Charlotte Otter's crime novels feature a gusty feminist protagonist. No surprise then that she's published by Modjaji Books, one of Africa's finest independent publishers focussing on fiction written by women. She chatted to SSDA about writing, feminism and getting her character to face her inherent privilege.
CHARLOTTE: In Karkloof Blue, I bring Maggie into the present, a world with social media, load shedding and even deeper levels of corruption. She returns to Pietermaritzburg after stints in Joburg and Berlin as a day news editor on The Gazette. When an environmental activist commits suicide by throwing himself off the Howick Falls, and the forestry company where he worked is poised to log a piece of natural forest that is the last remaining habitat of the Karkloof Blue, Maggie sniffs conspiracy. However, as always in South Africa, the past rises up to confront the present, and she finds she is dealing with much more than corporate greed.
Your heroine, Maggie Cloete, is a gutsy, strong willed and determined person that feminists get behind. But she also brings out classism. Can you tell us a bit more about why this mattered to you?
CHARLOTTE: I believe in intersectionality - the idea that race, class and gender interconnect to create overlapping layers of discrimination (or privilege). So much of the debate that’s going on in South Africa right now is about people refusing to acknowledge that their privilege has given them advantages. Maggie is from a working-class Afrikaans background, so she is outside the realms of the privileged and is able to take a critical stance. I like her outsider perspective - that is very useful in fiction. However, Maggie is also white and that brings her advantages. I plan to deal with her growing realization of these in the next novel.
"I hate writing, I love having written." Dorothy Parker – Do you enjoy the act of writing, or are you more of a Dorothy?
CHARLOTTE: I have days when writing is as gentle and smooth as floating down a wide river on a barge, and days when it is like being stuck in concrete with angry ants crawling up my legs. On the river days, there is almost nothing I love more; on the concrete days it is dire. However, when my writing is done for the day (I write between 4 and 6am), I am calm and better able to deal with the slings and arrows of life, no matter how good or bad the session was. So probably, I am a bit of both.
Do you find it easy to let go and allow the reader to find their own meaning in your work? Are you ever tempted to correct reviewers when the interpret something you had not intended?
CHARLOTTE: I can let go, but I have been tempted to correct a reviewer once. However, I was a grown-up and turned away instead of engaging, much like one does with a toddler having a tantrum. When it is clear that a reader or a reviewer has really got the book and my project in writing it, it is a lovely thing.
Do you keep an ideal reader in mind when you write?
CHARLOTTE: No. I find thinking about an audience distracting. Someone once said to me you should write as if for your very best friend because then your tone is warm and intimate. I like that idea, but I write for my protagonist and characters - I want to do them and their story justice.
What is your experience of publishing in both Germany and South Africa?
CHARLOTTE: Very positive. I am eternally grateful to my German publisher, Else Laudan, for being the first person in the industry to see Maggie’s potential. I love working with Else - she has been publishing crime fiction by women for over 20 years and has a very specific feminist project, a strong instinct for what works creatively, as well as an attention to detail that is just remarkable. The translation process is very intense and we work closely together, ironing out issues that she perceives. This makes the English version of the novel much stronger. I was thrilled when Colleen Higgs of Modjaji [Books] followed Else’s lead.
On Charlotte's Bedside Table
I am a catholic and greedy reader, and my greed is fed by the joyous thing that is the e-reader. Right now, I am on a non-fiction jag. I have just read Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater about her experiences with epilepsy (or not - one isn’t entirely sure), I am currently reading Drink: The Deadly Relationship between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston, and I am poised to read Rebecca Davis’ essays Best White and Other Anxious Delusions.
Charlotte Otter is a South African writer living in Germany. A former crime reporter, she now works in IT communications and writes feminist crime fiction set in her hometown of Pietermaritzburg.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie