When did you know you wanted to write?
I can’t remember ever wanting to write. I just wrote. At first, as a child, and for a number of years into adolescence, I seemed to write partly to show off. I’d write a story or a play — I wrote a lot of plays, mostly awful — and I’d run downstairs to read it to my mother. She was a completely honest critic: harsh and fair. If she came forth with praise, I knew that what I had written wasn’t fake.
How did growing up in the theater help shape you as a writer? Did it influence your desire to write?
I did not grow up in the theatre itself, but as the daughter of parents who were in the theatre. There is a difference. I could never stand to be on stage, at least not literally. But when you grow up in a family like mine, in which performance, both formal and informal, is prized, you’re never quite offstage. As the youngest child, I soon found that the way to attract and keep attention was to perform as myself. Not necessarily the self I was — whatever that was — but the self that I divined they might wish me to be. In this case, it was clown — not an uncommon role for the youngest child in such a family.
How does that sense of drama work in your fiction?
I would consider a “sense of drama” an aspect of timing. Timing is in the ear. To a certain extent, the ear can be trained — reading, writing, performing (on and off the page). But there is also a sort of innate sense of timing that one is born with. My mother had it; my father didn’t. He had to be taught (by her). Although she was a woman without an apparent sense of humour, her great gift was comic timing. In this, she was faultless. Her dramatic timing was also very good, but the comic timing was brilliant. Anyway, when I would perform, either on or off the page, it was she who would always call me on the timing. “You’re off here,” she’d say. Or, “Once is enough.” Or, “Cut!” Or, occasionally, “Oh, that is good!” One cannot underestimate the value of such a training, and so early. I still feel her voice as I write.
Did your theatrical family support your writing?
Well, really, there wasn’t much to support. Writing was as natural to the life as playing. In addition, we had to write a lot for school, and from a very early age, five or six years old — essays, stories, plays. Every week, there was a story to write for school. My sisters, of course, paid no attention to what I wrote. They were involved in their own tumultuous lives. And my parents worked like mad. When I had a chance, usually before supper, I would take my efforts to my mother.
Is it true that at one time you considered law school?
Oh yes. I was in the “no future” hell and felt I should secure a means of income so that I could live and write. So I took the LSAT, and got into Law Schools. And then I panicked and withdrew. Sometimes one needs to drive one’s self into a situation so horrible that one is forced to make a bold choice. I chose to write, and, more or less, to struggle.
What writers first influenced your work? And whom do you admire now?
Oh, I was a sporadic reader as a child. Most of my imaginative time was spent hurling myself out of trees and onto parapets, dancing on the roof, building myself a tree house, racing down steep hills on my bicycle with my feet off the pedals. It is a wonder that I wasn’t killed or maimed, but there it is — I wasn’t. If I read, I read Enid Blyton, a much maligned, very non-U British children’s writer. And I read plays. My parents’ study was jammed with plays. I particularly loved Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, read them again and again. And, as I grew a little older, I adored Ibsen, still do. I also became obsessed with their collection of Holocaust books. I looked into that horror, that nightmare, that unthinkable genocide, with real terror. And with fascination too, of course. Could this happen to me? And how? And when? Bear in mind that I was the child of Jewish parents, growing up in South Africa after the Second World War. Anyway, as I grew more literate — in my ‘teens, really — I memorised huge chunks of Shakespeare. Much of this was required by school, which also required us to memorise chunks of the Bible. I found that I loved having the words by heart, accessible always. If anything got into my blood, it was the wonder of Shakespeare, the wonder of the Psalms. I would prop a book up while I was in the bath, and recite a passage in there, over and over, until I had it word perfect. This seemed perfectly normal in a family like mine. No one ever came in to see what the matter was. Or to applaud. God forbid.
