Alistair Morgan was born in Johannesburg and he currently lives and works in Cape Town. He has previously published two short stories: Icebergs and Departure and both appeared in the Paris Review – issues 183 (Winter, 2007) and 185 (Summer, 2008) respectively. In 2009 he also became the first non-American to win the Plimpton Prize.
Sleeper’s Wake was Alistair’s debut novel, and the much acclaimed film adaptation of this book screened in South African cinemas, in March 2013. His second novel, The Land Within, was published in 2012.
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
For me the editing process never stops. Whenever I see published copies of my books I open them up and find things I’d like to change. It’s a living hell. But I do tend to do a lot of structural changes during the early drafts. The later drafts are more about the finessing and polishing of sentences, words and punctuation.
2. What research do you do for your book?
It really depends on the book. Sometimes if you’re struggling to get a book going it’s simply because you don’t know enough about your subject or characters. As soon as you have a sufficient understanding of the subject matter you’ll find the words come more easily. Once I’ve finished a draft I will ask someone who knows a lot about a particular subject to check for any errors or inaccuracies.
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
I never go by word count. To me it’s pointless to write a thousand words a day if those words aren’t worth keeping. So sometimes it’s fifty and sometimes it’s five hundred. But never more. Philip Roth said that fluency is usually a sign that something is wrong. I prefer feeling that something is wrong because that way I’m more cautious about the words I put down. Basically, if it’s not hurting you’re not doing it right.
4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?
I’m still trying to work that out myself. It might be a bit of both. You think you have an idea mapped out, but then you start writing and you realise that what you’re writing feels better than what you had mapped out, so you end up just trusting the process and working it out as you go along. But it does obviously help to have a vague aim or goal, especially with regards to themes. The important thing is to have a sense of a character or situation that really grabs you, that doesn’t go away with time. Then you know you have something that will draw you to your desk every day for the next two or three years.
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
Starting something new is really difficult. And you always forget how difficult it is. It feels like you’ve never done it before. It usually takes me three or four months to write the first chapter, even if it’s only a few pages long. It speeds up a little after that, thank God, but it’s so important to get the tone and balance of things working right from the start. The only way to overcome it is to tell yourself that it’s always like this and that with perseverance and patience things will get better.
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I weep. And then I try reading something by a favourite author that I know will inspire me. Or else I read a little more about my subject or just think things through carefully. But it’s actually a good thing to get blocked from time to time. It’s your mind’s way of telling you to stop and have an objective look at what you’re doing. The best cure is a long walk followed by a bottle of red wine.
7. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
For my first novel I sent my agent a synopsis with the manuscript. But the second time round he said he didn’t need a synopsis, which was great because they’re harder to write than novels. So I think it depends on your agent or publisher. They will tell you what they need, or else their website will often have information on their submission requirements.
8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
Don’t have children.