August 25, 2016 - We're excited to introduce our September 2016 writer-in-residence, Danila Botha, author of For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known (Tightrope Books). Known for crafting complex, emotionally nuanced characters and stories, Danila is an exciting young writer we're thrilled to have on Open Book. For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known has been praised as reading "like Chekhov by way of Kathy Acker but utterly original" and called "truthful and dreamy, tough and tremulous; sad and aching, seductively, with hope" by acclaimed author Lynn Crosbie.
We got the chance to speak with Danila about her collection of short fiction, which deals with (as you may guess from the eye-catching title) relationships in all their permutations and complexities. She tells us about thinking of characters as real people (including everything from posture to favourite music!), what she loves about the short story form, and how she came to her highly original title.
This book is about relationships, with all the attendant nuance, messiness, joy, and pain that implies. Where did you draw from to capture these complexities? Are there echoes of relationships you've been in or witnessed in the stories?
A lot of the original ideas started with anecdotes and other people’s stories. My friends would talk about their relationships, both present and past, and that really affected what I wanted to draw from.
I tried to observe, as much as possible the way people treated each other (both what people said, and what I could see they desperately wanted to, but didn’t).
Some of the titles of the stories (including "Don’t Be Classless", and "You’re In Love With Me, Aren’t You?") were taken from things that people told me were said to them (although the characters and stories are fictional). I remember thinking about dating, and about the optimistic, excited, or even emotionally distant and nonchalant place that relationships often start in. What can affect people most, or what can change in the dynamic is often unexpected. I really wanted to explore that.
How do you go about crafting your characters? In complex and raw stories like these, is it ever difficult to follow your characters on their emotionally intense journeys?
That’s a great question. I love trying to figure out who my characters are, and developing exactly what their voices are (for me, a strong sense of the character comes before the story line is clear in my mind),
I find it helpful to think of the character as a real person. I like to deliberate about what they would read, or eat, or watch, or do in their spare time. Certain details are really fun: what would they wear, how would they stand, how they react to specific social situations. I also like to imagine what their backstory would have been (their home life or their romantic histories, even if these aren’t details that make it into a story) I like to to listen to to their favourite music while I edit them. I try to always come from a place of empathy and love for that person-what are their reasons (real and imagined) for their behaviour? Why do they believe that what they do is okay? (Do they actually believe it? Are they honest with themselves?) It definitely can be difficult to follow characters on emotionally intense journeys. I think that in order to write emotion convincingly, you have to be able to allow yourself to feel it. It is hard. I definitely had to take breaks at times, to go for a walk or run (especially in the Falling Out section)
Why was short fiction the right venue in which to explore the ways we relate to one another? What do you love about the short story as a format?
I really love short stories as a medium. I love the form, and how economical one has to be with language and detail and description. I think it’s such a great length in terms of writing about how people relate to each other, because we can get a perfect snapshot: just the right amount of emotion and observation that we are left wondering about afterwards.
Tell us a little bit about how you came to the title.
It came to me years ago, when I was living in Israel. I remember the day, too: I was sitting at my desk, talking to my then boyfriend on the phone, and I said, I have this idea for a collection of stories. (It’s funny, because the only story that was even written at the time was Another Other)
For all my books so far (including the two that I’m working on right now) the title always comes first. Then I build the stories, or the main themes and ideas around the title. With For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known, I had no idea where it came from, but I knew that I liked it, and I could imagine a collection with the title, so as soon as I had it, I started writing.
What are some of your favourite short story collections? What were you reading while working on this book?
What inspired this book more than anything was Liar, by Lynn Crosbie. It’s a beautiful and incredibly heartbreaking poem that’s full book length. It really changed my life and I can’t recommend it (or any of her work) enough.
The first short story I really fell in love with (and came to many times as I wrote this) is called "I Know Angelo", by Heather O’Neill. It’s in a wonderful collection, edited by Zoe Whittall and Emily Pohl-Weary called Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws. Her writing is just so masterful — her images are gorgeous, and striking and unique, there is so much love for the characters, and every sentence is just beautiful. I could quote it all (I also really love her new collection, The Daydreams of Angels. Every story is amazing).
In the same collection, there’s a story by Zoe Whittall that I love, too. It’s called "Seven Stops Time", and it ends with the line: “I think I’m having the world’s slowest nervous breakdown,” which I think is one my favourite endings for a short story, ever.
I really love Zsuzsi Gardner’s collections, too. I love both All the Anxious Girls on Earth and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. She’s such a sharp social observer, and such a master of the form. I absolutely love Neil Smith’s Bang Crunch. My favourite story is "Green Fluorescent Protein". I think the ending is so romantic and lovely.
Lisa Moore’s Open is wonderful. I also love Lorrie Moore’s short stories, especially Bark. Amy Jones' first book, What Boys Like, is amazing and heartbreaking. I love the stories "How To Survive A Summer in the City" and "Army of One". I love Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once, Shaena Lambert’s O My Darling, David Bezmosgis’ Natasha and Other Stories, Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden, Saleema Nawaz’s Mother Superior, and Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing. Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth was so inspiring. Her descriptions of Israel were so sensory, I felt like I was there again. Etgar Keret, the Israeli short story writer is really amazing. I think Kneller’s "Happy Campers" is my favourite short story of his, but all of his collections are equally funny, and sharp and perfectly crafted.
Some of my other favourites of all time are Banana Yoshimoto’s collection, Lizard, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son<?em>, Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City, Aimee Bender’s Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and Nathan Englander’s What They Talk About When They Talk About Anne Frank.
I also read and reread and loved Jami Attenberg’s Instant Love, Hanif Kureishi’s Love in a Blue Time, Pasha Malla’s The Withdrawal Method, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians, Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, and Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More than You.
Margaret Atwood’s short story collections, especially Wilderness Tips and Dancing Girls have always been a huge inspiration, as well as everything by Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver.
What will you be working on next?
I’m finishing a new novel right now. It’s about two women in their twenties who become very close friends. They both have enormous, incredibly self destructive secrets (that they successfully keep from everyone, including each other) until their lives start to implode in devastating ways (to the complete shock of the person, and everyone around them)
I’m also working on a new collection of short stories. So far it has stories from the adolescence and early twenties, and its’ a lot funnier than anything I’ve written so far. I’m having a really good time writing it.
Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she has lived in Ra’anana, Israel, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books, 2010) was praised by the Globe and Mail, the Chronicle Herald, and the Cape Town Times. It was also named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories) in 2011, and was published in South Africa (Modjaji Books, 2011). Danila has guest-edited the National Post’s “The Afterword,” and her short stories have appeared in Broken Pencil Magazine, Douglas Glover’s Numero Cinq Magazine, Joyland and more. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed Too Much on the Inside was published by Quattro Books in June 2015. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers in the correspondence program in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of short stories.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.