by Joe Vaz
|From Issue 11 (July 2011)|
Over the last decade South African genre fiction has been slowly making its presence known, but nothing could have prepared us for the impact that District 9 would have, both on how our product is viewed internationally, and more importantly how it is viewed here at home.
Add to that Lauren Beukes winning the Arthur C Clarke Award earlier this year for her second novel Zoo City and suddenly our genre stories are beginning to find audiences both at home and abroad..
Which brings me to SL Grey.
SL Grey’s debut novel, The Mall, has literally exploded onto the market, with critics all over the world almost unanimously praising it. Words commonly associated with The Mall tend towards “weird” “surreal” and “terrifying”, all of them fitting.
SL Grey is a pseudonym for two writers, namely Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg, both established authors in their own right.
He lives in Johannesburg and she in Cape Town, she writes crime fiction (and as Lily Herne, young adult fiction) and he writes literary fiction.
To quote that classic eighties series Hart to Hart, “…when they met, it was moider!”
Like everything else about SL Grey, this interview was conducted separately and in two cities; part sit-down conversation with Sarah, and part telephone interview with Louis.
So you are SL Grey?
SARAH: Half of SL Grey, I’m the S.
LOUIS: And I’m the LG part of SL Grey
Who came up with the Grey?
SARAH: The Grey I think Louis came up with, I think because it’s the colour of dead skin.
LOUIS: We just did together, when we were just having lunch and it just sort of popped out. We were thinking about famous names like JK Rowling, it’s a simple, universal name, I guess.
Sarah, you’re turning into the Collaboration Queen.
SARAH: I know, I know. I’ve got a couple of more planned with other people.
With more people?
SARAH: I like doing it, it’s fun.
Why go for a pseudonym, if everyone knows you who guys are?
SARAH: Louis writes literary fiction under his own name, and I started off writing crime and it just gets confusing for people if you’re writing horror fiction and crime fiction and YA fiction.
LOUIS: I think when we plotted it first we thought, well this is just going to be our Mills & Boons, a commercial thing, and we didn’t know if it wasn’t to be a good book really, so we thought, let’s just hide behind the name. And then when we came out of it we were actually quite proud of it so now we’re quite happy to let people know who is behind it.
SARAH: Louis, being a literary author, is a real artist about what he does, and I think I am a more workman-like writer and that’s been great. I’ve been pushing pace and story and he’s been really amping at my writing and making sure that we’re not just writing some schlock, we’re actually writing an intelligent novel.
SARAH: We basically wrote it for the love of writing, just because we wanted to write a horror novel, publication didn’t even come into it.
So you didn’t actually think it would be published?
LOUIS: No, not at all, gosh, it was just a lark. We had some beers together and thought, Hey let’s write a book. It was just an exercise; I was completely bewildered when people actually liked it.
How did you meet?
SARAH: We met and chatted on Book SA, which is now Books Live, and then Louis came down to Cape Town.
LOUIS: The next time we met was at an academic seminar. She was at WITS [in Joburg] talking about crime novels. I coaxed her to bunk the middle session and we went off to the pub and drank beers and she told me she liked zombies and I told her about my study of vampires and that was that.
SARAH: And I said I really want to write a great SA horror novel, and Louis said, well I really want to do that too. And so we literally said, should we do it together? We didn’t really know each other, we’re completely different people. So we thought we’d do a zombie versus vampire book. And then he took me to this mall and I was just so scared, it was horrible, I had a panic attack, and we thought fuck the zombies and the vampires, lets set it in a shopping mall.
We started walking around and Louis ducked into one of the side corridors and started dragging me around the back corridors and they were really disturbing and we started thinking about another mall that was situated beneath a real life mall, breathing and kind of feeding off the energy of a normal mall.
LOUIS: I took her into the back corridors and we looked around at all the bare wires and the conduits and the face brick and the smudges on the floor and we knew that that was our setting. So we had the setting and these characters that we liked and not much more when we started.
SARAH: I always feel completely sapped of energy when I go into malls. I mean obviously they’re completely fake, I think that’s part of the thing, but that’s not the issue, I think it’s just that, the whole point of shopping malls is to buy useless crap, that’s what they’re there for, to go “you need this stuff, you need this,” It worries me that that is what people do for fun, they spend their Saturdays trawling around with their kids.
You live in different cities, so what was the writing process like?
LOUIS: I think we just started emailing each other plot ideas and then Sarah wrote the first chapter and bounced it to me, then I wrote the next chapter. I think it’s very good that we’re in different cities because we actually get down to work, otherwise we would just sit and talk shit all day and not do any work, so it keeps us focused, to some extent. When I get a chapter in my inbox then I know I’ve got pressure to send her something back soon, cause she’s waiting for me.
So the entire novel was written by email.
SARAH: The entire book.
Was it a conscious decision for the two of you to write in your respective genders?
LOUIS: Oh no, that was not a necessary thing, we just chose characters with which we could identify. That can definitely change in the future, I could quite happily write a female character and Sarah could swap as well, in fact in my previous writing I have often had many more women characters than male characters, so it was a bit of test for me to write Dan, a sort of sympathetic-ish male character, because my male characters, traditionally have been quite stark and my female characters have a bit more depth, so again it was a nice learning thing for me.
