10 QUESTIONS: Nick Mulgrew

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Nick Mulgrew is a local literary super-hero — if there’s an independent wordy initiative going on in South Africa, odds are he’s involved. He’s associate editor of literary journal Prufrock, is a pivotal member of Short Story Day Africa (and co-edited Water, its new anthology) — all the while completing his MA in English Language & Literature as a Mandela Rhodes scholar.

A prolific short story writer and poet, his poetry collection, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, came out last year, while his debut short story collection, Trains, will launch next month. Mulgrew has also founded uHlanga: a poetry press that showcases first-time poets.

uHlanga started out life as a poetry journal. Perhaps you could kick off with telling us a bit more about what made you decide to launch that.

While working at Prufrock magazine, I realised that there weren’t nearly enough publications that were publishing new poets – and especially poets from KwaZulu-Natal, where I’m originally from. I envisioned uHlanga as a yearly journal that would publish poetry from, of and about KZN.

uHlanga issue 1 was launched at Poetry Africa in 2014, where our reading was upstaged by a freestyle slam by some teenagers playing beats on their cellphones. Almost immediately I realised I needed a different angle, even though the magazine was beautiful and affordable and ended up selling well.

What made you decide to transform it into a fully-fledged poetry press?

Even though we have few poetry publications, we have even fewer poetry publishers. Which is a shame, because the only way – well, not the only way, but the most effective way – to build a career as a written poet is through publishing single-author collections. You need visibility and prestige and a publication, and a book is the best way to confer these onto a poet, especially a younger one, or someone who is in the early-building stages of their career.

So far you’ve published three collections. How did you go about choosing who to publish?

Thabo Jijana and Genna Gardini were two poets who I had worked with at Prufrock, whose writing I admired, and who I thought were two of the best young poets in SA who had not yet been published for their poetry. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

Who will be the next poet?

I can’t say just yet because I’m waiting on funding, but there will be a book from someone whose career is gaining momentum, and one from someone no one knows very much, in Xhosa and English.

Tell us a bit about what the role of publisher or editor entails — is putting together a collection a very collaborative process?

For me it is. As well as being the publisher of uHlanga, I work as the commissioner, designer and usually also the editor. I work with the author to make sure the book is as polished and beautiful as possible, and that the poems are tight, their rhythm right, and that no word is wasted. I love to collaborate with authors, because I get to learn a lot about their writing processes and what makes them tick. It makes me a better editor and writer, and I hope it’s a pleasurable experience for the authors too.Matric Rage

What are the biggest challenges you face in publishing poetry?

I’m going to be blunt here: it’s a lack of support from major booksellers. Go into any major bookstore and look at the poetry section. If there is one, it’s usually pitifully small. The refrain goes that poetry doesn’t sell. I say it doesn’t sell because booksellers don’t try to sell it. Vicious cycle, et cetera.

We’ve had mainstream exposure for the books (from Superbalist and City Press and GQ and so on) and exposure at literary festivals – but chain booksellers won’t bite. We’re about to start distributing these books in the UK, but still you can’t easily find a copy in my hometown. From next week it will be easier for my gran in Scotland to buy one of our books than my mum in Durban North!

Independent bookstores, however, and a number of Western Cape-based chain stores have been very supportive. I love those guys. Maybe I just have to work harder to convince everyone else.

You’re also involved in Short Story Day Africa and Prufrock. What are some of the lessons you’ve gained along the way?

In publishing, you can only rely on yourself. You have to assume no one is on your side until, over time, through actions, they prove they are. And once you have people on your side – like my colleagues at SSDA and Prufrock – you hold onto them jealously.

The other thing is that people in the publishing and literary industry now have to have a diverse skill set. You can’t just be a writer or a publisher. You need to also know how to design, or edit, or typeset, or market, or distribute, or events organise. The days of the single-skilled publishing professional are very much gone.
Failing Maths

What are the things you dig most about being involved in literary initiatives?

Making people happy. Not just writers – whose work me and my colleagues try our best to champion – but also readers, and helping introduce people to new, current work that reflects their lives or their contemporaries’ lives, and books that make people feel that they are part of a particular, definable point in history and politics and nationhood. We live in a discombobulated age, and I think good books can be a great comfort. Our world isn’t very joyous. Literature could do well to trade in more joy.

You write both your own prose and poetry. Who and want have influenced your own work? 

