Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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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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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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The Politics of Crime

When one of my beta readers was reading an early draft of Balthasar’s Gift, she wrote a series of notes in the margins, asking why I was not dealing with the issue of race in South Africa. “Your novel is set in 2000, shortly after the birth of South Africa’s democracy – I want to know what this means for the characters. What does it mean for a white journalist to report to a black editor? What does it mean that her best friend is Indian? How can a black boy go to a white private school?”

As she progressed through the novel, her marginalia changed. “Okay, I see what you doing. You are not planning to explain it all. You are leaving it to the reader to deduce. Hmmm, I was hoping for more.”

All novels set in South Africa, crime fiction or not, are about race, just as all novels set in the USA are about the American dream, while all novels in set in England are about class. Race is our ur-story. It is there, written into everything we write.

There was no need for me to ploddingly point to race issues in the novel, in order to satisfy a European audience. No need for me to explain.

However there were other issues I wanted to address.

I am a huge fan of crime fiction. But I am also sick to death of one particular crime trope. Next time you are in a bookshop, do this exercise: Approach the crime fiction section and pick up the first book that comes to hand. Does it start with the mutilated body of a beautiful young woman? Check. Try ten books. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. You might only need to read the dust-jacket. I can guarantee you that eight out of ten of those novels will start with someone young, beautiful, dead, and female. Naked and mutilated are optional extras.

In case you don’t believe me, here’s my ten minutes of research:

“When a troubled model falls to her death ….” Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling, The Cuckoo’s Calling

“A young girl’s mutilated body is discovered in a sealed room.” James Oswald, Natural Causes.

“It is in this pressure cooker atmosphere that murder takes place (this is an Ann Cleeves novel, after all) and the body of a woman is found with her hair laced with feathers.” Ann Cleeves, Blue Lightning

“Detective Harry Hole is meant to keep out of trouble. A young Norwegian girl taking a gap year in Sydney has been murdered, and Harry has been sent to Australia to assist in any way he can.” Jo Nesbo, The Bat

“A plane falls out of the sky. A woman is murdered. Four people all have something to hide.” Emma Kavanagh, Falling

My goal, in this ever-lasting onslaught of sexy corpses, was to write a crime novel in which the initiating incident was not the death of a woman. Given the level of sexual violence and rape in South Africa and the level of intimate femicide, it would have been an easy route to take. I chose not to. The challenge was to ensure that the novel was fast-paced and gripping, even without a sexy corpse.

Thanks to the onslaught in novels, TV, film and advertising, we are completely inured to dead, victimised and subjugated women. They are the blank slate upon which heroism and agency can be written, as well as upon which money can be made.  According to Kira Cochrane, writing in the Guardian: “This obsession with death isn’t so surprising, when you consider it as the obvious and ultimate end point of a spectrum in which women’s passivity and silence is sexualised, stylised and highly saleable.”

So if I was writing against the highly marketable violence against women, what was I writing towards?

For one thing, I wanted to give women agency. So while the female protagonist in Balthasar’s Gift chases recklessly after the killer, leaving her boyfriend at home to look after the kids, the woman who finally brings the murderer in is someone who is disenfranchised, marginalised and, up to this point in the novel, voiceless.

Another thing I wanted to address is something that unites us all – all cultures, all nations – and that is intolerance of the other. And nothing was more othering in South Africa in the late twentieth century than HIV/AIDS; so much so that our newly elected democratic government refused to acknowledge that HIV led to AIDS and so refused to provide the much-needed anti-retrovirals that would give people with HIV at least a chance at a normal life. Hundreds of thousands of economically active people contracted HIV and then died of AIDS-related illnesses, leaving behind nearly two million AIDS orphans. Many of these children were themselves othered – turned out of their communities, robbed and driven onto the streets.

It seemed necessary to me to construct a story around a nation that had so recently driven racial intolerance out of its statutes, but which was diving headlong, arms wide out in a vast embrace, into a new kind of intolerance – against people with HIV and the activists who tried to help them.

I wanted to write crime fiction that was imbued with social realism. As a reader, I find a standard whodunnit with baddie versus detective and neat wrap-up pretty boring. Stieg Larsson’s trilogy fired the imaginations of millions not only because of its violent set-pieces (against both men and women), but also because he mired them with social detail. As a writer, and particularly as a South African writer, I wanted to tackle social issues, not as a political whipping-stick, but to show how they affect individuals in their daily lives. Because if we care that a ten year-old child heads a household of four other children, including one dying of complications from AIDS, then maybe we will do something about it.

Just as science fiction set in other worlds is a chance to reimagine our own, crime fiction offers us the chance to see our world as it is – with all its gritty, bleak and tragic details – and to repair it.

 


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Writer on Tour

I have been out and about, dear readers.

In March, I went to the Leipzig Book Fair:

leipzig

I was feeling pretty nervous (hiding nerves under brave smile):

nervous

Because first up was an interview with the press:

neues deutschland

But, being socialists, they were very nice to me:

press

Then I went on stage to do a reading (one guy fell asleep):

Buhne

After, that I went to the Institute of African Studies to do another reading. This time, I had Madiba with me for company. I felt much more relaxed:

madiba

I read:

flow

I signed:

signing

Then I drank some wine:

wine

Last night, I did a reading in Langenbruecken, near Bad Schornborn, organised by the darling proprietors of the ars legendi bookshop. They arranged wonderful wine, Italian delicacies and some fabulous jazz. My husband and friends were there and I felt less nervous.

Starting to get the hang of this reading in German thing:

blue

Next up is Berlin in May, and then in June I hit South Africa to promote the English version of the book and do readings in Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Cape Town and Joburg.

In between all this promotion work, I am trying to write book two. It is not easy, but I have come up with a plan. It involves sparrows, dawn and daggers drawn against the inner editor.

And perhaps a little wine.