Interview by Shanta Everington
Jonathan Falla was born in Jamaica. He has a degree in English and Art History, but trained as a tropical diseases nurse and worked for aid agencies in tropical lands. He has had BBC film and stage drama productions but now focuses on fiction. His fourth novel, "Dafne & the Dove" will be published by Aurora Metro this autumn.
Hello Jonathan and welcome to The View From Here.
When did you start writing?
As a child. I’ve a vague memory of writing a poem about trilobites, at my primary school. I had a notion up to university and beyond that I should be a great lyric poet – but I wasn’t. My professional career began in 1981 when I wrote extensive journals about working for Oxfam during a famine in Karamoja, Uganda, which became a play at the Bush Theatre in London, called Topokana Martyrs’ Day. It has had other productions since, and is still the only comedy about famine that I’ve come across.
I understand that your novel, Poor Mercy, is based on your aid work in Western Sudan, which I imagine must have been a very powerful experience. When and why did you decide to write the book?
Not just powerful, but a deeply disturbing and humiliating experience, in that it became clear that the Darfur aid programme (I was with Save The Children) was a failure, and was being used by the government of Sudan as a smokescreen for all sorts of nefarious nonsense. These things must be written about, although it is strange how little fiction or drama there is about famine, surely one of the great human dramas. Again, in Sudan I kept detailed diaries, but the comedy had gone out of it all; too many people were being killed. It took me some ten years to finish the novel; in the meantime I’d tried to make it into a film, a book of essays, a collection of stories. It took me that decade to find sufficient detachment to see the subject clearly.
Much of your other writing, including your play, Topokana Martyrs’ Day, draws directly on your life experiences. Did you encounter any challenges turning fact into fiction?
I’ve learned, since that play, not to write about myself; there is no Jo Falla in Poor Mercy. I’ve also learned from Mario Vargas Llosa, that the author must know how to lie. True life generally makes for poor fiction.
You have published in a wide range of forms, including novels, ethnography, drama and short stories. Which medium do you prefer working in and why?
I’d like to write drama again; there’s few things as exciting and varied. I once worked, for instance, as language interpreter/scriptwriter for a joint production between a Scottish and a Nicaraguan theatre company. Searching for common ground between two quite different approaches to acting – Scottish actors used to close-up TV cameras, and broadly expansive Nica street actors – was a considerable and an exciting challenge, let alone translating Nica street Spanish. But film and stage have a downside, which is the endless adjustments to other people’s agendas, personalities, budgets, and time schedules. What I’m best at is stewing a novel for several years, but I also enjoy the syncretic mix of ethnography and travel. I’ve written on Burma, India, and Indonesian music, and I’m a sort of creolist, in that I love the little cross currents of influence and suggestion, of history, language, and human geography mixing and building into something new.
Who or what do you credit as your influences as a writer?
Above all, my parents. My father started out as a medievalist, and showed me not only the artistry but also the deep humanity and compassion of Chaucer, Langland and the Gawain poet: Troilus & Criseyde would be my Desert Island book. He then became a sociolinguist specialising in multilingualism and creoles in poor societies, and he taught me to look for the quirks and byways of life, and to be thoroughly sceptical of anyone who peddles rules or lays down laws based on idealised homogeneous cultures, whether that be Noam Chomsky or any other grammarian or critic. My mother was a teacher and a romantic, who adored poetry. At Cambridge I was privileged to have J.H.Prynne as my supervisor; whatever anyone says about his strange poems, he was a remarkable teacher, and introduced me to writers such as Georg Simmel and Frances Yates whose work I still draw on. As for fiction authors: I was brought up on Hardy and George Eliot, Conrad and the ‘Van der Valk’ novels of Nicolas Freeling, set in 1960s Amsterdam. Film has always been major influence. I ran my film school society until I was forced out of office; they couldn’t take my diet of b&w Japanese and Polish movies. I could probably recite you the scripts of Zulu and Kanal by heart.
Do you have any interesting writing habits?
I write in a hut in the garden – a fine hut, well insulated and heated, and full of books and oddments. I work on several projects at once, fiction and otherwise, and music also (I play with an early music group). So my books are rather like jets over Heathrow, stacked for landing.
I understand that you also work in community theatre. What do you enjoy most about that strand of your work?
Not any more, but I did. The energy of community companies is thrilling. One piece was for a community company called First Base, in Edinburgh, a surreal play about druggies in the sewers, called Down The Tubes. Another was a musical for a consortium of Highland primary schools which ended up at the Millennium Dome (should I admit to that or not?). It was a dream voyage of a young city girl on a Highland river, and we had all sorts of problems. I had the heroine singing of how she loathed the countryside: “I’ll burn all the trees/ and I’ll strangle the bees/ and I’ll concrete the countryside over.” But some of the teachers complained that they weren’t trained to teach negative emotions. It was a learning curve, if nothing else.
You recently published The Craft of Fiction. I was struck by your notion of ‘dynamic’ writing in which all aspects of the fiction contribute to the energy of the story. How did you develop that concept?
- It occurred to me while I was a writer in residence at a Los Angeles film school. In the best film-making, camera work and dialogue, music and setting, structure and sound all contribute to both mood and narrative. This is why a director like Kurosawa, Wadja or the great noir masters can achieve so much in 100 minutes of film. By contrast, in much fiction, the author bolts on bits of description, or poorly considered dialogue, with no regard for carefully built integral effect. As a result, when they do need an effect, they dollop in something coarse, like chucking stock cubes into a stew because it has no flavour. A fine writer – Hardy or Margaret Atwood, Pamuk, Coetzee or Patrick White – uses everything they have to hand in careful proportions. And if you look at their uses of, say, landscape description, you see that it doesn’t just provide a passive stage set, but ‘dynamically’ promotes the story.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?
- Persevere. It took me five years and twenty-three submissions to get my first novel published. My fourth novel went to two dozen publishers before I found it a good home. There have been many occasions when I have stomped around the garden muttering, “I will not give up. I will not.”
- Be careful whose advice you seek. Other writers often have their own agendas which may cloud their view of your work. Listen to editors. If they are unhappy about something, they probably have good reason, even if they don’t convey it so well.
- Read. It appals me how ill-read many would-be writers are. I’ve taught fiction courses where the students claim to love novels but have never opened Conrad, James, Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy...
What are you working on now?
I have one – possibly two (fingers crossed) – new novels coming out in the next year, so there will be plenty of editing to be done. One is about Patagonia c.1910, the other about Holland and Java where, in the late 70s, I worked for a publishing and printing firm. I’m working on early drafts of at least two others. And I’m involved with a travel book about crossing Asia in 1974, working with an old friend who is a typographer; we hope to produce this privately and to make it as fine as possible.
Thank you, Jonathan, and the very best of luck with all your projects.
For more information on Jonathan and his writing, please visit www.jonathanfalla.co.uk.