Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.

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.

“If only they had the chance”: an interview with Don Pinnock

GARETH LANGDON chats to Don Pinnock about his new book, Gang Town.Don Pinnock

Residents of Cape Town are well aware of its two faces. On one side, the picturesque coastline that runs around the peninsula, Table Mountain watching over lithe bodies sunbathing on white sandy beaches. But travel far enough beyond the green mountain slopes, and you arrive in the Cape Flats, an apartheid relic built to rehouse coloureds and blacks under the Group Areas Act.

Don Pinnock ventures deep into these neighbourhoods to provide a detailed analysis  of their gang violence, poverty, drugs and lack of policing. His City Press/Tafelberg Non-fiction Award-winning book Gang Town is an exploration of gangsterism in the Cape Flats, but is also a journalistic and criminological study, owing no doubt to Pinnock’s background in these areas. He lays his examination out in six parts, including a lengthy appendix which gives it the feel of a doctoral thesis rather than a book, but the structure provides direction for the reader and prevents the boredom that can occur with such lengthy non-fiction works.

What is most interesting about Gang Town is Pinnock’s focus on adolescence, mostly male adolescence, and the role it plays in forcing young boys to turn to gangsterism. This makes sense in light of Pinnock’s background in criminology, and in his work with the Usiko Trust, but the core of Gang Town actually came to him in a dream:

One night before starting work on this book I dreamed I’d been allocated a house in a rural village. It turned out to be a single wall with an old door and dirt floor, nothing else. I spent some time cleaning the floor and, as evening fell, there was a knock on the door. I opened and a horde of ragged, hungry-looking local children flooded in. I thought: ‘I have nothing for them.’

They were very sweet but rowdy, so after a while I asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t. Eventually I shoved a few through the door saying: ‘Go outside now.’ A boy looked at me then at the sky where the roof should be and the sides where walls should be and said: ‘There’s no inside.’

When I woke up the meaning of the dream was clear. For around 30 years, on and off, I’d been highlighting the plight of young people at risk in Cape Town in books and lectures. I had co-founded an organization, Usiko Trust, to take young men from distressed families to beautiful wilderness places and help them build resilience in the face of absent fathers, poverty, shame and the hyper-masculinity of gang life.

The message from the world of dreams was that this was just a start. So far all I had was a wall with a door through which children could enter. The structure was incomplete with no roof for protection from the elements. There was still a lot to do before the building was habitable. And children in need were not people against whom I could shut the door.

The obvious explanations for adolescent gangsterism remain – poverty, crime, a lack of adequate role models and education – these are all neat explanations for why someone would join a gang like the Americans or the 28s, but Pinnock notes a more interesting nuance. He notes how, young men, during their most vulnerable stages of development, crave adult attention and have a natural tendency towards aggressive and territorial behaviours.

“People see gangsters and I see kids with enormous potential if only they had the chance,” he says. “I treat them with the respect they deserve and they respond with warmth and trust. So many burn up and far too many die before 25.”Gang Town

In the past, traditions served to curb teen boys’ dangerous tendencies, but in a society where family has disintegrated and children are largely left to their own devices – their parents on drugs, in jail or even dead – these traditions fall away, and new rituals take their place. Here we find the gang symbolism, initiation rituals and strict rule books that govern these gangs. For Pinnock, gang ideology is simply a replacement for what is lost when society breaks down – albeit a dangerous and criminal replacement.

“The most frightening thing is the way far too many young people in high-risk areas are dealt with by mothers and especially fathers unconcerned or unaware of the impact of their poor parental care,” he says. “And also pretty scary is the failure of government – local and national, pre and post apartheid – to provide decent conditions for kids to grow up in. We are thereby really cooking trouble in the future.”

This danger is clearest when Pinnock enters the Flats to observe children as young as 5 and 6 playing in the streets. When asked to draw something, they draw a gang symbol. When asked to name a role model, they name a gang leader. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say gangster. Their games are about territory and shooting, stick fighting to emulate their panga-wielding older brothers and fathers. Rescuing these adolescents, catching them as young as possible, is the solution Pinnock proposes – one which goes beyond the vast societal problems which the individual is powerless to defeat, and focuses on what we can do to help the kid on the street, slowly preventing gangsterism one kid at a time.

The lack of an elderhood of men seems to be what, according to Pinnock, is most lacking in these poor areas. One of the most uplifting stories he can recall centres around a teenage boy finding the belonging and pride he so desperately craves from older male role models:

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

Larger issues of this kind are often difficult to address in a society strangled by bureaucracy and poverty, but Pinnock notes that there is still progress being made in certain areas. The key is knowing where to start:

“Cape Town has started by looking at systemic solutions and, rather gratifyingly, it is using Gang Town as a reference text,” he says. “Working one-to-one has great value for both the healer and the healed, of course, but solutions can only come from the underlying systems and failures of those systems that underpin what I call life-course-persistent deviance. I would start by utterly changing the school curriculum (it’s neck-up and boringly impractical), decriminalise drugs (it would halve the prison and court population) and turn prisons into educational centres and not the hell-holes they presently are.”

While Pinnock’s prose is at times stiff and dense, the interspersal of interview extracts, the words of real residents of the Flats as well as police officers and jail wardens, helps to break the monotony and provides detailed context for the more academic passages. Pinnock has also included pictures he shot, as well as archived images, of District 6, the Flats and Cape Town youths which are a nice touch.

For a reader seeking a detailed exploration of gangs in Cape Town, one which goes deeper than the conventional media circus often associated with these myths, or indeed the total silencing of these desperate communities, then Gang Town is a good place to start.

Gang Town is published by Tafelberg.

“Pulling things up and out”: an interview with Colm Tóibín

On a recent visit to New York, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS sat down with the renowned Irish author Colm Tóibín.

Colm Tóibín

It’s almost 5, an April afternoon. I stride into Columbia’s nearly deserted Philosophy Hall, and climb the stairs, heart thudding from exertion, or nerves, or both. Colm Tóibín is on the sixth floor, waiting for me behind a big desk in his little office. Ahead of my New York visit, a mutual friend put us in touch, and he’s agreed to an interview.

