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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Louis Greenberg is working on a post-cyber noir novel

Acclaimed author, academic – he holds a doctorate in English literature from Wits – and specialist in the post-religious apocalyptic fiction of Douglas Copeland, Louis Greenberg, has a new novel in the making.

Greenberg recently blogged that he’s putting the finishing touches on his post-cyber noir novel, Green Valley. Exploring themes of truth and falseness, questioning who we can and can’t trust, and asking what we’re willing to risk for those we love, Green Valley is being marketed as “True Detective meets Black Mirror”.

As intrigued as we are? Read the first two paragraphs of the synopsis here:

The world has turned against digital technology in a neo-Luddite revolution. At its height, over eighty per cent of people in Stanton wore The I – to bank, to work, to shop, to ride. But for eight years, what’s left of Zeroth Corporation, The I’s developer, has been holed up in Green Valley, an enclave sealed in a concrete bunker from the rest of the world.

When Lucie Sterling gets a call from her ex-husband David in Green Valley, her complacent lifestyle in Stanton is shattered. She hasn’t told her partner Fabian Tadic, a high-power anti-technology campaigner, that she has a nine-year-old daughter – she let David take Kira into Green Valley and close themselves behind the wall and they faded into her past – but now David’s telling her that Kira is missing. Over the years there’s been a trickle of invisible kids through the Stanton morgue, Green Valley children who occasionally turn up dead outside the enclave, and who officially don’t exist to Stanton law enforcement. For Lucie, the invisible kids have suddenly become personal.


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Jowhor Ile awarded Etisalat Prize for Literature

Nigerian author Jowhor Ile has been announced as the winner of the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature for his novel And After Many Days.

The Etisalat Prize is the first ever pan-African prize celebrating first time writers of published fiction books.

Award-winning novelist and poet, Helon Habila, served as the chair of the judging panel for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Fiction and declared And After Many Days as a novel which met the required standards of originality, creative excellence and African sensibility, in keeping with the objective of the Etisalat Prize – to promote literary excellence in Africa.

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Sunshine noir fans, get your monthly dosage of local thriller authors here…

Watch this space for news on the best thriller and crime fiction authors Africa has to offer.

BooksLIVE will be publishing pieces on local sunshine noir authors on a monthly basis, as featured in International Thrillers Writers’ “Africa Scene”. “Africa Scene” is the brainchild of South African thriller writer par excellence, Mike Nicol, and is available on the e-magazine, Big Thrill.

Mike Nicol

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Michael Sears

 
Nicol initiated Africa Scene with a monthly “Newsletter from South Africa” covering local crime fiction and thrillers; author Michael Sears – who makes part of the duo Michael Stanley (with Stanley Trollip) renown for their Detective Kubu-series – took over from Nicol and broadened it to “Africa Scene”. Sears included pieces about African authors writing in other countries.

“The idea is really to showcase the excellent writers in the genre that we have here and generate more interest in Africa’s “sunshine noir” overseas,” says Sears of this new collaboration.

Intrigued? Read an excerpt from Sears’s recent interview with Nicol on his Barry Ronge Fiction Prize-longlisted Agents of the State which appeared in the Africa Scene-section of The Big Thrill:

Deon Meyer has said of Mike Nicol that his style is “by far the best in South Africa” and that he creates “deliciously complex characters.” The Pretoria News said of his previous book, Power Play, that it “proved once again that Nicol is a master of the genre.”

So when Nicol comes out with a new thriller, it’s always an event on the South African book scene. And his books are also enthusiastically received internationally, with Power Play making the Krimizeit top 10 in Germany, and being short listed for major thriller awards in Holland and France. If you like sunshine noir and haven’t read Nicol, you’re missing out.

In his latest book, Agents of the State, we meet again the lead characters in Of Cops & Robbers. There we wondered if the police and the crooks were actually on different sides. In the new book, we wonder if the agents of the state are the good guys or the bad guys. The answer is probably maybe. Nicol never has simplistic dividing lines.

Agents of the State is set in a dystopian South Africa with a “president for life” and all the trappings of the classic corrupt African dictatorship. Did you feel this extrapolation was needed to justify aspects of the story, or do you see South Africa as de facto there already?

I have to admit I’d never really thought of the background to Agents of the State as dystopian, especially if by that you mean repressive and unpleasant. Certainly, the book is set in a politically troubled time when the president is out of touch and paranoid, but for the rest, society is still a going concern: the hospitals function, the restaurants and shops are open, there are people in the streets, planes are landing at and taking off from the airports, kids are at school, there are sunbathers on the beaches, people meeting in the grand hotels for cocktails, the cellphone networks and the internet are up and running. However, there are some severely compromised government institutions, state security being one of those. But that this chaotic shadow world exists in parallel with the ordinary world seems to me a condition that has been present in most societies for centuries.

