Novelist, Screenwriter & Musician
David Cornwell was born in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in 1985. He attended Kingswood College, where he was the Dux Scholar, and then Rhodes University, where he was awarded Academic Honours for a Bachelor of Arts with Distinctions in English Literature and Philosophy.
He began publishing stories while at university, with several appearing in US literary journals and magazines such as Quiddity International Literary Journal and The Chiron Review (a publication notable for giving Raymond Carver his debut).
In 2010, David enrolled in the University of Cape Town’s Masters in Creative Writing program, where his supervisor was Damon Galgut (winner of the 2021 Booker Prize). The collection of stories he produced, Yet Trouble Came, was awarded a Distinction by its examiners, Ivan Vladislavić and Jacob Polley, who called it “Impressive, interesting and fresh” (Vladislavić), and “a stunning work that marks what I hope is only the beginning of David Cornwell’s writing career” (Polley).
After the Creative Writing program, David began work on his debut novel and continued to publish stories, including “Fires” (Runner-Up in the inaugural SA Pen New Voices Award) and “Homecoming” (Winner of the SA Pen New Voices Nomination). During this period, David also began to write screenplays and, together with Jaco Minnaar, produced a short film, Tomorrow It’s Sunday, starring Brendon Daniels as a vengeful witness to a hit-and-run accident.
David’s first novel, Like it Matters, was published by Penguin Random House in 2016. A taut, tragic thriller about two recovering addicts in the tradition of his literary hero Denis Johnson, Like it Matters was longlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the 9mobile Award for Best African Fiction Debut. The novel was taught as an elective text by Wamuwi Mbao at the University of Stellenbosch and received widespread critical acclaim, including from US author Jay Parini and Gareth Langdon of Aerodrome, who said: “Like it Matters is magnificent in its scope, heart-wrenching in its depth, and beautifully elegant throughout. If you read nothing else from the South African canon this year, read this.”
After appearances at the Franschhoek Literary Festival (2016), Open Book Festival (2016) and Karoo Writers Festival (2017), David went on to write a stage play, White Elephant, a surreal drama directed by Philip Rademeyer and starring Bo Petersen and Danieyella Rodin as a mother and daughter duo struggling to come to terms with their declining social status. White Elephant played at Cape Town’s Alexander Bar, with the Cape Times calling it a “searing South African Gothic tale of privilege” in their four-star review.
While beginning work on his second novel, David continued to develop his screenwriting experience. His Afrikaans-language short film, Die Onderspit (co-written with Jaco Minnaar) – a 20-minute “zef krimi” set in Parow – was developed as part of KykNET’s Silwerskermfees festival program. He also co-wrote a screenplay with Damon Galgut during this period, a road trip comedy-drama tentatively titled Renata and June.
Between 2018 and 2021, while still working on the second novel, David co-wrote and co-produced his first feature film, an Afrikaans-language Gothic horror film called Pou (Peacock). This artful, atmospheric independent film – a “plaas gotiek” about a young woman who is forced to care for an apartheid-era patriarch on his isolated farm as he battles demons from his past – is currently enjoying a successful international festival run, including appearances at Idyllwild, Buffalo International Festival, the Winter Film Awards, Razor Reel (where it received a Special Mention in the Youngblood Awards) and SA Horror Fest (where it won Best Feature from a field of international and local submissions). The film is currently available to stream in Africa via Amazon Prime, and it has received positive press coverage locally and abroad, particularly from Leon van Nierop and Steven Aspeling, who called it “one of the best and most elegant horror dramas to come out of South Africa.” It also has the distinction of being the very first South African feature film to feature an Intimacy Coordinator, a role that has since become commonplace in the industry.
In 2021, David completed his second novel, Hell of a Country, a fictionalised retelling of the Scissors Murder – a famous true crime story from early 1970s South Africa. This novel, a pacy and poetic work told in the 3rd person from multiple points of view, represents an evolution in David’s style. With its focus on the meeting-point between political machinery and personal desire, the novel uses the true crime genre to tell a fresh and original story about the apartheid era.
Finally, alongside all this work, David is also a songwriter and musician who plays a variety of folk instruments. His musical partnership with real-life partner Danieyella Rodin stretches back to 2005, with the duo featuring in the folk-blues outfit Railway Sleeper, roots-rock band Sixgun Gospel and KRAAL, a guitar-driven rock band. The two have played festivals and venues around the country, most notably Synergy Live and the Cape Town Blues Festival, and they are currently working on an album of songs to be recorded as an acoustic duo.