James Whyle, winner of the PEN/Studzinski Award of 2011, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Review by Janet van Eeden

James Whyle’s award-winning short story is quite simply titled “The Story”. The title pre-empts the style of the narrative, which is written with a bald matter-of-factness with a simple recounting of events and little authorial commentary. It’s a style reminiscent of Hemingway’s best writing, but it is flavoured with the unmistakably brutal essence of everyday life in South Africa.

Frank Fourie is a man whose needs are fairly simple. He’s on holiday in Pringle Bay with his wife and children. Like so many other families from up country they’ve come to their holiday cottage for the Christmas break. It’s Christmas Eve and Frank is taking a black bag of rubbish to the dump.

Frank is “slightly stoned” as he drives up to the dump, just wanting to get the chore done for the day so that he can get back to being on holiday. Unfortunately he runs into a cop on a mission: Deon du Plessis. Du Plessis is a young traffic cop who needs to show the holidaymakers that he’s the boss in this place. Of course Frank doesn’t have his driver’s licence with him. And of course the vehicle’s licence disc is out of date. With Du Plessis’s aggressive stance threatening to ruin Frank’s day, Du Plessis insists that he drive back to Fourie’s home in his police vehicle to fetch the missing items from Frank’s wallet.

While Frank looks for the two licences, Du Plessis has coffee with him. He keeps mentioning how many thousands of rands he could fine Frank, even when the required items are found. Trying to gauge his earning power, he asks about Frank’s job as a writer for a major television soap. On a roll, Frank gets involved in telling the cop how stories are written.

Finally, Frank finds the missing documents. Du Plessis has no option but to take Frank back to fetch his vehicle at the dump. He hints once more that he could fine Frank thousands of rands just for not having had the licences in the first place. “What is it you want, Deon?” Frank asks him. Du Plessis replies. But Frank is not buying what he’s selling.

The final beat of the story is priceless and I won’t give it away, except to say it’s the perfect ending to a story about masculine posturing. “The Story” is possibly also a story about corruption, about middle-age disillusionment and about how hard it is simply to live one’s life the way one wants to.

“The Story” is a masterpiece of wry understatement. It builds up the details of a life in subtle increments until we are under Frank’s skin. By the time Frank takes control in the last two lines of the story, we’re with him wholeheartedly.

Q&A with James Whyle

James, this award is always hotly contested among some of the best short story writers in this country. Did you believe your story had what it takes to win it or was it a surprise to hear yours was the one that came out on top?

It was a surprise.

It’s fashionably cool to say that winning awards doesn’t mean anything, but I think it’s only those who haven’t won anything who say that. What does winning the PEN/Studzinski mean to you at this stage of your life and career?

Hilary Mantel answers this question well. (I love this article – so funny and truthful.) I hope it will provide one small secure belay on a long and dangerously exposed first-route traverse out of television hack couloir on to the vertical ice fields of Mt Mystery.
Where did the idea for the story come from? Is it based on a real episode which happened to you or is it all fictional?

It is pure fiction.

You have a stellar track record as an actor and writer in this country. You starred in one of Anant Singh and Darryl Roodt’s first successful struggle features, A Place of Weeping, and were well-known as a successful actor. You turned to writing in the ‘90s and have built up a solid reputation as one of Isidingo’s best writers. I’ve always said that Isidingo was one of the best soaps around, as some of this country’s premier writers and actors earn their daily bread working on it.

I was lucky enough to break into television writing at the point where it became legal to say that the ANC was the legitimate government of this country. Since then I've written a great deal of television in great many genres. There is an example from Zero Tolerance here. It contains a character based on JM Coetzee. A bitchy portrait. I think I had just read the Costello book and must have been suffering from jealousy of reputation.

On Isidingo there have been times when people like Helen Suzman were fans. A creature of Brett Kebble's is rumoured to have attended a story meeting to pitch a tale. It went like this. Thabo Mbeki and Bulelani Ncuka are conspiring against Brett Kebble and Jacob Zuma in order to ... The excitement of television, the excitement of writing for a programme like Zero Tolerance, was to try and untangle the plot of the political narrative and turn it into genre fiction which transcended its genre.

You’ve also written radio plays which were performed by the BBC. My favourite radio play is Dancing with the Dead, which had Richard E Grant in the lead role.

Thank you.

