Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Not the Stranger in the Street

In South Africa, violence against women has its own particular shape and colour, and the killing of Reeva Steenkamp made it absolutely clear that no woman, no matter how privileged, can presume to be safe in her own home. South Africa has extremely high levels of violent crime – this is what we are known for 20 years after the end of Apartheid. However, the most lethal threat that women face is not the stranger in the street. It is not an armed and dangerous intruder – that figment of a paranoid imagining that Oscar Pistorius apparently feared so abjectly. It is the man she loves and lives with; a woman is killed by her intimate partner every eight hours in South Africa.

Margie Orford, writing in The Independent. Read the full article here.


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No More Sexy Corpses

I recently had a lovely interview with crime fiction aficionado and editor extraordinaire, Jonathan Amid of litnet.co.za. He asked great questions and I really enjoyed answering them. Here are the first two:

Charlotte, Balthasar’s Gift: A Maggie Cloete Mystery, is a terrific debut, one that strikes a neat balance between lively pacing and frenetic action and carefully considered social commentary. Why did you decide that the crime fiction genre was appropriate for the story you wanted to tell, one that returns to South Africa under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki?

Thanks for your kind words, Jonathan. I always knew that the first book I was going to write would deal with the way Thabo Mbeki’s presidency refused to face up to HIV/AIDS and thus consigned a generation of people to their death, not to mention depriving hundreds of thousands of children of the love and protection of their parents. It was and continues to be such an acute tragedy – and one which South African fiction writers have up to this point largely ignored.

The first draft was literary fiction, written from the points of view of Lindiwe, Sanet and Francois Bezuidenhout’s wife Samantha. The very bare bones of the story were laid down. Then, one dark and rainy night, as I drove my sleeping family home from Berlin, it dawned on me that the best way to tell the story was as crime fiction and that it needed to be told from the perspective of a journalist, who could both pursue the murderer and frame the story for the reader. That was the night that Maggie was born.

How did your previous experience in the field as a former journalist relate to or influence your approach in writing fiction? How did your research make the writing easier?

I was very happy to use my experience as a journalist in South Africa in the early 1990s to flesh out Maggie’s work life. I was a very impressionable 18-year-old when I first worked in a newsroom at The Natal Witness, and the newsroom politics, strife between the journalists, competition for headlines and bylines really struck me. I was quite starstruck by some of the journalists I worked with, especially the investigative reporters who, along with the photographers, seemed so tough and cool. I was such a novice, and the newsroom is a sink-or-swim environment, but so many of them kindly saved me from drowning.

There is a huge difference between writing news and writing fiction. Although I have always earned my living as a writer, I started writing Balthasar’s Gift only when I turned 39, because the idea of writing creatively was very scary. It took me many years to get up the courage to really commit to writing a novel.

My reading tends to err towards literary fiction, so I always imagined that I would write with great literary flourishes. It surprised me, as I churned out the drafts of Balthasar’s Gift, that my style was quite spare. One day, I hope to write literary fiction with long run-on sentences, deep metaphors and burning ideas.

I don’t think the research made my writing easier, but it helped with two things: getting the facts right and developing empathy both for people who have HIV/AIDS and for their carers.

Here’s the rest of the interview. Read Jonathan’s review of BG here.


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Am Reading

So I am writing, but there’s always time for reading. Here, in handy list form for ease of use, are my latest five-star books:

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love was a Marmite book. Some loved it, others hated it. I was amongst the lovers. But that aside, the raging success of E,P,L gave Gilbert the money and time to research and write The Signature of All Things, which is the book she was born to write. It is the big, bold, open-hearted story of Alma Whittaker, a nineteenth century botanist whose research takes her in the same direction as Charles Darwin’s. Gilbert says she was inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which the author writes historical fiction with a modern sensibility. This was exactly what I loved about Gilbert’s novel. I also loved it on sentence level. There was deep, deep sentence jealousy.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Lauren is a superbly talented South African writer. Her last couple of books have gone to auction at Frankfurt Book Fair and earned her huge advances. She is a genre-busting wild child, presently sporting pink hair. Her latest is set in Detroit and focuses on the efforts of a female detective to find a serial killer. What starts as a crime novel spirals into a deftly managed horror story. It is vast in imagination and bold in its reflection of the twenty-first century sensibility, replete (in a good way) with Facebook posts, Reddit conversations and journalists manipulating the Internet for cheap fame. Stephen King should look to his laurels.

Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

Loved this. Marx’s big-hearted youngest child got most of her schooling at her father’s feet, and grew up to be a tireless trade unionist, journalist, writer and campaigner before committing suicide in her forties. She forced the suffragettes to consider working women in their campaigns, forced British trade unionism to be more international and fought on every side for workers’ rights. She is a fascinating human being and Holmes does a great job bringing her to life. If we’re talking modern sensibility, then Tussy (as was her nickname) was the epitome of this with her absolute refusal to countenance the mores of her time.

All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

I am an unabased Toews fan. I love everything she writes, mostly because no matter how tragic the subject matter, it is always thread through with dark dark humour. The same goes for her latest novel, about two sisters, emotional refugees from the Canadian Mennonites, who have gone on to make their lives outside the sect – Elfrieda as a concert pianist, and Yolanda as a messed-up normal person. Most of the story is told at Elfrieda’s bedside in a mental institution where she is recovering from her latest suicide attempt and contemplating her next. Witty, tragic, beautiful. This book is hard not to love.

 

 


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Moving On

So my little book is out in the world, and is doing a good job of gathering some reviews. The best reviews, however, are the emails and Facebook messages I get from readers, telling me they love the book and that they love Maggie. Maggie is a difficult character as she is obstreperous and bull-headed. However, she has a much-hidden and well-covered soft centre, and this becomes evident during the course of the story.

I am not moving on from Maggie.

I am moving on from marketing Balthasar’s Gift as my main literary activity. My new literary activity is writing book two – the next in the Maggie series. It is called Karkloof Blue, after a rare and threatened butterfly, and it is an eco-conspiracy. What has changed since I wrote the (many) early drafts of BG is that I now work full-time and squeezing writing into the cracks between my job, my family and the friends I can’t resist seeing is hard.

However, hard doesn’t get books written.

So, since July 1, I’ve been getting up at dawn to write for two hours. Actually it’s pre-dawn. 4.30 am. The skies are still dark and only the bravest bird has started mentioning breakfast. By the time I finish, and head downstairs to wake my family at 6.30am, the skies have lightened and a cacophony of birds are discussing their first meal.

I try to write 1,000 words every morning. It doesn’t always work, but we’re getting there, Maggie and I.


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The Big Book Launch Tour

Just back from South Africa, where I took Balthasar’s Gift to four cities and got to celebrate its launch with a lot of special people in wonderful book shops around the country. I was also honoured at each event to have a great co-host join me on stage (or in comfortable arm-chairs and once, a red leather sofa) and ask me questions about crime fiction in general and Balthasar’s Gift in particular. I’ve been alone with this book for many years, so I was more than happy to talk and talk and talk. Many people bought books, so I was happy to also sign and sign and sign.

Much of it has melted into a happy blur, but here’s what I can remember from each launch:

Pietermaritzburg

The event was held at Cafe Tatham, a beautiful cafe adjacent to the city art gallery. High ceilings, wonderful purple walls. The book 10452881_10152201793812424_2697434667311636703_oarrived in the nick of time, thanks to bookseller extraordinaire Cheryl Naidoo who talked FedEx in from Durban. Friends and family poured in (including two school friends, and one school teacher of mine) and the cafe was soon full of people talking and drinking wine. I sat on the red sofa with Cheryl Stobie, who is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (and my former Grade 6 teacher). She asked me if writing the book had turned me into a better version of myself (yes and no), which of the characters I would like to have dinner with (Aslan and Maggie), which parts of the book were hardest to write (scenes involving children; at this point I cried),  and the role of the journalist in society (observer versus activist).

Durban

On to Durbs, where my co-host was William Saunderson-Meyer, journalist, author of the much-syndicated Jaundiced Eye column 10446258_10152213847877424_6315109870788985504_oand crime fiction aficionado. The event was held at Adams Books in the Musgrave Centre, and manager Cedric Sissing gave us a lovely intro. The bookshop was packed – and I was touched again to see faces of school friends and people who I hadn’t seen for years. William and I talked about the role of crime fiction as a political reflection of society, my own political journey and how that was mirrored in the novel, how distance made it easier not harder for me to write the book and my route to publication. He wanted to know what the hell feminist crime fiction was and I attempted to explain. William put it out there that that the brandy-soaked Boer is a bit of a tired stereotype, and my riposte was that German audiences had no beef with Boer but were not crazy about the arts reporter.

 

Cape Town

Cape Town is special, even if I diss it a little in the novel. Special for me because I studied there and special because it is filled with some of my favourite people in the whole world. My co-host was the TV director and novelist Sam Wilson, who is awesome and also my cousin (no link between his awesomeness and our shared genes – he just is). Sam and I talked about Pietermaritzburg being a character in the novel, about how Maggie is a female James Bond, how I researched the AIDS topic and whether there is a book two10406458_10152530265159680_225241871486428441_n featuring Maggie (there is). We competed with the State of the Nation address, happening at the same time about 300 metres away in Parliament, and despite this, there was a goodly crowd. A couple of cops wandered in with their walkie-talkies on, adding an air of authenticity. The Book Lounge put on a fabulous spread – pity I didn’t get around to trying to their biltong, feta and rocket sandwiches. As with the other two events, we sold nearly all the books.