At about this time, I also fell in love with Jane Austen. I read through all the novels, and, thereafter, reread them regularly every few years. What a wonderful training in irony, in timing, in pacing and shaping and characterisation! Later still, when I was released from the bondage of academe and was free to read freely again, I found myself falling in love with one book — say, Duras’s THE LOVER — and reading it over and over. I fell in love with Alice Munro likewise, with particular stories of hers. Doris Lessing, too — that wonderful intelligence, the brilliant descriptions of Africa, the tie to the land. I have to admit, though, that the Great Gods of Influence — Chekhov, Turgenev, etc. — do not live with me. I have read them; I have admired them; I have put them back on the shelf.
Are there other influences on your work?
I suppose so. But I never think in terms of “influence”. If there is a book, or a section of a book, a poem, a line that stays with me, I colonise it, make it my own. Two shelves in my study are filled with such books. When I’m stuck, I reach over and read, to remind myself of what the whole enterprise is supposed to be about.
Reviewers and readers alike comment on your pitch-perfect voice, and this seems to be something that you are especially known for. Having worked with you in a workshop, I have first hand experience in knowing exactly how important the authenticity of the narrator’s voice is to you. What I’m wondering, is how you developed your ability to create such clear voices.
I wrote some very bad, sentimental, predictable short stories while I was a girl. And then a few stories that were better. And then two novels. And only then did I find a voice with which I was comfortable, with which I was at home. This voice came first with a story, “Foreign Student”, and then, more strongly, with HOME GROUND. I have no rules for this process of finding one’s voice, but I do know that, for me, it took time. Years. A decade or more. In other words, it took a lot of false writing to come upon a voice in which I could tell the truth as I saw and felt it—to know the truth as it was revealed through the writing. This, I suppose, is what authenticity on the page is all about. Again, it is an aspect of ear. So much of training in writing lies in the training of the ear, which is what I emphasise in workshops. What is more difficult to get across in this age of instant gratification is the TIME it takes, the lifetime it takes, to come to this. If ever.
Let’s talk about some of the themes that recur in your work. First, there’s the setting in South Africa, your native land. One senses the longing and nostalgia for home, yet the characters so often want to leave South Africa for other lands. Is this aspect of your fiction autobiographical? Can you comment on this?
During my thirty odd years in America, things have changed. At first, I was so homesick for South Africa that I could not possibly have written about the place. Even after some years, when I was over the worst of it and had begun to write stories placed in South Africa, those stories were sunk by longing and nostalgia. Sentiment and nostalgia are fatal for fiction. One must go into the territory of the imagination with sure feet, not fainting with glorious misery. The fact is, I had spent my childhood in South Africa both loving the place and, concomitantly, dreaming of getting out. These are not as mutually exclusive as one might imagine. South Africa is an outpost. When I was growing up, it was a quasi-colonial outpost. Anyone who grows up in such a place understands the tremendous need to get out, at least temporarily — to go north to the source, to what is fondly known as the “real world.” I have had people from Australia, from Indonesia, from Hawaii, from the Caribbean, even from the vastnesses of Alaska — oh, from so many, many places — tell me how they spent their childhoods longing to leave. And then how, in leaving, they put themselves into the bind, so familiar to the expatriate, of belonging nowhere. Of living the life of someone always longing for home and yet not belonging there any more either. It is a bind for which there is no solution. Not only this: it is a bind for which the victim wants no solution. The shuttle itself becomes a form of life. If one is such a person, one needs to leave the place in order to be able to return there. Does this make any sense? One needs to put one’s self at a distance. To be perpetually the foreigner. This, it seems to me, is the life of the writer, one way or another, anyway
Also a theme in your work is the woman striving to define herself amidst a society that wants to place her into a restrictive, traditional role. Your characters are strikingly feminist, frustrated and unhappy with traditional roles and blazing new ground in their search for fulfillment, adventure, love. Do you think of your work as feminist?
What is “feminist”? I’ve never been able to work it out. I never think of things this way, never in the abstract. I write a character in a situation and take it from there. If there is such a creature as a happy housewife, she would not interest me as a subject of fiction, unless it were being written as satire.
I find the interplay between the races in your South African setting fascinating. These interactions are so different from what you find in the United States. You do not seem to be trying to make a point about racism, or an overt statement against racism. You simply depict it as very real fact of life. Can you comment on this?
