A thousand tales span 100 years in Jozi epic

Copywriter, playwright and novelist Harry Kalmer is at home with words. In his new novel, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg (Penguin), he shows he’s very much at home with Jo’burg too. We asked him about his writing worlds.

Describe yourself in a sentence.

I’m a Johannesburger who loves writing. Along the way I managed to write 23 plays and 10 books of fiction.

Describe your ideal reader.

Somebody who enjoys a good story and isn’t afraid to be challenged by what they’re reading.


Tell us about the originating moment or idea of your new book.

It started with the title, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg. It was very evocative and had so much possibility, from the word go.

How important to the book was your own experience of being a longtime Jo’burg resident?

I remember a lot of things that I write about; the grand old picture palaces of Commissioner Street built in the 1930s, the 1976 school uprising and the nihilistic and decadent jol of Rockey Street [Yeoville] in the 1980s — interesting places and events to revisit in a fictional frame of mind.

Describe the process of writing. How long did it take?

A first draft took a solid year of writing. Then it took another three years to find a structure that worked and to create a beginning that would seduce readers from the word go and would keep them reading on.

Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how.

I have been reading most of my life. But Etienne Leroux, Kurt Vonnegut and JM Coetzee were probably the first writings that truly resonated with me. Later on there were others: Peter Handke, Miguel de Cervantes, Iris Murdoch, Richard Ford, Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Carver. More recent discoveries include WG  Sebald and the prose of the American poet Ben Lerner. Each of them made a change to how I see and experience the world.

Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?

I have been writing by hand for more than 20 years. But most of A Thousand Tales was written on computer from the first draft. It just seemed an easier way to impose structure on so many divergent storylines.

What is your favourite reading matter?

I like good writing — journalism, fiction, non-fiction, history, philosophy and poetry. Almost anything that is well written and beautifully crafted.

What is the purpose of fiction?

My experience as a reader is that it helps one to make sense of a complicated world. Hopefully something in my work will do the same for my readers.

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Arts Desk
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