Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Author Q&A: Chris Carter

Published in the Sunday Times

Chris Carter, author of Gallery of the Dead.

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?

Any book that could teach them to be humble, tolerant and understanding. It seems that most of the world has been lacking in those basic human attributes of late.

Which book changed your life?

To be honest, no book has really changed my life. I never read very much — as a child or as an adult. Writing became part of my life more by chance than by choice.

What music helps you write?

I can listen to just about anything, but if I have a choice then definitely rock music.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

I have done a lot of strange things while researching for a book. Mind you, I’ve done a lot of strange things while not researching for a book as well, but maybe lying inside a coffin to see how it feels would be top of the list. That was a little odd.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?

Can it be musicians? They are much more interesting than writers. In that case I would have Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and Nikki Sixx. Can you imagine the party afterwards?

What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?

I would have to say I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. Great story.

What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?

An article about Brexit in the UK. All of it is a joke.

What are you most proud of writing?

Every single one of my novels. For someone who never even considered writing a short story, writing nine novels so far is quite an achievement. I am very proud of that.

What keeps you awake at night?

My cat. He keeps jumping on and off the bed.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

I would tell myself to start earlier. I started writing when I was 42 years old.

What did you edit out of this book?

A lot. My editing process is very thorough. With every book I write, I end up editing a hell of a lot out of it. I can’t remember exactly what I cut, but it amounted to about 15000 words.

How do you select the names of your characters?

At complete random, but I do use a rule. I only use names that are easy to pronounce no matter in which country the reader is. I once stopped reading a book because I could not pronounce many of the characters’ names. It was annoying. All my characters have easy names no matter which country you’re in — Mark, John, Jennifer, Carlos, Barbara, etc.

Book details

» read article

2018 Sunday Times Literary Awards winners announced

Johannesburg, 24 June 2018: The winners of the prestigious Sunday Times Literary Awards were announced at a gala dinner held at The Venue, Melrose Arch, on Saturday 23 June.

Bongani Ngqulunga received the Alan Paton award for non-fiction for his book, The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, while Harry Kalmer was named the recipient of the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize for his book, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg. Both titles are published by Penguin Books.

The Sunday Times Literary Awards are considered the most prestigious literary accolade in South Africa.

“This year’s judging was tough but what was evident was the recognition of the art of writing. South Africa’s rich history and diverse stories are being rigorously explored, examined and celebrated,” says Jennifer Platt, Sunday Times Books Editor.

Now in its 29th year, the Alan Paton Award recognises exceptional non-fiction writing as displayed by Bongani Ngqulunga’s story The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme.

The Alan Paton judging panel consisted of Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron; journalist Paddi Clay; and award-winning writer, journalist and filmmaker, Sylvia Vollenhoven.

They said Ngqulunga’s book was “a revelatory, inspiring study of a man and a movement that reverberates right up to today. It is a scholarly, well-researched book that illuminates our flawed roots and our flawed nationhood, presented through the complex and mercurial character of Seme.”

The Barry Ronge Fiction Prize panel was chaired by popular radio personality, Africa Melane, alongside Love Books owner Kate Rogan and award-winning writer Ken Barris.

“Johannesburg emerges as a fascinating beast of a city, and this is a novel way of celebrating it. The outstanding writing and innovative structure – along with memorable characters – make this an instant classic,” said the fiction prize panel of Harry Kalmer’s A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg.

Kalmer is the 18th recipient of the Sunday Times fiction prize, named for Barry Ronge, arts commentator and one of the founders of the Sunday Times Literary Awards.

Recipients of the 2018 Alan Paton Award and Barry Ronge Fiction Prize each receive R100 000.

Book details

» read article

“The blood of the woman on the stoep of my father’s shop was redder than stoep polish.” Read an extract from Harry Kalmer’s A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, shortlisted for the 2018 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

“My name is Alice and I am as old as the mountains.”

Richard Ho’s grandmother spoke into Cherie Sadie’s camera.

“As old as the mine dumps. As old as Mandela. We were born in the same year. So I am not exactly sure what I imagine and what I remember. Is there a difference? Not much, if you ask me.

