Poets and authors Mike Cope and Ken Barris have known one another for decades. Now they’ve written a novel together. KARIN SCHIMKE interviews them on Facebook.
Ken arrives late for the Facebook date. Karin calls him on his cellphone and reports back to Mike, waiting on-line:
KARIN: I called him and we were cut off, but not before he said “oh” in a way that made me realise he forgot/has the wrong time. It’s engaged now.
MIKE: I’m glad he forgot. During the writing of the book I forgot a meeting or two and felt guilty.
KEN: (Arriving on-line): Schadenfreude, Mike. Goeiemôre!
MIKE: Hi Ken! The very same ; )
KEN: Môre ouks. Jammer ek het vergeet.
KARIN: No sweat. I’m going to ask the questions one at a time and I’d like you both to answer before I ask the next one. So that you don’t crib.
How long have you two been friends?
MIKE: Since some time in the eighties, when we met at various poetry readings and literary events?
KEN: As far as I can recall, we met more seriously around the time Mike wrote a very complimentary review of my first poetry collection – but it was around poetry readings and so on.
So we’re looking at a friendship of some 30-odd years. You’ve just written a book together. Are you still friends?
KEN: Of course!
MIKE: Yes. Why shouldn’t we be?
Artistic differences? Getting to know someone you like in a different way? No. I do know that you’re still friends. But what’s it like writing a book with someone else? All fun and happiness?
KEN: No, we had disagreements, and – I think more from my side – they were resolved with a degree of heat. Mike, in fact, was very diplomatic. Bear in mind that writers (well, this writer anyway) feel very strongly about what they’re doing, it’s fuelled by a great deal of energy. That is the interpersonal side, of course. On the other hand, I got great joy out of collaborating with a creativity like Mike’s, and the technical challenges were unusual, complex, and therefore tremendously interesting.
MIKE: Writing together was mixed but mostly fun for me. It turns out that writing together was a way of giving form to a friendship in the midst of the chaos of regular life. Of course we had some spats, but that’s normal I think, and nothing we couldn’t sort out. And yes, I think we did get to know each other better through it. Without it we would certainly not have spent so much time in each other’s physical and intellectual company.
Let’s move on to the book. Mike, I remember some years ago you wrote a novel and were told that it wasn’t “South African enough”, or something along those lines. What is “South African enough” when it comes to novels?
MIKE: Karin, I have no idea. It was something long ago in a rejection slip. I suppose that there are certain niche markets and “South Africa” is certainly one.
KEN: I think it is a term that has lost its currency. It echoes the demands of engaged literature dating back to the Struggle years, but it doesn’t seem sustainable in a transnational world – which doesn’t mean that I think particularly South African themes/textures, political or otherwise, are out – it just means that there is far more choice for South African writers and readers (and of course publishers).
MIKE: But because I have another job and don’t have to make a living from writing I find that I can write what I am interested in without regard for these ideas.
And the book you’ve written together is called Sunderland. If I take the word as literally as I can, it seems to be a title that cuts to the very heart of South Africaness, so perhaps the book is “South African enough”, whatever that means. Tell me about it.
KEN: It’s a tale about a major South African writer who has died of brain cancer. His family hires a wannabe writer and researcher to reconstruct the fragments of his last novel left on his computer. Everything goes wrong from there.
MIKE: It’s a novel of ideas, and a satire, and a literary experiment. And a few other things.
Why did this book require two authors? Is it because you came up with the idea together one day over a glass of wine? Or did one of you ask the other to help out?
MIKE: I came up with the overall idea, but I needed another voice as I was forced into doing all sorts of ventriloquism by having a character who was a writer, and his texts. Ken’s dry ironic voice was the obvious choice.
KEN: It’s a novel of two voices, and it was Mike’s conception. At his invitation, we met over breakfast and discussed it. I asked Mike the same question – why don’t you write both voices? Mike replied that he only wanted to write the fragmented work of the dying writer, which (I think) was the centre of his original preoccupation, his inspiration. I was immediately fascinated by the idea.
