Charlotte Otter discusses her feminist crime fiction debut with Jonathan Amid.
Charlotte, Balthasar’s Gift: A Maggie Cloete Mystery, is a terrific debut, one that strikes a neat balance between lively pacing and frenetic action and carefully considered social commentary. Why did you decide that the crime fiction genre was appropriate for the story you wanted to tell, one that returns to South Africa under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki?
Thanks for your kind words, Jonathan. I always knew that the first book I was going to write would deal with the way Thabo Mbeki’s presidency refused to face up to HIV/AIDS and thus consigned a generation of people to their death, not to mention depriving hundreds of thousands of children of the love and protection of their parents. It was and continues to be such an acute tragedy – and one which South African fiction writers have up to this point largely ignored.
The first draft was literary fiction, written from the points of view of Lindiwe, Sanet and Francois Bezuidenhout’s wife Samantha. The very bare bones of the story were laid down. Then, one dark and rainy night, as I drove my sleeping family home from Berlin, it dawned on me that the best way to tell the story was as crime fiction and that it needed to be told from the perspective of a journalist, who could both pursue the murderer and frame the story for the reader. That was the night that Maggie was born.
How did your previous experience in the field as a former journalist relate to or influence your approach in writing fiction? How did your research make the writing easier?
I was very happy to use my experience as a journalist in South Africa in the early 1990s to flesh out Maggie’s work life. I was a very impressionable 18-year-old when I first worked in a newsroom at The Natal Witness, and the newsroom politics, strife between the journalists, competition for headlines and bylines really struck me. I was quite starstruck by some of the journalists I worked with, especially the investigative reporters who, along with the photographers, seemed so tough and cool. I was such a novice, and the newsroom is a sink-or-swim environment, but so many of them kindly saved me from drowning.
There is a huge difference between writing news and writing fiction. Although I have always earned my living as a writer, I started writing Balthasar’s Gift only when I turned 39, because the idea of writing creatively was very scary. It took me many years to get up the courage to really commit to writing a novel.
My reading tends to err towards literary fiction, so I always imagined that I would write with great literary flourishes. It surprised me, as I churned out the drafts of Balthasar’s Gift, that my style was quite spare. One day, I hope to write literary fiction with long run-on sentences, deep metaphors and burning ideas.
I don’t think the research made my writing easier, but it helped with two things: getting the facts right and developing empathy both for people who have HIV/AIDS and for their carers.
As opposed to having a detective as protagonist, crime reporter Maggie Cloete makes for a striking counterpart to someone like Margie Orford’s Dr Clare Hart. Why did you decide on a reporter as lead character? Did you feel more comfortable employing a female rather than male lead?
Thanks for mentioning Clare Hart and Maggie in the same sentence (*faints*). I felt more comfortable employing a reporter rather than a policeman or -woman. It also gave me the chance to explore the reporter’s dilemma of being an observer or a participant – a temptation that Maggie wrestles with constantly, and finally gives in to. It was a no-brainer that I was going to write a female lead. There was never a question, and it was less about comfort and more about the fact that there are tons of crime novels written by women out there with male leads (JK Rowling, Elizabeth George, PD James, I am looking at you). I didn’t want to add to the pile.
Maggie Cloete is a fantastic character, and you provide such a rich backstory for her character arc, as well as for many of the other characters, such as Balthasar himself. Do your characters determine your story when you start out, or do they emerge as the narrative gains momentum in the writing?
Their characters were there, but their backstories took many drafts to crystallise. One of the things I used to do in early drafts was to write letters from one character to another, or diaries, to establish their voices, but also what their stories were. The diaries of Lourens Meiring are pretty gruesome, I can tell you.
As many first-time writers do, I struggled with backstory and how to handle it. At first, I front-loaded it, then I removed too much of it, but over time I learned that I needed to sprinkle it in lightly. I am still not convinced that I achieved this completely, but it was one of my steepest learning curves.
Many of my secondary characters arrived fully formed – Aslan, for example, and Spike. I just knew instinctively who and what they were. I love them both deeply as a result, because their arrival felt like gifts to me.
Balthasar’s Gift is an exceptionally fitting title, as it both evokes the fight against HIV/AIDS and different forms of AIDS activism, and functions as an ironic reminder of how those that try to do good are often caught in the firing line. I find the title evocative and deeply poignant. How did you decide on it, and were any alternative titles considered?
