It was shortly after 10am on Wednesday morning, and Diane Awerbuck was seated in the basement of Cape Town’s Book Lounge, typing away. Intermittently there would be a pause in typing, and a period of staring into space, but in general she had the relaxed demeanour of someone composing an email to a friend.
That’s probably why two people, carrying coffee, asked if she’d mind if they shared her table. “Of course,” the author of the Commonwealth Prize-winning novel Gardening at Night answered politely. The pair proceeded to conduct a business meeting while Awerbuck typed away, unflustered.
Awerbuck was actually engaged in crafting the first part of a short story and hoping to win an international competition. She was kicking off the Cape Town leg of the Chain Story Challenge, as part of a team that included Greg Lazarus, Sarah Lotz and Byron Loker. At the same time that she sat down to start writing, three other teams were doing likewise. Johannesburg saw the likes of Fiona Snyckers and Henrietta Rose-Innes writing from Love Books; England’s Comma Press team brought together Stella Duffy, Tony White and Calum Kerr, to name a few; and the Sextet Pen team saw the African continent represented by writers from Nigeria (Emmanuel Iduma and three others), Uganda (Brian Bwesigye) and Zimbabwe (Novuyo Rose Tshuma). There was also a team specialising in Young Adult content.
Each writer had one hour in which to produce as much or as little fictional content as they desired. After each deadline expired, the baton was passed to the next writer to continue the story, with each section being uploaded to team blogs as soon as they were complete. The public would vote for their favourite stories as each unfolded.
This was all happening because Wednesday was Short Story Day, an initiative launched by UK publishers in 2010 to foster a wider audience for short fiction. Last year Short Story Day fell on 21 December – chosen because it is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. This year, however, it was the turn of the south – hence the day’s positioning mid-year.
The energy behind the Chain Gang Challenge is author Rachel Zadok, whose critically acclaimed debut novel, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, was published in 2005. Zadok approached Cape Town’s Book Lounge last year with the notion of an event to mark Short Story Day, and Book Lounge manager Johan Hugo came up with the idea of the writing challenge.
“We wanted to try to find something a bit out of the ordinary, to give writing a public face,” Hugo told the Daily Maverick. And public it is: throughout the day anyone could pop in to the bookshop to see the writers beavering away at their collaborative short story.
“Last year we had about nine teams, including amateur teams,” explained Zadok. “This year we don’t have any amateurs. I think they were all scared off by our line-up of published authors.” Zadok selected authors to participate by simple dint of asking around. “I asked writers who might be game, who are generally willing to put themselves in the public eye,” she said. “The ones who agreed are all up for a bit of a laugh. I popped in on them earlier to see how it was going and it was total mayhem.”
Zadok explained that the motivation behind the event, besides publicising Short Story Day, was also to gain greater exposure for South African and African writers. “Obviously the UK team of writers has a far larger audience, so the idea is that our writers will benefit from that.” She believes that short stories are an ideal way to lure in both readers and writers.
“Short stories are perfect for aspiring writers who may not be able or ready to tackle a whole novel, and you can share them in a way that you can’t a novel – in 20 minutes you can read each other a short story, for instance,” Zadok said. And writing more leads to reading more, she hopes.
“In South Africa, where there’s not a vast readership, the more you understand that you can have a writer’s voice of your own, the more you’re likely to read.”
For Zadok, the best short stories have what she calls a “gasp factor”: the moment at the end of a story when the reader can see the plot coming together. The king of the short story plot twist is generally hailed as the American writer O. Henry (1862 – 1910) who is famed for his stories’ surprise endings. Edgar Allan Poe, himself no slouch at short fiction, thought the key was consistency: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it,” he opined. Herman Charles Bosman’s narrator Oom Schalk Lourens held that the most important thing was “to know what part of the story to leave out”.
Whatever the recipe, each team used very different ingredients. Zadok started each team off with a different line picked at random from the work of another short story master, Raymond Carver. When Awerbuck sat down in front of the computer, she was confronted with “The next morning, when the alarm went off, he wanted to keep” – as the line upon which she had to build her story. Snyckers was required to kick things off by completing the fragment “I was in my room one night when I heard”.
The stories unfurled in distinctly varied directions. The Cape Town team’s effort emerged as a dark comedy. Johannesburg’s Love Books team took the story into a dystopian future. Comma Press, in the UK, covered the place where crime and personal relationships intersect. The pan-African Sextet Pen team’s effort played on a daughter’s betrayal by her mother.
When Awerbuck’s time was up, she turned over the computer to the husband-and-wife team who write under the pen name of Greg Lazarus. They sat on the couch reading Awerbuck’s contribution, which they were due to build on, and discussing it together. “We could have a lot of fun with that,” said one, pointing to a line.
Awerbuck described the experience as “fun. Better than working,” though she did say initially that writing in public in that way was a little disconcerting. She was carrying the proofs to her next novel, due out in September. What’s it about? “Satanists in Fish Hoek,” she replied succinctly.
Snyckers was also upbeat about the initiative. “It was my second Short Story Day challenge and I found it well organised as ever,” she told the Daily Maverick. “The writing experience is one part adrenaline and two parts trust, as you hand your characters over to the next writer in your team.”
Voting for the best story was to end at midnight on Wednesday. At the time of writing it looked likely that the UK team might take it, purely by virtue of having a greater following. But the question of who wins is one of the least important aspects of the day – and besides which, there’s always next year. As the recently deceased Ray Bradbury once suggested as advice to novice writers: “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” DM
Photo by En Bouton http://www.flickr.com/photos/alice-howlett/
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