It was a bit of a gift, really. Phoning Anant Singh’s office about something completely different and being invited to the South African premiere of Red Dust. And to interview, among others, Gillian Slovo on the following day. Perhaps it was serendipity at work. Or perhaps it was just rewards for being at the right place at the right time.
The film is an adaptation of Gillian Slovo’s novel about the TRC, something she became very familiar with when she watched her mother’s killer asking for amnesty at the TRC. Craig Williamson admitted guilt to being responsible for a parcel bomb which killed her mother, Ruth First. Slovo found the whole process flawed. The questionable role of the TRC is explored in all its nuances in Red Dust, the novel, and brought to the screen by a sensitive adaptation by Troy Kennedy Martin. Slovo expressed that she was pleased with the version she’d seen on the screen.
“It honours the spirit of the novel, even though it is different,” she said, “which it has to be, as it is a different medium. And I am so in awe of actors and what they do. They take these characters somebody else has written and inhabit them.” We then talked about another recent experience of this which has heightened Slovo’s appreciation of actors.
“I have just written a documentary play called, Guantanamo – Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which has had spectacular success,” she says. “It was a project based on interviews I did with Victoria Britten with people who had been either prisoners themselves, lawyers who defended clients or families of prisoners at Guantanamo. Out of all those interviews I wove a narrative which is really about what the experience of what Gauntanamo was. It came out just at the right time and it was spectacularly successful. It went from a local London theatre to the West End of London, then to New York, and it’s just finishing its run in San Francisco and it’s off to Washington. It’s also been in Stockholm. The slogan Honor Bound to Freedom is written on top of the prison camp in Gauntanamo.”
The irony is perverse. Slovo says that the official American reaction has been silence although she is certain that they aren’t too happy about the play. The New York public thinks differently though. “You know what happens when you open in New York,” she says. “You have a first night party which doesn’t take off until you get the New York Times review. If it’s bad, that’s it. You close. And we had the most wonderful New York Times review.”
As the song says, if you make it in New York, you’ve made it everywhere. I ask Slovo whether she would have been a writer if her parents weren’t Ruth First and Joe Slovo. “It’s no accident,” Slovo answers thoughtfully, “that my eldest sister is a screenwriter, I am a novelist, and my younger sister has moved into film production after being a script editor. I think that says something about the fact that my mother was a writer of non fiction. We grew up with the sound of the typewriter and with the understanding that writing is a perfectly good job for a woman. I think that led us into these kinds of professions. It is interesting though that all of us have chosen to work in fiction.”
Would Slovo have written political novels if she hadn’t had such a strongly political background, I ask? “I started off writing detective novels,” she reminds me, “and I’m not sure that Red Dust is a directly political novel. It is a novel set in the midst of a very political event. I am very interested in writing about people caught up in history and politics. For example, my last book, Ice Road, is set in Leningrad in the 1930’s. What interests me is how politics is lived by ordinary people, and how huge cataclysmic changes affect ordinary people. But I wouldn’t say that my novels are directly political. It’s just that I am not scared of handling politics when I write a novel. What is most important is that the story is working and that the characters work, not that there is a message in there. I don’t think there is a message in Red Dust. It’s a more complex story than that. I’m not really interested in the black and white of things – I’m more interested in the texture of things.”
Someone said that drama is about ordinary people being put in extraordinary situations, whether it comes about in novels, films or plays, and Slovo agrees. “That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in,” she says. “But I cut my writing teeth writing detective stories. It was a very good thing to do because it really taught me about plot and narrative drive. I’m a writer to whom I think narrative drive comes quite easily. Increasingly I concentrate on getting the characters right because I think to myself that the tick of the story will be taken care of. You learn how to do that and you don’t have to think about it too much.”
We talk about how being born in South African has made us uniquely different to people born anywhere else because of our complex political past. “All of us South Africans are really products of major political change. We have all had to deal with what it means to have your conception of ordinary life completely changed and what your future is going to be, in our own lifetimes. That particularly interests me as a novelist. South Africa is such a gift for a novelist. It’s so exciting to write about a country that is in such a crux of change. And life and death are so much more on the surface here. England is a lot calmer, but it is also a lot more boring. It’s quite different to find a focus there. In South Africa people are much more focused on specific issues. But a lot of South Africans feel very calmed by Britain.”
