Describe yourself in a sentence.
She loves a good book.
Describe your ideal reader.
I'm partial to someone who is willing to pick up a book, any book (including mine), irrespective of genre or form, and give it five minutes of their time. In an ideal world, there is the reader, willing to approach what one has written with a curious and open mind, allowing the story to carry them.
What was the originating idea for the book?
If there was an originating idea, it long ago evolved into multiple, competing notions of what I wanted to achieve. I was living in New Jersey at the time and there was so much happening: my interest in the characters, places and politics around me – I felt a hunger to connect with that. Politics and the whole race dynamic in the United States are intriguing and somewhat bizarre, and, as I was looking at the country as an outsider, I felt I could write on it. Then there was the election of Barack Obama, which added another layer to an already fraught and fascinating setting. But I was also far from home and had always planned to write about what was happening in South Africa politically, socially … life really – so I wrote about both countries, which was certainly a way of keeping home close to me.
Describe the process of writing the work. How long did it take?
The insanity of a first novel, the sort of diabolical wonder of it, is that it is a process of learning and, by the time you've completed a first novel, you think you might just know how to go about writing one. The arc of the novel spanned three continents for me and the birth of a child. In human hours writing time, I would say about five years from the start of the novel to getting the book into print.
Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how.
I grew up reading the colonial canon: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare – some of which were prescribed at school – and, in retrospect, I am grateful to have read those works, especially Austen, who I feel – despite the modern celluloid tendency to pretty her work and neuter her achievements – knew something about breaking with social conventions and was an incredible writer. Dostoevsky affected my centre of gravity but it wasn't until I read Salman Rushdie that it seemed like a literary lobotomy had been performed on me. Nothing prepared me for the experience of reading his work, where the language – English – seemed to contort to a rich and sensual visual idea of India, and all of this above a complex political and historical narrative. In some way it's impossible to create a list of the books that have left their mark but some writers include Ondaatje, Wicomb, Achebe, Bolano, Marquez, Nkosi, Okri, Coetzee, Enright, Abani, Galgut, Gordimer, Lessing, Didion … There are the Americans including the Beatniks, Russians, the younger contemporary writers.
Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?
I have only ever used a computer. When I write by hand these days, it's a sort of scrawl. I might eventually lose the capacity to write.
What is the purpose of fiction?
I don't think there can or should be a definitive answer. It is dependent on what one wants from fiction … Some read for the distraction of it, the pure aesthetic pleasure of a beautiful sentence. I often do. But many people read for entertainment or for escapism, both of which are valid. I think, for me, the idea of literature that serves as a barometer for a society remains vital: fiction that probes the human condition, politics, society and that is brave enough to imagine another way of being.
Is there anything you wish to add?
I would love to see a concerted, co-ordinated effort from civil society, writers, publishers, government and nongovernmental organisations to alter our reading habits (and trajectory) and the space given to literature in our country. It can and has been done elsewhere … but we would need to work together and plan 20 years into the future.
CA Davids will be on the panel Fact and Fiction: "The story is our escort, without it we are blind", on Sunday September 1 from 10am to 11.30am. It will be chaired by Craig Higginson. The other panellists are Maren Bodenstein (Shooting Snakes, Modjadji), Dominique Botha (False River, Random House) and Claire Robertson (The Spiral House, Random House)