Interview with South African Writer, Louis Greenberg

Photo Credit: Gareth Smit / aerodrome

Photo Credit: Gareth Smit / aerodrome

Brief Biography: 

Louis Greenberg is a freelance editor and writer. He was born in Johannesburg. He has edited mostly fiction for publishers including Random House Struik, Penguin and NB Publishers and some academic work for journals and institutions, and was an online tutor at the South African Writers’ College.

His published work includes a handful of photos, poems and short stories. His first novel, The Beggars’ Signwriters (Umuzi, 2006), was shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the 2007 University of Johannesburg Debut Prize. He compiled and edited Home Away(Zebra Press, 2010), a collaboration by 24 writers set in a single, global day. His second novel, Dark Windows, was published by Umuzi in 2014.

Under the name S.L. Grey, he co-writes horror-thrillers with Sarah Lotz, zombie queen of the south. Their first novel, The Mall, was published by Corvus in 2011. The Ward was released in 2012, and The New Girl in October 2013.

Geosi Gyasi: I want to apologize for asking a personal question. Are you white or coloured?

Louis Greenberg: Of course this is a sensitive question, especially in South Africa, where racial classification was a formal way of denying human rights to most of the country’s population. As it happens, I was classified white by the apartheid government and it is an essential fact of my history that I benefitted from better educational, social and civil infrastructure and from relative peace and stability growing up. That stated, as I wrote in my introduction to Home Away, a collection of stories by writers living in South Africa and away from home, I like to complicate the gross racial categories we were forced into and try to honour the unique, individual paths of everyone who has landed up in this country. For example, three of my grandparents were born outside South Africa and came to South Africa following various opportunities and escaping atrocities in Europe.

Geosi Gyasi: For how long have you been writing?

Louis Greenberg: I was always keen on writing at school. It was one of my favourite activities as far back as primary school, but I wasn’t confident that I was any good or had anything interesting to say until many years into my university career. I published my first poems and short stories in my early twenties, and my first novel only when I was thirty-three.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you manage your work as an editor and writer?

Louis Greenberg: Editing as a freelancer is an ideal way to earn a living while I write. I’m able to schedule my own time without wasting hours on a commute and staff meetings. Even when I take on a lot of editorial work, I manage to put aside a few hours or days here and there to keep my novels going.

Geosi Gyasi: Who edits your stories? Do you edit them yourself?

Louis Greenberg: I do try to get my work as polished as possible before submitting it, but I always need another editor to work with me after that. An external editor will always note errors, confusion and inconsistencies that you can’t see, and be able to balance a piece in a way writers can’t do themselves.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first fall in love with horror-thrillers?

Louis Greenberg: Although I was very afraid of the dark and suffered awful nightmares as a child and avoided horror movies, from the age of about ten I started reading Poe’s weird stories and then moved on to Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell crime novels. One of the first compositions I wrote at primary school was a half-page Poe-like horror story, and later my teachers even contacted my mother, concerned about my dark imagination. Writing and reading about fear, I realised later, was the beginning of a long process of trying to manage my own fear.

Geosi Gyasi: What prompted the use of the pseudonym S.L Grey? In other sense, what’s the difference between S.L Grey and Louis Greenberg?

Louis Greenberg: S.L. Grey is a collaboration between the fabulous writer Sarah Lotz and me. We have quite different and complementary skills and I think our collaboration is very rich for that. At first, Sarah was the plot and pace specialist, with an amazing ability to see the big picture of a plot and keep it gripping. I would come in with my deeply imagined character and mood and that way we’d work together. I think we’ve both become much more rounded writers by working together.

Geosi Gyasi: Your first novel, The Beggars’ Signwriters, was shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the 2007 University of Johannesburg Debut Prize. A lot of work must have gone into your debut?

Louis Greenberg: Funnily enough, without any pressure, without any sense of the industry, with little expectation of myself and no super-achieving writing friends and peers, I remember writing The Beggars’ Signwriters as a painless process. I wrote in my spare time, on weekends and evenings, just because I felt like it. The Beggars’ Signwriters was the second novel I had written after another that wasn’t published, and knowing that I could finish a novel-length piece must have given me extra confidence. It didn’t take more than six months to finish.

Geosi Gyasi: How much of your birthplace, Johannesburg, features in your stories?

Louis Greenberg: Johannesburg is central to both my published novels and is the location for the first three S.L. Grey novels. I’ve enjoyed using the city as a location, because the people and the scenery are so familiar to me. Lately, though, I’m challenging myself with different locations, which are invigorating and inspiring to write about, a little bit like going on holiday.

Geosi Gyasi: Your most recent book, ‘Dark Windows’ was published by Umuzi in April this year. In real life, do you think crime in Johannesburg could ever be cured?

Louis Greenberg: I have fantasies of some benign and overwhelming shift in our – Johannesburg, South African, global – politics and relationships that would strip greed and self–interest away and leave people in a better position. If humans spent as much time and money treating social inequity as they do on weapons and dirty energy and accumulation of wealth, we could solve all our social diseases tomorrow. Are people hard-wired to be greedy and self-interested, or is it just the way we’re encouraged to be by all our dominant political and religious systems? I don’t know, but part of my creative drive at the moment is imagining alternatives.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel your stories have political underpinnings?

Louis Greenberg: Despite my diatribe in the last answer, I am always drawn back to personal politics – the politics of individuals, what makes us unique and what connects us. I think if we can avoid ever becoming numbers, statistics, categories (to come back to your first question), we can remember each other’s humanity. The problem with macropolitics is that it tends to generalise people and when we concern ourselves with macropolitics, we tend to generalise ourselves and our reactions to others. I think writing novels – telling our individual and intimate stories – is a perfect vehicle to remind people of each other’s individuality and connectedness. This is why we should read fiction. And we shouldn’t allow people who don’t value or read fiction to govern us!

Geosi Gyasi: In relation to reading fiction, do you think there are enough readers in South Africa?

Louis Greenberg: No. Books are too expensive and are inaccessible to most South Africans. If we are to foster a culture of reading for pleasure and enlightenment, we need to invest a lot of money, time, care and political will into stocking school libraries and public libraries and then reaching keen readers where they are. There are some innovative projects on the go, like YoZa, which spreads short stories through cellphone networks; Paperight, which allows students to print their textbooks at their local copy shop; and Book Dash, through which groups of professional writers, designers and artists get together for no cost to make books for children. These are some of the great ideas that are breaking traditional constraints to literacy and a reading culture and they deserve the full backing of government.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you share with us your writing etiquette?

Louis Greenberg: I have a little office in a separate back room of my house. I work best in the morning and try to switch off the internet from about 8 a.m. to 12:30, when I go and collect my children from school. I either edit the bulk of the job I’m working on or try to write 1000 words or more in that time. The afternoon, then, is for planning the next day’s work and dealing with administration.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever look to other writers for inspiration?

Louis Greenberg: I’m quite a fussy reader, so when a book really grabs my imagination, it’s usually because it’s doing something interesting and new or is simply extraordinarily gripping. I know I can’t and wouldn’t want to emulate exactly what those writers are doing, but the experience of reading a great book encourages me to push my own boundaries and always try something different.


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