EXTRACT: Outsiders

LYNDALL GORDON reflects on the five extraordinary women writers whose lives she explores in Outsiders.

Lyndall Godon

All five of my choices were motherless. With no female model at hand, they learnt from books; if lucky, from an enlightened man. Common to all five was the danger of staying at home, the risk of an unlived life. But if there was danger at home, there was often worse danger in leaving: the loss of protection; estrangement from family; exploitation; a wandering existence, shifting from place to place; and worst of all, exposure to the kind of predator who appeared to offer Olive Schreiner a life – marriage – when she went to work as a governess at the age of seventeen.

In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion. How far was it willed – how far, for instance, did Emily Brontë will her unpopularity at a Brussels school, or was it involuntary? Were the acts of divergence necessary if each woman was to follow the bent of her nature? Mary Ann Evans fled a provincial home where a brainy girl was regarded as odd. In London, she called herself an ‘outlaw’ before she became one by living with a partner outside the legality of marriage. Yet it was during her years outside society in the late 1850s that George Eliot came into being. Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) settled in Bloomsbury as part of a group. Her brothers, sister, and their mostly homosexual friends, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, provided a shield. In such stimulating company, Virginia and her sister turned themselves into unchaperoned young women, flaunting words like ‘semen’ and ‘copulation’ in mixed company until all hours of the night. It was scandalous, but not dangerous. Danger, for Woolf, was the threat of insanity, bound up with what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.
No one, of course, can explain genius. Women are especially hard to discern outside the performing spheres assigned to them in the past, the thin character of angels in the house. In contrast, Virginia Woolf explores the secret thing: women’s enduring creativity as it takes its way in shadow; in her generation and before, it did not proclaim itself.

What we now know is that after these writers’ lifetimes, families concocted myths, playing down the radical nature of these women. George Eliot’s widower presented a flawless angel; at the opposite extreme, Schreiner’s estranged widower branded her with his annoyance. The devoted son and daughter-in-law of Mary Shelley cast her in the Victorian mould of timid maiden and mourner. But voices sing out past the tombstones of reputation. The words of these five altered our world; certainly they changed the face of literature. We do more than read them; we listen and live with them.

To say I chose these writers was actually wrong; they chose themselves. For each had the compulsion Jane Eyre expressed when she said, ‘Speak I must’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read our review of the novel here.

ESSAY: Being in Two Places at the Same Time

Layeredness. Ambiguity. Subtext. CRAIG HIGGINSON reflects on the way that being in two places at the same time sits at the beating heart of his writing.Craig Higginson

When I was ten years old, I drove with my mother from Johannesburg down to what was then called the province of Natal. We were driving a sky-blue Toyota Hilux bakkie and we were towing a horse box. In the horse box was a grey Welsh pony called Tessa and we were taking her to a stud farm in order to try and get her to have a foal. It turned out she didn’t want to have a foal and some months later she was returned to us in Johannesburg. At the time of this journey, I was halfway through my first term at boarding school. My school was over the hill from the stud farm, which was just outside of Nottingham Road. Later, the school and the stud farm would provide a starting point for a couple of plays and novels – including the novels The Hill and The Dream House and the play Dream of the Dog.

We sound like a wealthy family – but in fact my mother was soon to run out of what money she had inherited. At the time we were living in the modest suburb of Blairgowrie, in Randburg. My sister kept her ponies – I think she had two by then – at the Inanda Club, where we were surrounded by children from families much wealthier than ours. I still remember the morning of loading the pony in the horsebox and leaving the stables. It was just getting light and it was as if we were off to a horse show. But my  school things were in the back and I was about to return to a school that was a five-hour drive away and still frightening. I remember my mother holding the steering wheel and saying she felt shaky. I didn’t pay her much attention. But we set off and everything seemed fine until my mother told me she was lost. The journey from Johannesburg to Durban was one she had taken many times before. She herself had gone to boarding school in Natal from the age of ten. We drove off the highway and entered a small town in what was then the Orange Free State – and we were driving slowly along the main road when her body seemed to lock backwards and she screamed – her voice starting off in a low moan and rapidly building to the kind of sound a person makes under torture. The car veered into an oncoming truck and I steered it away – although the truck clipped the back of the horsebox as it passed. The car then bumped up against the pavement and a man appeared alongside the car. He put his hand through the open window and pulled the handbrake. The car jerked to a stop and he opened the door and slapped my mother hard across the face. He did this three times, each time telling her to wake up, and I remember shouting, Don’t hit my mother! But she was barely my mother. She had gone into a trance, there was froth pouring from her mouth, her eyes were rolled backwards. She had the face of the Medusas I’d seen in books about Greek myths – whose gaze would turn you to stone.

