Wednesday, September 30, 2009

[Interview] Jason Blacker

South African author, Jason Blacker was born in Cape Town but grew up in Johannesburg. He moved to Vancouver, Canada when he was 18 years old and currently lives in Calgary.

He spent some time at art college before getting a degree in English Literature. He has worked, among other things, as a police officer, a privacy analyst, a school bus driver and a Starbucks Store Manager.

His first novel, Black Dog Bleeding (Lulu, 2008) explores South Africa's apartheid era and the personal cost paid by individuals who found the policy abhorrent and resisted it.

In this interview, Jason Blacker talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing as soon as I could pick up a crayon. In the early days, kindergarten, I started off drawing and exploring colours before learning to write letters and and words.

I think, for me, writing was a natural evolution from drawing. I love drawing and took a couple of years at art college. But to write words that are transformed into images in the reader's mind is a great thrill. Especially if you get that poetic turn-of-phrase.

In grade 7 or 8 I wrote a poem about a man looking into a mirror and the poem was written as a mirror-image of itself. My teacher loved it, gave me an "A" and wrote some really generous comments. It was that experience that really turned on the light bulb for me. My A-ha moment where I thought: "Wow, people can really enjoy this thing I do with words just for fun." And that was the beginning of my journey to being a published and financially successful author. Prior to that, I had just messed around scribbling my own comics -- in the vein of spiderman and star wars. Huge fan of both. I'd do the drawings and writing and just dunk myself deeply into those imaginary worlds. Still today, there is nothing I like better than getting immersed in the story of my characters.

In university I took an undergrad in English Literature to explore some of my favourite authors. One class was on mystery fiction and we had the option of writing our own story. I did this and the professor loved it. She gave me another "A" and encouraged me to publish [the story]. It was at this time that I decided to write my first novel. Up to this point I had written poems and short stories.

My first novel, Black Dog Bleeding, was born during these days. It has been self published and is available at Lulu.com. It was important for me to write it. It deals with the life of someone like Stephen Biko who I greatly admire. Although fictitious, I needed to come to understand the sacrifice and courage of the heroes -- both men and women, black and white of the apartheid resistance. And I wanted to share that with the world.

How would you describe your writing?

My writing is informed by my poetic experience. And what I mean by that is that because I started out writing poetry in its various forms, poetry infuses my prose. I'm very interested in imagery and metaphors. And I love finding that phrase that captures an image in a poetic and original way. Some of my influences would be the poets -- Dylan Thomas, e. e. cummings, [Charles] Bukowski and Walt Whitman to name a few.

Some of the writer's I've enjoyed would be [John] Steinbeck, [Ernest] Hemmingway, [Chuck] Palahniuk and Dashiell Hammett. I think all of these folks have influenced my writing to degrees.

Who is your target audience?

This is an interesting question, as I have two answers to it. I started out writing literary fiction and wrote stories that I wanted to tell. I had no real audience in mind. These stories were character-driven. Based on characters that came to me and wrestled with me like a monkey on my back. I had to tell their tales without much thought to who would read them. But if I was pressed I'd say my stories focus on the theme of the triumph of the human spirit under duress. I write about the hopeful and optimistic potential of humanity. Although my stories are infused with suffering. I guess my audience would be those seeking more understanding of the human condition, and what it means to live this human existence.

On the other hand, I have started to write hard boiled detective novels too. My audience there is certainly for detective fiction fans. Especially those who are more interested in character than tricky story development.

You mentioned a number of authors who influenced you most. In what ways did they influence you?

The poets, as mentioned above, influenced me not only in their wonderfully fresh and innovative imagery but also in their understanding and compassionate take on life. I think, that is, the most influencing flavour is the writer's understanding and ability to relate, through his characters, the struggles of what it means to be human.

I love to be entertained too. And for me being entertained is enjoying the writing and the characters. The style the author has. These, too me are more important than tricky plots or clever red herrings.

With Hammett, he infused in me an abiding love of the hard boiled detective genre, escalating to the level of literary fiction, in my opinion. Also, I have yet to find many others who can write dialogue as forcefully and ironically as he does.

A couple of others I should mention are Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Alan Paton. All three being South African writers and their styles and empathy and my affinity for them as a fellow South African expat draw me into their works. A fourth South African writer deserves separate mention. K. Sello Duiker, a bright flame extinguished too soon showed great promise and is a sad loss to the global literary scene.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concerns as a writer are what I would hope concern any caring and compassionate creative person. I am deeply concerned with the human condition. Especially the inequities and inequalities rampant even to this day within society. These affect me deeply and are what flavour most of my writing.

My goal in writing is one of uplifting the human spirit to greater heights, if that is possible, through writing -- which I hope and believe it is. I deal with my concerns through my artistic endeavours. Be they art, poetry or prose.

The concerns for my fellow man drive me in the pursuit of more generosity, more compassion and more equality as themes in my novels.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Well, as a first generation, white South African I have been affronted by the glaring disparities forced upon my countrymen. And both white South Africans as well as black South Africans were, I believe fractured by this disjoining. And to this day it creates difficulties that South Africa is confronted with and struggling to fix.

