His second novel, Dalila, published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage, was published in Jan 2017. Film rights have been optioned and the screenplay is being written by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons). He has also published short stories in various literary journals, including The Astronaut for BBC Radio 4 and Puerta Galera for the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
He lives with his wife in Switzerland.
The first thing I want to ask is about how you create your characters. Twelve-year-old Alex growing up in Pretoria could hardly be more different to asylum-seeking Kenyan Dalila, but you enable the reader to get right inside their skins and feel their emotions personally.
At Glasgow University my tutor, Janice Galloway, said to me, “Don’t be afraid to get as close as you dare to your characters!” I’ve always toyed with this advice.
On the one hand, Alex and Dalila are deliberately constructed fictional characters, I assigned them attributes, I made them up. I employed straightforward writing techniques to make the characters appear to stand up on the page and stretch out the knots in their necks.
On the other hand, if the characters are being invented by me, where exactly are they coming from? How aware am I of that corner inside myself from where the characters came? Am I brave enough to go there? If the writing stalls, can I return to that corner and discover new things about the characters? Can I take what I find and somehow put it on the page? Writing characters is a combination of self-discovery, of empathy and of technical adjustment. The hope is that if I am exploring ways to connect with my characters, then readers will feel invited to join me in this effort and perhaps even discover things for themselves.
Both characters are on the cusp of change, at a metaphorical fork in the road. Taking Choke Chain first, and the character of Alex, there’s a constant brooding threat of violence underpinning this novel. That comes partly from a young adult’s frustrations at his own lack of power and articulacy, his father’s volatile bullying and the glimpses of South African society in the 1980s. But for me, Alex on the precipice of manhood (and what kind of a manhood that might be) is the central tension.
Yes, you’re right. Alex’s decision about manhood is the heart of the story.
Alex’s father, Bruce, is a bigot: someone who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his opinion. Bigots have iron clad egos and bolshie attitudes which shove others aside, making the bigot appear to be getting ahead. They present themselves as charismatic winners and everyone else as losers. On the surface, bigotry can be quite alluring because it masks itself as confidence or strength of will.
In the short term, some of these tactics seem to work but in the long term, bigotry is a disaster for the bigot and those around him. Since human beings are a mass of contradictions, and the bigot is blinkered to his inconsistencies, he’ll automatically blame the ‘other’ rather than accepting accountability for anything that doesn’t go his way. The ‘other’ might be an individual or a whole different race or gender or religion. I believe bigotry underlies sexism, racism and religious intolerance.
This kind of self-important ego eats at relationships, it destroys families, pulls communities apart, divides the sexes, scapegoats religions and oppresses entire races. But it’s also self-destructive. With the bigot continually defining himself as the winner, he isolates himself. He avoids introspection. If others don’t eventually turn on him, he becomes a man alone on a self-constructed podium, with no adoring crowd to congratulate him, a calcified monument to himself.
As is often the case, quite a few concepts of masculinity get tangled up with bigotry. So, instead of being confident, boys are taught to be winners, instead of being secure, you’re taught to be rigid. This is the world Alex is born into. This is the kind of man Bruce is teaching his son to be. At the age of twelve, Alex, like many young boys, has to navigate these concepts and choose what kind of man he wants to be. He doesn’t have to defeat his father, he has to somehow prevent himself from becoming his father.
The political situation is part of the background but not overtly examined. You’ve made the point before that it was possible to live in a white suburban environment and be unaware of some of the effects of apartheid. Could this book have been set anywhere else?
During Apartheid, South Africa had a tightly controlled media. Many atrocities were kept from the public and multiple abuses were buried until they were later revealed during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So, there were some specifics that the public simply didn’t know about.
That being said, I am always surprised at people’s ability to refuse to look at an issue right in front of their noses. There is a cognitive dissonance in believing a country is wonderful place to live while driving past a shanty town where a targeted and oppressed majority of the population are forced to live. This same cognitive dissonance can exist in families where abuse is taking place: you’re aware of the abuse, you know who the victims are, yet you choose to believe that everything is going to be ok. Psychologically, it’s a very uncomfortable position to maintain. It’s stressful and people will go to extraordinary lengths to mitigate that stress without abandoning their contradictory beliefs. As a writer, this fascinates me. It seemed to me that what was going on in Alex’s family was psychologically similar to what was happening in the country.
Holding of contradictory beliefs is a human trait that has expressed itself in many communities throughout history which is why I think Choke Chain could have been set almost anywhere.
In Choke Chain, there are victims and victors, but most have an element of choice. Whereas Dalila’s situation reflects the exact opposite. She must wait till the system swallows her or spits her out. That’s a different kind of powerlessness and presents quite a challenge to an author. But the book completely grips the reader’s attention. How did you go about conveying the inertia of the asylum-seekers’ existence while maintaining the narrative drive?
Some asylum seekers wait for up to eight years for their papers to come through without being allowed to work, study or travel. Think about that! To reflect this, I wrote a lot of scenes where Dalila is in limbo. Lots of walking or waiting. Lots of sitting around the flat. Lots of brooding. The first version was too weighed down with these scenes and needed to be reworked.