Indeed, the president fits the mold of the corrupt African dictator, which was a necessary condition of the story. As to whether South Africa is there already: no, I don’t think so. But that is not to say that we aren’t lurching about on the edge of totalitarianism what with the Secrecy Bill and the Hate Speech Bill, the rampant racism, let alone the audacious attempts by the president et al to “capture” various organs of state.

For some years now I’ve felt that the state – certainly what is referred to as the deep state, that combination of the intelligence services, the police, politicians, and organized crime – is where I should locate my crime fiction. It is where the most serious crime is being committed in this country. If the social aspect of crime fiction is about presenting society in extremis, then it seems to me that the espionage novel offers an opportunity to explore the underlying tensions in South Africa now. And there is a strong tradition in South African literature of opposition to and critique of the exigencies of our governments and leaders, again a territory ideally suited to the espionage novel.

Continue reading their interview here.

With names like Paige Nick, Leye Adenle, and Paul Mendelson to look forward to we expect each and every local thriller fan to shiver with antici…pation.

‘Til the 23rd of June!

Agents of the State

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Of Cops and Robbers

 
 
 
 
Power Play


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Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Yewande Omotoso on the origins of her novel The Woman Next Door

Published in the Sunday Times

Yewande Omotoso discusses her book The Woman Next Door shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times Literary Awards. Plus an extract.

The Woman Next DoorThe Woman Next Door
Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus/PRH)

I started thinking about The Woman Next Door in 2012. My grandfather passed away and I travelled with my family to Barbados for the funeral. My grandmother and I shared a bed. I remember spending time with her and thinking of her and my granddad, thinking of what it might be like to have lived with someone for over 60 years and then suddenly they aren’t there. This was the catalyst, although the final story has almost nothing to do with my grandparents. Instead it became a meditation on what it is to be old – from the start I knew my characters would be octogenarians – and to have more life behind you than you have ahead. I kept pulling at this thread and my characters began to emerge. Not only had they lived long but I realised they were people who were unfulfilled. This lack of satisfaction was further confounded by their considerable wealth and career successes.

With characters, there are a few things that arrive whole and clear in the imagination and endure through the process of writing, there are other things that are present but get pruned and still there is much that one must mine for. I first envisaged Hortensia and initially I paid attention to the failed love story. I knew there would be infidelity but I imagined her as someone who, instead of leaving, had stayed and grown harder. I saw her trailing her husband and his lover, watching them have sex, I saw her 80-something-year-old self as callous but for a valid reason – she is broken-hearted. Hortensia begged for a combatant and so Marion arrived. Through her I was interested in looking at what it is like to have lived through apartheid as a white South African and have done nothing – not even in the privacy of your own thoughts – to resist it. This is Marion.

Cape Town was always the site. A precious corner of Constantia that I would invent. This provided the opportunity to, however subtly, consider the violence in Cape Town’s history which, I feel, is mostly sanitised. So I wanted to have a very quiet sense of horror about this perfect place.

My intent was to conduct an experiment into our own humanity borne through an understanding that we couldn’t come to grips with ourselves without spending considerable time in the mire, without upsetting one another, without looking at the things we’d rather ignore. I’ve had a chance to engage with a few readers who have commented that they found the protagonists “unlikeable”. Apart from my aversion to that way of categorising people (in books and in life) I instead have a different relationship to Hortensia and Marion. I feel cautioned by their hard lessons and heartened by the minuscule steps they take to move even just an inch from the rigid positions they’ve held onto – like rafts – all their lives. In them I see myself as well as the possibility, even with no sensible map, of hope.

Follow Yewande Omotoso @yomotoso

EXTRACT
Once a month a Katterijn Committee meeting was held. As far as Hortensia understood it, the committee had been started by a woman named Marion Agostino who also happened to be her neighbour, a nasty woman who Hortensia did not like. But then again Hortensia did not like most people. She had stumbled upon the meetings by accident, soon after she arrived in Katterijn. No one had thought to mention that by rights as an owner she was entitled to while away time with the other committee members. The information was let slip. At the time Hortensia had felt that the initial omission was not forgetfulness but deliberate, and it was easy enough to assume that the slight was based on skin colour. Armed with the knowledge, Hortensia had taken the short trip to Marion’s and pressed the buzzer on her intercom.

‘It’s Hortensia James from next door.’
She had not been offended by the absence of any show of welcome from her neighbour or the other residents. They had not come to Katterijn to make friends, something both she and Peter had managed without for the bulk of their lives.
‘Wait, I’ll call my madam,’ a disembodied voice said.
Hortensia leaned her shoulder against the wall.
‘Hello?’ That must be Marion.
‘It’s Hortensia. From next door.’
‘Yes?’
This was the moment when Hortensia understood she would not be invited in. The slight annoyed her briefly, but she waved it away as unimportant.
‘I’ll be attending the meetings.’ It mustn’t sound like she was asking permission. ‘The committee meetings.’
‘Hmmm, I hadn’t realised you were owners.’
Hortensia still listening at the buzzer like a beggar. ‘Yes, well we are.’
‘Oh, well I was confused. And…’ Hortensia could almost hear Marion
searching for another gear. ‘…is that gentleman your husband?’ She wasn’t asking so much as scolding.
‘Who, Peter? Yes.’ Again this hadn’t surprised Hortensia. She’d fallen in love with a white man in 1950’s London. They had been asked on many occasions to verify their courtship, to affirm that they were attached, to validate their love. Within a year of being together they were practiced at it. ‘Yes, Peter is my husband.’
‘I see.’
In the silence Hortensia supposed Marion was thinking, inching towards her next move, preparing another strike, but instead she heard a sigh and almost missed the details of the upcoming meeting. Marion even threw in a dress code as a parting gift.
‘We dress for our meetings, Mrs. James. We follow rigorous decorum.’ As if she thought dignity was something Hortensia required schooling in.
The meetings seemed to have been created for the purpose of policing the neighbourhood; keeping an eye out “for elements”, the community librarian had explained to Hortensia. Foolishness she’d thought, and soon been vindicated after attending a few sessions. The meetings were a show of a significance that did not exist. Old women, with their wigs, their painted nails, their lipsticks seeping down whistle lines; scared and old rich white women pretending, in the larger scheme of life, that they were important. Hortensia attended because the women were amusing, nattering on in earnest about matters that didn’t matter. She enjoyed to think she was laughing at them. But really it passed the time, took her mind off whatever else there was.
There were times, however, when the meetings moved from amusing to offensive. Once, a black couple moved into Katterijn, renting a duplex not on the Avenue but off one of the minor roads. They had two children. A neighbour, an old man, green at the gills and one-toothed, complained that the children ought not to bother his postbox. The matter was raised in committee. He claimed that the children were assaulting his postbox, messing with it. How did he know this, had he seen it. No, he had smelt it when he climbed down his stoep to collect the mail. He knew the smell of brown children. Could this botheration come to an end, he pleaded. Hortensia had cursed him, walked out of that meeting. And as if the Heavens had heard the man’s plea, the botheration came to an end – he died.

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Franschhoek Literary Festival: Day One

From great discussions about identity politics to the psyche of apartheid spies; speculative fiction and Holocaust denialism; women who write crime fiction and debates about whether writers are made or born -the first day of the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival provided enough stimulating conversation to exercise festival goers’ brain muscles, and festival-sponsor Porcupine Ridge supplied enough wine to keep them hydrated.

Hotter than expected, veteran FLF’ers were often heard remarking that “it ALWAYS rains during Franschhoek,” yet the pleasant weather made for an excellent excuse to enjoy a glass of in vino veritas.

To whet your appetite for whatever Saturday might bring, here are a few tweets of the vet pret first day of Franschhoek Literary Festival:


 


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Help Barbara Erasmus publish her fifth novel

Author Barbara Erasmus is currently attempting to publish her fifth novel Four Letter Words through Kindle Scout.

Erasmus was the founding editor on Mike Nicol’s Crime Beat blog for three years and is the author of Kaleidoscope, Even with Insects, Chameleon and Below Luck Level.

Four Letter Words is a story about the unfairness of infertility – a girl with Turner syndrome struggles to fall pregnant because of her genetic background. It also highlights the Khanya Project which is an initiative in the Western Cape to improve literacy in the foundation phase through the use of technology.

Read an excerpt from Four Letter Words here and visit www.barbaraerasmus.com to help realise the publication thereof.

FOUR LETTER WORDS

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

Phillip Larkin

The class was divided when our teacher read out Larkin’s famous poem for the first time. Half the kids sprang immediately to their parents’ defence. The other half nodded reflectively.

The three of us were among the nodders, even then.

PROLOGUE

Dead is a four letter word. So is kill.

I didn’t use either in my garbled, panic-stricken description of how my mother died. I’ve always liked four-letter words so I had a handy string of alternatives which spilled out like a waterfall when I told my story.

Dusk. Trip. Drop. Spin. Thud.

I’m haunted by the details. Not that I remember them. It’s more that I can’t forget. It happened so quickly that I’ve probably embellished the train of events. There are too many details in the slow-motion video that plays endlessly in my mind. I pray I’ll find a switch to turn it off but somehow I know that’s not an option. The worst detail is her eyes. They’re huge. Terrified. And her hands – clutching the air, fingers stretching to find a branch that isn’t there. Her legs are flailing. Is that a word? I have an indelible picture of what I think it means.

Splat has more than four letters so I don’t use that in my description. It has too many dimensions. Sound. Sight. The water seems tinged with red but I couldn’t possibly have seen that. It was nearly dark. I wish I couldn’t see the redness. I wish I didn’t somehow know about the pain. I shy away from splat. I didn’t say it when I told them.

I didn’t say push either so no-one arrested me.

