Louis Greenberg has been a supporter of Short Story Day Africa since the beginning. So when Tiah Beautement heard he had a novel of his own she had to read it. After she read it, she had to interview him. Thankfully, he agreed.
Q&A with Louis Greenberg
TB: Welcome, Louis!
So my first question . . . We all need to eat. But you are foodie of a sort. When did the more nuanced appreciation of food’s potential begin?
LG: My mother’s expression of her Greek heritage was the closest thing I had to a definitive culture growing up. Despite the pressures of five children and a non-domestic husband, she enjoyed cooking creatively on a tight budget in the way Greek working mothers would – this resulted in honest, hearty food, which was always one of my deepest comforts as a child. She took a cordon bleu cooking class in London, and I remember paging through the cordon bleu cookery partworks, stored in stylish wood-and-vinyl volumes, that she kept.
For the last several years, while I’ve had small children, I’ve lived quite a constrained lifestyle, so whenever I get the chance to eat out at snazzy restaurants, I make the most of it, which often involves choosing the longest tasting menu, and makes me look very greedy to my writing colleagues who only see me on the rare occasions that I’m out.
At home, one of the easier ways to escape from the drudgery of suburban life is cooking and presenting food attractively and buying the odd special ingredient or drink.
TB: Does food get work itself into your writing? Or do you try to keep your pleasures separate from work?
LG: In my first novel, The Beggars’ Signwriters, food plays quite a central role in one or two of the storylines, calling up that childhood comfort of simple food being prepared and symbolising love and spiritual richness. But I soon realised that food preparation scenes are often just filler and now I will only include them if they advance plot or character in some way. There’s a scene in The Mall set in a restaurant called McColon’s, which we hope is more than just filling.
TB: I read your first SL Grey book The Mall on a plane. Can’t say I was all that thrilled when they served my meal. Not that plane food has a good rep. Still! Ew. Has your own work ever put you off food?
LG: I can’t think why The Mall would put you off your food.
TB: I’m going to ignore that bait. Ahem.
But since we’ve been talking about food…If your recent novel Dark Windows was a full on meal – aperitif, appetisers, main, dessert, wine, after dinner drink, etc… – what would it be?
organic quinoa and kale salad ‘paltrow’ served on a black mirror
double espresso and protein shake intermission
oysters with hemp-infused blood orange jus
snoek pate on patchouli crackers
(west-coast blanc de noir)
braai three ways: bloody steak, grease-dripping wors and burnt chicken
hacked goat bredie
(joburg sorghum beer or black label quart)
cold pea soup with lavender amuse bouche
vegetarian abyssinian injera
(telea and coffee)
‘wellness centre’ jelly and custard with trio of smoothie ice cream
(triple-taxed hard tack from under the sink)
I’m impressed. Having read the book, your meal is a rather accurate glimpse into all the themes in play. But I’m changing subjects. I’ve seen you posts pics here and there of urban art. What about it grabs you?
LG: I don’t pretend to be some savvy connoisseur of ‘street art’, what we called graffiti not so long ago. But I like the way it changes dull walls into a public, democratic and free art display for anyone to enjoy. The better art is creative and attractive or challenging, while lazy scrawls and tags are just another layer of depressing blight. Because Johannesburg is so composed of expanses of uninteresting wall, good public defacement is uplifting. It’s another way to temporarily escape the suburban morass.
TB: The urban setting also features strongly in your written work. Does this fascination with the urban go beyond being a born and raised city man?
LG: I’m uncovering a theme here. I’ve lived here all my life and while, by force of will, you can find our suburban roads interesting, after several years walking along the same one, the will finally weakens and it gets boring, oppressive and dulling. In Dark Windows, I tried to imagine a different, somewhat refreshing Johannesburg, but creatively, I may be running low on ways to render Johannesburg personally interesting.
I’m still drawn by cities, though, where – in theory – you can see a thousand stimulating new things in a twenty-minute walk. So I’m turning to other cities in my current work, where the very detail of the suburban streets is different enough to be inspiring again.
TB: I recently ran a writing workshop with fifteen 9 & unders. They were a bit curious about adult writers – what we do, what we talk about. One mentioned how boring studying and school can be. So I tossed out there that I’d actually met somebody with a PhD and he’d studied vampires in fiction. They were in awe. You now have fifteen new fans. But I have wondered, of all the weird and wonderful creatures out there, why the vamp?
LG: I was similarly stifled and bored after high school. My interest in the vampire started in a third-year course on the Victorian Gothic – it was all about sex and deviance and subversion, a total shock for this shy, sheltered boy, and I carried those themes through my honours and into my Master’s where I looked at sex and alternative family in modern American vampire novels. The vampire figure was urbane, well travelled, philosophical, subversive and sexy. Better than any other fictional monster. What’s not to like? I could go on and on, but you’re very welcome to read my dissertation linked from my website. After the MA, though, I was a bit tired of vampires. They also became boring and normative in pop culture, giving away all their subversive potential, so I haven’t really concentrated on them for several years.
TB: Fair enough. Even without the vamps, your stories are far from boring. But your work has a huge breadth – both writing on your own and with Sarah Lotz as SL Grey. Are there any no-go areas?
LG: No, not really. I’m always writing about things that interest me personally – usually art, sex, gender, death, religion, psychology, heritage and place. There’s a whole world off that list I haven’t wanted to write about, but anything may just catch my imagination and find its way into a new book or story. I almost wrote a novel about cricket umpires.
TB: Cricket. My husband likes cricket. I’m, err, working on my appreciation. But in addition to themes, is there any creature – mythical or otherwise – you won’t touch? As in dinosaurs, The Kikiyaon, Big Foot. . .
LG: I tend to write about people more than actual monsters. But to the extent that fairy tales and myths are all psycho-sexual founding stories, they interest me, and they may some day come into my writing. But these themes are quite common already and I’m not sure if I’d be able to find an interesting angle on them. I don’t think if there’s any I would avoid out of an innate aversion.
TB: Fair enough.
New topic. You have been a driving force to keeping the short story alive. From putting together and editing Home & Away and collections like The Ghost Eaters & Other Stories to being a key supporter of Short Story Day Africa with both funds and advice. Why?
LG: Short stories are both an excellent gateway drug for readers and writers and a perfect form for honing craft. (I am aware that the idea of a short story as a stepping stone betray my bias, but I am a novelist after all.) In a different way from novels, which are often guzzled, short stories offer an enclosed, satisfying unit of narrative that you can savour slowly and thoughtfully in one reading. Or you can just guzzle a whole collection in one sitting.
TB: So true.
Lastly, what’s the question you wished I’d asked? Please feel free to answer it.
LG: ‘Are you interested in having my French château, which I’m not using and which is just taking up space?’
TB: Ha! Short Story Day Africa may have lovely sponsors, but a French château has yet to be dropped into our laps. But if one does, we now know who to call. But in all seriousness, thank you for chatting with me.
Dark Windows is available at a plethora of bookshops and internet sellers. For a complete list of his work, please click here. You can find his website here. You can follow him on twitter – @louisgreenberg and follow SL Grey – @slgreyauthor. For those interested, we read Dark Windows earlier this year and pulled some quotes. Enjoy!