Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An Interview with David Evans

I am proud to know the writers and teachers David Evans and his partner Jenny Newman. Each has made, in my view at least, courageous life choices. Jenny entered and then left a convent, and David Evans went to jail for his beliefs. He used to be a journalist in South Africa during apartheid, and because he protested about what was happening around him spent five years in prison. Now they both live on the Wirral across the Mersey from Liverpool and devote their lives pretty much to writing.

Recently I went to the launch of David Evans's anthology of short stories: PORTRAIT OF A PLAYBOY AND OTHER STORIES which is published by HEADLAND Publications.

Here is David with his publisher Gladys Mary Coles who is also a poet and teacher - whose evening classes I attended fanatically for about ten years.

David was introduced by the author Ramsey Campbell, which was entertaining, and we were then treated to a couple of readings which showed the range of the anthology to good effect. I particularly liked David's reading of RACE AGAINST TIME which is the first story in the book and is set in South Africa. It is a short story - only 4 sides long - but gives a strong impression of a place where skin colour is of paramount importance and dictates everything that happens, even the degree of medical care. It is poignant, tense and gripping. The stories are set mainly in South Africa and Merseyside (although places like Florence are featured too) and having sampled David's writing in A TOUCH OF THE SUN (reviewed here) I am looking forward very much to reading it soon.

David very kindly gave a set of particularly profound and thoughtful answers to my questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
DE: Slugs give me the shivers. I prefer snails – which are attractive in their slow determined way– but they threaten our attempts at gardening. I use snailmail, of course!

CD: What is your proudest moment?
DE: A dfficult question. As we grow older proud moments are diluted by mixed emotions and familiarity with other successes and failures and their cost. Probably my proudest moment was getting my first team cricket blazer at school. This was connected with the hope that it might impress an attractive student at the girls’ school nearby. It didn’t. But the blazer was nearly as pretty. A comparable moment was getting my first short story published in a South African magazine when I was 17. ‘Don’t think you’ve arrived,’ my favourite teacher said. I hadn’t.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
DE: Going to prison for five years.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
DE: Humans’ continued willingness to torture other humans and animals in the name of survival.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
DE: My temperament – for one which includes better focus and greater serenity.

CD: What is happiness?
DE: A transient by-product of good writing, good company and good sex.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
DE: Kill the alarm clock which is on the landing, clean my teeth etc then make a light breakfast to share with partner Jenny in bed.

CD: .How much of yourself is in your novels and short stories?
DE: Quite a lot, though I’m not trying to write disguised autobiography. I like to draw on what I’ve seen and heard, people I’ve met and places I’ve been to. But these elements are usually only a starting point. For instance a favourite short story is told from the viewpoint of a young Liverpool woman. Writing allows us to escape from the prison of self.

CD: How important has the experience of being in prison been in your life?
DE: :Enormously important. I learnt something of what it means to be subjugated. I also learnt the value of solidarity under oppression. Outside I couldn’t afford to go to university but in prison I was able to study for a degree through correspondence – financed by benevolent organisations. This led to a second degree from Oxford when I came into exile and a subsequent career as a lecturer. My fellow prisoners were intelligent and mainly highly educated people and very supportive. Prison wasn’t a pleasant place to be but it was a privilege to be in that company – a kind of socialist campus. Friendships formed there continue four decades on.

CD: When you visited a local prison in the UK did it help you to relate to the prisoners there, or was their situation very different?
DE: There is a difference about being imprisoned for your political convictions. And my most recent visit was a rather formal affair as I was one of the guest speakers at the opening of a new and impressive education centre. Though I spoke about what study in prison had meant to me and I talked to some of the prisoners briefly afterwards I feel I contributed more years earlier when I did a few sessions on creative writing: it was more intimate and informal and there was certainly rapport. I’ve offered to do something in that line again in future.

CD: What other experiences are important to you and your writing?
DE: The whole experience of apartheid and opposing it. Coming to Britain and working with aspirant writers in inner city areas like Scotland Road and Liverpool 8. The love of some very interesting women. Parenthood. Travel in Europe.

CD: When you have been back to South Africa how did you find it had changed?
DE: The obvious and welcome change is that the political shackles of apartheid have been removed and people of colour have at last won the right to be citizens of their own country with freedom of movement, association, organisation and the rest. Relations between white and black are changing excitingly, particularly among the young. Power relations have shifted, too, though there is still too much poverty and unemployment and I see a need for more redistributive economic policies. There are many problems – AIDS and inequality among them -but a great deal of energy and goodwill exists.