Louis had some er, distractions to contend with during the writing process…
SARAH: What fascinated me about Louis when we were writing together is how committed he is. In the middle of us finishing off The Mall his wife had a baby and we were doing like a chapter every four days so you can imagine that turn-around and he didn’t miss a thing, it was unbelievable. And also… he had severe adult measles and he actually went blind for awhile…
LOUIS: Ja, I sort of did. It’s a bit of an overstatement. I got measles. My second son was born and the next day I was down with measles and I went to hospital for about five days and I was completely out of it and I couldn’t see for about five days. But it wasn’t blindness per se, it was lack of sight. It was pretty hectic, but I was a bit too out of it to actually feel scared about not being able to see again. One of the side-effects of adult measles is that you can go blind, so I was pretty lucky not to. It was a good starting point for my character in The Wards.
I really love the way it slows down in the third “act”.
LOUIS: I’m glad, it was a joint decision. We were getting breathless as we were writing it and we needed to stop and take stock and we wanted the characters to breathe a bit, ’cause it’s very difficult when you’re running and going through all these tests and all these crazy adventures to actually stop and say, who are these people and what, actually, in real life would this do to you as a character?
SARAH: Yeah we really were keen to do that, I mean I read a lot of books and a lot of horror novels and it always seems to be you’re in this horrible situation and you either get out of it or you don’t, but very few of them really explore in detail the consequences of what you’ve been through, and I just thought, this would be quite interesting to do.
LOUIS: We wanted to be a bit more static and wanted our readers to engage a bit more, just to feel the characters a bit and to put themselves in the characters place.
SARAH: We really had fun doing that. I loved writing the last third.
You guys are writing another novel together, is it connected to the Mall?
SARAH: Yeah, no, well.. The second one is called The Wards, and in The Mall we kind of hint at The Wards. There are a lot of modified people in what we call The Downside Mall, they have the most horrendous, extensive plastic surgery because a lot of them… it’s all about appearance. The whole point of The Downside Mall is that it is without artifice. It’s what we’d be, if we didn’t lie, if advertising didn’t lie. If we were all absolutely up-front and blatant about the bullshit we’re doing, you know, people are botoxed, literally to death. So we started thinking about that, it’s set in a hospital in Joburg, and basically the same way we kind of satirised consumerism we’re kind of looking at the health-care system, the medical aid system. The fact that if you can’t pay for medical care, you’re basically fucked. You’re in your own hell, basically…. so we were kind of looking at that in a very, very dark way.
LOUIS: Each novel is a stand-alone, but the backbone, so far, is this universe that we set up in The Mall, so there is a tenuous link, which we could explore more later… Or we could just drop the whole universe and write something completely different, it’s quite nice to be creatively free at the moment. The Wards starts off in a Johannesburg public hospital, and then goes somewhere else. (Laughs) That’s all I’m going to tell you.
I know, but am not going to mention, the title of the third book. Is there a theme of institutions running through these books? Was this conscious or accidental?
SARAH: No, actually we first started writing another novel, another completely stand-alone horror novel, which we both were really getting into to, then something hit us, I don’t know what it is was, I think it was a gut reaction from both of us, “you know what, we haven’t finished with the Downside, so lets go back to that.”
LOUIS: I think when we started The Mall, we thought, what are we going to talk about? What is the actual point of this book? That strong satire of the mall as a place where desperation and self-loathing are built up. That became an organiser for the further books. As we were going along, we started to work out the logic of the universe we were building and thought that there are various places in South African society, or world society, or Johannesburg where there’s this sort of critical mass of desperation and bad feelings and that’s where the slippage could occur. So we’re looking at these places where there’s a lot of misery, really. The Mall isn’t particularly the obvious one but I think you find out that it is. Hospitals are a bit more obvious as a site of misery and desperation and pain.
So how did two South African writers get published in the UK?
SARAH: Well, neither of us thought that we’d get it published here for a start, because it is a horror novel, and at that stage, before Lauren [Beukes] blazed and kind of blew the world away… we just thought that there’s not a hope in hell.
LOUIS: It was quite a lot of luck, actually. It’s always a dream for SA writers to make it overseas, to get a UK deal or a US deal, because, obviously, there’s just a lot more readers there and there’s publishers willing to publish Sci-fi and Spec. We were very lucky because I’d been a bookseller for a long time and had lunch with Toby Mundy who was at that time the sales director of Atlantic and I’d emailed him a previous novel of mine and we’d kept in touch over the years and so I emailed him this one…
SARAH: …and he replied and said, that sounds great, but send it to Laura Palmer at Corvus, and we did and, I think days later she was like, ” I love this book”..
We were both absolutely gobsmacked, we couldn’t believe it. I remember getting that phone call and I was just “holy shit, that’s just fantastic”
That’s amazing, and it’s wonderful to see SA authors making it locally and internationally in genre fiction.
SARAH: There’s so many people coming up now, there’s like… Oh god, I’ve read so much brilliant stuff lately, in manuscript form. There’s Sam Wilson’s Commedia, which is hysterically brilliant, Charlie Human’s Apocolypse Now Now – dark, dark, funny, brilliant. Andrew Salomon’s Lun, which was on the Terry Pratchett shortlist. And there’s people like Craig Smith, who are doing fun stuff. I just started reading Joan De la Haye’s Shadows, which is dark as fuck. So there’s some awesome stuff. I’d like to see more black authors. I don’t know why there aren’t more black authors writing genre fiction, I’m talking about horror and sci-fi specifically. I don’t know why.
LOUIS: I hope it encourages a lot more. We just need to get really quality stuff out there. It’s the quality that talks. I think at this stage we don’t have a big enough scene to have a whole body of SA works, but I hope that it’s going to start coming and that the publishers will look out for especially SA stuff.
The Mall is published in the UK by Corvus and is available worldwide through Amazon as well as in South Africa at your local book dealer.
Read Joe’s review here.
Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in December 2011.