Q&A with 2015 New Voices Award Nominee Liam Kruger
15 Dec 2015
Liam Kruger’s story “Sarah” was nominated by PEN South Africa for the 2015 PEN International New Voices Award, along with Genna Gardini’s poem “Performance Scale“. PEN Afrikaans nominated Carien Smith and her story “Likkewaan“.
Read our Q&A with Liam below and click here to read his story “Sarah”.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing life – how long you’ve been writing for and what you enjoy writing about?
Man! ‘The writing life.’ I spend an awful lot of it not-writing, and fretting endlessly instead – which is exhausting, and unfortunate because fretting is perhaps the one occupation guaranteed to generate less income than writing. I had my first not-necessarily-terrible story published by the wonderful Something Wicked folk in 2010, and have been putting together the odd poem and short story and novella every few months since then in places like Prufrock, Itch and Aerodrome, and a couple of places further afield – in between getting degrees and trying to assemble the sort of life that would allow me to remain roofed, fed, and more or less solvent without losing too much time and energy better spent on writing/fretting. This project has met with indifferent success.
I don’t really ever know what it is that I want to write about, except after the fact; the goal is to be producing interesting fiction, articulating bits of humanity that haven’t been articulated before, or in quite the same way, which makes for a sort of haphazard writing process. Though, historically, I do seem to spend a lot of time writing about bars.
Can you talk a bit about “Sarah”, the story you entered for the PEN New Voices Award? It has such a great premise.
Thank you! “Sarah”, like most of my stories that end up seeing the light of print, lies somewhere between reverse-engineering and outright plagiarising a better writer’s story – in this case, ‘”The Zahir” by Borges, and Neil Gaiman’s “How To Talk To Girls At Parties“, which has a brief moment where, after, fleeing a party full of otherworldly guests, the narrator looks back, and sees his hostess glaring after him:
there was makeup smudged across her face, and her eyes —
You wouldn’t want to make a universe angry. I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.
And that seemed like a moment worth building from. Instances where everything is suddenly different, and generally not for the better, are the ones that interest me in short fiction. “Sarah” was an attempt at convincingly writing that kind of shift in the centre of gravity of someone’s life.
You’ve written some fantastic science fiction, including “Sarah”, is this the genre you’re most drawn to?
Maybe in the sense of moth-to-a-flame? I’m wary of science fiction – once you’ve been shelved with the Science Fiction/Fantasy ghetto, your chances of getting out of it are slim to none; better to do as Atwood, or Winterson, or Ishiguro have done, and write ‘literary fiction’ with the odd excursion into the fantastic or speculative.
I’ve written a fair amount of both. Traditional realism, or literary fiction, or whatever-you’d-call-it allows for considerable innovation/showing-off on the level of sentence, but the conceptual constraints can be a little suffocating – so kicking against that and throwing in some time travel or ghosts or time-travelling ghosts, wrenching the real with something unreal for emphasis, can be rather freeing. I am drawn to that.
You write a lot of short fiction pieces – do you think you’ll continue with that format, or is there a novel waiting to come out?
I wrapped up my Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town last year, the completion of which involved writing a novel-length manuscript – so that’s come out, I suppose, and is currently in search of a home.
I think I’d like to keep my hand in with both forms? Novels are good for doing broad-stroke crafty stuff, and for forcing readers to think in a particular kind of way for prolonged periods, and for plot, which I tend to neglect; short fiction is great for almost poetically-dense prose, and for getting out thumbnail sketches that you wouldn’t be able to shoehorn into larger projects, and for making even less money than novelists.
Writers or books that have had an impact on you?
I tend to feel like the high-impact books are the early ones? Which means that by the time you’re old enough to recognise that a book is Meant To Be Important, one of the Prousts or Baldwins or Woolfs, it’s probably too late for you, and most of your sensibilities have been calibrated already. Which is unfortunate, in that mine are all books by people from contexts rather removed from my own, but them’s the breaks. Those pulpy Animorphs books, about teens turning into dolphins and bears to save the planet, Tove Jansson’s Moomin, Nelson Demille’s books about strong-jawed Americans punching up pretty much any other nationality, and most of Terry Pratchett’s stuff, would loom pretty large. They’re the sorts of books I’d want to hide away if trendy friends were to show up; the way one sometimes feels about one’s parents.
What was the last book you read that you really loved?
I’ve recently rediscovered James Tiptree’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever which is full of lacerating and gloomy and smart stories, and which has broken my heart any number of times; David Gates has come out with a new collection, A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me which is precisely the last kind of thing I should be reading, since it’s mostly white hypereloquent bourgeois-bohemians offering lengthy diagnoses of their unhappiness without lifting more than an eyebrow to do anything about it, but which I nonetheless adore.
What are you working on at the moment?
A handful of short stories – I’ll have had about two dozen published by the end of this year, so it’d be worth trying to assemble a collection at some point, if I can find any consistent them around which to organise it – and a novel-length project, which’ll have me pootling around Namibia and Berlin for the next few months. Which is not unexciting.