Flannery O’Connor, Catholic dogma, Njabulo Ndebele, four years of unsuccessfully trying to be a popular folk guitarist, MasterChef, Bruce Chatwin, the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, Manchester United, Zadie Smith, Rustum Kozain, Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Vladislavic, public transport systems in foreign cities, Richard Rive, Sam Riviere, and the Recurring Tragedies of the Natal Sharks. My church is a broad one, evidently.

The Myth of ThisThere has been much debate around the polarised literary landscape in South Africa. What are ways in which it could be “decolonised”?

It doesn’t just need to be decolonised. It needs to be deglobalised, decapitalised and deapartheid-ised. (What a horrible trio of neologisms I’ve made there, but you get the point.)

There are more sinister forces at work than just the long and heavy shadow of colonial structure and ethos that falls over the publishing industry and the literary landscape. Yes, our publishing industry was imported wholesale from the colonial project and has re-inforced prejudicial and linguistic barriers over centuries. But unless we also address the way we cede our power and agency to positions of global prestige and power; and unless we address the cost-benefit analysis-driven modes of publishing that have become de rigeur (which in turn squash creativity and risk-taking) and the centralisation and suburbification of bookselling; and unless we do sustained work in introducing more black-led and intersectional works and initiatives into our industry, anything new and ostensibly decolonial will still uphold the greater part of our current status quo.

How do we go about that? Well, I think that’s another interview entirely.

Stations launches on 3 March at the Book Lounge in Cape Town.

A weirdly beautiful world

BY LARA BUXBAUM

There’s a certain resistance you experience, as a reader, to a book that comes cloaked in praise: when it’s the winner of the 2014 Folio Prize 2014, has four pages of gushing blurbs and an introduction entitled “George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read this year.” There is always the risk that this publishing fanfare, necessary to sell a book, can backfire and be dismissed as fluff or hyperbole that fails to accurately describe the book in your hands.

And so it was with both excitement and hesitation that I approached Saunders’s fifth publication, Tenth of December my first foray into the Saunders universe. The hesitation disappeared all but immediately, and the excitement built to include wonder and astonishment.

In Joel Lovell’s justifiably enthusiastic introduction (worth a read for its own sake), Saunders describes the revelatory experience of reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. He also relates his discussions with fellow writers about the challenge of writing “emotional fiction”: “about the possibly contrasting desire to: (1) write stories that had some sort of moral heft and/or were not just technical exercises or cerebral games; while (2) not being cheesy or sentimental or reactionary”. This tension is creatively and brilliantly explored in the ten stories in this collection which consider ethical dilemmas, the limits of compassion and the place of “moral courage” in a world seemingly depleted of morality, but not devoid of hope. The stories successfully strike a balance between weirdly intellectual and deeply moving.

Often short stories in collections are read one at a time, with spaces of weeks or months in between, sometimes lying forgotten on bedside tables or discarded in favour of a novel. Tenth of December is not that kind of collection. I devoured it greedily, barely pausing to catch my breath. But I also wished to live with one story at a time, re-reading to try to figure out how Saunders had worked his magic.

These stories seem to exist at the edge of now, in a world both familiar but also slightly off-kilter, in which there are drugs for shyness and verbal lucidity. The American dream is scoffed at by police officers, belief in it a sign of naïvety which deserves punishment and yet, the myth that “anything is possible” continually motivates and taunts the characters.

The protagonists include a frugal father whose “one concession to glee” is decorating a pole in his backyard; a janitor at a mediaeval theme park who is promoted to knight, “hooray, finally a medicated role”, but his consumption of KnightLyfe® and desire to be chivalrous proves his undoing. There is a felon who avoided incarceration by becoming a test subject for drugs such as “ED289/290”, the love drug. The longest and most disturbing story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, begins in the style of a Bridget Jones diary kept by a suburban father who prays: “Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers … for kids’ sake” (sic). His aspirational desire to “keep up” and thus “have chance to reflect deeply on meaning of life etc., etc.” (sic) takes on grotesque forms and leads to chilling questions about justice, oppression and the myopia of the middle classes. The stories leave the reader, like the characters, “amazed and flinching”.

Saunders is a linguistic gymnast in his exuberant use of changing registers, style and dialogue. He has created a world in which language, exhausted and worn-out by platitudes, colloquialisms and clichés, somehow becomes shiny and new. This is a book I have been foisting on friends and finding ways to slip into conversations. In short: believe the hype! Do yourself a favour and buy the book.