While redrafting, I saw that Dalila actually does have an element of choice. Yes, she is completely at the mercy of the system and much of her personal autonomy has been taken from her, but she still has agency. She’s alone and afraid but staying at home is a choice, facing her fears is also a choice. Therefore, choosing to leave her flat and walk through the city is an act of bravery. Choosing to help others while her own safety is in jeopardy is an act of heroism. No matter what constrains are put on Dalila she must still choose what kind of person she wants to become. Her dignity is something she must claim.
I think the trick to engaging the reader is to convey how tremendously important these small choices are for the character. While Dalila’s actions are small and limited the consequences of her decisions are enormous, they are life affirming. That’s where hope is to be found.
A while back, I interviewed Christos Tsiolkas about inhabiting characters not of your own gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity. His response was that if he couldn’t write from the perspective of a woman, or black person or old man or teenage girl, what the hell was he doing writing? The whole cultural appropriation row blew up again last year. Did this atmosphere of judgementalism about who’s allowed to write what make you nervous while writing Dalila?
I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.
That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.
And even after all this work, I’m forced to admit that Dalila isn’t perfect. It’s merely the best portrayal I could do at the time. Readers will judge for themselves how well the character works on the page. I’ll strive do a better job next time.
Technical question. Choke Chain, first person, past tense. Dalila, third person, present tense. Both seem powerfully effective. What was your rationale for choosing that way of telling each story?
In Choke Chain, Alex is only twelve years old. Writing in first person from his perspective enabled me to create an naive narrator who has a sense of things changing around him while not being able to articulate what he is experiencing. However, the reader should be able to immediately spot abusive parenting, social conditioning, racism and what not to give a child for his birthday!
There is a ‘click’ motif in the novel, where the boys are taught to observe something, close their eyes and whisper ‘click’ to themselves. That’s how they store a memory. I viewed each chapter as one of Alex’s ‘clicks’. It’s a memory he is re-examining as he tries to make sense of what has happened. Using he past tense was crucial to this re-telling nature of the story
Writing Dalila, I decided early on to use the third person. It gave me the ability to get close to, or pull back from, the protagonist. Sometimes I draw the reader in they are intimately involved in Dalila’s dreams, concerns and motivations. But when Dalila is being processed by the Home Office - going through security or various form of bureaucracy - I pull back from the character, lengthening the narrative distance. I pair back the voice and use blunt declarative sentences to narrate what is happening. Character, processes, machines and systems are given equal weight and attention. In those moments when the system reduces Dalila to a mere case study, to a statistic. The idea is that the prose reflects what is being stripped away.
I began writing Dalila in the past tense but after seven or eight chapters I discovered it wasn’t working. The events felt like they were being narrated from some secure point in the future, so I changed it. The present tense is constrictive, it traps you in the moment without much perspective. This felt better suited for story. I wanted the reader to be following (and sometimes observing) Dalila through a system without knowing what to anticipate.
Both your books and the short story you wrote for the Edinburgh Book Fair, Puerto Galera, make full use of their settings: a poor white neighbourhood in Pretoria, the streets and tower blocks of Glasgow, a holiday beach in the Philippines. I was struck by how you use the characters’ (un)familiarity with their surroundings to convey layers of meaning. How important is place?
Ooft! You know, I’m surprised by how difficult this question is for me. In all my writing I’ve never deliberately set out to write about a place, I am much more interested in characters. I’d even go so far as to say that I view place as an outward projection from the characters. I don’t expect depictions of place to be taken literally but to be understood metaphorically as a barometer for what a character is feeling. For example, in DALILA Glasgow is almost entirely depicted as windy, damp, cold and cloud covered. This is because Dalila herself is lonely and she comes from Kenya which is on the equator, so from her perspective Glasgow seems depressing and freezing. But, of course, the real city is quite friendly…and sometimes even sunny!
Getting back to your question, it’s interesting to me how often readers remark on the vivid sense of place in my writing. Maybe place features more prominently than I am aware of? Which could perhaps mean that place is, in fact, more important to me than I think it is?
Hmmm. I need to mull this over a bit more.
Having organised and taught writing courses for years, I often encounter the regular old adage ‘creative writing can’t be taught’. As someone with a Masters in the subject and a respected tutor yourself, how would you counter that?
In one sense, teaching creative writing is simply showing people how to use a set of tools. If you apply the tools correctly, your writing will improve. Yet most people who set out to write are attempting to do something more profound than displaying their linguistic toolkit. They may be exploring their voice, or even voices. They might be trying to understand the world by shaping into something new. They might need to tell us something important. A lot of trial and error is involved. I think it’s important to give new writers a secure, judgement free space where they can experiment and say whatever the hell they want. Yet, at the same time, they need to be given the respect of holding their writing to the highest standards. While the bar must be set high, the criticism needs to be directed at the writing and not the writer.
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