The Unthology Interviews: Elaine Chiew talks to Amanda Oosthuizen 14th October 2017 – Posted in: Interviews
EC: I love your title. The Harp and The Thorn Tree. Which came first — harp or thorn tree?
AO: Thanks, I’m glad you like it. They arrived together. When I’d finished writing the story I picked two of the strongest picture images. Those two jumped out at me and I kept them because together they make something else.
EC: Both of these things have great symbolism in the story. As you are creating character and story, how does that process of creating symbolism happen for you? Do you find that you use metaphor, simile and symbolism quite often in your stories? I also found the ‘seagull’ symbolic as is the wound inflicted by the gull on Sadie’s hand, the female protagonist in the story.
AO: Symbolism is one of the handiest tricks in our box, don’t you agree? I’m quite annoying in that I’m always inventing similes. It’s rather like living in a parallel universe. The seagull appeared in the story as I was writing and he seems to reflect Sadie’s marriage. The sea also became part of her background music. Its sound never stops rather like the memory of her terrible past.
EC: That’s remarkable. Each of these images feel stand-alone in the story, and it’s reflective of the fact that Sadie has not managed to knit these different parts of her past together, or have them cohere in the present. Were you consciously striving for this effect?
AO: Subliminally, yes, but not consciously at the writing stage. When I was editing I developed them a little bit.
EC: If I were to say, “The darkness, including the related malevolence, here stems from the sexual menace of a man’, would you agree with this statement of gendered bifurcation? Sadie’s estrangement from her mother was somewhat attributable to a man also.
AO: Yes, I’d agree. Both the attacker and Loutjie are equally responsible for the darkness. The only ‘good’ man in the story is Eddie and Sadie can’t deal with his niceness or his love. She knows she ought to love him back, she wants to love him and she wants to love her children. She’s dislocated emotionally and she knows it but has to stay one step ahead of this great rolling, gathering snowball trauma of her past so that it doesn’t destroy her entirely. She’s dislocated from sex too. In her arid life in South Africa, Loutjie brought her genuine pleasure and, through the harp, an escape route. But the result is gendered bifurcation. Great phrase!
EC: The friendship between the two female protagonists (Sadie and Jan) is ‘thorny’. Where do you see the hope of redemption, if any, for either of them?
AO: Sadie is guilt-ridden because she deserted Jan during the attack. Redemption is a possibility. It’s always a possibility but it’s unlikely if she were to continue as she is. She’d need to make huge changes. She’d need to confront the past and then decide whether she’d want a future with Eddie and the children or perhaps instead, a future with Jan.
EC: And how capable is she of such change? I suppose this goes back to your idea or philosophy about people? Do you think people in general are capable of ‘huge changes’ (esp. past a certain age?)
AO: I think people are capable of great change, always, and perhaps particularly as we get older. Our bodies change, our circumstances change, all that is inevitable, and it can lead to other possibilities of our own making. Sadie will need to change even if, at the moment of the story, she’s content to float on the turbulent sea. For a start, I don’t think Eddie could keep up his role for much longer. I think she’d consider throwing herself onto the rocks, but if she did, she’d survive. She has to make a decision.
EC: Do you think female friendships are harder to depict than male friendships in narrative? Have you written about both? Which do you find easier or harder?
AO: I have written about both. I don’t think I find either easier. My fictional female friendships tend to be more successful friendships because they’re not built on loyalty, whereas the male friendships are. Love and loyalty are components of each but the proportions vary. It’s not a rule I’ve come up with and probably not a truth, it depends on the characters and the story I’m telling.
EC: Short story aficionados often say that ‘stories’ can feel like the depiction of an entire world, or suggestive of the fullness of a novel. If we were to meet these two female friends at a different narrative time or juncture in their lives, e.g. at a different time in story, e.g. if they’d met during the intervening 20 years, or perhaps at the farm in South Africa five years later, what do you think we’d see, where do you see these two characters ending up?
AO: Yes, this story could easily be a novel. I’ve written several like that. It doesn’t end. I expect you noticed. If I were to develop it I’d make Sadie confront her past and her present. She’d need to decide whether she wanted a future with Eddie. I would send Sadie to South Africa to find Jan and maybe she’d discover what actually happened to the attacker. Sadie would need to understand violence. Perhaps she’d need to become violent.
EC: The setting of South Africa for the backstory was intriguing to me. Can you elaborate a little on how you chose this setting for the backstory, and how South Africa tends to figure in your stories.