“Sometimes when I am in bed, I think I hear the whistle of a steam locomotive. But there haven’t been steam trains in Johannesburg for years. So the train I hear is probably only my memory. Or my imagination.

“At night in Chinatown you could hear the trains shunting at the municipal market and in the Braamfontein Yard. Steam trains. Toot-toot. Clickety-clack. But my first memory is of another place.

“My father owned a shop next to a mine. It was during a strike. There was a Boer woman. Afterwards we heard that her husband was a scab. She was on the stoep of my father’s cash store when a piece of coal hit her in the eye. Nobody knew who threw it. I’m telling you, she screamed. She dropped to her knees and cried like a baby. I remember it like it was yesterday. She was wearing a white apron and one of those kappies that the poor aunties wore in those days. Blood spurted from her eye like a fountain.

“I seldom speak Afrikaans these days. But the pretty words come back all the time. Words like ‘fontein’ and ‘lokomotief’. Not words you hear a lot any more, if you hear what I’m saying.

“Anyway, I’m losing track of my thoughts. The blood of the woman on the stoep of my father’s shop was redder than stoep polish. My parents tried to stop the bleeding with a towel. Older Brother who died last year at ninety-five … or was it the year before last? Anyway, Dad sent Older Brother to call the soldiers. They came with a tank or lorry or something like that and took the poor white woman away. I don’t know who the woman was and I never saw her again. But I clearly remember her eye spouting blood like a fountain. That’s the first thing I remember.”

Book details

» read article

Read an extract from Francois Smith’s The Camp Whore, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Rock. Above me and around me. I am in a cave, I know that now. On the rockface eland are leaping over me, and between them are little black men with knobkerries in their hands. I also know what that is.

On Bosrand there was a cave with Bushman paintings. Yes, Bosrand. Now things are coming back to me. Pa had shown us. Pa. Ma. Neels. Me.

There was also a face in front of me. I remember now. And the shock. He sat on his haunches next to me, and I saw the grains of sand on his pants and on his hand. Then I saw that the hand was black. I closed my eyes. Shut them. Later on, I again tried to work out where I was but all I could see were these mud clouds and the only thing that existed was this terrible fear.

It’s also him talking now, that face.

It’s like rocks tumbling down a mountain from up high. It is a sound that I know. I understand what he is saying. Kgotso, Mofumahat-sana, he says. That is how they greet one. The good ones, that is their greeting. But he just wants me to believe that he is one of the good ones, what he really wants is a white woman to do with as he pleases.

I can see him clearly now. He sits with his knees pulled up and holds a knobkerrie between his legs. His head is turned away, but I know he is watching from the corner of his eye. Metsi. That is what I need to say. Water. I want water. He must give me water, that is all I want, and then I can die. He must just kill me quickly so that I cannot see or feel what he is doing.

He puts the knobkerrie down and stands up. I’m scared half to death. But all he does is dip his hand into a calabash next to me – I’ve only just noticed it – and brings his hand to my mouth. Cupped.

I stick out my tongue and can at least taste the water. He lets it drip. I try to swallow, but my tongue won’t move. Luckily, more comes, and then more. The water is bitter, tasting of leaves, something like aloe or sage. My whole face is wet, and so are my chin and throat.

There is something wrapped around my head, I can feel that now. Why am I lying here under a blanket? Am I naked? What has the herdsman done to me? What is he going to do to me?

O mang? That is what I should say. Who are you? But the words refuse to come out. I can’t speak. Like Ma, when she tried to pray but couldn’t find the words and stretched her hands out towards me. Lord, watch over us, and let your light shine upon us.

My lips crack when I try to open my mouth. Only prayer will prevent darkness from descending on the land. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, sayeth the Lord. There is a priest sticking his hands up in the air, straight as an arrow up at the clouds and he looks down at me, and I look away from his terrible face, away from his eyes glaring at me like a glowing furnace, seeing only evil and wretchedness. Where is that herdsman who is always sitting here, next to me, where is he? His name is Tiisetso. He doesn’t call me nooi. But then he looks away and says ke sôno. It’s a great pity, he says. He says I must sleep again so that I can become strong again. He says I was hurt badly at Balla Bosiu. With his knobkerrie he pounds the ground between his feet.

