"I’ve always believed in a meritocracy, if the work’s good, it should speak for itself and I shouldn’t have to beg you or impress you with my sparkling personality to get you to see that, which isn’t to say I’m not a nice person, it’s just what I believe."
Iain S. Thomas is a rare writer; a wordsmith that can not only pay the bills but lives well off his work. He is hugely successful in pretty much every publishing territory, from Asia to the USA, yet no publisher in South Africa signed him. Seems they missed a trick. We spoke to Iain to find out what it takes to be a BIG in Japan, Korea, Canada, America, Australia etc., etc.,etc….
SSDA: You have a published poetry collection, I Wrote This for You and a novel, Intentional Dissonance. How does your writing approach differ between the two forms?
IAIN: I also have another collection of poetry called 25 Love Poems For The NSA and there are two follow ups to I Wrote This For You; I Wrote This For You: Just The Words and I Wrote This For You And Only You. There are also two other books coming out shortly called How To Be Happy: Not A Self-Help Book and 300 Things I Hope For You. Those are all with my publisher in Canada, Central Avenue, and then there's a book that’ll be out towards the end of the year with Ulysses Press in California currently called I Am Incomplete Without You.
I write a novel as if I was writing a lot of poems around the same subject, which is probably not the best approach but it's the one that makes sense to me and I think every writer has to use what works for them.
With poetry, each and every day, I have to come up with something new to say, a new idea about something or a way of seeing something that I haven’t thought of before. That might sound exhausting but writing a novel is much harder for me, and far more intimidating, because you have to keep returning to the same idea and keep it exciting over a period of months, if not years. But we weren't put here to do easy things, and I am working on a new one.
Regardless of whether I'm writing poetry or a novel, it's a job, my books pay all my bills and I treat my process with the respect that it deserves, so I wake up at the same time every morning, go to work at my standing desk and don't stop until I've written a few thousand words. The only concession I allow myself is that I work on whatever I'm most excited about first, whether that's a book, a poem, an article or anything else.
SSDA: We've read that your work focuses on 'non-traditional media in all its forms'. Please tell us more about this.
IAIN: I’m always trying to find new ways to tell stories, or ways to write things that haven't been done before.
As an example, I wrote a never-ending sentence for a monument to jazz musicians in New Town, Johannesburg – the sentence has no beginning or end. My book, 25 Love Poems For The NSA, is written using the words the NSA flags and tracks in email communication. For Intentional Dissonance, I signed limited edition copies of the eBook using my voice, by converting the cover image into sound, then recorded myself reading different parts of the book over it, then I converted all of that together back into an image. How To Be Happy: Not A Self-Help Book is about someone failing to write a self-help book and I Wrote This For You is a blog about a pronoun effectively. I Am Incomplete Without You is a book the reader writes themselves.
Basically, if it’s weird, if it hasn't been done before, if it's different or if it's new, I want to do it.
SSDA: A book the reader writes themselves? Tell us more.
IAIN: It’s a completely new collection of poetry from me that’s phrased and written in a way that encourages a response. It’s in the very early developmental stages so that’s all I’m really comfortable saying about it right now. I am working closely with my publisher in California on it and I hope I can reveal more details soon.
"It’s basically a giant, incredibly long game of exquisite corpse."
SSDA: Chinua Achebe wrote all of his work by hand, as did many other writers of his generation. Does writing by hand still play a roll in your work? How and why?
IAIN: As I’ve said before, I write with a pencil because it takes me longer to get to the end of the sentence. So I get to think about what I’m writing more. I speed type if I’m sitting in front of a computer. I write a lot of prose by hand before it gets near the computer, and then it gets edited, brutally, for hours, if not days. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get a beautiful sentence out of it.
SSDA: What themes are do you find yourself exploring?
IAIN: I struggle with depression and have for most of my life so most of what I write is written because I just want to tell someone else how I’m feeling, and see if they've ever felt the same, or I'm writing the things I would tell myself if I could step outside myself, and make myself feel ok.
SSDA: Tell us about your blog I Wrote This For You, which has received high praise. How did it start? What is your overall purpose of keeping it going? How does it fit into your overall creative process?