This is the writer’s job: to write what there is. Making a point about anything will shoot the fiction through the knees. When it comes to South Africa — when it comes to anything, for that matter — I write what I know, what I see, what is there. In the case of HOME GROUND and THE BUNGALOW, I was writing about a particular time in South Africa (the ‘fifties through the ‘seventies), from the point of view of white people who, while espousing liberal views, were seldom moved to act upon those views. Which is to say, the vast majority of South African whites, both then and now (although, of course, you’d have a hard time finding any white person in South Africa now who admits to having been anything other than fiercely against apartheid — it’s laughable.)
The family of which I wrote accepted, as most whites did, the status quo: blacks were the workers, both domestically and industrially. The hierarchy was a given politically, economically, socially. Whites at the top; blacks at the bottom; Indians and Coloured in between. Social and economic rigidity is not unique to South Africa — you find this in many countries with large gaps between rich and poor. Many South American countries, for instance. What was unique to South Africa, at least at the time of which I was writing, was codifying this racism into law.
As to Americans, I have seen and heard situations here every bit as casually racist as those I grew up with, every bit as hair-raising as I experienced in South Africa. More so, in fact. I have never understood what Americans have to be so smug about when the great majority have no idea what goes on across the road, across the tracks. And don’t care either — proclamations to the contrary notwithstanding.
How do you handle recognizable characters in your fiction, when what you write about them may expose, betray or hurt them?
When I write, I seem to be subject to the happy delusion that what I am writing will never see its way into print. In other words, I forget completely about the reader. (If I do happen to consider, even vaguely, who might read what I am writing, I shut down and go shopping.) What is more, there is a sort of glee in the exposure of fiction, in getting it right. In a sense, all fiction is revenge, all fiction is betrayal. In some of my novels, it is quite clear that certain characters are based on actual people — my parents, for instance. The odd thing is that one never knows who will be offended. With my parents, even though the portraits seemed to offend some of their friends, both my mother and my father adored seeing themselves in print. They roared with laughter. What is more, they took the fiction literally. In HOME GROUND, for instance, the parents are in the theatre, but they also own a physical theatre. My own parents did not; they staged their productions in a variety of theatres. Well, some years after it was published, I was in South Africa, visiting. We were having drinks in the study one evening, and my mother, quite mellow on her second Scotch, turned to my father and said, “Pity we had to sell the theatre, isn’t it?” I have endless such stories. If you get the fiction right, people will believe it. The same goes for completely fictional characters. I am always asked on whom this or that character was based. I place this sort of curiosity in the camp of gossip.
What I am saying, I suppose, is that you write as if everyone is dead. Then you face the music. I don’t know any other way to keep the teeth sharp and the spirit alive.
You stated once that the real world of your childhood — a large subtropical port on the Indian Ocean, with beaches and bush and sugar cane and steaming heat, a strict Anglican girls’ school, massive family gatherings on Friday nights and Jewish holidays, and then my parents’ theatre world — did not exist in literature available to you and that you didn’t think it should. How did you make the leap from that line of thinking to actually creating fiction that inhabits that world?
I grew up in an ex-British colony, on British literature, with the idea that Britain was the source of all things worthy in the world of letters. By the same token, things South African were considered decidedly second rate. There were a few exceptions, of course — Laurens van der Post, Olive Schreiner. But, in the main, we looked north for received literature, and it seemed right and good to do so.
When I began to write real stories myself, I ventured tentatively into home territory, but then, as I said before, the work was very poor, very weighed down by the predictable and the worthy. So I struck out and wrote two novels with an American cast — novels about women breaking out of the domestic mould. My first novel was in galleys when, one evening, I was having dinner with Gail Godwin. I was telling her about my family, my background. Then she asked whether I had written about them, and when I said no, she said, Well, for God’s sake! So home I went and began HOME GROUND. One finds permission to write when one is ready to receive it, I suppose.
This brings us to the issue of authorial invisibility. In writing material that takes place in your home town, in a family similar to your own, how do you, the author, keep yourself out of the picture?
I don’t. I’m in every picture. But I’m in disguise.
