Nick Mulgrew's debut collection, Stations, contains fourteen subtly interlinked tales set along the Southern African coastline from Cape Town to Mozambique, in which relationships, dreams and even narrators die; where fields catch fire, towers implode, and the shadows of the past grow long. He spoke to SSDA about how he collects the all the parts of living into the mess of life.
Congratulations on the publication of Stations. Speak to us about the evolution of writing individual short stories to 'I'm going to make an anthology'?
NICK: The overall concept of this collection had been in the back of my mind since I started writing my first stories. I believe short fiction is its own art, and I think collections of short fiction should be treated better – and conceived of better – than the usual assemblage of discrete stories released by novelists between novels. (In other words, the way they usually are.)
In bringing the collection together I had to think about the collections I have enjoyed most and have impacted most upon me, and try to figure out their architecture. So, books like Lorrie Moore’s Bark, Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools, Ron Currie Jr.’s God is Dead – I looked very closely at their structures, at what makes them so coherent and immersive.
Although it doesn’t say this on the packaging, Stations is a fourteen-story suite with each story loosely corresponding to one of the Stations of the Cross, as they are rendered in Catholic mythology. The stories share themes, settings and even characters: they all intersect, although sometimes I will be the only one who sees where and how they do. I think – or hope, at least – that this makes the collection more coherent and more interesting; that it can veer off in wild, strange directions, but always return to a thematic heart.
I did notice the Catholic undertone. However, I thought the biggest thread running through the collection was that your characters tended to be sensitive souls who meant well but 'meaning well' was not enough. Flawed people who cause hurt, insult or harm to others – perhaps even contributing to greater social problems – all while trying to live their lives the only way they know how. Was that intentional?
NICK: My characters do bad and sometimes terrible things – but crucially, they don't look or act like bad or terrible people. That's the insidious thing about human beings as moral agents: one does not have to be intentionally bad to do bad things. A lot of my characters would probably think they're perfectly good people, but they're otherwise complacent or ignorant, and sometimes that's all you need to – for example – re-entrench racism or sexism in your small corner of the universe.
To bring up Catholicism again: that's the point of Sin, right? Everyone – even "good people" – are sinners. Sin is what humans do.
Some of the stories in Stations were written seven years ago. What was it like having to revisit these to bring them up to the level of Nick-of-now, rather than Nick-of-then?
NICK: The truth is that I'm always to some degree dissatisfied with my writing. But it was surprisingly enjoyable to revisit some of the older stories and feel as though I had improved; to take the germ of those early drafts and make something new out of them. I wrote the first draft of "Appreciation" when I was 17, and "Stars" when I was 20. They're utterly different stories now, I'm relieved to say: there was a lot of bringing them up to the right level, as you put it. The main thing that has changed is that I'm more cautious of gimmicks and glibness; of being seen to be clever or cool or aloof. Young writers love to be seen like they don't care very much about their characters or their actions or their universe. I've had to learn to be vulnerable.
You are involved in so many projects, all of which come with their own job descriptions. Which do you identify with the most?
NICK: I'm a mess, first and foremost. I've tried to list all the different jobs I do and part-do – fiction writer, poetry writer, journalist, print designer, typesetter, beer critic, restaurant critic, magazine editor, publisher, Masters student, NGO deputy chair – but it feels like I'm bragging, when the truth is that they're all bit parts. Bit parts I care about and give my all to, and things I want to be successful at doing, things I love to do and give me fulfillment – but bit parts nonetheless. That's the condition of the globalised millenial, if I may use so awful a term: most young people have to do a multitude of things, either to get by, or to feel fulfilled in their lives and careers. I'm never bored, but it isn't great for your sense of self.
To answer your question, though? I suppose if I'm at a party and someone asks me what I do, I say I'm a writer. Strangers look at me oddly: maybe they don't think writers are real, or are a relic of an older time, like a gramophone repairman or a chimney-sweep. But that's what I've grown to be comfortable with.
Hey, vinyl made a comeback.
NICK: Indeed – and I do love my vinyl, especially old Dave Brubeck records.
In all seriousness, is there an idea of where you'd like to see your writing grow into the future? Or are you taking it one word at a time?
NICK: I’m looking forward to enjoying my career, and that means not having expectations about where I’d like to be and what I’d like to write.
That said, I do have two projects that I’d like to see completed soon. I am halfway through a second suite of stories, which is loosely about people who fall through safety nets – both emotional and institutional – and am about to start work on a novel set between the KwaZulu-Natal coast and the North Island of New Zealand. That one is about white flight, and, if I do it right, should make a lot of people very sad. Not upset. Not outraged. Just sad.
Lastly, as a member of SSDA team, what do you envision for SSDA in the future?
NICK: SSDA has everything it needs – an efficient team, great supporters and sufficient momentum – to become a leading publisher of short fiction from the continent. We’re already doing well: the annual SSDA anthologies are already some of the better – if not the best – collections of short fiction from Africa out there. Similarly, I want the SSDA Prize to become the most prestigious prize for short fiction on the continent, and I believe it’s getting there.
All of this, of course, is in the support of our main goal: to support writers from Africa, to help them improve their writing and their careers, and, through collaboration and hard, thoughtful work, to help put right the neglect that has been done to our literature.
On Nick's Beside Table
For work: lots of poetry manuscripts, and a lot of AIDS memoirs for the purposes of my MA: Edwin Cameron, Adam Levin, and so on.
For pleasure: I’m re-reading Ivan Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative right now, having just finished Bruce Chatwin’s Utz for the third time and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow for a second. I’m looking forward to getting into Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings when I get the time.
Nick Mulgrew was born in Durban to British parents in 1990. He studied English and Journalism at Rhodes University, and later at the University of Cape Town, at which he was a 2015 Mandela Rhodes Scholar in residence.
Among other accolades, he is the 2014 winner of the National Arts Festival Short Sharp Stories Award, and a 2015 shortlistee for the White Review Prize in the U.K. and Ireland.
Most recently, he is the author of the poetry collection, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, and the co-editor (with Karina Szczurek) of Water: New Short Fiction from Africa.
Raised in uMhlanga and Auckland, Nick lives in Cape Town. nickmulgrew.co.za
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie