Danila Botha is very good at titles. Her first book was Got No Secrets (Tightrope 2010), and her third, another collection called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known, will be out next September with Tightrope also. She's already at work on a graphic novel, The World is Dead and I am Full of Joy--and did I mention she has a small baby? Meanwhile, her first novel, Too Much on the Inside, was published this spring (Quattro). It's full of energy, enthusiasm, and compassion, like its author. When we met online and I was feeling especially pitiable, she was instantly offering to mail me flu remedies!
Danila seems to have bottled youth in this book, with its four narrators, Nicki, Dez, Lukas, and Marlize, all facing Toronto as relative newcomers trying to deal with their prior lives (It might have been titled The Way We Live Now, a la Trollope). As you'll see from the commentary below, these are powerful voices, fizzing and competing to be heard. Danila herself grew up in South Africa and moved to Toronto at 14, and her experience is part of the book's sincerity and strength.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the book? What made you pick Too Much on the Inside? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
The title was actually one of the first things that I was sure about. When I lived on Queen St, I heard a great song by the rapper Princess Superstar, (a collaboration with the singer Beth Orton) called "Untouchable Part Two" (*sorry, no video or online version available!). The words in the chorus are: “Sometimes I wear nothing on the outside / because there’s too much on the inside / the bouncer wouldn’t let me in /he said my emotions were to close to the skin / and sometimes a touch can feel like a cut / turn me off / turn it off.”
The concept fascinated me: of being unreadable, of showing absolutely no emotion or thought because of the incredible intensity of everything a person is thinking and feeling. Later, inspired by this I wrote the opening scene of the book, where Nicki talks with a certain weariness, about how much easier it is to listen to other people share their stories, and be a listener, rather than share her own.
I also created the character of Marlize, who has been through some of the worst things imaginable, but deals with them through meticulous (and probably unhealthy) compartmentalizing around this idea, too. With Dez and Lukas, I also liked the idea that they were capable of behaving very differently, and feeling very differently to they way they presented themselves on the surface.
I also read a great short story by Cathleen With, called "Marvellous Madam Mim," from her wonderful collection, Skids. There was this great line: “I have all this stuff welling up in me, and this stuff to say and I can’t get it out, it all seems so important. And then when it bunches up like that, up against my front teeth, itching to get out, I just get stuck. They don’t know I have too much to say, that’s why.” It really it reinforced in my mind that my original concept, and the title was the right fit for the book.
2. How did you start this book--an image, a word, a general idea?
I started seriously writing it when I was living in Halifax. I was taking a bus, and I started to this friendly guy from the Annapolis Valley, who told me a terrible story about his past. He was so affable, and warm- yet had assault charges from when he was a teenager, and wasn’t able to see his ex, and his daughter. It broke my heart, and I wanted to tell that story.
When I was living in Halifax, I quite inspired by the geographic beauty- being surrounded by water, the warmth and down to earthiness of the people, the food the arts and writing community.
I also missed Toronto - the multiculturalism, the endless possibilities, neighborhoods like Queen Street West, and Parkdale, Chinatown and Kensington, St Clair West - and I think a lot of that crept into the story. I think Queen Street was almost the fifth character in Too Much on the Inside.
In terms of South Africa, I’d always wanted to write about the social realities of it, the crime, rape, the AIDS rates. There are writers who have written about it with incredible skill, JM Coetzee, in Disgrace, for example, or Kevin Bloom in Ways of Staying. I do think that as a woman, one’s perspective and understanding of these things is different, and I felt like I really needed to try to write about it. I was also interested in what happens to people after they experience such terrible things. I was consumed with the question of how someone finds the strength and courage to keep living after being attacked, or losing family members.
I had also lived in Israel and wanted to explore some of the issues I’d observed- in terms of religion and cultural identity and nationalism and how messy and complicated those feelings are. I have a lot of friends from Brazil whose stories were fascinating (I have friends from all over the country, but Belo Horizonte sounded especially beautiful) and I really had a strong desire to explore the culture more.
3. Could you choose a piece of music to go with this book?
Wow, I love this question. I listened to a lot of great musicians and albums when I wrote the book. Can I make a whole soundtrack? :)
It started with the song "Doll Parts," by Hole. When I was doing the initial notes, and the first draft, I listened to Live Through This a lot, and that line, “I fake it so real / I am beyond fake” stood out in my mind.
Metric, I think, are a very Queen St band. I love all of their albums, but especially their first one, Grow Up and Blow Away. So many lines - “Hush don’t explain / when you water down my name” (from "White Gold," which I thought of a lot with Nicki) “I don’t want to die / living in a high rise” (from "Raw Sugar," which made me think of Lukas), and “Choose the highest bidder / was my answer when they told me I was up for sale” (from "Soft Rock Star," which made me think of Marlize). For some reason, I often listened to the Clash when I wrote Lukas’s scenes; I remember the supermarket scene actually being inspired by "Lost in the Supermarket."And for Dez, aside from some great Brazilian bands that my friends recommended, like Ovos Presley (and other bands he talks about liking), I listened to Everclear’s "Local God" (and the whole Romeo and Juliet soundtrack for the early days of his relationship with Marlize).
