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Jacqui L'Ange

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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

Jacqui L’Ange’s ‘The Seed Thief’ is The Next Big Thing

Thank you to Consuelo Roland for tagging me in ‘The Next Big Thing’. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s an exercise in self-promotional positivity, and an invitation to talk about your most recent writing work, or work in progress, through a set of standard questions. Then you pass the baton on to a handful of other writers, who’ll do the same in a week’s time. And so it rolls…


What is your working title of your book?

The Seed Thief


Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was interested in exploring the links between Brazil and Africa, and the obvious route was slavery and the sea passage between West Africa and Bahia. Somewhere along the way a seed presented itself as the perfect cross continental time capsule. So a lost seed became the vehicle for the story, and linked the historical practice of colonialism and slavery to a modern-day method of appropriation: control of genetic resources and bio-piracy.


What genre does your book fall under?

Literary thriller or ecological fiction.


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My characters for The Seed Thief are so real to me; they look the way they do, which is to say, like themselves. It I were to put Hollywood faces to them, they would become different people.


I know this because it happened to me when I wrote a film script a few years ago (Murmur) and was involved in the production of the movie. Before we went on set, the characters looked a particular way in my mind. Once we started shooting, they started to take on the actors’ characteristics. It’s a wonderful process, watching actors bringing new dimensions to written characters. But when I try to remember what the characters looked like to me pre-movie, I can hardly conjure up their images…


Having said all that, while writing an earlier draft of The Seed Thief I told my partner that I thought Maddy, the narrator and protagonist, was a little like Ellen Page (of Juno, Inception, Whip It). He had a different picture of her in his head, but that’s the way she is for me. Maddy is small and slight and dark-haired. And she has great knees.


What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A young botanist in search of an endangered plant gets caught up in a parallel world of Afro-Brazilian spiritualism, and finds out some home truths, where she really stands, and what she is prepared to sell out in order to survive.


Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I will be seeking agency representation.


How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I wrote the book as part of an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. It should have taken me two years, but it took three because but I fell ill in the middle of it and had to take some time off. I found that it’s not a bad thing to put a project on a back burner and let it simmer for a while. I’m currently editing the manuscript so will probably have to add another year onto that total by the time it is ‘finished’. (Almost there now…)


What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, or TC Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was convinced that I was going to write a book about the sea. I’d had an idea for some time to write something with the deity Yamanja – the Yoruba and candomblé orixa, or goddess, of the sea – in a cameo role. Yamanja is still there, but so are a lot of other orixas who confuse the hell out of my rational-minded protagonist. I liked the possibilities of putting someone into a situation that throws them completely off-kilter, and seeing what comes up out of that.


Researching the botanical aspects of the book I became fascinated with seed banking, and came across some incredible stories of botanical survival against all odds – many of them found their way into the book.


But I think my original urge was to re-connect with one of the places I grew up in (Brazil), in a way that felt new and interesting. On a trip to Brazil a friend of mine suggested I visit Salvador in Bahia. I became fascinated with how African the city is, in a uniquely Brazilian way.


These days so many people are displaced, or come from, or live between, many places, and I also wanted to explore what that does to our sense of where we belong. My initial working title for the book was ‘In Transit’ – part of the story takes place with Maddy stranded in an airport transit lounge. I think it’s a state a lot of people relate to…


What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

If I tell people The Seed Thief is about bio-piracy, they tend to look cautiously baffled. If I tell them it is about sex in Brazil, they lean in for more. It really has a good dose of both.


And now to pass on the love … ‘The Next Big Thing’ has been pinging around the blogosphere for a while, so a lot of established writers have been here, done this. But I think its true value is in introducing new names that are not yet, but have the explosive potential to be, big literary news.


I was privileged to find myself in a hugely talented (and immensely likeable) bunch of writers in UCT’s creative writing programme. Many of them are already doing big things: Aoife Lennon-Ritchie has just started a literary agency and will share her latest work next week. Melissa Siebert is a journalist with an explosive story that I can’t wait to read more about – I’ll be guest hosting her blog post here next week. And Michele Rowe is a scriptwriter whose thriller What Hidden Lies won the 2011 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger for its opening chapters – before the book was even finished! Roll on, and power to your virtual pens…

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Apocalypse Now: A Review of Then by Julie Myerson

ThenThere are two tricky things about reviewing Then. The first is that the story is so spoiler-prone it’s hard to say anything substantive about it without giving key plot twists away.

The second is that urging people to read it is to submit them to a harrowing experience. This book is bleak, brutal, devastating – and utterly unputdownable.

Sometime in the middle of summer, the temperature drops so low that animals bite off their own tails and small birds come falling down out of the sky.

How do you walk away from a first line like that?