His bibliography bulges with reportage, essays – but it is his fiction that has enthralled me the most. I’ve been a fan for years – ever since I read the Dublin IMPAC Prize-winning The Master about Henry James when I was at school.

Did he always know he was going to be a novelist? I ask.

“No,” he replies, explaining that throughout his teens, he wrote poems. When he moved to Barcelona at the age of 20, this stopped. Not only had the feedback he’d received from readers been less than effusive, the city itself “just didn’t lend itself to anything other than just being out. It was all too exciting.”

He remembers feeling “very clearly that the mechanics of fiction seemed to be so close to the mechanics of journalism – and clunky and not worthy of my attention. In other words, the images were always burdened down by having to connect things and explain things.”

He did attempt a few short stories, however – “which were no good. I couldn’t find a tone for [them]. I was so nervous that I couldn’t get the open, clear rhythm that was like somebody breathing naturally in my opening paragraphs.” He would cram in too much information or insert too startling an image. “It just didn’t work, so I stopped altogether.”

Out and in.

Back in Dublin after three years of teaching English in Spain, he became a journalist, writing for, among others, The Sunday Tribune and In Dublin. He remembers telling friends in 1981 the outline for what would become his first novel, The South. He started working on it tentatively the following year.

Tóibín says many Irish journalists were writing novels, but they were mostly based on their work as journalists. “Mine was the opposite: it wasn’t about that at all. It was about painting, exile, Spain, civil war – it was as far away from what I was doing in the day as possible, really.” He was drawn to that story because of “the poetry”. “Whatever was there first was image-based or language-based rather than about exploring the society or attempting to write a novel that was about the real world. Things came to me as sounds or as as melodies or as images. I couldn’t have gone on writing sentences that were really informative or indicative.”

The South was published in 1990; his second, The Heather Blazing, about an Irish judge, came out two years later. He recalls having dinner with the editor of his first book, who announced to him that she had only just discovered that he was gay, pointing out that homosexuality didn’t feature at all in his novels.

“It just would be unthinkable that you’re going to go on writing novels and this thing that is at the very centre of your being is not going to be explored,” she told him.

Why hadn’t he broached it in his early work, I ask.

“It would’ve been very difficult in Ireland – and indeed in England… the idea of being put into a category and not being able to get out of the category,” he says – especially when he “was interested in history, in many other things”.

“But also my own homosexuality was something that I hadn’t come to terms with in many ways. Although I was having probably a whale of a time, I was doing it the way that many gay men did.” He was, he says, “out and in” – out to his close friends, but closeted to the rest of society. “It wasn’t as though there was a huge gay community in Dublin who were all friends of mine and we could all hang out together – it wasn’t like that. So I didn’t have a sense of how I could write about it, what it would look like if I wrote about it.”

“The problem is that once you let the genie out of the bottle, trying to get it back in is hard… so writing [The Master] was one way of navigating that – where I could write about a character whose homosexuality was something hidden and present. And I knew about that, so I could write that book.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before 2004’s The Master – long before it – was the exquisitely erotic The Story of the Night (1996) about a gay man living in 1980s Buenos Aires. Tóibín remembers reading an excerpt at a literary event in London, where the editors and writers present expressed surprise that he was gay. “There was a certain pleasure in that,” he says.

He was reassured by a friend who told him shortly before the book was published: “You cannot be assaulted in this country because of the books you’ve written now and the way in which you’ve presented yourself in this society. You could say anything and it’ll be OK.”

The novel was partly inspired by his time covering the trials of the generals who had ruled over Argentina’s military dictatorship. After a day spent in court, he would drift through the narrow streets of Buenos Aires’ El Microcentro, which was “filled with guys looking at shop windows pretending to be very interested in some suit or other – but actually they were just using the window to see who was stopping and who was coming by. It was the cruisiest place I’ve ever been because there was nowhere else you could go.”

The novel was also, he says, “set in a version of Ireland – in the sense of a society where homosexuality was almost unmentionable”. In 1985 Buenos Aires there were no gay bars; the gay guys he did meet would tell him that no one knew they were gay, that they had a girlfriend they were going to marry.

“I had a pretty good time of it because I was Irish… no one worried about having sex with me since clearly I was going home. I just took full advantage of that situation,” he smiles.

Where the CDs are.

“I can work anywhere,” he says. “I’ll work in a hotel room. Often I’d love to make this room into where I’d live. Put in a top floor with a little ladder and a desk up there and a bed and a little kitchen and a little bathroom and just live here.”

He sometimes goes to Spain or California (where his boyfriend lives) to write. And then there is Dublin. “I always think someone of my generation, home is where the CDs are,” he grins. “My CDs are in Dublin.”

I can’t resist asking him about the uncomfortable chair he apparently writes at when he’s in Dublin. He groans before I’ve barely phrased the question – it’s come up with painful frequency in interviews over the years.

He explains anyway: “If you think of writing as a form of self expression – a form of pleasure, a form of comfort, a way of comforting yourself, a way of even amusing yourself – I think you’re missing the point. For me, it’s a way of pulling things up and out – guts. Things that have not been spilt before. It depends on memory, on imagination. It depends, for me, on things that are very difficult,” he says. Sitting on “one of those master-of-the-universe swing chairs that are made of some extraordinary fabric that’s soft on the bones – well, I don’t think that would be good for me.”

So, does the chair make him focus? I ask.

“It’s one thing that focuses you. The other thing that focuses you is just not looking up. Just settling down to the fucking thing and doing it.”

If it’s so difficult to do, why does he bother?

“I think that I have some basic urge to communicate levels of feeling – things from the nervous system, and from memory, to other people,” he replies. “It’s a basic urge, it seems to have always been there – that somebody wishes to record or set down feelings or things of what they were like on a given day,” he says. “In the same way as when people went hunting many thousands of years ago, someone stayed behind to paint the hunters on the walls of the cave. It’s a mysterious thing because it really has no material value.”

He says his answer “sounds slightly metaphysical and precious; but there it is, there isn’t any other answer.”

Pulling out.

Is there a particular time of day he writes?

No, he answers: “If you have to finish it, finish it.  The urge to finish sometimes is a big one, that you’ve really got to try and develop. I can do a lot in a day, but only when I’ve got everything in my head.”

