Magic 8 Q&A

Kenneth Bonert's key to better writing? 'When I'm reading a lot, I write well'

The award-winning author of the Mandela Plot answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
The Mandela Plot, Kenneth Bonert's sophomore novel, is a coming-of-age story set in late 1980s South Africa. (Richard Dubois/Knopf Canada)

Kenneth Bonert is a South African-Canadian novelist. His debut novel, The Lion Seekerwas shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction. His latest novel is The Mandela Plota coming-of-age tale set in late 1980s South Africa, as apartheid is coming to an end.

Below, Bonert takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers.

1. Dominique Fortier asks, "Do you read a lot when you write? Why or why not?"

You could almost say writing and reading are one activity. Reading well is a creative act. All good writers began as devoted readers. It is not possible to write well without reading and re-reading your work over carefully, but I think this question is asking about reading other writers.

Underlying the question is perhaps the fear of being overly influenced, of falling into patterns of emulation. But I've never had that fear. On the contrary, I think that art is made out of other art, not necessarily in emulation but also through reaction and engagement. Other writing can stimulate you or bore you or enrage you — but as a writer you can always learn from that and use it to improve. Reading keeps the literary blood in circulation, keeps the words coming in.

When I'm reading a lot, I write well. I find if I don't put in the reading time then the work is harder and goes slower.

2. André Alexis asks, "Are you conscious of the rhythm that paragraphs have, their length, when you're writing? Or is that something you work on as a form of sculpture afterwards?"

I think Charles Bukowski wrote somewhere about opening a random book and being able to tell by the shape of the text on the page whether it was worth reading or not. Judging by his own work, he may have been a fan of short paragraphs broken up by extended sections of ragged-edged dialogue. That has its appeal, but then you look at someone like Dostoevsky and you have to take a deep breath before taking a whale dive into five pages of solid unbroken text.

So yes, I am conscious of the shape of the paragraphs. I think you have to be if you're a careful writer because they are part of the aesthetic effect that the book will create. In my novel The Mandela Plot, for example, I'm using the form of a noir-like thriller in order to deeply explore a particular time and place. Genre novels tend to use very short paragraphs, often one liners; so to contrast the superficial form of my story with the underlying intent I wrote it using very long, unbroken paragraphs which makes the work denser. It forces the reader to slow down, makes skimming more difficult. It's a kind of subliminal signalling that says, "This might seem to be a thriller, but hold on, there's more going on here than just the action on the surface — have another look, take a second thought."

3. Esi Edugyan asks, "Some years ago I read a piece about discussions going in the world of chess as to whether chess playing could be called a sport, given the enormous physical stamina required to sit for so many hours in silent thought. Writing asks a similar physical discipline. What exercise (or otherwise) do you do to counteract the hours of stillness? Do you write standing up or use a treadmill desk? What physical activity do you do?"

With money I earned from some TV work, I bought myself a very cool adjustable desk. It glides up and down so you can work sitting or standing. I would say I spend about 40 per cent of my work time standing now.

When I'm finished for the day, I like to head out. I used to be a keen jogger, even managing to complete the hellish experience of running the Toronto marathon one cool October years ago (never again). But these days I jog less and prefer taking long walks through the city instead. In addition, I do bodyweight exercises, pull-ups, pushups and some weights. Hitting the punching bag is another fun way to unwind.

I'm interested in yoga, though I've yet to try it. It seems as if flexibility becomes more important as you get older. I think there's a link between keeping the body supple and not becoming too rigid in your approach as a writer.

4. Eliza Robertson asks, "What music do you associate with your work?"

That's a tough question for me to answer.

I'm not sure that I can link music to literature at all — to me they're such radically different art forms. Music is general (a sound) and physical and alive, while writing is specific (words) and inert. Writing needs a reader to do the work of decoding the symbols, whereas music is just there, whether you want it to be or not. Music can speak to an audience but writing is for one reader at a time. Music is, for me, pure emotion that can act directly on the body; writing has to pass through the mind.

Where they are similar perhaps is that both music and writing have a structure to them. In that limited sense, I would think of my novels as symphonic, sounding out a theme that is then repeated, embroidered, gaining in complexity and tempo, finally brought to a crescendo.

5. Kevin Chong asks, "How have big life changes (marriage, divorce, kids, family deaths) changed your writing?"

I don't think changes in my life have directly changed my writing. I just work every day and the years pass and the changes evolve from the accumulation of work, the experience of writing consistently, the discipline of it. What changes the work is doing the work.

That said, it is only and obviously the experience of living that can give you what you truly know. And this is the material — the alchemist's lead — that you must start with.

6. Ashley Little asks, "Which book on craft would you say is a must-read for beginning writers?"

The collected Paris Review interviews.

7. Tanya Talaga asks, "Who is your most feared critic?"

If we are talking about the emotion of fear then I can't think of a single critic — the emphasis being on that word single. But in our internet age with its digital mobs and heartless algorithms, books are at risk of being mischaracterized and misused in entirely new ways.

8. Rajiv Surendra asks, "Is there a book that you wish you had never read? Explain. Please. Thanks."

No. We can't undo the things we've done, whether reading certain books or anything else — so there's no point in wishing otherwise.


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