Tenth of December is published by Bloomsbury and is available from Kalahari.com.

FICTION: Running for her life

BY MARIA PHALIME

Victoria knew they were talking about her. She could see them through the tinted glass of her office window, huddled together like rats in a corner. Occasionally one of them would glance in the direction of her office, envy written on her face. Debbie, the marketing assistant, had been brave enough to approach her earlier that morning, and Victoria had been deliberately evasive.

“Big day, hey,” Debbie had said.

“What?” Of course she knew what Debbie was referring to, but she resented the intrusion.

“Your anniversary, silly!”

“Oh, of course,” she said flatly.

“Do you know where he’s taking you this year?” Debbie said.

The now familiar ball in her stomach tightened. “No, it’s a surprise,” she said.

Debbie persisted. “Are you excited?”

Victoria smiled weakly, leaving the other woman looking baffled. After an awkward silence Debbie finally murmured something about getting on with her work and left.

Their wedding anniversaries had become something of a legend in the office. Every year Victoria’s husband Mike conjured up a lavish surprise for the day, and showered her with gifts and flowers. Last year it was a helicopter ride to the Winelands, followed by a private dinner at an exclusive restaurant in Franschhoek, served by the celebrity chef himself. The year before he’d hosted a weekend-long party in their honour at an upmarket venue in the City. No doubt he had something outrageous planned for this year too. He’d been particularly cagey when he’d left the house in the morning.

She felt anxious just thinking about the day ahead. Each anniversary was a reminder of what she’d given up for this picture-perfect life. They had met at university; he was good looking, confident and ambitious, the perfect antidote for the quirky Fine Arts major she was. She figured he’d help her grow up, teach her to formulate a plan for her life. Her delicately beautiful face and the flaming red hair which she struggled to tame were enough to grab his attention, and they had quickly become the golden couple of their social set. When they married two years after graduating everyone said how perfect she looked on his arm. For a while she had bought into the fairytale; but now it was the hand around her throat that was slowly choking the colour out of her.

Victoria shuddered and looked down at her desk, pushing thoughts of anniversaries out of her mind. She heard the distinctive finger rattle on her office door and she squared her shoulders just as her boss came into view.

“Morning, Vicky,” Pete said, leaning against the doorframe.

Victoria cringed at the abbreviated version of her name which he knew she hated. “Good morning,” she said.

“How are you doing with the sales report? I want to see it before you go and get romanced,” he said, gesturing at the large bouquet of red roses on her desk.

“I’m onto it. I’ll email it to you within the hour,” she said briskly.

“Good girl,” he said, smiling. He winked at her before tapping on the door again to signal his departure.

Victoria exhaled deeply, wishing him away with her breath.

She looked at the sales report in front of her. It was as if she’d been working on it for years; every week all she did was change the numbers – she could have done it in her sleep. Her breath caught in her throat as she struggled to contain the sudden claustrophobia that enveloped her. She got up and lunged for her handbag, almost falling over her feet as she hurried out of her office.

“I’m going out for lunch,” she said to her assistant as she walked past her desk towards the lifts.

“It’s quarter past eleven,” she heard Claire say.

“Coffee then,” she hissed without turning around.

“And the sales report?” Claire shouted, but Victoria wasn’t listening. All she wanted was to be outside, to get away from the stifling confines of her office.

She nearly ran out as the lift arrived at the ground floor and she couldn’t cross the vast foyer quickly enough. She gasped when the autumn breeze hit her face, taking bucketfuls of air into her lungs all at once.

“Where are you off to at this hour?”

Startled, Victoria turned to see her colleague Olivia walking down St George’s Mall towards her, a large cup of coffee in her hand.

“Just out for a coffee,” she said hurriedly.

“You should have asked me for one, I’d have saved you the trip,” Olivia said.

“That’s okay, I needed the break,” she said. She looked past Olivia, her mind already on her getaway.

Olivia smiled, oblivious. “Of course. You’ve probably got a long day and night ahead, don’t you?”

“Sorry, I can’t,” Victoria blurted, then she burst into tears.

“Victoria, what’s wrong?” Olivia asked, but Victoria just shook her head; the anguish was dammed up in her throat. She took the next gap and joined the throngs of office workers walking purposefully down the street; she was desperate to get away before anyone could stop her.

