Working with Words: Eben Venter
Eben Venter is an acclaimed Afrikaans-speaking author, whose work has been translated into several languages. Originally from South Africa, Eben is now mostly based in Lismore, New South Wales. Often mentioned in the same breath as J.M. Coetzee, his new novel is a re-telling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in a future South Africa. Here, Eben talks process, procrastination and literary heroes from James Joyce to Jean Genet.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
A small piece on a donkey in the annual journal of my school, Grey College in the city of Bloemfontein, [South Africa]. I can still see it: in the middle of the page among the other stories. It contained an element of absurdity, just slightly so, of which I was proud. I thought that set it apart from the others.
What’s the best part of your job?
The following passage concludes the first chapter of my new book. Two people find themselves in Seminyak, Bali on the eve of Nyepi. On this day, the day of silence, you’re not allowed outside of your compound. Nevertheless, the two venture outside to observe the empty streets. Then this: ‘We hurried back into the garden and shut the wooden doors. Miriam was still holding my arm. I pulled her to me, into my chest, and held her there, her long curly hair against my face, the skin of her bare shoulders under my hands. Then we let go of one another and stepped carefully along the path until we reached the veranda where the glow of a cigarette indicated Ralton’s chair.’
I worked on this passage a long time in order to give it pace, intimacy and rhythm without the use of a single unnecessary word. I don’t know how it’ll be received by the reader, but it was satisfying when I spit and polished it down to this.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The 21st-century phenomenon of distraction. It could be that my very old mother back in South Africa is sick, or that I’m lusty, or I’m scribbling in my notebook, but nothing worthwhile, really, or I’m wandering around on social media, eg, Instagram. In order to bring my monkey mind under control, I’ll revert to meditation. But by the time I’m equilibrious, the most productive part of my writing day, the morning, is gone. My mood is sullen. I feel guilty. I have to wait for the morning of the following day to make up lost time.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
When I landed an international contract with Scribe Publications (London, Melbourne) my writing career, after 20 years of mostly publishing in Afrikaans in South Africa, took a leap. The opportunity of publishing in English worldwide gave me the incentive to, for the first time, write a new novel in English. Once the manuscript is finalised, I’ll translate it myself into Afrikaans for my loyal readers back home.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Each word in the right place, every sentence crafted, paragraphs that linger in the reader’s ear. It is not easy to achieve this right through, unless you work 14 years on a single book. But at least, as I re-read what I’ve written, I strive not to bore myself. And there is today little time for stories that are over-written and lengthy.
Each word in the right place, every sentence crafted, paragraphs that linger in the reader’s ear ... It is not easy to achieve this right through, unless you work 14 years on a single book.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
My first novel was called Foxtrot van die Vleiseters or Foxtrot of the Carnivores; described as 'a subversive anti-apartheid romp'. At some point in the story, the lieutenants of the Bureau of Information set off to Pinochet’s Chile to update themselves on the latest torture methods. To describe this information exchange I depended on newspaper reports and Time magazine and so on. Years later, during a literary function in Bloemfontein, a minister from the old regime came up to me and questioned me about the Chile section in my book. Where did I get it from? Because it seemed as if I had insider information. That was a surprising, and scary, moment in my writing life.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Cooking. But even if I create a new menu - which I did in the macrobiotic café Wild Rice, that I set up in St Kilda years ago - it would not sustain me.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Aspects of the novel can be taught, eg, structure. I’ve recently read a novel and thought: good structure. It has the whiff of being taught at a creative writing school. To be edgy, and to be able to write that edginess into your story, say the way Jean Genet was able to ‘sensualise’ his writing, that can not be taught.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
You have to read widely - contemporary writing as well as the classics. How can you even attempt to write an erotic scene if you haven’t read Anton Chekhov’s The Kiss. Why am mentioning that now? In order to say that you have to return again and again to the classics. They’re not easily surpassed: character, innovation, style and so on. It has all been done. Keep a journal and make constant notes on what you hear and see, and how your widely opened senses present the world to you.
Practise your writing while you are making these notes. Is that the best way to describe that hairstyle? Try again. Write the scene over and over without erasing your first attempts. The skill develops and sharpens itself in the writing process. You have to become a writing athlete. Only then, with your reading and writing experience having accumulated, can you attempt to write something worthwhile yourself.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
My favourite bookshops in Australia are Readings in Carlton and Berkelouw in Sydney. But if I want something seemingly obscure, like the recently discovered Argentinian writer César Aira, I resort to online bookshops; and the happy awaiting of that thud in my post box.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I don’t think of characters in this way. I couldn’t care about sharing a table with Molly Bloom, but the writing that evokes her so fully, that is what interests me. ‘… I bundled out of the hall making the place hotter than it is the rain was lovely just after my beauty sleep I thought it was going to get like Gibraltar my goodness the heat there before the levanter came on black as night …’ – How did Joyce manage this? That to me should be talked about.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
There are many, but I do think that all of J.M. Coetzee’s earlier work had a formative impact on my writing. His storytelling, his outsider characters, the implied reference to classical works in his stories, his mastering of rhythm and tone and above all, his sparsity: every single word counts.