Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did The Book of Malachi evolve?
A. I was living at a remove from society, feeling outrage at human cruelty and a dark, desperate humor at the time of writing TboM. Our suburb was close to the sea but chopped off by concrete buildings and pavilions. Like Malachi I couldn’t see the sea but could sense it nearby and, like Malachi, felt trapped inside manmade anxiety, fretting about my children who were seriously sick from GM grains. We had paramedics rushing to the house every three weeks to help my baby to breathe while my daughter’s eczema was so severe she had to be wrapped in bandages like a mummy in hospital. Then there was the country. South Africa’s enormous, cruel split between the privileged and the poor make it place of high drama and homicide. In the year I started writing Malachi I was trying these amazing daily meditations where you gradually dis-identify with the ego and connect with your inner light. I think my dabbling might have kicked up a hugely brave, sage character who was big enough to take on love, genocide, and the neocolonial rape of the Africa.
Q. I loved how The Book of Malachi was almost entirely peopled by characters with strong ties to Africa. Did you make a conscious decision to showcase the diversity of the peoples of your continent in your book, or did that come about as a sort of natural evolution while writing?
A. I think it was a natural evolution for me. The cast is large and unconsciously reflects some of the people I have met or been stunned by in my lifetime. Malachi is a bit of a Mister Mandela figure but carries more wrath than Madiba did. I guess the book is a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Malachi presiding over it. South Africa is filled with gifted, often highly educated refugees like Malachi who arrive with their unbearable memories of trauma and loss. Many are illegal, many unwanted due to competition for jobs and despite their muteness, find ways stay dignified while taking shelter inside enemy territory. The unscrupulous bosses on the rig are mostly from China and the US, no different to the 17th century explorers who arrived with their ships and guns, stole cattle, annexed land and chained up Khoi Khoi kings to be their slaves. Then there are the killers. The prisoners all lived in Africa but hail from everywhere, representing people who’ve been unjustly accused, those crying out for forgiveness and those who are too dangerous to rehabilitate.
Q. One thing that really struck me with this novel is the very clear moral that we shouldn’t lose sight of each other’s humanity to the point where we treat one another like goods or animals, particularly in the carceral system. How did your thoughts on the current state of the prison system and reform influence your writing of this novel?
A. To me recidivism is a frightening thing. People commit dreadful acts, go in for 10 to 20 years, get raped and beaten in jail and come out even more twisted. As distasteful as it may seem to people who want pure revenge, forms of therapy that lets perpetrators encounter the goodness in them saves society endless suffering at the hands of these people. Although some criminals are irredeemably dangerous and should stay locked up until they die, I think programs that let inmates excavate through their shadows towards some form of light is the very first step towards making amends. I’m being serious when I say I’d love this book to go to prisons.
Q. Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?
A. No, I probably should but I trust that there are readers out there who are just as fascinated by the human psyche and the anatomy of forgiveness, and just as disgusted with the way big business treats humans and animals as factors of production.
Q. You started out as a journalist before turning to fiction and screenplays. How did you learn to write, and to transition from each to each?
A. I had a natural nose for news stories but I didn’t last more than a few years. I loved the interviews and immersion in other lives but 800 words was not enough to carry the tragic or joyous stories I absorbed. One night I dreamed I signed up for a fiction writing course and woke up literally (not joking) buzzing. I called the museum up the road who said they had an unexpected space on Anne Schuster’s writing course. If I skipped breakfast and put my foot down I could make it. That was the end of journalism for me.
While writing fiction I stacked up visual scenes in my head until I felt compelled to share them in screenplays. I did a scriptwriting course run by South Africa’s Clarence Hamilton and UK’s Alby James, both activists for equity for black actors and film makers. Even though I’m white, years later their mentorship helped me to refuse the calls to turn my heroes white for the sake of sales.
Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”
A. ‘She’s come undone”, by Wally Lamb. Delores’s story made me realise the freedom of a writer to take up residence in someone else’s mind regardless of race, sex or place. It gave me permission to be everything I secretly dreamed of – a psychoanalyst, a wild portrait painter, an actor on stage.
Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?
A. Mornings, butt down. Years later I’m doing the same, but now marketing and social media crash in and gobble up some sacred hours. I’m still figuring it out …
Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?
A. I’ve become more of a plotter but it’s largely futile because the characters still dive sideways and reveal aspects of themselves and their worlds that I had not imagined. I can’t exactly pull them over like a traffic cop for the sake of a plot.
Q. Your first two books are very much contemporary pieces, centering young women struggling to survive in modern South Africa. What made you choose speculative fiction for your third outing as a novelist?
A. For me it was existential. I was reeling from the technological coup d’ etat of the last few years. All around me, people’s bodies seemed to be in shock, their minds spinning. Covid, for instance, is sure symptom of this compulsive, unconscious way of being. Ironically, spec fi is a way of slowing down the speed wobble, contemplating our evolutionary pathways – both terrible and hopeful – and choosing our own adventure on the globe.
Q. Are there any new books or authors in speculative fiction that have you excited?
A. I’ve got a strong feeling that the feminine aspect is rising in a last ditch response to fascist destruction of the planet. Everywhere wise women and intuitive men are taking leadership and in sci fi literature it’s great to see so many women on the top of the reading lists. I’m dying to read Namwali Serpel’s, ‘The Old Drift’, set in Zambia and Arkady Martine and Sarah Pinsker’s latest books. I was dumbstruck by ‘South’ and ‘North’ by Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer who go by the name Frank Owen. I love their quirky, outlandish, seriously incisive inquiry into the dark side of what humans can do in their horror stories of viral warfare across a Trump-like wall in the US. ‘Frank Owen’ shoves humanity right over the precipice of nihilism then explores the crash site below the cliff in exquisite detail. They conceived of all this before Trump brainstormed his ugly wall or before Covid hit, so I pray they’re not also right about a US civil war!!
Q. What are you reading at the moment?
A. I have been buried inside ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara for an age now because of home schooling and Covid but every day I pick it up and fall into it like it’s a precious old friend that needs my ear. The book holds a peculiar heft and magnetism.
Q. What can you tell us about your next project?
A. I am having huge fun writing it. It’s about the young woman who has been driven mad by femicide in her country. She kidnaps the son of a security expert and goes head-to-head with the men in town who are playing war games while women die. Don’t worry, she’s also funny, so there will be light.
Q. Tell us why you love The Book of Malachi!
A. This is such a divine question, thank you. I love that I had never heard of The Book of Malachi in the Bible until after the novel was named. It’s the last book in the Old Testament and makes God sound terrifying but the Malachi in the novel brushes up against a more unconditional, loving force. I came to love this character like someone who’d come to couch surf for a week, stayed for a year and left me some fascinating things to think about for the rest of my life. I love him like a brother. I still love the scary memory of descending the metal rig with its millions of rivets and its central staircase that took me down, down to the underbelly of humanity. I’m still rocked by the shocking soulfulness of some of the prisoners who now feel like dear, dear embarrassing family who’ve made some tragic mistakes. I even love the old rogue shark who hung out in the shark pit because he is both monstrous and frail. This one I can’t explain..
The Book Of Malachi was published on November 13th, 2020 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers including
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