Welcome to our second monthly online book club! August found us reading Nthikeng Mohlele’s Rusty Bell.
Congratulations to Ian Riggins, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ian’s name was drawn at random from questions received for August author, Nthikeng Mohlele. He will win a signed book from the author!
Once again, great questions from readers of Rusty Bell, by Nthikeng Mohlele. I picked a book I knew would challenge even the most avid readers to push through one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever read, and wow did they come up with some strong questions.
It was exciting to read your questions, especially from my featured readers, who are also writers and editors.
Our first question for Nthikeng Mohlele is from the winner of the signed book: featured reader Ian Riggins.
[Q]: Rusty Bell is written in the first person, and there’s never any doubt that this voice is truly the narrator’s. How were you able to get so deep into another person’s voice? Did this voice come naturally, or did it take you some time to discover it?
I perhaps have an unfair advantage in that I am trained in both literature and performance arts – specifically acting and directing for theatre and television. Narrators are very much like characters one creates from scripts – the voice, character motivations, secrets, vulnerabilities. What we, for instance, call great performances in cinema answers this question: Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman / The Godfather, Denzel Washington in Glory, and Ben Kingsley in Ghandi. It is not so much the voice – but the totality of what make characters interesting, compelling, memorable.
[Q]: The voice of this narrator — to me, intellectual, judgment-focused — certainly is the novel’s center. It makes me wonder what came first — the voice or the choice of lawyer as profession?
Both arrived at the same time – as one feeds off the other, creating a complementary whole. It is worth pointing out that what ends up as a published book undergoes rigorous thought and prioritization concerns – and that it is not always possible to pinpoint 100% the evolution of the creative process, the resultant output. Expressed another way: one could ask: when does a kiss begin and end? In the mind? Touching of the lips? Application of a little pressure that leads to parted lips? It is possible that it is all of the above, or none at all. It’s a difficult question.
[Q]/ and Comment: The first several pages were trying, because we start with such an unlikable character, who is completely unaware of his hypocrisy: “No time for self-pitying drunkards” (53) in the middle of his downfall. Was it a conscious choice to make him so awful?
No. Characters are, in part, moulded by their circumstances – what they have experienced, their life quests, as well as their intellectual and emotional setup. Bank robbers don’t like repeating instructions for people to lie belly down on the floor – they have a language, expectations, resulting in people getting shot. A bank robber who brings everyone ice cream, attends to the elderly, would be a vile but intriguing creation – not so? Therein lies the answer.
Comment with above: But a benefit of this unreliable, unlikable character is that as a reader, I was conflicted on how to feel about him — and Rusty. I have A LOT of feelings about Rusty now. I love the duality present in these people.
Agreed. Duality is important for creating balance, false equilibrium, suspense. It also enhances the reading experience, I believe – putting in question reader expectations, thus leading / misleading them as to what is important, accidental, incomplete, touching, insightful, controversial, taboo – without fully illuminating the road ahead. Look closer at our world: a big portion of police work involves studying and contrasting known criminal behavior, profiling, at things that “do not add up” in an effort to make them coherent – and thus catch the wrongdoer. Literature and narrative dabble in these realms too.
[Q]: The narration of this book is very close first person—we’re firmly in Michael’s head the whole time. The one moment that I felt someone else’s perspective broke through was when Frank confronted Michael about the conversations he’d had with Dr. West and Mr. Bell. Specifically, his views on women stood out to me: “…We benefited from the misery of our wives, sisters, mothers—because our times enforced their unquestioning suffering.” (p. 142-143) Itwas refreshing, by that point, to hear a voice that contrasted Michael’s own. Did you make a conscious decision while writing to keep the reader so tightly gripped in one perspective?
Yes. It helps to contrast settings and characters – as monotonous books put readers to sleep. The trick is never to loose why a different perspective needs to be effected – for as much as it might work, it still has the potential to ruin the book if it does not take into account other equally critical factors such as pace, the weight of the themes, compatibility / tension between characters in relation to the narrative arc, narrative rhythm and omissions and, most importantly, the fullness of the character being introduced. There are no supporting roles in literature – but an illusion that there are. Note how intense / rounded the relationship is between Frank and Maria – Michael’s mother. But I am obviously biased – as the creator is their world.
[Q]: The structure of this book is interesting to me. Being thrown into the present and then later walked through the past gave me a very different reading experience than if the book had progressed linearly. Did you try writing it as a straightforward arc, or did you intend to break the chronology?
I am not keen on anything that does little to engage the mind. Linear narrative have their place – but can be torturous if no effort is made to “disrupt” them. Life itself is not linear – why should narrative?
[Q]: I noticed while reading this book that many of the characters in this book are introduced in passing, and then their stories are filled out later. This technique lends an almost conversational feel to the narrative, much like how a friend will mention someone I’ve never heard of before and later I’ll discover they were talking about someone they’ve known for twenty years. I generally see this technique less in writing, however. Was this form of introduction something that grew out of Michael’s voice? Were you worried that it might confuse some readers?
