Andie Miller talks to Janet van Eeden about her anthology Slow Motion: stories about walking

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Title: Slow Motion: stories about walking
 Author: Andie Miller
Publisher: Jacana
Date of publication: 2010
ISBN: 97817700987010

Short review by JvE

Andie Miller’s collection of stories all have one thing in common. They are interviews mostly with people who walk rather than drive cars to get where they are going.

Not all the subjects are committed walkers, however. One man appreciates how much walking meant to him now that he has lost the ability to walk after a shooting incident left him paralysed; new mothers discover what a blessing and a trial it is when their toddlers first find their feet; one man talks about the joys of running rather than walking; and another interview is with a young man who has to walk using his limited abilities after an accident left him visually impaired.

The stories stand alone and this is a delightful book to dip into, especially if you enjoy walking too. The subjects are as varied as the terrain they cover: amongst those who walk the road less (quickly) travelled are domestic workers, literary professors, award-winning novelists, aging actresses and traditional Jews who don’t drive on the Sabbath.

Miller writes with insight, and meets the subjects on their own turf. I found the interview with one of her former colleagues, David Bruce, fascinating. He had always been reluctant to drive and tried to overcome this reluctance. Miller discusses his formative years when he was committed to a prison sentence as a conscientious objector during the border wars. Another of my favourites was the interview with the 76-year-old actress who insisted on living on the very edges of Hillbrow even though the place was no longer regarded as suitable for her. Fiona Fraser lived in this part of Johannesburg for most of her life and continued to work as an actress until she passed away at the end of 2006. As far as possible, she walked wherever she could, taking a taxi only when there was no alternative. Miller found out why Fraser was happiest living there.

Miller also reveals her own personal journeys through these essays. Her recollections of walking through some of my favourite haunts took me back to the days when I lived and walked freely through the streets of Yeoville and Hillbrow as a young graduate. We traverse the landscapes of our youthful memories once again with Miller. She also reveals her experiences of walking in Los Angeles, a place where walkers are regarded as mentally deficient, as well as measuring the road in London, a place where walkers are viewed much more tolerantly.

Slow Motion is a lovely collection of essays and I would suggest reading them as individual stories rather than trying to digest them all in one go. Each story has its own charm and uncovers a landscape seldom revealed to those who whizz by in motorised vehicles. It is also a revelation of the less travelled footpaths of our country and in some ways it’s a recollection of our country’s turbulent history. This is a collection to read in slow motion too, savouring the book as one would a gentle path leading into interesting territories.  

 

Q & A with Andie Miller

Andie, your collection of stories is all about walking, as the title Slow Motion implies. You are a committed walker yourself, as you said in your preface. Is it this fact alone that made you decide to collect stories about others who are as committed to walking as you are?

No, it was much more prosaic than that. I needed a subject for my creative writing Masters, and it was a case of write what you know. Then it became a case of write what you want to know. I used to feel as if I was the lone middle-class pedestrian, like Leonard Mead in Ray Bradbury’s story, but I gradually became aware that there were other people also choosing to walk, and I wanted to know what motivated them.

I was pleased to read that a number of people I know, or know of, are equally committed to walking. You interviewed Damon Galgut, Patricia Glyn, Jay Pather and Leon de Kock, amongst others. There are also many interviews, interspersed amongst these luminaries, with ordinary people such as domestic workers. Did you consciously choose to mix the stories of ordinary South Africans with those of celebrities? How did you find all these people who have a love of walking in common? Was it a committed search or did you find them by chance?

I started with my network, and coming from a theatre background it was inevitable that many of the people were artists (I’ve never thought of them as celebrities). And then people I was interviewing would invariably refer me to others, which was why it started to feel like a sub-culture.

Many of the people I spoke with who were well known in other areas of their lives as writers or activists or whatever, seemed very keen to talk about walking, as though it was an eccentric or old-fashioned habit, like stamp-collecting, that most people couldn’t understand. Usually they’d get the “You do what?” response, so they seemed keen to be able to explore the subject.    

But it became clear to me very early on that I needed to move away from my original idea of interviewing only middle-class artists and intellectuals who choose to walk, because that would render invisible the thousands of people who have no choice in the matter. I didn’t want it to be a romantic project.         

