Q&A with 2016 New Voices Award Nominee James Clarke

09 Nov 2016
Q&A with 2016 New Voices Award Nominee James Clarke

James Clarke’s short story “Old Iron” was nominated by PEN South Africa for the 2016 PEN International New Voices Award, along with Beatrice Willoughby’s poems “The Mad, Sad, Rad Collection“. PEN Afrikaans nominated Frederick J Botha and his story “Please Help, God Bless”.

Read our Q&A with Clarke below and his story “Old Iron” here.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing life – how long you’ve been writing for and what you like to write about?

‘Writing life’ seems too grand a term to use in my case. I’ve been writing for myself since leaving school, although not very seriously until last year. Before then academic writing took up most of my time. As far as subject matter is concerned, I do not know what I like to write about until I’m drawn to writing about it. Which is not to be coy—only to point out that one is constantly changing and therefore the things that one is drawn to are also constantly changing.

Tell us a bit about your short story “Old Iron”, which was nominated by PEN SA for the 2016 PEN New Voices Award?

‘Old Iron’ is a story which I wrote during the coursework component of the creative writing program at UCT. Until a few years ago I was a member of a craftsmen’s guild, and had several friends who were well into their sixties. Oftentimes when speaking to these men I realized that their professional lives (working on the mines or in engineering workshops) had made them witness to the demise of the apprenticeship system. The repressed sense of loss with which they alluded to this change—from personal relationships with your juniors (‘appys’) to the impersonal (and often impractical) technikon model—stirred up in me the desire to investigate what it might have been like to watch this older generation of masters slowly disappear. More particularly, what it might have been like had the relationship been ‘close’ as it is in the story. There is of course much more to the story than this—at any rate I hope there is—but this fact of my personal life was part of what drew me to the idea.
From a formal perspective I was trying to see if I could develop a first-person voice—in particular the voice of an articulate young man from a lower-middle class background—without being either too literary or too colloquial.

Writers or books that have had an impact on you?

The question of influence is an interesting one. For one thing, how should one determine whether the books one detests, the books one wants to throw across the room, haven’t had as strong (if not as visible) an influence on one’s writing as those that one has loved? Sometimes I feel that this ‘negative’ influence, if influence can be binarised into the negative and positive, works in a far subtler and more interesting way than positive influence. So in a sportive mood I’ll list ten books which I’ve either loved or hated, without saying which falls into which category. At least one of these falls, rather paradoxically, into both categories, which raises another question, namely one’s readiness for influence and the sometimes devastating surprises that a rereading may spring on us.

Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid
Where I’m Calling From, Raymond Carver
Sum, Marthinus Versfeld
Dubliners, James Joyce
The Humbling, Philip Roth

What was the last book or short story you read that you really loved?

A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter

What’s next? Where can we find more of your writing?

Until entering this competition, I hadn’t sent my stuff out to anyone. I tend not to be very pleased with the things I write, so a little pressure might be needed to get me to publish more. That necessary pressure will most probably come in the person of Imraan Coovadia, my supervisor, as he advises me on the book I’m writing for submission in 2017 as my MA ‘thesis’.

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