“If you have the character, if you’re me you have everything then because you can work around and you can build up the story. You always will know what they would do, or what they must do in a given situation. Then you can work from that.”

While Brooklyn (2009) developed quickly, his novels typically have a long gestation period – he admits to having four in various stages of development currently. 2014’s Nora Webster, his most recent novel, he started working on in 2000. It’s closely based on his childhood, on the aftermath of his father’s death. “That was the big one that I couldn’t get an arc for. And also, the material was so personal – giving it up was going to be difficult.” He dreaded “not having that story to tell anymore” – “because once I finished it, I realised I can’t really revisit this material – I have to sort of let it all go”.

The hardest part of the book was a passage where the title character (who was inspired by his mother) sees a vision of her late husband. He grabs a copy of the book from his bookshelf, and reads it, the words emerging so quietly that my voice recorder barely catches them.

He closes the book. He tells me about how he went alone to Wexford – the setting of the book, where he grew up – specifically to write it. He spent the whole of Saturday at his desk.

“The reward was going to be a big swim. And it started to rain – being Ireland, of course,” he smiles. After writing it, he went swimming anyway. “I stayed in the water for quite some time just thinking, ‘I will never have to do that again; I will never have to do that again.’” Afterwards he packed up the car and drove back to Dublin – he didn’t want to be in the room where he wrote it.

“With that, you can’t do a second draft of it. It’s one of those bits that you write down as though it’s happening in real time to you, now, and you can change words or make little cuts but you can’t rewrite it – you can’t start again; you do it once.” It’s not a vision, he emphasises – “you’re in full control over it. You’re concentrating fiercely; it’s an act of will.”

I ask him if writing something so personal results in catharsis.

“No – you’re manipulating, pulling out and you’re using, you’re not releasing. It’s funny – if anything it hardens it.”

A recent story Tóibín wrote for the New Yorker he based on his experience of hypnosis with one of Ireland’s top psychiatrists. I ask him if therapy has influenced his writing.

“It’s been useful,” he replies. “It gives you a sort of knowledge so you can see things more clearly. So if you’re dramatising things you actually know why you’re dramatising them – or you can see the conflict; you can know why, as you turn a page, you’re suddenly going into this territory – without doing it blindly or foolishly.”

Value for money.

I ask him how time away from Ireland influences writing about his homeland.

“My problem is that I don’t have any real sense of contemporary Ireland. A few times in short stories I can do it, but I don’t have any real sense of the society.” He thinks that’s because “I haven’t had children there and lived in the suburbs and watched them going to school… I’ve been very solitary and I have not had a job [there] for a long time.”

“I think when you get to a certain age it doesn’t really matter where you live. I know people disagree with that – I talked a lot at one point to your compatriot Nadine Gordimer about that. She was very intent, very emphatic about the idea that if you missed the small daily, businesses of a society – not even one that’s changing, but just one that’s there – then you lose a flavour for your book, the things you just won’t know. But in my case, I’m not that interested in societies anyway – as she was,” he says. “The flying in and out has been good,” because returning after time away results in “a sudden re-familiarisation – a smell, the look of something, the sound of someone’s voice, when you’re not used to it”. “If you’re there all the time, you might not feel that as sharply, it wouldn’t seem so stark or oddly interesting.”

“I didn’t plan to start living in America,” he says. “I just got offered jobs and suddenly sort of drifted into it.” He loves “everything about” Columbia. Instead of teaching in the creative writing faculty, he lectures for one semester in the English literature department. Surrounding him are theorists, academics who have written serious critical books. “I’m the writer in the department. I think there was a bit of suspicion to begin with that I wouldn’t know what I was talking about, and that the students wouldn’t be getting value for money,” he says.

On Mondays, he teaches to postgrads a course called Ordeal and self-invention: the heroine from Jane Austen to Edith Wharton; on Tuesdays he gives one on Irish prose to undergrads. Instead of looking at literature through a theoretical prism, “I’m looking at the thing as it’s being made, as though it not been made yet – and looking at what the strategies are to create something.”

Today he explored with his 15 students that sometimes “a novel is a way of rescuing a novel – meaning that half-way through a novel you realise that if I don’t get involved in the rescuing of this book, then I’m going to lose the book. And often it’s because you’ve given characters too much definition, and they’re now only going to live in character for the rest of the book. We talk a lot about not having settled characters”. Henry James realised “he had to soften characters or make characters seem more foolish or give characters moral agency they didn’t have before.”

“You’re talking book all the time,” he says. “It feeds its way back into the books some way or the other. But it also keeps me alive – in the sense that you really fucking worry about these classes before you go into them.”

Alarming in some odd way.

One of several books Tóibín has edited is the Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999). I ask what the common threads tying together the tapestry of Irish literature are.

“We can’t really do domestic bliss, and we can’t end a novel in a wedding,” he says. “There is always a bit of a propensity to break up any peace that’s been had… There’s a problem always with chronology: many novelists feel you cannot handle time directly, that time has to be the first thing you play with – you usurp, you turn around. There’s a lot about death, and dwelling on death and dwelling on solitude and grief.”

“Irish prose fiction tends to be poetic,” he adds. “The sentences are constructed for their sounds, their melody as much as for what they might signify. And so you’re always listening to a rhythm.” This stems from “an aboriginal set of feelings” – “the impulse itself comes from the same impulse as to sing and make music.”

There is something discordant, uneasy about these stories – because “nothing was communal or politically agreed”; “everything was disputed or broken or ready to be burned down – or ready to be erased, including memory.”  He can sense the contrast between Irish and English writers “very emphatically” when sharing the same platform. “Their thinking and their speech and everything they’re doing is entirely different.”

“Being in New York is much easier for me than being in London,” he says. In the Big Apple, “nobody has any preconception that if you’re Irish you’re one of two things” – the English either perceive you as “alarming in some odd way, or that you also have a natural talent with words that the entire society has – that words are sort of pouring out of all of you all the time.” The English think “you’re always storytelling and your grandmother must’ve told stories… I hate storytelling,” he says, defining the form as “arising from an oral tradition which is unmediated by a literary tradition and which makes its way unstructured onto the page as though it’s a sort of form of flowing water”.