Actors are always at the mercy of a director’s or producer’s call, so I wondered whether you decided to write so that you had some control over your career. Or is writing as essential to you as breathing? Is it what you were meant to do with your life?

Television writers and screenwriters are even more at the mercy of directors and producers than actors. And that is very at the mercy. I could tell you stories that would make your blood run cold. (I’d love to hear them and compare notes with the horrors of screenwriting with egomaniacal directors, to be honest.)

I was, in my imagination, a writer from the time I learnt to read and write. I became an actor because I wrote National Madness. After five long years of struggle I got a break in television thanks to Gray Hofmeyr and was able to escape from the downward spiral of my acting career. At that point I became a professional typer. (I love that monker.) I'm deeply grateful to television and have learnt a great deal from it. But creative control is a big advantage of prose fiction written for one's own entertainment first and sale second.

Writing episodes of a daily soap requires tremendous discipline and diligence. I imagine it’s the best training ground for a writer, as you can’t sit around waiting for the muse to fill you with inspiration. You have to apply your bum to the seat and get the episode written to meet your deadline.


One thing that worries me about writing for the daily grindstone, as it were, is that it might lessen a writer’s desire to explore words in other forms. Obviously this isn’t true of you, as you have just won the prize for a short story. But have you found it difficult to focus on other forms of writing while working on Isidingo?

Sometimes. You have to work on it. It gets easier.

How do you manage to compartmentalise your thinking when you want to write something else?

You have to access your feminine side, Janet, and learn do more than one thing simultaneously. I think of it as typing. It is what I do. I have breakfast, then I go to the office and type. It is the expression of an attempt understand this country. And its fauna. Among which I include myself and the three apes in “The Story”.

Some of your best work was in writing for radio, as I mentioned above. Do you miss the fact that radio drama has tapered off to a large extent in this country?

I miss The Goon Show and Just a Minute and My Word and Next Stop Macouvlei. (Me too, and I really miss the great plays that were broadcast, as well as the daily serials. I grew up on those.) But it would be lovely to have a culture that attracted South Africa's best writers to radio.

Do you think there will ever be a revival of radio drama, or has television ruined this medium forever?

Such a revival might be possible if the right people attempted it with the right resources. It seems unlikely, but the English do it. It is possible.

What is your ultimate writing dream? Do you want to write the blockbuster novel? Or is it the definitive South African film that you would like to put your name to instead?

I recently completed my second tome, the main work in an MA in Creative Writing at Stellenbosch University, a novel. It's called The Book. You as a screenwriter, a freelancer who lives by her wits, will understand what it is to write the equivalent of four consecutive screenplays on spec. (I do appreciate the amount of work that goes into writing something as mammoth as a novel, and well done on completing it! I find writing a novel very difficult, especially when you have to meet daily deadlines just to pay bills.)
Do you ever get tired of writing? Do you sometimes dream of throwing your computer away and spending your days staring out to sea or growing mealies instead? Or is writing an intrinsic part of your life?

I might have a nightmare about being parted from my laptop for more than eight hours. I can get tired of writing television for money, but I remind myself to be grateful.

What else can LitNet readers look forward to reading from you in the future?

The novel is being read by a publisher, but I know how difficult it is to get into print in South Africa. It's based on accounts of the 8th Frontier War by Stephen Bartlett Lakeman and William Ross King and it ends around a vat of boiling heads in a cave high on Mt Misery. It's about how our ancestors got to this:

Doctor A of the 60th had asked my men to procure him a few native skulls of both sexes. This was a task easily accomplished. One morning they brought back to camp about two dozen heads of various ages. As these were not supposed to be in a presentable state for the doctor's acceptance, the next night they turned my vat into a caldron for the removal of superfluous flesh. And there these men sat, gravely smoking their pipes during the live-long night, and stirring round and round the heads in that seething boiler, as though they were cooking black-apple dumplings. (Stephen Bartlett Lakeman) (Horrific stuff written as casually as a shopping list!)

Sometimes I think it should be suppressed, although given the difficulty mentioned above, that might not be necessary. Sometimes I think we can't know where we're going, or where we are, till we know where we come from.

I agree absolutely. Even though your novel will expose horrific truths such as the one quoted above, these do need to be aired. Purging the past is the only way forward and it hasn’t been done properly yet. I hope your novel is published, James, and I look forward to reading it and having another inter-review then. Inshallah.

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