Africa Scene: Frank Owen
Writing Duo Jump the Wall for Sequel
Frank Owen is the writing partnership of Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer, both South African authors well-known for their work in other genres. Awerbuck has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa and the Caribbean) and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. She is a teacher, reviewer, and poet. Latimer wrote The Space Race for adults, and also writes and illustrates children’s books.
An unlikely combination to write dystopian and totally scary alternative history thrillers set in the United States, you think? Don’t judge until you’ve read SOUTH and NORTH.
This is a US where the Civil War didn’t happen until much later, when unification of the North and the South became more a matter of political ambition than of policy. By the time the war does happen, it has many modern warfare horrors available and spirals into germ warfare. The North is ruled by Renard, who grabs total power, uses the wind and multiple mutated viruses to destroy the South, and also builds a wall across the continent to enforce the separation.
In this The Big Thrill interview, I talk with the authors about the sequel to SOUTH, their writing partnership, and what we can expect from the authors next.
You both come from rather different backgrounds. How did you come to write together, and what motivated this unusual premise for a novel set in the US?
AL: When I was releasing my first novel, The Space Race, I’d just finished reading Diane’s heavy-hitting but wonderful book, Home Remedies, and so as a fan, I asked her to interview me at the launch. With some bribery, she agreed. We do come from different backgrounds, but we realized early on that our interests are quite similar. The idea to write together was just for fun, initially, because it’s difficult to know how that process works without getting into it.
The premise for SOUTH came from chatting over coffee during a particularly cold and windy Cape Town winter. Everyone was sick and had been for what seemed like months. The idea of wind-borne viruses was literally in the air. But at the same time, I think the premise of building walls and keeping people apart was also floating about in the global zeitgeist. We built our wall across America three years before Trump used it in his election campaign. Fiction has a hard time keeping up with reality. Now it’s interesting to see exactly how it’s playing out in real time, of course. Walls never work the way they’re supposed to.
How does the process of writing together actually work? And is there any significance behind the name “Frank Owen”?
DA: Frank is a name from a side of my family, and Owen came from Alex’s. So the ancestors are doing their bit there. I do have to take a bit of flak now about why we chose a male identity—but this was back before #MeToo and the industry upheavals and general changes in zeitgeist. I am pleased to say that things are different now, but we were going for vanilla. The Trojan Horse and all that.
AL: I don’t really think of our collaboration as two writers writing the same story. Diane’s writing style and my writing style are quite different—so the process was more about combining my skills with hers rather than sharing the load. I’ve always been intrigued by pace and plot, whereas Diane’s writing is much more lyrical. We tried a few ways of working, but in the end we’d just chat about where the story was going and then I’d put down the first draft of a chapter and Diane would double it, concentrating on character and atmosphere. We wanted a fast-paced action narrative told in a literary style.
Was the idea of a wall across North America related in any way to President Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico, or did it arise in some other context?
DA: Trump didn’t invent walls, and science fiction has long been heavy on philosophy in the guise of “what-if” fun. We’re continuing a historical tradition (think Hadrian, Hitler, and the Really Big One that we used to think we could see from space) as well as a writing tradition (think Le Guin, Howey, and so on).
And of course we both have been shaped utterly by apartheid practice—both as a result of it and in resistance to it. Our initial idea was how to write about the social effects of forced separation without standing on a soapbox to do it, because that’s not why folks read fiction. We learn from reading, too. It’s often the thing that makes privileged people care about how the world works.
But our British publishers were taken aback by the political developments that happened almost as soon as South hit the shelves. We’re not saying Trump read the book, but…
AL: Believe it or not, we wrote SOUTH before Trump thought of his wall. At first we were amazed by the coincidence of it, but I think perhaps we were just responding to the same global zeitgeist of immigration and xenophobia. Walls go hand-in-hand with propaganda and control of the media, which is exactly what’s happening in America. It’s not a new story.
SOUTH is a dark vision. People are automatically suspicious of any stranger who may be the carrier of a new and usually fatal disease. There is little cooperation with the exception of one community that protects itself and generally excludes strangers, and another hospice-type community where everyone is already sick. Yet many of your characters—including Dyce and Vida—are trying to help and support others. Would you call yourselves optimists about human nature, and was exploring the behavior of intrinsically good people in intolerable circumstances part of your theme?
DA: It’s something that fascinates me, and the only answer I’ve found is Viktor Frankl’s, in Man’s Search for Meaning. What makes one person give up, and another keep fighting? Even medical doctors call it the will to live: they don’t know exactly what it is, either—but we all know it when we see it: the stubborn, unlovely face of love that’s the only thing that makes humans worth keeping on the planet.
AL: I’m certainly an optimist about human nature. Why can’t we all just get along? For me apocalyptic fiction is all about whittling away the parts of life that are non-essential. There’s no dry-cleaning to be done, no dog food to buy, no peeling fascia boards that need attention. You get right into the essence of a person. But as dark as that sounds, we realized early on that every single character in the book had to be hopeful in some way—because without that hope they’d already be dead. It’s a lovely space to explore human nature and the will to survive.
Eventually Dyce and Vida, among others, decide that their only hope is to escape to the North from the crippling South. But the North turns out to be far from the haven they expected. Did you always plan this as two books from the different perspectives of the two sides of the wall?
DA: Alex drew the whole plot diagram in a little coffee shop a couple of years ago, and we always knew how it would end. Our agent suggested two books, and he was right. There was too much to squash into a single volume. But a series always runs the risks of petering out in the sequel, and all the juicy stuff we love about the first novel gets spun out until the joy is sucked out of it, like a fly in a spider’s web.
It was Alex’s idea to have the Northern perspective, and when he said it I had that feeling—a kind of resonance or gong in my head—that said, this feels truthy and right. Because there are always many sides to stories.
AL: I loved the idea that in SOUTH we’d never get a look over the wall. Readers and Southerners alike would have to speculate as to what’s really going on up there, because that’s what walls do. And I think that builds intrigue and expectation for the reader.
After SOUTH, I wondered how North could avoid being an anticlimax. In fact, it is the climax. The story in NORTH focuses around a resistance movement aiming to overthrow the dictator running the country and prosecuting the war. The refugees from the South are vital to their plans, but soon we see that Adams, the resistance leader, is himself a wannabe dictator. Both books reveal people’s characters and how their perspectives lead to pivotal decisions—for good or evil—when the moment occurs. Would you comment?
AL: I think we like to look at history and side with whoever is in the right—but it’s not so simple when you’re in the moment. In the moment you don’t have all the facts and sometimes your life and the lives of your loved ones are at risk. In SOUTH and NORTH we try to muddy the waters a little—it’s not about being one of “the good guys” or being one of “the bad guys,” it’s about making choices using the information you have. And living with those choices if they’re wrong.
DA: I love how complex the characters are—how their innate goodness or evil is amplified by the circumstances in which they find themselves. But also, as in real life, people often do things because they can, when they are handed an opportunity. There is no why.
NORTH is told from the perspectives of five refugees from the South—Dyce; Vida and her mother; Felix Callahan, the Weatherman; and Kurt Callahan, a psychopathic teenager. Each is a protagonist in her or his own right. Why did you choose this approach to telling the story?
AL: In these books we’re trying to tell the story of a whole continent—having multiple protagonists was the way we chose to give a more rounded perspective of how things unfold. One or two protagonists would have been too limited, and also too convenient. We’ve tried to write a believable book—and in doing that we sometimes had to go against conventional narrative structures. We’ve had people who’ve read the books say “I can’t believe you did that!” but then add in the next breath that the story felt real. The apocalypse isn’t going to be predictable.
DA: I think it’s important to understand that, socially, consensus is not really a thing. We spend a lot of time thinking that if we can just explain our perspectives properly, that we can convince other people of our basic rightness. But even when the issues are relatively simple, humans complicate matters with their ideas and personalities, born of their past experiences and their hopes for advantage and advance. I like how we don’t always do what’s good for us—how unpredictable we are!—and I wanted readers to get a sense of that multiplicity of voice, and sheer cussedness.
Could you tell us about the music you commissioned for the books?
DA: One of the ways people escape the present or hold on to the past or imagine the future is through music, and we were listening to a lot of lonesome cowboy songs when we were writing. It took me back to the South African stuff from the ’80s and ’90s—Afrikaner protest music, Die Gereformeerde Blues Band and Valiant Swart—that hardcore, quite literary but also folky music with its direct bloodline going back to the Dutch guys writing a hundred years before that, and the beautiful melancholy that went with it. And then we thought: We know musicians! So we ended up commissioning some of those dirty cowboy vibes from the vastly talented Gene Kierman. Two songs are on our website but he’s also the frontman for Miss Texas 1977.
Are you planning further writing projects together?
DA: Alex and I—as ourselves, not as Frank—have just put a combined collection of short stories together, called Megafauna. It looks at sex and death and how both of those states are pretty funny-ha-ha and funny-peculiar.
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