Readers are intelligent – so I never worry too much about confusing them. Late introduction of back stories has to do with narrative flow – not burdening the reader with too much information for the sake of it – but leaving room for surprise, discovery, confirmation, even disgust. When one says a book is readable, all they are really saying is that all the pieces are in the right circumstances and sequence. I suppose that is what produces pleasure in reading – knowing just enough to keep reading.
[Q]: There’s a lot of dialogue and introspection that begins before we as readers know what the time/place are for them. It adds to the sense of going for a ride in one man’s psyche, but to what extent is this a choice for this novel vs your others? [Question by featured reader, Melanie Hooks.]
True. None of my books resemble the other – not consciously, anyway. I believe books should be works of art in their own right – and not be bogged down by stylistic manuals. Frankly, writing is difficult enough without boredom and navel gazing – so it is important for both the writing and reading processes to not be tainted by defects emanating from preconceived intentions not sacrosanct with the world of the book.
[Q]: And when did you decide not to do a linear story? You feel bad when you find out he was raped, but knowing this after we already know him a bit as a person is so true to life. When you meet people, you don’t know their story. They represent themselves by their actions.
During the editing phase – because the book read well, but wrongly!
[Q]: Did you know that this story would center around a statistically unusual rape when you began, or did that development come as you wrote?
My view is that the rape is not the only pivotal moment in the book. It is, granted, a major trigger, but by no means the only pillar that bolts and grounds the book. Love is a big theme in the book. So is the life of the mind and interest in things philosophical. Obsession is present too, and so is lust, which is given fleeting but poignant treatment – I hope. History is important in the book, without bludgeoning readers with a hammer on the head. Existentialism and quest for meaning are underlying currents in the book – “silent” but present.
[Q]: Were you tempted to write about the years between Michael Jr.’s conception and where we start the book, with Rusty and Michael’s marriage, or did you want to leave the reader with lingering questions about the path between those points? [Question from featured reader, Caroline Tanski.]
A bit of both – say a 70 / 30 split in favor of the Rusty Michael marriage. But this is, strictly speaking, not completely true in that the conception, birth, and survival of Michael Junior have such a strong bearing on the character and evolution of their marriage. We are, partially, in Jonathan Franzen territory here.
[Q]: The passages about Michael’s father move me the most, I think. Anticipating his retirement ceremony, Michael envisions “more handshakes with fellow truckers suddenly realizing the full weight of their paralysis, their enslavement, their limited options…wishes for a brighter future by gossiping mechanics and morbid inventory clerks, matter-of-fact memories of truckers who perished in explosive infernos.” I had the strong feeling of such ‘enslavement’ throughout the book, though our narrator brags that his intellect has freed him from it. Is this sense of smallness a comment on the broader modern culture, or just of the prisons Michael has chosen for himself?
Yes. Humans are slaves to embracing and rebelling against ideologies – including capitalism. Please take a moment to listen to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “More Time” for a clearer picture on this question / answer.
[Q]: One of several things I loved about this book was the way Mohlele describes feelings and compares them to the most ordinary objects. “Grief engraved on old and neglected potatoes” (39) is so lovely because it perfectly captures the feeling of having this deep emotion that is so unseen by others because it’s the last place anyone would look. When you’re working with metaphors and similes, do you start with the feeling, or start with the object? [Question from featured reader, Katrina Otuonye.]
I am humbled you enjoyed it, read microscopically. The answer: Benefits of drama school, more specifically screen writing – thinking and communicating in pictures. I don’t separate emotions from metaphors. Both are important – as they reinforce / mirror each other.
[Q]: I always love asking writers about their process and how they get everything on the page. Was the narrative planned in these separate sections, with Sir Marvin’s connection to all these people in his life?
Let me answer this way: 80% of my as yet unpublished novel, “Pleasure” – was written on an iPhone. The trick is to keep the big picture clear – and to write that which is absolutely crucial. Example: you don’t, if your are a believer, when you are placed in front of a firing squad or about to be hung, ask for ice cream: you ask to speak to a priest! Unless you are psychotic, of course.
[Q]: And, what’s your connection to art and how much did it inform Eugene’s section? It’s only a few pages, but the descriptions were so vivid when discussing his studio, and I love that he renamed it The Rembrandt.
Thank you. I am not that literate when it comes to art – but have studied some of the major art movements and artists during my university days: Renaissance art, expressionism, Dadaism – Salvador Dali, Mogliani, and Da Vinci, of course. Others I stumbled across through my explorations of Nazi art theft – hardly a pleasant way to educate oneself. Africa – as you know / might know, is picturesque – (it’s natural landscapes) and is full of all sorts of craft markets selling art from Cape to Cairo. Startling, touching, beautiful stuff. Art not signed by a “big name” – but profound nevertheless. Ain’t that cute?
[Q] You took a chance including e-mails in the book. The e-mails seem to function as both a discourse on the “Campus Tribes” and the South Africans of Michael Junior’s generation and on 21st century form. How did you make the choice to include them in the book versus some other form of communication?
