South story idea came with the wind

Authors of South, Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer.

Far south residents will recognise a tangible feature of their lives in South, the post-apocalyptic novel by Frank Owen – a pseudonym for authors Diane Awerbuck, of Fish Hoek, and Alex Latimer of Glencairn.

And it turns out that the Southeaster was the inspiration behind the premise in their book-world, of the wind-blown viruses; a colloquial paradox for our Cape Doctor.

“The whole idea pretty much came out of a discussion we were having one winter about why everyone was sick, and how they couldn’t seem to shake the repeat infections. A pharmacist told me that she knew when the wind was blowing without even going outside, because people came in asking for remedies to help them breathe. She blamed the old lime quarry,” Diane said.

Frank Owen arose after Alex approached Diane to interview him for the Kalk Bay launch of his debut novel, The Space Race. The writers met, got on well; and collaboration sounded, they said, like a fun idea. The reality was too – enough for them to pen a short story – and then two books together.

South is just being launched – North is currently with publishers.

Alex said: “Co-writing is great. The key is realising that the book you’re producing will not turn out the way you imagine it. It took us a while to figure out how to divide the working process, but once that was in place it made writing a novel such a lot of fun – and half the work too.”

“I think we both figured out our strengths as writers, as well as our weaknesses. Before, I used to just write and hope it turned out okay – but now I have a better sense of my own style, and I’m better at adjusting my style for different types of writing,” he said.

From beginning to end, South took a year to complete. “But a lot of that time was plotting and thinking and figuring things out – or simply waiting for inspiration in order to solve a plot problem. We did about 80 percent of the actual writing in three months. I can write anywhere, so home or a coffee shop or the waiting room at the dentist are all good places,” Alex said.

He described post-apocalyptic literature as a terrific medium to investigate human nature.

“It strips away all of the things we think are important and exposes the core of what makes us good or bad people. I think that’s why it’s a popular genre, and it’s what draws us to write about it,” Alex said.

The novel is based in America, and Alex says that even though neither of the writers has spent much time in America, it is not unfamiliar territory.

“We’ve grown up with a cultural diet of pure USA – from the A-Team to Coca-Cola. To flesh out the details we did loads of research on native plants and trees and we explored the landscape as well as we could manage through maps and photographs and Google Earth. But it’s also great to remember that we’re writing fiction, so if that one particular plant isn’t to be found on that one particular ridge – well, that’s the world we’ve created. It’s not meant to compete with Lonely Planet’s USA.”

Alex said South was always going to be part one of a bigger story … and the writers have just completed the sequel: North.

“Right from the beginning of South we knew how North would end – both books work up to this one final scene, which we love. The two novels are quite different, though they inhabit the same world – and I think they complement each other really well. Once you’ve read South I think you’ll want to know how North ends.”

On whether the north-south division in the novel it is intended as an apartheid theme, Diane said: “Absolutely: it’s apartheid, except they called it segregation. America is fascinating, because we’re seeing the massive re-emergence of black consciousness at the moment.”

In the novel, wind-borne viruses spell impending death, while the lowly mushroom is given a publicity make-over, and is mentioned as a specific way through the difficulties.

The authors don’t work full-time as writers. Diane writes textbooks and is a history and English teacher, while Alex is an illustrator for children’s picture books. He also makes art prints and contributes to text books.

Alex said he has been seriously committed to writing since he was seven.

“I wasn’t always good at it, but once I discovered the magic of reading and writing – it was always something I wanted to do. I wrote my first published novel in 2012, but I’d written at least three terrible ones before that.”

Diane added: “You can’t write without being a reader. Finuala Dowling says if you want to write a novel, you should have read at least five hundred of them first.”

The authors advise closet writers to submit stories for publication, but to be sure to first carefully read the submissions guidelines that all publishers have on their websites.

“There’s a reason they’re there. And make sure you know to whom you’re submitting: car magazines will probably reject bodice-rippers,” Diane laughed.

“If you’re serious,” she said, “pay for an online course. But the way to be a decent writer, is to write.”

* Diane’s debut novel Gardening at Night won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa and Caribbean). She was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2014. Her latest short story collection is Cabin Fever, and her most recent highbrow-horror novel is Home Remedies.

Alex Latimer is the award-winning writer of The Space Race. He is also an internationally renowned picture-book writer and illustrator, and his books have been translated into several languages. Most recently, he wrote the prize-winning story A Fierce Symmetry for Short Story Day Africa in 2016.