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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Tim CouzensTim Couzens was born in Durban. He has written three full biographies (including Murder at Morija) of such bulk and detail that James Clarke, humorist and Honorary Life President of Densa (that society of people too thick to qualify for Mensa), has described his writing as “very dense” and awarded him membership of the Densan Society (an honour Couzens considers the greatest ever bestowed upon him). Other achievements: he has found himself upside down in a car crash and survived the greatest snowstorm in Southern Africa in the twentieth century; he also survived being fired at in the middle of an army range (though he has never been in an army), macaroni cheese in Cairo, and being chased up a tree by a rhino. He has been voted South Africa’s Most Boring Person three years in a row but refuses to enter again because after the third victory he was awarded the cup permanently and believes further participation is unfair on the competition.
Jo-Anne Richards Jo-Anne Richards feels she can't compete with Tim Couzens in funny, self-deprecating bios, nor with Mike Nicol in brevity. (She could be briefer only by saying "Jo-Anne Richards is.") She has published three novels: The Innocence of Roast Chicken, Touching the Lighthouse and Sad at the Edges. She is a journalist who teaches the craft (and other skills she considers necessary to journalists) to impressionable students at Wits University.

Tim Couzens in conversation with Jo-Anne Richards

  1. In real life you have a wonderful way of telling an anecdote or story - quiet but very funny. Do you try to carry this over into your novels? And how does humour fit into your life and writing?

    And there I thought our conversations were in deadly earnest. Actually, it's quite hard to answer a question that contains an element of praise without sounding above oneself. But thanks.
    I'm told I tell anecdotes in long, slow curves. I suppose this means I speak as most people write - building the narrative before I come to the punchline. All this really implies is that you should never start a conversation with me when you're in a hurry.
    I think I have a strong sense of the absurd and I do try to express this in my writing - but deadpan, without spelling it out. I have found that some people get it and some don't. It's probably the same in real life.

  2. It seems to me one of the major characteristics of your private life and of your writing is courage. Do the two overlap and, if so, how? [This might be too difficult a question for you to answer.]

    I thought the only brave thing I'd ever done was face a critique by Ronald Suresh Roberts. I've never considered myself a brave person. In fact, I'm physically quite cowardly. It's kind of you to say, but in real life one plays the cards one's dealt. You can't say: "Not me, not me. Give these nasty ones to someone else." Well you could, but it wouldn't do any good.
    In my books I try to be as real as I can. I never write about people as they should behave or should be. I take pride in my characters' being flawed. I try to understand how they work, which naturally involves a degree of empathy. Without that, it's impossible to place myself in another's shoes. I have a sense that the only way we can understand ourselves is to explore the motivations of individuals, whether they be "good" or "worthy" people in the moral sense or not.
    I don't consider this to be brave; it's a compulsion. Perhaps being a journalist helped me stand aside from myself in trying to be as honest as I am able. Only once I've finished a book do I develop hot flushes when people roll their eyes and say: "You're so-oo brave to write so compassionately about a fascist matriarch / whinging former lefty / schweinehund interrogator. But by then it's too late.

  3. What kind of research do you do for your novels?

    My latest book, which is still in its editing phase, contains a former priest and former underground activist. Researching it diligently in cyberspace, I attracted the most interesting spam - everything from God mails (not from him, obviously) to an e-mail offering me Russian surface-to-air missiles "from our supplies in Kazakhstan". I was disappointed, though, to discover that, "due to high demand", it takes four weeks to backorder.
    You have no conception of the dogged effort required in researching a book: drinking wine on Bedford stoeps, eating prawns in La Rochelle, drinking wine … all essential for soaking up atmosphere. Let nobody tell you fiction isn't hard.
    I do what the book requires, but I like to be accurate. I was recently asked why I bother with obscure places and arcane skills. "How many people would know?" But I would. I need to know more than I use. I walk the streets, get a sense of the community. I prefer talking to reading up, where possible. So, if my character made pamphlet bombs, I find a pamphlet bomber to teach me. (I should add that I now possess this useful little skill.)
    For my priest, I spent time with a priest and a former monk. I also read some of the theologians he would have studied, to get a sense of his development. The researching stage is almost the best - anything is possible, you're not yet agonising and sweating blood. You meet people, learn stuff, become an instant bore … what could be nicer?

  4. Recently agents have suggested that you should write more of the same, rather than branch out. Do you resent it if people stereotype you as an Eastern Cape countryside writer, or a commentator on Johannesburg society only? Or even a woman writer?

    Yes. Fuck them. I was going to leave it at that, but I'll try to elaborate without whining. I am not a "memoir fiction" writer. I've never yet told my own story. I'm not a writer of "childhood" or a "women's writer". I still want to explore what I can do as a writer. I can't spend my life writing about the same things over and over.
    I'm very happy to be called a South African, African, Johannesburg or Eastern Cape writer. All these are true. I am very rooted here and I'm not at all sure that, if transplanted, I could write with the same passion, or in fact, at all.

  5. Did you, when you started, have any idea where your writing would take you? Do you now? Are your books individuals? Or are they beginning to be a coherent corpus?

    Where? Melville? No, I had absolutely no idea. When I started my first book (because a friend told me to write the bloody thing, or shut up about it) my ambition was to finish it. When I finished it, I wanted it to be published. Then I wanted to write another … I don't think I'm established enough to have a coherent corpus. In any case, that's not something you can judge for yourself.

  6. Is there a question you're dying to be asked?

    Oh yes, plenty. "So Ms Richards, how do you feel about winning the Man Booker?" / "What will you do with your lottery winnings?" / "Will you love me forever?" / "How do you respond to JM Coetzee's obvious jealousy?" / "Do you think JK Rowlings envies your Royalty statement?"

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LitNet: 04 October 2005

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