Author Interview: Justin Fox – The Cape Raider, Or War On The Water

June 7, 2023

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Justin Fox is an author and photojournalist. His book The Cape Raider is the first in a series of war novels and is set in South Africa and its waters.

 

When, and under what circumstances, did the idea for your latest book come to you?

Since I was a boy, I’ve been fascinated by World War II and used to read any book I could find on the subject. I was always slightly disappointed that South Africa never featured in the novels I was reading and I think the seed was planted way back then to one day do something about that lack.

 

Did it initially feel like something to commit to, or was that something that took time to develop?

When I started the research for The Cape Raider, I immediately realised the story had legs and could become a series of novels spanning the entire war. I also felt that it was the right thing for me to be doing at this stage in my career and when Covid came along, it became an absolute certainty. So, from the moment I started researching, I was already gathering information and titbits for later novels.

 

How did you conduct your research or other preparation before writing – was it more experiential or more academic or desk-based?

I needed to do a lot of research to get the period and events right and spent many hours in the British National Archives at Kew, the British Library, University of Cape Town library, Simon’s Town Museum archive, as well as the archives of the Simon’s Town Naval History Museum and those of Snoekie Shellhole, the MOTH attached to the Simon’s Town Museum (especially their meticulously recorded personal accounts of those who served at sea during the war). My time as a national service officer in the navy also helped provide the background and an understanding of life at sea.

 

If resources (money, time, whatever) were no object, what additional groundwork would you like to have completed?

I spent four years doing preparatory research for The Cape Raider, and Covid gave me endless free time, so I covered most of the research bases for the first novel (although I would have loved to spend some time at sea on a minesweeper). For subsequent novels in the Jack Pembroke series (The Wolf Hunt is second, and a novel about Tobruk is on the way), there has been less time for lengthy research as my UK publisher wants one book per year from me. However, I do try to visit all the settings to get a feeling for the location and spirit of place (Egypt for book three, Malta for book four and Madagascar for book five).

 

When considering influence, do you find yourself wanting to write like someone (in terms of their style, tone or use of language), or aiming for a kind of perspective or storytelling approach you admire or enjoy?

The nautical novels of authors such as Alexander Fullerton, Alastair MacLean, Nicholas Monsarrat and Douglas Reeman have been an abiding inspiration and I guess my novels pay homage to their style and approach. The historical novelist I most admire is Patrick O’ Brian and if I can get anywhere near his brilliant use of language and storytelling technique, I’d be on the right track! For my battle scenes, I am drawn to the First World War poet David Jones and his attempts to make words on the page convey the brutality of war, where grammar, tense and language begin to disintegrate.

 

What’s in your to-read pile – and what upcoming book (other than yours!) are you most looking forward to?

My pile is stocked with everything I’ve been able to find about Malta, as this is where my next novel will be set. I like to read travel writing, guidebooks, novels, history, politics, archaeology – anything that will allow me to better understand the location. My training as a travel writer means that I lean very much on place for atmosphere and mood. I’m also a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy and his latest novel, The Passenger, is top of my bedside pile.

 

Do you have a favourite character that you have created? Or if you’re writing non-fiction, do you have a specific topic that you find endlessly fascinating?

In my Jack Pembroke novel series, the second-in-command of the ship is Jannie van Zyl, a young lieutenant from Stellenbosch who becomes a more important character as the book/s progress. He is modelled on my uncle, the poet Uys Krige, who was a war correspondent (captured by the Germans) in North Africa during the war. I’m having a lot of fun with this character: his romantic life, his difficult home life in Stellenbosch (with a Nazi-sympathising brother), his love for poetry and art, and learning to become an effective leader in battles at sea.

 

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