“You’re constantly trying to get them to stop fucking making a cliché out of you.”

Nora Webster is published by Penguin in the UK, and Scribner in the US, who will be publishing Tóibín’s next novel, House of Names, next May. Steve Pyke took the portrait at the top.

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.

“You don’t just want to show a bunch of freaks”: an interview with Edmund White

On a recent visit to New York, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS sat down with the acclaimed gay author Edmund White.

Edmund White credit Andrew Fladeboe
Edmund White. Photograph by Andrew Fladeboe.

Before my interview with Edmund White, I walk along the High Line in Chelsea. I do this partly because it is my first time in New York City – and a stroll along the High Line is the kind of thing one does on your first time here. But partly, too, because I’m gnawingly nervous: looming ahead of me is a conversation with one of the greatest gay writers on the planet and I’m not sure I feel up to the task.

I first discovered White in the Cape Town Central Library, when, as an 18-year-old, I was hungrily searching the stacks for gay sex scenes. Some thoughtful (and presumably queer) sod had labelled the spine of every vaguely homoerotic book in the fiction section with a pink triangle – this helped my quest inordinately. Under “W”, there was White’s luminous, exquisite (and incidentally not-very-explicit) novel, A Boy’s Own Story. Much later, I read his personal memoir, My Lives, and what was then his most recent novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend. (Since our chat, an even newer one, Our Young Man, has been published.)

Weaving between the tourist throngs clogging the blustery spring afternoon, I feel woefully underprepared. Because aside from more than a dozen works of fiction, White has written essays, journalism (for American Vogue, Time and plenty of other titles), plays and biographies (including ones about the legendary French writers Genet and Proust). He’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was made Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French. Only three books in, I’ve barely scratched his oeuvre’s surface.

Continue reading ““You don’t just want to show a bunch of freaks”: an interview with Edmund White”

PERIODICAL: Ryan Fitzgibbon


I remember when I first met Hello Mr. It was summer 2013 on a London visiting when I was browsing a magazine rack.

The cover was simple: a masthead, a slogan (about men who date men), and a portrait of a moustachioed young man. Amidst the other gay magazines sitting on the shelf – glossies with their exercise workouts and straight celebs in flirty poses, their ads for adult entertainment and gay (boat) cruises – this was something radically different: roughly iPad-sized, with charming illustrations, striking portraits (of guys with their clothes on) and smart, thoughtful stories (about romance and breakup, about new beginnings and old friendships) with copy laid out so that it breathed.

It was the kind of journal you wanted to read, not idly flick through; the kind of journal you wanted to keep on your shelf. If magazines were at a school, then Hello Mr. didn’t belong with the flashy gay gang of Attitude, GT and OUT; it seemed more naturally at home hanging out with stylish, slightly nerdy Apartamento and Offscreen – even if though these titles dealt with vastly different subjects. In some ways it was a brother of Butt, the iconic, now-defunct print title “a fantastic magazine for homosexuals” (which has since mutated into an online community) – though Hello Mr. seemed a younger, more serious and gentler sibling, more interested in relationships and love than his cruisey older brother who bared a delicious predilection for smut on its pink sheets.

Hello Mr Cover

Two years later, when Hello Mr.’s fifth issue has just rolled of the printing presses, I’m in the window seat of a noisy Williamsburg diner having lunch with editor-in-chief Ryan Fitzgibbon, keen to find out the back story of this special little title.

Skinny, with short blonde hair and painted fingernails (that perhaps pay tribute to Hello Mr. cover star Perfume Genius), Fitzgibbon takes me right back to the beginning. He was designing books and graphics at design agency IDEO’s head office in San Francisco. Having recently come out, he was living right in the queer epicentre of the Castro; the debate around marriage equality – and Prop 8 – was raging. As a 23-year-old, he recalls being “very intrigued and engaged in the conversation but didn’t see the direct relation to my immediate life. I basically didn’t have plans to get married, right? So what content is there for me as a young gay man? The LGBT titles didn’t really match to my lifestyle, values, interests at the time.”

Through his extensive travels – ping-ponging from SFX to the likes of India, Brazil and Singapore – he saw there was nothing on international newsstands that was filling this void either.

Having left IDEO and been turned down by a prestigious design research programme in Italy he had applied to, he decided to make the leap and start the kind of gay magazine he wanted to read. He moved to Melbourne, Australia, inspired by its thriving design scene and similarities to San Francisco. A Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign raised more than $26,000 so that he could produce the first issue.

Hello Mr Spread 3

Why did he chose paper, I ask, when doomsayers were heralding the impending death of print.

“I felt like the biggest cultural gravity was going to come in something tangible. Making something that people can put on their coffee table, that they have with them in their bag, or read on the train says something and is a very visible badge that people wear,” he replies. “The values that come through the design of Hello Mr. have created that common experience that if you someone reading it, you probably know something about them that you could relate to if you’re also a fan.”

I suggest that people are less distracted when they read print, that it’s a lot more focused and intimate than online.

“I totally agree,” he says. “Hello Mr. is very personal and intimate but it has all these layers of ways that we relate to one another as a community – but being able to have the experience of doing that on your own time, and being a bit introspective while you’re reading it to be able to oscillate between looking outwardly at the community and looking inwardly.”

“The issue I always have with web is that it can be so reactive and that’s not always productive,” he adds. Although Hello Mr.’s website mostly contains blog posts (and the occasional story from the magazine), he’s keen to explore how “digital dialogues” can flow from what’s been featured in print, “hosting conversations about things that people have already spent time with”.

“It’s so easy to fall in love with the over-size magazines – they’re really pretty to look at, but they’re not really practical,” he says, when I comment on the compact dimensions of the mag.

“The aesthetic decisions really stem from the cover and how it’s very minimal and very simple” – in sharp contrast to the screaming cover-lines of other men’s and gay titles.

“Each issue has a really sort of quiet confidence about it,” he says. Seeing it alongside Men’s Health in Barnes & Noble “it’s just clear that it knows what it is and doesn’t have to prove itself or [promote] something that is on page 88. It just is what it is. And that filters through the whole magazine, to keep the fonts limited, the space comfortably set. And working with photographers and illustrators has been such a dream – it’s so easy because there’s a lot of creative people who feel strongly about the magazine existing and want to support it and so there’s a lot of really talented people in each issue.”