The South African police have an unenviable reputation but I can’t fault their treatment. I remember a warm blanket. Endless cups of hot sweet tea. Gentle hands around my shoulders.

No-one passed me any tissues because I wasn’t crying.

Hate is also a four-letter word.

****


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2017 Caine Prize Shortlist announced

The five-writer shortlist for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced by Chair of judges, award winning author, poet and editor, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. The list includes a former Caine Prize shortistee and features a story translated form Arabic for the second time in the 18 year history of the Prize.

Nii Parkes said the shortlist ‘reveals the depth and strength of short story writing from Africa and its diaspora.’

‘This year’s submissions were a pleasure to read; we were all impressed by the quality and imaginative ambition of the work received. Indeed, there were a dozen stories that did not make the shortlist that would win other competitions.’

He continued, ‘there seemed to be a theme of transition in many of the stories. Whether it’s an ancient myth brought to life in a contemporary setting, a cyber attack-triggered wave of migration and colonisation, an insatiable quest for motherhood, an entertaining surreal ride that hints at unspeakable trauma, or the loss of a parent in the midst of a personal identity crisis, these writers juxtapose future, past and present to ask important questions about the world we live in.’

‘Although they range in tone from the satirical to the surreal, all five stories on this year’s shortlist are unrelentingly haunting. It has been a wonderful journey so far and we look forward to selecting a winner. It will be a hard job, but I’ve always believed that you can’t go wrong with a Ghanaian at the helm of an international panel.’

The 2017 shortlist comprises:

Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) for ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ published in The New Yorker (USA. 2015)
Read ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’

Chikodili Emelumadu (Nigeria) for ‘Bush Baby’ published in African Monsters, eds. Margarét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas (Fox Spirit Books, USA. 2015)
Read ‘Bush Baby’

Bushra al-Fadil (Sudan) for ‘The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away’, translated by Max Shmookler, published in The Book of Khartoum – A City in Short Fiction eds. Raph Cormack & Max Shmookler (Comma Press, UK. 2016)
Read ‘The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away’

Arinze Ifeakandu (Nigeria) for ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ published in A Public Space 24 (A Public Space Literary Projects Inc., USA. 2016)
Read ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’

Magogodi oaMphela Makhene (South Africa) for ‘The Virus’ published in The Harvard Review 49 (Houghton Library Harvard University, USA. 2016)
Read ‘The Virus’

The full panel of judges joining Nii Ayikwei Parkes includes the 2007 Caine Prize winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko; accomplished author and Chair of the English Department at Georgetown University, Professor Ricardo Ortiz; Libyan author and human rights campaigner, Ghazi Gheblawi; and distinguished African literary scholar, Dr Ranka Primorac, University of Southampton.

The winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced at an award ceremony and dinner at Senate House Library, London, in partnership with SOAS, on Monday 3 July. Each shortlisted writer will also receive £500.

Each of these stories will be published in New Internationalist’s 2017 Caine Prize anthology The Goddess of Mwtara and Other Stories in June and through co-publishers in 16 African countries, who receive a print-ready PDF free of charge.


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Read the first chapter of Paige Nick’s Unpresidented

In the irreverent tradition of her best-selling Death by Carbs, Paige Nick rounds up a fresh herd of sacred cows in another hilarious local satire. But this time it’s Number One who gets the treatment…

It’s 2020, and ex-president Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza has just been released from prison on medical parole, with a dangerously infected ingrown toenail. Now he’s back home with his two remaining wives, a skinny dog, a rapidly dwindling entourage, and a fire pool to maintain. Plus the municipality is demanding he pay a vast outstanding rates bill.

But Muza has plans – big ones – that include a memoir of alternative facts being ghostwritten by disgraced journo Matthew Stone. Will Stone meet his deadline, as publisher, agent, and drug dealer all breathe down his neck? Will Muza pay the money in time and succeed in his plans to conquer the world? Will his long-suffering parole officer stay one jump ahead of him? And which side is he limping on today?

Enjoy the first chapter of Unpresidented: A Comedy of Errors:

30 DAYS TILL DEADLINE
THE WRITER

‘Writer, did you type up all those words I gave you yesterday?’ The ex-President asks as he lumbers into the room without apology. I shouldn’t complain, he’s only forty-five minutes late. Better than yesterday, when I stared at the four walls and a damp-stained ceiling for an hour and a half before he and his entourage deigned to grace me with their presence.

‘I did, sir, but I need to discuss this with you…’

‘Excellent. Read those words back to me now, comrade, so we can hear how it sounds before we proceed with Chapter Two. I think this is going to be a very, very great book, a bestseller definitely.’

His gang all nod and two of them high-five each other. I try again, forcing respect into my tone: ‘Yes sir, but the thing is…’

‘Ah, you are intimidated by me, Mr Stone. And I understand, I know it must be unnerving being so close to a living legend, but remember, I am still just a man who is made of flesh, bones and blood.’

