Mark Winkler grew up in what is now Mpumalanga, and studied journalism Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He has spent most of his working life in the advertising industry in Cape Town, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is currently creative director at a leading advertising agency.
His first two novels, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything) and Wasted were both published by Kwela Books. His third, The Safest Place You Know, was published by Umuzi earlier this year.
What does “writing” mean?
Different things to different people, I suppose. Writing could be a corporate email, a legal contract, a WhatsApp to your BFF. To me it’s an opportunity to play with language, to mould it the way I want, and my challenge is to deploy it unusually, to make it sing. The writer is the lens between the reader and the story, so it’s the responsibility of the writer to reward both the reader and the story in the telling.
What book changed your life?
The Little Iron Horse, one of the Bobbsey Twins adventures. I was six, in bed with mumps, and it was the first “novel” I read on my own. It was my first experience of disappearing into a written story, and it also made me aware that there must have been someone who wrote it.
What are you working on at the moment?
Trying to make time, mostly. When I do, I’m working on my fourth novel, Theo & Flora, and on a collection of short stories, which for now I’ve called The Theatre of Obscurity.
Describe your workspace.
Depends. It can be a coffee-shop table or an airport. Best, though, is sitting at my old knee-hole desk in my study at home, where the walls are a deep Venetian red, the backdrop to framed copies of my books and photographs, and where I get to choose the music.
The most important instrument you use?
Observation. Without it the pantry would be bare. I’m a serial eavesdropper and people-watcher. I steal and hoard, and then Frankenstein bits and pieces together as it suits me. So second to observation is interpretation – how do you take what you’ve witnessed and make it make sense?
What’s your most productive time of day?
I have a demanding day-job, and actively exclude my private writing from my office hours. This means I need to be productive in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. I do best in darkness, though, and when it rains.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
I’ve come to believe being stuck is the brain’s way of begging for a rest, so I no longer try to force things when I’m stuck. Instead, I read, or try to do something I’ve never done before, or at least do very seldom.
How do you relax?
I spend time with my family, or jump on my mountain bike. Movies. I used to watch rugby, but recently it began having the opposite effect.
Who and what has influenced your work?
My high-school English teacher was hugely influential, lending me challenging books that weren’t part of the curriculum, such as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist etc and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Authors who’ve influenced me include Carey, McEwan, Bellow, Gordimer, Coetzee, van Heerden, Rushdie, Okri, Marquez, Barnes, and so on and so forth, as well as poets such as Eliot, cummings, Pound and Owen. Also, the many years I’ve spent as a copywriter have been invaluable in learning about the importance of concept, craft, language and voice.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t try to edit while you’re writing, or you’ll spend a year crafting Chapter One instead of building momentum and getting to the end. There’ll be more than enough time to rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite) once you’re done. So: start, go, and don’t stop.
Your favourite ritual?
Don’t really have one, other than to put on classical music – lyrics distract.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Finding the time for it – and then realising that an idea you loved is stillborn after you’ve spent weeks trying to take it somewhere.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
That I seem to have a ceiling of around 75k words, many of which are then necessarily pared away in the editing process. I’d love to write a great big door-stopper, like Wally Lamb or John Irving, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.
What are you afraid of?
Spiders, tequila, and running out of ideas. And being dead, of course.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?
Don’t start at all if it’s something you’d “like” to do. Start only if you cannot stop yourself from writing.
What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?
An obvious answer, I suppose, but it was probably having my first novel published. I’m sometimes asked how long it took to write it, and while the technically correct reply is less than a year, the real answer would be closer to twenty-five years – that’s how long it took to figure out how to do it.