‘This could get messy’: a husband and wife’s tale

4 Aug 2016 - 13:45

The poignant and funny story ‘This Could Get Messy’ has secured top prize in the annual ‘Short.Sharp.Stories’ competition. This is the latest work of fiction from husband-and-wife writing duo Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus who go by the nom de plume ‘Greg Lazarus’. Greg is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at UCT and in addition, he co-teaches a Masters course in Creative Writing (offered by the Centre for Film and Media Studies). Lisa is a clinical psychologist, a freelance journalist and a writing teacher. They have won R20,000 from the National Arts Festival and the opportunity to participate in selected literary events for the duration of 2016.

The ‘Short Sharp Stories Award’ is an initiative of the National Arts Festival. It is the only regular collection of short fiction writing in South Africa and aims to showcase and support local writing talent. Each year, an anthology of selected stories is published with a different theme challenge set for writers, each competition. The 2016 comedic theme ‘Die Laughing’ attracted a significant number of competition entries. Twenty stories have since been selected for inclusion in the new ‘Die Laughing’ anthology, to be launched in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The highest award was for ‘This Could Get Messy,’ a story about what happens when a passionate and brilliant schoolgirl, with a confidential problem about love, meets a rather pompous philosopher of mathematics, a man with his own secrets. It was described by the NAF judges, Karabo Kgoleng, Karina Szczurek and Ken Barris, as ‘a simply wonderful story about love…funny, with its twists and turns, chuckles and sadness.’ Humanities News spoke to the couple about the inspiration behind their winning story:

HN: The NAF Writing competition theme aside (Die Laughing), what inspired you to tell this particular story?

GL: It's not easy to find the origins of stories, as we work on them for a long time and they change a lot. But we felt drawn to depict a passionate but eccentric teenager and a philosopher whose formal self-presentation and covert activities are at odds. We were hoping for poignancy and humour, and also wanted a character who takes mathematics and Islamic mysticism personally.

HN: Your previous novels (Paradise, When in Broad Daylight I Open my Eyes) seem to be more serious stories. Which writing genre do you find more enjoyable: mystery/ thriller or romantic comedy?

GL: A story or book settles into a style for us after a while, and then we develop it. Paradise was more humorous than the brooding Broad Daylight. Ideally, we like to blend styles, so that the reader is left with a more complex emotional response. Our initial work, The Book of Jacob, was a sort of gothic parenting memoir.

HN: Are the characters (in this latest short story) loosely modelled around yourselves?

GL: Haha! No. We do often draw on tiny bits of ourselves and other people, but this definitely isn't autobiography! We describe characters who intrigue us and whose interactions might cause sparks. The Book of Jacob, our first book, is autobiographical, but now we like to try to get inside the heads of people who might not be at all like us.

HN: What does winning this latest award mean to you both?

GL: It's so encouraging. Fiction writers need a lot of self-motivation, and this recognition is a wonderful boost. Also, we're honoured to be associated with the annual Short.Sharp.Stories Award, which has published many writers whose work we love, and with the National Arts Festival. We also hope that more people will now read the story. It’s exciting for writers to have people read their work.

HN: What would you say to inspire someone who is contemplating a literary career or their first attempt at a novel? 

GL: Here's some advice that's easy to give though hard to take (for us, too):

First draft: be open rather than murderously self-critical. Unexpected, interesting things emerge when you keep going, rather than working and reworking a single paragraph to your total satisfaction. Subsequent drafts: be willing to revise a manuscript many times until characters, themes, settings and structures emerge cleanly and compellingly. Decide on one or two readers whose insight you trust to look at your work. If you have too many readers, you will receive very conflicting and potentially confusing viewpoints. Too many cooks and all that... Lastly, try to finish something you’ve started. It’s often much easier to start something than to finish it. Of course, some brilliant books haven't been written in all these way. But they are good rules of thumb.

Previous works from these authors include: a memoir of parenting titled, The Book of Jacob (2009), and  as Greg Lazarus – the novels When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes (2012) and Paradise (2014), as well as several short stories selected for anthologies. The couple are currently working on their fourth book together.