Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Radical Acts of Empathy

I’m attending the 18th Time of the Writer festival in Durban, SA. The theme of the festival is writing for your life, and at the opening night, each writer gave a short address on what this means for them. Here’s mine:

I work at a computer company, where a lot of very clever people spend their days writing code for software applications. The code they write now is in various programming languages, all of which are based on binary code which is made up of nothing but zeroes and ones.

One of my theories about the trouble we’re in right now as a human race is the fact that we tend to think in binary: male versus female, black versus white, old versus young, gay versus straight, Muslim versus Christian, atheist versus believer, northerner versus southerner, local versus foreign, poor versus wealthy, rural versus urban, fat versus thin, abled versus disabled.

Binary ways of thinking make us feel safe. They define who we are – and who we aren’t. But they are also extremely lazy.

For me, binary is a spectrum. On the mild end of that spectrum, we get stereotypes. What stereotypes do, is allow us to assign a certain set of characteristics to a person whom we believe falls into a certain group. If you ever hear someone saying ‘they’ about a group of people and then making a reductive assumption about the characteristics of those people, then you know they are stereotyping. As writers we have to fight the urge to indulge in stereotypes, no matter how convenient they may be. To do so, we have to address our unconscious biases.

The other end of the spectrum from stereotyping is othering.

Othering means defining others by their difference to us and deciding that that difference means they have less value than us. In South Africa, we have intimate experience of the dangers of othering. Our previous government ran a huge, state-sanctioned, legally enscribed othering project called Apartheid. Germany, where I now live, ran a military-industrial othering project called the Holocaust.

Stereotyping is lazy; othering is lethal. And it is born out of fear.

What both reading and writing offer us is the insight to break this lethal cycle and see the humanity of others – in those of different faiths, in those with different skin hues, in those from other lands, in those who are female and not actually less human, in those who are citizens of countries our governments might choose to be at war with, in those whose circumstances are different from our own.

We all think and breathe and love and cry and sweat and bleed. We all dream and hope and pray for the well-being of our children. We have so much more in common than we allow ourselves to believe.

Writing forces us to reflect on the rich inner lives of others, even if they are unpalatable. Reading opens us to a world where people who seem vastly, almost unrecognizably different from us, are just as human on the inside as we are.

Reading and writing are both radical acts of empathy, that enable us to break the shackles of binary thinking and not other people out of our own fear of difference. They teach us that each individual life is rich and complex and nuanced, just as our own lives are rich and complex and nuanced.

When we read and write, we engage in radical acts of empathy that crack open our hearts. We stop saying ‘they’ and start saying ‘us’.


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Tis Christmas and the Season for …

… single writer binges.

I have just emerged from a six-book Liane Moriarty feeding frenzy. Why had I never heard of her before? Anyway, I hadn’t and then serendipitously, she turned up in both my real life and my online book clubs – in the same week. Moriarty is an Australian writer whose novel Big Little Lies (I read it) just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And I can tell you why: her novels are strongly crafted, but not too artsy; her characters are warm and witty and full of foibles that make you want to be friends with them; her plots are intriguing without being full of red herrings and obvious tropes. My only criticism, and it is a mild one, is that they are the most middle-class books I have ever read. Joanna Trollope has been ousted from the pillar of middle-classery. There is nary a poor person, nor a homeless one, nor one of colour in any of the novels. It’s a world of yummy mummies, intrigue at the school gates and shenanigans in the Sydney suburbs. However, and this is what rescues the novels and I’m sure what has shot Moriarty to the top of the bestseller lists, she writes with such teasing wit that her characters laugh at themselves being middle-class at the gates of Sydney schools – and you laugh with them. Comfort reading at its absolute best.

So having sadly finished Moriarty’s entire oeuvre, I wrote to an Australian friend asking if she knew her. She didn’t but she did recommend the next writer into whose work I am now diving – Elena Ferrantes. An Italian whose work was first translated into English in 2012, Ferrantes has become a writing sensation. Described as an angry Jane Austen (you had me at that), Ferrantes has caught the public’s imagination as she refuses to do any publicity or put a face to her name (and she writes superbly). According to Wikipedia, she has admitted that she is a mother, which means she probably is female. I am reading the first of her Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, and have the second and third ready to go on my e-reader. Things are dark and dreary in Ferrante’s work, there is relentless poverty but there are souls that shine out of the darkness. There will be a binge, I can predict it.

Since it is Christmas and things come in trios (wise men, etc), I have a third writer in mind. Both my mother and brother have devoured the Patrick O’ Brian novels, and he has named his Lab puppy Jack Aubrey. In honour of the less famous Jack, I plan to read these next.

Do you have any writers upon whose work you binge?


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First Draft Emotions

Writing novels is not as hard as coal-mining or refuse collection or washing the windows of skyscrapers, but it does cause a roller coaster of emotions.

As I sit down to write my 1,000 words every morning, here’s a collection of things I feel and think:

  • Get off Facebook, right here, right now
  • Just do it
  • That scene is crap
  • Why the hell is she doing that?
  • Is it a problem that I still don’t know who the murderer is?
  • Just do it
  • Everyone is going to hate this because it’s a piss-poor pile of crap
  • Nooooo! No to Facebook
  • Fighting again, Maggie? Please act like a grown-up
  • I hate that character and I still can’t explain why the story needs him
  • Abject terror! I have no idea what the next scene is
  • Just do it

Which is why when I read this quote from Jane Smiley: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist” I felt calm again. I am going to write it in CAPITALS and stick it up in my writing corner.

All it needs is to exist. It will be the perfect first draft.

 


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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.