Books

Finding the sweet taste of writing freedom

Sean O’Toole

South African-based author Sarah Lotz was scraping by before a British publishing house offered her a six-figure deal.

Unbeknown to her at the time, the decision to enrol for degrees in English changed the course of author Sarah Lotz’s life. (David Harrison)

In June this year, Hodder & Stoughton, the British publisher of John le Carré and Jodi Picoult, posted a benign notice on its company Facebook page. It stated that Anne C Perry, co-editor of Pornokitsch, a “geek culture” blog site founded in 2008, had been appointed to the position of assistant editor at Hodder. Her brief was to expand the company’s activities and acquisitions in the field of ­science fiction, fantasy and horror publishing.

The announcement, which generated 36 “likes”, ultimately led to Noordhoek-based author Sarah Lotz receiving a six-figure pre-emptive offer for world rights on The Three, a work in progress, and one other novel. Perry, who earlier this year co-edited Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke, a Pornokitsch volume of Dickens-inspired short stories featuring a contribution by Lotz, was key to initiating the book deal.

It was Perry who contacted ­Oliver Munson, Lotz’s representative at the London literary agency Blake Friedmann, to find out what her old Pornokitsch pal was currently ­working on. The short answer: ­collaborations.

After debuting in 2008 with the loosely autobiographical novel Pompidou Posse, Lotz segued into the lucrative genre-fiction market, publishing two pulpy novels about a down-at-heel Cape Town lawyer, George Allen.

Exhibit A (2009) received an enthusiastic endorsement from Mike Nicol, her former creative writing lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT), but the sequel, Tooth and Nailed (2010), received middling notices. “It’s not quite Raymond Chandler,” offered one reviewer.

Four pseudonymous collaborative novels followed. Published under the pen name SL Grey, The Mall (2011) is a suburban horror story involving a bored clerk, an addled nanny and her missing charge. Written in relay with Louis Greenberg, its compositional technique mimics the surrealist game of exquisite corpse. Its sequel, The Ward, has just been published (see “A bloody funny read” opposite).

Lotz has also collaborated on two zombie novels with her 21-year-old daughter, Savannah, Deadlands (2011) and Death of a Saint (2012).

When the offer to submit a proposal to Hodder came, Lotz fell back on her persuasions and perversities as a writer.

“I am absolutely obsessed with plane crashes,” explained Lotz when we met at a Hout Bay coffee shop. “I have always wanted to write a horror novel around that, so I came up with the idea and pitched it to Ollie.”

After getting the thumbs-up from her agent, Lotz sat down and wrote a 33-page partial manuscript. The plot for her forthcoming novel involves four commuter aeroplane crashes on different continents, including Africa, three child survivors with behavioural anomalies, an evangelical minister and, quite possibly, a spooky Japanese forest setting.

It has been widely described as “high concept”, a description with which she takes issue.

“I didn’t think of it as high concept. Plane crashes and evil kids are two of my favourite things. It was a case of how to meld them together.”

Within a day of submitting her manuscript it was snapped up.

“I got a telephone call from Ollie saying he had received an offer,” said Lotz, a jovial and self-deprecating figure in person. “I was expecting maybe, best-case scenario, £10 000. Boom! My head almost exploded. I would never in a million years have expected that.”

“Did you cry?” I asked.

“I live on a smallholding with my nan and went to have a drink at her place,” responded Lotz. “I was shaking. The first thing I thought is: ‘I can write now.’ I have been living from book to book. Scraping. This is like freedom.”

Filling the gaps
Lotz experienced her first taste of freedom as a teenager. Raised in Wolverhampton, a glum city between Tettenhall and Willenhall in the Black Country area of the West Midlands, she ditched art school for Paris in the late 1980s. Lotz retells this episode in her biography in her novel Pompidou Posse, which she wrote under the supervision of poet Kelwyn Sole at UCT.

“I needed to write about that story before I forgot about it,” said Lotz, who worked as a fire eater and pavement muralist in Paris.

“It is very autobiographical. It didn’t become a fictional memoir only because there are huge chunks missing, because I was on drugs. Obviously, I filled in a lot of cracks in the story.”

Lotz travelled from France to Israel, where she met her first husband, a South African. In 1991, the pair moved to Pietermaritzburg. “We didn’t have any money and ended up in a township.”

Two years later, on a whim, they moved to Port Shepstone. “It was fucking awful,” said Lotz in her plain-spoken manner. “I really didn’t get on well there.”

Working principally as a mural artist, Lotz spent seven years in Port Shepstone. Occasionally she wrote “shocking” book reviews for the South Coast Herald. A serial scribbler and committed fan of Stephen King, she also continued working on her manuscripts.

“I have about 20 novels that I will never let see the light of day,” she said in reference to her pre-Pompidou Posse work. Chiefly, she added, because “they’re shit”.

When she was 22, however, Lotz did manage to secure a deal with Simon & Schuster for a children’s poetry book. The project was eventually shelved. “After that I decided I wasn’t into publishing.”

Following her divorce and a move to Cape Town, she decided to stop working as an itinerant muralist and worked as a scriptwriter with author Lauren Beukes, a close friend. She also enrolled in an undergraduate English degree at Unisa, followed by an honours degree in English at UCT. She was mapping her current trajectory.

Although Sole mentored her, it was Nicol who played an instrumental role in Lotz’s early uptake as pop-fiction writer. At the Cape Town Book Fair in 2007, Nicol challenged publishers to sign Lotz and have her book on the shelves by the following fair. Penguin South Africa obliged.

I asked Lotz whether university writing programmes ruin writers, which is the contention of Adam Ravens, the poet-teacher narrator of Imraan Coovadia’s recent novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry. It also chimes with what Nadine Gordimer has stated: that writers are born, not made.

“I don’t think you can actually teach it,” said Lotz. “I think it is more about an ear — hearing the music of the language. I don’t think you can learn that: you’ve either got it, or you haven’t.”

Unavoidably, the conversation brushes up against the local debate about genre versus literary fiction. It is a hoarse debate, led, one feels, by apostates, self-promoters and ­literary Calvinists. Lotz is bored by its binary logic.

“I think there is this weird thing in this country that you can’t have both,” she said. “We have the best literary writers in the world, by far. I don’t see why you can’t have trashy fiction. We want to build readers in this country and I honestly believe that people start out reading shit.”

From Mills & Boon, readers progress to Anne Rice and Stephen King and then eventually to JM Coetzee and Franz Kafka. Talking about Stephen King, Lotz ventures where she fits into this self-styled literary ­hierarchy.

“Everyone says I’m a storyteller, because my writing is not amazing but I can tell a good story.” It is not vanity speaking, more the self-assurance of a chef who, having dipped her finger into the confection, smiles approvingly.

“I have an awful amount of fun.”

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