10 QUESTIONS: Ken Barris and Michael Cope


Ken Barris and Michael Cope wrote a novel, Sunderland, together.

Sunderland: What’s in a name, guys?

Michael Cope: The name is a rather obvious play on words – signifying a land divided. It also refers to how colonial words and meanings can be clumsily imposed on local stuff, and how those meaning can change in the process. It’s not the town in north England, nor is it the soccer team.

Also, I just liked the sound of it.

Ken Barris: Mike came up with the name, but I liked its gravity from the outset.

Who does which bits? How does the process work?

MC: I wrote Charles, Ken wrote Art.

KB: Mike initiated the project and created the concept. I played more of a shaping role in plotting Art’s narrative, which became a structure enfolding a portion of Charle’s narrative.

Mike, does Charles really exist? He has a eulogy/tribute in the acknowledgements. Don’t be evasive.

MC: Evasive, moi? Charles really exists as a fictional character. Ken and I have created considerable fictional evidence of/for his existence, but that, too, is all fictional. A section of the book (an obituary for Charles) has spilled out of the book and made it into New Contrast, but that is also fictional. The only “factual” part is that the faux-obituary really did appear there. Here’s another fact  – my grandfathers’ names were Charles Cope and Frank de Villiers.

Ken, what was the most fun about writing this novel?

KB: Writing Art, seeing the whole taking shape eventually, and bouncing ideas around with Mike.

What would you do differently, if you had the choice? Would you collaborate again – with each other, with others?

MC: I would certainly do this again if the possibility arose. I imagine that one would do things differently inasmuch as the conditions/text/collaborator were different.

KB: If you mean with regard to Sunderland, I don’t think I would change much. I’d also do it again if the right project came up. Then everything would have to change anyway, because two personalities interacting, and the project itself, set up their own dynamics.

Where are the funny bits?

MC: Those are the bits where the reader laughs, or perhaps smiles. It might be different for different readers.

KB: I guess it depends on who is reading it.

Explain how music is a recurring motif in the novel, as well as part of its inherent structure.

MC: There is a section where Charles muses about the parallels between his (fictional) novel and a piece of orchestral music – a structure with many voices which combine in an emergent way. My son is a composer, which means that much of the time when I was writing, the house was full of interesting piano music, and perhaps some of this atmosphere entered the novel by osmosis. There is also the obvious comparison of Sunderland with a duet, though the two voices can’t actually harmonise by happening at the same time.

KB: There is also a piece in which Art describes himself as a grand orchestrator, except that he is deluding himself. I don’t know enough about music to comment on an inherent musical structure in the novel, though I guess as a play of voices, it does have its contrapuntal and clashing moments. Mike uses the word “muses”, either inadvertently or deliberately, which implies the idea of invention underlying all arts, be it music or sculpture.

How is this novel particular to South Africa? And what are its universal themes?

MC: I suppose that the Charles novel-within-a-novel is directly concerned to examine South African social realities and inequalities in a semi-allegorical way. Of course, these, and in particular the problem of vast inequality of wealth, turn out to be pretty universal in the early 21st Century. Charles is interested in how creativity fits into it all.

On a more personal level, Ken explores the universal themes of admiration, jealousy, infidelity and self-delusion in an ironic and amusing way, which leavens Charles’s weighty concerns.

KB: I can’t add much to Mike’s reply, except that I found his exploration of creativity and his reflections on writing deeply interesting.

What advice do you have for people who want to write?

MC: Don’t.

Unless you like writing in and for itself. You are very unlikely to get money, critical acclaim or even the love of beautiful women from it. But writing is a neat way to work out certain things you think about.


KB: Write if you have an unreasonable certainty that you need to, and if you can’t stop yourself. And if enough people other than yourself recognise that you have the ability to make it work.

What are you working on now? 

MC: I’m on holiday, but I’m thinking about a Science Fiction novel.


KB: I’m working on a crime novel with a satiric twist.


Sunderland by Michael Cope and Ken Barris Sunderland is published by Jacana, and is available from Kalahari.com.

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