Like all the best post-apocalyptic fiction, the book’s future premise is just close enough, just imaginable enough, to infuse a reading of it with a real sense of foreboding.

The setting is London, turned suddenly from quotidian to nightmarish as a fresh February day grows hellishly hot before it freezes over. The cause is unspecified – seismic, nuclear, a sun flare or some climactic tipping point – but its aftermath is unstintingly detailed. Myerson’s descriptions are evocative, and often horrifyingly beautiful.

All communication is down. All transport is stopped. Savage stragglers range around a looted city of broken storefronts (such survivalist self-service less unimaginable now than it might have been pre-riots, when Myerson wrote this book).

The reader wakes into the narrator’s nightmare as she herself does, over and over, experiencing the horror of her immediate surroundings with a sense of startled confusion. She does not remember who she is, or how she came to be hiding out with a small band of survivors, on the 16th floor of a high rise in what was once London’s financial district.

This is trauma amnesia at its most chilling.

She has to be repeatedly reminded who she is with: teenagers Sophie and Ted, disaffected even in these vulnerable times; changeable Matthew – she cannot get a handle on him, or her tender-violent impulses toward him; Graham in his filthy suit, who seems more than any of them to have once belonged there.

There is no heat, no lights, little food. The lifts don’t work. They use the side entrance to remain undetected.

Our narrator spends her time wandering the building, and the ravaged streets outside it, searching, aimless. Her perceptions are vivid and hallucinatory, straddling the line between literal and psychological, exterior and interior. The obvious comparison is to McCarthy’s The Road – but this wanderer doesn’t have the comfort of family to keep her going. She has no idea whether she ever had one.

Gradually she begins to remember things, and as her history is divulged to her, so it comes to the reader. The book’s skilful structuring, its slow reveal, is one of its greatest strengths.

Another is the segue between the outer and inner worlds as the narrator wanders with no sense of self or time or purpose. As she begins to put together what happened to her in the days and months leading up to the event, we realise that the seismic events in her personal life were enough to cause a psychic apocalypse – a devastation of internal landscape so thorough that the narrator’s desire to keep a grip on her world could conceivably have come to an end.

Myerson weathered intense controversy with her last book, The Lost Child. Her project to document the life of a 19th century girl was hijacked by her own personal circumstances, and she ended up paralleling details of her teenage son’s drug abuse, and the family’s tough-love response to it. The media hounds bayed for her blood, accusing her of serving her son up as publicity fodder for her literary career.

All this is important only in as much as it might inform Then, a work of fiction which is bleakly affecting in a way only someone who has experienced extreme personal upheaval can write it.

  • Catch Jacqui L’Ange in conversation with Julie Myerson at the Open Book Festival on Friday 23 September

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A Review of Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace

This review originally appeared in Psychologies magazine. Earl Lovelace will appear at the Open Book Cape Town literary festival this September.

Is Just a MovieTitle: Is Just a Movie
By Earl Lovelace
(Faber and Faber)

Trinidad in the 1970s in the wake of the Black Power rebellion, and some are still struggling to make sense of the way things change and the way things don’t and their place in the middle of it all.

One of them is Sonnyboy Apparicio, chance revolutionary, son of the streets, who refuses to die a choreographed death – even if, like his hapless friends, he is just playing a bit part in an American movie.

Sonnyboy finds his position in refusal, and his voice in the clang of the steel drum like his father before him. Sonnyboy has a swagger that is part bravado, part polio limp, but he puts on muscle as he grows from young boy to badjohn on Rouff Street, between the Shango yard and Mother Olga’s Shouters church, between the streetfights and the cornerstore scams.

He is just one of a cast of characters living in Cascadu, each one as deftly drawn, as lovingly flawed as the next. There are girls that smell of mystery and Oil of Olay, and boys that grow up crooked; there are women who could put a light on you, and ones who can make you go blind if you look them bold in the eye. There are people who live rejoicing in other people’s sorrow to keep it away from their own door.

There is Dorlene whose wedding wasn’t to be, and Claude, an idealist taken in by the system, marking time, doing distractions along with everyone else to hide from the fact that the land is being poisoned while power is being centralised.

And there is Kangkala, the book’s master narrator, an aging calypso player, ‘maker of confusion, recorder of gossip, destroyer of reputations, revealer of secrets’. When Sonnyboy beats iron in the steelband, he tells us, ‘what he produced was not the insistent percussive sound to keep the band on the beat, but the discordant chiming clanging clataclanging that opened up the belly of the music to make women start to wine, young fellars square off to fight and big men put their two hands in their head and weep’.

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1997 for his previous book, Salt, Lovelace has lived all his life on Trinidad and Tabago, and the lilt of the islands permeates his pages. Like Sonnyboy’s steel drum, Lovelace’s prose beats right through you, every word in this glorious story ringing with the rhythm of place.

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