“We built our wall across America three years before Trump used it in his election campaign” – Frank Owen on South
“The USA has been ravaged by Civil War. It’s thirty years since the first wind-borne viruses ended the war between North and South – and still they keep coming. Every wind brings a new and terrifying way to die. The few survivors live in constant fear, hiding from the wind – and from each other.
In this harsh Southern expanse, brothers Garrett and Dyce Jackson are on the run from brutal law-enforcers. They meet Vida, a lone traveller on a secret quest. Together, they will journey into the dark heart of a country riven by warfare and disease. Together, they will discover what it takes to survive.” – SOUTH, Frank Owen
Michael Sears, co-author of the Detective Kubu-series, recently sat down with our sunshine noir author(s) for August, Frank Owen, the writing duo comprised of Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer. During the interview they discussed their post-apocalyptic novel South; human nature; the novel’s themes of segregation and prejudice, reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa; and researching mushrooms.
You both come from rather different backgrounds. How did you come to write together, and what motivated this unusual premise for a novel set in the U.S.?
AL: When I was releasing my first novel, The Space Race, I’d just finished reading Diane’s heavy-hitting but wonderful book, Home Remedies, and so as a fan, I asked her to interview me at the launch. With some bribery, she agreed. We do come from different backgrounds, but we realized early on that our interests are quite similar. The idea to write together was just for fun, initially, because it’s difficult to know how that process works without getting into it.
The premise for SOUTH came from chatting over coffee during a particularly cold and windy Cape Town winter. Everyone was sick and had been for what seemed like months. The idea of wind-borne viruses was literally in the air. But at the same time, I think the premise of building walls and keeping people apart was also floating about in the global zeitgeist. We built our wall across America three years before Trump used it in his election campaign. Fiction has a hard time keeping up with reality.
As one-half of a writing couple myself, I’m naturally intrigued to know how you actually write together- by chapter, character, draft? And is there any significance behind the name Frank Owen?
DA: Frank is a name from a side of my family, and Owen came from Alex’s. So the ancestors are doing their bit there.
AL: I don’t really think of our collaboration as two writers writing the same story. Diane’s writing style and my writing style are quite different – so the process was more about combining my skills with hers rather than sharing the load. I’ve always been intrigued by pace and plot, whereas Diane’s writing is much more lyrical. We tried a few ways of working, but in the end we’d just chat about where the story was going and then I’d put down the first draft of a chapter and Diane would double it, concentrating on character and atmosphere. We wanted a fast-paced action narrative told in a “literary” style.
Your lead characters Dyce and his brother are heading for the sea on the run from a powerful family, while Vida is trying to save her mother and her mother’s knowledge of natural remedies. They have different agendas, but join forces from necessity, despite the ongoing tension between them. Is it an axiom that this type of thriller needs to be more character driven than plot driven?
DA: Most of us readers are interested in characters as people. I definitely read novels because I hope to find answers to all sorts of dilemmas. Complex, believable characters are a way to talk about serious issues without tub-thumping.
AL: We were quite conscious about spending time doing both character and plot. My default would be plot first – but then who cares what happens in a novel if they don’t care about who it’s happening to? It’s a tricky balance.
SOUTH is a dark vision. People are automatically suspicious of any stranger who may be the carrier of a new and usually fatal disease. There is little cooperation with the exceptions of one community which protects itself and generally excludes strangers, and a hospice-type community where everyone is already sick. Yet many of your characters – including Dyce and Vida -are trying to help and support others. Would you call yourselves optimists about human nature, and was exploring the behavior of intrinsically good people in intolerable circumstances part of your theme?
AL: I’m certainly an optimist about human nature. Why can’t we all just get along? For me apocalyptic fiction is all about whittling away the parts of life that are non-essential. There’s no dry-cleaning to be done, no dog food to buy, no peeling fascia boards that need attention. You get right into the essence of a person. But as dark as that sounds, we realized early on that every single character in the book had to be hopeful in some way – because without that hope they’d already be dead. It’s a lovely space to explore human nature and the will to survive.
DA: It’s something that fascinates me, and the only answer I’ve found is Viktor Frankl’s, in Man’s Searching for Meaning. What makes one person give up, and another keep fighting? Even medical doctors call it the will to live: they don’t know exactly what it is, either – but we all know it when we see it.
Continue reading Michael’s interview with Alex and Diane here.
Click here for an excerpt of South.