I also listened to every album by the singer/songwriter Simon Wilcox. Her lyrics are these perfectly succinct, emotionally precise pieces of poetry. In "Right Ride", from her Smart Function, she writes “I’ve got to go / I need to know /d id you love the right girl / and what are you going to do?” I listened to it as I wrote and edited the scene when Marlize finds out that Dez is married.
There were other things I listened to a lot, Nelly Furtado’s second album, Folklore, and K’naan’s The Dusty Philosopher. There’s just a lot of sounds and lyrics that make me think of the multiculturalism of Toronto and the immigrant experience.
The Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche is also a master at writing about relationships. I love his song "You Know So Well," so much: “There is one thing I know / it goes like this / when I’m down and out / it’s you I miss.”
When I wrote about Israel, I listened to two of my favourite albums from when I was a teenager: Berry Sacharof’s Negiot (his voice is as comforting as sliding into a warm bath) and Eviatar Banai’s Shirei Tiyul. For writing about South Africa, I listened mostly to the Brixton Moord en Roof Orkes, Chris Chameleon (his album Ek Herhaal Jou is just perfection) Buckfever Underground, and a bunch of kwaito mixes that a friend made me.
4. You have four main characters, Marlize, Nicki, Dez, and Lukas, all from different places and now living in Toronto. They're distinct voices, but they read as different facets of one person in a way. I'm interested in your thoughts on that.
What a great insight. I hadn’t thought of that, but I can see what you mean. I think we’re all capable of being a lot of different things, and sometimes it’s our life circumstances that bring certain qualities or reactions out of us.
A lot of Marlize’s guardedness, versus Nicki’s openness, say, is a result of circumstances (cultural norms, life events, choices, social expectations, etc) that were out of their control. They’re almost like two extremes, who together are a complete person. I know what you mean-it’s a really interesting observation.
5. Speaking of voices, how did you decide to include some dialogue in Portuguese, Afrikaans, and Hebrew?
I think it was important to include the languages. I wanted the character’s voices to seem as authentic as possible.
I speak Hebrew, for example. When I spoke to some people who were living there about their stories for my research, I did the interviews in the languages, and made all my original notes that way.
I remember being worried about getting translations exactly right, and the tone right. I chose the phrases that I think really give people a sense of the cultures, the humour, the world view - and then also some that didn’t translate as well, because I think that’s such an important part of learning a new language, and those kinds of struggles, when you so desperately need to express yourself, but the connotation or the meaning is momentarily unclear (the scene, for example,when Nicki says, "I have a clue," is really a direct translation from Hebrew. I could just imagine the intense frustration).
I also speak Afrikaans. I remember making my original notes in that language was helpful because it brought back references to places and names and ideas, which was important in thinking about Marlize’s childhood, for example.
For the Portuguese phrases, I relied completely on my friends from Brazil. They were of unbelievable help to me - they sent me lists of phrases and slang for every phrase I asked to be translated, and they were immensely helpful with regional slang and accent. I wanted Dez to really sound like a person from Belo Horizonte. (His use of the word "ouai," pronounced "why," for example, or his offering Marlize "a little coffee," is apparently very region-specific.) I can never thank my friends enough for pointing these things out, I never would have known about them.
6. Violence is a major part of several characters' lives. Do you think the book gives any answers on how to live with it?
That’s a great question. I felt it was very important to reflect the social realities of life as honestly and realistically as I could. I think in writing about South Africa, for example, or Israel, it’s impossible to avoid the issue of violence. The question of how to live with it was absolutely what I wanted to explore, more than anything.
The characters are all able, through sheer will, to keep moving, to keep pushing forward, travelling and studying and working and trying to connect with people. Towards the end of the book, Marlize tells Nicki that she feels that she simply has to try. I guess, on some level, I think that no matter what we experience, we have to keep going. Still, I find that compulsion and strength remarkable and inspiring. The women I interviewed from South Africa, who’ve been through similar things to Marlize, but are somehow still able to live their lives are incredible, as are women who’ve been through relationships like Nicki’s. I have more admiration for them than I can even express.
7. The book is episodic, moving through backstories, upheaval, and peace. As you wrote, did you have a sense of its general direction--where you wanted it to get to all along?
That’s such a cool way of describing it, thank you. I did have a sense of general direction, for sure - but because it takes place over a year, a lot was added in later. For example, I knew that Lukas and Nicki would be in an unhealthy relationship, but the physical violence made up the last scenes I wrote. The final closing scene with Nicki and Alon was the very last scene I wrote, at the encouragement of my great editor Sandra Kasturi.
8. The book is also very sexy in places, like Ayelet Tsabari's. Do you find sex scenes easy to write?
Wow, I love the comparison to Ayelet Tsabari, thanks! Her writing is really fantastic. The truth is, I think they’re so important, but I find it hard to make them literary, and not gratuitous for sure! They are fun to write (and they’re so necessary- they give you such an important sense of the relationship, and the connection between people and how they think of each other).
I read a lot of other people who do it well. Ayelet is great at it - and you know who else is fantastic? Russell Smith. I remember studying Girl Crazy to figure out how he did it so beautifully. Hanif Kureishi and Tamara Faith Berger are amazing at it too.
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.