great enthusiasm and with devastating consequences. I began looking at our love of attaching labels to things in order to gain power over them, and of course my inquiry led me to the Enlightenment and the birth of rationalism. Humanity began dreaming a new dream then, a dream of mastery and of power over nature, including human nature. Of course, we have gained incredible benefits from rationalism and the defeat of superstition, but I am concerned that we have lost something along the way. Science is all about definition and certainty, about things being either true or not true. This is all very well for the endeavours of science, but I think we run into trouble when we begin applying that rationale to personal and political relationships. We have lost the art of living in paradox and uncertainty, in a world that is not "either/or", but "yes and yes", or "perhaps/maybe". This was my project for Plagues, to recreate a world in which mystery and rationalism could exist in balance, a world where silence was as valid an expression as speech.

  5. When I was reading Garden of the Plagues, one of the things that delighted me, and that set your novel apart from many others on the early days at the Cape, was what seemed to me a certain irrepressible optimism about human potential. Was I reading through rose-tinted spectacles?

    Oh god, have I been outed as a closet optimist? That's really quite disturbing - I had thought I was more curmudgeonly by nature, like my protagonist Adam Wijk. He would never admit to positive sentiments regarding human potential. At most he would admit that love sometimes happens despite one's best intentions, and that the only remedy for such an affliction is surrender. I'm not quite sure he would count on his fellow man seeing it the same way.

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LitNet: 24 January 2006

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