A poet’s novel: in conversation with Garth Greenwell

On a recent visit to Cape Town, Garth Greenwell chatted with ALEXANDER MATTHEWS about writing prose, poetry and his acclaimed debut novel, What Belongs to You.Garth Greenwell What Belongs to You is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time – so brilliant, so haunting, piercing open some private, tender part of myself with a painful precision that, at times, made it difficult to read.

When I heard its author, Garth Greenwell, was coming to Cape Town for Open Book Festival, I knew I had to meet the man who wrote it. I meet him in the lobby of his hotel; we head out into the breezy sunshine in search of a lunch spot. In the end, we settle for an Italian restaurant overlooking Cape Town’s Bree Street. I dive into the questions almost immediately, by asking when he knew he wanted to be a writer.

“It was the first thing I wanted to be when I was a kid,” he replies. “I had two older siblings and I remember being so jealous that they could read and I was so eager to learn to read… I loved stories.”

The urge to write faded as he grew older. “For a long time I didn’t write anything; I didn’t have any real connection to the arts.” Then he studied opera singing in high school and university and this, he says, “took me back to art, and took me back to writing. Opera I think is really important to how I think about narrative. I encounter in music much more than anywhere else what seems to me like the ideal of art.”

For a long time, art “has been central to my sense of the source of value and meaning in my life,” he says, admitting to “very romantic notions about art as a calling and as a source of a system of value that stands in contradistinction to the system of value that is capitalist commodity culture”.

For Greenwell believes in “the whole Matthew Arnold art-as-replacement-for-religion shtick” but doesn’t think it’s limited merely to writing. “What seems important to me is access to that system of value and a way of trying to understand one’s experiences as deeply as possible” – it doesn’t matter whether that’s through poetry or music or sculpture

Over 15 years, Greenwell published “a lot” of poems and poetry criticism but never a collection. After dropping out of a PhD course at Harvard, he finished a manuscript when he first arrived in Bulgaria to teach English at the American College of Sofia. He put these poems away, thinking he would take a break before returning to revise them. “And instead I started writing [What Belongs to You] – and it really was that I just started hearing sentences that I could feel were not broken into lines. It was very disconcerting to me because I was so attached to the identity of poet.”

When he finished what would become first the section of the novel, called Mitko, “I just felt very strongly that it kind of destroyed the poems. And I haven’t wanted to go back and write poems – all of the projects that I imagine are projects in prose.”

“One of the things that made prose able to accommodate things that poetry couldn’t accommodate for me is the question of training,” he says. With a poetry MFA from Washington University in St Louis, as well as a MA in English and American Literature from Harvard, he was “really well educated as a poet – to the point that basically any choice I made as a poet I felt like had a kind of lineage – I could think of another poet who had done it.” He adds: “I had all of this language for craft, and all of this knowledge of the moves that a poem could make, and in prose I didn’t have any of that because I had never studied prose, I had never written prose for anything other than scholarship.”

Being in a space where you don’t know what you’re doing, “where you don’t even have a measure for failure or success because you don’t understand enough to know what those things would be”, he says, “was really valuable to me as a writer of fiction.”

Poetry fed into his prose “in a lot of ways,” he says. “Because I lacked all sorts of equipment that fiction writers have, I think I made do with the equipment I did have”. What Belongs to You is, to him, “a poet’s novel in a lot of ways”.

While he’s drawn to the syntax of Henry James and Proust (who both “attempt to try to dramatise and act out and embody the shape of thinking as an action, not of thoughts as discrete things”), he thinks the novel “owes even more to poets” – especially the Latin poetry he studied, and American poets such as Carl Phillips and Jorie Graham. “The way I think of scene is quite indebted to a kind of lyric shape,” he says. “I think the way the book makes use of time is quite lyric.” This happened subconsciously, he says: “It wasn’t anything I was thinking about.”What Belongs to You

The protagonist, too, is “quite mysterious” – he “doesn’t deliver certain information about himself that you would expect in a novel [and] I think that’s because for lyric speakers you don’t have those expectations.”  When you’re reading a poem, you’re not busy wondering why someone’s ended up in Bulgaria, he says. “Poems are interested in seeking out emotional intensities and intellectual intensities and are not really too worried with the nuts and bolts of cause-and-effect-based plot.”

Greenwell, who wrote the entire novel while he was living in Sofia, describes Mitko as “a self-contained narrative – it has a full narrative arc in the relationship between these two men” (one an American teacher of English, the other a rent boy he finds while cruising a public lavatory).

