October tells the story of Mercia Murray, a woman returning to her homeland of South Africa after her partner leaves her. It is a novel about the experience of a contemporary immigration. Author Zoe Wicomb answers our 10 Questions.
1. Sum up your novel in three words.
Home, deracination, family secrets.
2. Where did the initial idea come from?
There are a number of initial ideas for the various strands that come together in the process of writing and forging a narrative. The theme of reproduction started, for instance, when I saw leaping salmon at Gartness. Then I was much taken with Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Home, with the familial relationships, Protestantism, as well as the hermeneutics of race. As I was struggling to transpose aspects of that story to a ‘coloured’ South African context, Toni Morrison published her own Home about siblings in the USA. I allude to both in my text.
3. How was the title chosen?
I was determined to call it Home, as homage to Robinson and Morrison, but also because the theme of deracination and return to the homeland became central in my novel. The publishers refused, so I settled on October, the month in which most of the events in base time occur. Then there is Dylan Thomas’s beautiful "Poem in October" which also resonates with my theme of revisiting and reflection on the past.
4. What's your writing routine?
I am a reluctant writer, still terrified of confronting the blank screen, and so it’s best to take the bull by the horns as early as I can manage. I settle at my desk with a cup of coffee and hot-water bottle strapped to my back just after 7. There I remain until I have produced at least 500 words. Once I’ve managed a first draft and discovered what my story and its central concerns are, the redrafting process is less intimidating but my morning routine remains. The writing gains momentum with successive redrafting, and towards the end I often work on the typescript for most of the day.
5. Which book do you wish you'd written?
Not sure of the validity of this question. There are so many books I adore, but it would be foolish to mention any of my favourites like Beloved, To the Lighthouse, Middlemarch, or White Teeth. These worlds are not mine and therefore I could not possibly have written these novels. Might as well wish I had purple eyes.
6. What's your favourite word in the English language?
My character Mercia likes the word autumnal – for its colour as well as the shift in sound from noun to adjective. I prefer the word iridescent, for the colour, yes, but also for the fluidity, the changes that occur as the observer changes position.
7. Who's your favourite fictional character?
Difficult – again there are too many. Okwonkwo as tragic hero, Huckleberry Finn, the free spirit and vehicle for irony; Dorothea Brookes for her idealism; Tristram Shandy for his mode of narration. I could go on…
8. What was your favourite book as a child?
Where I grew up in rural South Africa there was neither school – nor municipal library for "non-Europeans". Strangely, in our house there were two books, Pride and Prejudice (barely comprehensible) and an abridged Oliver Twist. I still love both.
9. What book are you recommending to everyone at the moment?
Fellow South African, Ivan Vladislavic, has just been published in the UK by And Other Stories. Why has it taken so long? Double Negative and The Restless Supermarket are good starters to this formidable writer.
10. What do books and reading mean to you?
I think of literacy and reading as an inestimable privilege. In my youth I was transported from the vulgarity of apartheid by books – books opened up different worlds, and brought freedom from an oppressive social order. I prefer the physical object to an e-book. I love seeing the cover and title, love handling the pages, which is to say flipping back to re-read something that might resonate with an image or idea on the current page. Reading necessarily means re-reading. Often I will re-read a book immediately to catch and savour that which slips through in a first reading, and with new knowledge of the whole, the better to understand and relish the strategies of a text. Such cognitive pleasure I find in re-reading authors several times over the course of my life. Currently, it’s George Elliot, who still amazes and delights.
October by Zoe Wicomb is out on 5th June from The New Press.