Mark Winkler is the author of two novels, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything) and Wasted. His story, 'Ink', took third place in the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize and is published in our anthology, Water: New Short Fiction from Africa.
Tiah: Your Water story, 'Ink', involves maps and ink blots as well as a quest for underground water. What attracted you to the theme and how did the story came together?
MARK: I’d actually written a few drafts of "Ink" before I saw the call for SSDA submissions, and it seemed an apt entry. I suppose water and the issues around it have been very much in the collective consciousness, now more than ever.
'Ink' was initially the exploration of an idea for a longer project, based on the notion that civilisations generally take root near a source of water, and that as they mature, territories and boundaries begin to be defined and drawn up (which is why the narrator of 'Ink' is a cartographer). Maps are drawn, and histories and the myths that grow from them are written in ink (more or less), leading to progress but also to inevitable conflict. Both substances, water and ink, are inextricably linked in the telling of stories and legends, from the first hand-print on a cave wall, to the tattoos of concentration camp prisoners, through to Tolkien and the latest Booker winner. The Rorschach blots that fascinate Angela are pretty much maps themselves, similar to the maps of colonists and conquerors that set out to define boundaries in an arbitrary attempt to categorise people – who, being three-quarters water themselves, are a lot more changeable and fluid than rigid interpretations might allow.
Tiah: What was it like working with Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek, SSDA's editorial team for Water?
What is your favourite part about editing?
MARK: Working with Karina and Nick was light and easy, and while their edits were minimal they were incisive and invaluable.
My second-favourite part about editing, like banging your head against a wall, is when it stops. But my favourite part is revisiting the clean manuscript afterwards and marvelling at how a great editor’s sharp eye, good sense and patience have so much improved the fluffy thing you sent to her in the first place (I’d love to drop a name here, but I won’t).
Tiah: Your second novel Wasted was well received by the South African literary community. Yet your background is actually in copywriting. Tell us about the transition to fiction and how your copywriting background feeds into your writing overall.
MARK: I’d always wanted to write long fiction, but having a family and a career in advertising provided the perfect excuse of never having enough time. It took me a long time to realise that this was nonsense, and that there’s always time to do what you want to do. Then it took me years to figure out how to do it.
Copywriting teaches you many things. Voice is one of them, as every brand you write ads for has its own particular tone and manner – you can’t write a Sanlam ad, for instance, in the voice of Nando’s or Pick n Pay.
Copywriting also teaches you craft, as the space or time you have to try to put forward a compelling argument is severely limited. So you learn the value of endlessly rewriting, editing, and paring down your prose.
But, as copywriting efforts focus on brevity and succinctness, I found the transition from ad copy to long-format fiction more than a little challenging.
Tiah: You wrote a blog post titled When 'African Literature' means 'Don't Bother' about your frustration of the way chain book stores in South Africa place African literature on a dusty shelf in the back.
Projects like SSDA, Writvism, Long story SHORT, Kwani?, Jalada to name a few are all working to bring new perspectives and attention to African literature. What can writers do to get our work seen and bought by readers?
MARK: After posting that blog I was chastised by a French tourist, who pointed out that without the "African Literature" section she would never have come across my book. So I suppose it does some good – we simply need more French tourists with an interest in local fiction.
The initiatives you mention are all fantastic, but are they perhaps exciting African writers more than they are African readers? I sometimes wonder how many of the readers in our tiny fiction market still choose what they read based on habits entrenched by the Western authors on their high-school reading list, instead of stretching themselves and reaching for the Mopani worms instead of the peanuts.
My advertising career has taught me that you can’t sell dog food to people who don’t have dogs. So, no matter how hard publishers and bookstores promote African fiction, the real challenge lies in creating more interest, and so more demand, for African writers amongst African readers.
I’m sure that people tend to buy books in the way that they order at restaurants: by staying with the tried and trusted. If we continue to steep our readers, especially the younger ones, in “foreign” literature, that’s what they’re going to keep buying. A small example – my daughter has just started Grade Nine, and her set works are Murder on the Orient Express and The Shadow of the Wind. Why aren’t even the most progressive schools encouraging the exploration of the excellent local YA fiction? Maybe that’s where we should be looking, first and foremost, to change literary palates.
Tiah: To conclude on a brighter note, what are you positive about in African lit? Any writers catching your eye? Any trends making you smile?
MARK: What’s really exciting to me right now is the fantastic work being created by young(ish) black writers – and it’s even more exciting to see how well their works are being received, on our continent as well as abroad. When I first started taking SA authors seriously, a very long time ago, my choices were more or less limited to Gordimer, Brink and Coetzee – not an awful departure point, but I wanted more. It was hard to look beyond Achebe, and later, Okri – mostly because I had no idea of where to look. Today, there’s such a wealth of spice and flavour and melody and lyric originating from our country and continent – such diverse stories, voices, and experiences (for the reader, I mean), unfettered by the constraints that black writers like Todd Matshikiza had to face back in the day – that to watch people in bookstores lunge for the latest USA bestseller out of sheer habit is more than a little sad.
We each have our own village, and I think that our writers have learnt that each village has its own story to tell. No story is more or less important than the other, but what really excites me is that the storytelling is now about literary quality as much as it is about narrative and thematic content.
On Mark's Bedside Table
I always have a mash-up of local and international authors on the pile next to my bed. I’ve recently read Ivan Vladislavić’s 101 Detectives and Flashback Hotel, Sebastian Faulks’ Where My Heart Used To Beat, and Justin Cartwright’s Up Against The Night. I’ve just begun Howard Jacobson’s J, and next up are Niq Mhlongo’s After Tears and Claire Robertson’s The Magistrate of Gower. But I find it hard to read while I’m writing, and having recently started a new and rather complex project, the reading pile may be left to gather dust for some time.
Mark is the author of An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything (Kwela, 2013) and Wasted (Kwela, 2015).
He graduated with a B.Journ from Rhodes a long time ago. Since then he has spent his working life in the advertising industry, and is currently creative director at M&C Saatchi Abel in Cape Town. He has won over thirty local and international advertising awards, including Gold, Silver and Bronze Lions at Cannes.
Mark is looking forward to the publication of Wasted in French, and was delighted to have been awarded third place in the 2015 Short Story Day Africa competition.
Mark lives in Cape Town with his wife, two daughters, Writing Cat, and a library of almost two thousand books.