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Alex van Tonder Talks about This One Time, and Bringing Those “Stuck in the Digital Abyss” Back to Books

Alex van Tonder

This One TimeFirst of all, thank you for meeting me; and for your book, it’s wonderful.

Such a pleasure. Awesome, thank you.

So Brodie Lomax/Jacob Lynch. Where did he, or they, come from?

At the time I was writing the book, it was around 2012 and I was watching this revenge porn thing happening in the media at the time. It was getting worse and worse. In my mind this character started forming, this sort of bad-boy blogger. I come from a world of bloggers, I’ve had a blog myself. So I wanted to explore a character who really pushed the whole blogging thing, and this depraved world of revenge porn to the next level. Brodie Lomax does that, because he’s in revenge porn and he’s in the middle of the whole working-with-brands thing. It’s happening in New York at the moment, there’s this epicentre of bloggers who work with brands and they are creating culture, and music and pop-culture.

Brodie is an amalgamation of this mainstream blogger and these revenge porn guys. He comes from that world. You know, just as you get these extreme-feminine girl bloggers on the one end of the spectrum who are going “Macarons! Balloons! And here’s a pic of my shoes!” You know those girls. On the other end of the spectrum there’s these macho-man, man-lion bloggers who are like “Tits and guns, and bitches and beer.” Brodie falls into that end of the spectrum.

Do you think Jacob/Brodie is someone you could ever meet in real life?

He is not based on anyone in particular, but there are guys out there who portray and push this lifestyle. And while they aren’t actually as bad as they seem, they get egged on by their male followers. So they’ll do something that’s quite bad and the more encouragement, the more “likes”, they get for it, the worse their behaviour gets. They are sort of wannabe-alphas who get egged on and egged on.

Look at Hunter Moore, who wrote that website Is Anyone Up?, he was a pretty despicable human being. One woman got so frustrated with him she actually tried to murder him in the street. And if you look at Dan Bilzerian on Instagram. You really have to wonder what sort of hole that guy is filling. But I know a lot of men who are smart, educated and bright, and they still follow him, they still think he’s quite cool. So there definitely are characters out there that push this lifestyle, that push this attitude towards women and living. Playboy living it up, with bitches around me, drinking, partying – that is real. That mindset and that lifestyle; it is out there on the internet, unbelievably, scarily, and a lot of people follow it and aspire to it.

Can you tell me about your writing process? Did you start with the plot, or with your characters, or with something else?

For me, it felt like it was important to nail down the plot. Once I had my plot, I had to kind of listen to the character. So I had my plot-markers down, and I asked myself: “What would have had to have happened, what would this character have to have done to get from here to here?” That’s how I really started to understand my characters.

And, let me tell you, it’s not easy to write a despicable male character like that. A lot of the time I questioned what I was doing. I would go back to things I had written and it would actually make my stomach turn. I’d be like, “Is this really who my character is?” But it really did come down to listening to the character and accepting him for who he is. And saying “Well, in order for this to be true, and in order for the plot to make sense to me, he did have to be this depraved, and she had to be a certain way.”

So it’s kind of a bit of both. I did plot, and then I did a bit of character, and then there’d be a hole in the plot. It’s a bit of a process.

What do you hope that readers will take away from the novel?

I really want to write entertaining books and entertaining stories that are kind of a take on the darker side of social media and how the internet affects our lives. I guess with this book, maybe you want to think twice about what you put online, and on social media.

I mean, Jacob doesn’t think twice about what he does, he rises to fame very quickly, and he pretty much creates a monster that ends up creating a whole other monster, which is this Alicia character. And I think we also have to realise that what we put online is its own thing that can have its own momentum and its own force, and that it no longer belongs to us. As much as we think that we have control over a little tweet or we think “It’s just a tweet”, sometimes it can be more than that. Maybe we should just think about it.

But I mean, it’s really supposed to be a bit of an entertaining, wild novel.

At one stage, one of your characters flippantly says, “The medium being the message and so on.” What do you think the message of the media you write about is?

I haven’t answered that for myself. It’s still something I’m trying to figure out, and it’s something I’ll try figure out with every single novel I write. Social media is such a Wild West. I don’t think any of us have our heads around it yet – and that’s what I want us to be aware of.

