BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Zoë Wicomb’s novels include You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town and David’s Story (which won the M-Net prize); she has just launched her newest — October. She is currently based in Glasgow where she serves as Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde. Last year, Wicomb received Yale’s inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for fiction.
What does “writing” mean?
The extraordinarily difficult business of getting words on the page, prompted by a strange desire to write when at the same time I don’t seem to have anything to say. I start with only vague ideas that do not even amount to a story, so it seems a question of groping about in the vast stock of available words. If I’m lucky enough to arrive at something, there follows painstaking rewriting each day at both the level of the sentence and of the larger text. There is no end to revisions –– deleting and rewriting. Once a whole story has been beaten out in, revisions continue in the light of what the novel turns out to be about.
What book changed your life?
That’s too dramatic a description of books that affected and influenced me. And there are so many authors I love that I couldn’t settle on any one book.
What are you working on at the moment?
That always has to remain a secret until I manage a first draft and find out what my story is, what the book’s central concerns are. (That is where the pleasure lies: the reward when, in J.M. Coetzee’s words, writing reveals to you what you want to say.)
Describe your workspace.
At home I have a small study, easily heated and south facing to take advantage of the weak northern light. But it is not always possible to do the first stage at home, where cleaning the oven or scrubbing floors always seem preferable. So when things get tough, I rely on friends’ holiday houses, or rent a place, where I try to sit at a desk all day long. Miserable –– it may take a couple of days before I produce anything. Thereafter, having got back into a routine, I am able to work at home once more.
The most important instrument you use?
What’s your most productive time of day?
Early in the morning. When I write away from home I may go to bed as early as 8 or 9 pm and rise any time after 3 a.m. By midday I’m exhausted.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
I never “feel creative”. Writing terrifies me. It’s a question of keeping to a routine: going to my study in the morning and sitting it out for hours until at least 500 words are on the page. Often they are so poor that I delete most of them the following day. When I’m stuck, I leave home to be alone and to work in an unfamiliar house.
How do you relax?
Cooking –– and nowadays playing with my grandchildren.
Who and what has influenced your work?
All writers are surely influenced by what they have read. I have so many favourites –– South African, American, and European writing through the ages –– that I can’t begin to list them. Perhaps amongst contemporary writers I should mention Toni Morrison, who as a black woman has been an inspiration.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I have never attended any writing programme or workshop, and so have never been given advice, or for that matter asked anyone for advice. It seems obvious that you just have to sit down (or stand at your desk as Virginia Woolf did), grit your teeth, and get on with it.
Your favourite ritual?
I tie a soothing hot water bottle to my back before settling down at my desk.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Sitting down to do it – an act of faith, as you hope for the best. Then there is the dispiriting business of reading the mediocre prose that you’ve spent so much time on.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
My laziness and lack of discipline. I find too many excuses to avoid working. I wish I were more ambitious.
What are you afraid of?
Of writing! Then confronting my own limitations ––reading the complete, printed proofs. At that stage I see that it ought to have been revised once more, or rather, that it will never be complete.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?
To settle on a suitable routine, a time to write, and to consider the routine sacrosanct. If only I followed my own advice throughout…
What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?
(I’d like to say my grandchildren, but they are of course not my doing.) Finishing a book (especially David’s Story), even if in retrospect the book could do with further revision. It always comes as a surprise that after all the struggle with writing, after all the deletions and revisions, I have arrived at my story, have beaten out a viable text. And at this level I don’t care how good or bad it is.