Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Writer on Tour

I have been out and about, dear readers.

In March, I went to the Leipzig Book Fair:


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


Because first up was an interview with the press:

neues deutschland

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


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


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:


I read:


I signed:


Then I drank some 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:


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.


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My Literary Hero

I had a brief interview recently with Maxi magazine about my literary hero, Eleanor Catton:


Here’s a loose translation:

My literary hero is the Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton. As a writer I admire her lively, original use of language, her playfulness, lack of fear and willingness to experiment. As a reader, I love getting lost in the worlds she creates. As an introduction to Catton, I’d recommend The Rehearsal, a moving novel about a sex scandal at a school.

(Charlotte Otter, 44, lived in South Africa for a long time. Her page-turning debut Balthasar’s Gift tells the story of a journalist on the chase of an evil case of corruption.)


News in Brief

I went to the Book  Fair this weekend:


There I met a couple of publishers, a couple of friends and scored some book swag:


One of the publishers I met is a fabulous guy called Thomas Woertche, who, along with a team of other crime fiction aficionados has started a new e-book press called Culturbooks. One of the first books they have published is this:


I have recently been rocking a certain look. I give you If Virginia Woolf Worked in Corporate Communications:


And I have learned to wave board:


PS One of these posts is a lie.


Putting Pietermaritzburg on the Crime Fiction Map

So my big moment a couple of weeks ago was a review in Die Welt, one of Germany’s four national newspapers. A friend kindly translated it for me.


Two viruses on the loose in Africa’s sick-house

Elmar Krekeler

Charlotte Otter wields an angry pen as she paints a portrait of South African society. It’s a violent society, infected by the viruses of crime and AIDS, fractured by ethnicities, cultures and social difference.

South African journalist Charlotte Otter lives in Germany and tells the tale of Maggie Cloete, also a journalist, who is trapped in the chaos of South Africa’s violent society.

While desperately asking ourselves why some of the most peaceful European regions – those which enjoy some of the lowest crime rates worldwide – produce most of the bloodiest crime novels, we stumbled upon a theory, which we decided to adopt and spread here.

This theory claims that it is especially those who are spoiled by external peace – authors and reader alike – that are in need of fictional murder. They need it, if you wish, as anathema, as a protective spell, so that crime does enter their boring, peaceful reality.

This is a charming theory, which we can discard without any regret. The fictional murder business is booming, qualitatively and quantitatively, and it’s booming in one of the world’s most torn and violent societies: South Africa.

Better than any documentary: South African crime fiction

Generally, this fiction is extremely hard to digest; without ornament, full of clashing sentences and concepts, as bloody as the country itself. These are stories that echo deeply in the place they are set, in the post-apartheid land of an only superficially appeased community.

As a result, we find novels that tell you more about South Africa than all the reporting on the 2010 World Cup combined.

They tell you about degeneration, the clash between social strata, and do so till the former townships stand in flames again. These are stories about conflicts between races, between the healthy ones and those who are eaten alive by disease; conflicts between golf players and trash collectors.

Charlotte Otter is in good company

Deon Meyer writes these stories, and Roger Smith. So does Charlotte Otter.

One has to explain Charlotte Otter first. She worked as a crime reporter and learned her writing in South Africa. Then, she moved to this completely different place, Germany, and took her husband and child with her.

Otter – we imagine her in her mid-forties – lives in Heidelberg. Rumor has it, that she is also somehow involved in IT.

Balthasar’s Gift is her debut novel. And it fulfills all necessary requirements for a socially relevant crime novel – and this according to textbook. Pietermaritzburg has found its place on the map of crime.

Pietermaritzburg lies in the KwaZulu-Natal province. It is populated by 200 000 souls, surrounded by lovely nature and beautiful parks, and finally, characterized by the extreme gap between the ridiculously rich and the bitterly poor, between the healthy and the soon-to-be dead AIDS patients. There are more ethnicities here than the German Bundesliga has clubs.

