I first met Louis ten years ago when as the publisher of eKhaya – the digital imprint at Random Struik – he commissioned my first novel Ms Conception. I had been trying to get the book published for four years and had almost given up so when I received Louis’s email on Human Rights’ Day in 2012, you can imagine my levels of excitement. From being published by eKhaya, my novel was then brought out in print by Penguin Random House SA in 2015, so in a sense, I owe my career as a published author to Louis.
He not only published my book, he also introduced me to lots of other local writers and would arrange very jolly writers’ lunches, which have sadly fallen by the wayside since he moved to the UK and Covid struck. Louis is an extremely accomplished writer and a new book from him is always something to celebrate. I am extremely grateful that he took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions, it is my great pleasure to share this interview with you. Enjoy!
Tell us about your move to the UK. What is the thing/things you miss most about SA? What have you enjoyed about being there?
The move has been refreshing and challenging. I was lucky enough to be endorsed for a talent visa to the UK in 2016, and we all jumped at the chance to experience the world a little. Brexit and Covid cramped our horizons, like (almost) everyone else’s, but we still like what we originally liked about our patch of the English midlands: pretty scenery; distinct seasons with spring flowers and train schedules based on leaf fall and snow if we’re lucky; generally patient, respectful, law-abiding people with a long-suffering humour; a democratic levelness among working people – whether you’re a factory worker, a nurse, an academic or a shopkeeper, you’re an equal participant in society with equal rights and access (although there are apparently different rules and expectations for the established elite). There are public services that work – the NHS, you can post a bank card or passport, caring and engaged teachers at free state schools, libraries, beautifully maintained local parks, public transport (many of which services are currently being undermined for profit – when they’re gone, they won’t come back). Not needing a wall or a gate or an electric fence.
Apart from family and friends, of course, I miss a lot about Joburg and SA. The easy warmth of strangers. The feeling that writing and being a writer was important; solidarity with a vibrant community of creatives. Space; not having to do everything with a crowd. The most incredible natural landscape in the world. Being able to enjoy good food and brilliant hospitality al fresco. Watermelon and salads at Christmas and sunny beach holidays.
You have a PhD – did it help you with your writing? Or is academic writing a completely different animal?
The PhD occupied quite a different part of my brain. I am perhaps surprisingly unreflective about my own writing: I wish I could be more deliberate and thoughtful, but I tend to work in a different, more spontaneous headspace when I write: Don’t ask questions, just get it out. But my thesis was good practice in long-form, disciplined writing in a longish gap between books.
You also teach writing, have you found this helpful to your own writing?
I must have internalised something about plotting and structuring from the creative writing courses I’ve been tutoring because I think Exposure was probably the best-plotted of all of my books. I’d gone down some frustrating and time-wasting blind alleys before, and didn’t want to repeat that. The scriptwriting course I teach has been important in clarifying some technical elements of screenplays for me: if nothing else, just knowing where to access examples of great, real-world scripts. (Don’t tell anyone, but the BBC Script Room script library is essentially the only screenwriting class you’ll need.)
Tell us what Exposure is about…
‘In a Britain akin to this one, Vincent Rice falls off a ladder, literally at Petra Orff’s feet. They introduce themselves, and he offers to take her to Metamuse, an alternative theatre experience like no other that he won tickets to in a competition he doesn’t remember entering.
Vincent has a complex sense of home, and immigrant Petra senses a kindred spirit in him. As time goes on, inexplicable occurrences pile on top of one another, connected to Metamuse: certainly more than just a theatre experience. Unquiet dead seem to be reaching into the world to protest injustices both past and present.’
The publisher’s blurb underplays the immigrant aspects of the story, but the fact that Petra is an expat from South Africa, experiencing England from an outsider’s perspective, is an important aspect of the story, and I think will be of interest to South African readers alongside the more general thrill of the mindbending immersive theatre and unsettling plot.
Life feels pretty dystopian at the moment, has this affected the themes of your books?
Yes, it has, and I’ve felt it for a number of years. My reaction has been to try to write something progressive, model positive outcomes rather than just deal with darkness. I tried to write a bit of a love story in Exposure, but don’t take the ‘instalove premise’ at face value. Trying to come up with progressive, non-conflictual but still entertaining plots is a work in progress.
Tell us about your journey to getting published. Talk us through both your lowest point (when you’ve been ugly crying on the bathroom floor) and your highest point (cracking open the prosecco).
Writing my first book was relatively painless. I was doing it purely for myself and with no expectations, and I was steeped in books at the time, working at Exclusive Books. The first novel was launched (pre-2008 crash and A**zon) in such style that’s never been matched since. It set up some calamitously false expectations of what it meant to be a writer. Selling The Mall to a UK publisher was also a lovely moment, full of hope. I don’t really cry on the bathroom floor, but I have regular reality checks and focus increasingly on my day job. Luckily I have a range of marketable skills.
If you’ve been longlisted/shortlisted/won any awards/had your book optioned for TV/film/achieved bestseller status tell us about it [this is your moment to BRAG].
My first novel was shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and two S.L. Grey novels (Underground and The Apartment) and one solo novel (Green Valley) have been optioned along the way. A couple of those options are still in progress but I’ve learned not to hold my breath. Underground was on the German bestseller lists for a few weeks; that was exciting. Heyne, the publishers there, did a great job.
Talk us through your writing process. Do you write thousands of words a day, 200 words a day? How does it all come together for you? Do you have A PLAN?
When I’m drafting a novel, I try to clear my schedule at least a week at a time. I try to write for at least four undistracted hours per morning, however far that gets me: on Exposure that was about 500-1500 words a day. There’s lots of battling-with-self or plotting or mulling going on around that time. I try to judge myself on my weekly output rather than daily so that I don’t get too down on myself if I’m slow one day; I give myself a chance to make it up the next day.
You also write in partnership with Sarah Lotz as S.L. Grey. How does your process differ? Do you prefer writing by yourself or writing with a partner?
It was far more motivating and fun to write with Sarah. We would alternate chapters and it really helped that there was someone waiting for the next chapter and then a couple of days off while she took up the story. You may well have found that yourself (YES!) One benefit of writing by yourself is that you can stick to your own vision without having to defend it, but I thrived with Sarah’s input and made more successful stories with her.
What’s next for you?
I really don’t know! There’s a screenplay on the back burner and otherwise I’m waiting for some compelling motivation. Meanwhile, I’m quite happy helping others find their voice with my editing and teaching.
Advice to aspiring writers (you may not say ‘go and work in a bank’).
Have fun. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.
I haven’t read anything for leisure in forever, but have been editing up a storm. I’ve enjoyed Martin Edwards’ intricately researched Golden Age mysteries starting with Gallows Court, Alex Dahl’s tense Norwegian dramas (try The Boy at the Door) and Adam Lebor’s political thrillers set in Budapest (start with District VIII). All of them transport me to another world and other lives as I work.
Where can the fans get your book?
Thank you so much for taking part in Reading Matters, may Exposure fly off the shelves! Come and visit us soon, we need to have lunch with you (and we won’t even ask you to organise it 😁). xxx