Mary Watson won The Caine Prize in 2006 for her story "Jungfrau". Her novel, The Cutting Room was published to great acclaim in 2013, and she has been named as one of the Hay Festival's Africa39 writers. She recently joined the board of Short Story Day Africa, and, along with Billy Kahora and Abubakar Abdul Ibrahim, is judging this year's prize. Tiah spoke to her about her work, and what she will be looking for in yours.
Tiah: You are a writer and hold a PhD in film stories. How do the two arts interrelate in your work?
Mary: In The Cutting Room, I deliberately played with ideas around film editing (particularly disjointedness in editing which is what my PhD was sort of about) and the form of the book. I am also all about stories – reading, writing and thinking about how stories work are some of my favourite things, and I enjoy exploring this interest in stories through both literature and film. That aside, when writing I think the connection between the two is mostly unconscious. It could emerge in the visual imagination of the story. I know that my interest in film has affected how I think about and plot the story – it’s a lot more methodical than the “into the mist” kind of writing I did before. Though I do still wander into the mist sometimes.
Tiah: Spaces – the recreation and embodiment of – plays a roll in your work. Please tell us more.
Mary: I am fascinated by how places are imagined in literature. I love the idea of writing as imaginary architecture, where a writer can recreate whole worlds, but shaped by the characters and themes of the book.
Tiah: What is current project is draining ink from your pen?
Mary: My work in progress is a contemporary fantasy. And I worry that it’s bad voodoo to talk while it’s still being formed.
Tiah: What cliché of African writing frustrates you the most?
Mary: I think that a lot of contemporary African writing is good at working away from cliché. While it’s not necessarily a cliché, I think that that there is sometimes of kind of earnestness that is infused in our writing. I think we can be a bit more playful with our stories.
Tiah: You are one of SSDA's 2015 judges. What do you look for in a winning story?
Mary: The first thing that stands out for me is the writer’s mastery of the words that they’re using. The writing may be subtle and ordinary or sparse and minimalist or lyrical but the main thing is that they must be well controlled. I like a good sense of rhythm to the story. I also think that everything has to be well motivated – is your character just staring out of the window doing nothing, then doing the washing up and then brushing his hair or is every action carefully motivated and there for a good reason.
On Mary's Bedside Table
I’ve just finished The Accident Season by Moira Fowley Doyle which is just brilliant.
Mary Watson (born 1975 in Cape Town) is a South African author who won the Caine Prize in 2006 for her short story “Jungfrau”. Watson is the author of Moss, a collection of short stories published in 2004. Watson completed her masters degree in creative writing under André Brink at the University of Cape Town. “Jungfrau” originated as part of this 2001 masters thesis. After receiving a second masters degree at the University of Bristol in 2003, she returned to Cape Town to teach film studies while pursuing a PhD. Mary has lived in Galway, Ireland, since 2008.