AO: My husband is South African. To me, it’s a dark place. When I wrote the story we’d just found out his sister, Jenny, had been killed. She’d had a blazing row with her daughter, stormed out and was run over by a hit and run driver. Previously, while on the way to the corner shop to buy a packet of cigarettes, she was stabbed in the forehead with a crosspoint screwdriver and nearly died. After that she stayed with us for a little while and she wanted me to write her memoir (which is why I’m telling you this) but she was killed before we could start. She was a very beautiful, gregarious woman who lived life dangerously and was extremely proud of her two stunning children: a son who was awarded the accolade of being best barman in Cape Town and a daughter, a croupier who was frequently jetted off to Bahamian casinos to spin her wheel. Jenny’s childhood was traumatic but she live life as if it were a party. When I met her in England, she said to me that if she returned to South Africa she knew that something bad was going to happen. She tried to stay but couldn’t, legally. That’s all quite a shocking revelation, isn’t it? It’s quite a shocking story too. The story isn’t about Jenny but it’s inspired by her.
EC: It is a tragic story. I’m sorry to read it. But she sounded larger than life, and much missed. I’ve not been to South Africa, and of course I do read and hear more about the violence than anything else. But is South Africa also other things to you?
AO: With a name like mine, people query it, and often follow up by saying: ‘It’s such a beautiful country’ which of course it is in places, and there’s mystery and magic to be found. But it’s the personal stories I know and the way both blacks and whites are trying to change but are often misunderstood that intrigue me. But I’ve written stories set against the racial disparity in the diamond mining industry, and also the effects on people and the environment of the oil industry in Africa.
EC: Do you play the harp yourself or another instrument? How much does music influence your prose?
AO: I am a musician but I don’t play the harp. I play and teach flute, sax, bassoon and some piano. I’m learning double bass, and I’m totally obsessed by it. Music slips itself into my stories but I hardly ever intend to write about music. It’s a major part of my life so I suppose it inevitably creeps in. As far as writing is concerned I’m very aware of the rhythm of and to some extent, the pitch and tonality of language.
EC: What writers (whether living or not) have influenced you the most in terms of style, voice, etc.?
AO: I read a lot. I’m not aware of being influenced by it, although, having said that, and it’s not the case in this story, I’m a big fan of Tatyana Tolstaya, I love how her stories slip from harsh, usually Soviet, reality into surrealism. I’d recommend her novel, ‘The Slynx’, it’s a fantastic, lucid and thought-provoking book. I also love those stories that teeter on the rim of reality and almost become surreal.
EC: What were both your novels (which won or were shortlisted for a bunch of prizes) about? Does music play a role in them?
AO: Thanks for asking. My novel ‘A Cage of Rooks’ is about Carrie, a girl who has inherited a decaying country house with its own cage of rooks. Her tenant, a composer with a cruel streak, falls in love with her, but Carrie is obsessed by a gardener. Carrie becomes disconnected from reality and increasingly involved with the characters that inhabit the paintings in the house. It retells my favourite fairytale, ‘Rapunzel’ and although the story isn’t about music, music does play its part. It is a novel that dips into earthy magic realism.
‘The Cherrywood Box’ is the story of a music box. It features three main characters – an 87-year-old nightclub singer, Dolly, who owns a bar in Asunción and is blackmailed by a drugs runner. Edith, a craftswoman who is in an abusive marriage which she escapes by taking a lover, and Ava a young photographer who is trapped in a castle whilst on an assignment. The stories are linked by the music box.
EC: What’s next writing-wise for Amanda Oosthuizen?
I’m working on the second draft of a new novel, ‘Breath’. This one is about music. It tells the story of Jan, a professional trumpeter and single mother with a grown-up daughter, who finds she’s being stalked. It is based around several pieces of trumpet repertoire and deals with expectations: those we have of other people and those we have of ourselves. You have to write about what fires you up, don’t you? But I have a little story of hope, because someone who read it listened to one of the pieces of music for the first time as a result, and fell in love with the music. That’s good.
I’m also embarking on a collaborative arts project 10 Days Chalk based in Winchester. I’m part of a group of writers who are producing work inspired by the artists involved in the project. Our work, short fiction and poetry, will be displayed alongside that of the artists. I’ve loved talking to and discovering more about these artists. I can’t wait to get on with it.
Thanks, Elaine, for asking all these questions. I had no idea I had so much to say.
EC: Good luck on your projects. We look forward and thank you for being so open and forthcoming with answers.
AO: My pleasure. I’m really looking forward to hearing about the writing of ‘Chinese Pygmalion’.
The Hard and the Thorn Tree by Amanda Oosthuizen appears in Unthology 7.