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

Incredible Journey Teaser: Q&A with Stephen Symons



Stephen Symons is one of the 20 contributors to this year’s Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, Incredible Journey, with his story ‘Red Dust’. He is a lecturer, graphic designer and poet. His poetry and writing have been published in journals, magazines and various anthologies. He holds a masters in Creative Writing from UCT and is currently working on a PhD in African Studies that focuses of the experiences of ex-SADF conscripts.


You decided to set your story in the future in a dystopian society – why? How did the story evolve?
Red Dust is set some years in the future, in a South Africa that is slipping into irreversible oblivion. The slippage is the product of issues relating to land, ineffectual governance and avarice.


Red Dust grew from a short story that I’d written in a Creative Writing seminar at UCT. The initial story sparked a spirited response from colleagues so I thought the plot was worthy of further development. Although I remained faithful to the original structure, subsequent incarnations included the introduction of characters such as Billabong and Johan’s wife, Hestia. They formed sub-texts that I hoped would pique the reader’s interest and deepen the intrigue of the story.


In your bio you mentioned that the people of South Africa are bound to a “precarious future” – what did you mean by that?
South African history, both current and past, remains intimately connected to issues of land ownership. I think the very nature of those tenuous connections inevitably binds us to a variety of “precarious futures”.


Dystopian novels seem to be all the rage these days – why do you think that is?
I’m not actually a fan of dystopian novels, despite the imaginative and even visceral appeal of the scenarios they present. I think our fascination with these daunting futures is really an attempt to examine how human beings would respond and adapt to those scenarios. That is the lure in my work, at least. I think dystopian novels are in some instances vaguely prophetic – perhaps an attempt by writers at tempting fate? Two examples that spring to mind are Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973) and even aspects of Orwell’s 1984 (1949).


What does this year’s topic, the ‘incredible journey’, mean to you?
We’re told that the journey is more important than the destination, yet what I find fascinating is how individuals react to the process of the journey. In that respect, ‘Red Dust’ actually focuses on incredible individual reactions to a series of forced journeys.


Describe your fiction writing process. Is it disciplined and 9-5pm or do you need to be in the mood?
I think the urge to write doesn’t keep business hours, so you need to write when you feel the “creative juices are flowing”. I have a full-time job and a family, so I often have to seek out those precious moments of peace; early morning or late at night, generally when the rest of the house is asleep. I would say that’s when I’m most productive.


You’re a poet and you write short stories – what’s the main difference in the writing process?
I believe that poetry and short stories, even prose in general, ultimately serve the same pleasure centres in our brains. Short stories and specifically poetry rely on condensed meaning despite obvious formal differences, yet more recently I’ve been blurring those boundaries via narrative prose poems. There are of course other overlapping categories relying on extreme brevity, such as flash fiction, but I guess flash fiction is stripped of the lyricism of prose poetry. The Pulitzer Prize winning collection 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri exemplifies that blurring and even shifting of the boundaries between the two disciplines of poetry and the short story. It’s certainly worthy of further investigation.

What short story writing tip can you share?
I spent two years writing short stories during the course of my MA, and despite the advice and numerous tips of visiting authors I subsequently realised that the best path for any writer is to persevere and simply continue to write, and of course read widely.

Do you believe you have a role in promoting South Africans’ interest in reading?
We live in a society of tweets and truncated communication, but it’s encouraging when a reader comments on something I have written, particularly if it’s poetry. I believe the real challenge lies in cultivating a nation of active readers. I would add that producing engaging and challenging writing is the writer’s primary role in promoting South Africans’ interest in reading. Naturally, education is a skeleton key of sorts, so it’s always gratifying to be part of a venture that educates, promotes and presents new voices to the South African reading public.


What can we expect from you next?

Presently, my primary focus is on my doctoral thesis in African Studies and writing poetry. I’m hoping to find a local publisher for a poetry manuscript. Sadly, local custodianship for male English speaking poets remains rather limited. I’m also looking at publishing a collection of poetry in the US, where my collection Spioenkop was nominated as a semi-finalist for the Hudson Prize for Poetry.


Interview by Liz Sarant


incredible journey cover copy

Book details:

Incredible Journey: Stories that move you edited by Joanne Hichens
Book homepage
EAN: 9781928230182
Find this book with BOOK Finder!


Please register or log in to comment