Sunderland, a collaboration by Michael Cope and Ken Barris, alternates between sections, mostly in journal form, chronicling Art’s struggle to make sense of De Villiers’ fragmented and disordered text, and sections – scenes, notes, outlines – from that very work (also entitled Sunderland). Judging by the description on the cover, it could not have been easy to write the book. Below, the two authors interview each other about their respective experiences.
Ken Barris interviews Michael Cope
KB: You have mentioned the influence of WG Sebald on your writing in other interviews. Could you give some picture of how you absorbed and transformed this in Sunderland?
MC: It’s difficult to quantify or even really to talk about an influence – much of the overflow of one person’s work into another’s is unconscious, and we are, of course, all situated in a very densely woven web or tapestry of texts which spill into other texts, with conscious or unconscious mediation by writers. Sebald came as a surprise to me when I discovered his work shortly before his death. He seemed to be offering a way out of an impasse – using stylistic and formal innovation, blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction and yet scrupulously situating each voice. And there was his concern with memory. His work offered, to a great many writers in the first years of the century, a grand permission to take writing in unusual directions. In Intricacy I played with and acknowledged a Sebaldian voice, among other voices. In Sunderland I think that Sebald comes through as a shadow among a chorus of shades, rather than as a paterfamilias.
KB: I think you were working through a certain filter in creating Charles de Villiers's characters, in conceiving them not as Michael Cope would instinctively conceive them, but as that writer De Villiers would. So is it safe to say that you were trying to create images as an imagined person would imagine them?
MC: Yes. The character Charles de Villiers is a better writer than Michael Cope. I figured I could do bits of that, but not the whole thing. So I method-acted it by creating an imagined Charles and letting him have thoughts, write sentences and so forth. My effort was to get behind his eyeballs. He is engaged in a similar process: imagining the point of view of not one, but a great number of characters. How does he do it? He doesn’t do it as I might, by getting into role then improvising at the keyboard, as I am in fact doing as I write Charles. He is both more systematic than I am (writes plots, has an overview, makes lists of characters and incidental detail, does research) and also more chaotic (is suffering from the unpredictable effects of a brain tumour that will kill him), and when I compose and edit his sentences I have to take all this into account.
Then, of course, I use Michael Cope’s shit-detector on the result. It all gets a bit blurry, actually. But most of the sentences attributed to De Villiers in the book are as I imagine this character, the well-known writer Charles de Villiers, would have written them.
KB: At some point the other voice in the novel, Art Berger, comments that your character Charles de Villiers is a methodical writer, writing a great deal of background material that is not directly used, but which informs the more narrative material he does use. A slight case of ventriloquism, because I was able to observe close-up how methodical you were in developing background material for the project. Was Charles de Villiers performing Michael Cope?
MC: I like the research phase of writing, when one gathers all the random details which will become the grit and texture of a piece of writing. I enjoy finding pictures of the things I am going to write about, so that my poor visual memory can be enhanced at the time of writing. My character Charles wishes to be, and sometimes in fact is, more organised and list-bound than I am typically, and gathers and organises details more than I might – I think maybe as an attempt to stave off the inevitable chaos that his deteriorating health presents. And of course, he’s failing. His attempts to structure and organise are themselves disorganised, unfinished. So I’m using a character trait of my own, but for a different purpose, and in a different form, to make my writer character come to life. It’s also been a way to think about writing.
KB: Mike, you are a versatile writer and poet, having explored many forms of poetry, not to mention memoir, science fiction and literary novels. Do you feel most at home in any particular genre?
MC: I like writing short pieces of prose and poems, often formal poems. I do feel at home in poetry, but feeling at home can be a problem too. I’m most excited by writing when I’m attempting something new, which is why I have never settled on a single style or genre of writing.
KB: Are you working on anything new? Or is there at least anything on the horizon?
MC: I have been fiddling with something that’s not mentionable because so far it is unmentionably bad. Otherwise, no. Several unfinished poems.
Michael Cope interviews Ken Barris
MC: How do you write? At a desk? Etc. In other words, something about the mechanics and logistics – folder of this, files here …?
KB: If there is a desk, I think of it as the thing my computer is on, rather than an artefact that affects my imagination. I tend to write a few pages on the concept after I’ve been thinking about things for a while. Around the same time I start writing narrative to reflect the character and situation I’ve imagined, which makes it less vague and helps me to materialise the idea. Eventually I begin working out the plot, but planning and writing remain a live dialogue throughout. Then research files begin building up like barnacles on a ship, so I tend to make a bumf folder to hide all the background material, otherwise I start feeling crowded. Right now I’m doing something new for me – I’m a quarter into a novel, and haven’t a clue what the next chapter is, so my usual pattern is pleasantly disrupted.
MC: How do you create a character – specifically the character of Art?
KB: It begins with that mental glimpse I implied above, and the character begins to emerge through concept treatments. But most of the real thinking is done through my fingers. Written people develop their own momentum and dictate their own lines of possibility. I’m happiest when I surprise myself, which means that this person is taking on her or his own life. Art Berger wasn’t much different, except that you provided the basic concept and we brainstormed his background and biography. Then Art took over at an early stage and virtually dictated his lines.
MC: How did your other persona, that of literary critic, affect your way of writing in Sunderland?
KB: I found it very useful, because I had lived some of Art’s way of thinking, which in turn helped me to construct his expression more confidently.
MC: What advice would you give to would-be collaborative writers?
KB: I don’t think I could. We worked the way we did because we’re the personalities we are, and we approach writing as we do, and the alchemy came from that wonderful unlikely combination. So if I were to collaborate with someone else, I would advise myself to unlearn my collaboration with Mike and see what happens next.
MC: What ideas do you have about the recent past and foreseeable future of literary novels in South Africa? Where’s it going?
KB: I think it’s going into a great many lovely and interesting places. From Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer to Wolf, Wolf by Even Venter, Serote’s Rumours, James Whyle’s Walk, Mercy for Water by Karen Jeyes, voices as diverse as Thando Mgquolozana and Niq Mhlongo, the erotic fiction and crime fiction and science fiction that’s being published – the variety is refreshing. I don’t think they’re all as good as the first two I mentioned, but one can’t see South African writing as the prison JM Coetzee once compared it to.