The award-winning gay author reflects on the compulsion behind crafting stories — and what it means to be a “real” novelist.
It is a silvery, windy day, not cold, in Cape Town. Damon Galgut has let me into his apartment. I glance around at the clutter and the drying laundry while he makes me tea. It is clear that international acclaim hasn’t exactly made the twice Man Booker-shortlisted author lavish — which I rather like. It has, however, given him the financial flexibility to spend four “laborious” years working on his novel, Arctic Summer, which was published in 2014.
Mug in hand, I follow him to a neighbouring flat, which he owns too. A tenant has just vacated it; the surroundings are therefore sparser, more anodyne than his own home.
We sit down on sofas, casting small talk aside. The voice recorder is glowing.
Why does he write?
“There’s a certain mystery attached to why anybody writes books. And maybe it’s best left as a mystery,” he says.
But there are, at least, some clues he is willing to share: a “traumatic childhood” — five years of chemotherapy which began when he was diagnosed with lymphoma at the age of six. He was read to frequently during that period, learning to associate stories as a “positive space” where people were paying attention to him, comforting him — creating “an internal glow” he still experiences when he picks up a book. “It wasn’t such an odd thing to want to take the next step — to writing stories myself,” he says.
Starting in primary school, he wrote two “dreadful” full-length novels. And then his third — A Sinless Season — was spotted by Alison Lowry (who remains his editor) and published by Penguin when he was just 17.
Writing has been the only consistent feature to his life ever since then, he says. For much of the time, he has done other jobs to support himself. He has been a nude model for life drawing classes and served in a London teashop. For eight years he has taught on-and-off at the University of Cape Town’s drama school, making use of his only qualification — a diploma in speech and drama.
Although he admits he’s not prolific — it takes him a long time to write a book — writing is “something that preoccupies my mind most of the time”.
“I become very fretful and a bit ill, actually, if I’m not doing it for too long,” he says. “It is a compulsion — it always has been.” Writing fiction is “an odd activity” — an amassing of “fantastical lies that comment on actual life from a strange angle”. “No one entirely sane I think would feel the compulsion — but there’s something a bit unbalanced about writers, I guess,” he says.
Galgut first went to India 14 years ago. Back then it was cheap — he could eek his rands out for longer than at home while he wrote in silence, a universe away from his “interrupted” life in Cape Town.
He has been going back periodically ever since. This was why he re-read EM Forster’s A Passage to India (the last time he had done so was as a teen). He became interested in Forster’s life story “and I realised that the process that he went through to produce that novel was unusual”. It had taken Forster 11 years to write it: he had begun a draft and then abandoned it for nine years. Why had he been stuck for so long? No one had really explored this “really rich material” in fiction: Arctic Summer would be his attempt to do so.
The purpose of Forster’s first visit to India (in 1912) was to spend time with Syed Ross Masood — an Indian man he had taught Latin to in England, and who had subsequently returned home. Masood was ebullient and loving — but straight and unable to reciprocate Forster’s infatuation.
“What Forster was going through didn’t seem that peculiar to me — I could get my head around it. And, rightly or wrongly, I felt as if I had some kind of insight into the stuff that was blocking him and that he was wrestling with — which is really the crux of the book,” he says.
“I’m pretty close to a particular Indian man and we said goodbye to each other at one point in India,” he says. He was facing three months alone: his friend was returning to south Africa, while Galgut was going to explore the Barabar caves and various other places that Forster had visited decades before.
“It suddenly dawned on me that the feeling of being alone in a strange country must have been really present for Forster,” he says.
A cryptic reference in Forster’s diary suggested that he had made some kind of a move on Masood the night before he was due to continue his travels. Forster was spurned — a rejection so hurtful that Galgut believes it created a powerful frame of mind in which the writer visited Barabar. The caves would ultimately inspire the setting of A Passage to India ‘s pivotal scene — when a prim English schoolmistress, Adela Quested, imagines being assaulted by a young Indian doctor.
“The fantasy of being touched by Masood turned into the inverted fantasy of being attacked,” Galgut says. He believes Adela Quested was a projection of Forster who “was such a spinsterish old aunty, actually”.