Balla Bosiu. The camp. The place where they weep at night, that is what they call it. That I do remember. The camp. That is where I have come from. I know that now. But if I close my eyes and think, then all that comes to mind is the feel of a sheep’s hoof in my hand, how hard the bone is under the skin, and the prickly wool, and the kick that jerks my arm right up my shoulder. Then I see someone pull back the head and swiftly draw a blade across the throat and cut, cut, cut as the blood bubbles and the windpipe bursts, and I cannot look away even though I want to and the man who is slaughtering looks at me, his nose is thin and skew and his lips are dry and the same colour as his skin, not red, and he says something to me, but I cannot hear what he is saying.

Instead, I keep my eyes open. But how did I get here? This man must tell me. What is he going to do with me? If only I could ask. What is he going to do with me?

Book details

» read article

“In search of plausibility, of fictional truth, I had to put myself in that woman’s shoes.” Francois Smith on writing The Camp Whore, shortlisted for the 2018 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Francois Smith lectures in literature and creative writing at the University of the Free State. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Bloots, Kosblik, Skarlakenkoors and Op die spoor van, and his translation of David Kramer: A Biography has been awarded a SALA Literary Prize. His debut novel, Kamphoer (2014), won the ATKV Prose Prize and the SALA for First-time Published Author. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of Cape Town.

The Camp Whore (originally Kamphoer in Afrikaans) was written as an assignment. I was freelancing as publishing editor. I helped other authors write their books, never having the time or the creative energy for my own. Then came the story that violently swished me into the writer’s chair.

A young girl was brutally raped in one of the Anglo-Boer War concentration camps and many years later – in another war in another country – encountered one of her rapists. This story, proclaimed to be true, was discovered by Nico Moolman, who self-published it as The Boer Whore. Tafelberg Publishers bought the rights to the story from Moolman. I regularly worked for them and they wanted an Afrikaans version of it.

Initially I thought they had a translation in mind but they wanted a brand-new novel and wanted me to write it. Me? Yes, they said, you have a ready-made plot, we’ll keep the wolf from the door for three months, and you’ve had years of practice on other people’s stories – what is the problem?

By all accounts my protagonist was a most remarkable woman who survived her ordeal through inner strength. But also decisive were a series of benefactors, among whom were two traditional Sotho healers who nursed her back to life and enabled her to find her way out of the ravages of war. I also had a marvellous ironic twist to work with in the sense that my heroine had escaped the South African war only to find herself in the midst of the greatest war of them all: World War 1, this time as a psychiatric nurse.

I had to consider how closely I was going to stick to the original version, which was in essence a story of revenge. What interested me from the outset, however, was not so much the historical truth of the story but the impenetrability of the encounter at the heart of this tale, namely that of the victim and the perpetrator coming face to face. This is what spurred my imagination, getting to grips with the complexities of that situation. What would happen if a woman had to meet her rapist?

Historical truth, I realised is in this regard as deceptive as fantasy, especially male fantasy. Historical research is the easy part of fiction writing. Writers do waste a lot of time on it, but eventually you have to venture on the treacherous roads to face the real dragon, something called fictional truth – or rather, the truth in fiction. The measure of this truth is not factuality but plausibility.

In search of plausibility, of fictional truth, I had to put myself in that woman’s shoes and walk in them from beginning to end. I had to stay true to that. I had to stay in her head and look through her eyes and I had to employ all my writerly wits to distinguish between her ways of seeing and mine.

From the outset I realised that for a man to attempt to imagine what is singularly a woman’s experience is an audacious endeavour. It was a realisation that at times almost petrified me, but this trepidation is typically what one feels when you have to move out of yourself towards the other. And that is eminently the task of the writer, this perpetual reaching out to the other.

Book details

» read article

The links between southwest France and the Cape inspired Kate Mosse’s latest novel, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

Kate Mosse has a house in Carcassonne, again the setting of a novel. Picture: Supplied

The Burning Chambers
Kate Mosse, Mantle, R285

Bestselling author Kate Mosse visited the graveyard in Franschhoek several years ago and felt such a strong sense of the links between the southwest of France and the Cape, the landscape and Huguenot history that, she says, a shiver ran down her spine. It inspired The Burning Chambers.