Joburg

The last event was in Johannesburg, held at Love Books in Melville. Like the Book Lounge and Adams, this is a wonderful shop, with thoughtfully chosen books and comfy armchairs where you could while away hours. The owner Kate Rogan gave us a lovely intro, and then my fellow Modjaji writer and author of the Trinity Luhabe series, Fiona Snyckers, asked some perceptive questions about Maggie and about the role of the journalist in society. It was a very cold, wintry Joburg evening and I was so touched and thrilled that so many people turned up. I saw colleagues from my Joburg working days, family (my children are quite bewildered by the number people with whom they share a gene pool) and friends new and old.

In between the four events, I also did a couple of press interviews, appeared live on radio twice and did some signings. The whole experience was amazing, and now I need to get working on Book Two so that I can go back and do it all again.

 


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Things Have Gone a Bit Meta

There is nothing quite as exciting as a newspaper article about your forthcoming book launch in your hometown newspaper. It is even more exciting when it’s the newspaper that you trained on as a junior journalist many years ago. And trebly so when the newspaper you write about in your novel is ever-so-loosely based on your hometown paper.

See here:

witness


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And … To Print We Go

Balthasar’s Gift in English is about to become a real thing. I have been working on this baby since 2008, had the joy of seeing it go to print in German last year, and now in June 2014, it becomes an English novel, with my name on it, that can be bought in shops.

I feel hysterical. And giddy. And grateful. And quite weepy.

I have so many thank yous. There are people who have encouraged me to write since I held a stub of pencil in my chubby fist. I think of my grandmother Elise Cooper, who bought me my first copy of The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook when I was nine, and to whom I dedicate Balthasar’s Gift. My mother, Toni Jubber, who named me in honour of two famous writers, because she believed the baby in her belly would be one too. A couple of teachers, Cheryl Stobie and Colleen Irvine, who gave me stars and asked for more. My school friends, Dani Cohen and Kerry Hancock, who read my words, even the crappy teenage dirge stuff, and told me to carry on. Thank you to all of you.

balthasar cover_lowresThen there were the wilderness years. The only writing that I did was university essays, journals and journalism. Even though I didn’t write creatively, I always gravitated to storytellers and book freaks (among these, one Isa-Lee Jacobson and one Georgia Dunning Morris). I managed to find jobs that involved writing, so that I could still call myself a writer. However, I put in my ten thousand hours, and am grateful to all the teachers who helped me learn to write leaner and cleaner. Thank you to you.

When I took the plunge in 2008, and started writing again for real, the teachers flocked in. A whole flood of amazing people off the Internet presented themselves as guides and mentors. Their feedback was rough, sometimes brutal, and I had to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, but it toughened me up. This was a necessary lesson, because getting published is freaking hard and there is no room for delicate flowers. I still talk to these people on a forum and though I have not met one single soul in real life, they are all as real to me as if they were standing here next to me. For talking tough and teaching me everything, I thank all of you.

I thank those of you who have supported my blog since 2006 and shared your words of wisdom and encouragement with me. Thanks to Lia Hadley, who jumped out of the Internet and became a real life friend, and a real life midwife to Balthasar’s Gift. Thank you for the hours you dedicated to reading, your ideas and your very firm adherence to timelines and facts. I also need to thank Rebecca Servadio, who told me to get the book the hell out of the first person. (Glad I listened to her.)

In the acknowledgements to Balthasar’s Gift, I thank three people in the publishing industry who saw a spark in Maggie and decided to take a risk on her and me. Thank you to Michaela Roell, Else Laudan and Colleen Higgs – and the amazing teams that stand behind you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

A very special thanks to my dear friend Angela Briggs, whose beautiful painting forms the cover of the novel. Thank you to you.

I have a ton of cheerleaders; friends, colleagues and family whose job it is to say ‘Just keep going! You can do it!’. The leader of this motley crew is my husband, Thomas Otter, ably supported by my children, all of whom provide huge draughts of enthusiasm about what I do. How lucky I am to have each and every one of you. Thank you.

I am also grateful to Maggie and Balthasar and Lindiwe and Mbali and Sanet and Spike and Ed and Zacharius and Aslan and Cora and Nkosazana. You take your own journey now, independent of me. Thank you for filling my head with your conversations and obsessions and craziness for all these years. I release you to inflict these on the world. Goodbye and good luck!

 

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