Where did you study?
I didn’t. I have one year of high school under my belt. I was something of a mess as a kid. Formal school and me simply didn’t agree. Falling into the South African army at the height of Apartheid altered this state for me permanently – I emerged from it highly politicized, and as U2 put it: ‘wide awake.’
Why Do You Write?
I grew up as a stutterer who couldn’t express himself. Its hard to explain what its like having things to say and being unable to say it; trapped by ones own body (or mind) as the case may be. When I managed to overcome that hurdle, the words just poured out of me. They never stopped. I talked so much my folks would say I was ‘vaccinated with a gramophone needle.’ Same applies with writing and telling tales.
Each of my staged plays came from simple ideas that occurred to me and I decided to put them down on paper. Some ideas were truly bizarre, others more mundane. Critics and audiences seemed to like them. In addition, writing in a post-colonial society like South Africa, where there was and still is a severe sense of Dickensian squabbling for social position, I enjoyed simply writing material that didn’t give a fuck for conventional thinking. Same applies to me and fiction writing. I like taking readers on a ride unlike anything they’ve experienced before, blurring genres, and doing the unpredictable. Some handle it, some grumble because it doesn’t fit their Hollywood-inspired notions of structure or audience-wish-fulfillment.
What motivates you?
A sense of social justice. Seems kind of simple to say but that’s pretty much it. Its what provoked me into writing plays, into standing on stage and attacking the things I saw as wrong or grotesque. And these days, when I’m focusing mostly on working in prose, the same applies: my stories at times hold up a mirror to the reality I’m seeing.
You left South Africa, despite achieving some degree of artistic fame and celebrity – why?
Well, what do you do as an artist when you’ve reached the top of your field? What happens the next year? And the year after that? What is supposed to be the right path, once you’ve won most of the awards and are making a comfortable living? I didn’t want to become one of the dinosaurs I delighted in attacking – those people who do exactly the same creative work over and over – and who are content being big fish in small ponds. I left because I ran out of creative challenges.
Democracy finally came to South Africa, so on that score I felt it was acceptable to finally step away from my country, now that Apartheid was technically defeated.
Now I’m a small fish in a big pond. I’ve been forced to re-invent myself. Oh, my plays get put on here in the US from time to time. And a couple of universities use my scripts in teaching Drama. But I felt the need to go a step or two beyond play-writing. I discovered the deliciousness of writing prose, specifically fiction.
Immigrants have to re-invent themselves; face the crushing of the ego that occurs from being ‘nobody special.’ I briefly dabbled in doing standup comedy here in the US, as I had done in South Africa. But I quickly saw that I’d have to adopt some repulsive kind of onstage persona in order to have audiences accept what I do. That whole ‘lounge lizard’ “Give yourselves a round of applause for being here, ladies and gentlemen” snake-oil bullshit. That isn’t me.
I decided to switch from playwright to author. I discovered I have lots of stories to tell, in a variety of genres. I use e-book publishing as a simple method of getting my work out to the public without having to wait for the long periods of time that so-called traditional publishing takes.
Additionally, most fiction in South Africa, not surprisingly, given its past, is obsessed with serious issues: race, class, gender. There’s not a lot of space in that market for the kinds of stories I like to tell. Penguin Books published my autobiography because I suppose it was part of my ‘celebrity’ status at the time, but they were and are less inclined to touch my fiction, which doesn’t fit into easy categories.
Are you content?
No, of course not. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t think I’ll ever be. Coming from a position of having been a small part of the struggle against Apartheid, and operating under that violently Fascist system, I am acutely aware that I am in a country which runs a concentration camp outside of international law, and which has ‘legalized’ torture.
I know all the reasons for the so-called ‘war on terror’ but it boils down to me being uncomfortably conscious that my presence here means I have blood on my hands again, like I did under Apartheid. That’s not an anti-American attitude, its the attitude of someone who believes in democracy. Democracies don’t torture, foment terrorism in other countries, or detain people without trial. Like I said earlier, I have a strong sense of social justice.
(Its kind of like Christians who see nothing wrong with armies. I mean really? Just who would Jesus bomb, exactly? And what part of ‘thou shalt not kill’ do Christians not understand? If you’re a nation state killing other people, you aren’t Christian, no matter how much cross-hugging and orgies of Bible-thumping you indulge in. Its fairly simple.)
Heh, I digress.
‘Content’? I don’t think I’ve ever been that. To begin with, I’m not a person whose comfortable in his own skin. I’m a harsh critic of just about everything, especially myself. I’m almost envious of those people who are able to accept the way the world is laid out, and continue on blissfully unaware of injustice and inequality. Then I realize that those people are stupid, and I knuckle down to work. At the same time, I’m acutely aware that no words can equal a well-placed bomb or bullet. So I delude myself, I think, into believing that writing can make a difference somewhere, somehow.
What’s your writing schedule?
Up at 6am, writing by 8am and then just keep going until the day’s well runs dry. That can be anything from midday to 4pm. I do this seven days a week, including holidays. I couldn’t imagine sitting around twiddling my thumbs and not writing. Life’s far too short not to be getting words down on paper while its still possible.
A lot of your work has a hallucinogenic quality. Do drugs feature in your life, at all?
They used to. I reckon there’re few substances that I haven’t tried at one time or another. I’ve probably altered my brain chemistry in interesting ways because of it. This said, I wouldn’t recommend it as a method of achieving creativity, I just happened to have gobbled and taken a lot of different things along the way, in order to have fun and get my consciousness to the next level. I remember the highs and I also remember the utter anguish and desperation of the lows from narcotics – hence me saying I wouldn’t suggest it as a route to creativity. I just stumbled into a lot of different things and was open to experiencing all of it.