“When I had that, I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it,” he remembers. He showed it to his only fiction writer friend, who said that because it was too long for a magazine but too short to be a standalone title, he should send it to Miami University Press, which has a novella prize. When it ended up winning this in 2010, Greenwell thought the piece “would be a standalone thing” and that he’d go back to writing poetry.

Instinct had other ideas, however: he was seized by a voice. He allowed “it to take me to places I had no intention of going – I had no intention of writing about childhood or Kentucky in the 90s or being a queer person there… It seems so kind of coy and mysterious but it’s really true that I wrote the book sentence-by-sentence without a sense of a grand idea. Sometimes, with a sense of a particular scene, that something would happen – kind of like beats; I might have the three key moments of a scene on a Post-It note beside my notebook, but that would be all. And then there was just sentence by sentence, trying to stay true to the moment-by-moment of what was happening between these two men.”

I ask if the events described in the novel were happening in real time; was it a bit like working on a diary?

“It wasn’t,” he replies. “In large part that was because I really had so little time to work on it. It took me a long time to write the book and part of the reason is that I was teaching high school full-time, so I was waking up at 4.30 to write for two hours before class and so the book inched forward.”

What gave him the discipline to get up at that ungodly hour, I ask.

In the past, “the idea of a writing routine was really kind of repellent to me,” he says, “because it is so painful to sit and not write. It was fine for me to go weeks without writing a poem and then I would spend a weekend where I would do nothing else, I would like sweat it out, I wouldn’t leave my apartment or shower…”

In his first year of teaching high school, he didn’t write a word, he says, “and that really freaked me out”. He realised that if he was going to be serious about it, he needed to write every day. He tried initially in the evenings, but felt “fried” and so started writing in the mornings instead. Initially he had no idea at all that the scribblings would be a novel. Placing words on the page was important “not because of a product but because the day-to-day practise of it really became crucial to my sense of okayness”, he says. Writing “is when I’m most in communion with myself.”

“One of the reasons I’ve been so bewildered” in the months following the book’s publication is “because I’ve haven’t been able to write on the road,” he says. “I’m a super-super-anxious person all the time.”

When working on a project, the “beginning is always anxious and ending is always anxious but the middle section when you’re just sort of turning the page, filling a few lines every day, inching forward, that’s the only part of writing I enjoy and I enjoy it because it’s that practise more than anything else that helps me manage anxiety.”

“All of the external questions that sometimes plague me – like questions of success and questions of publishing – those things just totally fall away. It just feels like I’m doing the real work, I’m doing what I should be doing, and I almost never feel that.” When he’s not writing, he’s “always questioning – I never feel like I’m in the right place, I’m always anxious that there’s some other place I should be in, some other thing I should be doing, some other book I should be reading. But when I’m writing, I don’t feel any of that.”

I ask about the autobiographical nature of the book – does writing about things close to home offer catharsis?

“The book is full of invention and it’s not in any way a sort of transcription of reality… but it does draw on experience; my experience of [Sofia], my experience of my childhood, especially, in the second section,” he replies. “I do think anytime you can take a painful experience and make art of it, there’s a way in which you become grateful to the experience, you become grateful for having been able to make a thing.”

Despite this, though, he says, “It’s not the kind of the work I would imagine one doing in therapy where one really tries to look a truth hard, or look at an experience hard and face-on, and work through it. That’s not what it feels like. You’re creating something separate from you, and then, as you shape it, the questions that lie behind the shaping are not therapeutic questions, they’re aesthetic ones.”

Arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he already had a full manuscript; it was only the third section he workshopped in the novel workshop facilitated by Lan Samantha Chang, the programme director. He did make some revisions based on feedback received there, but nothing major. His agent sold the book in his second semester.

While he’s writing, “I try not to prune or withhold anything – I just try to be as self-indulgent as possible – the slightest little squiggle of thought I want to follow I’m going to follow it and then that does mean that pruning and cutting is the main revision activity.”

In the summer between the two years of his MFA, he edited the book with his editor, the “brilliant” Mitzi Angel. Between the two of them they culled about 18,000 words.

“She, in this sort of hyper-sensitive way, put pressure on every moment and every clause and sort of said, ‘this doesn’t hold up’ or ‘cut it and make it better’ – that was such luck, that the book found an editor that was willing to lavish time and that also had the right sensibility and was tuned to the right frequency and was just the right editor for the book. It was a collaborative thing, I’m very grateful to her – it would be a much, much, much poorer book without her.

