10 Questions for Tony Eprile

Amal Zaman

“Song is of a squeaky quality, with little or no repetition.
It is a poor imitator.
Song is a series of evry high, thin, separate, slurred notes.
Call is slurred chewink.
Song, drink-your-tea…"
--from “Bird Song” which appears in the Winter 2016 issue (Volume 57, Issue 4).

Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written

When I was 17 and still quite new to America, I took a writing class in my college and wrote a short story called “Cough’s Tokoloshe.” Its protagonist, a little South African boy named Cough, became obsessed by the idea that he was haunted by a tokoloshe, the tiny demonic sprites feared by Zulus and other Nguni Africans. (Local people will often place the legs of their beds on top of bricks so as to be able to spot any tokoloshes hiding under the bed.) His tokoloshe becomes a metaphor for white South Africans’ many fears, as well as for the anxieties of childhood. Some years later, I gave a copy of the story to the visiting poet, Robert Hayden, and he invited me to come and talk to him, beginning an important friendship and mentorship in my life.

What other professions have you worked in?

Mostly teaching—everywhere from graduate schools to prisons. I’ve also done some reporting on politics, on food, and on politics and food. And lately I’ve been selling photographs to magazines, hoping to branch out into further reporting where I would both write and photograph for my articles.

What did you want to be when you were young?

A game ranger and a naturalist. I grew up in South Africa and spent as much of my time as possible in the outdoors, catching snakes and lizards, observing the animal life. I’m still very influenced by my love of the natural world and what it’s taught me about observation.

What inspired you to write this piece?

I was staying at an artist’s retreat on Norton Island in Maine, leafing through a copy of a birding guide, when I was struck by how anthropomorphic and creative the descriptions of bird sounds were. I started to see these descriptions—intended to be onomatopoeic—as more a projection of the birders’ emotions. And what if the sounds collected together presented the emotional landscape of a single voice?

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?

South Africa, always South Africa. Having been wrenched out of childhood there, I’ve held tightly onto its sights, sounds, feel.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?

Solitude is important to me, but I also like the solitude of a crowd. There is a local café, The Brown Cow, where I have a favorite window table and where I often go to write. People know me there, and sometimes they’ll get up and turn the table over to me as they know it’s my writing spot. The café also plays a pretty good selection of music, mostly international and blues or Motown.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?

I like to draw and paint, but I’m not very good at it. I’ve been getting more serious about photography lately, with a good number of pictures in magazines and several gallery exhibits. I could say I’m a professional photographer now, too, having been paid to do it, but I fear that my friends who are serious professional photographers would laugh at the thought.

What are you working on currently?

I’m writing a novel about WWII War Artists. It allows me to inhabit the visual imagination of a visual artist…or, at least, attempt to do so. I’ve also written a memoir about moving from South Africa to England. It needs a revision, but I hope to sell it along with the novel, when that’s done.

What are you reading right now?

I’m constantly reading. Two books for my novel: the Ullrich biography of Adolf Hitler, and a book of the correspondence and paintings of Edward Bawden, a war artist, which I picked up at the Imperial War Museum in London. I also recently started a short, quirky book by Maggie Nelson, Bluets, a philosophical treatise on the color blue. I’ve been dipping into Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City, as I’m fascinated by how differently different people look at the same things. I tend to read mysteries before bed, and have been reading Tana French’s The Trespasser. And I just finished Francesca Milandri’s excellent novel on the Alto Adige (or Südtirol) region of Italy, Eva Sleeps.

Tony Eprile is a photographer, amateur naturalist, and writer who lives in Bennington, Vermont. His novel The Persistence of Memory was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Koret Jewish Book prize. He completed a memoir about his family’s move from South Africa to England and is working on a novel. He teaches in Lesley University’s low-residency graduate program. Images are his own.