“It’s been really challenging going from a big culture such as IDEO where there’s over 500 people, support teams in place to help you do what you do, to being a one-man show, trying to get something off the ground and having very limited resources to make that happen,” he says.

“In the early days it needed to be a bit more sheltered to make sure that the integrity of what I was doing was being carried through. Because it was so different for the industry of gay magazines, I didn’t want to much outside influence to direct where it was going before it was even anything.”

Now that the mag is firmly established, with a clear sense of itself, he’s been able to expand his team – he works closely with associate editor Francisco Tirado and art director Zhang Qingyung, and hopes to bring others on board to free up time for more strategic thinking. “There’s so much I still do that’s in the weeds,” he says – this includes mundane customer service and sales tasks “where I’m not really using my brain; I’m just doing things to make sure people have their magazines.”

Having built a strong foundation with the early issues means he can take more risk “and be more experimental”, as well as increasingly mindful of “the various types of readers that we have” – considering “different viewpoints and whose picking it up”. Because Hello Mr. is sold in mainstream outlets and not just “your typical gay indie bookshops”, the magazine has developed a sizeable following amongst straight guys and women, he says.

“It was always intended to be a magazine for everyone. Even though the content was about men who date men, I intended it to be universal and relatable,” he says. “I think we’re getting better and better at highlighting universal themes”; this can sometimes involve “taking some pronouns out and making it relatable to anyone”. Also, when dealing with gay-specific issues, he believes the writing needs to be reflective and provide context, not assuming that all readers “are in on the joke”.

After Hello Mr.’s first issue, Fitzgibbon moved to New York when his Australian work visa ran out. The Big Apple was a natural choice – he wanted “to be in the centre of publishing, where it thrives and where I felt I would be the most supported”. When the mag was featured by New York shortly after the second issue launched, it felt like a good omen.

Hello Mr Spread 1

I ask him about commercial partnerships and advertising. In the first issue, he didn’t carry any ads, he says. “Being really hesitant in the beginning allowed me to carve out what it was I wanted in a partner,” he says. “The criteria are: do they support progress of indie ventures, like ours and the people we feature? Are they sharing the values that we have and genuinely wanting to support our community or be a part of it?”

“It doesn’t feel like the brands we’re working with are doing us a favour; it feels like they’re really interesting in reaching our market because of how engaged the community is,” he adds. “I think it’s been really clear to brands our audience is really invested in what I’m doing and if we recommend someone or something it goes a long way.”

Right since before the magazine’s print launch, Fitzgibbon has spent a lot of time and energy nurturing its social media presence, particularly on Instagram (where it now has more than 60,000 followers) – which has proved a prime platform to showcase brands. It worked with HBO to capture behind-the-scenes moments of its gay series Looking, and also partnered with Thailand’s Tourism Authority which wanted to reach an LGBT audience.

Hello Mr Spread 2

Hello Mr. has reader events all over the world – after our chat, Fitzgibbon is due to head to Toronto; others have happened in LA, London and Berlin. Although “not incredibly lucrative”, Fitzgibbon says, “the purpose of them is to create awareness and build connection to the readers, and within the community to each other. I always say Hello Mr. is more than a magazine, it’s a community.”

Its biggest bash is the annual Hello Love party in February. Initially conceptualised as an “Anti-Valentine’s”, it evolved “into a celebration of just getting together and having fun”.

I ask Fitzgibbon what advice he’d give to others considering starting their own magazines.

“You really have to focus on building that loyalty form that audience that you are trying to reach,” he says. “I’ve always tried to create this with the people I’m trying to create it for so that it feels like it’s theirs. And I think the key is being really transparent and co-creative with your audience.”

G is for Grief


Arguably, Helen Macdonald has written the most popular grief memoir since C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It’s a small genre, really, approached by those for whom loss is already a formidable part of life. And as with any genre, it has its classics – Lewis, Joan Didion, Julian Barnes – authors that have in many respects sealed their reputations by documenting what Barnes himself calls “that banal, unique thing.”

But Macdonald’s book, H is for Hawk, has been hugely more popular than most of its predecessors, and part of the reason for this is that her narration of grief is enmeshed in an account of her training a goshawk. Goshawks are notably tricky and irritable companions, and the sub-plot for Macdonald’s own story revolves around the author T.H.. White’s disastrous attempt at falconry, illustrating how relationships between humans and animals can become unbalanced and destructive.

So as readers measure Macdonald’s grief at the sudden loss of her father, the reader tracks the fragile partnership of Helen and the hawk. Much emphasis is given to the discipline of falconry, a mutual respect and restraint shared between the falconer and hawk, involving a slew of falconry terms and language: jesses, sails, pounces, trains, creances, crines, bating, muting, hooding. A striking aspect of the novel is this quite obscure jargon – rendered accessible through Macdonald’s writerly style.

“I made a few decisions while I was writing,” Macdonald tells me, “and one of those decisions was to not explain everything, particularly specialist falconry terms, various species and various ‘natural history’ type terminologies.” She tells me how the impulse to avoid cluttering the text with explanations comes from her reading of military techno-thrillers (think Tom Clancy), in which readers are treated as though they’re experts in the field:

“[Those books], they’re always full of military jargon, but they never explain what those things mean. I think it’s a generous act – one of the problems with nature writing is that quite often you get the feeling that the author is basically too happy to explain; like aren’t you lucky to have me to explain this to you! I didn’t want to go that route, so I just decided to put it all down and hope that people would find the context meaningful.”

It’s an effective strategy, and it’s one of the aspects of the book that immerses you in that space forged between animals and humans. Too often in everyday life, this space of compromise is understood as the responsibility of the ‘tamed’ or ‘domesticated’ animal. So we’re left with feelings of suburban uncanniness when the loveable family dog kills the neighbour’s toy-pom, or when, as in Macdonald’s narrative, the hawk unknowingly flies into the neighbour’s plot, hunting animals that belong to someone else.

I think what’s interesting to me about it,” I tell Macdonald, “is the extent to which you can share a kinship with animals and feel that you have domesticated them, but there is always a level of wildness which remains. They don’t have the same feelings about death and life, and because we’ve brought animals into our spaces we somehow expect them to abide by our social contracts.”

