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Donvé Lee

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

‘An Intimate War’ Launch at the Book Lounge, conversation with Helen Moffet

1) Tell us about the process of writing the book — how long, who was involved, the Creative Writing MA, the fiction v. memoir debate.

I started writing this story around 97, its been a very long journey, seen many incarnations. I worked on it intermittently, inbetween other projects.  I began by reflecting on the contradictions and the mystery and magic of intimacy, looking at my experience and those of friends, I saw that the dark edges of intimacy were fuelled by unspoken insecurities from childhood. In my life the more exquisite the passion, the darker the undercurrents fuelling it.

A friend of mine talks about black holes – many of us have them in our intimate relationships, our unspoken stories, often filled with silence and shame draining the life blood from us, shutting down vital energy. And this was my starting point in the story, two people madly in love and in lust but with black holes – in her childhood, there was a shroud of silence over anything that stirred the heart or the body. In his, traumatic events which violated his boyhood and left him filled with guilt and shame. So when these two people got together the stage had been set long before, for their inevitable intimate war.

A first novel is a training ground, I’ve been a novelist in training for about 13 years, thank God I’ve finally graduated.. I made many discoveries along the way about myself and my characters. Initially I wanted to create a very claustrophobic story about these two people and their great passion, so I made them nameless, left out commas which gave it a breathless intensity, left out reference to physical place. In the beginning there was no dialogue, my characters weren’t only nameless they were also speechless! I couldn’t seem to get it right, then one day it kind of clicked. The dialogue suddenly brought my characters to life.

The worst thing about writing a novel is that it is a very solitary process. After a while I was so sick of working on my own I applied to UCT to do the Creative Writing MA. I was surprised to be rejected on two occasions, because I was already an experienced writer, published over 30 books, mostly for children but also adult non fiction, been short listed for Sunday Times Bessie Head Feature writers award, awarded writer’s residency in the US, etc.

When I finally got accepted into the program about 3 years ago Stephen Watson was my supervisor, he inspired me, instilling in me the belief that I am a writer, Henrietta Rose-Innes took over as supervisor when Stephen went on sabbatical, and later, after completing the degree, I worked with Dorian Haarhoff, a writing mentor. All of these people helped me fine tune my craft.

One of my biggest dilemmas was what to do with the children in the story. My main characters had children when they met, but I needed the focus to be totally on the parents and their passion, and the children kind of got in the way…(as children have a habit of doing…)And I also wanted to explore the tension between being a mother and a lover, so there was a conflict of interests. I tried leaving the children out completely, but eventually I ended up putting them back in, after feedback from readers, I think it was after receiving reports from the MA supervisors who assessed the final work, one of them clearly couldn’t take the intensity. So the children re-entered the story and in the process of bringing them back I made this amazing discovery – somehow they grounded the story. The children became the voice of reason, providing the balance to the desperate passion of their parents.

Before and after doing the MA, I sent the manuscript to assorted publishers and agents locally and internationally. After a while it became somewhat embarrassing, it felt like everybody in the South African publishing industry had seen it. General response was – ‘not commercial enough’.  I kept on reminding myself that JK Rowling and other famous writers had zillions of rejections so who was I to complain… And perhaps South African readers weren’t quite ready for this. I submitted different versions to Jacana on three occasions, third time lucky enough to be read by Jacana publishing director Maggie Davey who fell in love with it.

I recently came to believe that I needed to go through all those rejections, because it led to more refining and distilling of my material, a bit like carving a sculpture, continually chipping away at superfluous material to reveal the essence beneath.

2) How do you deal with having written something so personal, intimate and erotic? How do you feel about family and friends reading it? How and why did you put it all out there?

I had a powerful story that I had to tell, as an artist you’re somehow obligated to the gods and goddesses of creativity, forces bigger than yourself.

The heart of this story is about speaking the unspeakable, liberation from silence and shame. Sex is such a fundamental force and so little is really said about it. Maybe its time for us to get over ourselves. After all, we all do it…If I had been coy about writing about sex, I would have gone against one of the key themes of the novel, which is to break the chains of silence and shame. I had to speak the unspeakable, which meant writing about sex as honestly and as beautifully as I could.

My children are adults in their late twenties, enjoying their own intimate relationships, I have great respect and admiration for both of them, and to maintain my integrity as an artist I need to push my own boundaries, perhaps this will encourage them to do the same. But if they find it too uncomfortable they can always put it away and read it in 5 or 10 years time.

To say I feel exposed is an understatement, but I didn’t set out to write an erotic novel, more of a tumultuous love affair. The reader becomes a voyeur into the intimate lives of this couple, but the explicit nature of the writing serves the story, the erotic theme grew as I went along, the more I wrote the more I realised that this was where I felt most powerful as a writer, writing about great love and great sex. I found myself creating a multilayered work, a tapestry woven out of connected strands of art, addiction, love, lust, sensuality, the power of beauty.

Having said all that I believe that my intention as a writer is largely irrelevant. The work is more intelligent than I am. What happens between the reader and the page is far more important than anything I have to say about it.

3)How do you feel about erotica in art and writing generally and locally?

I appreciate erotica in all art forms, I haven’t read much local erotic writing, Oshun’s collection of erotic stories must be one of the few around today, but I must confess I haven’t read it. It came out around about the time I was dealing with endless rejections and I thought I should been asked to contribute to this collection, so like a petulant child I decided not to read it…..! I always loved Anais Nin, but her diaries more than her overt erotic stories.

I’m wary of this novel being lumped in the genre of erotic writing, which tends to be clichéd, often moving from one sex scene to another with the story seemingly tacked on afterwards. An Intimate War differs because its a complex exploration of sexual vulnerability.

Erotic art  should be a celebration, whether it is visual or literary – one of my best responses came from my dear friend Karin – she said many wonderful things about An Intimate War, among them that the book is a celebration ….

Intersection of two creative processes in your work, visual and literary art?

Two very different media, I can express myself more powerfully through the written word than I can with paint and visual media.


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