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African Writers’ Corner

An interview with Mary Watson

Mildred K Barya

2009-07-02, Issue 440

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With this year's Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist now announced, Mildred Kiconco Barya interviews Mary Watson, the 2006 winner of the prize. The winner of the 2009 prize will be announced at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday 6 July.

Mary Watson is the 2006 Caine Prize winner for her short story 'Jungfrau'. Her collection of interlinking stories, 'Moss', was published by Kwela in 2004. She has contributed several short stories to published anthologies, including in translation in Afrikaans, Italian, German and Dutch. She was a lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Cape Town until 2008. Currently she lives in Galway, Ireland.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Why do you write?

MARY WATSON: At the moment, because there isn’t much else I can do. Having resigned from my day job during a global economic recession, I find I have two options: write or be bored silly.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: At what age did you start writing creatively?

MARY WATSON: Five. My first book with illustrations. But I’m not sorry that some of my teen efforts have since been lost.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What was the inspiration behind your story submitted for the Caine Prize?

MARY WATSON: I dreamt the image of the moss garden, and its significance, when I was 16. I dreamt that I wrote it into a book and called it 'Moss'. So, many years later, I did.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How did you know about the Caine Prize?

MARY WATSON: I first heard about the prize in the early 2000s – I’m not sure how. But I remember associating it with Leila Aboulela, whose work I enjoy.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What was your initial response when you won the Caine Prize?

MARY WATSON: It’s hard to recall an initial response a few years on, but what endures is an acknowledgement of the fine talent that was shortlisted with me.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What has been happening or not happening since winning the Caine?

MARY WATSON: I’ve been working on a novel. I worked full-time as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, and I graduated with my PhD in 2007. I had a baby in May last year and December, I left the university and moved away from South Africa.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to rewrite your submitted story what would you change?

MARY WATSON: I don’t think I could rewrite it. That was one of the first that I wrote, and there is a kind of rawness that I don’t think I could capture now even if I tried.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How often do you revise or redraft your stories?

MARY WATSON: A lot. I work in small detail.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your take on writing?

MARY WATSON: That it’s hard, lonely work. I’m a bit suspicious about the loftier ideas about writing, the whole tortured artist thing. The only torture for me is remaining seated at my desk trying to capture ideas, moods and images, and then communicating them without them seeming contrived, and without eating too many biscuits.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How do you deal with a writer’s rejections?

MARY WATSON: The same way I deal with praise: don’t let it get to me too much.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Apart from writing, what else do you do and why?

MARY WATSON: We moved to Ireland at the beginning of this year. So much of 2009 has been about resettling and looking after my little boy who has just turned one. I loved living in Cape Town so the move has been a big adjustment. Becoming a mother and then leaving home in the same year means that the ground beneath my feet doesn’t feel quite so secure – my old life has completely changed. And writing has become even more important than ever—it’s one of the things that links me to the time before. And it’s one of the things that, at least for now, I do for myself. It’s a small bit all for me, which I find vital when I’m on 24-hour call for an adorable but not yet reasonable little boy.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your best quote?

MARY WATSON: I have a thing about first lines and a favourite is from 'Tracks' by Louise Erdrich: 'We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die.' It’s a wonderful way to start a book and she writes, as I did with 'Moss', interlinking short stories but hers are largely set in American Indian communities.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: List your favourite five books.

MARY WATSON: These change every week or so. At the moment, 'Goodnight Moon' and Sarah Water’s new book top my list. I loved 'The Little Stranger' – it has so many resonances with the book I’m working on. An old favourite is 'The Monk' by Matthew Lewis.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What genre do you read most and why?

MARY WATSON: I read a very wide range; it depends on my mood. I need to read good, well-written books because these inspire my own writing – it’s a bit like having a dialogue – but I also read detective novels because I love good plots, and intelligent chick-lit because they make me laugh out loud.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to have powers of a genie what two things would you change?

MARY WATSON: I would wish for a magic transporter, not a carpet, more like in Star Trek, a 'beam me up Scotty machine' so I can move between Cape Town and Galway in the blink of an eye. And a time contracter/expander so that I can fit more into a day and speed up the bits I don’t like.

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