Kurt Ellis is the author of By Any Means, one of the books on the longlist for the Etisalat Prize for literature. He lives and works in South Africa. A proud father to a baby boy, he has always loved coming up with stories, right from when he was a kid. In this interview with Ikechukwu Nwaogu, he sheds light on his life, the critically acclaimed novel, and a few other bits and pieces.
Tell us about growing up and brief background + education?
I grew up in Durban, in the communities of Newlands East and Sydenham. In these areas, there are a lot of gangs, and alcohol and drug abuse are a plague. It was tough growing up here. I knew how to illegally re-connect our electricity before I was 10 years old whenever the municipality cut it due to none payment for example. But I was blessed to have a great family with great humour. Poverty can be fertilizer for comedy after all.
I went to Bechet Secondary in Sydenham — the school I reference in the book. But growing up, I really was not happy with my surroundings and I dreamt of something better — of being someone better. So once I finished high school, I left for Johannesburg to study Film, then English Literature at Wits University. Financial problems meant I had to work as well, so basically, I was working in Insurance sales full time, and studying full time. I used to go to lectures in the mornings, then leave at 12:00, whether or not I had afternoon classes, to go work until 20:00. This was a done everyday of the week, except for Sundays. It was hard trying to find time to write. It was exhausting, and soon, I could no longer cope so I dropped out of school to work full time.
Your journey into writing
For as long back as I can remember, I used to love coming up with stories. Heck, when I played cops and robbers, my characters had proper back stories The fact is, I believe I got into writing because I was a lonely kid. I had a speech impediment (like Jimmy in the book) that made it tough for me to make friends. So I spent my time alone, creating stories. My mother still has a TDK cassette of me telling a story I had just made up. I couldn’t have been older than 10. My schools were a great support for me as well. The idea of being a writer started when my Grade 5 teacher told my parents to buy me a typewriter, because I am meant to be a writer. And even in high school I had tremendous support. One would expect a guy who’d rather spend his time writing stories would be bullied or ridiculed, but I wasn’t (well, I wasn’t teased for writing at least). In fact, the other scholars were very, very supportive of my writing.
You began writing By Any Means in 1998. From 1998 until 2013, fifteen years you got a publisher and a very strong nomination. How would you describe the journey to getting here?
Hard. But then again, if getting published was easy, then everyone who had a story would be published. Remember, I first wrote the story in 1998, but it was only in 2002 did I first send it to every publisher in South Africa and it was rejected. And then, it was a matter of re-writing, sending the manuscript, getting rejected, re-writing, sending the manuscript, getting rejected, re-writing, sending the manuscript…well, you get the picture.
So when I first got the letter confirming that Human and Rousseau would be publishing the book, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t celebrate. I decided to celebrate the day I saw my book on the shelf. But to be honest, I still haven’t celebrated the publication as I am still struggling to believe it.
How did the story of “By All Means” come to you?
I started writing By Any Means after the death of my cousin, Luke. We were extremely close and I still miss him dearly. The initial idea was simply a ‘fish out of water’ story. Basically, a boy from a family in the upper portion of middleclass comes to live in a dangerous environment that he is unfamiliar with. Then the story evolved more and more every year that went by. With every re-write I added something new that I experienced in my own life. And the story itself takes a life of its own. And for me, this is the most wonderful part of being a writer. You start off with an idea of how the story begins, how it ends and what happens in the middle. But when your fingers start hitting the keys, the plot changes. You no longer tell the story, but the characters tell you what they would do. Many times, I would write something, then when I read it I would hear the voice of Captain, or Spider, or one of my other characters whisper to me and say something like, “I would never say that, Kurt,” or “Come on Kurt, I need a better reason than that to have done what you said I done.”
What did you want the reader to take away from the novel?
