Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Two Dogs / Mercury

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Jo Stielau

15. Jo StielauJoanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Jo Stielau. Her story “Meat in the Crosshairs” was selected for inclusion in the anthology.

Jo Stielau is an English teacher at a well-known, independent boys’ school in Cape Town. She supplements her teaching income through non-fiction writing – textbook writing and corporate reports – and notes that she has yet to earn a cent from writing fiction. But “like an itch that must be scratched”, she continues to write fiction, and she is one of only two authors to appear in both the inaugural Short.Sharp.Stories collection and this one; her story A Dog Before Nine was featured in Bloody Satisfied in 2013. She lives with her son and other animals in suburbia.

Your story “The Meat in the Crosshairs” is cutting, acerbic. The humour can’t be denied. Can one consider this a Jo Steilau feature?

My stories are always autobiographical embellishments or else they are stories borrowed and stolen from friends. In life, whether with friends or strangers, I like to shock people – the more scandalous the story the better. I like to appear a model of respectability and tell shocking stories, especially if they are hilarious too. I don’t know why I do this. It feels harmless but I have noticed that it certainly has limited my invitations to dinners over the years! No-one has asked me to be a god-parent lately either (just saying). Truth be told, I don’t have much truck with “respectable” or “serious”. I like to kick them on the shins a bit.

And you find satisfaction doing this through the vehicle of the short story?

Short stories are fantastic vehicles to do the kicking – Short.Sharp. and shocking! I think it was Neil Gaiman who said “The short story is still like the novel’s wayward younger brother, we know that it’s not respectable – but I think that can also add to the glory of it.” I know he probably meant “not respectable” in terms of literary achievement but there is definitely shin-kicking implied in there somewhere!

“The Meat in the Crosshairs” is really a story of the aural tradition. Your protagonist “tells” her tale to a captive audience. Can you comment on this?

I took a two year course on Group Analytic Studies where I encountered group therapy for the first time. It was a course which changed my life and, having had no experience in any sort of therapy before, I suddenly realised the power of the “confessional” and the importance of self-reflection. It made me a better listener. It made me a better storyteller.

Of course, in such a group, one is privy to confessions and anecdotes which make the most glorious stories because, given the apparently confidential nature of the confession, the stories are raw. Raw in both ways: painful and, also, unadorned with respectability. The aural tradition plays a strong part here because, of course, they are just told and later revisited and retold but nothing is recorded in hard copy. This means they are flexible and like elastic can stretch to suit the context, the teller’s developing confidence and insights. The aural tradition allows for adaptation and evolution and sharing forward in ways more static storytelling cannot.

And in a sense story ‘telling’ allows us all to be voyeurs, isn’t that so?

I don’t know why it has become such a taboo thing. We are animals who watch and observe for social cues all the time. We are curious about each other. Surely it is not surprising, then, that we are drawn to do this and that there is pleasure in it – particularly when the subject matter is forbidden or dramatic. I think here of the public fascination with the private lives of others or even the rubber-necking that happens at the scenes of car accidents or the success of these dramatic police/ ER/ confessional reality television shows.

I am eternally grateful to the internet which allows us to be voyeurs in private and at leisure. We have all gone to places on our computers which we would not be proud to own in public, haven’t we? Who dares cast the first stone? If we read to know we are not alone, it is probably true to suggest that we also seek internet sites that speak to our private thoughts, fears and other peccadilloes. I like to notice how many hits there are to sites which I visited! I am not alone.

Indeed not! Yet sex writing is hotly debated, with some writers feeling that sex should remain ‘off the page’.

Sex is still such a taboo subject despite the fact that it is displayed so prominently in the media. In the public domain, sex is apparently the privilege of the attractive, the thin, the young, the socially mobile. I think fiction, through whatever medium, should start embracing sex and sensuality in broader ways. Ironically, the broader ways include the neglected, ‘ordinary’ ways. In private, beyond this limited media view, as if ashamed, visual porn sites and erotic writings have embraced other niches and even the ordinary-sounding ‘Amateur’ as a porn genre speaks to this. I would love to be a voyeur in a retirement centre! I bet that’s where some really interesting stuff goes down.

So what’s next? 

I don’t think I have it in me to sustain interest while writing down the lengthier plot of a novel. Can you imagine rereading all those edits over many pages! Perhaps because I am a raconteur and a gossip, I like to get to the point, to the punch line of the joke, to the juicy details. I am an impatient reader and an impatient listener.

I can only say this: I write what I hear and what I have experienced. I like non-fiction. The lives and experiences of others are so amazing to me that I see little point in ‘making up stuff’ to tell. The truth is wild enough. It is the oddest thing really, that writing about real people and real events has come to occupy a negative semantic space and we call it NON-fiction.

Thanks, Jo, we look forward to your next sharp and edgy tale, and hope in the meantime, that you don’t get sued for libel.

Adults OnlyBook details


Please register or log in to comment