Janita Lawrence is a South African author and online bookdealerbased in Johannesburg. She describes herself as “a long-legged redhead with a penchant for words and pretty things, who believes happiness can be measured in passport stamps, laughter decibels and the bulge of one’s bookshelf.” An awarded art director with an advertising background, she writes novels, plays and short stories in between running her online bookstore, raising her toddler, going on long walks, planting things, practicing yoga and drinking craft beer.
Janita’s debut novel – THE MEMORY OF WATER – is available worldwide as an ebook and a POD paperback and is published by Rebel ePublishers. It’s a witty but dark look at the lengths to which a successful writer will go to keep the words flowing. Her protagonist, Slade Harris, will jump out of planes, run cars off bridges, hire an underage prostitute in Thailand to hear her story: but usually these things don’t work out quite the way he’s planned.
After a disastrous party, Slade comes up with a plan to kill his only real friend and the only woman he really loves – Eve. He plunges into the plot with all the enthusiasm of a writer’s research, complete with reference books, internet map and props. As he’d hoped, the plan generates a great concept for his elusive new novel and the words start to flow.When Eve is found murdered exactly the way Slade plotted it, it sets off a very intriguing train of events.
I asked Janita about THE MEMORY OF WATER, her bookstore, and her plans for the future.
You run an online bookstore –Pulp Books – that seems to be to Amazon rather the way the independent bookstores are to Barnes and Noble. What makes it successful and how did you come up with the name?
Pulp Books is successful because of Einstein’s ‘1% inspiration / 99% perspiration’ rule. It is my dream job and I work very hard at it – mostly because I love it. Pulp is different to other online bookstores because we will find any book for you, be it a bestseller or out of print. What our customers appreciate is that you’re not ordering from some behemoth robot in the ether, but from a real flesh-and-blood human who is there for you pretty much 24/7. Some customers call me their personal bookdealer, others, their bibliotherapist.
The ‘Pulp’ part is borrowed from the 30s, when Allen Lane (who founded Penguin Books) brought high quality literature to the general public by publishing great books – previously only available as hardcover – as ‘pulps’ or paperbacks. Pulp fiction had a bit of a trashy reputation back then, so it was a controversial and daring move, and it paid off in spades. The name ‘Pulp’ hit all the right notes for me: warm, brave, rebellious, anti-snob, accessible, and successful.
Your protagonist in THE MEMORY OF WATER is a successful writer. In every other way his life is a disaster –serial girlfriends, only one real friend, a vanished mother and ambivalent father, too much alcohol, even his maid deserts him mysteriously. And he is haunted by the memory of water. Then his muse deserts him too and he’s desperate. How did you come up with Slade? Is he based on someone you know in the book business? I hope not!
It is and it isn’t. I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘write what you know’ train of thought –that, twinned with Hemingway’s idea that you should only ever write the ‘truth’ – could make for quite a boring narrative if you don’t lead a perpetually thrilling life. The flip side of that is, of course, if you want to write well you’d better lead an adventurous life, which I quite like.
I spotted the seed of the idea in a very dear writer friend of mine who had a series of ‘crazy’ girlfriends (one who threw his non-backed-up laptop out of a very high window) and equally crazy life experiences (heroin addiction, war, jail-time, currently on the lam). The type-A part of me stands back and is relieved that I don’t have such a messy life, but the writer in me is envious of the experiences he has had. Humans are a little messy, after all. And what came first, the messiness or the writing? Even if the experience doesn’t feature directly in your story, it has become part of you, it has informed your character, and this allows for deeper and more truthful writing. Slade knows this, and lives it.
You chose to write in the first person present. I’ve tried that and it’s really hard to pull off. (You do it brilliantly.) Why did you choose that style?
It was important to me to be able to take the reader on the bright, spiraling slide that is Slade’s psychological demise. I fancy unreliable narrators and enjoyed playing with the reader’s (via Slade’s) grasp of reality. When Slade says something has happened, has it really happened? Perhaps he only thinks it happened. Perhaps he wanted you to think that it happened. No one is truthful all of the time – why would a narrator be?
Part of the story is set in Nigel – a gold mining town not far from Johannesburg. You’ve captured the seediness of these almost-ghost mining towns. How important to you is setting your books in South Africa?
I did a ‘Slade’ and visited Nigel for a weekend writing marathon to get the book finished, but instead of hanging around at dodgy bars and meeting troublesome locals I ate two-minute noodles and drank a lot of sub-standard coffee to get the words down.
South Africa is the ultimate story destination, rife with aggression, optimism, colorful people, crime, riches, disease, death, opulence, a terrible history, a horrible/wonderful future, dazzling sunshine, electric thunderstorms … it is almost a character in its own right.
I love the new generation of SA writers, finally untethered from our brutal past, able to write stories set in South Africa about things other than the Bad Old Days. We now feel free of that particular responsibility – we can write for writing’s sake – and it shows in the work; it makes it no less inherently South African.
Slade has a lot of sex – the only thing other than writing (and his over-the-top shower) that makes him feel alive. It’s essential to his character development. Have you had any comments about that aspect of the book?
Thank you for getting it. My editor suggested I excise a few hard-core moments, which I did. The readers’ reactions were very positive; I suppose the ones who didn’t like it didn’t speak up. A few people described Slade as ‘kinky’, which surprised me. A friend of mine suggested I get some erotica published, another wondered out loud why my husband ever “lets me out of the house”. Of course it was difficult to look any of my relatives and in-laws in the eyes for a while.
Sex is such a vital part of life – I believe it shouldn’t exclusively be the domain of erotica/porn, but feature in good literature, too. Maybe if it did we wouldn’t have had the travesty/bonanza that is 50 SHADES OF GREY.
When Eve is found murdered exactly the way Slade plotted it, his smug life rapidly unravels and the little stability he has is destroyed. What was your initial plan for the novel? Was it the copy-cat murder premise, or was it Slade’s paranoia and the murder was a device?
I wasn’t sure when I was planning it: I was led by Slade and things got out of hand. I’m still not exactly sure what happened. Are you?
I’ll take the fifth on that! At the end of the book, we are faced with the endings Slade writes. The most obvious one is not there. Was that deliberate ambiguity or do you want us to take the end at face value?
The ambiguity is deliberate. It may look like I took the easy way out by not providing a definitive ending – perhaps I did – but at the end of the book there is no certainty in Slade’s world, and we can only know what the narrator knows, or chooses to let us know.The rest is up to us.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you enjoy writing thrillers. Can you tell us anything about your next book?
I do like thrillers but I’m a marketer’s nightmare as I write across all genres. The new novel is quite different to THE MEMORY OF WATER. It’s more YA, with a female protagonist who is synaesthetic, which allows for unusual and pretty prose. It’s set in the near future: 2027 – so not sci-fi, but not quite current, either. It’s a kind of parallel-universe version of Johannesburg, where cars are too expensive to drive, there is very little water, and the country is plagued with a fertility crisis. It begins with our main character discovering that the people she thought were her parents were actually her abductors. As she tries to figure out who she is and where she comes from, her life unravels with dangerous consequences.