Arctic Summer follows a disappointed Forster back to England and then on to Alexandria in Egypt where he served as an ambulance driver during the First World War. It reveals the tentative steps towards sexual consummation — a hurried blowjob from a soldier, and then the unfurling of an affair with Mohammed el Adl, an Egyptian tram conductor. This turbulent bond reverberates well beyond Forster’s time in Egypt. It is perhaps this connection, as well as a second visit to India, that results in his creative block crumbling: the power of Masood’s rejection weakens as the writer’s sexuality gains greater expression. When Forster serves as the private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas senior and unhappily but lustily couples with a court barber, he gains a better, darker understanding of empire and power — and their personal implications for both conqueror and conquered.
He was ready to finish the novel.
“Forster’s life, in certain key respects, overlaps with mine,” Galgut confesses. Arctic Summer was “a way of being able to write about someone else but also more covertly about myself at the same time. Writers are all narcissistic; I think on some level they’re always writing about themselves.”
I ask what the two have in common.
“Well, obviously we’re both gay, we’re both writers, we both have this ongoing fascination with India, we share just a general sensibility to some extent. I relate to the way Forster thinks and feels, and I don’t relate to the way many writers feel,” he says.
Galgut believes one reason for this shared sensibility is their homosexuality: many gay men (though particularly so in Forster’s time) have “really wanted to be with a particular person and couldn’t have that” and so great emphasis has been placed on connections with friends instead.
“My friends are probably the most important element of my emotional life,” Galgut says. “Forster very famously said that if he had to choose between betraying his country or betraying his friend, he hopes he’d have the guts to betray his country. I admire that view a lot. I think if all of us placed affection for other people before national loyalties, the world would be a much better place.”
Galgut felt that it was important to show that while Forster might have been timid about his sexuality (he was terrified of his mother finding out he was gay), he was a courageous man, too, having — in a fiercely patriotic milieu — “absolutely unyielding objections” to the First World War. Galgut wanted to illustrate that Forster “could see both sides of a question and be paralysed as a result” — a quandary he can relate to.
“Forster was not a man of action; he lived constantly inside his head,” he says. “It’s good for the world that there are such people, but it doesn’t drive history forward.” Throughout Arctic Summer, Forster is preoccupied as to whether he deserves (or even wants) the label of “novelist”.
“I don’t think his uncertainty around that question is unusual; I think a lot of writers that I know are prey to the same kinds of doubts. I certainly am,” Galgut says. “There’s many times I’ve felt I’m actually an impostor — other people are the real deal. And I don’t know what that’s based on. The perception that actually for some people writing comes far more easily, maybe,” he muses. But then again, “writing’s just not easy,” he says. “Everybody struggles, and if it comes too easily I think there’s something wrong.”
“I’ve got a line in the book about the writing feeling like grinding craft rather than lofty art and, basically, I think that’s how writing feels most of the time,” he says. “The inspiration you see in Hollywood movies where people just have this breakthrough I think is really a fantasy. Mostly it’s a grind. If you force yourself to sit down to it and you do it every day, day after day, you will get to the end, eventually. It’s a series of problems that you have to solve. Invariably you don’t really know the answers when you start and the process of writing the book is actually a way of finding out why you’re writing the book.”
Writing has often felt to me like a form of therapy — that there’s a psychological knot that has to be unpicked.
I ask him how he would define a novelist.
“A real novelist is somebody who would need to do this regardless of how much money or attention they got; they would still feel the compulsion,” he says. “You can feel it in the way they use language — what they’re in love with is not the idea of themselves as a writer; it’s the language… and the pleasure of using language well,” he replies.
Galgut believes the books that really matter convey the sense that “there was something that that person really needed to say; there’s a need that’s personal” — “a problem that needs to be solved”. “Writing has often felt to me like a form of therapy — that there’s a psychological knot that has to be unpicked.”
“I would say that 90% of the books that get published are not written in that spirit at all.” He blames the “endless creative writing courses that are being offered all over the place now” for this. “Someone who’s not a real writer is not ever going to be more than competent — they’re never going to have those moments of inspiration or desperation, really, that elevate writing from the merely competent to the sublime.”
This is an edited version of a piece that was originally published on AERODROME on December 3, 2014.