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Short Sharp Stories

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Die Laughing Teaser: Q&A with Charles Kusner

Charles KusnerCharles Kusner was born on a Sunday in glamorous Randfontein. After reading Applied Psychology and English at Wits, he taught in a number of Johannesburg high schools. Following a brief foray in the restaurant industry, he relocated to Durban to complete his Masters degree in education at The University of KwaZulu-Natal and now teaches at The Kenmont School on the Bluff. He has written a collection of cheesy pick-up poems and a derivative autobiographical novel (both self-published) as well as a radio play Mr O. Goes Down. His passion is the theatre, and after completing his current project, The Turmeric Diet: The Yellow Moon Wellness Cycle, he intends to devote his creative impulses to scripting thespian projects. Besides Sondheim and Cole Porter, he loves Chopin, Pet Shop Boys, Chagall, Pongracz, Las Vegas, all shades of blue, biltong, yellow cling peaches, and coffee. His personality is borderline shy-wild. His favourite writer is Tom Robbins, and he aspires towards a similarly anarchic comedy style with an added South African braai smell. He is also an ardent Hellenophile and soapmaker.

 

 

 

What is your take on humour SA- style?

There’s something intangible about SA humour.  It’s somehow summed up in this exchange, which could be between just about any two randomly selected citizens, irrespective of blah blah:

X (wistfully): Oh, I see petrol’s gone up.

Y: Yes, they’re extending at Nkandla. (Both smile)

It’s about stuff that only we would know about, which is true of any country, but we have all that added racial seasoning. Trevor Noah has this joke: the white guy arrives at the petrol station in his Toyota and asks the attendant to fill it up. The black guy arrives in his BMW and wants petrol for R50.

 

Your DIE LAUGHING story, ‘Hey! Dick Dehydrates Jane!’, starts with protagonist, Pieter Pogenpoel, in a toestand once again. He is trying to pick up a chick in a bar at Sun City. Why the (inspired) setting of Sun City?

Having our own version of Las Vegas hidden in the bush in an ex-homeland (Did we really once have Lucas Mangope International Airport?) holds enormous creative possibilities. Imagine Oceans 13, in which intrepid criminals rob the resort and use their stolen millions to open a Spaza Shop in Hartebeespoort!

In my story, the setting derives from a strange joke I shared with my varsity buddy David Gough in which a big butch woman brings her enormous Chevrolet to a screeching halt on the side of the road in (then) Bophutatswana and, removing her sunglasses, demands in a loud Afrikaans bark of the nearest timid mielie-seller: “Where’s Sun City?”

Indeed, the character Moeky is derived from the same Chev driver and (seeing as she has a chilli biltong farm in North-West and Poepy lives in Rustenburg), Sun City seemed like an exotic locale for them to hook up.

In my original draft, Moeky and Poepy paraglided at the Sun City Lake. This was based on an uncharacteristically brave afternoon of my own soaring over the water during four days I spent in a complimentary room at the Cabanas in exchange for instructing one daily lunchtime Aqua Aerobics class at the poolside. This alone is bizarre enough to merit a story on its own, added to the event that my time there coincided with a Sun International strike, and while no-one was really interesting in prancing around in the pool to lose tummy fat, I found myself volunteering to help clear the dishes after breakfast.

In any event, my friend Michelle Viljoen, the only person to proofread my story before I submitted it, felt that paragliding was perhaps too effete an activity to satisfy Moeky, and suggested that Quad Biking would appeal to her more. I Googled to check that Sun City offers this sport that both Moeky and Poepy enjoyed in the story but that I myself would rather avoid at all costs.

 

Pieter, nick-named Poepy by his mother on account of his delayed mastery of potty training, is a stiff-upper-lip rooinek. His love interest, Mougardia Van Tonder — a composite of Moulien and Gertruida (such is the South African way) — is a rough and tumble Afrikaner.  Which was more satisfying for you… creating the over the top characters? Or playing with language?

