Peter Midgley is an Edmonton-based writer who was born in Namibia, and grew up there and in South Africa. He came to Canada in 1999. His children's books have been translated into 29 languages and he has written two plays. In one incarnation, he functions as the acquisitions editor at the University of Alberta Press. In others, he is variously a poet, a storyteller, traveller, beach bum, husband, parent, pet owner. Some may argue that differentiating between the last two items is superfluous.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
First book I wrote, or first book I read?
Can't remember the first book I read, but my brother left Albert Luthuli's Let my People Go! at my bedside table when was about eight. My dad once read Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to me as a bedtime story. My mom handed me Eugene Marais's Siel van die mier (Soul of the White Ant) when I was four (because I'd told her I was bored).
I wrote my first book when I was twelve: The Soul of the Artist - A tome on the lives of famous painters who lived in artists' colonies. See my early reading list for influences. It remains unpublished for good reason. However, I knew then and there I wanted to work with words.
I wrote two plays before publishing my first book, Thuli's Mattress, which a collaborative children's story that became part of a literacy series. It involved authors, storytellers, community workers, illustrators, musicians and song-writers, and teachers. The idea was to create a series of ten books that spoke to the entire spectrum of South Africa's children in a post-apartheid society. The experience of working with experienced writers, community leaders and elders, editors, and other highly talented people definitely left an impression on me.
My previous books are either children's picture books, or scholarly ones. My plays have never appeared in print. A book of poems is different. The same issues still haunt me, though: human rights, social justice, migrant labour, war, the interplay between fact and fiction, language...
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Came to reading and writing poetry rather late in some ways. Had a prof - Tim Huisamen - who could rattle of reams of poetry from memory and did so with obvious passion. Just seeing him mesmerized by words was enough to inspire anyone. That and having him show us how the poems work. Not what they mean but how they work. One day it just penetrated: this poetry stuff is pretty neat.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I work at a glacial pace. It takes years of fermentation to get a project going. At first, writing comes in fits and starts, although some drafts come out fairly close to a final form. That's only because I write them in my head many times over before they reach paper. I am obsessive about small revisions once they're on paper. Once tried a traditional sonnet that went through 57 drafts. A great exercise, but I gave up on sonnets after that.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Stories/poems tend to coagulate in some primeval miasma and slowly percolate to the top of my mind, at which point they say: Write me now! It's an image, a moment on the street, a concept. Can't pin it down. Ideas just happen. I know it's something when the idea still floats in my head three or more years later. Whatever I'm working on comes out as individual pieces, but eventually I begin to see connections and then filling in the gaps goes rapidly. My next poetry project, tentatively called diary of a red chicken, has been floating in my head for twenty years. And now it's not letting me go.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. Poetry needs to be read aloud. Stories need to be performed. That's why I am a storyteller, too. The more you tell stories or read drafts aloud, the more you can hone them. You soon discover what works and what doesn't. You can play whatever tricks you like on the page, but in the end, it's the sound that makes the whole. That's what I like about plays/theatre, too. The whole only comes about when you combine modes of expression - like opera.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Eish! Honestly, theoretical concerns are not uppermost in my mind when I write. I just have to look around me to find enough material to keep my work grounded. I would feel far happier being able to say "My writing made a difference in my community" than I would be announcing myself as an acolyte of a particular theoretical approach.
What I do know without doubt is that writing does change society. Just see how writers have underpinned political shifts all over the world. So the question for me is: how do I make a difference in my own writing? How do I shift current thinking?
I worry about writers being silenced or harassed. Writers should never be silent, or be silenced. That's why groups like PEN and programs like the writer-in-exile here in Edmonton are so important.
In Canada specifically, I think we're struggling to come to terms with the fact that English and French are not the only languages in which Canadian authors create. We have so many talented writers living here, working here, but when they write it is not in one of the official languages. They write in Cree and Ojibwe; in Kurdish, Spanish, Afrikaans, and Punjabi, to name only a few. But the literary establishment seems to ignore this fact and concentrates only on what is produced in English and French (sometimes). On the bus, I see people reading in Arabic, in Chinese, in Twi and Hausa and Swahili and Greek and Ukrainian and German. Comparatively, only a handful are reading in English. This is the nature of contemporary Canadian society, yet our writing and our publishing and our book sellers don't reflect this reality. These readers and writers have to balance living here while making their voices heard in, or drawing their inspiration from, other parts of the world. Grappling with the inexplicable push towards monolingualism in a multilingual, polyglot world is what infuses my own work.