“It was very intense and very emotionally hard,” he recalls. “She’s quite a firm, assertive editor… she just made me work really hard and I was scared about this question of what is the meaningful eccentricity and then what is a deforming self-indulgence? What are the things that make a book distinctive and what are the things that make a book flawed? And that’s hard and I don’t think there are absolute right answers. So I think it is just about finding an editor who understands your sensibility and the vision you have of a book better than you do and can see that better than you can.”

A gay couple lunching next to us recognise Greenwell, and interrupt us to lavish praise on his work. Greenwell responds with heartfelt thanks. I ask if the praise he’s been getting for the novel (it’s been listed as a best book of the year by more than 50 publications in nine countries and hailed as a “masterpiece” by Edmund White) has put pressure on him.

“I think probably most artists have a void of doubt and despair and I don’t feel like any of the commentary about the book has even touched that – that feels very secure and solid and not going anywhere,” he replies. “When you face a page, you’re facing a page. Something that the New York Times said about your book isn’t going to help.”

Narrating the audio book recently involved him reading through the book for the first time since sending in the last edits. “I was scared to read it from beginning to end again,” he says, but doing so made him realise the book was solid, like it was the book he wanted to write. “I’m glad – I’m really relieved that I feel that. I believe in the book, but I don’t believe in the things the people say about the book. I’m so grateful that the book got attention because almost no book does.”

“There were responses to the book that did feel very moving to me,” he says. Among these was Damon Galgut’s review for The Nation. “I’ve revered him for years.” His novel, In a Strange Room, “really did unlock some of the problems of my own book for me,” he says. “I feel like I owe him a great deal.”

How did Galgut’s novel helped with unlocking? I ask.

With its structure, he replies. He had been struggling with a sense that the three sections forming his own work were separate pieces, with the childhood middle section interrupting a continuous narrative of the first and third. And yet, he still felt “there was a kind of gravity that held the pieces together”. Reading In a Strange Room he could see that it was “so clearly a novel and yet is made up of these three chunks that are not narratively continuous and yet there’s a kind of gravity in the book, there’s a deep coherence, and structural and imagistic echoes in the book that to me very clearly make it one thing that is greater than the sum of its parts”. Seeing this “was really freeing”.

He also appreciated “the confidence of some of the formal risks [Galgut’s] book takes, the confidence of its reticence – the confidence of its withholding things from the reader and just its implicit faith that the reader would be able to handle that. All of that was just so heartening and enabling for me in my own project.”

Other writers working today that he admires include Colm Tóibín and Alan Hollinghurst, and Lydia Yuknavitch. There are three traditions of writing that he hopes his book is in conversation with. The first is poetry, the second is “the novel of consciousness – especially the three writers who to me are my holy trinity of modern prose styles which are Thomas Bernhard, WG Sebald, and Javier Marias”. He defines this tradition as “the attempt to write in a very deeply immersive way – to immerse the reader in the experience of another person’s consciousness”.

Then there is “the tradition of queer writing that overlaps to a very great extent with the tradition of the novel of consciousness” – that includes Proust, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin.

“I’m drawn to careers, to writers who feel like they make carefully structured books with a kind of architectural integrity about them that are like well-made objects but are also like chapters in an ongoing book,” he says, again citing Proust, Sebald and Marías.

“I have no idea whether that will feel like an appealing model 10 years from now, but right now it does, and the two books I’m working on, I think they are of a piece with What Belongs to You. They’re still interested in queer communities, they’re interested in the queer sexual body, and writing sex – actually much more intensely than in the [first] novel.”

What draws him to explore these themes, I ask.

They’re “the urgent things I want to explore and think through,” he says. “I want to write about the queer community that I think has become hard to write about”; he wants to write about “cruising places”, and “sex as a kind of thinking – that’s the thing I think is often missing. In one way we live in a world that’s just utterly drenched in sex and obviously the internet has given us access to representations of sex unlike at any other time – but it seems to me that we’re surrounded by images of bodies but there’s a real dearth of embodiedness – of the experience of being in a body, the experience of being a consciousness in a body, the experience of being a person in relation with other human persons. Sex as an occasion of ethical regard.”

He believes that even ephemeral encounters, or sex of a fetishistic or non-normative nature involves “acts of intimacy between human persons that engage with the whole gamut of ethical and emotional response. That’s just what interests me.”