There’s going to be a whole generation of kids who grew up online, because their parents posted them online every second of their lives. That is what I’m trying to figure out.

I do think that we’re in this weird space where we all are, in a way, like celebrities because we have a projected persona, whether we realise it or not. And you may think that you don’t take part in it but if you have a Facebook profile or a Twitter profile and you do put stuff online, that is a projected persona. Whether you’re doing it in a big flashy way or a small way, it’s still something that you’re maintaining, and it’s something that represents you. That is now a part of our lives, so we have to deal with this figurehead of ourselves. That relationship with the persona that we all have fascinates me, and that is what I’m going to be writing about.

Animals carry a lot of meaning in the story. Why did you choose this, and does it relate to your personal thoughts about animals and their relationship to people?

Jacob is in a hunting lodge, so there were these animals at my disposal, and I love animals so I just indulged myself a little.

That stuffed eagle, there were a few meanings there. It’s above him, on the bed and it is in flight looking out the window. There’s that myth where Prometheus is chained to a rock for eternity to have his liver eaten out by a eagle. So there was that metaphor I wanted to play with. Jacob had been chained to a bed, and he was left to face himself. Which is almost the worst punishment for him, total torture, because who he had become is an absolute monster.

The other thing with the eagle is the American Dream of opportunity: you can create whatever you like. It kind of taunts you, like it’s above his bed the whole time and it’s bullshit. It’s not real, and it’s become his trap.

The wolf was the immediate threat at first and it’s the obvious threat. To him it’s the most dangerous threat. But as the story unfolds, you realise that the wolf is actually on his side. The most dangerous thing for him would be not to listen to her, and not to work with her. You start to see that the threat is something very different.

She starts off as a hallucination, as he is coming off drugs, and he is getting clean. That does happen, when you are becoming sober. Technically, in very simple terms, she is a hallucination. I’m not going to give away the twist, but if there is any uncomfortable truth that we have to face in our lives, especially as we grow as people, it often presents itself as a fear. As something terrifying and scary, and we do want to run away from it. We don’t want to listen to it at all. Most of us want to run away from hard realisations or hard truths about ourselves.

For Jacob, the person he has become is something very terrifying and very scary. The wolf just represents that. It’s only when he starts to accept himself and take responsibility for what’s happened that she becomes less of a threat. He realises that she is actually a good thing.

The animals were there … I love animals. I’ll probably try to put another animal in a story. I don’t know if I’ll get away with it.

You wrote about American people and American voices. How was that for you, having these American people in your head, being a South African and writing for a South African audience?

Culturally I’m a bit confused. As a writer, my references are a lot of American writers, a lot of American TV shows: House of Cards, The Wire, True Detective. Theses are things that I consume all the time, and I read a lot of American literature, and a lot of American Opinion writing like Salon and Daily Atlantic. So in my head I often feel like I’m American. The things I’m thinking about are a lot of the things American writers are talking about now.

The setting was not something that I did consciously. It was really important for the story to be real. So, for his fame to be that big and for his downfall to be that hard, it needed a big media machine that only somewhere like New York or Los Angeles or London could have provided. I went for New York because New York is where all the bloggers are at the moment.

And as a South African, I guess, I always have American voices in my head anyway, because of the shows I watch and the writers I admire.

In the book, Jacob’s agent compares books and the internet. He says: “As much as I want to say fuck the internet, and grow intellectual and literary authors, writers who make people question what they think they know about life – books that make people use their goddamn Twitter-dead brains, for crying out loud … it doesn’t matter, get them to create books that could shift perspectives and change the world and stop fracking, or whatever.” Is this the kind of book you want to write, or does that kind of writing really matter?

With Jacob, and what was going on in his head there, he doesn’t aspire to be literary or have integrity when it comes to ideas. There’s a lot in there about how he copies and references ideas. A lot of the book references pop culture elsewhere. You see Stephen King references, you’ll see many references to many things.