I especially enjoyed the stories about people who could no longer take walking for granted, as many of us do. There is the story about the man who was shot and paralysed, Dex, and the one about a younger man who lost one leg and his sight after an accident. Dex can no longer walk at all, and the young man now has to walk with difficulty. Do you think examining the simple act of walking from the perspective of having it taken away heightens our appreciation of it? How did you feel about interviewing these two subjects?

I always wanted to interview someone who had lost the ability to walk, because I think it is my worst fear, along with homelessness. Then I bumped into Dex, who is an old friend whom I’d lost touch with, and he was in a wheelchair. I was struck, as I was with most of the people I spoke with, by how open and generous he was in talking about it. He wanted to share his experience of how, for a time in his life, he had chosen to carry a gun to protect himself and his family, and that had been turned on him. As with so many people who have had life-changing experiences, he seemed to want to use his voice to warn others of the dangers.

The man who had been in a hit-and-run accident as a 7-year-old, along with his twin brother, was equally generous and extraordinarily forgiving. I learnt most from speaking with the disabled in one way or another on this project. We whine about things not working – pavements, potholes, etc, but we really have no idea. It’s what philosopher Robert Fulghum once described as knowing the difference between an inconvenience and a problem.  

Walking gives people a different perspective to daily life, as opposed to driving everywhere. I’m a great lover of walking myself. Can you tell the readers of LitNet what it is you love about the very act of walking as opposed to being driven?

I think it’s what Damon Galgut describes – the ability to let the mind work while the body is moving. Leon de Kock describes it in relation to running, too, the way the mind clears up. When you have to have what Michael Ventura calls “the talent of the room” – the ability to sit alone in a room for hours on end – it makes sense that walking is so popular amongst writers. The ability to get up and walk away from the screen, go on an insignificant errand, and then return. Virginia Woolf captures it beautifully in her “Street Haunting” essay, when she goes to buy a pencil.

It also allows me to really see the world around me and feel a part of the environment and my neighbourhood in a way that I don’t when it flashes by from behind glass.

Michael Titlestad was your supervisor on this Masters project. What did he say when you first told him you wanted to write a book about people walking? Was it difficult to bridge the gap between straight reportage and story-telling?

Michael was very enthusiastic from the beginning. He has a great love of Michel De Certeau and his Practice of Everyday Life (including “Walking in the City”), so theoretically it made sense to him. He introduced me to Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, Wanderlust. As he said, if you’re going to write about walking you may as well know what’s already been done.

When I was already busy with the project I heard an interview with Solnit in which she spoke about how, after she’d published Wanderlust, “people came forth to tell me their walking stories”, and I realised that was what I was doing. Well, they didn’t so much come forth, as I approached them, but I knew that I wanted to capture the voices of a range of pedestrians, which is why I was meticulous in transcription to replicate the way people actually spoke. Unless things didn’t make sense or there were obvious errors, I kept the idiosyncrasies and non sequiturs. It was a judgement call. My editor and I didn’t always agree, but I wanted real voices, not perfect grammatical sentences.

I began exploring the personal essay form, and then moved into a blend of interview and narrative, and with the writers I wanted to incorporate their texts as well. So I realised that stylistically I was between conventions, but that didn’t bother me, as long as I could back up what I was doing. The best advice Michael gave me was: it’s fine to be eccentric, but it’s advisable to be consistent in your eccentricities. So I hope I did that. In the end what was important to me was the stories, hence the subtitle. I think that was the right decision, because people seem to need a guide to know what they’re reading, and I’ve had several people tell me they’re enjoying “the stories”, so I’m happy about that.

You are a well-respected journalist in your daily life and your articles have appeared in many publications in the printed media and online. Have you been drawn towards writing fiction at all? If so, can you tell the readers of LitNet about this work?

That’s kind of you to say. I don’t think of myself as a journalist. I think of myself as a writer, or perhaps simply as someone who writes. Where I publish things really depends on who will have them. Over the past few years I’ve published quite a bit in newspapers, but that is shrinking as they’re accepting less freelance work and the focus is pretty much on politics and entertainment, and there’s less space for arts and culture than there used to be. I don’t have the skill for, or interest in, conventional journalism. One would think the term “creative writing” would be redundant, that all writing should be creative, but sadly that isn’t the case. A lot of journalism is quite dull writing. Someone once made the observation to me that it’s because most journalists don’t read – literature, that is.

