interview by Joe Vaz


From Issue 13 (Sept 2011)

 

WAY BACK IN 2006, Diane Awerbuck was amongst one of the first writers to submit a story to Something Wicked. Her ability as a writer and storyteller was immediately apparent and I was immensely proud to publish ‘Exhibition’ in Issue 2.

Five years later, and her talent at writing short fiction is at full force in her short story collection Cabin Fever.

Diane was gracious enough to allow me an interview and, despite how dark some of the topics of her writing are, I found Diane to be delightfully light and funny in her answers.

How’re you doing?

Hale and hearty but not too good at juggling. My co-ordination has never been impressive, and the original balls of parenthood, writing and Day Job seem to have turned into knives in the air.

 

You were one of the first South African writers to submit a short story to Something Wicked (back in 2006). I remember how blown away we were by “Entanglement”a (a reworked version of which is in Cabin Fever). Can you tell us a little about the origin of that story?

When I first wrote it, I had just been to the ossuary in Kotna Hora, as well as a pop-up Banksy exhibition in someone’s garage in London. The ossuary was as it appears in the story: thousands of skeletons dismembered and rearranged in this impeccably styled and often quite funny way. The monk who had begun the work clearly had a sense of humour – which you need when you deal with real death, the real ending of things (as opposed to Emo), the end of the world that turns out not to be as final as they said.

The Banksy exhibition was anchored by a life-sized stencil of a photograph of inmates of a concentration camp, in the usual depiction behind the wires. But he had made up their faces like a Warhol print. There was something deeply shocking and disrespectful about that – until you read that it was the literal representation of something that had actually happened.

The two experiences were important to me. They were talking about the same thing. They found their way into ‘There is a light that never goes out’, which is also about how hard it is to put words to something that you feel passionately, the really hard and inevitable things, the Big D. But I like to think it also says something about not going without a fight, or at least leaving this world in a beautiful implosion.

 

Your debut novel, Gardening at Night, won you the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best first book. That’s quite a way to break into the scene. What was that like? (How did winning the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize affect your life/writing? (if it did at all)

Technically it was only the African and Caribbean regions…but it was a lot of fun. It’s important, though, to note that prizes are pretty much randomly allocated. It doesn’t mean that you’re a decent writer: it just means that you’re lucky enough to pick up on the zeitgeist early on.

I did get to travel, which I am tremendously grateful for. I got to meet Douglas Coupland, which was worth crossing the world to do.

And, of course, it makes your publishers feel like they’ve backed the right horse, which helps.

 

Had you expected your debut to have such a reaction?

Of course not. But lucky, lucky me! (Not-So-Lucky Me still has to field irate Kimberlites going, ‘You got that completely wrong.’)

 

Can you tell us a little about Gardening at Night and its inspiration?

Kimberley, the Eighties, the limbo that was being white and middle class back then, sheltered from politics but exposed to the superb weirdness of friends and family, with that gnawing sense that something wasn’t quite the way it should have been. It’s a memoir, but it’s also juvenilia. I feel like it’s tied to my tail, like a can on a puppy dog, like a big fat lie on a CV. I write better now.

 

Cut to: Cabin Fever. Why did you decide to follow Gardening at Night with a short story collection? Are you a fan of the short-form?

I panicked when Henrietta Rose-Innes released her excellent collection, ‘Homing’. I felt that if I didn’t get these guys down soon, then someone else was going to nab them. South Africa is rich that way, a repository of tall tales that haven’t been completely told. The loopholes are still many and varied. But they’re getting closed up as writers realise where they are.

Short stories feel truer, somehow: they’re a way to take the fragments of real life and work them into something satisfying – and that hardly ever happens in the chaos of the everyday.

But the everyday does also provide these intense, illuminated moments, and that’s difficult to set down in a novel without looking like you’re trying – that terrible self-consciousness which is the biggest sin of any creative effort. No one should see the sweat.

Having said that, I’m working on a novel – a spook story about the revenge of Saartjie Baartman…

 

The stories are quite varied and it’s difficult to label anyone of them. Was this intentional or is it just a side effect of the nature of short stories (that each one is written apart from the others and at different times)?

Each story is a homage to another writer. I’m going to get lashed for that, I know, but there it is. You write what you want to read.

 

Your endings almost always come as a surprise. Is this intentional on your part, or simply the way you structure a story?

Me, I like a big finish. More bangs, fewer whimpers, I say. I’m sick of namby-pamby protagonists who spend the novel agonising about moral responsibility and then do fuck-all. It’s cheating.

 

Some of my favourites would have to be the title (track) story, “Cabin Fever”, “Shark-spotters”, “Mami Wata”, “School Photos”, to name but a few. Could you tell us a little bit about each and how they came about?

Each one is based on a real-life event. I have trouble imagining complete universes, so I steal ideas from newspapers and so on. Dialogue especially is often a direct quote from someone.

‘Cabin Fever’ came out of a conversation with a desperate woman who had to decide what to do about her husband’s giant drug stash. Very Tarantino.

‘Shark-spotters’ is a combination of the information on the noticeboard that used to be up in the garden near Danger Beach (I see it’s been reworded now: maybe someone objected to the word ‘menstruation’) and the World Record Surf Attempt I saw one Sunday at Muizenberg.

‘Mami Wata’ came from a truly terrifying artwork I saw, by Onajide Shabaka (I think). Check it out on http://www.art3st.com/work/mami-wata/. Mami Wata is an African-diaspora revenge goddess. I love this rendition of her as fetish-totem rather than a twee titty-Goth.

