Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Andrew Robert Wilson, author of "Seahorse"

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Andrew Robert Wilson, photo: provided; Fluid book cover: Karavan Press

Short.Sharp.Stories is a platform showcasing top and emerging South African fiction writers. The theme of this year’s anthology is Fluid – freedom to be. Fluid, this year’s Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, seeks to engage fictional expression around identity, culture and society.

Karina Magdalena Szczurek conducts interviews with the respective short story writers.

Below is a mini-interview between Karina Magdalena Szczurek and Andrew Robert Wilson, author of the short story “Seahorse” in the 2023 Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, Fluid.

Andrew Robert Wilson, currently living in the Karoo, has been in the media and entertainment industry for 38 years, variously as actor, voice artist, TV presenter, writer for television, and series director of international TV formats. He was a theatre critic for the Mail & Guardian in the late 1990s and worked extensively over the years in wildlife and conservation television. He graduated with a journalism degree from Rhodes University in 1985. He writes of his story:

The idea of pain and where it goes, down which channels it flows and what form it takes, inspired “Seahorse”. How does the response to an extreme in reality trigger an equally extreme human mechanism, inside or outside of reality? What would revenge look like? Or forgiveness? Or even reality?

KMS: I first read your story anonymously, and immediately loved the way it took me as the reader into very dark places of violence and revenge and yet surprised me in the end with its gentleness, grief and care. I was thrilled to find out afterwards that you had written it. You have a background in media, theatre and television, and we will be publishing your debut novel, The fourth boy, at Karavan Press next year, but you have never attempted your hand at short fiction before – why?

ARW: I had never considered it before. My thought had always been towards attempting a novel, which I did, beginning some time during the lockdown and after I’d become tired of creating cement and cobblestone pathways-to-nowhere in our garden! Writing so extensively for years in the television industry combined with directing took up most of my time, but now that I’m free of that world, I relish the thought of writing more.

KMS: Now that your first short story ever has been immediately published, are you encouraged to write more short fiction and enter similar competitions?

ARW: Yes, absolutely. Firstly, I was bowled over by having my story selected as one of the 20 great stories in Fluid; it was a complete surprise! I am hugely encouraged now to write far more in this short story form, since the writing discipline it requires, the economy needed and the focus on story are tantalising. Competitions? Yes, definitely. They provide a platform and a necessary showcase for emergent and seasoned writers. All hail to those who make this happen!

KMS: In your story, you strike a great balance between description and dialogue. As an actor and voice artist, do you think that it is easier for you to tune into dialogue? How does your experience in TV and theatre influence your fiction writing in general?

ARW: I cannot imagine writing without dialogue. It’s what we use to express, to conceal, to expose, to create humour, to defend, to attack, and there is a fascination for me in the words that are used, or especially the words not used. The stuff that goes on between and behind what is said is a world in itself. I have been in some form of theatre since primary school, through university, where speech and drama was my major, and to the professional world beyond; so, plays, texts and a fascination with the way brilliant playwrights use dialogue or silence have made me acutely aware of speech, and I suppose it might come easier to me because of this. It’s conscious, subconscious, non-conscious. In general, my fiction writing, especially in terms of structure, leans heavily on this background.

The stuff that goes on between and behind what is said is a world in itself.

KMS: Your story interrogates the concepts of revenge and forgiveness. Athol Fugard once said that the safest place in the world is in a story – do you agree?

ARW: I think that inside the story there must lie a measure of safety, since it is a world all of its own, and its creation and existence are the haven of the character and the author. Maybe a story is the freest place in the world. Our lived reality could in any event be seen as stories which we create, experience or react to daily, whether it’s a bad experience in a shop, or loadshedding, or a personal trauma; out there, our daily stories, though, are tethered to conventions, mores, current norms or imposed imperatives. We are also defined by how we rebel against some of that, which in itself can be a weight. Perhaps far less so in a story, because it is where imagination lives.

