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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Spark: Michael Cope and Ken Barris’ Sunderland

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.

Like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Byatt’s Possession or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Michael Cope and Ken Barris’s novel Sunderland is a story within a story of someone uncovering a document, and the growing disconnect between the finder and the material.

In today’s The Spark, the guest blog series where African novelists talk about what inspired their new books, the pair talk about how they decided to make those perspectives especially distinctive by writing them separately – and how they brought them together.

The Spark for Sunderland IMG_5534by Michael Cope: 

For me it’s not a spark. The ideas are always there. Anyone who has the writing habit has a Pool of Ideas into which more and more of them get dissolved over time.

In my case the ideas were many and varied, and were about place and places, character and characters, and about how and why we write. Eventually something like crystallisation happens in the Pool when it reaches saturation point and you toss in the seed. The crystallisation seed was this interesting ending. All sorts of ideas attached to it, and the plot and bare frame of a book quickly became clear.

In this book that emerged from the Pool and demanded to be written down,

  • There is a deceased author, D.
  • A researcher, R,
  • is paid by D’s estate
  • to reconstruct D’s
  • last, incomplete novel, Sunderland.

This meant two very distinctive points of view – that of D and that of R. The second “spark” was the realisation that the book could easily be split between two writers. Perhaps with doubled vision we could reveal a third dimension. I approached Ken. He agreed. Yay. D became Charles De Villiers, R became Art Berger. I wrote everything that ostensibly came from the keyboard of De Villiers, and Ken wrote Art Berger and his world. The overarching plot was mine but Ken originated a lot of sub-plots and detail. In the end it was roughly half and half. The division also spared me the vertigo of creating characters within characters within characters.

I had a lot of fun creating Charles – a writer whose methods are quite different from my own. He works from lists, I don’t. He likes to have pictures of things he’s writing about. He does lots of research, crafting characters in a way that my more intuitive approach has avoided. He is very concerned to weave certain ideas into the text, in ways I wouldn’t (until now). Fiction, especially writing it, can broaden the mind. Working together was easy and we hardly fought. It was also fun. I enjoyed exposure to quite different methods, especially the deep irony of Ken’s style. Together we were able to create something which is both serious and satirical, a work which neither of us could have written alone.


Barris Sunderland 2

The Spark for Sunderland by Ken Barris: 

Mike contacted me about an idea he had for a collaborative novel. We met over breakfast and discussed it. He presented his concept – a novel for two voices – which I liked  immediately, particularly the ending he had in mind.

One voice would belong to Charles de Villiers, a major South African novelist who had died of brain cancer, leaving behind the fragments of an unfinished novel. The other would belong to a young writer and academic, on the make but insecure, later named Art Berger. Mike proposed that I write the latter voice.

“It’s a great idea, Mike,” I said. “But why don’t you just write both voices?” To which he replied that he was only interested in writing the fragments – he didn’t have the concentration span to write a whole novel!

So a number of working breakfasts followed. We constructed potted biographies for both characters that would explain their flaws and tendencies to some extent, agreed on names and roles for the minor characters, and worked out a division of labour. Mike had provided the broad concept, including some of the key plot triggers and turning points. It became my task to plot the Berger narrative, and to incorporate and arrange the de Villiers fragments within it.

Mike wrote an obituary for Charles de Villiers under his own name, and I wrote up an interview between the not-yet-dead Charles de Villiers and Art Berger, most of which we didn’t use. We met reasonably often to monitor progress and to define whatever changes were necessary.

At one stage I got a bit irked with Mike for creating the same information chaos that Charles was meant to do, a case of performing Charles rather than just writing him. But there was method in this madness because it influenced the way I developed Art’s character and shaped his responses. Sunderland was a tremendously interesting and challenging project, and the fusion of creative energies was really rewarding. Not to mention great fun at a technical level.


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