‘School Photos’: Weird things happen in schools. The teacher is me plus a guy I know.

Freebie: ‘The Extra Lesson’ came out of a school sleepover I had the misfortune to chaperone. Think about fifty Grade 11 girls in their pyjamas, terrified because someone’s dickhead boyfriend and his pals were scratching at the windows, trying to get in, and doing donuts in the parking lot. Straight out of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. Tears before bedtime.

 

You have an extraordinary ability to get inside your characters’ heads. Within a few sentences of a story, the reader almost has a complete idea of who this person is.

I’m very glad you think so. Most of the characters are based on amalgamations of people I’ve met – that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

You referred to yourself as a ghost story writer, which is apt, because one of the words I hear most often about your writing is that it is haunting. Your stories refuse to let go; they stay in the mind long after the book has been returned to the shelf.

Just as music, films, other people’s paintings and novels stay with me. It’s a beautiful thing, that sharing across time.

 

How much of your writing is autobiographical?

Loads. I like to take an event and work it up into a froth. That’s what speculative fiction is – although all fiction is speculative, by definition, asking ‘What if this had happened differently?’

Writers are also constantly primed to steal things. Even in the midst of emotional conflagrations, we’re going, ‘Hmm. This would make a great story.’ It’s a survival mechanism.

 

One of the great joys of reading South African authors is that I can recognise the locations; I know the streets, I know the climate and the language. One particular favourite in Cabin Fever is “All the King’s Horses”, which takes place in Obs.

I also love that. I think it’s why writers like Dowling, Rose-Innes and Vladislavic are so close to our hearts.

 

I have always found it so interesting how we, as a nation, tend to qualify certain words (lekker, bliksem, eina to mention just a few) for non-South African readers, whereas it’s perfectly acceptable for US and UK writers to expect the world to understand their particular idioms and slang.
You, though, do not translate our South Africanisms in your work. Have you ever received any flack for that?

I had to provide a glossary for ‘Gardening at Night’, which was interesting. I wouldn’t do it now, I think. But then, the publishers were overseas, and they call the shots. It’s all about marketing and access.

 

You used to work as a teacher. Where and what did you teach?

I taught History and English at Rustenburg High School for Girls; History at Cedar House; Narrative and Aesthetics at AFDA, the film school.

 

What was that like?

I like having a captive audience, the lions and the whip and the teeny chair. I like kids that age – there’s so much they want to do and see, and they have this tremendous capacity for change. Adults, not so much.
Teaching is not fun a lot of the time. Like anything challenging, it hurts, but it can be done.

 

Gardening at Night is the title of an R.E.M. song, you have a non-fiction article entitled Everybody Hurts (another R.E.M. song) and short stories titled The Way You Look Tonight (Chris de Burgh), Murder Ballads (a Nick Cave album title) and Weekend Special (Brenda Fassie) – in fact I counted 9 of the 18 stories in Cabin Fever named after song titles (and I may have missed some) from Pink Floyd, to The Smiths and Bonobo. Do you have a penchant for naming pieces after songs? Do you consider them soundtracks to the piece, or possibly the inspirational diving board, so to speak, of a story?

I’m going to look past the Chris de Burgh faux pas because I know you’re tired, Joe, and because you’re the only person so far to have made as many music connections with my writing.
I do it partly because it’s an in-joke, and people who get the joke get an extra frisson. They do some of my work for me by subconsciously adding their own experience of the song to the story. Think of ‘Where is My Mind?’ in ‘Fight Club’, or ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ in ‘The Wrestler’. The title of a piece, in music as in writing, is vital. It adds a whole other layer of meaning just in a few words.
Music routinely saves my life. There are moments that do seem as if they had soundtracks: it makes us feel as if we matter. I want my writing to resonate (that lovely musical term) with readers the way that some songs resonate for me.
In ‘Cabin Fever’ it comes across most explicitly in ‘Weekend Special’ – one of my favourites in the collection, if no one else’s – that music speaks for us far more than we know.

 

And what does the future hold for you? Any new novels?

I’m reworking my doctorate into book form. It was on blogging in the Middle East five years ago. Let’s say that things have taken an interesting turn that validates the hell out of the research.
I’m also dragging the revenant Saartjie Baartman out into the light once more, and then, goddammit, there’ll be an end to our ghastly fascination with the dead. Or will there..? (Cue music.)

 

It’s kind of becoming a tradition that we ask our interviewees for a reading list. Would you mind listing some of your favourites that our readers should get their hands on?

S.L. Grey: ‘The Mall’ and ‘The Wards’ (coming soon)
Lauren Beukes: ‘Zoo City’
Henrietta Rose-Innes: ‘Homing’ and ‘Nineveh’
Finuala Dowling: ‘Home-making for the Down-at-Heart’
Damon Galgut: ‘In a Strange Room’
A.A. Gill: ‘Further Away’

 

Author photograph © Mark van Dalsen

 


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Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.

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One Response to “Feature Interview: Diane Awerbuck”

  • Shaun May:

    It is not so much us Kimberlites are peeved you got it wrong. It is more we had a great time whilst you seemingly had a crappy time. Then again I also attended UCT like yourself and the 80’s going into the 90’s was fun so life for you was not as bleak as you painted it. For my family that you wrote about extensively in the book they, like most Kimberlites, enjoyed the veiled notoriety in your book. Kimberley is not for the faint hearted and looking back at the people it wrought it did good overall – Norman Adami, the Oppenheimers, etc. We also spawned a Rhodes scholar from my year, Melanie Thomas.

    It would seem Kimberley made you as well.