Fred Khumalo completed his MA in creative writing from Wits University with distinction and is the recipient of a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University. His writing has appeared in various publications, including the Sunday Times, the Toronto Star, New African magazine, the Sowetan and Isolezwe. His books include Bitches Brew, Seven Steps to Heaven and Touch My Blood. His most recent book, Dancing the Death Drill, about the sinking of the SS Mendi troop ship during World War 1, was published earlier this year.
What does “writing” mean?
To paraphrase Emile Zola, writing, like any work of art, is a picture of the world, or a corner of it, distorted, coloured, arranged by the personality of the artist.
Which book changed your life?
Too many: Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu by Sibusiso Nyembezi; Grapes of Wrath; Cry the Beloved Country; Things Fall Apart; and many others – each one of them opened a new window into the world, thus changing my life.
Your favourite fictional character?
Easy Rawlins (created by Walter Mosley for his detective series
What are you working on at the moment?
Working on a Zulu language version of the story of the sinking of the SS Mendi. Not a direct translation of Dancing the Death Drill, but a totally new book, featuring some of the Drill characters, but re-imagined from the perspective of another country, who happens to be Zulu speaking.
Describe your workspace.
It’s a five by four metre office on the west-wing of the top floor of my house. I have two huge windows – one which gives me a few of the neighbour’s yard, and the other which gives me the view of the street outside my house, including the townhouse complex opposite. In my office I have a bookshelf which contains CDs and mostly reference books for a project that I would be working on. These books change with each project.
The most important instrument you use?
My trusty old Lenovo, six years old now. And a pile of notebooks.
What’s your most productive time of day?
Mostly around 5 o’clock before everyone is up. And also around noon when they are all at school or work, and the auntie who cleans is not playing her irritating cellphone music. I can’t make her stop playing her music, cos I also play my music every now and then, for inspiration.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
I always make a point of working on more than one project at a time. When I am stick with my, say, fiction, I change gears and work on a piece of journalism or some other non-fiction. I don’t wait for inspiration. I write every day – even if it’s unpublishable rubbish.
How do you relax?
I listen to both live and recorded jazz, and other music. And I go out to friends – we have sessions with the ubiquitous brown and green bottles.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t be modest, you’re not famous. Keep promoting your work and your interests.
Your favourite ritual?
Still in my pyjamas, I start my computer. While it’s booting I go and brush my teeth, then go downstairs to the kitchen to get coffee. By the time I get back to the office, the computer is ready. I start with my emails. Sometimes an idea is so pressing and compulsive I go straight to jotting it down, before I read my emails.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Finding enough time to turn the ideas I have into a piece of writing.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
I’m not a tough negotiator with publishers and editors (watch out, you scoundrels, I am working on that muscle).
What are you afraid of?
Waking up to discover I can’t write any longer. When Baruch Hirson, the historian of the South African left wing fell ill, he told his son Denis: “I cannot think if I cannot write”. That sums up my reality: I cannot think if I cannot write.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?
Read, read, and read across all genres. Also: try to write every day. The writing muscle, like the soccer-playing muscle, doesn’t grow of its own volition. It needs to be nurtured, to be pushed, sometimes. A successful writer is one who doesn’t wait for inspiration, I have found. DON’T BE AFRAID OF REJECTION. In the early stages of your career it is GUARANTEED. From editors, publishers, literary agents, and literary critics
What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?
Having written Dancing the Death Drill – despite all the fears and concerns about how it might be received by both critics and readers.
Dancing the Death Drill is published by Umuzi.
Author photograph by Joanne Olivier ©.