IAIN: It’s basically a giant, incredibly long game of exquisite corpse. I started I Wrote This For You in 2007 as an online project with a friend of mine, Jon, who was living in Japan at the time. We only knew each other from our online interactions, we liked the same music and hung out on similar websites and chat rooms. We've been working together for nearly ten years now and have never actually met in real life, although I'm sure he's wonderful. He sends me pictures and I write poetry or prose or stories around those pictures. Whatever I write has to contain the word, “you,” in it somewhere and there are a few other rules I set myself. The end product can be anything from a sentence to a few hundred words. At some point, the blog blew up and we became incredibly popular.
I struggled to get any attention for it back home, here in South Africa, and eventually found a publisher in Canada. Since then, we’ve sold more than 100 000 copies and it’s been translated into Chinese and Korean.
I still struggle to get anything done with it in South Africa and while it’s available at Barnes & Noble, across North America, and I’ve done incredibly successful reading tours in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, you wouldn't be able to buy one of my books at an Exclusive Books here. Sometimes I feel like the reverse Rodriguez and this is one of the reasons my wife and I have decided to immigrate to America.
I Wrote This For You eats everything it touches. I have to be careful not to feed it all of my ideas, which means I don't work on it as often as I used to. It's my first child so I'll always love it but I don't want to be a one trick pony. Since my initial success with it, a whole lot of “Letters I Wrote And Things I Never Said To You” books, which all try to be I Wrote This For You through linguistic gymnastics, have come out and if other people are doing the same thing as me, I should do something else.
SSDA: You've had meteoric success internationally, but on home ground you're practically unknown. South African publishers have been unresponsive to your work. Why do you think that is? And what, in your opinion, needs to change in SA publishing?
IAIN: I think I Wrote This For You is hard to put in a box, which is a double-edged sword. I wanted to write and create something that was incredibly different and I succeeded, but it also meant that it became something that was hard to explain or contextualise, and I think that made people uncomfortable. I only started considering what I was writing as poetry when my Canadian publisher told me it was the #1 bestselling book of poetry on iTunes and Amazon across the planet - and it’s only really called that so the people who work in bookstores know which shelves to put it on. I guess it’s poetry but I never set out to write poetry.
Regardless, it’s hard for me to talk about why South African publishers were unresponsive to it, as I don’t know their reasons. There does seem to be a bit of a club where if you play the game, know the right people and say the right things, you get ahead, which, admittedly may just be my perception or my lack of will to network. I’ve always believed in a meritocracy, if the work’s good, it should speak for itself and I shouldn’t have to beg you or impress you with my sparkling personality to get you to see that, which isn’t to say I’m not a nice person, it’s just what I believe.
I ardently pursued getting a South African publisher and a South African distributor, and I would love the money the books have made to have stayed in the country. I gave up because nothing was happening and the vast majority of my readership is overseas anyway and in the end, Central Avenue, my publisher in Canada, were the ones to take a chance on us, and have been quite handsomely rewarded for it. They’re small but they care about us and I have an excellent relationship with them.
Over here, I’m pretty sure the only place you can buy my books in a store is at The Book Lounge in Cape Town and I don’t think anyone’s going to be calling me to sit on a poetry panel anytime soon. But overseas, my books were promoted across North America as part of their National Poetry Month in April. School teachers share the books with their classes. I get the most amazing letters and correspondence from across the planet, and I have a manic, mind-blowing following in Asia. So it’s a soul-numbing experience, telling my mother she needs to buy my books off Amazon, or walking into South African books stores, seeing books of poetry by overseas writers on the shelves, that appear constantly next me on Amazon and other platforms, and knowing that mine simply aren’t available over here.
In terms of what needs to change, I don’t know. Maybe publishers need to start being more comfortable with things that make them uncomfortable or start taking more risks. It’s also worth saying that there are stories coming out of South Africa and Africa that haven’t been told and that need to be told, maybe mine just isn’t meant to be one of them right now. Maybe the real focus should be on them. I’m a white South African male who was born in the 80’s and if I was any more privileged, I’d be made of ivory tusks and silver spoons. I know many people would kill to have my problems. I’ll be ok.
SSDA: Thank you for being such a willing and insightful participant. We look forward to the launch of I Wrote This For You And Only You at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on Tuesday the 23rd of June.
Currently on Iain's Beside Table:
Bob Dylan’s Chronicles.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
All these books are available from your local independent bookstore, on the shelves or to order. Keep bookstores alive. Read reviews online, buy from the local.
Iain S. Thomas is the South African born #1 bestselling author of several books of poetry and novels. He writes regularly for The Huffington Post on poetry, creativity and life. He will be reading selected work from his new book, I Wrote This For You And Only You at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on Tuesday the 23rd of June.