Readers are plunged into 16th-century France, to a time of bloody strife between Protestants and Catholics, persecution of the Huguenots and the massacre of Toulouse. Like her Languedoc trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel), this novel is set predominantly in Carcassonne.

“All my fiction is inspired by place, by landscape,” she says. Mosse knows the place – she goes there every month to write. When she’s there the history of this fortified medieval city is palpable to her. She’s walked the ancient streets and climbed the towers and seen the sun on the citadel, and this intimate knowledge she bring to The Burning Chambers.

It’s a lot of complex history to wrangle, and Mosse handles it deftly, bringing the setting and its events vividly to life while interweaving the familial and romantic stories. At its heart is a love story, between young Minou Joubert, the daughter of a Catholic bookshop owner, and Piet Reydon, a Dutch-born Protestant convert and supporter of the Protestant army.

Minou receives a mysterious anonymous letter: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. Piet has secrets and a dangerous mission. The characters’ converging storylines are interspersed with extracts from a mysterious diary. The book proceeds with plenty of threads, twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. A priceless religious relic, treachery, torture and murder add to the intrigue.

Mosse’s characters – Minou’s family, the political and religious plotters and planners, and a mysterious and nasty villain – keep us emotionally connected.

“I have an idea of the sort of people I need, and it’s as if I build a set, and the characters start to show themselves. I’m intrigued. ‘Ah, so that’s who you are. I see. And you have red hair.’ It’s like a developing photograph. Sometimes, someone who I thought was a chorus member will say no, she’s a supporting lead. Other times it turns out a character just isn’t up to the job.”

Women’s stories are often at the heart of Mosse’s books. “I like to write about older women,” she says. “They hear more and see more than people realise.”

Mosse points out that certain themes and experiences – prejudice and persecution, family, exile, political power, tolerance, love – are timeless and universal. It’s these that drive the novel.

This novel is the first in a quartet tracing Huguenot history through three centuries. Fans of Mosse’s big, engrossing historical novels will be delight to have three more to look forward to, following the descendants of some of the characters in The Burning Chambers. @KateSidley

Book details

» read article

“It started off the way my projects often do; with a title.” Harry Kalmer writes about the origins of his novel, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, shortlisted for the 2018 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Harry Kalmer is an award-winning playwright and novelist who has authored six works of fiction and 23 plays. His novel En die lekkerste deel van dood wees was the runner-up in the 2007 Sanlam/Insig Groot Roman competition. Briewe aan ‘n rooi dak, based on the letters of Magdalena Otto, received the Anglo-Gold Aardklop award for best new drama in 2001, and was adapted for TV and broadcast. In 2014, his drama The Bram Fischer Waltz won the Adelaide Tambo Award for Human Rights in the Arts. He lives in Johannesburg.

It started off the way my projects often do; with a title. The title arrived on a Monday morning in 2007 outside a hardware store. At the same moment an image of a fountain with Arabic titles appeared.

The fountain I recalled from a walk in Tangiers years before. However, this image placed the fountain in a courtyard in Belgravia, the suburb that, in the 1890s was Jozi’s first walled community.

A few weeks later in Springs I waited for someone next to a pool of stagnant mine water with reeds and water fowl. I wrote what I thought was an opening line in a notebook. The line ended up on page 41 of A Thousand Tales. The fountain didn’t make it onto the page but the book was set in Belgravia and the title made it to publication.

For a long time it remained only a title. The xenophobic attacks of May 2008 and the fact that the violence spilt over into the suburb where my unwritten book was set, was a trigger. I was horrified by the proximity of the violence to my cosy middle-class existence, the brutality of the attacks and what it said about our society.

The violence became the backdrop for the novel.

A title with the words A Thousand doesn’t lend itself to a short format. I realised I needed help and enrolled in a masters in creative writing at the University of Stellenbosch. By the end of that year, thanks to my supervisors, Willem Anker and Marlene van Niekerk, I had a 300-page first draft.

I colour coded the storylines, arranged them in interesting patterns on my wall and used it as a structure for the next draft. A year and several drafts later I added the first 40 pages.

