ORDER UP! Today we have a steamy hot pie fresh out the quirk oven and ready for serving. Sit back and grab a slice.
Today we have Richard de Nooy, author of his debut, award-winning (winning the University of Johannesburg Prize for Best First Book, as well as an honourable mention for the M-Net Award and a long-listing for the Sunday Times Literary Award) Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot (Jacana, 2007). He has been a bouncer, cartoonist, translator, editor and copywriter.
Thank you Richard for joining us on Author's Pie this week!
1. Why do you thread a great narrative that ties two different countries together?
Most novelists need one book to flush their youth out of their system, I needed three. When you move from one country to another, as I did from South Africa to Holland, you often wonder what your life might have been like had you stayed. You become acutely aware of your own identity and of the fact that you can, to a certain extent, reinvent yourself in your new homeland, surrounded by strangers. I was also troubled by the fact that every decision I took, each path I followed, left so many other paths unfollowed, unchosen. This question of “what if” is what ties my first three books together.
My first novel, Six Fang Marks & a Tetanus Shot, is driven by the question: what if one of my younger brother’s accidents had gone horribly wrong? How would that have played out?
My second, The Big Stick, is driven by the question: what if I had been a gay lad growing up in conservative 1980s South Africa? How would I have handled exile to libertine Amsterdam?
The third, which I am currently completing, sees the foreign correspondent I might have become in conversation with the psychiatrist I might have become. Again, the “what if” question plays a vital role.
Together, the three novels form a “loose trilogy” that can be read separately and in any order. People who read all three books get the benefit of the bigger picture.
2. How would you classify your novels?
I find them very difficult to classify, mainly because they don’t really slot into a single category. However, I would love to see them shelved alongside the works of authors like David Mitchell, Jonathan Safran Foer, DBC Pierre, Dave Eggers and Mark Haddon, with whom I sense a certain bond in terms of the stories we want to tell, the way we tell them, and the issues woven into them.
3. Do you have any habits when writing?
I used to smoke a lot, but I stopped a week ago. I’ve promised my daughter I’ll keep it up. I’ve already chewed my way through half a Swedish forest in toothpicks. Other than that, I always structure everything so that I can write efficiently and don’t waste valuable time when I’m in seclusion.
Seclusion is a friend’s cottage in the countryside where I stay for three of four days at a time to get my writing done. I do all the reading and plotting and preparation at home, so that I can devote all my time in seclusion to writing. I’ll work up to 18 hours day during these periods. The total focus really helps keep the narrative together.
Because I write my novels in Dutch and English, I have to rewrite each story. I wrote my second and third novels in Dutch first, because I received a grant from the Dutch Foundation for Literature. I then made a rough translation into English and rewrote them. I redid all the dialogue and made adjustments as I saw fit, sometimes adding descriptive or explanatory phrases, which was great fun.
I also read all my work out loud – whether it be Dutch or English – because I need to hear whether the rhythm works. If my tongue trips up, I check whether there’s a knot in the narrative. It’s interesting to hear that the same character may have a very different rhythm in Dutch and English, partly because I it can be difficult to render aggression convincingly in Dutch.
4. Where do you get your inspiration for the ‘quirk’ factor in all your novels?
I have always had a love for the absurd and the surreal. I also take great joy in wordplay, partly because I know and love both English and Dutch, but also because I love hearing how languages are spoken and how people juggle and struggle with them. I used to love doing accents and impressions, which really helps when I’m working on dialogue, because it allows me to get a good feel of what a character would and, more importantly, would never say.
I also have a soft spot for flawed characters. If you dig deep enough or put a character under enough pressure, you’ll find that almost everyone has little quirks and flaws. These are the things that make us human, unique, vulnerable. By putting these things on display in my books, I hope that my reader engage more closely with the characters and the story. Although I must admit I make no conscious effort to do so. I guess it’s just part of my style.
5. What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just read and reviewed Maya Fowler’s The Elephant in the Room and Michiel Heyns’ Invisible Furies. Because I know them both, I came up with an alternative review format on my blog: I select quotes from randomly selected pages, almost as if I’m strolling back through the book picking flowers.
I am currently reading an utterly intriguing and challenging book called The Black Swan in which Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses the impact that highly improbable events have on history. Their impact has been huge, but they’re almost impossible to predict. I find this kind of thing fascinating, because I also constantly question the accuracy of forecasts, messages and information we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
A war correspondent sets out from Amsterdam to South Africa to piece together the fragmented history of Ace and Rem, two brothers from South Africa. Their bizarre and disturbing scrapbook recounts a suspenseful tale of trauma and heartbreak that crosses two continents and leaves a trail of shattered lives in its wake. Six fang marks and a Tetanus Shot is a superb, multi-layered novel that investigates the eviscerating effect that intense trauma can have on a young boy's mind.
Alma Nel leaves her home on the edge of the Kalahari to retrieve the body of her gay son in Amsterdam. Driven by guilt and grief, she resolves to reconstruct Staal’s life and the events leading up to his death, undertaking a bizarre quest in a strange and surreal world.
Guided by a coke-dealing Rastafarian, Alma opens a psychedelic can of worms, meeting many of Staal’s friends and acquaintances – scissor queens, leather men, rent boys, daredevils. But not everyone is sympathetic towards Alma, and some of Staal’s friends would prefer to keep their secret histories hidden in the darkrooms of the night. As her quest progresses, Alma discovers that a mysterious stranger is several steps ahead of her, trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
The Big Stick is poignant, comical, suspenseful and (strangely) sexy. Two telling compliments from Dutch reviewers give us a snapshot of their reactions: “Characters I’d love to meet in the flesh” and “How can a straight author write so accurately about the gay scene?”