Thursday, August 17, 2017

The North South Divide

Today’s guest post is by Frank Owen—or if you prefer today’s guest posts are by Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer, because Diane and Alex write novels together under the name Frank Owen. They are both well-known South African authors in their own right. Diane has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa and the Caribbean) for her novel, Gardening at Night, and is a teacher, reviewer, and poet. Alex wrote The Space Race for adults, and also writes and illustrates children’s books. An unlikely combination to write a dystopian and totally scary alternative history thriller set in the United States? Don’t judge until you’ve read South. Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz loved it—Lotz called it a “post-apocalyptic game changer.”

They take us to 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 uses the wind and multiple mutated viruses to destroy the South, and also builds a wall across the continent to enforce the separation. (This idea seems to remind me of something but I can't quite place it...) The world that Diane and Alex build on this foundation is as real and bitter as McCarthy’s The Road.

Alex and Diane chose to write one piece each linked to the background of the book. Here’s Diane on research for the book and more:

Fun guy

One thing leads to another. It’s true of murder mysteries; it’s true of life.
And it’s also true for research – which for me is one of the enduring joys of writing: that sense of being a scholar, of filling myself up with the collective knowledge around a subject that has piqued my interest, of discovery for its own sake. It’s a luxury. It requires time. It requires the right amount of neglect by other people so writers can get it done.  
And we can’t, of course, ever know our areas completely, but that is the other joy – of rediscovery, or of the strange-making of the familiar.
Dead by Alex Latimer
What first interested me passionately about South was Alex’s annotated illustrations of the plot. He actually had the whole story – the big picture – stored somewhere in his head. And the final image (a doodle, really) was of a cowboy lying dead, with mushrooms springing from his corpse. There was something spare but also terrifically visceral about that kind of sacrifice, and it plugged in visually to all sorts of stories and films I’d been encountering my whole life.
Not least of it was the Christian mythology of sacrifice and rebirth, which is, as we all know, really an enduringly pagan story: the Green Man, Yggdrasil, Isis and Osiris. It recurs in every culture, and there’s a reason: the archetype is real. It speaks to us. That little pencil illustration spoke to me.
It spoke most directly to my background in trauma studies: how some people recover from personal and communal trauma, and how some people never do. As I get older I’m beginning to understand that it’s not the terrible thing that has happened that counts. It’s what you do the morning after – how your body has its own way of dealing with grief; how your mind has these wonderful coping mechanisms it can turn on and off.
South isn’t only an escapist tract. It also seems to be about how people live – or don’t live – in the aftermath of stupid, horrendous political decisions that have direct and damaging effects on their lives. But we also wanted it to be real in the sense that all the remedies that people are experimenting with in the novel could actually be replicated in the event of a viral onslaught – not unlike the ones we’re experiencing already.
Mushrooms by Alex Latimer
The mushrooms filled that gap nicely. I started seeing them everywhere: in shops, of course, and online (when you do that Google search, you want to be super-specific about your terms…), in Chinese medicine and New Age remedies and Christmas baubles and funerary practices, in the artist Jae Rhim Lee’s mushroom burial suit that was seeded with spores.
But the surprising and satisfying thing for me was that they had been there all along, in more ancient settings: as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, in Buddhist carvings, in monks’ illuminated manuscripts. I just had to look with new eyes.
If we’re lucky, that is what happens with research. It flips a switch somewhere in our minds that allows us to see beyond the literal, to make connections between things, ideas, and people: to see, ultimately, how it all fits together, and what our place is in that order.

And that’s really what we’re here to do, as humans: that reaching out is at the heart of most religious cosmologies, and at the heart of why we write novels. The best books are summations of the experience and wisdom of other people. They’re trying to pass it along, spreading the stubborn, healthy spores so that we can regenerate, as individuals, as communities. So that we can survive, and thrive.

Weather map by Alex Latimer
And Alex tells us why they chose the US as the place to set the story, and the rather surprising outcome:

R of SA vs US of A
It wasn’t an easy decision to set South in the USA. We’ve been to New York and Florida to visit and teach, but those places aren’t representative of the entire country. But there was the obvious draw of the American market over the South African one. A few years ago I was on a science fiction and fantasy podcast with Lauren Beukes and she mentioned that her novel The Shining Girls had become a bestseller in in South Africa. I cheekily asked her how many sales make a bestseller here. The podcast host almost choked when he heard her answer: I think it was a couple of thousand, which for Americans is approximately the number of review copies a publisher sends out before a book hits the shelves.
I know money isn’t everything, but it’s definitely something.
The decision to set South in America was experimental. Both Diane and I have published locally and we knew what to expect if we chose to go that route again: some nice reviews and brief celebrations at literary festivals, but no one’s giving up their day job. Aiming overseas was unpredictable and exciting. Besides, why even write under a pseudonym if you’re not going to change things up a little?
But even after we’d decided on America, the whole notion still felt uncomfortable. The uneasiness for me came down to my own right to set a novel in America. I felt as though I was betraying some unwritten agreement between author and reader: ‘Write what you know’ and all of that.
But as soon as we started on writing the actual chapters, those worries evaporated. I found that I knew what Colorado looked like. I knew how people talked there and how they dressed. I knew the rivers and the colour of the dirt: the Internet helped with the names of the plants and the trees, but everything else was there inside my mind. How do I know what a diner in Nebraska looks like? The answer is that America has been culturally colonising the rest of the world for decades. We’ve all grown up on a diet of Clint Eastwood and Coca Cola and Nike and Hollywood blockbusters. It’s so entrenched in our minds that writing in America is like writing in a genre of its own. And feeling bad about turning it round and sending it back to Americans suddenly seemed like a quaint notion - like the owner of a burger stand worrying about the business he might be stealing from McDonalds.
We also have tame American readers, so we make sure that the facts are the facts. One turned out to be from the exact town we were using, and he was happy with the accuracy of the novel. His main criticism was that he couldn’t remember that particular grass growing on the top of that particular ridge. Otherwise, we were spot on.
But there were more surprises along the way. Setting a novel outside of your home territory is also strangely illuminating. As South African authors we’re never going to move away from writing about South African issues, even if the setting changes. We care too much. South is about segregation and the impact that has on the people on both sides of the dividing line. It’s apartheid. Once that ideology is given a common culture, readers can begin to imagine how they’d have reacted given similar circumstances.

The punchline to all of this is South is published globally, but we’ve yet to sell the American rights. So until that happens, maybe I’m wrong about everything. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

More about Frank Owen and the book at


  1. Thanks to the both of you, a very thought-provoking post. Now get the American rights sold, please, I'm eager to read the book!

    1. Hi Everett. We're eager to have SOUTH out in America too. Hopefully in due course it will be.

  2. Diane and Alex, please allow me to assure you that in placing SOUTH in the the (U)SA does not in any way compromise the concept of writing what you know. WHY? Because at the moment, no one in the US seems to have any idea of what is going on...about the South, North, East or West. As for the mushrooms, frankly I think much of the nation is already under their influence or wish to be.

    By the way, can we obtain a copy of SOUTH from Amazon UK?

    1. Hi Jeffrey. Thanks for the encouragement. And yes, you'll certainly be able to get a copy of SOUTH from Amazon UK.