One morning, a body lies on the steps of the HIV House, the mission that helps those infected with the virus. Balthasar Meiring, son of a brutally conservative Boer farm father, has been shot.

The good spirit of Pietermaritzburg

Balthasar was the good spirit of Pietermaritzburg; saviour of orphans, widower to an AIDS victim, gay, blond, tall, with the stature of a praying mantis turned human. It could have been a typical South African cause of death: robbery gone bad.

But it wasn‘t. At least, this is what Maggie Cloete thinks, and she’s bound to know. In her capacity as crime reporter for the Gazette, she has been hunting criminals for more than ten years, perpetually chasing after them on her Yamaha named ‘The Chicken’.

Just a couple of days before he died, Balthasar called Maggie, and asked her to investigate the case of Sven Schloegel, a German quack who was selling an inefficient herbal treatment to unsuspecting families. The treatment was so expensive, that they were not only unable to afford the (actually helpful) retroviral medicine; they were also forced to incur debts with an infamous local crime lord.

The overture to what will hopefully be a long series

Balthasar’s Gift is the angry, quick and brick-smashing overture to what we hope will be a long series. As is it with overtures, we already encounter all the things that Maggie Cloete will deal with in the future.

This is what she’ll have to face: The two viruses that are destroying Africa, AIDS and crime. The novel shows/Maggie witnesses how AIDS changes society, how it scares and shames its people, destroys families and children; how it takes hold of children and kills them cruelly. How medical education is subject to archaic rituals and sick ideas, like the notion that sex with very young virgins cures the disease. This is why Balthasar’s Gift also tells of the rape of a two-year old girl.

Medicine is helpless, because the government is incredibly inactive, ignorant and incompetent in its dealings with the epidemic, an epidemic that kills thousands on a daily basis, a disease that hollows South Africa from the inside, that pulls it into a moral abyss; that simply tears it apart.

A cohesive picture of South African society

And Charlotte Otter does more: She paints a cohesive picture of South Africa’s recent history, and does so with ease. She illuminates the state of mind of the last survivors of Boer society.

While she entangles societal analysis and characters effortlessly, there are some very see-through and redundant literary maneuvers. It is not just due to our general distrust of art editors that we could have passed on the very blond art editor of the Gazette.

Some turns are very obvious in their task to cloud the straight line of investigation. At some points, the plot jumps awkwardly around corners, just like a young springbok leaping over the scrub.

Be that as it may. The abysses of Pietermaritzburg/KwaZulu-Natal are much more exciting than those of Stockholm, that’s for sure. Fearless, upright, engaging spectator Maggie Cloete grows on you, whether you like it or not, and she has to continue.


Tales from a Reading

Last week Monday, six weeks after Balthasars Vermaechtnis was published, I gave my debut book reading in Hamburg as part of Ariadne Verlag’s series ‘Der Krimi ist politisch‘. Hosted by the Buchladen Osterstrasse – a really lovely bookshop in Eimsbuettel, which I would visit on a regular basis if I lived in Hamburg – the series hopes to examine why political crime fiction is having such a heyday.

Thanks to coaching from my publisher Else Laudan and some practise earlier in the day, I was not too nervous. And thanks to some great publicity from the Hamburg Abendblatt, the bookshop was nice and full. There was some lovely South African wine on offer, which might have pulled people in (the bookshop has a reputation for clever pairings of wine and books), but as a rookie, I was just thrilled to see so many people there. My lovely blog and now in real life friend, Lilalia, came all the way from Luebeck with her son to support me. It was great to have two faces I knew in the audience. (Lilalia played a very special role in the writing of the book, but that’s a post for another day.)


Else Laudan and yours truly

Else and I had a game plan and we stuck to it. She spoke about the series, I read a chapter from the English manuscript, she read the following chapter in German and then we opened the floor to questions. There was much discussion – about the nature of crime fiction in general; about South African crime fiction and where it is going; why there is so much crime fiction coming out of the Scandinavian countries, which are essentially very stable and non-bloody in comparison to South Africa, which is less stable and more bloody; and some of the themes in Balthasars Vermaechtnis. I managed to not cover myself in shame while answering questions in German, though some may have winced. Later, I was told that my German is charming, which I think is a kind way of saying it is somewhat quirky and all over the place.


