by James M. Fisher, The Miramichi Reader
Danila Botha is a rising young author who was born in South Africa, but now resides in Toronto. She recently released her first novel “Too Much on the Inside” (2015, Quattro) which was reviewed here. I called it: “….an impressive first novel from this young, energetic author”.
Miramichi Reader: Some of the characters in Too Much on the Inside come from South Africa, Israel and Nova Scotia, all places that you have spent time in. Is there a little bit of ‘you’ in each character? What makes them so real?
Danila Botha: That’s a great question. First of all, I’m glad that you think they seem so real. That’s a really nice thing to hear. It’s funny: I was trying so hard to make the voices sound different and authentic (especially getting the dialogue right) that I tried hard not to make them sound like me! And their life experiences are very different to mine (which made the writing and research processes really interesting).
But you’re right, of course, South Africa, Israel and Nova Scotia are places I’ve spent time in, and some of the characters observations about things I’m sure are ‘me.’
There’s a little bit of my taste in all of the characters (in taste in music, from what Marlize and Nicki listen to, to Dez’s t-shirts, to Dez and Nicki’s takes on feminism, Nicki’s love of graffiti and Etgar Keret, Lukas’ girlfriends love of eighties kitsch, etc) There’s also ‘me’ in their deep love of Queen St, and of Toronto (and in Marlize’s love of Obs in Cape Town, and Camps Bay and in Nicki’s love of Florentine in Tel Aviv) I think probably in terms of the characters themselves, the thing that is most ‘me’ about them is their complete belief in love and in the importance of trying, regardless of the consequences.
MR: One of the things I really found fresh about Too Much on the Inside was the way in which you told the story, with no chapters, but with each character heading up a narrative. In my review, I mentioned that, as a reader, I felt like a psychiatrist or, at times like a priest hearing confession. How did you come to develop that style of writing?
DB: I really like these questions! It’s such an interesting thing to hear, that you felt like a priest or a psychiatrist! I’m really glad it felt so intimate and so real.
I was very much influenced by two books in terms of the style and format of Too Much on the Inside. One was the South African writer K Sello Duiker’s book The Quiet Violence of Dreams, and the other was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. The Quiet Violence of Dreams was set in Cape Town, and had a huge, rotating cast of first person narrators. I was struck by how incredibly authentic and real the character’s voices were- and how fearless he was with both the novel format and the subject matter (I highly recommend the book, it’s fantastic, as well his first book, Thirteen Cents) Jennifer Egan’s writing is always precise, nuanced and wonderful. I loved her format for the Goon Squad (and it was reassuring to know that it was done so beautifully by the time I was halfway through writing this book).
I try to always write from a place of empathy and from being able to imagine how it would feel to experience certain things- but even more so- how the characters would be able to go on afterwards. That was the main thing I was trying to explore.
MR: Tell us about your time in Canada, both in Halifax and now in Toronto. What did you find different about Canada? Did you like living on the east coast?
DB: I moved to Toronto when I was much younger, with my family. I always loved the multicultural aspects of Toronto, and always wanted to write about that (from the food to festivals, to friends who were born and have lived everywhere) I also love the artist communities and music scenes and the writing community here. In a lot of ways, I feel like Toronto, and even Queen Street itself was the fifth character in Too Much on the Inside. The mix of grit and glitter is something I still really love.
I really loved living in Halifax. I loved how clean the air was, how amazing it was to be surrounded by the ocean, how friendly the people were. I also loved the writing and arts scenes, and how supportive people are of their local community. It’s a wonderful place, too.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors that influenced you to become a writer.
DB: I really love talking about this. There are so many. (MR: Warning! She’s not kidding!)
The first book I remember being moved deeply by was Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, when I was about thirteen. It’s a beautifully written memoir about his deeply mixed feelings about being South African. It’s honest on so many levels. I remember discussing it with my dad, and when he described the book as subversive, I suddenly had a new understanding of what a book could be.
My late grandfather bought me tons of my books, including the poet Rene Bohnen’s Spoorsny (absolutely beautiful) and JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Youth. In both cases, I remember studying his style and being incredibly impressed by how precise the language was.
In high school, my English teacher told me that I would love J.D Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye. I couldn’t believe that a book written in the fifties could feel so contemporary and relevant. Later, in my early twenties, I read Franny and Zooey, and something really clicked. It was early on in the book, when Franny says “I wish I had the courage to be an absolute nobody” I thought wow, I really want to write so I can express and explore these kinds of things.
