By BRUCE DENNILL
JT Lawrence’s book Why You Were Taken paints the South Africa of 2021 as a difficult place for a person who knows his or her own mind. It’s an invigorating, bracing vision by a very talented storyteller.
The creation of a new world for a book set in the future initially presents a challenge for readers. For clarity: a similar plot set in a the present, with immediately recognisable locations and personalities, would fit into more readers’ comfort zones. Did you have any concerns about presenting such an invention to your audience?
Janita Lawrence: Yes. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull it off. Speculative fiction is definitely out of my comfort zone, as a reader and as a writer. But when the idea came to me, I realised it had to be set in the future. It didn’t concern me that my readers would find it difficult. The reader I had in mind (i.e. me) would enjoy the challenge.
How do you research the future? Your landscape is entirely convincing, but getting it to that point must require a fair bit of tweaking.
I watched loads of TED talks about everything from printing chocolate sculptures to freakish animal cloning – “pharming.” I read predictive essays on all kinds of tech, moral and cultural issues. Some inventions just appeared before me, in my head or in a dream. One a side note: I learnt that there is such a thing as too much research — some of the subjects I read about, like real-life chimeras, made me want to stop what I was doing and write another book altogether.
Adding synaesthesia complicates matters further: why do it? Was it intended as a unique selling point for the overall book? It does work as such…
I am fascinated by synaesthesia. I thought it would add an extra layer to the story, and it lent itself to pretty prose.
Constructing the narrative in the way you have means there are more loose ends to keep tabs on than there would be in a straight crime fiction or thriller novel. Was there a process for doing so? Charts? Tick-boxes? One of those serial killer dungeon thingies with ribbons pinned to pictures of random people stuck to the wall?
A Moleskine notebook and a list of the 10 major plot points. Everything followed from there. Half-way through I wrote out all the points on index cards and stuck them up on my wall in a kind of complicated mind map, only to ignore them completely. I did wonder what my domestic helper thought of my narrative threads, like “MALL QUINBOT HARRASSMENT” and “LITTLE LAGOS HOT GUNS HYENA”.
A society controlled by corporations: it’s a common theme in futuristic or dystopian fiction. Do you see any signs that it is going that way in South Africa … or is already like that?
Um, I don’t want to come across as paranoid, but … yes? I think the more we can dissolve our co-dependency on big corporations, the better. If everyone supported small businesses instead, it would change the economy: it would put real cash in the hands of the people instead of just changing some digits on a board. Ideally I’d like to be the house that’s off the grid, doesn’t depend 100% on municipal water, and is semi self-sufficient when it comes to food. My husband draws the line at having our own chickens in the backyard, though. It’s understandable. It’s a small backyard.
Subcultures are endless fascinating, and this story gave you the opportunity to create (at least) two – Alba and the group of protagonists of whom your characters Kirsten and Seth are examples. In both cases, there’s a thin line between activism and terrorism. Where is that line for you? Do you have strong enough feelings about some part of society that you’d go to the lengths your characters do to change things?
Terrorism and activism are essentially the same thing. How you label it just depends on what side of the line you’re standing. When we were kids we weren’t allowed to sing Struggle songs in front of my grandparents, so we’d sing them in the bath instead. My activism doesn’t stretch much further than that nowadays, either, I’m afraid, although I do love the idea of a South African revolution. The current #feesmustfall student protests are brave and necessary, and their commitment and discipline makes me proud.
Fundamentalism is always problematic. Your thoughts?
Absolutely. It’s a theme I’m exploring in my current work-in-progress. My protagonist (a modern-day witch) likes to say that fundamentalism is a psychological disorder that has yet to be classified. It’s insanity, and putting a logo on it doesn’t make it any less crazy.
One of the threads in the book deals with the impact of childhood trauma or unhappiness – even when such circumstances are only discovered later in life. It’s a profound psychological theme to work with, with plenty of room for pathos and melancholy. How did you ensure that it didn’t become depressing for readers (or if it did, that it inspired further reading)?
In all my books I get to this patch of sinking sand in the middle, this terrible vacuum, where I wonder if the protagonist will ever find their way out, and I wonder if the reader will stick with them. But we always do get out, and then it’s just a matter of revising the pacing on subsequent drafts to make sure that we don’t lose anyone along the way.
How does writing about such a theme affect you as a mother?
I wrote Why You Were Taken before I became a mother. I struggled to conceive for years, hence my interest in fertility, and the troubling question of meritocracy of parenthood. It used to make me furious that crack addicts could get pregnant, but I couldn’t. I had to do something with that anger. Writing the book helped.
Did you have a reading list in preparation for writing Why You Were Taken? Simplistically speaking, it has echoes of Huxley, Wells, Orwell and Beukes – any regular reader of popular literature should find something to connect with, and yet your story is very fresh.
I read Huxley and Orwell, but long before I ever had the idea for Why You Were Taken. Although I admire Lauren Beukes’s writing, I stayed away from Moxyland and Zoo City in case it influenced my story’s world building. Other books that inspired me, albeit years ago: Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, which I found fascinating, as well as her Maddaddam novels. But most of my reading material to prep for Why You Were Taken was non-fiction: loads of titles on synaesthesia, and one on the beauty and elegance of mathematics, to help me understand Seth’s character.
You’re self-published. Please support or refute the following perceptions about taking that route:
(My debut novel was published by an indie press, and I self-published Why You Were Taken. I may or may not have a traditional publisher interested in my current work, so I may soon be able to give you the pros and cons of all three).
1. The earning ratio is higher (ie you may not sell as many copies, but you’ll make more cash per sale);
True, in principle, but there are so many factors involved that there is no definitive answer. It depends how you self-publish.
2. You have more control over the editing, the design and the themes;
True, although this is not always a good thing. Have you seen those “Worst Kindle Covers” on the internet?
3. The tone and angle of the marketing is driven by you and thus closer to the intent behind the project.
1.It’s expensive, and you’re liable for all of the debt;
Not always. You can choose POD (print on demand), and while this is more expensive per book (and therefore less profit), it removes the risk. This is what I did for Why You Were Taken and it’s paying off.
2. Distribution opportunities are far more limited;
Not at all. My book is available pretty much worldwide (thank you, Amazon), and if I wanted local distribution I could use a service like Porcupine Press (who also handle printing and warehousing should you require it). Note: In order to get into Exclusive Books stores, you need to be distributed by one of their vendors. They can still order your POD title for customers, but you won’t see your book sitting on their shelves.
3. Useful feedback is more difficult to come by.
Absolutely. You’re on your own and have to chase every review yourself.
Does working as a bookdealer affect the way you write? You’re more accurately aware of what readers want.
You read my mind. The title of one of my next blog posts is “10 Things I Learnt About Writing in 10 Years of Bookselling.” Do you know what sells in SA? Diet books, bestsellers, non-fiction and Bibles. I predict the next chart topper in South Africa will be something along the lines of: 50 Shades of the Real Deal Meal — An Adult Colouring-In Book.
You’re a “personal bookdealer”: how does the process work – presumably you build a relationship with each customer so that you can eventually choose titles from them without getting direct input?
A customer will email me the titles of the books they’re looking for, and I let them know the price and availability. If they’d like to go ahead we order them and deliver them to their door. That’s pretty much it! Once we get to know a customer we do send through recommendations, as you say. Sometimes it means sourcing out-of-print books from other countries. We also handle bulk orders for corporates, schools and universities. Basically, if you’re looking for a book, we can find it for you.
Why You Were Taken by Jt Lawrence is available now. Contact the author via https://www.facebook.com/JanitaTLawrence for details.