Answer: emails and social media are communication tools of the Information Age; our times. It would have been odd if a young person like Michael Junior wrote a letter with a postal stamp on it – but not completely unthinkable. Conceptually, letter or email writing on personal matters is meant to be off limits to a general public – private and therefore an appropriate tool for communicating deeply felt or thought character motivations / frustrations. Besides – it breaks the monotony of prose from page 1 to last. Phillip Roth and Jonathan Franzen use letters and or emails to great effect in their books. See Roth’s The Profeasor of Desire, for instance.
[Q] Clinton K the cat reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s story Kafka on the Shore, Michael’s relationship to Dr. West reminded me of Tom Robbins’ novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and nearly every Woody Allen movie, and Columbus’ death by laughter reminds me of a stunt Gabriel Garcia Marquez might pull. What artists do you consider to be a part of your “tribe” as an author? [Question from featured reader, Jessica Kinnison.]
My fiction has, stylistically, a musical nature – emanating from poetry – rhythm, rhyme, metaphors. Naturally, recording artists plays an important role in my set tone and where I improvise with narrative and theme selections. So: Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita – and guess what, Rihanna too! But literature is also very much a cerebral occupation, bolted to the ground by many genres and sub genres – in other words, the mode of thinking and framing of ideas. Here, “kindred spirits” would include Wole Soyinka (who is a brilliant all rounder), Albert Camus for is masterful in tackling existentialism and the absurd, among other preoccupations, J.M Coetzee for bone clean prose and word economy, Shakespeare for metaphor, Rainer Maria Rilke for the emotive and the profound, Javier Marias for narrative mapping and sentence complexity without loss of clarity, Dambudzo Marechera for pathos, Zadie Smith for humour, Jonathan Franzen for family dynamics, Milan Kundera for interpretative speculations, the Holy Bible for distilling the profane, and Zukiswa Wanner for the unexpected, Thando Mgqolozana for memorable characters, and George Orwell for narrative details. Artists I enjoy are many and varied and, evolve all the time. They include, musically; for instance, pianists, vocalists, drummers and guitarists: Jimmy Cobb, Larry Page, Jimmy Dludlu, Angus of ACDC, Jill Scott, Simphiwe Dana, and Sibongile Khumalo, amongst many others.
[Q] For me as a reader, most of the time, the narrator is not necessarily likable. How do you navigate that as an author? Did you have fun writing this character and playing with his like-ability or lack there of?
Bluntly put, the narrator is and can be an irritant. But remember – we are dealing with a very damaged individual – who, as a sum total of his being unlikeable – sheds light on human motivations and pathos. Would I like him as a friend or brother? No. Was he fun to create? Yes. Why? Miles Davis said in one documentary or interview that he enjoys “playing the trumpet over the orchestra, playing a counter melody, to a melody.” That statement has profoundly influenced or fatally paralyzed my writing – either conceptually or its artistic choices. Swimming against the tide without really doing so. That is some paradox.
[Q] I noticed an absence of place and landscape. In your view, how does place and landscape interact with time?
I, though I have great respect for writers that do, am not a great fan of describing landscapes or overall external environments. I am drawn to interior worlds, to silence, to things hidden – sometimes in full view. Place and landscape don’t for me interact with time. Time is there regardless of wether a place is renamed or bombed or annexed or cordoned off. Time is a master of all things in my view – and human activity is too minuscule to affect it, pe se. Examples: life and death, day and night, rain or shine, 1930 New York and 2015 Hollywood point to an unsettling proposition: that time will continue regardless of human delusions: change of seasons, tides in the oceans, aging – fall outside of human scope in my view. What we deal with, really, is adjustments. That is a very powerless position to be in.
Thank you to author Nthikeng Mohlele, for his time in responding to these thoughtful, engaging questions, and thank you to each of you who read and gave questions for this online book club. I am really excited to read what questions you have for our next author, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Taller Than Buildings or Everyday Wife yet, I did see there are still some in stock at Amazon. Details on this and other upcoming books below.
Want to be a Featured Reader? It’s easy, and I will link to your site and use your photo regularly with book club posts. Click here for information.
September: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Book(s): Everyday Wife, and/or Taller Than Buildings
Read-by Date: 16 September 2015 Please read and email your questions no later than 16 September to firstname.lastname@example.org
October: Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Book(s): Nothing Left to Steal
Read-by Date: 14 October 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing email@example.com . This book is currently only available as an e-book, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.
November: Mandla Langa
Book(s): The Texture of Shadows (paper edition ships from SA. Order ASAP via MarLa)
Read-by-Date: 11 November 2015
December: Niq Mhlongo
Book(s): Way Back Home
Read-by-Date: 16 December 2015
January through May, 2016
Thando Mgqolozana: A Man Who is Not a Man
Mamle Wolo: The Kaya-Girl (pre-order through Traveling MarLa)
Carol Campbell: Esther’s House
Ekow Duker: Dying in New York
Wame Molefhe: Go Tell the Sun
Sabata-mpho Mokae: Book launch this autumn, and he’s taking time for us online as well! Title to be announced in August.