Toni Kan in conversation with Thando Mgqolozana who says “I write at 3 am in the morning because the tranquility helps.”
Toni Kan: Good afternoon, tell us your name and what you do?
Thando Mgqolozana: My name is Thando Mgqolozana. I am a south African novelist. I like to introduce myself as a novelist first and foremost although there are other things I do. I have three books: “A man is who is not a man”; “Hear me Alone” and “Unimportance”. My last book was in 2014 so I am slacking. But I also do other things. I write screen plays and the most famous one Inxeba (The Wound). I also organise the Abantu book festival in Soweto.
TK: As a novelist, how does your writing process work?
TM: I don’t do too much preparation because I am interested in finding out. I don’t only sit down when it’s ready and just transcribe. But by the time I sit down, I would have thought of an idea and tried to see whether it can have a life on the page. I explore and when it gets interesting enough at that point I can commit to the page and find out. I try to write fast, so I don’t take years to write a novel.Because there’s something important I am trying to capture. The feeling I have now, I must be able to sustain it. When I abandon a story and come back, it’s hard to zone back to the characters. For ‘ A man is not a man’, it took about three months to write the first draft. But I had been writing other things so I was in the moment but editing and developing took longer.
TK: When you write do you commit everything to it. Do you have a day job?
TM: When I write, I need a certain level of seclusion in the beginning because I am trying to focus. But after a while, I can engage the writing anywhere, anytime, sometimes in a restaurant. For the longest time in my writing career, I had a day job so I could only write at 3 am in the morning. The tranquility helps. You are more energised and your brain is fresh. So, you write faster, you are more creative and your mind is unoccupied by other day to day activities. So, writing in the morning initially was a deliberate choice I made. I write mostly in first person prose and I become the eye, I become the characters. I find that It works better for me. I don’t identify with the distancing of the second and third person prose styles.
TK: What if the character is female?
TM: I will inhabit the person and take on the challenge of being her. It will be exciting for me because I want to find out. That’s when it becomes literary for me.
TK: What’s the difference between writing fiction and writing a screen play?
TM: Two very very different things. An example is writing Inxeba (The Wound) , initially it was two writers, It was a collaborative process. So, I write my part and pass it on and there were deadlines we needed to meet to submit for funding. It’s very different with how I write as a novelist. As a novelist, I write a chapter, go to work, brood on it all day and decide if its not working. You don’t have the opportunity to change your mind very often with a screen play because you are writing with other people. It’s demanding, it’s mostly dialogue so you have to concentrate everything in that. Whereas a novel relies on description. They are very different ways of writing. So, I don’t really enjoy screen writing.
TK: If you had a choice, which would you rather do?
TM: I prefer writing novels and short stories. I haven’t published my short stories yet. They are very long short stories, about 6,000 words.I need a certain level of satisfaction to feel that I have put enough work into it.
TK: How did you get into writing?
TM: I grew up partially in a village and in a township. Townships in South Africa are the black communities and there were no libraries and bookstores because of Apartheid and colonization so there were no opportunities outside of the school system for you to be interested in reading. When I got to the university, suddenly I had access to a 14 storey library. I would take novels for vacations. I would take out 5,6,7 books and although I knew I would be penalized I was okay with paying the fine. I had read a lot, especially other black people. I read Chinua Achebe in school growing up. But in the university I was exposed to more contemporary writings with people that are alive and young and writing about our lives now. So, I started experimenting and I would share it with colleagues, fellow students and friends and they would say there’s something there and there must be some talent. But I made a decision not to publish the first thing I write because I was also reading interviews about other writers. So, I decided not to publish until I wrote a manuscript that was publishable.
TM: I was 23-24 years old and I was able to make that kind of decision. So, I wrote a few manuscripts before my first published book and I have not gone back to them because I think they are embarrasing.
TK: When is the next book?
TM: There’s a book that I have been working on for the last few months. But what’s taking a lot of my time is organising the Abantu book festival. I have a small child and I have decided to pay attention to these very important experiences in my life.