Interview: Zirk van den Berg talks about I Wish, I Wish
Auckland writer Zirk van den Berg writes in both English and Afrikaans. He is a well-established, award-winning author in South Africa, less so in New Zealand, where he has been living since 1998. Here he published the highly regarded crime novel Nobody Dies (Random House, 2004) which has since been made into an Afrikaans movie and most recently I Wish, I Wish (Cuba Press, 2020). I Wish, I Wish has been shortlisted for the NZ Booklovers Fiction Awards 2021.
Tell us a little about your novel.
I Wish, I Wish is about a somewhat downtrodden mortician, Seb, who is visited by a dying boy and his single mother. Seb then comes to believe that he can make a wish that will come true. The dilemma for him is what to do with this wish, especially as various aspects of his life start to fall apart. What do you wish for if you only have one wish? What is most important to you?
It is a short, easy read that touches on existential matters.
Though originally written in English, my Afrikaans translation was published first and its fundamentally upbeat tone really struck a chord with South African readers. Last year, the book won three major awards over there: The W.A. Hofmeyr Prize for Fiction, the kykNET-Rapport Prize for Fiction and the kykNET-Rapport Prize for best filmable book. Afrikaans has 7.5 million first-language speakers and very active literature – more than 50 books were considered for these awards. That my little book won against such competition, including the novelist who has probably won the most Afrikaans literary awards ever, just blew me away.
I obviously hope that I Wish, I Wish would also resonate with some New Zealand readers.
What inspired you to write this book?
The idea just popped into my head like an egg, complete in itself, back in 2011 or so. That’s when I wrote the key scene with the boy visiting the funeral home. I recognised that it was a good idea and it would just not let me go, until I finally sat down and wrote the rest in 2017.
What research was involved?
I had an acquaintance who is a mortician and he let me into his world. That and a bit of online research did the trick. It’s not a very research heavy book. By contrast, I wrote this series set in the country of my birth, Namibia, when it was a German colony and for that I had to do heaps of research – even learning to read German, so I could understand the source material.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I try to devote my best hours – the morning – to writing fiction. I do that until about 10am and then switch to my day job as tender writer. You have to live.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Maybe that old Moody Blues song where they go: “I’m looking for someone to change my life, I’m looking for a miracle in my life.” Those lines always move me, and they fit with the story.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
If it’s done in New Zealand, Cliff Curtis. You might think he’s too handsome to be Seb, but have you seen The Dark Horse? That was a fantastic movie and one of the best acting performances you’ll see anywhere. If they do it in Hollywood, then Sam Rockwell as Seb. He can look a bit put-upon and bedraggled, as in Three Billboards. And a good actor too. If he hadn’t been too old now, I would have said Jim Caviezel, who has a very soulful air.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
I love the process of writing fiction – everything about it. For me, it is the ultimate and most meaningful form of playing. Once I got started, this was the easiest and quickest book I’ve ever written. Apart from the one scene I had written many years before, it was a matter of weeks from start to finish. I think four months after starting, I had already translated it into Afrikaans as well.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I never know quite when a book is finished. It’s not like in the movies where you type the last page and that’s it. You go back and rework, rework. The big day is when you send it to the publisher, at which point your elation is replaced by anxiety!
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
The Archipelago of Another Life by Andreï Makine. It is incredibly romantic and very modern at the same time. BTW, I almost inadvertently stole this book from Unity Books in Wellington, only realising outside that I had walked out without paying!
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I have two novels in the pipeline for publication in South Africa. One is the third book in my historical trilogy about a policeman in German Southwest-Africa in 1905. The other is a weird crime/sci-fi/horror hybrid. And I’m currently writing a fictitious memoir, supposedly by the manager of a rock star. So, all very different from I Wish, I Wish.