How does your writing relate to your sense of home? I’m particularly interested in this because you are a person who writes away from her home of origin, and in fact travels quite a bit to do her writing. Maybe I should start by asking you, where is home?
Home is an idea, and it is past tense. So saying, I am someone who makes a home out of a hotel room. The minute I arrive, I start arranging things to make the place my own. I have felt at home on a dhow on the Nile, and I have not felt at home in a house in which I lived in San Francisco for fourteen years. There is something beyond reason in the places that resonate. I am more likely, for instance, to feel at home with the sound and sight of the sea than in the most idyllic setting inland — which is where I happen to live now. I long for the sea. Why I don’t just pack up and move there is a question I can’t seem to answer. Ennui, I suppose.
There is a sense of loneliness and/or distance from home that pervades your characters, loneliness even when surrounded by family. Comment?
To my mind, loneliness is at the heart of the human condition. Being at a distance from home is only part of this. There is also the distance from those we love, and from those among whom we live and work. Not to mention the distance from childhood itself, the distance from the places of childhood. Home is an enormous concept. I always think of Carson McCullers saying, “I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror.” I love that.
You’ve said that travel is part of your writing life, that estrangement is a necessary ingredient to your work because it gives you the perspective of another world from which to examine your own. Can you say more about this?
I am a natural foreigner. I find home all over the place, and not always where I expect to. I suppose travel, for me, is a sort of search for home. And also for romance. And also for hope. When one travels, one has a sense of living in the moment.
For just over a decade, I travelled obsessively, and to wonderfully remote places. Or at least they were then. Now I travel a lot to teach and so forth and it has become more of a Greyhound experience.
I’m interested to know about your writing process. When you’re in the throes of a novel, what is your writing schedule like?
Oh God, I’m the last one who should be talking of writing habits. I’m haphazard. I write, but I also teach. I have friends I love to see. And I have a passion for travel. All of which is to say that I write in furious surges, and then I take a month or months off. When I’m in the middle of a novel, however, I write all the time, all the time. When I’m inching in, starting up, I’m best in the afternoons. Mornings I pretend to write. I write letters and e-mail, I fiddle with what I’ve written the day before. But the real time for writing, for me, is the late afternoon and evening. This is not the best way to run one’s life if there’s anyone else in it. But there it is. I have nothing but envy for those who wake up, don’t even clean their teeth, and settle into the writing. Not me, not at all. I’m hopeless.
How many revisions will you do for a novel?
It depends. My first two novels were written by hand, with a pencil. And then typed. (The second was never published; HOME GROUND was the third novel I wrote). This limits the possibilities. There are just so many times that one can retype. And it shows. The next two novels were endlessly revised, endlessly. With a computer, there’s no counting. But I can only edit on the page, so I would print and edit; put in the corrections, print and edit. And so forth. I am quite obsessional and compulsive, so the process never seems to have a bottom to it. I’ll reprint an entire novel if one preposition seems out of place. THE MIRROR was another matter. One rewrite and it was done. I wrote that novel in a trance.
What are the tasks of those final versions?
A final revision is only final because you have a deadline and can take no more time over it. Or because you are so sick of it that any more tampering would produce diminishing returns. There are no rules.
Where do your novel ideas come from? Do you start with a voice, a situation, an image?
I start precisely with those. Where do they come from? I suppose the desire, the need to create the life on the page, the world. And I always have a mad desire to be surprised, and, of course, to laugh. Not that one can intend these things; just that the expectation is there.
When you begin a novel do you have any idea of the shape or where it’s going?
I may have an idea of where I think it will go, but usually, in the writing, it does not go there. Or it goes beyond. Intention can kill fiction, certainly for me. As soon as I find myself saying, I want this character to accomplish this, to go here, to go there, I know I’ve lost the piece. I should just shut down and go for a walk.
How about short stories?
They do indeed start from a character in a situation. How to find the way into that situation, i.e. how to begin the story — that is the labour. Some emerge from failed beginnings of novels. Some are just written. There are myriad paths to Buddha.
Is the revision process for short stories the same as for novels?