‘No sir, actually, that’s not it…’ I begin again.

‘And you don’t have to call me sir. You can call me Mr President.’

‘Ex-President,’ I mumble.

‘You can begin reading now, Mr Stone. I’m an important man, with a sore toe, and I’m sure you don’t want to waste any more of my time.’

Trying to reason with him appears to be useless. I roll my eyes so far back in my head I can see the wall behind me. When they roll back around again, I tilt my laptop screen to offset the glare, clear my throat, and read as un-sarcastically as possible. Which isn’t easy.

‘Chapter One,’ I begin. ‘It was a beautiful day outside, but I had to be patient when I was released from prison, because it took forever for the gates to slide open so I could step into freedom, wearing my expensive suit. Even from behind my tinted glasses, I had to blink away the glare of the sun and cameras. It would take me a while to adjust back into the world after my time away.

‘With all eyes on me, I overcame great pain from the considerable injury that resulted in my medical parole, and limped to the podium. I am from the people of the sky – amaZulu. We are warriors, and a great man does not allow something as inconsequential as a life-threatening physical injury to hinder him. It takes more than a small axe to fell a great tree.

‘During my time away I had lost the padding I gained during my presidential years, and replaced it with this lean, agile physique I have now. When I finally got to the podium…’

‘I believe it was “of a boxer”,’ Muza interrupts me.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘The line you just read out, comrade writer: it’s supposed to say that I replaced my bulk with the lean, agile physique of a boxer. You said the words, “lean, agile physique”, but you must also include the boxer bit. It’s a very important detail.’

The ex-President’s men grunt. I type in his changes, bashing at the keyboard with two reluctant fingers, then reread the revised sentence in a monotone.

‘…During my time away I had lost the padding I gained during my presidential years, and replaced it with the lean, agile physique of a boxer.’ I look up to see if he’s satisfied. His double chins wobble as he nods, and his gang add their bobble-head-dog-on-the-dashboard nods, so I continue reading.

‘In the glare of hundreds of thousands of camera flashes, the first thing I saw from the podium, with my tireless lawyer, comrade Zwelani, by my side, was the massive crowd. In their excitement to be near their idol, thousands of people surged forward, roaring my name, “Muza, Muza, Muza!” The men were dancing, the women ululating. Some of the people in the crowd were even crying – with happiness, of course!

Fans threw flowers at me as the press jostled to get the best shot for the world’s newspaper covers the next day. They had to be pushed back by the police! I waited for the crowd to settle, so I could be heard over the cheering. Then I spoke directly to my people for the first time in three years, eight months and twenty-seven days. It is a triumphant moment I will never forget. In prison, not a day went by that I didn’t visualise my great resurrection! My holy revival! Viva Muza, viva!

‘The crowd hung on my every word. History will report that I am a great orator. And so, in this historic speech that will be quoted until the end of time, I did not shy away from the truth! I recalled the contentious circumstances of my detainment, outlining how my opponents and adversaries colluded and abused the ends of justice to bring me down! The crowd roared! They saw before them a man who could not be kept low! A man who would soon lead them once again!

‘Then other VIPs came to the podium. A preacher spoke of how I made this country great while I was President. Then a community leader bore witness to my charity and intelligence. Of course the press will not report on these things, comrades, because they are out to get me, spreading hateful propaganda. But believe me, I heard and saw these events with my very own eyes and ears.’

I peer over my screen as I come to the end of the chapter. The ex-President’s eyes are closed, and he’s mouthing the words as I read. When I’m done, he starts clapping, and everyone else joins in.

‘Very good, Mr Stone. Very, very good. You are clearly a talented writer. This is rousing, powerful stuff, don’t you agree?’

‘I would agree, sir, except … except, I didn’t write a word of it, and none of it is really true, is it?’

Muza glares at me as the room goes quiet.

‘What are you saying, writer?’

‘I’m saying, sir, Mr ex-President, sir, that what you dictated to me and instructed me to type up, isn’t exactly how things really played out on the day.’

‘How do you know what happened on that day, Mr Stone? You weren’t there from what I understand.’

‘No, you’re right about that part at least, I wasn’t there on the day you were released from prison.’

‘And neither were the millions of people who will be buying and reading this book, were they, Mr Stone?’ says the ex-President as he sips from one of the Cokes his men have handed round. I note that nobody has offered me one.

‘No, sir, once again you’re right, the people who will buy this book probably weren’t there on that day, but you see, the press were there, and they had cameras. People tweeted and Facebooked and Instagrammed about it. And from everything I saw, the events on the day were vastly different to the ones you’ve had me write down here.