She noticed people looking at her strangely and she ducked into an open set of sliding doors to get away from the stares.

“Good morning, ma’am. Would you like to try our new fragrance?” someone asked in a practiced sing-song.

Victoria looked around at the gleaming counters of cosmetics, each manned by an immaculately groomed assistant. She groaned, scanning beyond the cosmetics to the clothing department, looking for a sign for the fitting rooms. At least there she would have a few minutes to herself, without anyone wanting anything from her.

“Ma’am?” the syrupy sales assistant said.

“Piss off,” Victoria said under her breath as she pushed past the assistant. Too late, she realised she’d said it out loud and she stopped, wondering whether to apologise.  Just as quickly she carried on walking, flushed at her tiny act of rebellion.

Her eye caught an elaborate nail polish display on one of the beauty counters. She stopped and looked at the kaleidoscope of colours. Her eyes drifted predictably to the light pastels and skin tones which were her trademark. Then slowly she turned to the brash colours – purples, reds that screamed bloody murder, fiery shades of orange, and she felt an unexpected jolt of excitement. The vibrant colours glistened under the overhead lights, as if they were shining just for her. She reached over and took a bottle of Crimson Kiss from the display, caressing it gently in her hand. She glanced around; no one was paying any attention to her, but she saw numerous security cameras suspended from the ceiling.

Her heart rate quickened as she held the bottle tighter, her fingers throbbing around the cool glass. She knew that she could buy the nail polish if she really wanted to; heck, she could probably afford to buy the whole store. But, as she looked down at her hand clenched around the tiny bottle, she knew that the possibility of what she was grasping was far more valuable.

She slipped the nail polish into her handbag and quickly turned to walk towards the exit before she could change her mind. Her heart pounded in her chest with each step, and she pulled her handbag close to her, guarding the treasure she’d just gambled her perfect life on.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she heard a man say behind her.

Her heart steadied as she stopped and turned around slowly, as if she’d been preparing for this very moment for years. She smiled at him, and then chuckled when she saw the confusion flash across the security guard’s face.

“Step this way please,” he instructed, pointing to the discrete door just to the left of the cosmetics department.

She could see it now – he’d find the nail polish in her bag, he’d call his supervisor who would probably let her go with a warning. After all, she was a respectable, middle-class woman with a powerful husband. And it was just nail polish, right? Maybe she should have taken something bigger, perhaps something more expensive.

“This way please,” the security guard said firmly, moving towards her.

The room fell into silence as she realized what she must do. She muted the noise from the gushing sales ladies and the browsing shoppers and locked her eyes onto the security guard.

His jaw clench as he took a step towards her.

She returned his move by slipping her right foot out of its soft leather pump. She splayed her toes as they touched the cold tiled floor.

It took a little over a second before comprehension registered on his face, and she smiled as his eyes filled with panic.

“I’m warning you, lady,” he said, and he reached for the walkie-talkie clipped onto his belt.

Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on his, she slipped the other shoe off and stood solidly on the floor, savouring the cold, hard sensation against her skin. The anxiety she’d felt earlier had now completely disappeared; in its place was elation about the freedom she was about to win for herself.

She took off effortlessly, running past the security guard before he’d had a chance to react. The countless hours she spent at the gym were paying off now, and she darted between the counters, vaguely aware of the growing commotion behind her. She heard him call desperately for help on his walkie-talkie, but there was no stopping her. Anniversaries, dinner parties, social climbing – it was all about to end. Victoria ran for her life.

Tracing paths to the dark

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

It’s a drizzly day in east London and I’m outside James Meek’s flat. He comes out to join me and we wander over to Victoria Park. Ducks are floating on the glossy surface of the lake as we head into the cafeteria and order breakfast. There is steamy clatter, clusters of breakfasters. It is too damp outside, so we perch on stools at the window instead, sipping on coffee.

Born in London and raised in Scotland, James Meek is perhaps one of the most talented, thoughtful writers in contemporary Britain. As a contributing editor of the London Review of Books, he has produced fascinating pieces, bringing a novelistic vibrancy to complex subjects, such as European postal services and their privatisation. But The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent is first and foremost a novelist, having authored five, including The People’s Act of Love which won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize, and We Are Now Beginning Our Descent.