During that time I was invited to read at Africa Short Story Day – I was the only Afrikaans reader – and read a scene from my work in progress. The scene was set in the Rockey Street jazz club Rumours during the 1980s. Half the audience didn’t understand what I read. I realised that the book should also be published in English.

By 2012 I had enough of a manuscript to end up on the shortlist for the Groot Afrikaanse Romanwedstryd.

‘n Duisend Stories oor Johannesburg was finally published in 2014 and was eventually shortlisted for eight Afrikaans literary awards. I translated the book myself and Melt Myburgh and Fourie Botha at Penguin Random House said they wanted to publish it. They appointed Michael Titlestadt as editor.

I translated the book so that more people, my English-speaking family members and friends could read it. And perhaps find a few new readers.

Book details

» read article

Bevan Frank on his award-winning debut thriller, The Mind of God, global consciousness, the British royal family, and Random Event Generators

By Mila de Villiers

Local author Bevan Franks’ debut thriller, The Mind of God, which is set in Cape Town, has won the 2018 Indie Reader Discovery Award for Popular Fiction. Judges included notable publishers, agents, publicists and bloggers.

The announcement was made by Robin Cutler, Director of IngramSpark on Saturday 2 June, at Book Expo America, a major trade show in New York.

I discerned the following about Bevan’s lauded book (thanks, gmail!)…

The book is set against an unfolding terrorist plot in Cape Town while the president of the USA is visiting the Mother City. Could you expand on the nature of the plot and, in light of the Trump-era, why you decided on the president of the United States specifically and not, say, a British prime minister?

A mysterious black box gets stolen from the University of Cape Town while the president of the USA is in the Mother City. Is this a coincidence or is there something more sinister at play? When the professor who worked on the black box disappears, it is up to Liz Greene to find out what happened to her father and his groundbreaking research before it is too late. Liz and her friend, Tim Fletcher, must solve one clue after another as they suddenly find themselves fleeing for their lives in a deadly hunt around Cape Town.

Why did I choose a US presidential character as opposed to one from another country? America is still one of the most, if not the most, powerful countries in the world. Any visit by an American president to SA is a huge news story/event with potential to bring with it positive trade and economic outcomes for SA. Also, in SA there is a huge following of American culture (regardless of ones political views) from movies to books to TV to clothing. (Even one of the gangs on the Cape Flats calls themselves the Americans!)

So if South Africa is a good enough place for an American president to visit, I hope that Americans who have never been to SA would consider it as a holiday destination. Part of my aim in writing the book was to attract international audiences, to get the world to discover SA and to ultimately play my own small part in helping to boost the South African brand (and rand!) And lots of parts of America remain an untapped market in terms of enticing American tourists to visit our shores.

Could you tell our readers a bit more about your protagonist, Liz Greene, and why her father’s research plays such an integral role in the plot?

Liz Greene lives in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. What starts out as an ordinary day for her quickly unfolds into something deadly and sinister as events spiral out of her control. She has developed the ability to deal with what life throws at her, and once she sets her mind to something, there’s no stopping her! But will she be able to cope with the unfolding plot that readers are exposed to? There are various players who will stop at nothing to get what they want, which is something related to Liz’s father’s black box and its crucial global consciousness research that he had recently made a breakthrough with. The black box is the crucial driver behind the fictitious thriller.

The mysterious black box around which the story centres is a Random Event Generator. Could you please

a) explain the purpose of a Random Event Generator (in layman’s terms – after a furious bout of googling, I’m *still* baffled!) and
b) why you decided on the funeral of Princess Diana as a method of describing the ‘worldwide mind’ of grief experienced around the globe? Is this commentary on how easily humankind is influenced by anonymous, yet powerful/revered figures which we – to an extent – tend to deify?

Is there an invisible consciousness that connects all of humanity? What if we could somehow measure it and use it to predict the future? My thriller centres around a real-life project by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which researches how beliefs, thoughts, and intentions affect the physical world. At the core of this is the black box device or Random Event Generator. In scientific terms, a Random Event Generator is a device that uses computer technology to generate two numbers – a one and a zero – in an entirely random sequence, almost like an electronic coin flipper. [I hope this clarifies a bit more! The reality is that I go into a lot of detail in the book about this and it becomes clearer as the novel progresses.]

While conducting my research for the novel, I found the impact of Princess Diana’s funeral on the black box to be absolutely amazing. In fact I couldn’t believe that it was true, but it was and I decided that this was one of the best examples to use in revealing what actually transpired that day in terms of global consciousness. I don’t want to give away too much to your readers as I obviously don’t want to spoil the story, but there are other important global events which had significant impact on the black box which I explore in my novel too, including a lot of detail about 9/11. What is astonishing is that the black box had a type of ‘premonition’ a few hours before the tragic events of 9/11 took place. As I waded deeper into my research I knew that this subject matter had to be shared, and what better way to do it than amidst an exciting thriller!

The royal family features prominently in your novel; when did you start writing The Mind of God? Was it long before the announcement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement? As a side note – do you think the British royal family are deserving of the worldwide attention they garner? Is royalty still relevant in the 21st century era? And how did it feel when you heard Bishop Curry quote the exact same de Chardin-quote which appears in your novel?

My book was finished before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle even started dating, which is why I was even more amazed when Bishop Curry mentioned the quote by de Chardin in his sermon at their wedding. The fact that he used the same quote I used at the beginning of my book just reinforced to me the power of synchronicity and how we are all connected, in ways most people don’t even realize.

On the subject of the British royal family, I believe that they are deserving of all the attention they get today. I think that the monarchy and its rich history is important for Britain as a country and for its economy, and can continue to play an important role particularly the younger generation of royals who have made it more relevant in today’s age.

Role models, whether royalty or other, are important in life and many people look up to their role models to give them hope and aspiration. Whether it is a child playing rugby in Soweto who gets inspiration from our new Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi, or an aspiring comedian on the Cape Flats who dreams one day of making it big like Trevor Noah or an actress by the name of Meghan who grew up in Los Angeles and one day married a prince!

Does the title comment on the (conflicting) notion that power is dictated by either science or religion in a contemporary society?

Here is a pull-out quote from the novel which is relevant to the title:

“What happened here can only be described as a truly global effect of consciousness, almost like a global mind’s inchoate thoughts. Some would even go far enough to call it the Mind of God.”

What’s next? :D

Recovery from my stroke!! I need to get my strength and sanity back. But yes, Liz Greene will be back, in an environmental thriller. Watch this space :)


» read article

“I wanted more scope for her … more focus on her virtues and flaws.” Madeline Miller discusses Circe with Diane Awerbuck

Published in the Sunday Times

Circe *****
Madeline Miller Bloomsbury, R295

Men are pigs. Ask Homer, who wrote in the eighth century BCE about heroic Odysseus trying to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. In The Odyssey Homer devotes two chapters to Circe, a beautiful witch. When Odysseus and his weary sailors land on her island paradise, she turns them into pigs.

But Madeline Miller gives the goddess a makeover in her second brilliant novel, Circe. The great Odysseus gets a taut two chapters, and Circe has to teach herself “the simple mending of the world”.

Miller says she always starts a book with an idea about a character, and waits until she has a strong sense of their voice. Circe, traditionally “a sexy, dangerous witch, a villain, an obstacle to be overcome”, presented a challenge and an opportunity. “I wanted more scope for her,” says Miller, “more focus on her virtues and flaws” than the huge works of literature, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, allow.

“I have a background in theatre, so I’m always imagining being in her skin, seeing through her eyes, hearing her delivering the monologue. I like it to feel organic. Natural. So it took me a long time to hear her voice.”

Seven years, to be exact. Not quite as long as it took Odysseus to circumnavigate the known and unknown world, but close. Miller sets out to rehabilitate the witch, and concludes that heroism comes in different forms.

Is Circe a feminist character? “Definitely,” says Miller. “I always felt her otherness.” Rejected by her Titan parents, considered a figure of fun by the other nymphs for her soft heart, and exiled to a faraway island, Circe teaches herself magic. She learns through bitter experience to deal both in healing and the darker arts.