The same and worse. I can go through a ream or two of paper to produce one 8-page story. In a short story, every word must count. Every word.
I recently enjoyed a short-short you published in The Atlantic Monthly called “Lovely, Lovely.” Could you talk about the form of the short-short and what you’re tying to achieve in that small space of narrative?
I never start out thinking “short”. I just follow the trajectory of the piece and then, suddenly, it’s ended. It might happen to be short, as in “The Lovely, Lovely”, or it might run on and on. Again, this is a matter of ear, and also of something intangible — the right length for the piece at hand, which is, I suppose, the same thing. “The Lovely, Lovely” was written to that last stage of life, when the layers — past, present, future — are fused and confused into a sort of hum. Like the words and the memories themselves at this time of life, the piece comes and goes in a few moments. A few pages.
The sense of place—the landscape, the village, the buildings, the social workings—in your novels and stories is remarkable. Are you aware of careful drawing, or do these places rise before you like characters?
When the writing comes properly, the place is there, available to me. If I have to strain to know a place, I’m in the wrong fiction. I’m always saying to students that one must colonise the territory of the fiction. It is the only metaphor that seems to carry with it the presumptuousness of fiction, the sense of making a place one’s own. In this case, I mean it literally. One has to make it one’s own, so that, in a way, it is more than real; it is assumed.
Richard Ford has said that place is yet another character in your story or novel. Do you agree with this?
No. There is place, and there are characters in the place. Without place, of course, there could be no story, no life, no anything. But place is the ground of the fiction. It is there before the fiction, and after the fiction is over. And it is unchanged. It is the given.
You also have a keen eye for physical detail. In “Under the House” for example, in the first paragraph, we feel the sexual charge in the story with the girl watching the Sharpener handle the knife, “the gleaming thing laid down on the tray, where she longed to touch it.” Also details such as the “top gate” and the “kitchen lawn” the “verandah” allude to the sort of home we’re in. How do you achieve such well-placed, resonate details?
I inhabit them. I am there. I know that place. Apart from which, I grew up in a house like that.
In reading through your novels, starting with HEART CHANGE, HOME GROUND, then moving on through THE BUNGALOW, and THE MIRROR, one can see the development of your craft. You’ve often referred to HEART CHANGE as a “teething novel”. How would you describe the others in terms of what you struggled with or sought to develop by way of craft?
I never think of craft. I try not to teach it either. I don’t believe that craft creates the writer. Practice does. When I say “teething novel”, I mean that there are lapses of ear in there. There are riffs that go on too long. And also quite a bit of what I refer to, thanks to Natalie Ginzburg, as “singing”, i.e. prose that takes off into song. With the later novels, I fell more comfortably into my own voice. And my timing was more precise, more crisp. But the real thing that makes a novel live is something far beyond craft — it’s something that is not codifiable. It is the life that comes with the novel, as the novel is being written. All the craft in the world cannot hide a novel that doesn’t really want to be written. I’ve written both types, and I won’t say which is which.
In addition to your novels, short stories, and short-shorts, you’ve published essays in newspapers and magazines. Where do you get your essay ideas?
Hard to say. Usually either something that gets under my skin — I love being cantankerous — or something that I adore, often a place. The danger of doing too much of such work is that one can find one’s self writing to the word constraints — a 1500 or 2500 word length, for instance. One begins to feel all work in such lengths, such shapes. It can be dangerous. It can get into the rhythm of the blood.
I know that you spend a lot of time at writers’ retreats, such as Yaddo. How do these residencies help you?
There is the blessing of peace in a retreat that happens to suit my fraught nature. I arrive in a heaven like Yaddo, and I sink immediately in a sort of peace from life that I seem to be able to find nowhere else. It has something to do with the way the spirit settles there, away from the noise of my life. But there is also the fact that one is both left alone and taken care of. There are the days in silence, to work, and then the evenings in the company of others who have been working. It is magic. I often write more there in a month that I do otherwise in six months, or more.
What are you working on now?
A novel. Chained by the ankle.
Sarah Anne Johnson is a novelist and short story writer.