‘For example, there were no speakers, and the crowd had to be held back because the police were concerned for your safety. You say people were throwing flowers, but there are only reports of some rotting fruit and veg flying around. And the bit about how much weight you lost, well, I don’t know how to put this delicately, sir, but many have referred to your parliamentary pillow…’ I say, noting his massive bulk. He’s wearing a grubby leopard-print vest with a hole just under the armpit and a pair of faded black tracksuit bottoms. His boep stretches the fabric of the vest to its limits. Boxer’s physique, my foot. Maybe in the heavyweight category. Float like an elephant, sting like a buzzard.

‘Comrade Stone, clearly you have a lot to learn about politics,’ Muza booms. ‘Just because the press says something doesn’t mean it’s true. If we believed everything the press have accused me of in the last twenty years, where would I be today?’

‘Probably still in jail,’ I mutter.

‘Exactly!’ he shoots back. ‘And I’m not, am I? I am here, back in my majestic, magnificent Homestead, where I belong. Working on some very big business plans and preparing to lead this great country once again. So you see, you can’t always believe what the press prints.’

‘Weeeeeell…’ I say.

‘And whose memories are these anyway? They are mine, not yours, Mr Stone. Mine,’ he snaps.

Muza’s veneer of charm is thinning. Not that I care. What’s he going to do, call SARS and have me audited? Fire me, hire someone else to do the job, fire them, and then hire someone new all in one weekend? Complain to Cyril? Set The Hawks on me? Hardly. He’d be lucky to find the power or the airtime to set a budgie on me. Although I don’t like the looks I’m getting from his heavies.

‘First of all, it’s a memoir, not memories, sir. And secondly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that you’re under contract with my publisher. We have a month in which you’re contractually obliged to tell me your story: the truth as it really happened, not a bunch of alternative facts that you’ve whipped up.’

‘And let me remind you, comrade Stone, that you TOO are under contract with MY publisher. You are supposed to write down everything I tell you.’

‘Yes, but right now there’s a rather big difference between everything you tell me and the truth.’

‘Are you calling me a liar, comrade Stone?’

We glare at each other, neither wanting to look away first. Until he starts his trademark chuckle, and everyone else in the room starts laughing too. I’m thrown; it’s not a reaction I was expecting.

All challenge leaves his eyes as he changes tack: ‘You must relax, comrade Stone. You worry too much. You will have your stories, and the publisher will get their book in time.’

‘Are you sure? Because we only have a month, and I’ve already been here for three days, and all you’ve done so far is keep me waiting, and then dictate a bunch of fake news, and make me write it down with a lot of exclamation marks. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to use any of it, unless the publisher decides to put this title on their fiction list instead.’

‘So, Mr Professional Writer, you don’t like the way I work. Why don’t you tell us all how you would like to do this instead?’

‘Well, for one, we’re going to need to spend a lot more time together if we’re going to get your story down in the time we have left. And you’re going to have to allow me to write it for you. What’s the point of having a professional writer if you don’t let me actually write anything? If your idea is to dictate your version of the story to me, then let’s rather just get a typist. But I think you’ll find I’m a damn good writer, if you give me half a chance.’

‘Perhaps you’re right, comrade.’

‘Really?’

‘Sure,’ he says.

‘So you’ll agree to meet with me every day for a few hours, and if you’re going anywhere or having any meetings, perhaps I can shadow you?’

Muza nods, and his entourage domino-nods.

I’m flooded with relief. I press record and place my dictaphone on the coffee table between us.

‘That would be brilliant. Why don’t we start with how it really felt to come back to the Homestead that day, after being away for so long? Did you know that three of your five wives had left you while you were in prison, and that you would be coming home to a much emptier Homestead than the one you left three years, eight months and twenty-seven days earlier?’

Muza stares at the dictaphone. He shifts in his seat and winces.

‘Those are interesting questions, comrade writer. You have given me a lot to think about and I need to consider my responses carefully. So I think that is enough work on the memories for today, don’t you?’

‘But it’s only eleven,’ I say as Muza makes a few false starts at getting to his feet, rocking backwards and forwards. Finally he clutches the armrest to heave himself out of the leather couch.

‘Can we talk again later?’ I ask.

‘I have a phone call with the Minister of Finance now, and then an important meeting with my campaign manager that I need to prepare for, so regrettably I will have to cut our work on the memories short today.’

‘Can I sit in on the calls?’

‘I would invite you, comrade, but it’s sensitive business. Top secret, in fact.’

‘Sir, Mr ex-President…’ I begin, my voice stern.

‘Alright, alright, I have a meeting with my parole officer in a few days. You can join us for that. One last thing before I go, comrade Stone.’

‘Yes?’ I say, hopefully.

‘You wouldn’t have a couple hundred I could borrow? A bottle of Johnnie Walker Black would definitely help me get my creative juices flowing, so we can write these memories together in time.’

‘That’s the point I was trying to make before, Mr ex-President. Please don’t flow with creative juices. I don’t want your juices. The creativity part is my job. I just need you to tell me the truth in your own words: how you feel and what you’re going through. People want to hear about the real man behind the legend.’

