Hi Alex, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. For those readers that may not have come across your work before would you like to introduce yourself to the audience please?
Thanks Matt. I was a teenager in the last days of Apartheid, it was a violent and oppressive society, and themes that seem to recur in my novels are alienation, escape and finding ways of dealing with injustice and trauma. I’ve spent time living in China, Taiwan and the UK, and have travelled a fair bit around Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe, and so somehow also, travel/migration, culture, religion and the experience of being a stranger in a new place seem to find their way in most of my stories.
Devilskein & Dearlove is your fifth book and second title for younger readers; did you make a conscious decision to write for Teenagers?
Yes. There seems to be more creative freedom when writing for Teenagers. Perhaps that is just my perception and I’m misguided. But also, I have a son and he loves books (he’s only on picture books at the moment), and I want to write novels that he will enjoy reading.
You have said that Devilskein & Dearlove was inspired by The Secret Garden – how did you develop the idea?
The Secret Garden is one of my formative reading experiences, and to me it’s about finding happiness and magic where you least expect it. And that story has always lingered. In the last few years, South African fiction has broken out of its overly serious ‘JM Coetzee Nobel novel’ straight-jacket, and in particular genre fiction is leading the way (with the likes of Lauren Beukes whose Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award a couple of years ago). The Secret Garden has happy memories for me; and so I wanted to bring its kind of unencumbered charm to a South African contemporary context. I re-read it before I started working and then brainstormed. Travel and place are always important elements in my stories; I very particularly wanted to set the novel in a memorable part of Cape Town. Long Street is an amazing place, full of life, night and day, where past and present, and local and international influences all collide.
I have seen Devilskein & Dearlove compared to Neil Gaiman and Hayao Miyazaki’s work – are you a fan of their work?
All through writing Devilskein & Dearlove, I was imagining the characters as existing in a graphic world, animated like the inhabitants of Miyazaki’s films. I Absolutely love both Gaiman and Miyakazi – they are both geniuses, so fabulously imaginative, their stories are transporting, there is real darkness that must be overcome and but in some way it is overcome, so there is also lightness and a great deal of delight too. It was Neil Gaiman’s ‘Graveyard Book’, a kind of reworking of ‘The Jungle Book’ that first gave me the idea of going back to one of my old favourite novels for a concept idea.
I wrote a short story (Icossi Bladed Scissors) that was selected for a Liar’s League reading in London and then later that year Cherry Potts from Arachne Press created an anthology of stories called ‘Weird Lies’. She included that story in the anthology and during the editing process, she sent out an email requesting submissions of novels. I happened to be working on one, so I sent it to her and she like it.
Devilskein & Dearlove is also the first YA novel to be published by Arachne Press – how does it feel to be the YA standard bearer for the publisher?
That sounds a bit daunting. I like making up stories, that’s my job. Cherry has taken a big risk and I hope that Devilskein & Dearlove doesnn’t fail her. But to be honest, I don’t like to think too much about all the other stuff, although I know it’s very important.
You won Silver in the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature for Agency Blue in 2009, the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award for Four Drunk Beauties in 2011 and you were short-listed for the Rolex Mentor & Protege Arts Initiative, the SA PEN Literary Award and 2010 Caine Prize. Do you feel under pressure from all these accolades or are you able to ignore the expectations and just write?
In terms of being a person who likes to make things, in this case stories, I’m only as good as my last story. (Maybe a bit like cooking – you can make a really delicious meal, and everyone enjoys it and you all remember the good feeling, but every day is a new day, a new meal and the fun is in cooking, then the reading… I mean, eating, not so much in remembering last month’s dinner). So once something is edited and published, it’s over, there’s nothing more I can do to it, so the fun and the challenge are over. I’m always working on new things and that’s all I want – is to be in a position to keep making up stories that people enjoy (and getting paid a bit to do it).
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
The first chapter, the last chapter and editing the final draft.
The South African YA writing scene seems to be exploding at the moment, can you recommend any works by SA YA writers that you enjoy reading?
What is coming next for you after Devilskein & Dearlove?
I’ve got a short story long-listed for a competition associated with the National Arts Festival – that anthology (ironically called Adults Only) is due out around July too. And the novel I’m working on at the moment is called My Little Demon but it’s getting to be too dark for my present state of mind, which, in spite of toddler-driven sleep deprivation, is surprisingly positive.
You can find Alex online at alexsmith.bookslive.co.za