Both were fun, but I think that, in the end, I derived more satisfaction from the word play, mainly the pun at the end. I also had fun creating Mougardia’s name, which was partly inspired by buildings I saw in Pretoria years ago — with these strange names that were trying to sound French or Italian but sounded quite funny when spoken in a ‘posh’ Afrikaans voice: “Op u linkerkant is die beeldskone Mougardia gebou.”

 

Indeed, the prose is peppered with allusions to classic as well as contemporary novels and songs. The underlying thread –  as Poepy’s cranium in overdrive thinks often of language (as a means of overcoming anxiety) – deals with a general dumbing down in language. Do you agree? Tell us more about the ‘versatile’ word ‘hey’?

Our language is dumbing down. I don’t want to blame it on “Hey”, which has been around long before social media. As a writing instructor I suggest watching movies from the 1930s and 40s to stimulate grace, wit and style when writing a screenplay, elements missing in contemporary works. Here is a cause for which we must fight, and this is what gives me meaning in my daily work as an English teacher.

I am currently researching for a cabaret based on the work of Noël Coward, (the working title is the intriguing Noëlulu.) I am inspired by him to help us rediscover that crisp, sophisticated, articulate wit that we seem to have allowed to become hidden at the bottom of the socks drawer, hey.

 

Poepy (or is it you?) is clearly a fan of the Limerick. One of his limericks is shared here:

Da Vinci, by nature a loner,

took delight in sketching old Mona.

His pen took a tour

of her eyes so azure.

And her smile gave old Leo a boner!

 

Is this a form you, the writer, practise?

The limericks were the Genesis of my story.

I love limericks and write them frequently, usually SMSing them to my best friend Laurien, which is what I’d done with these four limericks about artists. I toyed with the idea of writing more to produce an Art History of the World in Limericks, but then I thought they’d produce a good backbone in a story intended to elicit laughter.

I am distressed that the teenagers I know are completely unaware of limericks. I hereby pledge myself to their preservation and commit myself to sharing my own limericks on social media instead of only with my best friend.

 

Going back to Poepy and Moeky. Are they alter-egos of sorts?

I guess Poepy is left brain, and Moeky is right.

Poepy is yin, and Moeky is yang.

Poepy is Apollo, and Moeky is Dionysos.

Poepy is Prospero, and Moeky is Caliban.

Poepy is Superego, and Moeky is Id.

 

And how did the title, ‘Hey! Dick Dehydrates Jane!’ arise?

My working title was ‘Sweaty Poepy’s Trip to Sun City’ and I couldn’t find anything better until just before submission.

Michelle suggested that I include the pun from the last line of the story, but I wanted to keep that as a surprise. She suggested including the all-important “Hey”.

Then I remembered the (1977!) movie Fun with Dick and Jane (reminiscent of reading with “Janet and John”) and played with this to sum up the death of Poepy’s Inner Jane Austen. This is catalyzed by either Poepy’s mother’s passing (the Spotted Dick pudding) or by Poepy’s finally losing his virginity.

 

Your story certainly has dramatic flair! Does your theatre work influence your writing? 

The term ‘dramatic flair’ is a great compliment. I myself have trod the boards a little, but my words have not yet done so. Watch this space.

In just about everything I write, though, I think in three-act structure which, in my head, is all mixed up with Sonata Form: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation. What is the Big Finish in each act?

The short story, though, is more like a one act play, another dying form that we should try to get back in vogue.

 

Why choose the short story as genre?

The short story is the amuse-bouche of literature. Both writers and chefs enjoy the challenge of creating something delicate and dainty, something that stimulates the senses in a wonderful explosion, like live theatre or popping candy. It leaves a memorable after-taste and then is gone forever, as transient as life itself.

 

What writing (or story-telling tips) advice would you offer your students?

Focus on your sincere story. Don’t sermonize. Try not to wobble.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 9.00.45 AMBook Details:
Editor Joanne Hichens
Foreword Evita Bezuidenhout
ISBN / EAN 9780994680518
Publication date July 2016
Buy the book here!

 

 

 

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