"We are all alike, on the inside." (Mark Twain, 1835-1910)
Moira Richards in conversation with author, Joanne Hichens, about her zinger of a new crime novel, Divine Justice.
Rae Valentine, at the wrong end of a broken relationship, is making sense of her life and of her new career as a private investigator based in Cape Town. She's a tough woman and pretty ruthless about wrenching her personal life back on track but the day job brings her up close against a cross-section of the creepiest and deadliest of South Africa's low-life
Rae must learn to shoot fast and to think even faster and the best help she can get is from reading detective novels and modelling herself on Kinsey Millhone - the trouble-busting PI in Sue Grafton's long-running 'Alphabet Series'. I love reading fiction with feisty protagonists and there's certainly no room for wimpy women in this krimi!
moi: Hi Joanne, after reading Divine Justice, I'd hate to think Twain is right - your baddies are really nasty characters. You've managed to dilute their creepy, skin-crawling-ness by playing them slightly over the top in a way that strips them of some of their gravitas/dignity. This also helps distance us from them to some extent. We can't ignore the threats of such evil in our society, but you do give the reader chance to dismiss its affect - to help us not get sucked down by the weight of ugliness. A krimi is, after all, entertainment and not a sociological treatise I guess ☺
Joanne: I wanted to show baddies JP, Christoff, and Alex for what they are - despicable racists - and because of that, I couldn't be squeamish about their racist sentiment. I found though, as I wrote, that I got bogged down by their inherent evilness, by the callousness of their words and actions. I had to diminish them in some way, so introduced an element of humour, albeit black humour, to alleviate the tension. Christoff is always sneaking the brandewyn, and JP is in love with his BlackBerry, revelling in 'intellectual conversations' on hate sites: 'no ways im in 2 the lartay cupachino nutmeg story or any kind of brown...'
I prodded and teased them so they show themselves up as out-of-control bigots. These extremist-types exist in every race group and culture, although here I've shown up the white supremacist. Yes, crime-fiction is entertainment, but it also definitely makes comment on society, no two ways about it. And reality oftentimes leaves us squirming.
moi: It's quite a balancing act to convey bigoted characters, and have them say such hateful things, and keep it clear their perspectives are the perspectives of the characters and not, uncomfortably for the reader, as that of the narrative 'norm' to which the reader kind of has to subscribe to.
Joanne: I'm not surprised some readers may find bits of the in-your-face language difficult to swallow. Sure, it can be uncomfortable to read racist dialogue. We're so attuned to fighting racism, to condemning hate speech in no uncertain terms, that to have the crass and crude blatantly dished up could be considered an affront by sensitive readers. Then again hard-hitting crime fiction ain't for quivering ninnies. Thing to remember is that, as author, my intention was to create the worst of the baddies.
To my mind these are scum who cause havoc and kill for no other reason than their complete contempt for the 'other'. Their fear of race groups or religions different to their own, adding to their warped insistence that they are 'more equal', leads to utterly reprehensible behaviour. The Boyz spew hate, wanting to 'rid the world of Rabinowitzes, Khumalos and Abdullahs of every kind.'
Writing authentically from their perspective doesn't mean that I, as author, agree with their views - it means I'm attempting to be consistent in developing character. I jumped into the heads of evil men to connect with their beliefs. I allowed myself to conduit their racist rubbish in order to show these nihilistic, ridiculous excuses for men at their worst and most destructive.
And the Boyz operate against a backdrop of xenophobia, 'homeboys driving out the makwerekwere', so they become in a sense, a microcosm of what actually goes on in society.
moi: You seemed to have a lot of fun with Trudie (maybe a whole lot more fun than she got to have) and I felt a little sorry for her...
Joanne: Oh yeah, I had fun with her. Trudie 'sweetcakes', Arno's pomp, is one of those buxom, blousy, over-the-top women with a little theatre to them. On one hand she's a respected business woman, but reveals her 'secret' personality on farcebook, as many users unwittingly do. She exposes herself as a bit of a vamp. She is manipulated, suffers in a sick game of greed and poor thing, she gets caught up in her warped fantasies.