She was having an epileptic fit – a grand mal seizure, which is the most severe. I knew about her fits already. I lived with my mother and slightly older sister and I had experienced her fits before – sometimes as many as five in a day. But – at least in my memory – it was always at home and we were old enough to phone the neighbour – whose domestic worker Beauty would sometimes come and make us supper while my mother lay in bed.

But my mother had never had a fit in the car before, in the middle of nowhere, towing a horse. The back wheel of the horsebox had burst through contact with the trunk. Someone changed the wheel. My mother soon came around. I remember she couldn’t remember her address or phone number – but I knew them and provided them. And then the strangest thing happened. My mother said she was feeling much better and could continue the journey – and so we were given directions on how to get to the road to Durban and we set off again.

But this time I knew what I had to do. If it happened again, I could stop the car with the handbrake. I believed I knew how to drive. And off we went, out of the town – and down a long thin road that seemed to go on through fields of mielies forever. I remember looking down the rows of corn, as row flicked by after row, and imagining this would go on forever. I remember very clearly the sensation of being in two places at the same time. In the car, with my mother, whose every move I watched like a hawk, and far away – my mind moving along each corridor of corn as if it might offer a chance of escape.

But of course it didn’t offer any escape. I was in the car and we were soon lost again and we just had to keep on going. I remember we stopped at an intersection once and my mother peed on the side of the road – not even trying to hide herself. I remember how animal that moment was, how exposed – how vulnerable she was and how helpless that made me feel.

And then it happened again. We were driving fast along that straight road when she let out the same jolt, the same scream. I tried to control the car, but it veered off the side of the road. I pulled with the weight of my whole body against the handbrake, but it made no difference. Along with my mother screaming, the car engine was screaming too – as her foot was pressed flat against the accelerator.

I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. The car flew off the bank, hung in the air, and then rolled. The horsebox yanked and buckled. I stood inside the car, holding onto the handgrip by the window, my feet wedged against the dashboard and the seat, and I felt for a moment as if I was cartwheeling through space. I felt exactly like Spiderman. The car, now on its side, slid through the tall grass and came to a halt. It was still on its side – the passenger side against the flattened grass. My mother was hanging from the seatbelt above my head, gagging, as if the seatbelt was strangling her. Pink froth was pouring from her mouth. I climbed out of her window and behind me her seatbelt snapped. She landed with a hard clump on the other side of the car and remained quite still. I went to check up on the horse. The horsebox was standing on its roof and the pony was standing on the roof of it. She saw me and screeched and pulled her head so hard that the metal clasp of her halter snapped. Then she trotted off, veering and dazed, into the road.

Already there was another car there – perhaps two. I managed to catch and calm the pony and bring her back to the car. There was a small crowd of people now.  They were saying my mother might have broken her neck and she shouldn’t be moved. I remember holding the pony and burying my face in the soft grey silk of her neck, and sobbing. I was not sobbing for my mother. The person in the car was no longer my mother. I was sobbing for myself. I saw my whole life ahead of me – I would have to go and live with my father, who frightened me. His first daughter in his second marriage, my half sister, was dying in hospital in Pretoria at the time – of leukaemia. She was nearly four and she had been dying for most of her life.

There are several moments, looking back, when a person can say their childhood ended. I’m not sure it ever ends. I’m not even sure it is ever entirely there to start with. Childhood, like everything, is a fiction we create for ourselves and our children. But certainly on that day something died inside me and something was born. My relationship with my mother would never be quite the same again. She was two people – the mother I knew and the daemon medusa that lay inside her. There was no longer one of anyone. Inside each of us lay a shadow – a madness, a force so huge it could obliterate everything you thought you knew about yourself and others. Certainly, I would never trust my mother or any adult again.