This antagonism is interestingly represented in Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom. One of Franzen’s characters, Walter, passionately advocates curbing human population growth which, he believes will inevitably result in environmental destruction, suffering and death (the campaign bizarrely only gains momentum, when Walter’s adherents mistakenly adopt the proto-fascist slogan “cancer-on-the-earth”). Similarly, Walter later canvases his suburban neighbours to stop their pet cats from hunting wild birds. Both campaigns seem to be doomed from the outset, reflecting something about Walter himself, but also the contradictory ways in which we understand ourselves, animals and the natural environment.

“Cats are fascinating in this regard,” Macdonald tells me, “because they do kill billions and billions of birds, mammals and reptiles every year. And yet in many places this is just seen as ‘natural behaviour’. Now this is interesting, because obviously it is a natural instinct [for cats to hunt], but people claim it’s acceptable because it is ‘natural’. And of course it’s not natural in the sense that [in developed countries] the cats are all well-fed, and so the population of cats in an area is often much greater than the natural prey can support. So cats can have a devastating effect on local ecosystems.”

“But if you look carefully at any of the cultures surrounding animals in today’s human world, there are all sorts of contradictions,” she explains. “We give things our own meanings, we give things human meanings, and yet underneath they’re not us – they’re never us. And the same goes for the hawk: hawks aren’t domesticated, so they come to stand for these remote symbols of wildness, ferocity and rarity, but if you get to know them, they are really complicated and bewitchingly idiosyncratic creatures. And as I say at the end of the book, we should value them because they’re not us – they’re nothing like us.”

It is perhaps this radical difference that both Macdonald appears to cleave towards in the book. Macdonald’s training of the hawk allows her to remove herself from society in the midst of her grief. “It was an imaginative immersion” she accedes, “in the book she [the hawk] was everything that I wanted to be: solitary, independent, slightly murderous – and she didn’t experience human emotions. I wanted to be more like her than a person.”

This awareness that the natural world could serve as a mechanism for radical isolation, rather than a fluffy return to essential humanity, is one ways in which H is for Hawk breaks the mould of generic nature/animal memoirs. “People have asked me before, what did the hawk do? Sometimes people pick up the book and expect it to be a heart-warming story about how I was very very sad, and then somehow a hawk made me feel better. Obviously that’s not what happened.

“The hawk was a kind of vehicle for radical dislocation and escape. I think that if there hadn’t been a hawk, I would have found some other way to run away. I needed that time to become a different person. And I think anyone who’s suffered a loss knows it: you never get over losses. This nonsense that you’ll get over it someday – I think that’s dangerous. You have to grow and become a new person – a person who incorporates that grief and loss within you. And that was what the time with the hawk was about.”

In a sense, then, what Macdonald manages in her book is to contextualise our contradictory relationship towards animals and nature in terms of the contradictions surrounding discourses of death and grief.

“We do have a weird relationship to death” she notes. “We don’t see it ever, unless it’s very personal. People die in other places, animals die behind walls in slaughter houses. We very rarely witness death anymore. And I think that’s a very interesting phenomenon. One of the things that happened with Mabel [the hawk] of course is that because she was hunting – as I say in the book, when goshawks catch animals they don’t kill them cleanly they just start eating and at some point the animal dies. So I had to run along and put these animals out of their misery.”

“So, I was seeing death daily, which would seem a very ironic thing to do. You know, to run away from death and yet somehow put yourself in its way. But it was a great mystery and it was a sense that… As I say in the book, I felt very accountable and responsible for those deaths; it was a very sobering experience. But also it gave me this incredibly strong realisation that, you know, none of us are here very long.”

I ask Macdonald whether part of hunting with the hawk wasn’t about putting herself in a position where, rather than grieving, being on the receiving side of death, she could elicit it, control it. But the word control is anathema, so she jumps in: “A lot of people seem to think that falconry is about control, that it’s about subduing the wild fierceness of the raptor. That kind of understanding is utterly alien to me. Rather, it’s about a partnership with a creature that at any point could just fly away. So to me, it’s quite an enlightened relationship.”

Similarly, when I suggest that she may have been hoping to exert a semblance of control over the general chaos and arbitrariness of death, she quite urgently denies it. “That’s a kind of beat death by becoming a killer – the old thing from all detective stories. No, that’s not what happened. I didn’t think about death in those terms. The hawk represented life to me. It was this very vibrant, living creature without a grieving past, without any human qualities, and that was an incredible escape.”

This is a fascinating claim, because to my mind, death is tangled up in life – what appear as contradictory motivations are precisely those aspects of death that are difficult to integrate in our self-understandings. And so I push this question: “How much do you think ascribing that kind of life-giving quality to the hawk has to do with the fact that the hawk is able to mete out death in a way that is not human?”

“Ya, I guess” she temporarily concedes. “I mean, what other animals work like that? I guess being caught up in grief is always about a little part of you that wants to exert revenge upon the world, but I don’t think that’s what it was –”

“But perhaps this is more about mastery? As though, if one could master –”

“No. I wanted to disappear. I didn’t want mastery. I wanted to not be me anymore.” She points me to a book review which offers a reading that’s more palatable. But I am trying to nudge her towards something perhaps more perverse about death: its capacity to wipe away our sense of order and control, and what I perceive as the integrally human desire to regain it.

But beyond my heavy-handing of this issue, this seems to me to be a patent issue about discussions on grief. At any point, as with any relationship, there are aspects and impulses that we exhibit that we can’t bear to acknowledge. And it is the myth of “pure” grief (as sorrow, as suffering) that seems to exclude a number of less honourable feelings.

One aspect we do agree on, though, is the absurdity of “healing in the wild”. “I got very cross recently,” she tells me. “Quite often, now, I come across arguments for saving the natural world because it’s good for our mental health. For instance: it’s been proven that depression can be helped by going out into the green for 20 minutes a day. It [this argument] reduces everything to a question of how well the environment makes people feel. And I think that’s incredibly dangerous. Unconsciously, I bought into that nature-writing chestnut: that if you are miserable, nature will heal you. That’s the structure of so many books on nature; that it’s this kind of Arcadian infinite source of solace and renewal…. No, I bought into that slightly with the hawk and I went too far. I just went way too far.”