Else and I nochmal (see what I did there?)

And credit to Doris Claus, Torsten Meinicke and Gerlinde Schneider at the bookshop for organising it so well. They run frequent readings and that is clear in their slick yet relaxed style. Thanks too to Gerlinde for the photos in this post!

Afterwards, I got to sign books and talk to people. Then some of us went on for a drink, and it was truly splendid to chat to some really well-versed crime fiction aficionados about our shared interest. In the group was the exceedingly famous and prolific crime writer Robert Brack, who will be reading from his novels and talking about crime fiction with Ariadne author Clementine Skorpil on 23 September. Be there, Hamburgers!

It was an honour to take part in the Ariadne series and to be able to read from my book. If all future readings go as smoothly and well, and I get to meet such cool people, then I will continue be one very happy writer.


From There to Here

Anyone remember The Cool White Room of Peace? I was there this week. Lying there, with someone drilling inside my head, specks of spit hitting me in the face, the numb slug of my tongue in my mouth, I had some time to reflect.

When I wrote that post in 2006, it was right at the start of my writing journey. I was just starting to find my feet as a blogger, starting to peek out from behind the wall of fear at the possibility that I might start writing something out of the images in my head and the rage in my heart. It took another eighteen months, but in January 2008, with the awareness that at the end of the year I would turn 40 and the feeling that if I didn’t start then I never would and I would one day die angry and bitter, I started a novel.

It was very bitty. I had no idea where I was going. I wrote my way in, draft after draft after ever-loving draft. Cheerleaders read my chapters, saying encouraging things. Friends leapt out of the internet to read my drafts and make suggestions. There were highs and some horrible lows. It started out as literary fiction and turned into crime. First person became third. An entirely new character presented herself to me as I drove my family home from Berlin and she became my main character. I killed darlings. I erased characters. I murdered words.

Around draft six, my agent Michaela phoned me to say she loved the book and wanted to represent me.

Around draft fourteen, my publisher Else offered a contract to publish Balthasar’s Gift in German. She titled it Balthasars Vermaechtnis and translated it herself with loving attention to detail and to the accuracy of words and meaning.

July 17 is publication day. Sometime between now and then, I will hold a book that I have written myself in my very own hands.

It has been a long hard road from the cool white room of peace to this. But every detour, every dead end, every hard shoulder presented a chance for me to become a better writer. I am grateful for them all.


BG: Now with Added Translation

For my friend Di, who claims not to be able to read German, though I doubt it because she is so damn clever at everything else she does, here is a very rough translation of the Balthasar’s Gift promo materials:

Pietermaritzburg is the capital city of the South African province KwaZulu-Natal. And the two main beats of the local Gazette are crime and health, which says something about Pietermaritzburg.

Crime reporter Magdalena Cloete knows her town and has no illusions about it. One morning, a man is shot on the front verandah of the local AIDS Mission. A political murder? Maggie’s instincts go into red alarm, since the victim, Balthasar Meiring had tried in vain only the week before to draw her attention to an ongoing court case. It focused on the sales of AIDS medication that fraudulently claimed to cure the disease. Was there more to it than the usual business machinations?

As she starts to investigate, Maggie finds she has a gang of thugs on her heels. Threats and physical attacks only serve to heighten her determination. In the meantime, she learns enough about Balthasar’s life and his commitment to his cause that she loses all professional distance and risks her own skin …

And the back cover text:

Farmer’s son Balthasar Meiring was active in an AIDS Mission – until someone put four bullets in his chest. Crime reporter Magdalena Cloete suspects that there is much more to Meiring’s murder. On her search for truth, politicians and gangsters do their best to get in her way.