Does that imply, Mike, that you had no idea of how Ken would respond? Or was the unfolding carefully plotted?
MIKE: Both. Ken had wide scope for the creation of his character and what he got up to, as well as various sub-plots. But it all had to fit with the stuff I was producing, as well as converge on the ending. I did make a few futile attempts to steer his character in my preconceived direction at first, but Ken was unresponsive, it was unnecessary, and I soon gave up.
KEN: We got together over several breakfasts and built up background to the characters in discussion. Their original conceptualisation (as opposed to their characterisation in detail) was pretty much guided by Mike, though in discussion. Then it was my job to plot the younger writer’s narrative in detail (his name is Art), and to write that.
How did the actual writing proceed? Was it ping-pong in the ether, with one doing something, and the other responding?
MIKE: As I recall, we both just wrote when we could, met occasionally for breakfast, and kept files updated on the cloud. I had to write the fragments of my character’s unfinished novel, so that Ken’s character could have something to write about.
KEN: It was more complex than that. We had a shared cloud folder. But Mike wrote his voice in a series of fragments, while I wrote mine as a more traditional narrative – then I would feed sections of Mike’s narrative into mine as both unfolded. Always in consultation, sometimes disagreeing.
MIKE: But mostly agreeing. There were some stages when it was quite exciting, and we felt that we were creating something interesting/good/hot.
When did you begin and how long afterwards did you consider the novel “finished”?
KEN: It was roughly two years, taking up most of 2011/2012. I thought it was finished at the end of 2012, but I was wrong about my part – following feedback from various sources, I added a bit of material around September 2013. But I only feel a novel is “finished” when it’s been published, and been through the cycle of response and reception.
MIKE: We started, I think, in early 2011. My guess is that we were done two years later. I had been thinking about it for a year before that.
KEN: I’m glad we’re agreed on the years. I was getting a bit worried.
MIKE: Years of bad living have taken a toll on both our memories.
KEN: As I demonstrated this morning. Ahem.
MIKE: You can still redeem yourself through prayer.
KEN: I can’t remember any.
KARIN: Yes, here I am. I was stopping to laugh.
But now the novel has a publisher. Was it hard to find one?
KEN: Not very. We had two rejections first, and the third one bit. It’s being published by Jacana.
MIKE: We did have a couple of rejections.
When will the book appear on the shelves?
KEN: In May this year, they tell us.
MIKE: In May. Jesus, is this an echo chamber?
KARIN: Mike, is that you reminding Ken how to pray?
MIKE: Yes. If you’re a writer you just make it up.
KARIN: Okay, let’s get professional again.
How many novels has each of you written?
I have written two novels and a memoir, which is sort of novel-ish. I have two published volumes of poetry and several chapbooks. And some stuff on the web. I have a volume of poetry under consideration with an editor
KEN: Six. And a collection of short stories, and two volumes of poetry.
You both have “real” jobs (I’ll duck here for the brickbats from the full-time writers). What do you do to put bread on the table? (As an aside, I’m a full-time writer. There is seldom bread on my table.)
MIKE: I make jewellery.
KEN: I work at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but most of my income is from book reviews.
A question just for Ken: Does book reviewing and book writing have a built-in tension?
KEN: Yes, very much so. I’m aware of how bad it feels to get a crap review, and vice versa. On the other hand, it’s not a critic’s job to make people feel good regardless. So I find the balancing act personally difficult in certain situations. Of course it’s easy when you’re reviewing a terrific book.
When you are writing a book, do you imagine what you, as a critic would say about it?
KEN: I always do, but that happened long before I was a critic. I think there is a valuable split in myself (and probably other writers) between writing and reading sides: it’s so important to try and see your work clearly (to the degree that it’s posisble).
Okay, last question: what question do you wish I’d asked you about Sunderland? And please answer it.
KEN: You’ve got me stumped.
MIKE: I wish you’d asked about the ending, which was the originating idea of the whole project. I would have been able to be evasive, but say that it’s a great ending.
This seems a good place to stop: at the ending. The book sounds intriguing. I look forward to reading it.