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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Barrie Sherwood

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

barrie-sherwood-pix

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Syntax is an endlessly entertaining, Tetris-like game that I never tire of playing, even when standing on the MRT. I love seeing how sentences come together with just a little nudge.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I don’t like superstition when it’s not confined to the quaint past or some jungle in Brazil, but on occasion I allow for its protection in this one instance: never discuss a work in progress.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Avoid cliché.

Who are your favorite authors?

Flaubert retains the yellow jersey, Patrick White and Nabokov are vying for second, and the rest are in a tightly-packed peloton. I appreciate writers who take risks, and sometimes fail. The same pen was responsible for Madame Bovary and Salammbo; I find that both frightening and confidence-inspiring.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

I wrote a novel about a North Korean defector. Only in writing it did I realize how much of a swindle the whole idea was. I did endless research, travelling, interviews, but it was no good. No matter what the depth of the writer’s imaginative investment or the extent of his research, the readers – who just purchased the book for $25.99 – have too clear an idea of how much the writer profits from the enterprise. Straight journalism – of which there is plenty if you look for it – is infinitely better than this kind of socially-aware fiction about, let’s say, the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide or 9/11. And you can’t Flaubert your way out of it. The better the writing, the deeper is your moral dilemma – that’s Sebald’s lesson. But of course the whole issue of appropriation of voice is passé, don’t you know. Those who say you can’t write about this or that are closing down the discussion. (Which is, of course, the writer’s own way of closing down the discussion.) I will say that no one else can make the decision for you. You have to trust in your own moral compass.

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