WORK/LIFE: Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler

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.Mark's Workspace

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.

WORK/LIFE: Nthikeng Mohlele

Nthikeng Mohlele

The Johannesburg-based Nthikeng Mohlele is the author of four novels including The Scent of Bliss and Small Things; his most recent, Pleasure, was published by Picador Africa late last year. Mohlele was listed by Bloomsbury Publishing, the Hay Festival and the Rainbow Book Club as one of the 39 most promising authors under the age of 40 from sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing means artistic engagement with the universe through literary means. It is, in many ways, also immersed reading and reflection on life in its generalities and peculiarities, its grand themes and its minuscule irritants. It is quite possible and plausible that writing and authorship are also pedestals of civilised arrogance – the urge to play God, to create.

Which book changed your life?

I have come to realise that books cannot, strictly speaking, change my or a life. I think of life trajectories as set, unknown and often oppressively rigid things at times. Not even atom bombs can impose a “change” in a life. They can manufacture fear, maybe, but that is not the same as changing what people believe in. A book can nudge a reader into new experiences and ways of thinking and perceiving – but I am not sure that is sufficient to “change a life.”

Your favourite fictional character?

Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a novel.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is my iPhone – 99.9% of the time. It’s a gadget designed by Apple in California and assembled in China. That implies that my writing spaces are many and varied, as long as I have a reasonably alert mind and my fingers are still attached to my hand.

The most important instrument you use?

An iPhone 5 and 6 S. Sometimes just my eyes and ears – if those qualify as instruments.

What’s your most productive time of day?

My writing is not governed by work schedules at all. My work impulse is like watching moving clouds. I have something to write when the clouds move – and nothing when they are still. By clouds I mean that much abused word: inspiration.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I wait for the clouds to start moving again. They seldom resist for long spaces of time.
How do you relax?

Music on headphones. Guitar lessons. Reading. Pockets of time with family. Cooking. Long chats with my son, who is eleven this year. Long scenic drives.

Who and what has influenced your work?

The urge to interpret life and the world in my own terms. I owe a debt of gratitudes to musicians, exploited human beings and poets.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

That came from the national Poet Laureate: “Write in such a way that nobody can shift a word or punctuation without messing up your work.” That was and is very empowering.

Your favourite ritual?

I am not a ritualistic person. I participate in social rituals that I found in the world – some of which have been going on for centuries. A night at the theatre – maybe.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Everything about writing is extremely hard. Absolutely everything. Intellectually, emotionally, physiologically. It is a lonely and demanding art. But it can be done.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Being a perfectionist. The world is not wired like that – necessarily.

What are you afraid of?

Ignorance.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

None that is elaborate. Just work. Hard. And take advice and criticism.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

There are many. Of taking care of my aging mother is one of them. September 7 also marked one year of me having stopped eating meat. Vegetarianism purifies the soul in unexpected ways. Mind, body and soul also connect better – having stopped feeding on dead animals. Well, to a point.

WORK/LIFE: Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okafor

Nnedi Okorafor is a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo and has degrees in rhetoric, journalism and English. She writes African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults. Her books novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and Le Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award) and Lagoon (finalist for Best Novel in the British Science Fiction Association award for Best Novel and a Red Tentacle Award for Best Novel). She is currently working with Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu (Pumzi) on a feature film, Camel Racer, with Triggerfish Animation Studios.

What does “writing” mean?

Removing ideas/narratives/thoughts from my mind and putting/structuring those things in a way others can understand them.

Which book changed your life?

The Talisman by Stephen King and Famished Road by Ben Okri.

Your favourite fictional character?

Omar on the show The Wire.

What are you working on at the moment?

Multiple novels, film projects and a comic book series.

Describe your workspace.

Spacious, isolated, sunny, close to the refrigerator, cushioned and technologically advanced.

The most important instrument you use?

My brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The early morning.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I wait.

How do you relax?

By working out, drinking tea, using mint oil on my skin, hanging out with my daughter.

Who and what has influenced your work?

This question is too broad. Like the title of the Douglas Adams novel – Life, the Universe and Everything.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t waste your time talking about it; do it.

Your favourite ritual?

Working out 6 days a week.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Taking a break because of eye strain.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I accept myself as I am, flaws and all. So this is not a way I think of myself.

What are you afraid of?

Spiders, wind farm wind mills (yes, it’s totally irrational), tornados.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Cultivate your love of writing, as a practice and an art above all things.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

There are many things I am proud of. I don’t think hierarchically, so I don’t put things above things. The “tiniest” thing could be the reason the “biggest” thing exists. Everything is connected.

Okorafor will be participating in the upcoming Open Book Festival in Cape Town, which runs from the 7 – 11 September 2016. Find out about her appearances here.

WORK/LIFE: Thabiso Mahlape

Thabiso Mahlape is the publisher of BlackBird Books, an imprint from Jacana showcasing black voices that launched in August 2015.

What does the role of publisher entail?

Other than lots and lots of frustration?

In what ways has your work changed now that you run your own imprint?

I now have to think about operations on a global level as opposed to just worrying about getting the books out. It has challenged me immensely but I have also grown a lot, both personally and in my work. I also think more carefully about what I publish as this now impacts my brand first. What I enjoy most is the new license it has given me over my work, to experiment and take risks (up to a point) as I wish.

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