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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Sonja Loots Pamela Jooste's first novel, Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter [Doubleday] was awarded the Commonwealth Prize Best First Book Award for the Africa Region 1998, The Sanlam Literary Award and the inaugural Book Data South African Booksellers' Choice Award. The book went on to become a critically acclaimed theatrical production.
She has written four novels to date, and the latest People Like Ourselves was published simultaneously in the UK and South Africa in March 2003. It was numbered in the Top Twenty Bestsellers for 2003, awarded by Exclusive Books. It was the only South Africa novel, written in English, to gain a place on this list.
Aside from her novels Pamela Jooste has also written award-winning short stories, radio plays, serials and film scripts and her work is included in the Penguin Book of Contemporary South African writing. She lives in Cape Town and is married to an attorney.
Pamela Jooste Ivan Vladislavic was born in Pretoria in 1957. He moved to Johannesburg in the seventies to study at Wits and has lived in the city ever since. He has published five books of fiction, Missing Persons, The Folly, Propaganda by Monuments, The Restless Supermarket (winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for 2002) and The Exploded View. The last was written in response to artworks by Joachim Schönfeldt, and extracts from the text were exhibited with Schönfeldt's images under the title The Model Men.
As an editor, Vladislavic has worked with many of South Africa's major writers. He compiled and edited blank_Architecture, apartheid and after (with Hilton Judin) and T'kama-Adamastor: Inventions of Africa in a South African Painting (on the canvas by Cyril Coetzee).
For the past few years he has been preoccupied with a series of short texts on Johannesburg, some of which have already appeared alongside photographs by David Goldblatt and Roger Palmer. The full sequence will be published under the title Portrait with keys.

Pamela Jooste in conversation with Ivan Vladislavic

  1. Can we talk about Vladislavic "the surgeon" first? Antjie Krog, whose Country of My Skull you edited, said of you: "Ivan is not only blessed with an omniscient eye, he is also a surgeon. He would cut back, prune down, smooth, tinker with and once even confessed to hacking about freely with a paragraph." You are known to be happy around words. Do you get as much satisfaction from editing as you do from your own writing?

    Not at all. The satisfaction derived from editing is at a remove. As constructive as the editing may be, it's always a secondary, after-the-fact activity. This is not to say that it's without reward. It's very gratifying when a book I've edited does well, and it's a pleasure to work with writers I admire. Younger writers especially can pick up practical knowledge about the craft by editing. On balance, though, it's not a career I'd recommend to a writer, as working in a publishing house is more likely to smother a writing talent than to nurture it. Editing can half-satisfy your creative ambitions, without your having to do the really hard work or take the risks. Italo Calvino was an editor. He said something wonderful about working on other people's books - it will sound a little grandiose in isolation, but here it is anyway: "I do not regret it: everything that is useful to the whole business of living together in a civilised way is energy well spent." (This is from "By Way of an Autobiography" in his book of essays The Literature Machine.)

  2. In a course "Magical Realism in Comparative Perspective" offered by Pembroke College in Cambridge your short story "The Box" finds itself in good company. Other recommended reading includes Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ben Okri. Many readers who have the joy of being acquainted with your work wonder why you have so far failed to have a broader readership outside South Africa. Do you have a personal view?

    For South African writers, the route to an international readership usually lies through a British publishing house, and so far my books have failed to get through that particular door. Fortunately, my very capable agent (Isobel Dixon of Blake Friedmann), is placing more and more of my work in translation with various publishers in Europe, and so I'm not complaining. The fact is that writers are luckier to be read well than to be read widely. When it comes to getting into print in the publishing centres, writers in other parts of the world, in Eastern Europe or Latin America, for instance, have bigger problems than we do, but they are often read more seriously in their own countries. A broader readership inside South Africa would be nice.

  3. I believe the first of your published works was a collection of eleven short stories, Missing Persons, published in 1989. More recently you have been "preoccupied' with a series of short texts on Johannesburg alongside photographs by David Goldblatt and Roger Palmer. In between are the rather remarkable novels. Is this your love affair with words again? You use your skills in a great many different ways. Do you have a particular form that you favour?

    Short fiction is a good place to start as a writer. I thought for a while that the short story suited me best, but later I found my ideas outgrowing the shorter format. Now I don't have a preference: I just try to follow my intuitions on formal questions as much as any other. Hopefully the form will arise from my concerns. It's less a case of deciding to write a novel and then figuring out what it's about, than of discovering, more or less simultaneously, what I'm interested in writing about and what form those particular interests should take.

  4. You are known to be rather "interview shy". The feeling around you is that you like your work to speak for itself. Tony Morphet says that in your work you "… hear the voices of objects and love nothing more than to listen to their strange harmonies and discords". He says there's no interview "big enough to contain it". This seems to speak of inaccessibility, and your work has had this label too. Would you like to make an observation on this view of your work?

    I know many writers who share my ambivalence about the marketing machinery. One of the appealing things about writing books is that it allows you - or should allow you - to balance the private and the public in subtle ways. But as you know, everyone is now required to double as a performer and publicist. You have to do your own public relations and make the best of it. I appreciate the stubborn resistance of Coetzee and Schoeman, which helps the rest us to find the middle ground. I don't think my work is especially inaccessible or difficult, but then I am on close terms with the author. Whether something engages you or not depends on what you're looking for. I enjoy books that are long and difficult and impossible to understand; I keep returning, for instance, to Edmond Jabès's The Book of Questions, although I find it quite repulsive. A lot of intelligent people are more pragmatic about these things. They just don't have the time or the energy to do battle with a book. They want to be transported, which is fair enough.

  5. It has been said that when you set to work with words you are "so deft and effortless, it's like conjuring". Does writing come easily to you?

    I suppose I could describe it as a difficult pleasure. My creative process is messy, and the chaos and provisionality of it all make me nervous. The obsessive tinkering to restore order is also maddening. Every now and then something clicks, and then all the tedious work that's gone before seems worthwhile.

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LitNet: 09 March 2005

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