My phone’s battery is about to die, our plates are empty, and an afternoon of panel discussions awaits. And so, reluctantly, I stop the recording, and ask for the bill. We discuss his plans. He has found the last few days in Cape Town “especially wonderful” – and would love to return, perhaps for a stint of teaching. After a few weeks back home in Iowa, he’s on the road again, headed to Bulgaria, rounding off a book tour that began almost 10 months ago. He’s looking forward to returning to a far more sedentary life after this – back at his desk, quietly working.

“It has really freaked me out how far publishing a book takes you away from writing – I feel farther away from writing than I’ve ever felt,” he says.

What Belongs to You is published by Picador.

Finding and losing the self: an interview with Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery tells GARETH LANGDON about the themes of surveillance and identity that swirl around his thrilling new novel, I Am No One.

Flanery Patrick 2015 photo credit Andrew van der Vlies

Sit around any 21st century bar, in any boardroom or coffee house, and the issue of globalisation, our online lives, privacy and the fragmentation of consciousness and self is bound to come up in conversation. Open a newspaper, or online publication, and at least one article that day or week will lament the rise of the internet, the invasions of privacy committed daily by our governments, and the loss of individuality we suffer at the hands of social media. As marketers try and capitalise on a changing world, philosophers continue to fear it but, once in a while, a writer comes along who engages critically with it.

In I Am No One, Patrick Flanery writes of ageing history professor, Jeremy O’Keefe: an American who, after a difficult divorce, expatriated to England and taught in Oxford for some years – long enough to earn a dual citizenship, encounter some strange characters and engage in a romantic relationship. When we first meet him, he is back in the US, teaching and supervising students. The novel opens with a scene that suggests Jeremy is ageing faster than we expected. He has arrived for a meeting with a student, but when she doesn’t arrive, he goes back to check his email and discovers that he had cancelled the appointment a day prior. This complete blank in memory troubles him, and leads him to confide in his young daughter who suggests professional advice and an fMRI. Jeremy is hesitant. His paranoia then begins to grow as a series of mysterious packages arrive at his home. Dropped off anonymously by a bike messenger, each subsequent package reveals more about how much can be known of Jeremy’s private life – from full email records, to browsing history and telephone history. The question is clear – is Jeremy losing his mind, or is he the victim of some ghastly invasion of privacy? Jeremy grapples throughout I Am No One with the various possible explanations for the strange packages, as well as his own uncertainty of his own sanity, personal and national identity, and future as a father and husband or lover.

I had the privilege of exploring these and other themes of writing and the self with the novel’s author when he came to South Africa for the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year.

What strikes the reader with I Am No One is the way in which it is able to fragment and cohere seamlessly, moving across time and in and out of Jeremy’s head smoothly. Flanery suggests this arose from the new approach he took for I Am No One in which he “consciously set out to write in a very different way than the first two (novels)”.

“I decided because I was going to have this single narrator and single point of view that I wanted to do what I could to guard against it becoming too claustrophobic,” he says. “So I decided to borrow the process of an Argentinian writer who I admire whose name is Cesar Aira… he has an idea for a book which he holds in his head and each day he writes forward and he doesn’t go back and re-work until he comes to the end of the composition, and if the story changes over the course of that composition then it changes and he ends up with what he has.”I Am No One

This allows for what Flanery calls a kind of “free association” as he sits down to write, and this lends itself to the kind of novel that I Am No One is – the central character constantly exploring his own consciousness and self as he faces these confusing invasions of his privacy and what appear to be lapses in memory. This technique also drives the plot, allowing for “forward momentum”.

For Flanery though, the real trouble in I Am No One is not the loss of the mind and the free flow of consciousness but rather the loss of the self and the fragmentation of identity in light of our ever dwindling privacy. He relates to me the anecdote that sparked the novel:

“[We] were staying with a friend who was living [in New York] and as we got back to her building, I could see her in the window of her bedroom and I waved from the street but she didn’t see us, and when we went upstairs I said to her ‘You know, I could see you from the street’ and it was the first time she had realised that she was visible in that way. And I began thinking about the way in which New Yorkers are so often kind of living these half public lives but they have to kind of shut off that awareness of the ways in which they are observable in order to maintain a sense of sanity.”

Not long before Flanery began writing the novel, the Snowden revelations had become big news and they remained in the back of his mind throughout the writing. The interplay of his personal experience with global events got him questioning the nature of privacy, and how our being watched affects our identity. With lives lived online in this way – and furthermore in a world that is increasingly globalised – where do we place ourselves; where do we find ourselves? Can we find ourselves at all, or will we live in purgatory as Jeremy feels he has to?

