In conversation with Hannes Barnard about Halley’s Comet

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Title: Halley’s Comet
Author: Hannes Barnard
Publishers: Catalyst Press (worldwide) and Penguin (South Africa)
ISBN: 9781946395559 (Catalyst) and 9781776354801 (Penguin)

Pete, your main character, is a typical teenager. He wants to be popular, and he wants to date a lovely girl. Fairly early on, something nasty happens that shakes his world. Would you tell us just enough to make us want to read more?

Pete has ambitions to get into the school’s first rugby team. This is his main aim for the year, as this will give him a chance at winning the heart of his dream girl, Renate. To do this, he needs to be very fit, and so he goes for a long run to a farm outside town. There he bumps into a Zulu boy his age (Petrus). They get into an argument, and neither is supposed to be there. Their squabble is interrupted by an approaching vehicle. They hide behind a rock, worried that it might be the farmer. It turns out to be someone else completely – a young giant of a man (Rudie). But he is not alone. He has an Indian girl in the vehicle with him, also Pete’s age. She is crying, petrified. When she tries to escape from Rudie, he tackles her to the ground and pins her down. Pete and Petrus have a choice: keep hiding and stay safe, or intervene and run the risk of serious injury, or worse.

Somehow, they find the courage to confront Rudie, but it turns into a nightmare. He rushes back to his vehicle to get his gun. They run for their lives as dusk turns into night. Bullets fly as he gets closer. They stop breathing because it’s making too much noise. Still, Rudie comes closer. And closer.

The horrible incident at the start of the book creates a great (in other words, nasty) villain and some unusual friendships. Pete remains steadfast in his quest to be a good sportsman and a dude among the girls, though. These parallel struggles, as a young man against the villain and as a teenager against life, make for a fast, easy read. We have all been in Pete’s shoes as youngsters, regardless of our gender. Is that why you chose not to make him older or younger?

Short answer, yes. Pete turns 16 during the book. It is a fascinating age. You are at the precipice of adulthood, but the world still sees you as a kid (and it is unlikely that your word would be taken over that of an adult). It is also a time of self-discovery, trying to make sense of yourself and the world around you.

Due to the events in this story, Pete’s journey of self-discovery is fast-tracked, and he is soon confronted with questions he never knew he would ask. He has this battle between his idea of what he should do and what the world should look like (before that fateful night), and the new things and friendships he discovers which completely upend everything. He is left with loads of questions and not many answers.

The book is situated in Dannhauser. Where is Dannhauser, and why did you choose that town as the backdrop to the story?

Dannhauser is situated in north-western KwaZulu-Natal, about 35 kilometres south of Newcastle and 300 kilometres north-west of Durban. I chose Dannhauser because it is a place I know intimately: it is where I grew up. That is not the only reason. I also chose it as a symbol of rural South Africa, a place where one could be somewhat sheltered from the intensity and politics of the urban areas. Dannhauser was also very peculiar in the way it exercised the Group Areas Act of apartheid South Africa. The lines were slightly more blurred there than in many other towns and thus made it a perfect setting for this story.

Why is sport, and especially doing well in rugby for his school, so important to Pete?

It’s important to know that Pete loves sport. It’s not merely a means to an end. His first love is tennis, but he enjoys rugby, too. His dad is also a rugby fanatic and the person who wants him to excel in rugby. That said, in many (perhaps even most) South African schools, there is a lot of social capital to be gained from playing first-team rugby. You climb the popularity ladder much quicker if you can pull the first-team jersey over your head. If you are considered popular, you might just get a chance with a girl who is also considered popular. This is Pete’s thinking. If he can play first-team rugby, the girl of his dreams (Renate) will finally notice him.

Was dating different back then? Or the same as now?

There are probably more similarities than differences when you break it down to its core. There is the excitement, the uncertainty, the fear, the self-doubt, the magic, the influence of friends and peer groups, the gossip, the heartbreak, etc. The biggest change is probably the fact that relationships now have an additional dimension in social media. All information is amplified and spreads much further, and there is a bigger virtual element. I think that makes relationships very challenging. Even more so than in the past, because let’s face it, relationships have always been complicated!

On to the title: the last time Halley’s Comet was visible was in 1986. Were you around then?

Yes, I was very young, but I remember it well. My grandad had told me about the awe-inspiring 1910 Halley’s Comet before he passed away; therefore, seeing the comet was something I was extremely excited about.

I saw the comet. It was hardly spectacular. Does that impact your story?

Hardly spectacular is quite an understatement! It was a little smudge in the sky. Not the Halley’s Comet my grandad saw at all. Considering that this is (most likely) a once in a lifetime event, that was quite a let-down. This impacted my story a lot: the whole idea of a once in a lifetime event. Sometimes it’s a comet, sometimes it’s an event and sometimes it is a person. Quite often, it’s unexpected. And those are the best ones.

The year 1986 was dark from a political perspective. South Africa today is a different country from the South Africa of 1986 – do you agree?

In many respects, the South Africa of today is unrecognisable compared with the one of 1986. The type of friendship that Pete, Petrus and Sarita had in 1986 would now be nothing out of the ordinary, whereas back then it was borderline illegal, and at the very least completely unacceptable.

The period around 1986 was also a time when we had bomb drills at school, adverts on TV about how to look for car bombs, and a state of emergency. South Africa was isolated from the world.

In 2022, we have freedoms we did not know then. The world is open to us, everyone has the right to vote and everyone’s rights are the same. This does not mean the world we live in now is perfect. Far from it. But we have hope. Even when the future looks glum, we need only look to the (not too distant) past to see that hope is something worth clinging to.

The book mentions a bomb going off in a supermarket. Is that based on reality?

Yes. It is based on an event I experienced as a kid. We were in a shop in Newcastle when a car bomb exploded in the parking lot outside the shop. We were herded out of the shop through a small passageway which led us to the street. A man walking next to me said to his wife, “What if the terries (terrorists) are waiting for us with AKs?” His words stuck in my mind and became the inspiration for the fictionalised part of this event in the book.

I think it is a book about friendship. But the politics of 1986 create stumbling blocks to the friendship that may not have been the same today. Do you want to elucidate?

I briefly touched on this earlier. Due to the apartheid regime – the laws themselves, the stigmas that came with it, the perceptions that different is bad, the emphasis on differences rather than similarities, societal pressure and the rhetoric and propaganda of the time – a friendship such as that of Pete, Petrus and Sarita would have faced serious challenges. A friendship between a white boy, a Zulu boy and an Indian girl was just not on. Even from a logistical perspective, a friendship like this would have been difficult. They couldn’t become Facebook friends. To connect, they had to see each other. The Group Areas Act ensured they lived in very separate areas – visibly separate. That meant that “crossing over” to another area made one stand out. That is why they had to do it in secret. The interesting thing is that due to the stigmas, perceptions and societal pressure of the time – including the “them and us” idea, or the concept of not fraternising with the enemy – in all three cases, their race groups would most likely have condemned their friendship. Not all for the same reasons, but still, it would have been very hard for them.

Your book does not shy away from race pejoratives. Despite that, friendships form across racial barriers. Did people of all races engage more in the small towns, or is this your imagination working hard?

Good question! I don’t think there is one simple answer for that. I can tell you from what I remember. Where I grew up, our house doctor was Indian. He was fantastic and was well respected in the white community. All our shops, bar perhaps one or two, were Indian-owned. Shopkeepers were respected. Yet the same people who respected them and some of the other members of our Indian community would almost in the same breath say disrespectful, hateful things about other members of the same community. The same with the Zulu community: some, like our local evangelist, were highly regarded, while others were disregarded and dismissed as not worthy. Small towns were interesting in that sense; there was lots of interaction across the racial divide, but deeper relationships were rare (not non-existent, just rare). Therefore, this friendship in the book which crosses racial lines/barriers is based on facts, from what I saw as a young person (and through research), but is similarly also laced with imagination. I am a fiction writer, after all.

I always find covers fascinating. Both are great, but the Catalyst cover is a lovely image; it captures so much of what happens in the book, not so?

I am in the privileged position of having two covers for this book: one for the international market and one for South Africa. Picking a favourite is like asking a parent to pick their favourite child. When comparing the South African cover (Penguin Random House, South Africa) with the international cover (Catalyst Press), my favourite part is that they are vastly different, yet both in their own way evoke so many feelings and elements of the story.

The local cover (designed by Nanna Venter) captures Dannhauser and the surrealism of the comet and all it represents. This design is also beautifully continued in the layout of the book. It also manages to have a retro feel while being very relevant and fresh.

The Catalyst Press cover is pure art. This Karen Vermeulen design would not be out of place in any art gallery. I was moved when I first saw the design. The intertwined faces, the splatter, the paths and the subtle use of colour are just wonderful. It does speak volumes about the story and particularly about the complexity of the friendship and the closeness that develops.

So, as you can see: two covers and two different perspectives, both saying so much. I love them both.

Pete’s dad has his moments, as all dads tend to have. But there is a human side to him. I liked that.

Pete’s dad, Rikus, was probably the character that surprised me most when I wrote this book. He was supposed to be a small character, just someone who did dad things like attending Pete’s rugby games, telling him off for not doing his homework – that kind of thing. When I started writing the book, Rikus had other ideas. His character developed into a character I liked. He showed that he wasn’t so set in his ways. He was able to rethink his stance on life. He wasn’t just another person following what society expected of him. Because of this, he turned out to be quite the dad.

Music is rather important in this book. Why?

There is a distinct correlation between music and memories. A song can conjure up an almost forgotten moment, taste, smell or feeling. Like many teenagers (and people in general), Pete loves music. It becomes an escape, but in the wake of all the events of this story, also a trigger of some memories he wants to suppress. Songs he loved get new meanings. I wanted the reader to be there when Pete’s music memories (which will invoke certain feelings in his future) are formed. I also really enjoy ’80s music! It’s a strange mixture of melancholy and joy, with a pinch of innocence and youthful exuberance.

The book was originally published in Afrikaans. Did you translate it yourself?

Yes, I did. Fun fact: I wrote the original draft of this story in English. I then translated it into Afrikaans, and it was published – after some much-needed polishing by my publisher and editor. Thereafter, I translated the published version into the English version you see today. There are a few subtle changes from the Afrikaans version to the English version. I am very happy with the result. I enjoyed the translation process. It was challenging but really rewarding.

The English version was published internationally by Catalyst Press and in South Africa by Penguin Random House. How does it feel to have a story about an ordinary boy in a negligible town read all over the English-speaking world?

I hope it gives tourism in and around Dannhauser a boost! Joking aside, it is simply amazing to think that this story will reach people far beyond the borders of not just Dannhauser but South Africa. I feel honoured and blessed that my two publishers have decided to take a story of a fairly ordinary boy living in a town most South Africans haven’t heard of, to the world. I believe it is because the story transcends a specific time and place. A lot of what happens in Halley’s Comet is relevant now and in many parts of the world simply because it is a story about relationships, self-understanding, awareness of the world around you, the highs and lows of love and life, a fair bit of action, and hope. And, of course, some cool ’80s music!

See also:

Respectful, because it does not pretend: A review of Halley’s Comet by Hannes Barnard

#ReadingAfrica | The children’s literature panel

Wolk se Hannes Barnard nou ook internasionaal

Skrywersonderhoud: Hannes Barnard oor Halley se komeet

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