Why is the author of the novel Absolution, set in a contemporary South Africa dealing with the long-term effects of apartheid, in exile in London?
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Fresno, Calif., but grew up in Omaha, Neb., where I nonetheless continued to think of myself as a transplanted Californian, since both of my parents were from there. I never thought of us as Nebraskans, although in retrospect I can see how much I must be a product of the Midwest, or at least of certain tendencies in Midwestern manners. Because Omaha felt so far from anywhere—from extended family but also, simply, from those cities and landscapes that struck me as “interesting”—I was always anxious to leave, which is not to suggest it was a bad place to grow up. I think a childhood in the provinces can be a good thing for a writer.
Where and what did you study?
I spent my first undergraduate year at Georgetown, thinking I would become a diplomat, but hated the course and felt philosophically out of step with the university. So I transferred to NYU, where I majored in film production. I studied 20th-century English Literature, and wrote my doctoral thesis on the publishing and adaptation history of Evelyn Waugh, at the University of Oxford.
You live in London now. What made you decide to remain in England?
My partner is South African and when he got his first job in Britain that set our course. We remain in Britain because this is where we’ve made our lives (we both acquired dual citizenship here in 2011), but also because I cannot, at the moment, sponsor him for a green card that would allow us to live together in America. I now think of myself as a DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] exile; if DOMA is overturned, as I certainly hope it will be, then who knows what the future may hold. There are a great many things I miss about America, although much that I have come to appreciate about Britain.
Your first novel, Absolution, was roundly praised. Does such critical enthusiasm affect the writing of your second book? Does it add pressure or relieve it?
My agent suggested I try to have a completed draft of a second novel before Absolution was published. She could not have given better advice. Had I not done that, I would have felt truly daunted. Revising the second novel, Fallen Land, after the reviews were out for Absolution made it a much less overwhelming process. I’m working on the third novel now. But also, the reviews exist in their own sphere, and it is one I do not visit very often. My inner critic is a fierce enough creature; ultimately one does the best one can, whatever the critics say.
What drew you to South Africa as the setting for Absolution?
Since my partner is South African, I had visited the country a couple times before I began work on the book, and continued visiting during the years I was writing and revising it. For me, the U.S. and South Africa speak to each other in endlessly suggestive ways, and there have been vibrant cultural cross-pollinations between the two for at least the last hundred years.
Describe your morning routine.
I’m usually up by 7, or even earlier in summer, since it gets light as early as 4 in London, have coffee and breakfast, read the news, some days I’ll take a run to the park, and then I try to be working by 9 or 10 at the latest.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I need a quiet room (this is a constant source of frustration in Britain, where buildings have very thin walls and neighbors are always audible), and little in the way of distraction, except a window with a view of trees. I don’t circle my desk three times before sitting down, or perform any particular incantations! I need two cups of coffee to get my brain working in the morning, but after that it’s all a matter of maintaining focus until the midday walk, and then in the afternoon, until I break for dinner.
The U.S. and South Africa speak to each other in endlessly suggestive ways, and there have been vibrant cultural cross-pollinations between the two for at least the last hundred years.
Please recommend three books to your readers.
I’ll recommend the three novels I’ve been reading most recently. Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: a startling examination of the corrosive psychological effects of anti-Semitism in the 20th century and a compelling novel of migration across the European continent. Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star: a fantastic metafiction from one of the great masters of 20th-century literature. Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust: a haunting Hollywood novel that seems weirdly prescient about cults of celebrity and mob violence.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
When I was writing Absolution, I knew almost no other writers of fiction, and felt a distinct lack of community. Just at the time I was revising the book I had a very important lunch with the South African novelist Marlene van Niekerk, whose work I greatly admire and who treated me like a fellow author, even though she had no good reason to do so. That lunch helped enormously to push me forward. Since the publication of the book, I’ve started meeting other authors, which has been tremendously rewarding—particularly when someone gets in touch out of the blue to say they’ve liked the book and want to meet. Writing is such a solitary business that it’s a relief to find a community of people who understand its demands and frustrations, but also its particular joys. I’ll avoid turning this into an exercise in name-dropping, but there are people now who are regular contacts, becoming friends, and that is a great support in the midst of long stretches of solitary days.
What is a place that inspires you?
At the moment I’m spending six weeks at the Santa Maddalena Foundation outside of Florence, working in the tower where Bruce Chatwin used to write. I’d never been here before, had been to Italy briefly only once, but within 12 hours of arriving I was working at my desk, looking out on the Tuscan hills, and feeling a kind of creative focus that I haven’t felt in the same way anywhere else. It helps that one does not have to think about cooking or cleaning, and at lunch and dinner one has the company of other writers—at the moment I’m here with two Spanish writers, Javier Montes and Mercedes Cebrián, and the Macedonian writer Goce Smilevski—as well as our host, Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte, the widow of Gregor von Rezzori. With the quiet of the surroundings, the beauty of the landscape, great company, lively conversation, excellent food, and four friendly dogs, I don’t see how it could be anything but inspiring.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
Thinking about the books I love, they all start in radically different ways, although I suppose what they have in common is one of two things: either a compelling mastery of language and captivating style, or strong dramatic action that makes one want to know more. The greatest books, for me, combine both these qualities.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
I need minimalism, few distractions. In its best state my desk is bare, except for the laptop, although piles of things (books, bills, collections of pens and pencils) tend to accrue and sometimes I find myself too lazy to clear them away. The wall in front of my desk at home is blank. At Santa Maddalena, I have a series of 18th century Venetian etchings of serious-looking Ottoman rulers—Grand Viziers, a Pasha, a Turkish nobleman, and a very elegant midcentury brass lamp. Both in my study at Santa Maddalena and at home in London, I look out on trees: a garden in London, the wilder landscape of Tuscany here. I need a view of greenery; the writing doesn’t seem to work without trees.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
For me it feels like being an author is a constant process of becoming, because there’s always more to read, more to write, other languages to learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed.