Eben Venter grew up on a sheep farm in Eastern Cape, South Africa. After studying philosophy at university he migrated to Australia in 1986 when a State of Emergency was declared. His novels, which have appeared in both English and Afrikaans, include Santa Gamka (which won the W.A. Hofmeyr prize, the M-Net and the ATKV prize), Wolf, Wolf and Trencherman. His next English-language title, Green as the Sky is Blue will be published by Umuzi in August.
What does “writing” mean?
I have notes for a short story based on a Congolese refugee called Emmanuel (whom I’ve met in real life). Emmanuel has a problem with his eyes. They close involuntarily: he often can’t see what he’s supposed to. He is also shy, but an accomplished artist of line drawings.
Weeks before he has to see a specialist, he makes meticulous drawings of his eye condition. He’ll be too shy to explain what’s going on and his eyes might shut suddenly, so this is his solution. These are my notes so far. Sometimes during the night I wake up and continue the story. In fact, I’ve just about finished the story in my head. However, all of this, the notes and thoughts, do not add up to a written story.
Only once I’ve sat down and activate my imagination – the action of forming mental images, and writing them down – will the words follow on one another and guide my sentences from one to the next. Only in the actual process of writing will the building blocks of the story – those notes and thoughts – at last become story.
Which book changed your life?
This question does not apply to me. I can only say the following: during and after my brother’s death Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying gave me insight into the process of dying. I love Remedios the Beauty whose beauty was so powerful that one day, while hanging out the sheets in the wind, she ascended into heaven – from Gabriel Garcia Marques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I like the Afrikaans writer Karel Schoeman’s meandering, dream-like sentences. J.M. Coetzee’s clear, precise use of the English language I admire, and how, in spite of the clarity, his stories always allude to something other than what’s on the page. I also love W.G. Sebald’s lateral jumps: from the eyes of owls in the Antwerp Zoo to the penetrating gaze of philosophers. That is the selection I’ll make for now.
Your favourite fictional character?
As a child I liked Noddy. But fascination with a fictional character changed as my reading matured. If I’m enveloped by the story and the way it’s told, the character at the time becomes my favourite. However, I am attracted to characters whose life and times seem absurd, as if they float one inch above the real world. Many Eastern European novelists created these sort of characters, maybe they would’ve headed for a gulag if they wrote otherwise. There is the young first person narrator in Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and the wastepaper collector of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. There is Coetzee’s Michael K who silently subverts the system, and that obstreperous voice of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield I will not forget.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a sixteen-part love story about a woman who migrates from Cape Town to Australia’s Gold Coast; it’s for a woman’s magazine called Vrouekeur. I am also making lots of notes on the different voices in, and doing research for, my new novel. More I cannot say otherwise my creative process becomes diluted. For sure it’ll only become a story once I start writing uninterruptedly.
Describe your workspace.
My study faces north-east with morning light pouring into the room. My desk is a broad top with six drawers, probably originating from an office in the old SAR [South African Republic]. The shelves in this room hold my collection of Afrikaans books, my dictionaries, philosophy texts and my own books: the eleven works of fiction I’ve produced, and the translations works. I keep these in sight to remind and encourage me of the task ahead: a story with a different approach, hopefully changing the form of the novel, and on a subject I haven’t tackled before. I am happy to have a working room like this.
The most important instrument you use?
My eleven-inch MacBook Pro, my current notebook with its HB Staedtler pencil, my set of two Shorter Oxfords, the HAT [verklarende handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse taal], my Latin and Greek dictionaries, and the two thesauruses in English and Afrikaans.
What’s your most productive time of day?
The golden writing period is that three to four hours early in the morning. If I miss that time, I miss out on delivering my creative piece for the day. Very little alcohol, no dagga and early to bed are all pre-conditions of using the golden hours productively.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
I don’t get stuck while I’m in the writing process. Even if I do write nonsense, it still exists as an amorphous creation from which I can make sense the following day. Stuck means not opening up where I had left my creative work the day before. Worse is not even making a single note in my current notebook.
