WORDS BY SOPHY KOHLER
Mary Watson is best known as a master of the short story, having won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006 for “Jungfrau”, a story out of her acclaimed 2004 collection, Moss. Her debut novel, The Cutting Room was released earlier this year. She describes it as a “flirtation with crime”.
The novel explores the tense and unsteady relationship between Lucinda, a film editor, and her husband Amir, an architect. When Amir disappears from home suddenly one day, Lucinda is left to worry about what it is that made him leave, and so abruptly. She obsesses over his mood in the weeks before his departure, distracted and on edge. While she has endured many instances of Amir’s leaving without warning, for which she frequently blames herself, she knows that this time is somehow different and then, as if to confirm her suspicions, she is brutally assaulted in their home. To escape what has now become a space of violence and unhappiness, Lucinda travels with her friend Thomas, an Austrian film-maker, to Heuwelhoek, an old mission station, where the atmosphere is no less haunted.
Over tea at Starlings Cafe in Claremont, Cape Town, Watson tells me that, despite the book’s eerie cover, The Cutting Room is less a crime novel than it is a book about crime. In her own words, it is ultimately about “people who do bad things to each other, whether subtle or dramatic”. “I was interested in the small ways in which people damage each other,” says Watson, something she focuses on through the relationship between Lucinda and Amir. “They really damage each other very badly but in very small ways. It’s kind of like being broken down very slowly over the years, until it reaches quite dramatic proportions. And we do, we hurt people over time — consciously and unconsciously.”
The Cutting Room is, therefore, also a meditation on the shadow side of human nature. Watson sees writing as a healthy outlet for some of our darker thoughts, a way of engaging and indulging them. “For most people who don’t write, most decent people who don’t write, there isn’t any kind of outlet for that,” she says.
But Watson’s fascination with the damage we do to others is not limited to the personal. “I was also interested in the kind of constant low-level awareness that something might happen to you at any given time, a kind of anxiety that seems to exist more in South Africa than in other places,” she reveals. This shows up in the newspaper clippings that book-end the chapters and act as a kind of “almost neurotic, almost shrill” chorus of voices reporting all the bad things that have happened, and could happen.
Like The Cutting Room, much of Watson’s work is pervaded by trauma and misdemeanour. This is even true of her PhD dissertation in Film Studies, which looked at the role of film editing in representing difficult or elusive experiences. The book overlaps here, too, in the arena of editing. Not only is Lucinda an editor, “the cutting room” another name for an editing suite, but Watson describes the book itself as being “choppy”. “It’s put together like an edited film,” she says. She also had to cut plenty of the more dense material out of the book in order to maintain the pace of a thriller. “Cutting was important,” she notes. “I cut so much out of it.”
Knowing when and what to cut is an important part of writing long and short fiction. And, despite her experience with editing, she recalls the inevitable “unwieldiness” of the novel as terrifying, wondering how you manage to juggle the different sections and hold it all together in your head. And, despite enjoying the challenge of a longer fiction, she managed to get her short story fix by embedding in the book a series of vignettes which act like little stories in themselves.
Understandably, then, The Cutting Room took her a fairly long time to write: “I was reading an interview with Barbara Kingsolver where she talks about some books being marathons and some books being sprints,” Watson tells me. “The Cutting Room was my marathon and the one I’ve just done now is very much a sprint. It’s much lighter and much more playful.”
Watson wrote the bulk of the novel while living in Woodstock, Cape Town, shortly before relocating to Galway in Ireland where she now resides. “Continuing to write really brought the place back to me,” she remarks. “Recreating the space was a great way of accessing my Cape Town.”
The relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit is one of the book’s major themes. “I think that where you live has a influence on your mood and your psychology,” she tells me. “I know that if I’ve got lots of open space around me, I’m happier than if I’m in a contained space. And I think there’s a lot of interesting fertile ground for a writer to work with around the relationship between space and consciousness.” This connection is also one of the few themes from The Cutting Room that finds its way into her next book.
One of the areas explored in the book is Princess Vlei, the entry point to a wetland system that runs through Grassy Park, and where Watson grew up. “It was a strange, fascinating space,” she tells me. “We weren’t allowed to go and play in the caravan park because bad things happened there, people got raped. It was a dangerous place, but it had intrigue; we were fascinated by it. Everybody landed up, at some point, trying to go and play there.”
This allure of the forbidden and the frightening is what draws us to The Cutting Room. “It was such a weird thing to grow up in 1980s Cape Town,” notes Watson. “In the coloured areas, you had a limited green space, limited social space, but at the same time it was there and it was totally forbidden. So, in some ways, the book is kind of my exorcism of that space, which was there, out of reach, unable to be accessed.”
The Cutting Room is published by Penguin Books, R220.
Photograph: Rolex/Bart Michiels