I also remember feeling that way the first time I read Bukowski, specifically his collection of poetry Love is a Dog From Hell. I used to have a t-shirt with a picture of Bukowksi that said “These words I write keep me from total madness”.
When I was studying Creative Writing at York, I was lucky enough to get to hear amazing writers come and read to my class. Camilla Gibb was one of them. Her first two books, Mouthing the Words and The Petty Details of So and So’s Life are an incredible blend of tragedy and humour and sophisticated writing.
Heather O’Neill is a huge influence. I read her first collection of poetry, Two Eyes Are You Sleeping, and an amazing short story of hers (still my favourite) called I Know Angelo. I remember a huge mental shift happening – like, I can do this! I can find my voice as a writer. I was just dazzled by her talent, her imagery, her sense of humour the beauty and the grittiness and honesty (and I still am) The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is one of the best books I have ever read. Her new collection of short stories the Daydreams of Angels is pretty spectacular too)
Zoe Whittall is another significant influence. Zoe’s first book is a collection of poetry called The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life. It had this freshness, this openness, this honesty, and this humour about it too. She’s so talented. I love all of her collections of poetry (the Emily Valentine poems has one of my favourite poems of all time in it) and I love her novels. Both Bottle Rocket Hearts and Holding Still for As Long As Possible are wonderful.
Lynn Crosbie’s book Liar is absolutely incredible. It’s so achingly beautiful and sad and fearless and incredibly vulnerable and insightful. It’s the best book about a relationship falling apart that I have ever read (and the fact that it’s written as a very long poem, but is a novel… her mastery of the form is unbelievable) I love that all of her books are fearless like that- from Queen Rat to VillainElle to her novels. Her latest novel, Where Did you Sleep Last Night, is amazing too.
On the subject of relationships, I really love Hanif Kureishi’s writing. I love his novel Intimacy, and his short story collection Love in a Blue Time. I also love the way Russell Smith writes, especially in Girl Crazy and Confidence. Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her is another favourite.
Michael Christie’s short story collection The Beggar’s Garden was just amazing. I read it just after my first book came out. His physical descriptions of the grit of Vancouver’s east downtown, mixed with deep emotion and humanity. They’re just so beautifully written.
I also love Rawi Hage’s Cockroach and De Niro’s Game.
David Bezmosgis’s collection Natasha and other stories is amazing. I love his descriptions of life at Bathurst and Steeles. Also, Neil Smith’s collection Bang Crunch (and his new book Boo.)
I also really love Allison Pick’s Far to Go– her images are so poetic and beautiful.
I’ve always loved Israeli writing. I remember discussing Amos Oz with my aunt in Israel as a teenager. I love Etgar Keret’s writing so much I referenced it in Too Much on the Inside (Nicki is reading one of his short stories when she goes to meet Alon at the end of the book) I also love Eshkol Nevo, especially his novel Homesick, and I love Zeruya Shalev’s novel Love Life.
There’s more I could add but I should probably stop here!
MR: That’s quite a list! It is evident that you love to read. I also want to ask: are there any up and coming authors that impress you?
DB: There are many amazing up and coming authors I like.
Richard Rosenbaum, who has published a great novella last year with Quattro and a book of non-fiction has his first novel coming out next year. It’s amazing- it reminds me of the House of Leaves. I can’t wait to read it again
Jess Taylor has her first collection of short stories coming out in the fall, and I can’t wait to read it. I just read that Ashley Elizabeth Best has her first collection of poetry coming out, which is exciting. And she’s more than up and coming but I’m really excited for Lisa de Nikolits’ new novel Between the Cracks She Fell. Oh, also really looking forward to Liz Worth’s new collection of poetry, and Jowita Bydlowska’s new book, her first novel, next spring. I really love the way she writes.
MR: Finally, what is next for Danila Botha? Another novel? A book of short stories?
DB: Both! I have a collection of short stories, called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known, that will be published in Fall 2016. I’m very excited about it.
I’m currently working on a new novel. I’ve been writing and thinking and researching for the last year. I can’t tell you too much yet (because through the writing and editing process things can change so much that it may no longer be true by the time it’s out) but I’m really enjoying writing it.
I want to work on a graphic novel after that. And possibly, a first collection of poetry.
While not a New Brunswicker by birth, James M. Fisher has lived in Miramichi for over seven years and feels quite at home there. James is an ardent reader whose aim is to highlight New Brunswick authors and publishers, as well as cover subjects of interest to New Brunswickers in particular and Maritimers in general. For more visit his website or like his page on Facebook.