‘Precisely, comrade Stone, you are right of course. And I think a bottle of Johnnie Black would definitely help me find that man for you.’

‘Didn’t you just get a massive advance from the publisher?’ I ask.

His jaw sets. ‘Do you have any idea how much it costs to run a place like this?’ He indicates the mouldering ceiling and stained walls.

‘I think most of South Africa has some idea,’ I murmur. ‘Not to mention the legal fees from my early parole.’

Legal fees: that’s a euphemism if ever I’ve heard one, I think, as the ex-President puts his hand out, palm up. And he’s not waiting for a high five. I take cash out of my pocket and he grabs a corner of the wad. I grip my end of it tightly.

‘If I give you this, do you promise we can do some more work together later today, after your calls?’

‘Of course, comrade, you have my word,’ he says.

I let go of my side of the wad, and the cash is secreted in his tracksuit pants in under a second.

‘And if not today, comrade, we’re definitely on for tomorrow,’ he adds as he waddles out of the room, followed by his crew. He’s quick on his feet for a man with such a dangerously infected ingrown toenail that he’s been released from prison years early on medical parole.

I look around for something to punch, but everything in this room looks like it already had the life punched out of it ages ago.

Unpresidented

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Book Bites: 14 May 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Alexandra Kleeman (HarperCollins)
Book buff
****
Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel is an uncomfortable read. Her exploration and critique of modern-day society’s obsession with consumerism is unerring. Within the first few pages Kleeman, via the narrator, comments on the warped contemporary ideals of female beauty; the dangerous allure of advertising; and our innate need and insatiable desire to consume. It’s told in the first person narrative, simply by someone known as “A” who lives with “B”. They are 20-something women living in small-town America who are basically your girls next door. But “A” becomes part of a cult and their lives begin to unravel. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is unsettling as it hits so close to home. The characters in the novel are people you know, people you’ve met, you. Kleeman has written an existential, accessible novel reminiscent of Requiem For a Dream and Fight Club which will make you think twice before buying into any trend of any sort. – Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016
PJ O’Rourke (Penguin Random House)
Book real
***
Veteran journalist/humorist PJ O’Rourke’s latest work, on the US election, asks the question in its title. Unfortunately, much of the first part of the book is unfunny, college-style humour that will fail to find traction among readers outside the US. But he later gets into his stride, commenting on the two candidates: “Yet to call Hillary robotic is an insult to androids. She’s more like someone trapped inside a Hillary costume, one of those dressed-up characters pestering tourists in Times Square.” As for Trump: “Trump was the guy from the mailroom who somehow wound up with a job interview for the position of national sales manager. If you promote him it will be a disaster. But if you leave him in the mailroom he’ll take his pants down, sit on the Xerox machine, and fax the result to all your customers.” The closing chapters of the book offer an insight into the populist wave sweeping world politics, not least here in South Africa where “radical economic transformation” has become a catch-all slogan and supposed popular remedy for our economic problems. Being a libertarian and believer in small government, O’Rourke cogently expresses his disappointment with the revolt against ruling elites in the US and around the world. Instead of pursuing a new, libertarian option, however, voters find populism more appealing. He writes: “We should be learning the value of individual dignity, individual freedom, and individual responsibility from the failure of the elites and the fiasco of their vast political power. Good things are made by free individuals in free association with other individuals. Notice that’s how we make babies.” He continues: “But we aren’t learning lessons in individual freedom, because we’re too scared. We’re daunted at the pace of material change, unnerved over social configurations, fretful about economic instability, and terrified by terrorism.” Yes, the elites have messed up around the world, O’Rourke says, but the answer is not populism and a narrowing of individual liberty and responsibility. And certainly not Trump. – Patrick Bulger

A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles (Penguin Viking)
Book thrill
****
This is a splendid tale of a man making the most of the cards life has dealt him. The story begins in the 1920s, when a Bolshevik tribunal finds Count Alexander Rostov guilty of being an aristocrat. His punishment: permanent house arrest in the attic of the luxurious Hotel Metropol. Here the count embarks on the biggest adventure of his life. It’s as much a tale of unlikely friendships and magnificent encounters as it is a fictionalised, wry account of Russian history. Towles is guilty of a well-wrought plot and vivid three-dimensional characters: the precocious nine-year-old, the volatile chef, the omniscient concierge, the nimble maître d’ and the conniving bishop make A Gentleman in Moscow a stylish, charming novel that informs and delights. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

The Golden Son
Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins)
Book fling
***
Anil and Leena grow up together in the same Indian village. But the lives of the two friends diverge: Anil finds himself in the US training to become a doctor, while Leena is married to a man she doesn’t know and is brought to an unfamiliar village. The reality of their lives is at odds with their dreams: encountering racism, sexism, domestic violence, the culture of privilege and inequality. The Golden Son is a coming-to-America tale, illustrating the cost of travelling to new places: “He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie
 
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Runaway train: Michele Magwood chats to Paula Hawkins about her latest novel Into The Water

Published in the Sunday Times

For Paula Hawkins, moving from Harare to the UK was a watershed, writes Michele Magwood

I first met Paula Hawkins in Cape Town, after the publication of The Girl on the Train. She was visiting with friends and family but had agreed to some interviews about the book, which had entered the charts with a bullet, as they used to say.

