Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

rob mclennan's 12 or 20 Questions, with Danila Botha

Share |
 Danila Botha

rob mclennan talks to short-story writer and novelist Danila Botha in the latest of his 12 or 20 Questions interviews.

Danila Botha was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and moved to Toronto in her teens. She studied Creative Writing at York University and at Humber College for Writers. Her first book, Got No Secrets, was published by Tightrope Books in Canada and Modjaji Books in South Africa in May 2010. Her next book, a novel called Too Much on the Inside, will be published in September 2012. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and poetry called For All the Men (And Some of the Women) I've Known. She also contributes to the National Post's The Afterword.

1. How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

It did change my life to have my first book published. The publishing process can be lengthy, from finding the right publisher, to signing a contract, to the editing process, to the moment when there’s an actual book on shelves. It felt so wonderful — this thing that I’ve wanted to do my whole life was actually happening. It was so exciting. I remember taking the bus, (the Bathurst #7 in Toronto) to my book launch last year — and it hit me that for the first time, I was going to read from a real book, instead of from a piece of paper. It also changed my life to hear that people empathized with certain characters, or related to them as if they were real people. That was so cool to hear.

It’s so weird — you write a book, it gets published, and by the time that happens, you’re already one or two projects ahead. And I guess it might be natural — but I always hope that I get better as a writer with each project, so I always think (and hope) that my newer work is an improvement on the last in some ways. It always feels different.

2. How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I actually did start out writing poetry and song lyrics when I was in high school. It was something I did to help me to process my experiences, and thoughts and I loved doing it more than I loved doing anything else. Still, at that age, I didn’t know that writing was a “real thing,” like a real job or occupation. I studied Creative Writing at York University as an undergraduate, and as part of the program, we had to submit short stories we’d written every week for workshops. I actually wrote my very first short story ever to get into the program when I was in first year. I started finding that there was more freedom in writing longer pieces, and I gradually became more comfortable with the length and the form. I still love reading poetry — but I love writing fiction (short stories and longer pieces) even more.

3. How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It really depends on what it is. I sometimes have anxiety about whether something will come out right, whether it will be worth doing, etc. But once I get past that, for the most part it does come fairly quickly. It can be a slow process if there’s a lot of research involved (I get distracted easily by interesting stories that have nothing to do with the one I’m telling) and editing is a slow process for me. I’m not a natural editor, and I can pick at a piece for ages knowing that it’s not exactly right but not quite knowing what to do with it. My first drafts can go both ways — especially with short stories or poetry. Usually the essence or skeleton will stay the same, but the details change (and hopefully become stronger). With the novel I wrote, the first drafts didn’t, for the most part, differ too much from the end product.

I really love to write though, so once I get past certain things, my sense of discipline is good, and my process thankfully is fairly fast (about a year or so per book. It always depends though, it can definitely take longer. My first book of stories felt like it took forever)

4. Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

It often begins with other people’s stories. My novel, Too Much On The Inside, started with a story I heard on the bus in Halifax. I sat in front of a really friendly young guy from the Annapolis Valley, who started telling me all about his life and his past. My character Lukas was created directly from our conversation.

Sometimes it comes directly from my own thoughts or experiences, but I find it more interesting (and comfortable) to fictionalize them. It gives me more critical distance and the ability to reflect more, and to impose some imagination onto a scenario.

With the book I’m working on now, a collection of short stories called For All the Men (and some of the Women) I’ve Known, it was a similar thing, I reflected on experiences that I and other people I knew and known had had.

I usually am working on a “book” from the beginning. The concept and the title often come first for me, even if I’m not exactly one hundred per cent sure of where I’m going.

I want to be an author who does this for a living — and I understand that taking it seriously, and thinking of it as a job (I job that I love doing, but a job) is what comes with that. I really hope to be able to achieve that.

5. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I really love doing readings. I love sharing the work and getting feedback from an audience. I love being able to witness whether or not a work resonates and how. I also love the performance aspect of it. I think I’d do readings 365 days a year if I could. Dawn Promislow (author of Jewels and Other Stories) and I are touring Ontario this summer and into the fall. I’m really excited — we’re both South African, and we both wrote about South Africa in different ways in our first books. Being invited to read at festivals is wonderful too — I love getting to meet other authors, and other readers who love writing. I read at Word on the Street in Halifax last September, and I was so honored to be in such amazing company. I’d love to do more festivals in the future.

6. Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I try to address theoretical concerns. With Got No Secrets, the issue of addiction was particularly interesting to me. I wanted to understand why it happens to some people to the extent to that it does — and why society treats people who suffer in that way without a sufficient sense of compassion or understanding. We see it in pop culture a lot — people are laughing at Charlie Sheen and essentially enabling him to remain addicted by being visibly entertained by his antics. I think it’s sad, he clearly has a problem. I saw an interview with Kelly Osbourne the other day — and she said that she’d been repeatedly applauded for her recent weight loss, but that no one had commented on, or rewarded her for, her recent sobriety. In fact, she said something like: it’s a bigger crime to be fat than to be an addict. How sad is that? As a society, I think we treat addiction with indifference, or worse, we make a person into an outcast, when they need our help most of all. My biggest goal with that book was to provoke a sense of empathy — these women could be our sisters, our friends, our daughters or moms.

I try to always [ask] certain questions about why we make the choices that we do, why things happen and how we deal with it. In Too Much on the Inside, my characters all have difficult pasts that are sometimes out of their control, but their coping methods are interesting to me. I’m not sure I always answer the questions I have in mind when I first start writing, but I certainly try to address them.

7. What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I went to an event for Joyland in Toronto recently that was really wonderful. Natalee Caple spoke (She was interviewed on stage by Andrew Pyper, which was great to watch — they’re both writers whose work I love), and she said that she thinks that "the purpose of art is to register your experience of an event, to write down and record what moved you.”

I loved it so much that I wrote it down on the spot. I’m not sure that any artist can ever really aspire to more than that. I think writers can reflect and question society. We can provoke emotion or thought through our work — and if we are able to do so, it’s an amazing thing. I think the writing that I love the most excites me, inspires me, and most of all makes me feel less alone. I really hope to be able to do that for someone one day too.

8. Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I find it essential. I worked with Shirarose Wilensky of Tightrope Books on my first and second books and I completely trust her eye and her vision. She’s very sensitive to emotional detail, very open to discussion and very clear about wanting to help any of her writers to articulate their ideas in the best way possible. She is wonderful to work with.

9. What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

To read a lot (Nino Ricci used to advise my class to do that, when I took his course at Humber). I think it’s really important — it’s inspiring, and one can learn so much as a writer from other people’s work. To write every day. To have confidence in the stories that you’re trying to tell. To try to write authentically. To try to exceed your own expectations, to challenge yourself all the time. I read an interview with Zsusi Gardener today in the National Post, where she said, “I’d rather go down in flames then write a nice little book”

I love that.

10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to novels)? What do you see as the appeal?

I was surprised that it was easier to write a novel than I expected, because initially I was incredibly daunted by the length requirements. I try to be economical with language, and with short stories you can get away with being shorter — I was so afraid of trying to write a novel at first. But on the plus side, I could get more in depth into each storyline — I could take it as far as I wanted without feeling limited by length. It’s always hard to move [between] genres because one gets used to a style, and then there’s an adjustment. Both have their pluses, but I think I like writing novels the best.

I’m about to start the challenge of writing a graphic novel when I’m done the short stories I’m working on now, which will be a huge change in writing style and approach, so I guess I’ll find out. :)

11. What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I read and write every day. When I’m closer to deadlines, I can spend eight hours a day writing, but when I have to teach and mark and I want time for a personal life, sometimes I’m lucky if I can get in twenty minutes a day of writing. It depends on when something needs to be done, how much is on my mind, how much I need to write for myself, but I always write, every day. I try to read one to two books a week, every week.

12. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

It’s hard to have the discipline to do this sometimes, but when that happens, I’ve learned to walk away and just take a break. Sometimes it’s for twenty minutes, for an hour, for two hours, sometimes it’s for two days, or even a week.

I read a lot — I reread books I’ve loved, authors like Heather O’Neill, Lynn Crosbie, the Afrikaans poet Rene Bohnen, the imagist Amy Lowell, Russell Smith, Michael Winter (lately, I’ve reread This All Happened a few times) Zoe Whittall, Salinger, Bukowski.

I sometimes find journaling, making lists, getting organized on paper helps to break the intimidation factor, which is often what stalling is about for me.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Gardenias, mulberries and the faint scent of jacarandas remind me of my childhood home in Johannesburg. The artificial semi-sweet scent of lemon popsicles, sea salt and humidity in the air reminds me of childhood summers spent in Israel. The softly special scent of a loved one’s skin and hair reminds me of home as an adult.

14. David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

There are absolutely other forms that influence me. I love and am really inspired by visual art. In fact, the character Anika, from my novel Too Much on the Inside was inspired by a painting by Lucian Freud called Girl in Bed, from 1952. The way his subject looked in his painting was exactly how I pictured the character, and I kept it as my desktop background for months as I wrote about her. I really love photography too — I used the Canadian photographer Lincoln Clarke’s photography from his book Heroines as inspiration for Got No Secrets.

I love working with photographers for the covers of my books too. I’ve had the privilege of working with the amazing Vanya du Toit for my first two covers and Jowita Bydlowska, who is incredibly talented, for my third. They’re both geniuses.

I love movies — I watch them as research and find them hugely inspiring. I saw Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting tons of times when I wrote Got No Secrets.

I just rewatched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for what I’m writing now and the Dave Eggers/Vendela Vida movie Away We Go.

I love getting to write in open space, close to forests, ravines, oceans or lakes. I always try to spend at least part of the time I spend writing outside of the urban grid. Being around nature is really inspiring.

15. What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My favorite books of all time are: Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey by Salinger; Lullabies for Little Criminals, Two Eyes Are You Sleeping and the story "I Know Angelo" by Heather O’Neill; The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life, The Emily Valentine Poems and Precordial Thump by Zoe Whittall; Spoorsny (which in English means "tracking") by Rene Bohnen; My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan; Triomf by Marlene Van Niekerk; Liar by Lynn Crosbie; The Night is A Mouth by Lisa Foad; Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret; Green Flurorescent Protein by Neil Smith; The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall; Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; Camilla Gibbs’s Mouthing the Words; Bukowski; Hanif Kureishi’s Love in a Blue Time and The Black Album; Amy Jones’s What Boys Like.

16. What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

To finish the book I’m working on. To start and finish my graphic novel. To start and finish my next novel after that, which I’m only starting to think about now.

To tour and read at festivals all over the country. To travel more. To see my books in translation in lots of countries. To do this and nothing else every day :)

17. If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Geez, I have no idea. I haven’t really allowed myself to consider that seriously. I think having a back-up plan can be positive but at the same time, it allows you the option of backing out of what you really want to do due to fear.

I want to do more journalism I guess, but that’s still a kind of writing.

I also really love teaching. I love teaching both high school and adults, and I hope I get to do it more, too.

18. What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I think that initially, my writing came from a compulsion to process my thoughts. Especially as a teenager, and in my early twenties, (though it’s probably still true, on some level) I had a huge desire to get my thoughts to slow down long enough to figure out what it was that I was actually thinking and feeling.

To tell you the truth, writing is the one thing I’ve always done that consistently gives me the most satisfaction, pleasure, epiphanies and clarity. I love writing. I’m so grateful that I get to do it.

(Plus I was really bad at math and sciences when I was in school. I really don’t know what I would have done instead)

19. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Last Great Book? I’m in the middle of the Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon and really liking it so far. Very sarcastic, sharp humor with very real feeling vulnerable moments. Before that? Michael Winter’s It All Happened. Kathleen Winter's Annabel.

Emma Donoghue’s Room.

Last Great Film: I just saw the Andrea Arnold directed movie, Fish Tank. It’s British, about a rebellious teenager who lives in a council estate, her mom and her mom’s boyfriend. It’s brilliant. I also loved Away We Go — the writing was amazing.

20. What are you currently working on?

A book of short stories, with a little bit of poetry in it, called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known. It’s been interesting to come back to short stories — I’ve been enjoying the fun challenge of working in that form again. When I’m done, I’ll get started on a graphic novel about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, called I Am Dead, and the World is Full of Joy (the title comes from a great line in a Zeruya Shalev novel). Then another novel that is only in its beginning stages right now. And hopefully more books after that. :)

For a complete list of rob's 12 or 20 Questions interviews, please visit

Related item from our archives