I know I've pushed some sexual boundaries. The baddies for instance, true to form, make ignorant and sexist statements such as 'One thing the Slaams have got right, at least women know their fucking place.' This exposes their general attitude of disdain towards women. They see women as not only second class citizens, but objectify and use and abuse them. And of course my women aren't innocent of playing sexual games either.
It was Camille Paglia who postulated sex is power and all power is inherently aggressive. She wrote: 'Rape is the sexual expression of the will-to-power, which nature plants in all of us and which civilisation rose to maintain...' She goes on to say that rape is a crime of violence and of sex, that rape is not merely power masquerading as sex. In my opinion, as I subtly explore feminist issues, I begin to agree with her. Sex and violence are closely linked. Sex is as powerful a motivator as hate.
Now, I hate to admit it, but in the final analysis I really did have fun with the baddies. I wonder what that says about me... perhaps I have criminal genes in my heritage. It's true I find it more difficult to write the rounded, deeper, more believable characters, like Rae. One has to probe further into heart-felt characterisation, whereas with the baddies one can poke fun, which is what I did with Trudie: a 'pushover for bubbly' then hot sex.
moi: I love Rae, and following the 'pulling herself up by the armpits' journey she shares during the novel.
Joanne: Rae is sassy and sexy, and as 'coloured, an amputee, and female' she fits every government spec for equal opportunity. Writing Rae gives me the scope to explore this very question of equality as on all fronts she is challenged by society's perceptions and beliefs. I've brought into the mix the 'coloured' as previously disadvantaged, plus physical disability which too often renders people invisible, and of course I explore the limitations that seem to be part of a woman's lot.
As Rae is one-legged, she does sometimes literally have to pull herself up by the armpits. Yeah, without her prosthesis, she is pretty much stuck when it comes to getting about, pretty much unequal. Pretty much having to struggle and drag herself around!
It was fun to develop an alternative and whacky girlfriend-type for her soon-to-be ex - she's had it with Mullet Mendes' commitment phobia. The physical disability, a consequence of drug abuse, renders her vulnerable and strong at the same time. She's vulnerable in the sense that as an ex-addict she has to constantly guard against the lure of addiction, be conscious of the part of her that wants, needs, oblivion. In her own words: 'You alienate everyone who ever loved you. It's a bloody hard road back.' Especially as she obsesses about an attack that happened in the past: '...the bastard running his tongue up her cheek, his sour breath coming at her, a flick-knife slashed...' She gains strength through the process of recovery, and love.
I realised that in making this choice, I'd have to get into Rae's skin, fill her shoe, so to speak, and really get a better understanding of how the peg-leg disability affects her functioning. I read Natalie Du Toit's biography and the Leslie Swarts memoir Able-bodied, and have generally been more aware of disability. I will never park in a spot for the disabled (not that I ever have) but I find myself a sort of advocate for the disabled as I become aware of the difficulties of getting around and the lack of facilities available.
But disabled isn't unable. Disability does not equate with inability.
I really had to come to grips with how Rae might she be treated differently, how she'd feel about herself. At one stage I tried hopping for half an hour (in private on a non slip surface) and found it exhausting and dehumanising, a huge effort. I did it again in public, on the beach in soft sand - no mean feat - and endured stares and a certain humiliation.
In consultation with a rehab therapist specialising in helping amputees cope with the loss of a limb, I learned about the physical issues - phantom limb pain, needing to keep the stump clean and free of infection. The kinds of strains that are placed on hip joints. Rae has to eat right and exercise. I want her to. She's a good woman, she's gotta to take care of herself.
My take is every one of us has a vulnerability. Alcoholism, drug addiction, whatever flaw is part of our make-up simply points to the same thing - human frailty. So we can all relate to Rae on this level.
moi: I love too, that you have your fictional Rae, turning to another fictional character (Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone) as role model. V.I. Warshawski alludes to Millhone too, in one of Sarah Paretsky's whodunnits, but just fleetingly - you've developed the device to produce a wonderful sense of krimi intertextuality.