It transpired that my mother had barely hurt herself. When she landed on the other side of the bakkie, her head had cracked the plastic around the door frame. But she was more or less unhurt – perhaps because her body had been as limp and lifeless as a sack of wheat. In the years that followed, I would look at that crack in the plastic. Whenever I was in a car with my mother, I would wait for the daemon to declare herself. I would wait for the daemon always – and sometimes, she would come – and I would do my best to cope with her – or was it a he?

But another part of me was far away. It had drifted off. It saw the whole scene from a great height: the car and horsebox being righted again, the procession of people walking towards a nearby farmhouse, where they spoke only Afrikaans and where we would spend the night. When my little sister died a year later, I was there when the headmaster gave me the news and I was not there.

Yet each of these disappointments – and there were others – pushed me further away, deeper into what I have later come to recognise as my imagined land – the landscape out of which a storyteller can begin to speak and make sense of the world that he or she has successfully escaped.


Psychologists call the escape mechanism I discovered on that day dissociation. It can range from mild detachment from one’s immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience in general. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality – and is the opposite, in a sense, of psychosis, which is characterised by a loss of reality. Dissociation is a coping mechanism that enables us to manage stress – which can include anything from boredom to a major traumatic event. Dissociation becomes compulsive rather than voluntary in its extreme form, which is when it can lead to multiple personality disorders – referred to these days as dissociative identity disorders.

Dissociation can lead to healthy and unhealthy behaviours – such as sublimation and displacement. Displacement is a strategy for pushing reality away, but here you are projecting an unwanted feeling or emotion unconsciously onto someone or something else – and usually causing yourself and/or others harm in the process. Sublimation is seen as a more mature defence – in which there is an unconscious channelling of emotional energy into a constructive outlet. It becomes cathartic – and can include anything from writing a novel to walking the dog on the beach. Displacement is inter-personal and the damage is inflicted back onto another person or thing. Sublimation provides an opportunity to find release in another thing that is not a living thing and is, in my view, the beginning of all art.

Without a detachment from reality and the capacity to daydream, acts of the imagination remain impossible. But at what point is this activity voluntary and at what point compulsive? I often say to aspiring writers that if they have to force themselves to sit down and write they probably aren’t writers. Writers can’t stop themselves from writing. Believe me – I have tried and failed.

It is perhaps no surprise that I started to write my first novel at the age of eleven – not long after the car accident and my sister’s death. My ‘novel’ – which filled about seven school exercise books – told the story of a boy who runs away from boarding school and goes to live in a cave in the Drakensberg with his pet owl. Later I would rewrite that story and call it The Hill – and the owl would be replaced with a talking dog.

I still recall the stillness of my pony Tessa at the side of the road. She was the only one of the three of us on that day to be injured. She had a long bleeding scratch along her forehead that would later form a scar – like that crack in the plastic upholstery. I have also just realised during the writing of this that the talking dog in The Hill was called Tess. The dog was my pony, reinvented. That dog would provide the one still point in the turning world of my protagonist – who was called Thomas, ‘he who doubts’.

I had to dissociate in the car with my mother because I had to escape – even though I couldn’t. I learned the distinction right away between Sartre’s ontological and practical freedom. I was trapped in the car but could experience that entrapment in whatever way I liked. Classically, children dissociate when the parent is both frightened and frightening. Had I regressed into fantasy and been unable to return, I might have displaced rather than sublimated the experience later – or developed the beginnings of a dissociative identity disorder. But as soon as the car stopped, I ceased being Spiderman. I climbed out of the open window, heard my mother fall and went to catch the horse. That night I was able to speak my meagre Afrikaans to the farmer and his wife who housed us for the night and tell my mother what had happened. All she could remember was leaving the Inanda stables – she couldn’t recall a single thing from that day after that. Interestingly, however, by the time the friend of the farmer had delivered me to my boarding school the next day, I had already started to mediate the narrative about that traumatic day. I told my friends and teachers that we’d had a car accident, that the car had rolled – but I reduced it to one event and left out the epileptic fits. Already I was telling the truth and not telling the truth. I was inside the story and outside of it – like Flaubert’s version of the artist, who is always somewhere outside of the narrative, empathetic but detached, always felt but never seen, quietly paring his fingernails.


Being in at least two places at the same time. I only recently realised that this has been at the very heart of all of my writing – from the very start. It is revealed on every level I might consider: it is in the irony, the humour, the satire. It is in the tragic root and the comic surface. It exists on various levels as subtext – where one thing is never happening without some contradictory thing happening beneath it, or above it, or perhaps within it.  It is also there in the many perspectives offered by the different narrators or characters – in a world where there is no narrator telling the reader or the audience member what to think and feel. It is also in the ambiguity that rests in the rendering of character itself – and the different perspectives characters have of one another. It is there regarding dramatic events – which are disputed, misrepresented, regarded with a healthy scepticism.

It seems I only start to become satisfied with a piece of my own writing when it has acquired the layeredness of a poem – or a rainbow cake. When at each moment more than one thing is going on – and the layers are always there, depending on how deep you are prepared to push the knife.

This idea of being in two places at the same time was something I was first struck by a few months ago while reading the last book in Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. He writes: ‘Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.’ Those of you who know anything about St Aubyn will know the writer was repeatedly raped as a small boy by his father, became a heroin addict – and took a long time to find release, through sublimation, in art.

St Aubyn also felt ambiguous about his upbringing. He was born into a very wealthy upper class English family that had a chateau in the south of France – and as a boy, abandoned by an absent alcoholic mother and anyone else who might have come to his aid, he learned to develop a deep ambivalence towards this rarefied section of humanity. As a boy, I lived alone with my mother and sister in a modest suburb, and yet we should remember that the accident took place in the early eighties in apartheid South Africa – and that my mother had only a few years before left what was then called Rhodesia with her children at the height of a bloody civil war. I lived in a beautiful land, but there was always a scar running through the heart of it – both in Rhodesia and South Africa. I wrote in my most recent novel The White Room that growing up in apartheid South Africa was like being in an abusive relationship in which you never knew whether you were the abuser or the abused. Probably, at least as a young white South African, you were both.

I grew up with a strong sense of shame – and towards adolescence and as I grew more aware of my real surroundings – that shame extended itself towards the idea of being South African itself. That shame has never really left me – as my country continues to remain difficult to embrace. As a white, English-speaking, male writer, of course, I am continually questioning my own place as much as I question the place I find myself in. I am trapped in my own body and my own circumstances – just as I was trapped in my mother’s car – and am both free and not free to do anything about it. What does shame do? It makes us dissociate. We step back, hide, hope we aren’t exposed – and named and humiliated. We hope the gaze of those with power over us – whether it be real or perceived – will move away from us and alight on some more satisfying candidate. From a place of shame, we can also sublimate or dissociate. We can project our shame back onto what is other and shame it, and reduce it to one fixed meaning, or we can find a way that opens up our own freedom and the freedom of all those we choose to engage with – whether these be fictional characters in a play or real people we encounter at the shops.

At university, I was drawn to the continental philosophers – and Sartre in particular helped me to shape my own experience of the world, both in looking back and looking forward. I would also read many works of fiction and a great deal of commentary on fiction itself. One of the critics I came upon – although he is such a good critic he is more of an artist, a poet – is the Russian writer Bakhtin, whose books on Rabelais and Dostoevsky made a deep impression on me. In The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin contrasts the novel with the epic. The epic is set in a valourised past, is completed, uncontaminated by the present, unchanging and internally coherent. The novel, on the other hand, is an omnivorous mode of storytelling that draws into itself all other genres and is firmly rooted in the messiness of the contingent. It is open-ended, incomplete, formless – most importantly, it is alive, liberated and liberating in its aesthetic and ethic. It is the genre of becoming. But the European novel, especially during the nineteenth century in England, started to lose its subversive folk roots and become an opportunity for the writer to express his or her own world view. We read Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac in order to find out what Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac thought. The remote, god-like wordsmith in Flaubert and the dialogic visionary in Dostoevsky, doing battle with forces of darkness and forces of light, were at odds with the time – and pre-empt Modernism and Post-Modernism respectively. Isaiah Berlin in his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” also famously divided writers and thinkers into two categories: those who view the world through a single defining idea, those who know ‘one big thing’, and those who ‘know lots of smaller things’ and shape their way in the world through the constant interplay of contradictory ideas and experiences.

For me, the Socratic notion of dialogue is as fundamental to western theatre as that of Aristotelian catharsis. Socrates only understood what he thought once he had tested his ideas out with an argument. And what is a piece of dramatic writing for the stage if not an argument – a range of conflicting perspectives placed into a heightened space and doing battle with each other until some fresh perspective or new understanding is encountered and publically asserted? Often, the playwright’s perspective is located somewhere between the different voices and is not embedded in any one character. Shakespeare – perhaps our greatest dramatist – is famously hard to locate in his work – although there are threads and themes that are developed and that after some time start to feel like a personal quest, a philosophical investigation that is so relentlessly pursued that by the end it begins to feel deeply personal. Interestingly too, in Shakespeare’s case, we aren’t satisfied that one person who’d grown up in Stratford can ever have written all those plays. We forget that Shakespeare – like the rest of us – was never only one person. There is never one of any of us. What Shakespeare could do better than most of us is let the different parts of him fly off and develop their own perspectives – their own multiple personalities – so that out of one man’s imagination we begin to find a maquette for the cosmos. Dostoevsky, at least through the lens of Bakhtin, showed me how this dialogic way of narrating a story or staging a series of dramatic events has been used in fiction as much as the theatre.


What I would like to conclude with is a consideration of that deeply existentialist word ‘engagement’ – especially in the context of today, both in South Africa and more generally. Because having dialogue at the heart of your creative work may seem like fence-sitting, or like hedging your bets. It may also seem like a strategy to rig the conversation – so that the white male artist, in this case, can pretend not to be there but can still surreptitiously orchestrate the whole endeavour to his own ends. Here the artist is the puppeteer, the ventriloquist, the dark magician trying to hoodwink the reader or audience into seeing the world in his or her own way. In this version of the creative act, all art is about promoting the self-interest of the artist – and the artwork can later be used as evidence of the imposition of the will of the creator onto an unsuspecting and passive audience.

But it is also true that we write in order to send a provocation out into the world. We want to shift something in the audience – and perhaps by doing so shift something in the world. Even if our first desire is simply to entertain. Much of the meaning of a literary work resides in the point of view – and how that point of view subjugates other points of view. Do contrary positions or positions that are considered in some way ‘other’ have the illusion of agency and autonomy? Do their fictional lives give the illusion of transcending the framework of the artwork? Does our representation of what is other or even antagonistic feel like caricature or a failed attempt at a complex representation? In a dialogic artwork, the act of representation knows it is inadequate before it even starts. In fact, it starts from this place – of insisting on its own subjectivity and on the subjectivity of all that is outside of it. It also knows that it is a metaphorical and not a literal space – that it doesn’t represent the outside world but stands as an alternative to it – it is an elaborate hall of mirrors that now and again might reflect back at us snippets that we recognise from our own lives. In the dialogic artwork, it is up to the reader or the audience to draw these mirrors together in order to find a coherent image that stands for themselves.

It may also be useful to describe the process I like to go through when I write. My desk is in the small room adjoining our bedroom and I sit down, switch on my lamp and open my computer. Usually within a few moments I begin to type. Into the void. Each blank page becomes the site for a new pathway, a new experiment into the unknown. I am setting off like an arctic fox, nosing the air, seeking out a new den or a new source of nourishment. Each story world provides an opportunity to be somewhere else, somewhere I am not. Each character provides an opportunity to be someone else, someone I am not. I write in order to dissociate myself from what I am and what surrounds me and sublimate myself into something else – some new opportunity for growth. I often say that for me writing is never about writing what you know, or what you think you know. It is about setting off into the unknown – and finding a song to sing as you go there.

Yesterday, I was a talking dog. Today, I shall be a fox. Tomorrow, for all I know, I may find I was a hedgehog all along. What is most important, however, is to keep regaining the knowledge that I am free, and that I am forever in a state of becoming. The act of setting off is what establishes that I am still alive – and I set off with the happy knowledge that arrival will forever elude me.

