In a couple of moments, you'll be on to us. We asked both the authors that make up Frank Owen the same questions, to get a Human League, he-said, she-said effect. Neither of them was allowed to look at the other one’s answers. The results were funny, revealing and inspiring. Here's the second part of our interview of the two-headed writer - Frank Owen.
How did the decision to write a novel together come about?
DIANE: Alex begged and begged. No, seriously: We shared a publisher, Umuzi, and did the launch of his first novel The Space Race together. It was fun, so we thought we’d have a go at doing a bit of writing where people actually buy your book and it isn’t just a nice hobby for high days and holidays.
Who the fuck is Frank Owen? Tell us him as if he were a character in a novel.
DIANE: It turns out that Frank Owen is a real person, unfortunately for our Twitter handle – two real people, in fact: a journalist and a country-and-western singer. It might get a little awkward.
Our Frank is just a guy trying to get his head around the post-apocalyptic universe that is the world right now, and has been for some time. The future is now.
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?
DIANE: We outline the story (timeline; diagrams) and allocate characters, and Alex does a first draft of each chapter, usually just under a thousand words. Then I go in and take out all the giraffes and nuclear submarines, and put in some songs. Alex does all the lactation and menstruation bits.
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?
DIANE: Or like the apartheid government allocated homelands in one country – or like any government internship programme using reserves. Segregation never works (unless you count single-sex high schools). We’ve overlaid a lot of American events with a not-entirely-fictional South African framework. Some of the early readers liked the idea of the ghost camps in South, where people that the rest of the country has rejected have gathered to find a workable alternative.
The science of South is real: the mushrooms; the environmental warfare; the holistic medicine; the politicking. But so is the courage and the perseverance of the ordinary people in it, we hope. We’re in dire need of that kind of leadership right now.
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?
DIANE: We’re not reinventing the wheel here: Human fear, desperation, hunger and triumph are universal, and that stuff is at the heart of any right-thinking novel. We’ve obviously been in the country briefly; we know how to use Google Earth; we use expert beta readers who tell us things like, A severed femoral artery can’t be staunched with a heated frying pan’ or ‘Mesquite would never grow on that ridge.’ That’s the beauty of speculative fiction – or any sort of fiction. You get to write things the way they should be, not as they are. This is why novels are so important, so radical: You have the chance to change the status quo. The setting is only the beginning.
And then you sell it internationally. Are you afraid of your American audience?
DIANE: I’m afraid of stereotypes of all stripes.
We heard you listened to quite a lot of country music while writing South. Did you discover any bands you think we should all be listening to?
DIANE: I’m a total noob, and I’m not ashamed of that. I seriously got into The Civil Wars while I was writing. But then I wanted some South African stuff, and I tried to remember all the folk and rock that changed me when I was much younger, and so I started digging up all the greats again, all the enlightened angels: The LED, Squeal, Boo!, Johannes Kerkorrel, Koos Kombuis, Valiant Swart. It made me remember how Afrikaans was reclaimed in the early nineties as a language of longing and redemption after segregation – what an act of courage that must have been, from these white okes who’d been sent to the army.
And of course we were lucky enough to inveigle the fantastic Gene Kierman from Miss Texas 1977 into composing some tracks for us. They're downloadable here: http://southvsnorth.com/. The band’s first album is on https://misstexas1977.bandcamp.com. The track ‘Nettles’ gives me all the feelings. The backing vocals!
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?
DIANE: All stories are fundamentally connected, or else why bother with empathy? A change in setting can be a way to find out how you really feel about the big ideas, but the end point of any fiction is the same: to expand the experience of the reader. There’s a lot of research around at the moment that supports the idea that an intense reading experience evokes the same neural activity as actually experiencing the event. This is fucking terrifying as well as exciting, and it’s one of the ways we can talk to one another without spewing racial invective (Rage: satisfying in the moment, but not in the longer term). We can only try to understand.
I think that everything matters in the present, even if we maintain that we are products of our terrible, funny, sad, broken backgrounds. I say this as a person with a doctorate in the field: South Africa is post-traumatic. Every interaction, every conversation takes us immediately into the past, the same way a rape survivor can be continually thrown back into re-experiencing the horror. But we must face it in our private and public lives, face it and resolve it, because we have to live with ourselves. The government is not going to do it for us, although the TRC did try. That’s what South is about, too – historical debt and responsibility: male and female; black and white; love and mercy.
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?
DIANE: Genna Gardini, T.O. Molefe, Thando Mgqolozana, William Dicey, Kagiso Lesego Molope, Sean O’Toole and Nick Mulgrew
On Diane's Bedside Table
Diane Awerbuck wrote Gardening at Night, which was awarded the Commonwealth Best First Book Award (Africa and the Caribbean). Her work has been translated into Mandarin, German, French, Russian and Swedish. Awerbuck’s short stories are collected in Cabin Fever and from it the story ‘Phosphorescence’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. Another ‘Leatherman’ won the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize. Awerbuck’s latest novel is Home Remedies. More of her, in the form of poetry and interviews are at http://aerodrome.co.za/tag/diane-awerbuck/.
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