Joanne: Rae Valentine is really a pretty hopeless PI. Not only does she struggle with her skill set, though she's a crack shot - takes after me, might I add! - I realised that as author, I knew precious little about private investigation, even after reading plenty crime novels! It was either do a PI course, or turn to what I do know, which is crime fiction. So that's what I did, making reference to smart and savvy Kinsey, and other fictional sleuths including one of my fave Elmore Leonard characters, self-assured bounty hunter Karen Cisco.
Acknowledging upfront that Rae is not your typical PI let me off the hook too. I hope I won't have readers breathing down my neck saying, 'You know nothing about the investigation business!' Rae learns to rely on instinct and wit. She'll have to keep reading the great crime authors if she wants to get anywhere in this biz though!
moi: I'm often amazed, but never surprised by what I learn about the police in krimi books. You got me in Divine Justice though - some of the police people in your novel really surprised me. I'm not sure I want to think too closely about the intersection of concepts such as 'ethical' and 'good' but it was nice to find myself caught out when all became clear at the end.
Joanne: Ethical, referring to principles, moral conduct; ethics, the rules of an organisation which keep it operating, as in the case of the Police service, for the greater good. As far as police men and women go, each operates on a different level underscored by whatever moral values have been entrenched. Although one hopes that the underlying set of moral values is consistent in police, some police are more intrinsically 'good' than others, some follow an ethical code more precisely.
I show my police men and women as beings with foibles. And let's be realistic - SAPS has plenty of weakness! In reality some police are as corrupt, even as hate-filled as my baddies. Whether police actually behave in the way they do in Divine Justice or not, is moot, as these are fiction people after all. My job is to suspend disbelief. As long as the reader believes the characters are authentic - that police could actually behave this way - then my job is done.
moi: My husband got to the review copy of Divine Justice before me, and as I've noted before his taste in fiction is often very different to mine. He loved your book but said he was disappointed with the ending. I loved the ending although I found some parts in the book very difficult to read.
Joanne: With a brutal in-your-face take, I show hate for the destructive emotion it is.
And sure, women might prefer the just-desserts ending more than men. Women - and this is a generalisation - like a clean house. Perhaps it has something to do with the maternal instinct. Wanting to protect. I know increasingly I want a 'happier' ending. After embarking on this story, falling deeper into it, I felt compelled to work towards justice. Though before justice is meted out, there's all sorts of controversy and unpleasantness to face.
Andrew Marjoribanks of Wordsworth Books commented recently on what he regards as the 'masculinity' of the novel, that he was surprised a woman had written it. I write hard-boiled crime fiction, strong on story. Hard-hitting, following through on every level from style to dialogue. His comment brings up the age-old notion that men and women write differently. I prefer to think that my writing is based on a long tradition of crime writing. My style reflects the kind of writing which most interests me most. Direct. Taut. With an element of Noir. Women may well have different sensibilities, and explore different ground, but there are female writers out there, Vicki Hendricks, Kathy Acker, who write like a punch in the gut.
This is the power of crime fiction - to show crime as catalytically catastrophic not only in the individual life, but in society. As sentient beings we're equal, needing love, care, to be treated with dignity. We feel hate and rage, but it's what we do with these emotions that elevates the good from the bad.
Divine Justice by Joanne Hichens
Burnet Media, 2011
Joanne Hichens is crime-thriller author of Divine Justice, the first in the Rae Valentine series. She is also opinion writer, memoirist, mother, lover, sister, daughter, wife, not necessarily in that order. Her first novel was Out To Score (co-authored) was followed by Stained, a Young Adult novel short-listed for the Sanlam Literature Award. She compiled and edited Bad Company, a collection of South African crime-thriller fiction short stories, and The Bed Book of Short Stories, a collection of fiction stories by African women. As journalist she's written for various publications including Oprah magazine, Real Simple, Itch, Wordsetc, The Sunday Independent and the Cape Times daily newspaper. She currently lives in Cape Town, where as part of her multi-tasking, she is busy writing her next Rae Valentine novel. Find her on facebook or at her website www.joannehichens.co.za