A point I try to make is that, I believe there have never been any new ideas, and the internet makes it so much easier for us to see how very few new ideas there are. I also think that these days books are competing with funny cat videos and Kim Kardashian’s iPhone game for attention, and that complex, meaningful or substantial texts that require concentration or thought might not win the battle all the time. Or so his agent feels. His agent is lamenting a time gone by, when there wasn’t so much democracy when it came to what got published and what got popular, and publishers made “good” decisions about what people read. But Brodie is being published because he’s popular, because he has loads of followers.

Personally, I have no hard-and-fast rule about what books should be or shouldn’t be. I think there are so many different types of writers and they’re all amazing and have different roles to fulfill. I hope they keep doing what they’re doing so we have all these different books.

Jacob, in this instance, is an opportunist who created a blog that went viral. He’s in it for the clicks, he’s in it for the cash, he’s not in it for the integrity. That’s really what I try to get across there. The fact that he doesn’t even come up with half of his own posts almost makes it even worse, because this monster he’s made is not even his own monster.

Does any of this speak to what you want to do as a writer?

As a writer, I want to write books that entertain, and feel very now, and explore the dark side of social media. I’m more into thriller writing. If it makes you think as well, total bonus, and it’s awesome, but I will never aim to be a “literary great”. I’ll never be on the Alan Paton shortlist, or anything like that. And that’s fine. I’m an advertising-trained writer.

With my background is advertising, it’s really important to me to write in a language that appeals to the masses and about stuff that is going on now, that real people are interested in. My dad was a poet and a very academic writer, and I grew up with a lot of academics around. I think they have their place too and they are important minds, and we need those writers, it’s just not who I am.

If you were not a fashion copywriter with a supercool book and social media coolkid, what would you most like to be?

Wow, anything in the whole world. I guess I might have been a vet in another life. I also might have been an artist.

But I do love my life as a writer. And I owe my publishers another book, for the first of December, so … hopefully this life is really just starting now. We’ll see.

How long did this book take to write? And what is next?

The first draft took about five months, and then I did another two drafts, which in total took about eight months. From that point to get print-ready took just over a year. So in total two-and-a-half, three years. So it’s a long process.

I’m about half-way through the first draft of my next project. I don’t know if I’ll make my deadline, but I’m going to try. I think it will be easier this time because I have a contract and an editor who I can get working with sooner rather than later. Whereas last time, I didn’t even have a contract, I didn’t know if anyone would publish it and I was on my own. So I could probably get to the edit phase sooner.

Just one question about your Cape Town Girl blog. Cape Town Girl, Brodie Lomax and Suzelle DIY walk into a bar. What happens?

Suzelle definitely teaches us how to do something. I reckon Suzelle teaches us how to … build a blow up doll using sunglasses.

Would there be any personal conflict between the three bloggers?

No, I mean, Cape Town Girl has been offline for about three years. A lot of people think of Cape Town Girl as a person, and I think of it more as a platform a bit like Cosmopolitan or Women’s Health.

But I don’t think there’s any conflict. I love Suzelle. If Cape Town Girl was still alive, I would like Suzelle and Cape Town Girl to be best friends, that would be amazing. I would not like them to go anywhere near Brodie Lomax. In fact, I would advise them not to accept his friend request if he made one, that would be an absolute no-no.

If you were the one deciding the questions for this interview, what question would you have advised me to include? And how would you answer it?

I guess this is the question I would have asked: Who did you write the book for? Yourself or for an audience? Did you have anyone in mind?

My answer: I wanted to write the kind of book myself or my friends would want to read. We all consume so much digital media, we’re on social all the time – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, everything – but reading less novels, and I wanted to write the kind of book that would bring those of us who’re stuck in the digital abyss back to books and to reading. I also wanted to capture the spirit of our generation – we have a lot of control over how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves, but little else. We won’t be as successful as our parents, or as wealthy, the world’s a mess, the economy’s fucked, our leaders are corrupt liars – but we can control and manage how we see ourselves and how the world sees us, and I wanted to explore a character and a story that reflects that. In This One Time, Jacob’s character can only really grow when he’s cut off from the source of his validation – the constant attention from his social media following. I feel like a lot of my generation never take that space from social, that we’re caught up in a feedback loop and live reactively out of it. So I was writing the kind of book I wanted to read, and the kind of book my friends would want to read, and the kind of book they would relate to.

Image courtesy of Alex van Tonder


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