I didn’t write this story for a reader to take anything away in particular. Instead, I wrote it with the intention of it being a window into a different world. The world of the mixed race minority in South Africa that most people have never encountered. And in this world, I wanted to share the universal themes that all readers are familiar with. Like love, heartbreak, betrayal and revenge. I wanted to write a novel that could appeal to everyone/anyone. If the reader is looking for a narrative of how drugs and alcohol keep the poor in abject poverty, then By Any Means will cover that. Or if you are looking for a crime story with violence and Machiavellian plots, then By Any Means has that as well. But if you are looking for a love story between two teenagers in honour of the Patrarchan Love tradition, then that is the relationship between Kyle and Amia, or Captain and Nazneen. And even Jimmy and Sarah.
Have you always been a writer? What were some of the experiences that informed your decision to become a writer?
I don’t think anyone becomes a writer. You either write, or you don’t. What makes a published writer different to others though, is hard work and persistence. You need an ample amount of both. Unfortunately, I am not a full time writer, but that is my hope. That is the new dream — to weave tales for a living and be able to still feed my family. That is why I am so thrilled to be nominated for the Etisalat award and to be shortlisted for the Miles Morland Scholarship. Winning either one would allow me to pursue this dream.
In your novel, you painted an aspect of South Africa that most folks were not used to, is that portrayal inspired by someplace else?
I think the desperation of the poor is a universal problem. It is not a coincidence that places with the highest crime rates, are also the places with the highest rate of poverty, substance abuse and unemployment. When people are desperate they will do anything to survive. And when people are hopeless, they will do anything to escape the pain. You will see this when you visit my home in Durban, or the Cape Flats in the Western Cape, or the ghettos of the USA, or the Favelas of Brazil.
By Any Means has enjoyed very positive critical reviews. How does that make you feel?
The reviews for me are the most rewarding. Being told that a stranger, from the other side of the planet has read the words that I had written and enjoyed them, is absolutely unbelievable. I still sit back in awe.
Tell us about your writing style/approach?
When I am working on a story, the first thing I do is to write out a general outline of what will happen in the story. Who my characters are, where they are beginning, where they are going and how will they get there? I then use this as a guide when I start writing. There is a saying I love — “If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up someplace else.” BUT, remember it is only a guide, because once I start writing, the characters become real people. And as any real person, they have their own psychological motivations for doing what they are doing in order to move the narrative along. They don’t care that I am writing a story. So many times, a characters personality will conflict with an action I need him/her to do in order to move the story on to the next step. So here I will need to create drama or add/expand a character to provide the catalyst for action. And in the end, when I compare the completed manuscript to the original outline, the story is perhaps 70% different.
Another thing I do when I am writing, is that I do not re-read the chapters I have just finished. With the first draft, I power through the story right to the end without editing. I do this simply to write those two words — The End. Again, writing is very draining, but when I type out those two words — The End, it gives me an extra boost of motivation for the re-write. And again, once the edit and re-write is completed, the second draft would be approx. an additional 50% different to my first draft. And chances are, I will need to give the novel a third re-write.
The writer as an activist? A voice for the voiceless What is your take on the issue?
As writers, we do have a platform from which we can make our voices and the voices of others heard. But, at the same time, I do not think we should be obligated to make each story we write, a commentary on issues. Sometimes, you just want to write a story that is fun. There is no deeper messages. Just a fun story.
On western perspective of Africa as a country and other stereotypes? How do you think an African writer can help to tackle this?
It is hard, and I wish I had an answer to this, but I don’t. When the Vice President of the US refers to the ‘nation of Africa’ in a 2014 speech, you can’t help but cringe. I have a friend who is a taxi driver, who just last month picked up a British passenger at the airport in Johannesburg who asked him the fee to drive to The Maasai Mara game reserve. It is so sad that it borders on funny. The only way this can change is to educate the West, and the West needs to want to be educated. I believe African governments should endeavour to invest more in their writers. There is not enough support allocated to artists. And without that support, we cannot destroy the stereotypes and ignorance of the West. In particular, to show Africa as it is today. The dark continent has electricity now, people (when we are not load shedding). It is dark no-more. The Africa they know and expect is the Africa described by Joseph Conrad. They need to be exposed to the new Africa and an Africa described by Africans.