The technology we can now use to increase our reach and social circles seems to excite and terrify us. As our world grows more connected and our reach extends, our localities seem to shrink simultaneously. Flanery notes the “excitement amongst some people about the ways in which technology can be mobilised not just by government but by ordinary citizens to create this world of certain transparency”. However, as we know all too well from recent phone-hacking scandals, and acts of terror, these same technologies can be used to hurt others or protect perpetrators. The trouble is, Flanery notes, that the technologies have become so ubiquitous, that we can’t help but be seduced by them – they are designed to seem as though they should be there and we should not question them – they are extensions of our selves.

Many in the world have responded with a kind of “hyper-nationalism”, which we often read about motivating many acts of terror. Human beings are searching for ways to assert themselves in a world that is fragmented and pays them no heed. There is simultaneously a drive for individuality stoked by social media, and a constant reminder of the insignificance of the single self (or even single nation) in an enormous and globalised world.

Flanery is able to weave all of these themes and debates through the consciousness of Jeremy as he fights to find his own place in his country, his family and even in his own head. This is not a totally foreign struggle to Flanery, noting his own experience living both in Britain and America, and how he is often mistaken for British when he is at home in the U.S. However, he is careful to skirt around the issue of auto-biography, noting instead that he sees “every novel engag(ing) with the process of self-examination”.

The novels are not autobiographical at all, but are rather “always responding in some way to the things that I am thinking,” he says. “Because my thinking is kind of inherently political because of the way I grew up, you know. I see political relationships and the politics of relationships in everyday life, and the kinds of things that can contaminate those.”

I Am No One could be seen – as I think all novels can be – as brief intrusions into the minds of the author. In this way, writers tend to feel the urge to censor themselves at the fear of being exposed or misunderstood. The fear from the first novel, Flanery notes “is a fear with every book you publish… you’re in constant fear of how the people closest to you will respond to it” but that is something that must necessarily be overcome. In this way, we may go so far as to draw a parallel between authorship and our online existence, where censorship is necessary for fear of being “found out”. Jeremy fights this, Flanery is aware of this, and each of us feels this every day as we live out our lives online.

At the end of our conversation, my mind is racing with more and more questions and I want to continue to dig deeper into Flanery’s mind  – but like his privacy, his time is precious and we bid each other a polite farewell.

I am left wondering how I should engage with the conversation on paper, and how it will come to be read. Then I think of how I will be perceived in this feature, and where it could lead – and as these wonders of the internet and writing and my personal investment in any piece of writing (and the inevitable feedback) start to overtake my thinking, I stand up and decide it’s time for some fresh air. Outside, no one will be able to interrupt me. Hopefully.

I Am No One is published by Atlantic Books. The photograph at the top was taken by Andrew van der Vlies.

Mission Impossible Five


It was clear from the moment I picked up The Impossible Five: One Man’s Search for South Africa’s Most Elusive Animals that I would have little trouble finding common ground with its author, Cape Town-based photographer, journo and novelist Justin Fox. He is a twelve-year veteran of Getaway magazine and I had done some “Big Five” wildlife guiding myself, enough to be similarly engendered with a keen interest in seeing the rarer and lesser-known of South Africa’s wide mammal variety. I was excited to hear just how Fox had made it his personal mission to track down and sight five of these extraordinary creatures.

Speaking to Fox over Skype, I ask him how he came up with the idea of going in search of what he has dubbed “The Impossible Five” – the endangered Cape mountain leopard, aardvark, pangolin, riverine rabbit and naturally occurring white lion. “Doing a lot of bushveld and game reserve stories [for Getaway] and having ticked off the Big Five, the Little Five and all the kind of ‘obvious’ animals, I started to move on to the slightly more interesting ones and eventually got fixated on the pangolin, because there was just never any chance of seeing one,” he explains. He had asked many game rangers about the pangolin, and been repeatedly told it was impossible, that he should forget about it. “And that was sort of the red rag to the bull,” he tells me. “I had to find one.” What started off as a search for the pangolin then progressed into the idea of an “Impossible Five” hunt – an attempt to track down those animals one shouldn’t have any chance of finding.

Among the former Rhodes Scholar’s twelve previously published works are stories set in Mozambique (the non-fiction work With Both Hands Waving, published in 2003) and Kenya (his first novel, Whoever Fears The Sea, published last year) as well as several South African travel and photographic books. How ironic, then, that number thirteen would turn out to be the one he would need the most luck for. “I actually went into this project extremely pessimistic, thinking that I would get a great story out of not seeing these five animals,” Fox admits. “I anticipated the book to be about the adventure and about the people along the way and about the science. So it was almost like seeing four and a half was a bonus.” A few pages in the middle of the book show beautiful colour photographs of Fox’s Impossible Five, including a camera-trap image of the Cape Leopard, the only one on the list that he was unable to spot more than a shadow of. Hence “four and a half”.

In terms of sales, and public interest, lucky number thirteen seems to be more than pulling its weight. “It’s the first one in a long time that’s really selling well and catching people’s imaginations,” Fox says. “My last book was a novel which just kind of trundled along, but this one’s been flying, which is a wonderful change. As a writer in South Africa you need a bit of luck occasionally to get books on a roll.”

I ask whether The Impossible Five was targeted at a South African audience in particular, but Fox says that he did in fact want to appeal to as wide a market as possible – though a certain peculiarity revealed itself among his South African readers: “What I do find is that South Africans are incredibly knowledgeable about the bush. They’ve got bird books and mammal books and tree books and insect books. They’ve been so many times that they really do know a lot. So obviously, first and foremost, this book does try to appeal to the knowledgeable South African reader. But I would like to pick up a foreign readership as well.”

The Impossible Five also makes use of several references to familiar characters like Bugs Bunny and Brer Rabbit, stories that I fondly remember my own grandfather reading to me when I was a young boy. Apparently, this is no coincidence; as Fox elaborates, “The other audience I’m hoping for is a younger audience … about 12 or 13 and up, and as a consequence I bring in a lot of my own childhood memories and childhood readings. I think it’s accessible to younger readers and I intended to make it as such.”

We chat about how the mission to find these animals ended up being a whole lot more than he’d bargained for. The first revelation, Fox confides, was the people, “These mad scientists who have dedicated years and years of their lives and are still out there, in the middle of nowhere, often going for months without even spotting the creature that they’re looking for and being completely obsessed with things like faeces. They’re weird loners, often quite isolated people, and they are fascinating.” The people he describes are passionate, single-minded and all a bit crazy. “You meet guys who write all their notes on their body because they don’t take paper with them into the field – it’s fantastic. Characters made in heaven for a writer,” he says. The second revelation was the idea that these animals are an inextricable part of a greater ecosystem, a food web of biodiversity in which everything fits together. “Every single animal is part of a cohesive whole and if you start taking any element out of it you start to damage it – maybe irreparably. So the book started off being about animals and ends up being about ecosystems, really.”

During his stay with Linda Tucker and her white lions on Tsau Reserve, Fox was exposed to people who seemed to have a mystical connection to the animals. I ask him about this and the idea of spirituality in nature. “I’ve been reading a lot of Ian McCallum’s writing and poetry where he talks about sacred groves and how we as humans in the 21st century still really need spiritual and sacred places for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet,” he tells me. Though not a religious man, Fox goes on to explain that there is certainly an element of that spirituality, which he came to understand better through this journey: “I picked up a lot from people like Linda Tucker about having a reverence and understanding of Nature that goes far beyond just looking for furry animals. It’s about our own soul and spirit and about how we need them more than they need us.”

So has The Impossible Five generated ideas for future projects? “I’m always writing a couple of books at the same time,” Fox says wryly. At the moment it’s a World War 2 novel and a poetry book, both of which he admits are going in completely different directions to The Impossible Five. Yet the popularity of TI5 has given him cause to consider pursuing the theme further: “Maybe a children’s book along these lines – taking these animals and putting them in a very accessible manner for young children.” There’s also a host of other weird and wonderful animals, both extinct and living, that Fox expresses interest in tracking down. The Cape lion, dodo, quagga, king cheetah and white leopard all seem to be clamouring to be on his next “impossible” list. “I do seriously consider a possibility that I’m going to continue looking for strange animals,” he reveals.

I ask him which, if he had to choose, would he say was his favourite animal or most rewarding experience during this project. “Certainly the most adorable and the one that captured my heart was the aardvark,” he answers, somewhat to my surprise – I had expected the magnificent white lion or the elusive pangolin, his original quarry, to top the list. “Largely because it looks so cute and ridiculous,” he explains. I concede he has a point in describing the aardvark as “a cross between a pig and a rabbit, with a long hoover snout”. It did look like it should have been knocked off the evolutionary ladder a long time ago. But as for the one that gave Fox the most trouble to find, “it was probably the pangolin. I spent night after night waiting outside a hole for the bloody thing to pop up!”