I ask him when he knew he first wanted to write. “I never had the sense that I didn’t,” he replies. “I suppose it’s more why – why did I always want to write? And I’m not really sure what the answer is. People sometimes think that writers of fiction are being deluded egomaniacs – and there is something in that. The implication in that, I suppose, is that you have some god-like desire, but I think it’s not so much that you want to be god as that you want to be one of the apostles. So it’s very modest, really,” he says with a wry grin.

“You want to take the world and try and make a story out of it, try and find some pattern that is both beautiful and pleasing and real,” he says. In sharing his writing, he wants to share the understanding he has of what he’s writing about.

Meek’s most recent novel, The Heart Broke In, was published in late 2012 and shortlisted for the Costa Prize. It is a fat, tangled saga, with complex, finely drawn characters: a villainous tabloid editor, Val Oatman; his gentle former fiancé, Bec; her brother, the deviously lewd TV producer, Richie; and Bec’s lover, Alex, a scientist obsessed with his part in evolution and the continuation of family. The book’s themes are varied, powerful, important for today – the media’s power, faith, religious fundamentalism, mortality, the ethics of medicine. But while the themes are broad and deep, the novel’s core is driven by family – the way our links with relatives, partners and offspring shape our trajectories, as well as their own.

Meek says the book originated when he was wondering why religious families seemed to have more children than non-religious families. A character emerged inside his head “who was upset by this idea, who found it provocative”. This character was obsessed with evolution, believing he needed to be a part of it and that to do so, and to “counter the believers”, he needed to have children. “Immortality is one of the themes, and the different ways that one might achieve it,” says Meek. For Alex, it’s “a chain of existence” – perpetuating genes by bearing children; for his Uncle Harry, the terminally ill head of a cancer research institute, it is “literal immortality” and “immortality by your works”.

The book bears some interesting parallels to real life – Richie has an affair with an under-age contestant on his reality TV show (and is threatened with exposure by Oatman) – an eerie foreshadowing of the revelations around Jimmy Savile that exploded into the media not long after the book’s release. Meek notes that some people were sceptical about Alex’s niece abandoning her family’s intense Christian faith in favour of Islam — and yet in May last year an Islamic fanatic who had come from a fundamentalist Christian family was responsible for killing a soldier in Woolwich. To Meek this was not surprising: changing faiths, as opposed to simply forsaking your own, is “an entirely plausible act of rebellion for the next generation”.

“This is that strange moment where you remember that what the novelist is simply doing what everyone does, in the sense of projecting yourself forward into the future,” he says. “The only difference between the novelist and anyone else is that with other people, the fictional character is themselves in the future. The novelist does that, writes it down, projects everything from their persona onto other personas.” According to Meek, the duo who murdered the soldier in Woolwich “imagined all that before it happened. Unfortunately they enacted it, rather than writing a story about it.”

I ask if there are any scenarios a novelist writes about that aren’t related to future versions of themselves, but are rather things they understand but can’t necessarily identify with. Surely the sleazy Richie, for example, isn’t a form of James Meek?

Meek laughs. “You would be amazed. No he is. They’re all forms of me. Richie is me, allowing my darkest, most twisted thoughts – I’m following them. There are always many paths that we could take and you simply walk up those paths without actually being them.”

I ask him if following those paths can be frightening. “Yes, you can frighten yourself and you can move yourself and you can sadden yourself, he replies. “I think people tend to think of the novel as perceiving something in life and then writing a version of it but it can happen that you simply follow the paths of possibilities in your head and receive an emotional impulse that way which you then describe. So in a way you’re kind of putting it out into the world, rather than the other way round. There’s always a shadow of something real in everything that you think.”

In addition to working on a new novel (set in the Middle Ages), Meek is also writing short stories again after something of a hiatus: “I used to write a lot of short stories; I was young and confident and I can’t write stories like that anymore,” he reveals, describing his early pieces as “magical dirty realism”. “They were quite gritty and tended to be focused on Scotland but there were also these surreal elements. But I can’t and I don’t want to write like that now because I came to feel that the surreal elements in the stories were to some extent a kind of a means of avoidance of getting to grips with characters,” he says. A few, more recent efforts over the past 15 years have been published “but there hasn’t really been one that I’ve been happy with”.

