I'm not going to tell you much about David Cornwell's book, Like it Matters. First, because it is unclassifiable. Part literature, part poetry, it's a book which distinguishes itself with its powerful voice. Secondly, it's one of those books best entered with no pre-conceived ideas. Its world and its characters are too big, too visceral to be constrained by any ideas of what they are supposed to be. I got to sit down and chat to the humble, warm David about his book last week and came away feeling inspired about our burgeoning literary scene. After reading it, I'm sure you'll feel the same.
Give us a bit of background about the book Like it Matters for those who haven't read it yet?
It's basically about two trying-not-to-be addicts with flimsy resolve that start up a relationship that only ends up bringing out the worst aspects in each other. The protagonist is then forced into a reckoning about his relationship and his life more generally.
What was your spark for the novel?
So this is the first novel I've written, but the second book. I wrote a collection of short stories when I was doing the Masters in Creative Writing at UCT. Two of those stories contributed quite a lot to the book. That sad, optimistic, lost voice was discovered for the first time in one of those stories called 'Movers.' Then, the setup for the central event of the novel was part of another story. I don't know why but I thought there was something that could blend these two stories. It felt like there was enough stuff there to propel an entire novel, because I was quite determined to write a novel. Between those two things: the voice, which is very important to the start of the story, and then the central event to drive towards got it going. Once it got going, it was kind of easy to write down the first draft. I was almost hearing the story as it went. It was as if I was just transcribing it.
What it was it like for you to transition from short stories to a full length novel?
It was pretty difficult. When you're writing short stories, you get used to the cycle of having an idea and finishing it, even if its just finished for now. Not having that was tough. I was lucky in that I was teaching full time while working on the book. I had to write between the hours of 4:30 and 6:30 every morning, kind of putting one brick on the house every day. It was a long process, and sometimes I was frustrated and resentful, but at the end of the day I think it worked out quite well. I tackled it in bite-size chunks and then, eventually, it was done.
Your sentences felt so well-crafted, and I'm not being over-flattering for the sake of it. For me that shows you must have gone and edited your work quite a bit. What was that process like for you? Were they born like that?
The sound of Ed's voice and the story was from the beginning was the most important thing about the book for me. I took a lot of care in ensuring that every sentence was tuned up to the right pitch and sounding good was with me the whole way. So there was a lot of rewriting that went into getting it finished off and making sure every sentence passed the ear test. Again, what was nice about having to write over a long period of time and in definite blocks, was that I had the space to edit. If I was feeling uninspired or unsure about what was coming next I would really just focus on fixing sentences. It's something not all writers invest in on a sentence-to-sentence level, but that is something I had the time to do. It's strange, because what sound was I comparing it to? But there was somehow, lurking, not always audible, there was a sense of what it needed to sound like.
You're in the band, Kraal, as well, which I found very fascinating. How different is it to create in these varying disciplines?
I've got no singing voice, so if I want to make music, in the sense of actually turning an idea into a song, I need to do it with someone. It's quite awesome having one branch of the work I do be very solitary and then the other one forcing me to collaborate and play with other people. It balances me out quite nicely. The two feed into each other as well. The songs are quite narrative, and on the writing side there's a lot that I've learned about rhythm that I've been able to translate into my writing.
It's the first time I've heard someone talk about writing in this rhythmic way, it's really inspiring.
I think most writers read out loud in their head. I'm just so relieved the publisher allowed me to print that eccentric punctuation. It really helps. It forces the reading rhythm.
You've written that are cast adrift, but not insufferable. How did you approach characterisation?
Most of the characters I've written so far have been misfits in one way or another, but hopefully endearing ones. What I've tried to do has been based in sympathy. That's something I love about books, you really get to know someone. They may be really different from you or frustrating, but you can get to really love these people as if they were people. What's interesting about these two is that they are mostly aware of what they shouldn't be doing, but only up to a point. This was an interesting psychology to write because they are always just able to defeat themselves. You think you might know everything about a character but they are still able to surprise you, and most negatively, but also positively. What I liked about Ed, and what got Ed through the course of the book, is that I feel like I didn't get to know him until I finished writing him.
Addiction is quite a rich subject for interpretation and one that is often stereotyped and lacking compassion. What attracted you to writing about addiction?
A few things. It gives a lovely narrative to the story, as the overall story is a shift from addiction to tentative recovery. I liked the idea of moving into the present tense for the last chapter, and I liked the idea of ending on a slightly more hopeful note. In terms of how to write South Africa, it was a way to tell a slightly more interesting story where there are more points of connection. In Cape Town there is just such a sense of lives being lived in parallel. It's a fantastic leveller. The edgy, liminal spaces of Salt River and Muizenberg made it all come together quite coherently. There is an element of zeitgeist to addiction. I use a term in the book called 'post-youth,' which describes this sense of lassitude and what now?
I suppose it's that turning point from taking drugs or drinking in a carefree way, to it becoming entrenched as part of who you are as an adult. It could happen to anyone...
Yes, you feel like it's almost luck. For me, that has always been something to sympathise with rather than judge. This was the greatest part of my research. There is some dry police procedural stuff you can Google, as well as the sketchier stuff Ed and Charlotte get into, but the primary form of my research was listening to recovery stories. It doesn't take a genius psychologist to say, "You shouldn't be taking that." But it's obviously more than that. Its irreducible and everybody has got their own story.
The Cape Town depicted is not your typical Cape Town. It has more of an urban desert feel. What about Cape Town lends itself to being portrayed in that way?
Salt River and Muizenberg specifically are areas where people mix. There are expressions of the new, hybridised South Africa we are all waiting for. In an essay by Steven Watson called 'A Version of Melancholy,' he talks about this 'thinness' of English-speaking white South African culture, where things don't seem anchored in the same way as, say, the streets of Paris. Often in South Africa you feel as if things are pasted on in the most strangely applicated way, especially in Cape Town. I think there's something to be said in trying to look at the world around us without a European gaze, but more phenomenally. It's not as simple as a tourist brochure might describe it.
I find it interesting how a lot of fiction coming out of Cape Town contains a darkness and rage that we don't necessarily see in writing from other cities in South Africa...
I think it's because there seems to be so much pretension, and so much denying of where you are and what this city is. This maybe makes space for a counter view or a desire to show another way of looking at things.
What do you find exciting about emerging African or South African talent?
South Africa is arguably one of the hottest spots for literature in the world right now. There are some outrageously talented South African and African authors. What's so exciting is that there are spaces opening up that weren't around before. There's a sense that your work can reach more people. I think South Africa and Africa are almost uniquely poised to talk about the contemporary global world. We stand on some of the sharpest fault lines in terms of development and developmental politics. We are well-placed to provide a critique of the Western, capitalist notions of development. Maybe there is something about it that we can see a little bit more plainly without being wrapped up in the myth of it all. There does seem to be some very clear-sighted and angry writing coming out of this side of the world, and I think that's appropriate. It's extremely exciting. Even 10 years ago your average bookstore would stock about two or three local books. Now, every month there is something coming out. More and more, there is a book on the shelf in which you can recognise some part of your life. Books allow for new possibilities.
Like it Matters is published by Umuzi. You can find it in local bookstores such as Love Books, Exclusives and The Book Lounge. And if it's not there, ask for it! Let's get more SA titles front and centre at bookstores.