After a fantastic debut novel, South African author Charlie Human was kind enough to answer some questions and give a little insight into his novel.
For those who haven’t read Apocalypse Now Now could you give a brief description your novel?
It’s about Baxter Zecenko, a Machiavellian teenager who is the kingpin of a porn-peddling syndicate at his high-school. Baxter prides himself on not being weighed down by psychological constructs like ‘emotions’ and ‘a conscience’. Well until his girlfriend, Esmé is kidnapped and he’s forced to re-evaluate his life.
He investigates Esmé’s disappearance and finds that the only person that can help him is an alcoholic South African Border War veteran, and supernatural bounty hunter Jackie Ronin. Together they set off into Cape Town’s supernatural underworld to find Esmé.
Your novel reads at a cracking pace, could you explain your writing process?
I’m not a full-time writer so I write whenever I can. Trains, waiting rooms, coffee shops; whenever and wherever I can carve out a little time. I handwrite a lot of the ideas first and then flesh them out when transferring onto computer. I also don’t write linearly. When you don’t have a lot of time the best thing to do is just grab onto an idea that excites you and write about that for as long as you can before life intervenes.
Apocalypse Now Now is a huge amount of fun to read but goes to some fairly dark places, what was the idea behind it that sparked it all off?
Cape Town’s tabloids were responsible for some of the inciting ideas. They have huge circulations and peddle a mixture of news, soap opera and superstitious urban folklore. They’re pretty dark, obscene and completely bizarre. Actual headlines I have read while taking the train to work include “Tokloshe stole my baby”, “Priest fights fire demon” and “The Snake Men of the Cape Flats”
I started to think about what it would be like if these headlines were real news stories that we were blissfully ignoring.
You draw on South African myths and superstitions such as the ‘tokoloshe’ introducing the reader to a very different type of supernatural than the normal European/American one; how rich is the vein of horror and myth in SA and do you think it is time for the wider world to be introduced to these ideas?
The tokoloshe is such a South African mythological institution that I had to include him. He’s got various iterations and some are lot darker than the way I’ve presented him in Apocalypse Now Now.
Cape Town is interesting because it’s a place of extremes. It’s really urban and cosmopolitan but then there’s still a place that I used to walk past on my way to work that sells banishing spells for people with tokoloshe problems.
Southern Africa as a whole is such a fusion of myths that have rarely been used in fiction. Apocalypse Now Now has San, Afrikaans, Xhosa and European myths all blended together. I think more local writers, musicians, filmmakers and artists are drawing on these mythologies as a way of exploring our world.
Following on from that, how do you think your novel fits into the horror/fantasy genre of vampires and zombies?
I like to think Apocalypse Now Now does its part in giving Southern African monsters a place in the international monster menagerie. After all parasitical monsters, or the rising of the dead, are hardly unique to European mythology. Why should European fantastical creatures get all the glory? Equal representation for monsters!
How important was it for you to introduce all the different influences of the South African culture in the various characters in your work?
I always remember something Lauren Beukes told me about when she met Neil Gaiman. She asked him about his research methods and he shrugged and said “At a certain point you just make stuff up.” Rather than trying to faithfully depict every aspect of South African culture I’ve riffed off it and tried to create something that people from any part of the world could enjoy.
There also features a lot of pop-culture type references, how meta do you think fiction is becoming and has your work in online media had a direct influence in your approach to writing?
Yes, definitely. When the mind is constantly bathed in the warm glow of memes and the recombinant creativity of the Internet it’s bound to have an influence. Those kinds of intertextual references have become a sort of cultural shorthand to express situations, thoughts or emotional states. I don’t think it would be possible to create a contemporary urban teenager without having that as part of the way he thinks.
The mix of real and twisted pervades every layer of the novel, from Baxter’s ‘business’ and his school life to the mix of history and myth – was the aim to blur all boundaries and almost push your lead character into becoming an unreliable narrator?
The concept of the unreliable teenage narrator was something I enjoyed playing with. I wanted the audience to swing between liking Baxter and not liking him and between believing him and not believing him.
Your novel features some unnaturally adult children, what drew you to using a teenage protagonist in this sense?
Personally, I don’t think the teenagers are that adult-like. Baxter is precociously intelligent and likes to believe he’s the smartest person in the room, but he’s certainly not mature. He talks a big game, uses big words and ideas but he’s still just a kid trying to figure stuff out. I remember teenage life being a bit of a dark, wild rollercoaster ride and I tried to capture some of that energy in the teenagers I depict.
You’re novel has been described as a mix between Quentin Tarantino and Neil Gaiman, who has influenced you in your work?
There have been so many but top of my list would be Lauren Beukes, China Miéville, Nick Harkaway, Margaret Atwood, Richard Morgan, Jeff VanderMeer and Richard Kadrey.
Then there’s Credo Mutwa, a Zulu sangoma or shaman, who has taken Zulu oral folklore and written it down (with, I understand, some heavy editorialising) I really enjoyed reading his folklore while I wrote the book. He also has some kind of connection to David Icke, which I find very amusing. I can only imagine the kind of insane conversations they must have.
As a self-confessed ‘mild-mannered digital marketer by day, impresario of the obscene by night’ how has the process of seeing your debut novel hit the shelves been and what can we expect from you next?
That’s actually a quote from an interview I did with Nechama Brodie. She was referencing the fact that I have a bit of a split personality with my day-job and my writing career.
Publishing has been a really interesting experience so far. It’s amazing to have people read and connect with the novel, and the fact that it’s been translated into Afrikaans, and is soon to be translated into Italian and Japanese blows my mind. The sequel to Apocalypse Now Now is in the works and will be out in 2014.