Author Jen Thorpe on phobias, fears and female African writing

Jen Thorpe has always been a bit of a powerhouse when it comes to publishing fresh commentary on heavy issues. Online, she is best known for editing the blog Feminists South Africa and My First Time, where she tackled issues such as rape, discrimination and abuse with compassion and humanity. 

So at a glance, it's a bit surprising that her debut novel is light and funny. It's an engrossing, warm read that is perfect for a night in when you just want a book that just feels like home. Jen has created loveable, recognisable characters and a vivid picture of a side of Cape Town we don't often see.

However, this isn't a frothy novel you forget seconds after you put it down. For me, this is because she shines a spotlight on fear - an emotion that is pervasive in South Africa, yet dismissed or left unacknowledged. For example, after reading the book I met some friends for coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Johannesburg. Although we were all chatting and laughing happily, each one of us had the straps of our bags hooked around our legs or arms. Mine was on my lap. The Peculiars isn't just about crippling phobias, it's about the daily fears that are so ever present that we rearrange our lives around them. 

Jen graciously made the time to chat to me (and listen to me talking about my phobia of eggs) during her whirlwind visit to Johannesburg. She is even lovelier in person, and I can't wait to read what she brings out next. You can read our chat below:  

Tell us about The Peculiars? 

The Peculiars is a story about fear and phobia, but also about letting go of the things that hold us back from being our best selves. It's also about how often it takes somebody else to help us along the way as it's very difficult to get through it on your own. It follows the stories of three characters: Sam, who's a security-phobe and completely paranoid about being broken into; Nazma, who's terribly afraid of driving and gets the sweats at the thought of taking the steering wheel; and then Ruby who runs The Centre for Improved Living. This is the centre where they all meet to hopefully get cured. 

What was your spark for the book? 

I had a very bad driving phobia, which only really impacted me when I moved to Joburg. Obviously, you can't live here if you don't drive, so I had to learn to drive but I resented every part of it! How I felt was similar to a lot of people with other fears: perspiring hands, overanalysing the situation etc. I thought, there must be other characters I can work this into! Then, when living in Cape Town I took the train a lot where I loved meeting the people at the train kiosks, seeing who they were and imagining these lives for them. I mixed these two ideas, which saw the beginning of The Peculiars. So Nazma was my spark - I started with her as my first character and then I just carried on and on and on!

Which character did you identify with the most? 

I had the same fear as Nazma, but I don't suppose I identified with any of them to the point that I felt that I was them. I liked different elements of all of them. I loved Nazma's dad and I loved Jericho a lot for how quirky he was. I think Ruby is very good at managing crazy situations and Sam obviously is a gentle person. All of them had an element I was fond of.  

What was it like writing uncomfortable characters like Simon? 

If your daily living isn't sheltered by a car, you meet a lot of strange people and you recognise that those fraught situations happen more often than you'd like to admit. It's very easy to drive to work and talk to people who are like you, then go home and talk to people who are like you, but most people are, in fact, not like you at all. I thought it was important to have that antagonist in the story to bring the characters to the fore and their reactions. I also just wanted to reflect on xenophobia in a very small way and how much it's really just a fear of difference rather than any legitimate or sensible fear. 

It was difficult not to make Simon into a trope or someone that was not relatable at all. I got really good feedback during my Masters in Creative Writing about how important it is to have some element of a character that makes them accessible. They don't necessarily have to be likeable, but readers shouldn't write them off from the beginning. It's the worst when you read a book and you hate the character, so you don't care what happens to them. You have to care what happens to Simon.  

You clearly did extensive research on phobias for the book. What did you learn about them in the process? 

I did a lot of reading on whether, realistically, you can be cured of a phobia properly, how it works and what techniques are used. So a lot of my research covered therapy techniques, rather than the phobias themselves. After writing each chapter, I would look up a phobia that matched the chapter's main theme. Interestingly, there are over 500 classifiable phobias. 

I've got a phobia of eggs. It's so bad that I can't watch people eating runny eggs or look at pictures of eggs. Has your phobia of driving stuck with you? 

It sometimes crops up when I'm driving someone else and I'm worried I'm not going to do it properly. It's evolved from being this thing I couldn't do to this thing that I want to do properly. 

You've got such a history of writing on feminism and women's issues. I, along with many other people I'm sure, was on the lookout for those themes in your writing. How did you bring through your passion for feminism through your storytelling? 

I didn't want to write a didactic or 'lecture-y' story, even though I deal with those issues every day in my work and in my writing. The way I hope I introduced those themes was through the development of strong female characters and through whole and complex characters, rather than just the archetypal feminist 'tough lady.' When I first started working, I worked at Rape Crisis. The Centre for Improved Living is very much like the Rape Crisis space in terms of where it is situated. So that space also made me feel I could tell the story I wanted to tell. 

I loved your decision to speak about serious issues in a light voice, tell us more about that?

There are times to be serious and times to be light without making a joke of it. Fears and phobias can be crippling. I remember being in a flood of tears not being able to go somewhere, because I wanted to drive but I just couldn't do it. I'm also the type of person who likes to use humour to get through things. I wanted people who don't necessarily have a phobia to see people who suffer from them as accessible and interesting people and not just weak. That's also why I placed them in a bigger group - there were many of them and a complex mix of phobias, sometimes making it hard for them to relate to one another. Your fear is often really personal. 

You read only African female writers for a year. What did that experience teach you? 

It was so good! I thought it was going to be much harder than it was. You get used to going into a bookstore, finding something interesting and just reading it. During that time, I couldn't do that. I had to move away from the sections I was always in. That part was interesting - how little African female writers are on the shelf and how many more we need. Think about how many African writers there are on Twitter, yet when you go into a bookstore they have two or three books on the shelf and the men have eight or nine books in the same shelf. 

I loved reading about different countries as well. As African women writers, we are very situated in our own bodies and the places we live. We construct our world in a particular way. I learnt about Ghana, Nigeria and all these places I hadn't thought about travelling to but am now desperate to go. It was a great project, and I've only read two male books since I stopped nearly a year ago. It was great to get the feedback from other African readers and writers as well. You  meet a bigger circle of writers and I found that circle so welcoming. I also loved reading different formats and seeing different ways of telling a story. 

You've done a great deal of short story writing. What do you think short story writing taught you in terms of preparing you for writing your novel? 

I actually started writing my book before I started writing short stories! I started it in 2011, and then decided to take it seriously by enrolling in the Masters programme. Still, there were definitely lessons I learned from the form. Short story writing places a lot of attention on your sentence, which is good, because I have a tendency in life and writing to be quite verbose. You don't have that luxury in a short story, because you only have a certain amount of time and space to tell the thing you need to tell. I like that pressure on the sentence. I like having to distill everything about a person into one phrase. It's a lot of fun and makes you think about the words you're using a lot more. However, writing a long form story taught me the merit of spending a long time with a bunch of characters and the different feelings of attachment that take place. With short stories I remember a particular scene. With a novel I remember how I felt. They're very different but I love them both. 

Thanks for the amazing chat Jen!