For me, even now living in Canada, I rage daily against these unacceptable disparities and they continue. I find solace in this sad state through the struggles my characters go through in their day-to-day lives.

Perhaps writers are mirrors to which society can see its faults and hopefully remove them.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

On a professional level, the biggest challenges faced are trying to find publishers and agents. The road at times is long and the incline terribly steep. This is likely the biggest challenge to most emerging writers.

On the personal level, it is finding the time and energy to continually stay focused on a daily basis. Especially when there are multiple distractions and expectations attached to me. My family and employment income are challenges that continually need to be juggled in order to find the motivation and time to write.

Do you write everyday?

When I have a book on the go I do write every day except for weekends. But if I'm in the groove I'll write then too. I just sit down with my laptop to write and I review the previous day's writing and make very brief edits. I'm just looking for spelling and grammar mostly. Doing this review gets me into the character and it is easy to start up again.

Once I've done that I just start writing away on my laptop with the goal of 1,000 words. I use words rather than time as I occasionally will drift off. So some days it may take me an hour and others it might take two. I will write at least 1,000 words and I find I like to stop when I'm really into the story and things are going along smoothly. It is then easier the next day to pick up again if I've left off when I would have liked to continue on.

How many books have you written so far?

I have written three so far. The first Black Dog Bleeding is self-published through lulu.com. I published it in 2008.

As mentioned above, Black Dog Bleeding is a fictitious account of what I imagined the life of Stephen Biko might have been like. It follows my protagonist (Steven Bankulu), same initials on purpose, as he deals with immense personal loss but yet even in the midst of all of this finds a way to fight for the justice of all South Africans. Even though he ends up in jail on trumped up charges of treason. The novel is set in the 70's and 80's in South Africa.

Livid Blue is my second novel. It is not yet published though I continue to seek publishers and representations. It is a novel that follows two protagonists. The first is Janko who is dying from complications related to AIDS. The second is Michael, the psychiatrist who spends many sessions with Janko in order for him to come to terms with his difficult childhood in order to prepare for a peaceful death.

Janko carries a lot of anger and resentment having been abandoned by his mother and not knowing who his father is.

The novel explores different types of relationships and the validity of them. Why are blood relations seen as so strong when in fact they are often the weakest and most antagonistic? These are the kind of questions the novel deals with.

First Feature is a hard-boiled detective novel and has also not been published. Anthony Carrick is the main protagonist who is an ex-LAPD homicide detective now working on his own. He has been hired to find out who killed a high-powered Holllywood producer.

All is not as it seems in pristine Beverly Hills. And Anthony's employer (the production company) are eager to find out any skeletons before the mass media have a chance to feed on them. This novel follows Anthony through drug-adled Echo Park, a hippie vegetarian restaurant with the coroner and a fashionable gay bar all for the sake of solving a murder.

An interesting tidbit about this novel is that Anthony is named after my father and Carrick in Ireland where my ancestry is from.

What is your latest book about?

I'll talk about my fourth book, Red Reign, which I am in the process of writing. It will likely take me about a year for the first draft. Six months, if I could focus on it full time. And perhaps another six months to do all the edits where I feel it is well-dressed and presentable to the public. And the public in this case being agents and publishers.

I would likely choose a publisher based on a number of factors. Most often how well I get along with their representative I am dealing with. Oftentimes money will also be a factor as well as some of the other authors they publish too.

Which are the most difficult aspects of the work you put into your books?

The most difficult aspects of my books for me is the researching. I usually start a novel with a character and they will present their story to me and I head off under the bunker and start writing.

I research as I find it necessary to do so. But the major drawback of this is the break of continuity and rhythm that occurs when this happens. I deal with this by stubbornly sticking to only the research I need to do and ignoring any drifting or extraneous research that might catch my eye.

What do you enjoy most?

I enjoy really getting into the story of my characters. I enjoy the times when the writing flows and time stand still. It is at times like this when the character's really take on a life of their own and it is as if I am getting to know real people. When this happens it is magic. And I'm at the top of my game.

What sets Red Reign apart from other things you've written?

I'm getting better at writing all the time. My writing feels more fluid and the character more palpable.

What sets this book apart is also the fact that it takes place under more current political conditions. It deals with terrorism and corporate greed.

It [is similar to the others in that it] deals with the similar themes that infuse all my writing. That is human suffering and indifference and lack of compassion. But also the overcoming of these things to a spiritual salvation if you will.

After Red Reign, what will you work on next?

I will return to my hard boiled detective novel. It will be called Second Fiddle and will have intrigue, death, perhaps some romance and, of course, greed and fear.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Just to be able to keep going under difficult circumstances. To keep it up after hundreds of rejections and many personal difficulties and changes in personal environments. To keep going at it while so many things rail against me. To not go gently into that good night as Dylan Thomas would say. And in the end... frankly, I'm just a stubborn bugger.

Possibly Related Books:

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Related Interview:
[Interview] Jennifer Armstrong, author of 'Minus the Morning', Conversations with Writers, September 27, 2009

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