“It’s a little overwhelming, I didn’t expect the reception it’s had,” she said then. She was diffident and a little guarded, seemingly puzzled that anyone would want to know more about her. She was broke when she sat down to write the book. She’d borrowed money to stay afloat and was living in a flat in a run-down semi near the Brixton men’s prison with her ex-boyfriend.

She was no neophyte: she has a degree from Oxford and had worked as a financial journalist on The Times. She’d written four chicklit novels under the pen name Amy Silver but the last two had bombed and she knew if she couldn’t pull off the next one she’d have to throw it all in and change careers. “It was the last roll of the dice.”

Jump ahead two years. The Girl On The Train has sold a staggering 20 million copies and been made into a Hollywood movie starring Emily Blunt. Hawkins has been catapulted into the Forbes list of highest-earning authors, alongside such writers as JK Rowling and James Patterson.

She is, I discover, still a little perplexed at her success. “I’m still stunned,” she laughs, on the phone from London. “That book’s a phenomenon. They come around every now and again and nobody really understands why. It won’t happen again. That was a one-off.”

We are talking about her new book Into The Water, which was released worldwide this month by Penguin Random House. Rarely has a book been so anticipated, rarely has there been such pressure on an author to perform. I wondered if the weight of expectations was too much to bear.

“You have to develop as thick a skin as you can and shut out the noise. It was a difficult process mostly because it was so interrupted. I wanted to shut myself away and immerse myself in it but I couldn’t — I was constantly touring or having to do interviews But I met some really interesting writers, and I have more confidence now. It’s swings and roundabouts really.”

Into The Water is set in a village in Northumberland, on the banks of a river. A part of the river is known as The Drowning Pool, where witches were drowned in the 17th century and where a number of women have plunged to their deaths since. As the story opens, a 15-year-old girl, Katie Whittaker, has drowned there, followed weeks later by the middle-aged Nel Abbott. Both seem to be suicides.

Nel’s younger sister, Jules, from whom she was estranged, is obliged to return to the village she fled to look after Nel’s daughter Lena, who was Katie’s best friend. Gradually — Hawkins is adept at the slow reveal — she begins to plumb the depths of this picture-postcard village, dredging up hideous events that reach back to her own childhood. Jules comes to realise that she has tragically misunderstood — and misremembered — events from her past.

Like The Girl On The Train, this has as its main theme the fallibility of memory, although Jules is no alcoholic.

“I wanted to write about siblings and about how our recollections of childhood events can be very different from each other’s. Often those things are quite trivial, but what if that incident that you differently interpret is fundamental to the people you become?”

Hawkins’s own childhood was a happy and settled one in Harare, where she was born in 1972. Her father was an economics professor at the university. “It was your typical white southern African childhood, with a nice house and a swimming pool, riding bicycles – that sort of thing. Obviously, as I got older I became conscious of the inequality, the fact that your comfortable lifestyle comes at a high cost. It was a good time for me to leave when I did. ”

It was this leaving, at the age of 17, that formed her as a writer, she says, not so much the experience of growing up in Zimbabwe. “Coming to London, feeling like a complete outsider, like I didn’t belong. I think it’s that ‘outsider-ness’ that a lot of writers experience, you sit on the sidelines and you observe.”

After getting a politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford, she began working as a financial journalist. When work started drying up after the crash in 2008, she turned to writing novels.

“It’s the ordinary, everyday, rather sad domestic lives gone wrong that interest me, rather than spies and serial killers. These are people you recognise. They’re struggling, they’re not rich or famous, they’re just trying to get through things.”

Hawkins is richer now than she could ever have imagined, though she’s hardly splashing it around.

“I didn’t go out and buy diamonds,” she laughs. “I do have a new apartment in the centre of London now. I’ve done a bit of travelling and I stay in nicer places than I used to, but that’s it, really. The first thing I did when I signed the deal for The Girl On The Train was pay off my credit card debt — there was a lot of it. It was such a relief, I wasn’t in trouble any more.”

Her parents still live in Harare and she returned last year to share a stage with Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, who she adores. “She’s a force of nature and an amazing writer.”

Dreamworks has once again bought the rights to Into The Water, and this time Hawkins will be an executive producer. Hopefully they won’t set it in the US as they did with The Girl On The Train to the outrage of many fans.

As for a new novel, “I’ve got some ideas for characters but I haven’t actually been able to put pen to paper, I’m just thinking about it.”

Follow at Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Listen to the podcast of the interview here.
 

Into the Water

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The Girl on the Train


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