Four renowned South African writers (all fiercely proud Valley residents) shared their thoughts on their craft at a fascinating talk held in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Fish Hoek Library. A warm atmosphere of mutual admiration and camaraderie prevailed, injected with a strong dose of self-deprecating humour.
Renowned crime fiction writer Mike Nicol acted as an informal chair, discussing all things literary with mother and daughter duo, Sarah and Savannah Lotz known for their collaboration Deadlands, which is set in Cape Town after zombies have destroyed the world as we know it. Joining them was Diane Awerbuck, who broke into the literary scene in 2003 with Gardening at Night, for which she won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Nicol also welcomed Sunday Times columnist Paige Nick and Henrietta Rose-Innes as part of the audience.
Opening up the discussion, Nicol noted how South African fiction, particularly on this side of the mountain, has significantly changed over the last decade. Sarah entered the fray in 2008, when hardly any crime fiction had been published. “I set out to write an entertaining crime novel and was told [by publishers] that that just wasn’t going to happen.” While writing Pompidou Posse, she says: “I wouldn’t have been published if it wasn’t for Mike. In fact he had just finished marking my thesis and stood up at the Cape Town Book Fair and said ‘I dare you to publish this book!’”
While still in high school, Savannah quickly realised the glaring lack of South African fiction for young readers “that isn’t dominated by a white, heterosexual cast”. She says they consciously wrote the romantic angle in Deadlands in “a messy, real-life kind of way, definitely not out of a fairy tale”. Initially, they had been approached to write “an African version of the Twilight series ‒which is a lot harder than it sounds” before adding, tongue-in-cheek, “I think we failed!”
Awerbuck had just completed UCT’s creative writing course with André P Brink when she hit the scene 10 years ago. “The ‘scene’ at that time was Shark’s Egg,” she said, in admiration of Henrietta Rose-Innes’ breakthrough novel, describing her as the first of the new wave of writers to shake off the shackles of writing focussed on apartheid. She describes the current literary scene as still having a strong frontier mentality ‒ “you can still be the first to do or say something”. Awerbuck gained local and national fans after writing Home Remedies, set in the Fish Hoek valley. In 2011, she wrote a collection of short stories called Cabin Fever. She also writes a column for the Mail and Guardian and, as an audience member piped up, “She also created the best Facebook page, the Good Book Appreciation Society!”
Nicol has penned non-fiction books about Nelson Mandela and the murder of Anni Dewani. His crime novels, of which the fifth is Of Cops and Robbers, are all set in Cape Town. Writing under the pseudonym of Lily Herne, Susan and Savannah write enticing books for young adults, known as YA fiction. Citing that one of her ambitions is becoming a scriptwriter for East Enders, Sarah also collaborates with Jo’burg writer Louis Greenberg and together they have written three novels under the pseudonym SL Grey. Her latest novel, The Three, “took off before she had even written a word” and will be released in South Africa next month, spurred on by great reviews in the US and UK.
Describing 22-year-old Savannah as “a name to conjure with” Nicol mentioned how she has rather bravely voiced some criticism of her mother’s use of teenage dialogue. “She writes it like we’re in a 90s TV show, using words like ‘radical’ and ‘lame,’” Savannah complained. “I can just picture her wearing a baseball cap backwards,” she quips. She reckons it’s better not to use much slang at all; as it dates the book too much. The trick is not to talk down to the readers. “I’m in love with YA, I love the target audience. And you get to introduce another generation of writers.”
Why live in this part of the peninsula? asked Nicol. “Because it has all the right ingredients,” says Awerbuck. “There’s space for crazy but still the sense that people are rooted, we know each other, it’s a village. My family used to come here for generations, my grandfather used to caravan here, (much to my grandmother’s disgust) so it’s an ancestral pilgrimage.” She describes living here as “alert but relaxed, like being on holiday all the time” adding that doesn’t it hurt that “the best coffee in Christendom” can be found at the local hangout, Sandy’s Bistro.
Sarah arrived in Noordhoek in 2000, “when it was still scruffy, with no 4x4s and manicured houses”. After having painted many “dubious murals in even more dubious casinos in New York,” she had saved R120 000, which she used to build her house, mostly by herself. “Cape Town and South Africa is in my blood. So much so, that I feel guilty when I don’t write about it. At the moment my novel is set in the States so I feel quite bereft.” Awerbuck mentions how an agent had urged her not to set her novels in South Africa, “but I listened to Faulkner, who said that if you create a small place and do it well, it’s the same everywhere in the world”. Nicol agreed, saying he predicts that more South African writers will set their stories elsewhere but it makes no difference to him as he will continue to set his novels in Cape Town.
In terms of research, Savannah discovered that, just like in movies, “chainsaws are really bad for killing zombies, so we axed that”. Sometimes they decide on settings according to where they’d like to go on holiday. These research trips included Montecasino, the New York subway and even a journey to the foot of Mt Fuji in Japan, traditionally a place where people go to commit suicide. This time Sarah went with her mother, recalling how the Japanese kept making macabre jokes along the way as they assumed that her mom wouldn’t be coming back.
While discussing plotting, Awerbuck says she doesn’t work chronologically but patches it together later. “I believe that the story is fully formed; as you write, it falls into place, or not, as the case may be. I start with a scene, an image or a line of dialogue, then it just goes tick, tick, tick.” She finds dialogue quite tricky ‒“the craft is condensing it to sound real. As soon as a book starts with a description of the weather, I put it down.”
While answering questions from the audience, Sarah say it helps to have a fantastic editor. She also ropes in a slew of ‘beta readers’ who tell her at exactly which part of the story they were bored. Mike says listening to music helps while writing: “you can let yourself be drifted away, the more you practice, the more you can go along with the musicality of the words”.
In talking about Fish Hoek library, Diane says that she’s “a scrooge” when it comes to buying fiction. She loves well-stocked libraries like Fish Hoek’s because all the books you’re looking for come to you, and it’s free! “Fish Hoek Library has a soft spot in my heart,” says Nicol. “The library opened four years after I was born so this is where I fell in love with the world of fiction.”
First published in False Bay Echo in 2014.