Would you say technology and social media has been a blessing to you as a writer?
Definitely a blessing. It allows me to interact with readers and this is what I am enjoying the most.
Can you tell us one funny or embarrassing incident that has happened to you as a writer? — this question is not intended to be annoying or offensive, it’s just our style, to make our authors seem more human.
I don’t have one to be honest, but it is still early. I can think of some things that I did/ happened to me while I was still in school. One incident was when I was in primary school and I had just finished writing a poem. A bully who used to torment me grabbed it off my desk, and in an effort to humiliate me, read it to the entire class. But instead of laughter, I got a pretty warm applause. Unfortunately, my response to that was to have an asthma attack. I’m not sure why. I also had an incident in high school when I had to write a short story for an English project. For some reason, the Head of the English Department refused to believe that I actually written what I handed in. I was a reasonably good student who did get up to mischief now and again, but nothing serious. But I was always a good English student so I couldn’t understand why this teacher had a problem with me. I still don’t. She basically forced me to write a new story, on a topic of her choice, in less than an hour and in her presence. And yet still, when she marked it, she made sure to put a note in it stating that she still believed I cheated somehow.
Who are some of your favorite writers and has their work influenced you if any?
There are so many, plus, I read books in many different genres. The best story I have ever read is A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. The depth and detail he goes into with his characters and settings is absolutely astounding. In terms of crime fiction, I am a massive fan of Mo Hayder, Jeffery Deaver and David Morrell to name but a few. I can add Chris Karsten and Roger Smith from South Africa into this mix as well. Works by Paulo Coehlo, Zakes Mda, Sol Plaatjie, Wole Soyinka, Nadifa Mohamed, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Toni Morrison have all made a huge impact on me. I could go on and on here.
And writers influence each other all the time. After reading a novel that I really enjoyed, I tend to go through a rush of emotions. From amazement to jealousy. “I wish I had written that” or “I want to write as well as XX” are two phrases that immediately pop into my head. I use this to motivate me to keep writing and to keep getting better.
In your estimation, is African Literature Growing? What can we as Africans do to promote the Reading Culture?
I think it is growing, but not fast enough, or aggressively enough. We need to celebrate the writers coming from Africa, but not enough is being done about it. I will give you an example regarding the Etisalat prize. Of the 9 writers who made the long list, 6 of the writers are South African. Apart from a few websites, there has been no media coverage of this achievement. In my opinion, this is a great news story showing the budding writing talent coming from our country, yet I heard no mention of this on the radio, in the newspapers or in television media. Nothing has been mentioned. Instead, our news is dominated by a feud between two girlfriends of a rapper fighting over him…
There should be more book fairs for readers and for the youth. If we can turn the youth into readers early, they will remain readers for the rest of their lives.
I also think readers have an important role to play. What I would like to propose to all African readers who buy books, is to commit having at least 50% of the books they buy, to be from African writers. And if possible, if they could make sure the 50% of the books they buy from African writers are debut novels, then that would be even better.
The cold fact is, writers cannot live on positive reviews, but we need the sales. Not only to survive, but to incentivise publishers to keep pushing African stories. If there are no sales, we will become voiceless.
Is there any genre you don’t see yourself writing in the future?
Not at all. I love stories in many different genres and would like to write in a wide variety of them. I have a 5 month old boy and I would like to write stories for him, in conjunction with the darker crime thrillers and potential horror stories I have lurking at the back of my mind.
What can we expect next from you?
My second novel is with the publisher at the moment for review. It is a popular crime thriller about a former cop investigating a series of murders in Johannesburg. Currently I am working on a YA Fantasy, that I intend to finish in the next few weeks.
Thank you very much for your time Kurt
It’s my pleasure.
Ikechukwu Nwaogu is a writer, occasional poet, and playwright who lives and hustles in Lagos. A member of the mainland book cafe, he is an avid lover of books, reading, and poetry. He blogs at www.inkspilla.wordpress.com and tweets via @eyekaywizard.
This interview was originally published on www.mainlandbookcafe.com (Dec 2015)