But if our engagement is to be inclusive, and as respectful of the freedoms of others as it is of our own, we also have to retain a degree of disengagement – of scepticism regarding our own positioning. This desire to be in two places at the same time can become a kind of trap, as we have seen – it can become compulsive rather than voluntary. Yet it should be voluntary – and for me in my own practice it is also mandatory. Disengagement while being engaged is essential because it provides that shard of scepticism, of provisionality, of open-endedness, that should accompany all healthy fiction-making. We are never writing the truth. We do not have access to the truth. And this is a cause for celebration, because it renders each of us equal and each of us free. We need this healthy scepticism, this capacity for being in more than one place at the same time, because we are slipping – as South Africans and as people of the world generality – into the same tired absolutes – of race, gender, religion. We are being told time and time again that our whiteness, or queerness, or femaleness, or indeed our god is more important or more defining to us as individuals than our shared humanity. We are erecting walls, hunkering down, preparing ourselves for new wars. And in order to commit violence on someone else, we have to objectify them, we have to turn them into something they are not. We have to nurture myths of difference rather than what Derrida called differance – which is about the perpetual deferral of fixed meanings – and of nosing our way back into the unwritten, unprepared territory, where language, when returned to its inexhaustibility, and its capacity to be in more than one place at the same time, does as well at shaping us as anything else.

This is a slightly edited version of a keynote speech delivered at Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, on 11 May 2017.

WORK/Life: Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog by Antonia Steyn

Antjie Krog is the author of the Alan Paton Award-winning Country of My Skull and A Change of Tongue. Her first poetry collection, Dogter van Jefta, was published when she was aged 18; other collections include Mede-wete / Synapse and The Stars say ‘tsau’. The English edition of Lady Anne, a collection first released in Afrikaans in 1989, was recently published by Human & Rousseau in collaboration with Bucknell University Press.

Krog has been an extraordinary Professor of Literature and Philosophy at the University of the Western Cape since 2004.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing, for me, means to attempt to say the unsayable.

Which books changed your life?

I don’t read books that do not change my life. I expect of every novel or poetry volume to shift something in me so that I am a different person by the end of it.

Your favourite fictional character?

Petrus in Disgrace and maybe a real character such as Teboho Raboko who shouts in his Sefela: “Hail you, fire-speckled giraffe, Hail you quinea fowl, with water tearing upwards from your head.” And in Afrikaans, a character by Eugene Marais: My vaal sussie Gampta, “al wat ek in die wêreld het, buiten my ou ouma.”

What are you working on at the moment?

I try to return to poems. Just single individual and not-thought-about poems.

Describe your workspace.

I write poetry, or the beginning of poems on my bed. They are reworked on paper until they move to the computer. I only got a “study” with a surface exclusively for a laptop and dictionaries when I was around 47-years-old.

The most important instrument you use?

Pencil. Sharp. HB. A4 paper and a Pelikan rubber. That’s for poetry. For non-fiction: laptop and a good chair.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Half-past-four in the morning, for non-fiction. Poetry is like a big shit. It comes when it wants. If you squeeze it back, it will be hard and dry. So you must have “endless” time…

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

I once read that a writer’s block has to do with ego, so I work on the ego.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

To sit down. To lift the pencil over the white empty page. To allow it to be a fishingrod lined into the unconscious, touching and lifting out shimmering fishes from below, fitted out to say what you try to say. The hardest thing about being a poet is that you don’t know when it will leave you – just one morning, and it’s gone, that heard-voice coming from you don’t know where. Gone. And as far as I can make out: it never returns.

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

I have no advice for younger poets in this technological age – coming from a time where the poem was what mattered, not the poet, her looks, her recipes, her relaxation methods, her self-doubt, his marriages, his Facebook page, agent or public utterances. That is why I didn’t answer some of your questions, those that I thought: jesus, what the fuck?

[Editor’s note: Those questions unanswered included “What do you dislike most about yourself?, “What are you afraid of?”, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?” and “How do you relax?”]

Lady Anne is published by Human & Rousseau.

Author photograph by Antonia Steyn.

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.