How do you relax?
I take our whippet and kelpie to the nearest beach for a run and a swim. When the monkey mind takes over, the Buddhists’ term for the distracted, jumping all over the place mind state, I opt for compulsory relaxation. That consists of an hour work-out with my trainer at the gymnasium. As I cannot afford to pay in full, I barter by cooking him supper twice a week.
How has living outside of SA influenced the way you write about the country?
In 2009 my novel Santa Gamka was published, later to become a successful stage play too. The story is about a young lad operating as a sex worker in a small Karoo town. All my notes, written and photographic ones, were made while I lived in Prince Albert in the Great Karoo. However the book I wrote here on the north eastern coast of New South Wales, Australia. The vast distance between myself and the location of the story made me into homo ludens, I could write playfully, say whatever I wished through the character of Lucky. And I did. The distance also gives me that sudden, fresh appreciation of a word, an expression or the name of a small Karoo bossie – as if I’m registering the beauty and significance of these words for the first time.
Who and what has influenced your work?
Growing up on an Eastern Cape farm, privileged, the system semi-feudal (you have to insert these qualifiers now or you’re dead meat), influenced the story-lines of my earlier work (it boils down to what you do with your privilege, doesn’t it?). My Afrikaans teacher at Grey College was a worldly pedagogue, my philosophy lecturers, first at Potchefstroom, then at UJ, were all brilliant: What do you mean when you say that? And: You can’t just use that term without properly defining it. Other than that, I was an auto-didact: I shaped my use of language and my appreciation of literature by constantly reading.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I once had an offer from the University of the North-West to take up a junior lectureship in philosophy. I turned it down. Never followed the straight and narrow which would’ve meant a steady salary and a pension. No-one told me I’d made a good choice. Quite the opposite.
I smoked hashish in an alley off the Ramblas and I looked at male models in Interview magazine and read Genet which kind of shocked me at the time. In 1986 when the State of Emergency was declared in South Africa I migrated. No one told me to do this. I just did it. And kept on writing.
Your favourite ritual?
Sometime ago I made ceviche for the first time – the Peruvian way of marinating raw white fish. It turned out beautifully. That is a ritual. There are other rituals described in my new novel, Green as the Sky is Blue, that I actively participated in and made notes of afterwards. Those rituals have enriched my life. There are simpler ones, like tickling a dog’s ear and drinking a lovely cup of tea. And reading.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Without any doubt it is persisting with the act of writing, as I’ve tried to explain above. Week after week, one month to the next, until you have completed your first draft. Then comes the meticulous revising. It could take up to two years. If I remember correctly James Joyce sometimes spent two weeks on a single sentence, and fourteen years on Ulysses.
The most pleasurable part of the novel-writing process?
A single sentence, pared down, saying exactly what I had intended it too, can bring pleasure. When I reach the seventh draft of a novel I become happy too.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
The fourth of the seven deadly sins, sloth. On the other hand, I don’t want to apply such Calvinistic rigour to my life and work. That British nurse who recorded the top five dying wishes of people, noted that they regretted working so hard or not keeping in touch with their friends, or not simply hanging out.
What are you afraid of?
During the time of Cyclone Debbie our house, a Queenslander high on stilts, almost flooded. I had to take a Valium. Once the whippet did her business next to a baseball field and I refused to pick it up because the field manager told me to. He then started walking straight at me: the embodiment of the menacing male oppressor that has done so much damage through the ages – that scared me. And the dogs.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?
You have to read widely in order to know what has been written and what’s happening on the writing scene now.
Secondly: you have to be prepared to write long hours on your own. Then be able to endure (constructive) criticism of your work.
What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?
Recently I received an email form J.M. Coetzee after he had read my last novel, Groen soos die Hemel daarbo. I can’t say what was in it for privacy reasons, but his words will make me happy for years to come.
Author photograph by Stephen Fourie.