Author Interview: Philippa Garson – Undeniable, Or Behind The Bloodshed

September 22, 2020

[vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]


Philippa Garson‘s book Undeniable: Memoir Of A Covert War is published by Jacana and available now.

Garson worked for the Weekly Mail during the early 1990s, where she covered the civil war between Inkatha and ANC-aligned communities. Undeniable is an account of that period of her life, where she and colleagues, Mondli
Makhanya, Kevin Carter, Eddie Koch, Anton Harber and others, tracked and discovered the involvement of a Third Force, which was fuelling the killing frenzy


How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.

Having a compulsion to write it helps. Much of my memoir, Undeniable, flowed spontaneously out of me when I moved with my family to New York, but it was vivid, stream of consciousness material that didn’t have a narrative arc. It was only when I realised what my plot was that the process of researching and writing and shaping became more urgent and purposeful. It helps to be able to see the beginning, the middle and the end, even if it turns out differently from the way you first conceive of it. I think it’s always a good sign if you start to feel that the book is writing itself and that you, the author, are “stepping aside” to let that happen. And that’s how I began to feel with this book. Then again, it’s my first book, so I can’t compare it!


When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?

I would advise doing some preliminary research to see what else is out there. But you also have to feel passionate about your story and really want to share it. In my case, I knew that I wanted to write about the Third Force and the bloody war that played out in the 1990s. It was a particularly brutal period in the country’s history, which has effectively been airbrushed out of the “miracle of democracy” narrative. We haven’t paid sufficient tribute to the thousands of people who died needlessly; neither have we adequately investigated the perpetrators. This has resulted in a lack of closure, in my view. Weaving in my own personal story gave me the space to reflect more deeply on issues that I would not have been able to in a straightforward “slice of history” narrative, such as the impact of apartheid on every aspect of our lives, the voyeuristic role of the journalist, and the experience of being a woman in the traditionally “macho” terrain of conflict reporting.


Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it? And how much of it is internet-based, given that fact-checking may not be a priority on many websites?

That’s the million-dollar question: when to stop researching! Being based in New York but writing about SA proved challenging. I discovered that the Library of Congress in Washington has just about every newspaper in the world in its database – and that includes the Weekly Mail of the early 1990s, my primary research source. So that was helpful. I also did a lot of online research, read copiously and made several trips back to South Africa to interview people and gather material. But I could have kept on researching forever, and I soon found myself thinking about Book Two before I’d even finished Book One! Eventually I had to draw a line. There’s a lot of inaccurate material online and I think the best way to guard against that is to rely on source material as much as possible.


How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?

It really does depend on the kind of book you’re writing but as I said, it’s important to have a sense of the story arc, even if you don’t know exactly how things are going to play out and how you’re going to get from A to B. That said, I think it’s important to write as freely as possible at first and try not to edit your writing too much along the way during your early drafts.


If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?

Pings from my phone and calls from family and friends! My productivity improved a lot when I found a writer’s space nearby where talking in the work area is strictly forbidden. When you have to go outside to take a phone call – sometimes in freezing weather – the desire to engage in long and distracting conversations dissipates.


What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?

I am a master at procrastination, so I can think of an infinite number of reasons why I’ve put off meeting deadlines, probably all very mundane.


Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of word count or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?

It’s hard to quantify. Sometimes it’s 1 000 words and sometimes less. When I start to feel like I’m writing copy that I’ll most likely throw out the next day, I realise it’s time to stop. I prefer to think in terms of hours. I find that when I focus exclusively on writing I can’t do much more than four hours without feeling like I’ve lost the edge at some point. Also, it’s about accepting that there are good days and bad days and that on bad days, there’ll be very little to show for hours of effort. But maybe some new ideas have started germinating during an “off day” without you even realising it. It’s all part of the writing process. It can be so frustrating – and lonely.


What have you found are the best ways to get this done?

Sticking to a routine and finding somewhere quiet for a few hours every day – preferably the morning. And not allowing anything or anyone to interrupt that writing time.


 If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?

I do freelance writing assignments, but I find it very difficult to balance different projects. I fantasise about being a part-time bartender rather than juggling two different writing projects. Having the skills of a journalist can be beguiling, because, as word technicians, we churn out words with ease. But writing also takes emotional energy. And the process of creative writing, which involves really putting your heart and soul into it, takes even more emotional energy. You have to safeguard that special creative space in some way. The only way I got my book finished was to preserve that energy by focusing exclusively on it.


Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?

Firstly, trying to market one’s book during a global pandemic is no small challenge. The pandemic hit just as I was due to come to SA for my book launches. As I sit here in Brooklyn, and my book is now out on the shelves there during a strict lockdown, the process of marketing feels like trying to roll a huge rock uphill. That said, so much of life is playing out online now, so that does present opportunities that will no doubt become part of the new normal in a post-pandemic society. Also, right now people are cooped up at home and in need of reading material! I’m working with my publisher on setting up Zoom interviews and readings. Hopefully more people will venture out to bookshops soon too. Generally speaking, I think that social media is where new and young readers can be found and we have to show that our books are relevant to their lives. In my case, the turbulent history I write about is not in the popular consciousness, particularly not in the minds of young people whose families were not directly affected by it. I would like them to know what went down and I think – or at least hope – that many will be interested.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]