KMS: At the core of your story is the question of why we are not allowed simply to be who we are. Why do you think that so many of us are threatened by difference?

ARW: That’s a difficult question to answer. I suppose conformity has always been seen as the stones we step on to cross the lake, the tested and tried and accepted; it’s not atavistic, but is pushed and sold as such, as though the “way of doing things” were the route to success or survival in whatever form, and is immutable and engrained. So, when people confront “the other”, it sets in motion reactions which may seek to ignore it, or seek to attack it, or cast a pretence of acceptance. There is an element of the herd instinct at play, too, perhaps.

KMS: Do you have a routine when it comes to writing?

ARW: None whatsoever. I am not the writer who sits down at eight and writes until 12. I spend most of my time thinking the story, creating or tossing out scenarios which would relate to the character or narrative, and perhaps jotting down a phrase or a dialogue sequence between characters. I might not write a single word for two weeks. Weirdly, though, when I do sit down and write, it surprises me where a sentence or scenario can go. There’s nothing nicer than twisting something conventional or mundane into something completely different in order to cast a different light, or just nudging a cliché off the cliff to see how it ends up. Once I begin writing a sequence, though, I don’t let go until I’ve driven through it. If I’m stuck for an idea, I don’t let it lie, but thrash around until I have one. I love what the author Jack London once said: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Hilarious and true.

There’s nothing nicer than twisting something conventional or mundane into something completely different in order to cast a different light, or just nudging a cliché off the cliff to see how it ends up.

KMS: You are based in the Karoo, a space which holds a lot of local literary history. Do you find it daunting or inspiring?

ARW: It’s inspiring in the sense that great writers experienced and celebrated this Karoo in their own way, so to share this space with that notion is heartening. And there are so many greats: Langenhoven and Pauline Smith in Oudtshoorn; further away in Cradock, there’s Olive Schreiner and Guy Butler, with Athol Fugard and Don Maclennan further east. There is time and space in the Karoo that you don’t have in a city. In the Karoo, you experience not only a closeness to nature, but a closer coalface experience of society. You’re not driving by in a bus or a tinted-window car. It’s all up close, whether it be interactions with people, or societal ills, or poverty, or joy – you name it. That, too, is inspirational.

KMS: Your first novel, The fourth boy, will be published next year. Can you give us a sneak preview of what it is about?

ARW: It is a story of fiction woven around astounding and real events during World War II, when 500 Polish children, many Jewish, ended up in Oudtshoorn in the Cape, where they spent the rest of the war in a children’s home. The narrative jumps between a fraught 1980s South Africa and these children of 1943. It is a story of love in many forms, of betrayal and of redemption. A young freelance journalist is tossed into the past as he untangles three strange murders in the Little Karoo, all of which involve boys who were in the children’s home 40 years earlier. His search for a father he never knew turns up life-shattering revelations, as his own yearning for love takes him on a journey as turbulent and contradictory as the powder keg 1980s.

KMS: What are you working on now?

ARW: I’ve just delivered the first draft of a film script for a family fantasy-adventure film which I was commissioned to write. I’ve also started on a new novel, which is proving to be very exciting to write. Broadly, the novel is about identity, the loss thereof, the stealing thereof, and the myths that surround it. Spoiler alert: Why would two 82-year-old ladies hatch a daring plan to steal a large embroidery artwork from Groot Constantia? And how does the devastating 1969 earthquake in Tulbagh and Ceres fit in? If this were reality TV, I’d say, “We’ll find out … after the break!”

Also read:

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Kingsley Khobotlo, author of "Against the grain"

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Jarred Thompson, author of the short story "What we ride in on"

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Mabel Mnensa, author of the short story "Jars for nights like this"

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Robyn Perros, author of "The window display"

Short.Sharp.Stories anthology Fluid: interview with Shari Maluleke, author of "A lone floating flower"

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