CD: Do you find there are similar injustices in this country? Is there anything you feel you need to fight for here?
DE: There is plenty to be concerned about: sometimes murderous race prejudice, widening inequality, male domestic violence and complicity in two ugly military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m conscious of doing very little for causes at the moment beyond giving a little money to some.

CD: How do you write? What is your typical writing day?
DE: There isn’t one. I’m erratic. I have ‘hot’ phases when I manage 500 – 1000 words a day or even more, usually starting about mid-morning and (with breaks of course) stopping around six, though I do sometimes write at night. But I have ‘cold’ periods when I’m slow to get myself to my desk and either fritter time away in displacement activities of one kind or another or brood about an idea. Luckily, I enjoy the actual process of writing and feel unhappy, even ill, if I’m away fom it for any length of time. At present I’m working on a sequel to my debut novel and finding it challenging.


Blogger Lee said...

This is a wonderful post. Thanks from someone who knows southern Africa quite well.

Wed May 24, 05:41:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very glad you liked it, Lee. Thanks for the response.

Wed May 24, 08:06:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read David's new book of short stories yet, but will do so over the next few weeks.

I regard David's A Touch of the Sun as one of the best existing novels by a white South African writer. Although, as David says, it is not in any way an 'autobiographical novel', it is deeply true to the novelist's own lived experience of growing up as a white boy and young man in a smallish town in South Africa in the Fifties, travelling ahead a little into the political drama of the early Sixties. The rough, raw, generic themes of sexuality, youthful machismo, ethnicity and racism, class and status emerge from 'the inside', with none of the didacticism or abstract playing around with the categories that mars a great deal of white South African fiction. I'm thinkling here primarily of the worst offender (and most celebrated), the darling of the salons, Nadine Gordimer.

David's is honest, true, heartfelt imaginative fiction, won through in a lifetime's engagement with the craft: no bullshit, no special airs, no secret (or not-so-secret) agenda to manipulate the reader's political sensibilities. No self-promotion (in a period when the autobiographical splurge by white South African politicoes of a certain age has become a further epidemic in an epidemic-plagued country). Just an imaginative work of art, from gut, heart and mind.

Unlike so many white novelists from South Africa, David does not write about what he knows nothing about (and no white novelists know anything about), the imaginative, sensed actuality of African lives in the apartheid period.

He's a real writer, not a litterateur.

I had the honour to play Falstaff under David's wonderful direction of a few episodes of Henry IV Part I in the yard of Local Prison, Pretoria, in 1966 (we were the Courtyard Players - screws outnumbered the audience of segregated politicoes, I think - and I have a reproduction of our 'boep' colleague Harold Strachan's prison cartoon of David from our 'programme').

So this comes from forty years' acquaintance with the artistic (and ordinary, human) integrity of the man.

At the book's launch, I quoted Roy Campbell's 'On Some South African Novelists':

You praise the firm restraint with which they write,
I'm with you there, of course.
They use the snaffle and the curb all right -
But where's the bloody horse?

As I said then, this book's the bloody horse.

Thank you, Clare!

Paul Trewhela

Fri May 26, 09:08:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul: I loved A TOUCH OF THE SUN too - as you say quite a different approach from other white writers in South Africa, though I must admit I have not read that many - only Coetzee and a little Gordimer.

Thank you for such a stunning appraisal of David's life and work so far - it has really added a lot of very interesting detail and is much appreciated.

Sat May 27, 11:06:00 am  
Blogger JohnnyB said...

It is wonderful to see David after so many years. I was one of the young writers in the Scotland Road Writers Workshop in Liverpool in the '70's I remember his encouragement and his passion for writing. I think of him with deep affection and great respect for his efforts for all of us who came to the writers workshop. Long may he continue to write and educate in his inimitable way. I enjoyed his interview very much.

J Bannister

Fri Jan 18, 01:46:00 am  
Blogger JohnnyB said...

It is wonderful to see David after so many years. I was one of the young writers in the Scotland Road Writers Workshop in Liverpool in the '70's I remember his encouragement and his passion for writing. I think of him with deep affection and great respect for his efforts for all of us who came to the writers workshop. Long may he continue to write and educate in his inimitable way.

J Bannister

Fri Jan 18, 01:49:00 am  

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