Balthasar’s Gift was the working title from the outset, and I was amazed that it stuck. I was expecting both publishers to gently suggest a change, but neither did. One beta reader did suggest that I change it to Written in Blood. I fired him shortly afterwards.
I love your interpretation of the title and it makes me happy that it resonates, but I am slightly reluctant to unpack it, because I think it will mean different things to different people. It certainly meant different things to me at different stages of the writing process.
You’ve mentioned the fourteen complete rewrites in other interviews. It seems a staggering amount of rewriting for a book that is so satisfying and rounded. Which structural or thematic issues were the most difficult for you to address? How did you decide on the structure of the opening chapter, which is not only rather long (for a crime fiction chapter), but starts off with an incredibly visceral showdown, which does a great job of introducing Maggie in her physical toughness before we see her various “scars” as we move along?
It seems staggering – and it was. What remains from draft one in the book you read today, is a bit of plot and a few characters, one metaphor and one image. The crossover is about 0,01%. The reason I rewrote so much was that I was absolutely determined to get published. So many aspiring writers throw their first drafts on to the internet as e-books, sell thirteen copies to their friends and family and go away feeling sad. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be as professional as possible.
However, apart from once attending a poetry course, I have no creative writing training other than being an obsessive reader. I really had no clue when I started. The only thing I had was burning desire.
I’ve mentioned that the first draft was literary fiction. In the second draft I changed it to crime and introduced Maggie and all the newsroom team. After that, I joined an online writers’ group and they helped me identify and excise the rookie errors – front-loading backstory, telling not showing, a gazillion adverbs and speaking tags, cack-handed foreshadowing and a too liberal use of metaphors and similes. Around draft four I showed it to a friend who works in publishing and she told me to change to third person. I signed with my agent around draft six and she required all kinds of changes. Her co-agents in London required another two or three rounds of changes, and on it went, until I finally met Else Laudan of Argument Verlag in Hamburg, who told me that she would publish the novel if I made Maggie a good deal tougher. I went back and took out Maggie’s self-doubt and self-questioning (which were, in fact, mine), and that’s when I added the opening scene.
Publishers since Else have loathed that scene, but I love it, because it provides an insight into Maggie’s character without my having to say “Maggie Cloete was a tough, feisty journalist who felt nothing about chasing crooks and beating them up as part of her daily work.” Other criticisms have been that it is not realistic; but my riposte is: “Is James Bond realistic? Is Jack Reacher realistic?” Crime fiction, and especially hard-boiled noir like Balthasar’s Gift, is about providing a heightened and extreme version of reality.
Maggie is a crime reporter on steroids.
Since I wrote Balthasar’s Gift by gut feel (which is probably why it took fourteen drafts – because I was writing my way into the story) and not to a plan, the hardest part for me was the structure. I did a lot of moving scenes around, and learned in the process that it is important to have energy highs and lows. Too much low energy gets boring for the readers, while too much high energy is exhausting. I tried hard to find a balance. I also studied the universal story structure and worked very hard at matching the plot to that.
If I look back now at all the work, I can safely say that Balthasar’s Gift is my Creative Writing MA, but because I am self-taught, it took me six years instead of two.
Why did you decide to return to a very dark time in South Africa’s recent history, and why tackle the subject of HIV/AIDS, still one of the biggest problems faced by our young democracy? Did you rely on much research to guide your insights?
It just seemed to me unbearably poignant and tragic that a country so newly free from the hideous burden of apartheid was burdening itself again with a new form of intolerance – of people with HIV and AIDS. It was illogical and cruel, and it cost us dearly. I remember being on a plane in July 2000 with a group of AIDS workers heading from London to Durban for the international AIDS conference. They were full of optimism and hope that Mbeki would admit that HIV caused AIDS. Of course, he didn’t and it took another three years before the work of the Treatment Action Campaign finally forced him to start providing ARVs to people with AIDS. I had my tiny baby daughter in my arms on that flight, and I imagined the desperate fear and frustration of mothers knowing they had HIV and knowing that without the drugs they would effectively transmit a death sentence to their unborn children. The cruelty of it overwhelmed me.
As I wrote the book, I read as much as I could about HIV and AIDS, but I always returned to a few key texts. My top three were Edwin Cameron’s Witness to AIDS, Jonny Steinberg's Sizwe’s Test, and The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown. The first two helped me with the peculiarities of living with HIV in South Africa, while the latter is written from the perspective of someone caring for people with AIDS. It really helped me form the qualities of Balthasar’s character.
Does the need for action and suspense make it any easier to avoid getting bogged down in forms of sermonising to your readers? Who, ideally, is the reader you write for, and which part of your novel did you most enjoy writing?
I think I banged the sermonising drum a little too hard in early drafts and my beta readers beat it out of me. And action and suspense provide an excellent counterpoint. Someone once told me we should write for our most intimate friend, because then we write in our most natural voice. I thought of that at times while I was writing, but, on the whole, I wrote for myself and, weirdly enough, for Maggie and Balthasar. I wanted to do them justice.
I enjoyed writing the chase and action scenes the most, as they are furthest from my life experience and required the most imagination. Scenes where people sit around talking to each and being incredibly witty are pretty familiar to me.
How would you characterise yourself as a reader, and how does the reading you do influence the way you write?
A: I am an omnivorous and catholic reader. I think reading has influenced me in that I instinctively understand the melody and the music of a good sentence. Certain writers make me jealous on sentence level – Hilary Mantel, Barbara Kingsolver, the Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote The Signature of All Things, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton. Of all of their sentences, I am the ultimate fangirl. I swoon.
What did the setting of Kwazulu-Natal and particularly Pietermaritzburg allow you to do in terms of context, and how strong do you find the relationship to be between place and person?
Pietermaritzburg is my home town, and, as an expat, I find home becomes more real the longer I am away and not less. I can transport myself into the sights, sounds and smells of downtown PMB, which allowed me to provide a visceral setting for Maggie’s story. I think the relationship between place and person should be strong, and that good world-building is important, but I also think the details should be sprinkled in, like backstory, with a light touch. Too many details and you bog the reader down, too few and they are not transported. Once again, it is a question of balance.
As a South African writer now working in IT corporate communications and living in Heidelberg, Germany with your husband and three children, how does that physical but also emotional distance from your home country influence the way that you write about it?
My relationship to South Africa is very emotional. I have done a lot of processing over the years, and have finally accepted that I am lucky enough to have two homes – one in South Africa and one in Germany. It took going and living away to give me the freedom and the distance to write Balthasar’s Gift. If I still lived in South Africa, I might have written a different book. Probably something about sex and shopping!
The novel is being marketed as feminist crime fiction. Please tell us a little more about the elements in the novel that provide its feminist thrust, and about your perspective on the difficulties of marrying a feminist agenda or ideology with the demands of the genre?
I grew tired of reading crime novels that began with a sexy corpse. There are so many of them and it’s so bloody dull (JK Rowling, ahem) and so disrespectful to women who live with abuse and sexual violence, or who die as a result of these. I took it as my personal challenge to step up imaginatively and not start a book with the dead, naked, mutilated corpse of a young woman. It’s just such a tired trope. Yes, there is sexual violence in my novel, because that is the reality of life in South Africa today; but no, it won’t ever be the inciting incident of any novel I write. I will never glorify or commodify violence against women.
Then, Maggie had to be the hero. Spike is lovely and very sexy, but he only helps out. Maggie chases down the killer in his lair, without the help of any men. In fact, the person who does help her is the most marginalised and voiceless person in the whole book.
My feminist agenda was to give voice to the voiceless and agency to those who are usually in the background of other people’s lives. Readers will tell me if I’ve succeeded or not.
Marrying this to the demands of the genre was not too difficult, as crime fiction affords its main characters all kinds of chances at agency. It’s just that she’s a Maggie, not a Mark.
What does being a feminist in 2014 mean to you?
It means speaking up – in my novels, in my work life, among my friends and family – and pointing out that while women have achieved the opportunity of equality, the structures of patriarchy and its handmaiden, sexism, still undermine that equality. Why am I paid 20% less than my male peers? Why are my daughters less likely to become CEOs than my son? Why does war affect women and children worse than men? Why do we still blame rape victims and not teach men not to rape? Why is FGM even a thing?
I am reading the biography of Eleanor Marx and it is quite depressing to see that the problems she was writing about over 100 years ago are much the same today. We are making progress, but it is incremental and that makes me furiously angry. Yes, I am an angry feminist. I embrace the label.
Finally, when will we see Maggie again?
Soon, if my publishers are kind to me again. I am writing the next in the series. I have brought Maggie into the present day (Google! Twitter!) and she is getting embroiled in an eco-conspiracy that sees her taking on big business.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Charlotte, and may the positive responses to your novel long continue.