Now it’s different. “The next book I write is going to be so different from anything I’ve written before in terms of style and probably different from anything I’ll write afterwards,” he says. “At the same time I feel I learned a lot in writing the last one. I don’t want to lose the lessons that I learnt in writing The Heart Broke In but I can’t write in that way in the next book.” Writing short stories will therefore allow Meek to “keep on working through some of those techniques”. Meek says he is taking more time to write short stories than before: “In a way perhaps word for word, you should spend twice as much time, three times as much time on a short story than on a novel.” He says the advantage of a short story is that, because it’s a smaller space, “you can see the whole, or you have a chance of seeing the whole in a way that is very difficult with a novel.”

I ask Meek what he learned from The Heart Broke In, and he tells me that the novel has confirmed his sense that “the raw material of fiction was time, not sentences, not beautiful words, but the way the writer handles time” – tense, transitions between scenes, “the relationship between the consecutive, things that simply happen one after the other; and the contingent, things that happened because something else happened”. “I knew a lot of those things instinctively,” he tells me. “But what became more apparent to me in The Heart Broke In was how you could actually transform a page or a paragraph or a chapter with some very small changes in terms of expressions of time and tense and the power of a time adverb like ‘now’ and ‘since’ and ‘after’ and ‘when’ – they’re such tiny little words and you wouldn’t think that one of them could spoil a page but they can — it’s amazing.”

According to Meek, timing is “about the way that you build sequences and pace them and measure them and handle a relationship between a long narrative of months and years and a tight narrative of seconds. You can have a quite badly written book that will still work because the writer can count the time. A book where the sentences are beautiful but there’s no handling of time – well that writer should go back to poetry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he smiles.

He describes the short story as “a form which is practically extinct”, making it a challenge to write in a way “that will really grab people”. “I’m not sentimental about the short story. I’m not of these people who say, ‘Oh, the death of the short story is such a tragedy.’ Well, it’s not like a panda. Anytime we want to recreate the short story all we need is to write it. If people don’t want to read short stories then they’re not going to read them and there’s nothing you can do.”

Meek writes in longhand. “I find that there’s something too smooth about the process of writing on the computer. The words don’t have the same weight. You are taking ink and using to it to mar a piece of paper in such a way that that piece of paper will never be good for anything else again.” There is an “extra responsibility that comes with that. And in the crossings out and insertions that come in as you write, you can see the difficulties and the effort that you’ve made. And that also gives the words more weight. Whereas writing on a computer screen is like writing on water – the surface is always smooth, is always perfect and it doesn’t have any memory, really – I mean literally it does but it doesn’t in the same way that a worked-over piece of paper would.”

After completing several pages, such as a chapter, he’ll type it up. “Once it’s on the computer I will then work on it on the computer and rewrite it. I’m not fetishistic about it.”

Although Meek normally writes from home, he says that “there is something to be said for going away once in a while” to write – he prefers retreats instead of cities as the latter can prove too distracting. The best place to write is in a remote house, without internet access and mobile phone signal, he suggests.

I ask him how he juggles his journalism and fiction. “It’s something I’m still working on – and I think I probably always will but I think in the end as long as you get the balance right, the two activities can support each other,” he says. “There are really vanishingly few writers who live the completely pure life of the full-time writer in a literal sense – that they do nothing else.”

His journalism work helps him to avoid him becoming “too isolated from society”, he says. “It’s just a question of what is the ideal length of time to enclose yourself with the fiction. And I think the answer to that is probably three weeks – long enough to shake off the other project you’ve been doing, long enough to have a good, hard slog at the fiction. I did try doing the pure thing for a while a few years ago and I felt – and I still feel now – that I was actually getting less done, because I felt that I had so much time and I guess it’s my particular personality: I’m always becoming distracted too easily.” A side project gives him more structure, he claims.

Our breakfast now finished, we have to wrap up as Meek needs to go to the London Review of Books for a meeting. But before we leave, I ask him if he has any advice for young writers.

“Read. For god’s sake, read,” he says. “Don’t read the writers where you think ‘I can do better than that’ – throw those writers away. Read writers where you think ‘I can’t do as well as that – and why is that?’ Try and bridge the gap between you and them. Don’t ask yourself why you’re doing it; ask yourself are you doing it or are you simply talking about it?”

The Heart Broke In is published by Canongate and is available from Kalahari.com.

Photograph: Sarah Lee