Timothy Treadwell, documented in Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man, provides one example of “going too far”. Treadwell, an environmentalist and somewhat crazed bear enthusiast (“I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends!”), spent months living amongst grizzly bears, in an attempt to heal and escape. Yet, Herzog highlights how fundamentally he mistakes his relation to the bear colony; eventually he is attacked and eaten by the animals he so loves. Herzog summarizes this misinterpretation pithily:

What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a saviour.

“Exactly,” Macdonald assents, when I bring up Herzog’s film. “But you know what? That film is very interesting, because when I watched it I thought clearly Treadwell hadn’t a clue about what nature might be or what bears are… But then neither has Herzog! Herzog is exactly as invested in a narrative of nature. For him it’s all death, disorder and horror. And I think both of those are lamentably flat readings of what the natural world is… And that’s what makes that film so fascinating: these two completely bizarre poles of natural history.”

Similarly, she points out another mythology implicit in our understanding of what the natural world is. “In the 70s and 80s, ancient forests [i.e. forests that had always been there] became hugely fetishised as historically and ecologically important areas… But it’s more complicated than that actually. The longer a forest has been there, the more complex its ecosystem will be, because it’s had longer to develop those communities. But it’s not that people were obsessed with ancient forests because of the life that was there now. [They were obsessed] because [the forests] reached back to a time – ancient Britain. It was this kind of romantic sense of the past still existing. And I think this romantic sense of virtual time-travel is really caught up in a lot of the cultures around nature.”

Similarly, cultures around hunting seem to produce their own array of interpretations. One of the impressive features of the book is that though it does not present a glamourous image of what is effectively hunting with the hawk, it does not hesitate in its portrayal. “How do you feel about hunting then?” I ask.

“So the cultures of hunting in Europe are extraordinarily varied and cause enormous amounts of invective, upset and concern,” she points out. “Obviously, I hunted with Mabel [the hawk]. I think, ecologically, it had almost no impact at all. But I have great problems with some of the cultures of hunting. I think trophy hunting is problematic, even if the money is used for conservation. That’s a personal view of mine, and I think it has to do with the animal being reduced to a measure of someone’s prestige and understanding of themselves; I think that’s kind of grim.”

I point out to her that these ideas about prestige, power and masculinity have a particular purchase in South Africa, where, as with any colony, narratives of the landscape often had to do with subduing, cultivating and conquering it.

“All those dreadful imperialist narratives that depend on you fighting the wild and carving out your place in it,” she notes. “I think that’s partly why trophy hunting rankles so much with people today. You have these visual images (and these ‘trophy shots’ are what the outrage always collects around) of people grinning by dead things. And I think it’s very clear to most people that we’re living in an age where that antagonistic relationship to nature, where nature needs to be controlled and cut down and to be kind of made ‘human’, this fight of civilisation – we know that it’s bogus now. It doesn’t make sense anymore, and that’s part of what supports the outrage. That relationship to nature just seems incredibly out of date to many people.”

But as we invariably turn towards the furore surrounding the killing of Cecil the lion and consider the dubiousness of the media attention granted to this one animal because it happened to have been given a name, she cautions that ecological thinking also can’t be delineated purely along pragmatic terms.

“The problem with pragmatic thinking is that it doesn’t attach you deeply to things, so we could talk about ecosystem services and how much a tree is worth… But ultimately, with people, that’s not as strong a grounding for trying to protect the tree as someone loving it. So when protestors started climbing up trees to prevent them from getting knocked down because roads were being built in the ’80s; that wasn’t because they thought that trees were worth money and could help them build the economy, that was because they loved the trees.”

In closing the interview, I ask her to comment on these various quandaries surrounding death and nature. “That’s a life’s work rather than an answer!” she smiles. “The scientist within me thinks, well, we should think about the health of ecosystems, rather than individual animals. And I certainly think there should be a sense of scale, but it is the case that as soon as you individually know a particular animal, it becomes very important to you, and I don’t think we should discount that.”

“So” she says, “I think one should always understand your own personal attachments to various parts of nature, and where they come from. And then you can try to see past them and try to work out, maybe, a dynamic balance.”

Macdonald is bubbly and talkative, and the interview races by. But our discussion doesn’t end optimistically. There’s a sense of impending loss, starkly in keeping with our subject matter. “It’s really dark times.” She tells me. “We’re screwing the natural world so fast right now. It’s deeply, deeply concerning.”

H is for Hawk is published by Vintage (UK) and Grove/Atlantic.

Photograph: Marzena Pogorzaly

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.

The quiet witness


The challenges faced by any author, whether established or not, are to find a voice in the multitude of voices out there, to remain relevant but still true to a literary art and finally, to speak clearly and openly about issues that matter to you.

John Boyne, famed Irish author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has carefully walked this tight-rope of forces for some time, and his latest novel, A History of Loneliness, is his most personal and intriguing novel to date. During his recent visit to South Africa, I sat down with the author to discuss it.

With a novel as complex as History, it can be difficult to know where to start. For Boyne, it really depends on the book: “It differs from book to book, but generally it’s an idea, it’s a theme. Something that interests me. In this book it was a scene, when Odran is in the church. This was a true story my father told me.”

The novel opens powerfully with the scene to which Boyne is referring here – a saddened and aged catholic priest, praying fervently at the front of an empty church, down on his knees and down on his hopes.

“He told me that and it just triggered something. I thought well, that’s an opening scene for a novel. I looked at the church in Ireland and thought about the fact that it hadn’t really been written about very much, so I just let it linger for a while in my mind. And the clue for it in terms of process was making the decision that I wouldn’t write about a paedophile priest. I would write about a priest who theoretically tries to do good.”

A History of Loneliness is a bold attempt to make sense of the paedophilia scandal that devastated the Catholic Church in Ireland. It is written from the point of view of Odran, an ostensibly good man who is deeply devoted to his service for the church and his beliefs, but is damaged and troubled by what he sees going on in the church. Himself a victim of sexual abuse at a young age, Odran nonetheless feels it is his God-given calling to serve in the church as a priest and to try and live a good life. The novel shifts between times covering Odran’s youth and adulthood, providing the reader with a beautiful scope of his internal struggles with his faith, his family, his manhood and his friendships. Odran is a good man in a broken world, which for Boyne was key: “I thought it would be good to write a story the other way around. To write about somebody who was for the most part good, even though he’s complicit in a lot of things that happened, and to try and find something good where there had only been bad before.”