I ask Fox if there is any chance for a reader to track down any of these animals, but he replies despondently: “I’d say zero chance on all fronts. Your best shot is the white lion, if you can get in with Linda Tucker, though she doesn’t generally take guests. To see the other four, you really need to be with a scientist and tracking them with telemetry. Even then, you really are in the realm of pure luck. I set out to find these animals in three months, and it ended up taking me three years.”

So, did that mean he wouldn’t be traipsing around the Cederberg on the trail of a Cape mountain leopard any time soon? “I think I’m done with these five for now,” Fox says with a rueful laugh. “I’d like to go and find another bunch, though. There are a whole lot of animals that I still haven’t seen, like the black-footed cat and the Knysna elephant. They could be on the next list.”

The Impossible Five is published by Tafelberg.

A restless imagination


“I was trying to learn about humility, to answer a question about life and purpose without using myself as the sole lens,” Masande Ntshanga says about the process of writing his astonishing debut novel, The Reactive. The book revolves around Lindanathi Mda, a young man from the Eastern Cape, traumatised by the hand he played in his brother’s death. It’s at once a meditation on family and community, mourning and memory and redemption. It’s all of these things and more. A great book is, after all, seldom about one thing.

Although he’s set to begin work on his second novel but the 2013 PEN International New Voices award winner took some time to answer some questions about his craft and the journey to becoming a writer.

Let’s start by talking about the way you work. Do you write everyday?

In a way. I work on writing, I think, more than I would say “I write”. This means that even though I read, revise and write on a a daily basis, on some days I’ll do more of one than the other two.

Looking back, what made you want to become a writer?

It sounds like a worn phrase, but I’ve always had a restless imagination. From a young age, I had a strong interest in creating things, which was mostly in the form of reproducing the images around me. In the beginning, I had no say, and would only try to recreate what I took in, and this was done mostly through drawing. It was only when a friend of mine and I started composing comics to curb our boredom in primary school, that I got introduced to narrative and it’s power to reform and recast reality. Until that point, I had only been aware of stories as something to receive from sources that had more authority than me. I started writing more, and one day, a teacher asked me if I wanted to be a writer — I suppose having gleaned the amount of gusto and effort I’d poured into a junior composition — and I answered in the affirmative. Of course, I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I was already growing attached to the idea of what fiction could be. It seemed, even then, like something that could speak to a part of me that had always felt misplaced in the world I knew.

Did you read a lot when you were growing up?

My mother kept a lot of newspapers and magazines around the house, and I used to read them a lot as a child, both out of curiosity as well as from the simple fact that she had them lying around. I wasn’t a very serious reader, though, as my imagination, like most kids in our area, was captivated by television and video games — visually fixated by nature. In fact, my first intimate experiences with narrative, with immersing myself in it, could’ve been through video games. For some reason I can’t explain, it was a skill that was easy for us to pick up, and it didn’t hurt that it was gilded with the allure of middle class consumption, as well as access to communities that were beyond our means. The more I played, the more I was able to engage in longer, more challenging games, heavily based on text, culminating in RPG’s like Final Fantasy VII and survival horror like Resident Evil 2. To backtrack slightly, though, It wasn’t it until I was old enough to visit the local library that I made my own reading choices. This was during prepubescence, and I read comics for the most part. Like a lot of other children, I was guided towards R.L Stine’s Goosebumps series by librarians, but I spent a lot more time on the Lone Wolf game books — and even more than that, was taken in by a manga series called Ironfist Chinmi. It was during this time, and with the aid of my older cousin, that I discovered Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers, which had been in that same library, as well as The Killing Joke and A Small Killing by Alan Moore. This was all before I would start on novels proper, but each of those was transformative for me, and would guide my reading for a certain amount of time in the future. I’d found something, I thought, and I wasn’t the same going forward.

I’m curious to know though, what kind of books are drawn to now?

I’m drawn to books I can learn from. My feeling is that I can never stop learning about what’s possible in fiction, and maybe I’m a little fixated on that. There are some books which consolidate the knowledge a writer already has, and others that reveal possibilities the writer wasn’t aware of. Of course, not every lesson is made out to every writer, but that’s part of the appeal, I suppose, part of what permits one to walk in and walk out and be accepting of how they were left uninspired by the English canon, for example. We all etch out our own trajectories in order to further our projects, and the work we come come across that resonates with us, and inspires us, serves as a kind of fuel, and often, finding your way to that fuel is something guided by instinct rather than category.

