by ARJA SALAFRANCA
Flipped by Tracey Hawthorne is a novel about being seen, what is not seen, and how the previously hidden is revealed when the unexpected happens. In the unusually wet winter of 2010, two teenage girls set off to a party on a farm across a river, and disappear without a trace. Six years later, in the worst drought in living memory, a young woman vanishes while on her way home from work on a busy road. In the days following these events, those closest to the missing women are forced to question how well they really know them.
What is Flipped about?
It’s a story about what happens in people’s lives when circumstances change very suddenly and profoundly – when ‘black swan’ events occur and suddenly everything is completely different. It’s about what’s revealed during these flips, and about how people handle them: some people fight like mad, while others just give up.
The book is in two parts. How did this come about?
It started as two short stories, which I’d worked on, on and off, separately, over several years. It was when the police officer, Tamara Cupido, began taking shape in the first story that I realised that she would, of course, also be the police officer in the second story. I didn’t actually have to work hard to link the two stories – they came together organically as one narrative. You have to read to the end of the second half to understand what happened in the first half.
Extremes of climate play a large role in the book. Tell us about this.
I live in a part of the country that experiences fierce summers and wet winters. During both summer droughts and winter storms, I’m often reminded how completely helpless we tiny humans are against the astonishing might of the weather. We can plot and plan all we like, but human nature is no match for Mother Nature. I enjoyed weaving these elements of the awesome power of sun and rain into the stories, and they almost became characters in their own rights.
The story is obviously South African but you never specifically mention this. Why?
The story itself isn’t especially South African – what happens to the characters could happen to almost anyone, almost anywhere in the world. But the details that ground the characters, and the landscapes against which the two stories unfold, are specifically South African, and South African readers will recognise those realities of river and road, of town and city, of individuals and communities, and of the painful social subtleties that are a product of the huge gap that remains in our country between the rich and the poor.
You usually work mainly in non-fiction, and especially in editing and ghostwriting biographies. Did this have any effect on the writing of Flipped, your first novel?
Even the most modest family history or personal memoir is always full of delight and surprise – looking into and learning about other people’s lives is endlessly interesting for me. It’s why I love helping people tell their own stories. Because Flipped is a story about families – mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives – and about things that happen in these people’s lives, writing it came naturally, and the characters quickly became very real for me.