Lotz to write about

2013-01-21 00:00

“A MIXTURE of luck and sheer hard work.” This is the explanation offered by author Sarah Lotz, who once lived a marginal existence in KwaZulu-Natal, when I ask her how she managed to pull off her much-talked about six-figure book deal with top British publisher Hodder and Stoughton.

“It’s like winning the lottery and I still can’t believe it. I keep waking up in the night and thinking, this isn’t me, it’s someone else,” says Lotz, when we meet in a noisy Hout Bay coffee shop. “But I have really worked my ass off.”

Lotz is clearly still reeling from the pre-emptive offer, made three months ago, for the world rights to her latest novel, The Three, and one other novel, from the publishers that also publish the likes of John le Carre and Jodie Picoult.

In a story which reads like a novel itself, its offer was made on the strength of a 33-page sample manuscript and came a day after Lotz’s agent Oliver Munson submitted it.

“It all happened so fast. Ollie asked to see what I wanted to write next. I sent him a synopsis of my latest book. He looked at it and said that’s great,” says Lotz.

“It really was an overnight thing.”

For someone whose life revolves around writing, the news was life-changing.

“It means I can carry on writing,” says Lotz. “… and that is all I have ever wanted.”

She looks tired, preoccupied, almost anxious, and when pressed, confesses to it.

“There is an awful lot of pressure and I am actually not good at it,” she confides.

“I am fine with the writing. There’s no problem with the book. It’s writing itself.

“It’s the public pressure that gets to me, standing up and talking in front of people, and doing interviews like this. I find it daunting but I will do what I have to do.”

She’s driven from Noordhoek, where she lives on a smallholding with her parents, her grandmother, her husband and a whole lot of “decrepit” rescue animals.

Right now, the pressure is on to get cracking with research for The Three and, says Lotz, she’s doing a huge amount, from reading up on alzheimers, to how to investigate a plane crash, to the “fascinating and terrifying” religious right in the United States.

“I am also doing a great deal of research on Japan … on subjects like Japanese geek culture and the obsession with technology. Did you know there is a whole sector of society in Japan, especially among young men, who refuse to go out into society and who stay locked in their rooms, living almost completely online. It’s a Japanese phenomenon known as hikikomori which has become a cause for national concern.”

So what’s The Three all about?

“The very broad synopsis is that on a single day, four planes crash. One in Khayelitsha, one just off the coast of Spain, one in the Florida Keys and one at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. It’s a monumental event. In three of the four crashes, there are three child survivors and a religious evangelical guy in the States starts to believe that these children are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse.

“He starts to wage a campaign about them and it develops into a cult … Those are the bare bones of the story and I’m not telling you any more!”

Lotz wrote her first book, Pompidou Posse, based on her own experiences in Paris, in 2008, before writing two novels, Exhibit A (in 2009) and its sequel, Tooth and Nailed (2010), about a Cape Town lawyer, George Allen, a character based on her husband whom she describes as the worst dressed lawyer in Cape Town.

(“Really, he’s known for it — he goes to court wearing Mr Price T-shirts. We met in a bar in Kalk Bay.”)

She then went on to write four collaborative novels: ● two horror stories — The Mall and more recently The Ward — under the pseudonym SL Grey, with Louis Greenberg, and two zombie novels, Deadlands (2011) and Death of a Saint, (2012) under the name Lily Herne, with her 21-year-old daughter Savannah.

Savannah, she believes, has far more natural talent than she does, although, for as long as she can remember, Lotz has always been fascinated by stories.

“I love the thrill of another world, another life — and I’ve always been fascinated by the macabre.

“I had an early introduction to it, because I started watching horrific torture porn movies when I was small. My brother and I used to sneak off to the video store and rent them when I was seven and he was about five.

“We would go home and just sit there and watch them — movies like Zombie Flesh Eaters. My mom did come back and catch us doing it once and she was appalled.

“I also used to read a lot of Roald Dahl stories. They are horror books if you think about it. I mean James and the Giant Peach is a horror story, and I read Stephen King from a very early age.

“All those horror books and movies had a massive effect on me, and not necessarily in a bad way.”

Born in England, Lotz went to Paris aged 17, before moving to Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz, hitchhiked and painted murals in exchange for food and alcohol.

She met her first husband, a South African, on a kibbutz, close to the Lebanese border. It was in 1989 and 1990, when the Gulf War was in full swing.

She landed up in KwaZulu-Natal after life took an unexpected turn.

“I became pregnant in Israel and he said to me, come to South Africa and have the baby.

“I said yes, okay — especially after Nelson Mandela was released. We ran out of money so we moved to that township, Edendale, in Pietermaritzburg, and lived there for a while. I loved that.

“Coming from England, I didn’t realise it was not a normal thing for a white person to move into a place like that. The only thing I thought was strange about living there was the fact that there were burglar bars on the spaza shop windows. We made friends with our neighbours and I loved living in that community.

“Then the place we were renting there got sold, so we decided to go somewhere different. We put a pin on a map and ended up in Port Shepstone, where my husband did everything, from being a salesman to a manager. I was painting murals and waitressing and then I got a job at the South Coast Herald as their worst sub-editor ever.

“We lived there until Savannah was nine months old, before I moved to Cape Town.”

Pietermaritzburg and some of its characters will, without doubt, feature in future novels, she says.

“I am still working up to that. I was really happy there and it was interesting to experience South Africa from the perspective of living in a township.”

Lotz is the first to say that she doesn’t see herself as a Booker prizewinner.

“I’m sure I will never win an award at all. I really just want people to enjoy my books.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate good literature. She reads voraciously in between writing. “Name it and I have probably read it. I am about to start working through this year’s Booker lists. I do that every year. I also do the Clarke list and the World Fantasy Award lists. That’s what I do — writing and reading. I am really boring.”

She works “all day, every day” in “a filthy little attic space which never gets cleaned”.

“It’s full of dust and spider webs and little scraps of paper with notes written on them, scattered all over the floor.

“Nobody is allowed to go up there, except me. I spend most of the day in my pyjamas which are covered in coffee stains and cat hairs.”

And, every now and then, her scruffy husband, who she describes as her best critic and her best friend, makes her go to gym, “which I hate, except for the boxing”.

Or, they drag some of their decrepit animals — a horse called Donatella (who is “on his way out”), a number of stray cats and two dogs (with gammy legs) out on a walk.

“You should just see us taking them for a walk. We are the Adams family,” says Lotz.

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