"So, what do you write?" is a question authors often get. It's a rude form of classification which often undermines the essence of what it means to be a writer. Because the truth is, writers are storytellers, which means any story in the realm of human (or non human) existence is fascinating. Take the example of author duo Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer. Under the pseudonym Frank Owen, they have taken a detour from their own established careers to write a dark, action-packed post-apocalyptic Western called South. While the story may not be their usual subject matter, you can feel their style and skill as authors simmering under each sentence. It takes a lot to move a plot forward, and more to create strong, engaging characters. South achieves all of this in way that makes it real and accessible to just about any reader. I was lucky enough to talk to them about their book this week:
1. What was the spark for ‘South’? Did it come from a conversation you had together, or did one of you invite the other to take part?
AL: Diane interviewed me at the launch of my first novel – The Space Race. Soon after that we tried co-writing a story for Fundza – an amazing local not-for-profit that focuses on literacy development. The idea to collaborate on a novel came out of that experience.
DA: We wanted to have a little fun. The literary stuff is all very well, but it doesn’t exactly bring in the bucks, so you might as well be doing it for the love of writing.
2. What kind of reader will love reading this novel?
AL: South has something for everyone. Part of the idea behind the book was to make the pace and plot really compelling – something exciting had to happen in every single chapter. But it's not simply an action novel. There are big ideas woven into the narrative, and the writing style is very rich. So our audience has been quite diverse. If you want a book to carry you to the end, and you don't mind the effluvia that you're likely to encounter when the world is about to end – then this is the book for you.
DA: We’ve had pretty wide-ranging feedback so far. I have to say I expected younger readers, but middle-aged men are really getting into it! Some people want more of the love story; others are into the cowboy tropes. It feeds into some childhood memory for everyone, I think, which is unusual – maybe it’s testimony to how entrenched American culture is, or maybe we’re always preparing for an apocalypse.
3. How did your joint writing process work? How did it compare to the solitary process of writing your previous work?
AL: Writing on my own I found it'd take me ages to figure out whether a plot idea was good or bad. With a co-writer you can get immediate feedback, which means less time fixing bad chapters and wrong turns. And that makes the process a lot more fun.
DA: Alex is also a darn fine illustrator, and he storyboarded the initial proposal. We meet to plan events along an agreed timeline, but then the drafts often turn out very differently to what we expect. It’s much better than writing alone. The trauma is halved.
4. The post-apocalyptic genre doesn't seem to be something either of you has written in the past. What attracted you both to this genre at this stage in your accomplished careers?
AL: Apocalyptic fiction is just a way of getting right down to what makes us human, without having to fill in all of the mundane everyday tasks. So, strangely, it’s a genre that deals directly with humanity rather than the end of humanity. And that's something that's always interested me.
DA: I’ve always been a reader of the genre. The Dark Tower series saved my life. I love that Stephen King has been writing it for as long as I’ve been reading it: books are company. Writers are readers first and foremost, and that’s as it should be.
5. Your characters all seem very lifelike and consistently imagined. Did you have a process for creating each character?
AL: I don't think there's a specific process – but all the characters we created had to feel authentic to us before we were happy with them. We simply had to develop them until they met that criterion. That's the real drive behind any good book.
DA: I liked the marginals more than the main characters – Garrett, the bullying older brother, and Felix, the old guy who’s seen it all.
6. There is a powerful atmosphere from the start of the novel. What influenced you (visually, musically, culturally or literary) in creating this visceral world?
DA: Music was really important to me when I was thinking about the writing – all that heartsore Appalachian stuff, plus the slave spirituals, and of course, the original songs that Gene Kierman composed for us. (Download them on the site: www.southvsnorth.com). Music is what survives: it’s something of your culture that can be passed on, even if it’s transformed. Especially if it’s transformed. It’s a language, and songs are stories too.
AL: A lot of research went into making that atmosphere. Although we’ve travelled there, we're not Americans, and although we can rely quite confidently on a lifetime of Hollywood movies and novels and Peter Stuyvesant adverts – we needed to make this South our own. We researched towns and roads and plants and fish and weather patterns and geography and on and on.
7. What was the strangest thing you had to Google/research for the novel?
AL: How taxidermists in the 1800s used to build the frames of taxidermied buffaloes.
DA: Finding out that Frank Owen already existed, twice over: he’s a journalist with an interest in hallucinogenics – which seemed appropriate – and then there’s another Frank Owen too, a country singer. We get some weird Google alerts.
8. What excites you about the current South African literary scene?
DA: I like that I’m obsolete. It’s 2016, and it’s not my century. There’s so much good writing happening, and publishers are taking risks even in a depressed reading climate. Now if only people would buy the darn things.
AL: I love to see writers like Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz and Sam Wilson and Deon Meyer making it big overseas. But more than that, there's a groundswell of black African writers whose work is really amazing, and that will lead to the gradual development of a much broader local readership. It feels like the South African literary scene is redefining itself.