Rivalry is rife in writing. Famous battles have included Ernest Hemingway vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez vs. Mario Vargas Llosa and Charlotte Brontë vs. Jane Austen. So were interested to find out how two great writers, Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer succeeded in writing South, such a fine novel, without so much as a punch or broken nib. Here's the first part of our interview of the two-headed writer - Frank Owen.
How did the decision to write a novel together come about?
ALEX: Writing my first novel was really difficult – mostly because it was such an isolating experience. I spent a year in my own head. I wanted to find a way of making the process of writing my second novel more fun and more interactive and so when I met Diane through my book launch, this co-writing idea came up. We co-wrote a short story for FunDza as a trial run, to see if it could work – and then we began on South.
So who the fuck is Frank Owen? Tell us as if he were a character in a novel.
ALEX: Frank Owen used to work at the Post Office. He’s almost sixty now. He used to see lots of people everyday. He saw them licking stamps and sending their virus-laden saliva across the country, mostly to distant loved ones. It got him thinking about viruses in America and he began researching how long contagions could live between a stamp and an envelope. That was the kernel that sparked South. Frank’s biggest secret is that he was born in Canada.
Frank Owen's prose style is cohesive, although your individual writing styles are quite different. Talk a bit about the process of writing together please?
ALEX: The key for us is to understand our roles. I’m the plot guy and Diane is the style and voice guy. Of course there’s always cross-over, but it’s helpful to know who’s in charge of what. I’d occasionally tell Diane that some action in the book absolutely needed to happen and when she wanted to know why, I couldn’t say exactly. There’s a lot of trust involved.
South is set in an intriguing alternate history to America. The North and South remain divided, with the North separating itself from the South, much like the USA separates itself from Mexico. What inspired the setting?
ALEX: South, and the follow-up novel – North, deal with the idea of segregation in society. With segregation being the first step toward depersonalising brutality. As South Africans born during Apartheid we’re obviously not unfamiliar with the realities of that. Setting the story in America sheds a different light on the topic. An interesting light, I hope.
Both historical and fantasy novels require intense levels of research as world building plays an integral part in the suspension of a reader's disbelief. You've created a mash-up with South: part cowboy flick, part apocalypse fable, and then given yourself the added task of writing an alternate history for a country that isn't your home. No easy task. Let's talk about research: how much? what kind? where? how?
ALEX: Diane and I spoke about this a lot. There was a sense of fraudulence about writing a book set in a place neither of us had spent any meaningful time in. But weirdly, when we started writing South, America didn’t feel like a foreign setting. As a white South African, I grew up on a relentless diet of American culture through film, literature and marketing – so much so that America almost feels to me like a genre in itself. I probably know America better than I know South Africa in some senses. So with that intense cultural colonisation, a bit of Google Earth (Street View is amazing) and some intense internetting – the whole thing came together.
And then you sell it internationally. Are you afraid of your American audience?
ALEX: Not afraid. Intrigued by what their response will be. The world of South is deliberately different from real America.
Did you watch cowboy movies as a child? If yes, what were your favourites?
ALEX: I came late to cowboy movies – but I certainly watched a few classics while writing South - Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers. But I also discovered Reel Injun, a documentary about how Native Americans were and still are portrayed in cowboy films – and the devastating effects of that portrayal. It’s the other side of the cowboy story. If cowboy films are North, then Reel Injun is South.
Serious question. South African writers are looking for readers in other markets, choosing to write stories that have little connection to South Africa or the current South African narrative. If we're being totally honest, we're talking white South Africans. Do you think there is no home market for white writers anymore?
ALEX: I’m not sure there’s been much of a market in South Africa for a while. When I first started meeting local writers I asked each of them the same question, “Why do you do it?” Because I know it’s not about the money – there’s hardly any. And there’s not a whole heap of fame going around either. My basic conclusion was that most local writers suffer from a compulsion to write. Setting the odd novel overseas in order to support their habit is not a sin and it’s not unpatriotic. It’s simply a means for writers to keep writing.
If I was a literary tourist and you were my guide, where would you direct me to find the best writing in South Africa right now?
ALEX: Claire Robertson, Kgebetli Moele, Ivan Vladislavic
On Alex's Bedside Table
Alex Latimer writes and illustrates children’s picture books, which have been published and translated around the world. His third book, Lion vs Rabbit won the Hampshire Picture Book Award and was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal. In 2013 he published his debut novel, The Space Race. Lauren Beukes called it ‘witty with twisted charm and a whole lot of action.’ Last year, Alex wrote the prize-winning short story ‘A Fierce Symmetry’ for the continent-wide competition run by Short Story Day Africa in 2016. Find him at http://www.alexlatimer.co.za.
See Frank Owen at Kalk Bay Books on the 11th of August or at The Book Lounge on 17th August for the launch of South. Claire Robertson will be in conversation with Frank. If you want come along only because you're a fan of Claire Robertson, that's okay too.
Interview by Rachel Zadok a.k.a @rachelzadok