I’ve been fascinated by, and writing about, the boundaries of fact and fiction for several years now; it’s something that preoccupies me. Some days I think almost all fiction is mostly autobiographical; on others I think everything is fiction. How, for example, is Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull non-fiction, and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room fiction? Krog has described herself as having a “creative memory” in her non-fiction, while Damon says there in no creative invention in this work of fiction.

For my part, I don’t use any creative invention in my non-fiction but, like Damon, I recognise the fallibility of memory. I’m blessed with a good memory, though recently I’ve begun to think that people accept my accounts of the past only because their memories are worse than mine and they like my version of events. A friend’s theory is that I probably improve on others’ memories, including his own.

The one time I wrote fiction was during one of my MA classes, and the stories were all about 95 percent true. I did enjoy that 5 percent of conflating characters and making up what I didn’t know, but I found when I was writing fiction they were always stories about childhood. I seem to associate fiction with the past. It doesn’t occur to me to fictionalise the present, and I have no desire to write a “my apartheid childhood” novel. Maybe when I’m old I’ll write a novel about these post-apartheid days.

How do you see your life in ten years’ time? Will you still be walking? How do you think the city of Johannesburg will change in this time, taking into account the many changes you’ve seen in the past decades? Do you think it will still be feasible for you to walk as freely as you do now?

It’s hard for me to imagine life that far into the future. The world as well as the country is in a constant state of flux. I hope I will still be walking! I’m more of an archivist than a strategist, so I’m not much one for looking into the future. I prefer the mystery of watching things unfold.

But it’s unlikely that I will be in Jo’burg in ten years’ time. I came here to do a job for a week 27 years ago, and I’m still here. I planned to move back to Cape Town a decade ago, but then I began this project and life had other plans. I do hope to be back before the next decade is out, though.

You seem to love the country you write about. Whether you write about walking in Johannesburg or Cape Town, a deep love for the country and its people comes through. Do you think you’ve become more engrossed in the country and those who inhabit it on foot because of your primitive means of travel? Does this put you more in touch with those who populate our country? Do you think you could ever feel as attached to another country?

Primitive means of travel … that’s an interesting way of putting it. I wonder what a New Yorker who walks and uses public transport would make of that description? Perhaps what is most “primitive” is our unintegrated and inadequate public transport system. I hope that will improve over time. I think using minibus taxis has put me in touch with ordinary people far more than walking.

I do love the country, in the way that one loves family. Not unconditionally, but with a certain amount of acceptance of its limitations, and seeing that the positive outweighs the negative. I love the diversity and, despite our divisions, the unexpected intersections that happen between people. I love that people greet you in the street in a way that they don’t in London.

Ironically, doing this project has made me much more appreciative of Cape Town, which I think I used to take for granted, in the sense that it is home and will always be there. But I’ve come to recognise that I won’t always be around to enjoy it. It’s definitely a more pedestrian-friendly city with more middle-class people on the streets. Jo’burg has been very good to me, but I’ve never put down roots here. I’m still a renter, and I no longer have the sense of community that I had here a decade ago. Jo’burg, as Patricia Glyn pointed out, is a state of mind. People speak about it being an Afropolitan city, but this is often said from De Certeau’s “voyeur-gods” position, without much engagement on the street. The edginess that the relentless competition for resources creates in this elusive city of gold can be quite wearying.

I realised a few years ago that you have to come to terms with Cape Town’s divisions and contradictions if you want to live there peacefully. Achille Mbembe captures this for me in his essay in the At Risk collection, when he writes about how Cape Town had given him inner space. That is true for me too. Jo’burg has been my intellectual home for the past few decades, but I’m ready for a gentler, more curvy, less spiky experience again. There also seems to be more space to produce fiction in Cape Town, so who knows.

What’s next on your to-do list, Andie? You’re prolific as a writer and I’m sure there must be another project up your sleeve. Can you tell us about it?

At the moment I’m busy clearing ten years of research material off my hard drive and from my filing cabinet, making space for new ideas and projects to flow in.
 

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