Is writing a similar kind of witchcraft? “Absolutely, I recognise that,” says Miller. “It’s research and hard work and making it happen, day after day – but there is also that inexplicable thing that happens. Call it muse or intuition or inspiration, the way your mind shifts. But you also have to keep showing up.”

Miller has always been fascinated by stories. “I remember from the time I was five or so, my mother would read these epic tales to me, and I loved how big and exciting and real they felt. They were intense and adult – there were monsters, and grief and desire and pain and love.” Circe is so compelling because it is pacy but also literary: Miller writes so clearly and with such yearning and wisdom that the book is a spellbinding immersion in a terrifying, believable and satisfying universe.

It is at once familiar and unsettling. “Like the best cover songs,” I suggest, “the ones where the tune or the words are familiar but the singer has elevated it into a completely different experience.” Miller is unconvinced. “It’s not only songs,” she says. “As a writer I’m very conscious of being part of these epic narratives, both ancient and modern – from The Odyssey and The Iliad and all those guys, but also from Tennyson – the traditions established over millennia.”

And Miller’s own voice is utterly distinctive, keen and kind. Circe shows how experience transforms us: nymphs change into sea monsters; rapists morph into pigs; a heartless goddess becomes a selfless parent: “What creature,” Circe asks herself, “lies within me?”

Miller argues that being human is banal and unfair, but also wonderful and terrible. Men may become pigs, but the gods are worse: they are eternal. Mortals can be both heroes and monsters. We get the whole pantheon – grief, and desire, and pain, and love.

Book details

» read article

Read an excerpt from Lesego Rampolokeng’s Bird-Monk Seding, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Lesego Rampolokeng is a poet, word performer, and the author of 12 books, including two plays and three novels. He has collaborated with visual artists, playwrights, film-makers, theatre and opera producers, and musicians. His no-holds-barred style, radical political aesthetic and instantly recognisable voice have brought him a unique place in South African literature.

The gathered, sweating, angry-to-trembling Afrikaners in the dusty street want it to have been an attempt at rape. An assault on their grasping at white nationhood. The hands are on the guns. The trucks roar, eager to grab whoever it was. Old woman speaking, the one who lives in the house opposite, with her Parkinson’s-diseased geriatric husband who can only hobble a quarter step at a time from the door to the gate, and her divorced, middle-aged, bulimic daughter. She speaks fast, her squeaky vice trying to rise above the deep-throat growls of the trucks and their old-republic-clad occupants. She prattles fast about how i am a good person, i live in that little house behind the trees, i help out… and it is to not have them turn their murder-intent and fire attention on me… Yes, they gathered in, wanting it to have been an attempt at despoiling this white woman.

And the victim… she struts, the attention bringing a little colour, in vain, to her face. She is walking off her soles, bouncing, glad. She looks like crumpled khaki, like brown paper wrapper out in the elements too long. Like she has been through storms, wind, dust then drain-water drenched and cast out in the driving sun. Pink blotched some kind of symmetry across the face. Deep lined, the visage. Trenches cutting in and across. Thin to the bone, you can see the bones sticking out on both shoulders, desperately holding her shirt up. She bathes in the harsh light of her victimhood. For a change because always when she walks past, the boers look at her. Surreptitiously, the grimaces forming, and steal their glances away, never staring.


She is no boeremeisie to hold up in pride of the Van Riebeeck and oom Paul Kruger old tradition. She hustles all – black, white – for money in the street. The pale skin peeling off her face. She collects and sells scrap metal across the freeway and…you need not be told but you can see the drug-hunger. The craze behind the skinless eyes.

This day her two children, 6 and 8, ran screaming down the dirt-street and cries filled the air. I ran out. And heard through the trees bordering our properties my AWB neighbour furiously saying, loud-voiced – i later learned it was into her telephone – ‘kom gou…kom gou’ and blabbering incoherently, other things. By the time i got to the gate there were three trucks and a couple of cars gathered in the street, guns on show. A police car arrives, and the police are bored, one yawning. It is Monday morning.

They don’t believe this rape story. The AWB neighbour, predatory, like the smell of blood was in the air and the wounded close by, was wafting and floating around, holding centre-court.

Book details

» read article