7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think I started climbing onto that soapbox in the previous questions.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
This is a loaded question. I'm an editor. I can state unequivocally that working with an outside editor is always a sheer delight and a necessity.
Seriously, good editors should be cloned and bottled. They ask probing questions, they see possibilities you'd never imagined. I only have admiration for the work they do. Working with an editor has always been a worthwhile experience for me. I've learned so much from being on both sides of this relationship. Indispensable, really.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"Want to discover French literature? Then learn French!"
"Go learn your craft."
I'm still working on both pieces of advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Whatever you're writing, you're manipulating words to your purpose. Genre really doesn't matter. Children's picture books are the hardest and the most rewarding genre I've worked in. Getting the storyline to work, keeping the vocabulary appropriate to the age level, making of a point/points that will generate discussion (or critical thinking/analysis, if you wish), while making sure everything hangs together with the illustrations all in handful of pages with a strict word limit. So few do it really well, like David McKee does in Tusk Tusk. Such simple language, such complexity. Such power. Only 32 pages, with one or two lines of text per page. Talk about concision. I want to write that book!
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I get up somewhere between 5 and 6 in the morning, write, read, edit. Then it's off to the Press. In the evenings, I write if I have energy. Weekends and holidays, I get up early and spend a few hours doing writing before the rest of the family stirs. When a project is drawing to a close, it takes over. I've settled into a routine where I keep things boiling for most of the year making notes, writing short pieces, revising and then between Christmas and New Year, I let it all burst out and write for a few hours each day. Repeat until ready.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading. My children.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Where's home? I live between worlds.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I'm not sure I agree wholly with the opening statement. It's accurate at face value, but it's also a very Eurocentric premise that ignores the wealth of oral tradition and indigenous knowledge systems from around the world.
One of the strongest influences on my thinking has been Xhosa izibongo traditional oral praise poetry. It's so much more than "praising," it's a form of social criticism, it's part of a trickster tradition, it's impromptu word battles, it's honouring the ancestors.
Visual art is a strong stimulus. As is live theatre. I go and watch a play and find myself scribbling notes on the program before interval.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Where to begin? What to single out?
In no particular order and only what jumps off the top of my head... Pablo Neruda. Antjie Krog. André Brink. Etienne van Heerden. Multatuli's Max Havelaar. Paul van Ostaijen. Gerhard Walschap. Adrian Roland-Holst. Baudelaire. Arrabal. Genet. Paz. David Yali-Manisi. SEK Mqhayi. Herman Heijermans (love Op hoop van Zegen). Camus. Catullus. Dante. Virgil. Horace. Calvino. Fanon. Biko. Augustine.
And I haven't even gotten to English writers yet: Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Robert Kroetsch. Nadine Gordimer (her short stories in particular). David McKee. Lesley Beake. Diane Hofmeyr. Too many to list. These are just some of the ones I return to over and over.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Wouldn't you just love to know?
Snowboard. Ski. Skate. I've been in Canada for 11 years and I can't say I've done any of these things. Okay, I tried skating once, but I won't count the attempt among my successes in life. What I try to pass off as cross-country/Nordic skiing doesn't really count either. I do own my own skis, though. Do I get bonus points for that?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
This is like finishing school again and having to apply to university all over again! I don't know. Too many possibilities: Archaeologist, Baker, Cab Driver, Dendrologist, ..... Zookeeper.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Great? Hmm. I try hard not to lump books into such categories. It¹s a kiss of death for any book.
Enjoyed Book of Negroes. And AHM Scholtz's Vatmaar (translated into English as A Place Called Vatmaar). It's a sweeping saga about the people of Vatmaar, a fictional community in the Northern Cape region of South Africa. Takes the concept of a community novel to new heights. I'm busy with Arnon Grunberg's Tirza. It¹s gooood. No translation from the Dutch yet, I'm afraid. Perhaps that's my next project right there....
20 - What are you currently working on?
Too many things. A bunch of children's books, a novel, two poetry collections (one is a collaboration with Kobus Moolman, a South African poet.) And a travel book, A Truce Stranger than Fiction. It's about Namibian Independence. That¹s about all I can think of right now. Oh, there's still that translation from the previous questionS.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;