It begins with a scene. But even so, Boyne is not a fan of careful plotting and planning, and prefers to “let the book arrive” as he is writing it.

“I prefer it to just come automatically. Even the twists would just arrive and I would say ah! Of course, I had his nephew very angry at the start of the book. I had no idea why he was angry, and then eventually it became clear… And then in every subsequent draft you actually do know what your book is about and you’re refining it and you actually do learn about those things.”

Even so, the novel’s structure – a kind of modernist back and forth through time – is something that Boyne feels comfortable in and which comes naturally to him, rather than being carefully planned.

“Even with the back and forth through time… it was something that I felt I was able to handle. I could give clues in each section about what was going on for the reader but they were clues for myself as well.”

I ask, as a novice to the writing game, if this is something that was chronologically written and then jumbled during edits.

“No. I wrote it exactly as it is. It’s a structure I’ve used a couple of times before, and as complicated as it seems, it’s one that I’m quite comfortable with and that I find quite interesting to use. I think if you wrote it chronologically and then mixed it around, something would jar for the reader. There would be something inauthentic.”

This novel is far from inauthentic. The subject matter is one close to Boyne’s heart. Although this is the first time he is writing about his home country, the story conveys clearly the conflict he feels. “I was never ashamed of being Irish until well into my adult years” the novel opens. Drawing it even closer to Boyne’s heart is his own experience with abuse as a child in the Catholic Church, a subject he notes he was scared to broach but which writing about he found extremely cathartic.

“I’d never written about Ireland before. I’d never written about my own experiences growing up and my own feelings about that. And all these memories flooded out. And I was writing long sessions every day, and excited about it. And a lot of the anger that I felt dissipated… It does no good to be angry. I spent enough of my life feeling angry and I didn’t want to live my life feeling angry.”

Of course the process for any good novelist must involve some extensive research, no matter how close to the material you may be. But a big part of the cathartic experience of writing the novel for Boyne came from talking to the priests themselves, seeing that they are ordinary people who often, are just trying to do good, themselves the victims of the wrong-doings of others.

“I hadn’t had any dealings with priests since my late teens really, since I left school. To go back and speak to priests, some elderly priests as well, I asked them some serious questions about their lives and how they felt about the church in terms of how the church had handled the scandals… were they naïve or did they not wonder about priests being moved from parish to parish? How did they feel about it now? I also wanted to know about things like celibacy and how they struggled with that through the years and whether they felt that it was still useful in the church… I just don’t think it can possibly be.”

Celibacy plays a significant role in the novel and is constantly on the mind of Odran and his fellow priests-in-training during their formative years. It is no surprise, since this is what Boyne sees as one of the biggest problems with the rules of priesthood.

“I have this theory about this you know, when you put these teenage boys into a seminary and then, particularly in the 50s and 60s when they knew nothing about the world and nothing about sex, and then one day they woke up and they’re priests and they’re in their 30s and their minds have really been, have literally been perverted and they can’t form normal relationships. But they need an outlet. So what do they look for? They look for the vulnerable people, who are children. I’ve never really felt that all of these priests are by their nature paedophiles. I think it’s the structure they’ve found themselves in.”

It is this element of sympathy for what most of the world will see as evil mean that really makes A History of Loneliness such a fascinating novel. Like its classic predecessor on paedophilia, Lolita, the novel forces the reader to empathise with the seemingly evil protagonists allowing us to peer into their minds and see them as humans with troubles, just like us, rather than as these monsters we so easily see them as.

What Boyne does so successfully in this novel is see things from both sides. Rather than painting the picture of one or the other side being the true victim, he tries to unite narratives along the lines of shared humanness, showing skillfully that empathy and understanding are the true keys to forgiveness and redemption – both for the victims and the perpetrators.

“What I really wanted was for those people who have defended the church constantly to recognise what they’d done and by the same token, those who’d criticised it constantly to recognise that there are some people who have lived good lives within it… My biggest worry was that everybody would feel hard done by.”

Boyne has, since the novel’s publication, become something of a reluctant representative of the victims of these scandals in his home country. While he doesn’t claim to be the all-knowing spokesman on these issues, he also does not shy away from them and is prepared for the responsibility of talking openly about the issues in pursuit of true understanding.

“I’m often wary of the novelist who becomes like a complete political figure. I feel everything I want to say is there in the books themselves. And I don’t want to be one of those people who’s on every panel discussion and has an opinion on everything and knows little about much,” he laughs.

Boyne is quietly confidence when he talks about these issues. You can sense the hurt there, but you can also sense the seriousness in his tone as he speaks, especially as we turn the discussion to the responsibility that comes with writing for younger readers.

“When it comes to the books I write for younger readers, you know, I take them very seriously in that regard. Writing books that even though the storylines are often tragic and the endings are harsh, they’re always filled with hope – every one of them. And I think it’s an important message for young people you know – I want them to feel that bad things can happen in the world but you can survive them.”

As an author and as a person, Boyne embodies this philosophy. He has grown through a difficult childhood and a challenging career in Ireland, but has survived and indeed flourished in the literary landscape. He notes how, as a child, books provided the escape he needed and stories the outlet for his hopes, dreams and fears. He is sincere in his writing about the difficult issues, and equally sincere in person. There are few authors who can so carefully craft their fiction to be truthful, eloquent and genuine in the way that Boyne can, but he remains humble about it. Even as I prod him on the state of fiction right now, between the Twilights and the Fifty Shades, he notes that “there is certainly a place for escapist fantasy fiction” but most importantly, “that it shouldn’t be all about that.”

A History of Loneliness does the opposite of escape. It is the result of an author confronting his and his country’s issues head on. The result is sincere, thoughtful, emotional and moving – and it is the product of an author who, humbly and quietly, has mastered his art.

A History of Loneliness is published by Doubleday.

Photograph: Richard Gilligan