I quote Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru, who says that you can’t be a good writer unless you have had a terrible childhood. Does Slovo agree? “Have all good writers had a terrible background?” she wonders. “I don’t know whether I agree with that or whether I would even say that I’d had a terrible background. Traumatic, maybe, and a bit flamboyant, yes, but I don’t know whether I would regard it as absolutely terrible. But you have to understand pain. You have to understand strong emotions to be a writer. You have to write your way into people’s heads. You really need a certain kind of ability in the way that actors have - but in a different way - to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You have to allow your characters to inhabit you. I think that is the wonderful thing about writing. You invent these characters and you set them on the page. If you have done your job well, they take you places you don’t expect to go to. That’s when it is going really well. When you realise on page 150 that something you did on page five without even realizing it, is now paying off. You kind of knew what you were doing in a subconscious way. The more my confidence has grown as a writer, the more I rely on my subconscious and give way to it. My experience of writing when it is going well – and I hasten to say that it doesn’t always go well, as you know – is that it is sometimes almost non-verbal. It just streams out. And of course it’s me doing it, but it doesn’t feel as if I’m doing it. That’s when you’ve set everything up and you’ve done the internal work well enough to be able to allow that to happen.”
I mention that I see the pre-writing process as a sort of cooking stage when nothing is definite and everything is muddled together but it all has to simmer in my head. Slovo agrees. “It does seem to cook,” she says. “It’s a very mysterious process. I am in this place at the moment in the planning stages of my new book. One minute you feel you don’t have a single idea. And the next minute you have a synopsis of the book in your head and you don’t know how you got there. But it isn’t actually a mysterious thing. What has happened is that all that confusion has produced something. All that thinking about different things and not being able to put them together, it cooks, as you say. And it sort of comes out on its way to being baked. It is very mysterious. And unless you are prepared to sit with the confusion, you don’t get through to the other side. But the confusion can be awful. When it clarifies itself, you wonder why you didn’t think of it all in the first place. But you couldn’t think of it in the first place because the process is to think of it. You can’t do that initially.”
I ask whether Slovo also panics before a new venture is undertaken. She laughs wryly as she admits that she has been known to have the occasional panic. But she panics less now that she has 11 books under her belt. “It is a very real panic, but we have to learn to take it less seriously. I think I panic less than I used to,” she says. “I recognize that I have been here before. I recognize that this is a process and I’ve learnt how to allow myself to open up to ideas. So when I am developing a book, I often go and read whatever interests me on the basis that somewhere there is a logic even though I don’t understand it. I will go and read a few books on some subject that I might never write about but it somehow feeds the ideas.”
So is it serendipity of sorts I ask? “I don’t like to be too pretentious about it, because writing is also about a lot of hard and detailed work,” she answers. “But it is partly about opening yourself up to off the wall ideas, because those are often the most interesting ones. If you are writing fiction, you might go places your rational mind might not take you. For example, my last book was set in Leningrad in the thirties as I said. I had a cast of characters I was writing about and I wanted to follow this family over a number of years. So I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t leave the city of Leningrad. It is set in the city only. But I made a second rule for myself that I would read whatever interested me. I would follow my interest. And my interests led me, following a foot note, into the Arctic. There was an ice ship that got stuck in the ice, during the period I was writing about. My rational mind told me not to go there because it wasn’t in Leningrad. But my instinct made me really want to go on that boat. As a novelist, a character came into my mind. In the end, despite the fact that I told myself not to go onto the boat because it was too complex, I realised that I needed this character more than any other character. There was a reason that I kept thinking I had to go onto the boat because she became my narrator. I hadn’t understood in the beginning that I needed a narrator.”
Slovo stresses though that she doesn’t want to make the writing process sound too mysterious, “as it is all coming from me. But it is about learning to understand that your instinct is as valuable as your learnt knowledge and you have to give it free reign,” she says. There is a warning though. “You have to learn to control this instinct though. People get into trouble when they don’t control it and then the reader loses access into what’s being said. If the writer is out of control the reader will never understand what’s going on.”
Slovo acknowledges that her mother’s example of extreme discipline helped form her strong work ethic. She usually takes three years to write a novel from beginning to end. And all she will say about her next novel is that it is set in London. I’m definitely going to be first in the queue to read it when it hits the bookshelves. I can’t wait to find out how Gillian Slovo portrays the effect London has on the people who live in it.