Are there any South African books or writers that have had a particularly strong impression on you?

I think the first South African novel I could say I was able to absorb in that way was High Low In-Between by Imraan Coovadia, which then led me to The Institute for Taxi Poetry, a chapter of which Imraan had allowed us to workshop in class the previous year, and as a result, I always combine their reading in my head. The novels were a gift in that sense, fortuitous. There are a lot of strong novels by South Africans, both old and new, and I’ve read my fair amount of them, but that was the first instance in which the work had charged me enough to allow me to make the transition from the more experimental short pieces I’d been working on, to a to kind of reconciliation with realism that would allow me to do what I always wanted — which was to write not only about where I’d come from but also about what was around me. Imraan took it for granted that we had to apply ourselves on craft, and instead what he emphasized, which was needed, was that we pay attention to our surroundings. Despite all the good publishing that’s occurred over the years, South Africa still isn’t close enough to being sufficiently written about, I think. Maybe we suffer the opposite of a saturation problem.

One of the most striking things about The Reactive is that you write with sensitivity and insight about places like Dunoon (a township near Milnerton in Cape Town) which are almost completely absent in contemporary South African fiction. Was this a conscious choice?

It was. I’m glad you appreciated that. It was definitely one of the things I was determined to do in the novel, and in general, I’ve grown quite invested in the idea of writing about the kind of spaces you’ve just described.

You were quite young when you published your first short story in Laugh it Off. What did that experience do for you?

I was excited to have my work acknowledged by people I felt were similar to me, and it also felt as if I’d been granted permission to continue writing. It was encouraging that people were able to get some of the same things I’d received myself from writing the story. It pushed me into the company of friends, in other words, even if it was just for a night. I’d written my first stories in isolation, from a cubicle in high school at Pietermaritzburg, where we had a good library, but not much in the way of individuals. It was too early for me to make more of the publication than that, though, as I still had to find my way into my work, but it was what I needed as a start.

You completed an MA in Creative Writing at UCT. In what ways did that contribute to your growth as a writer?

It was instrumental, although I have to say that writing programmes work in ways that follow a unique logic. Even though it’s spoken of as tutelage, the results rely on being an autodidact to some degree. It was instrumental for me in the sense that I got to meet people that helped me along with my writing, as well as providing me with a period of focused reading.

You have a very distinct voice. Was there ever a point when you wanted to sound like someone else?

Thank you. There was. In fact, in my early twenties, there was a time in which I read and wanted to recreate Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera, and Laduma by AK Thembeka. I thought each was a great book, but it took me a while to figure out that I was more impressed than influenced by how they’d been put together. Needless to say, my experiments in trying to appropriate their styles didn’t succeed. I’ve never been able to consciously select an influence, and sometimes, it’s difficult for me to even predict one. For example, a lot about how The Reactive is structured isn’t only taken from The Stranger by Albert Camus, but it’s also influenced by Bloc Party’s second studio album, A Weekend in the City, which I listened to a lot during the revisions, to not only find my way deeper into the kind of experience Nathi might be having, but to also decide on how to handle time in the story, as I knew I wanted it to have a revealing, but compressed feel — since it’s a short novel, I thought it needed that in order to feel complete — and I remembered that A Weekend in the City had done a good job of that.

In a recent interview with the Daily Dispatch you said writing The Reactive involved a process in which you “became increasingly receptive to the difficulties of those around” you. Can you say a bit more about more about that.

I was trying to learn about humility, to answer a question about life and purpose without using myself as the sole lens. It was revealing in the end, too, as in doing that, I was then also able to take on the distance I needed from my characters, to allow them to become believable renditions of people who weren’t me. I suppose that’s the strange thing about fiction. Even though it requires a lot of self-awareness and self-absorption to get started, in the end, what strengthens it is a kind of selflessness that allows one to imagine people and situations beyond their own personal space. For me, that’s still an ongoing process.

Lastly, what are your plans for the future?

I’m about to work on my second novel at the moment, so I’ll most likely get absorbed by that for a while. There’s a friend of mine who’s also expressed an interest in adapting The Reactive into a film, but it’s still too early to say. We’ll have to see.

The Reactive is published by Umuzi. Read an extract from the novel here.