interview by Joe Vaz

From Issue 14 (Oct 2011)

How did Shadows come about?
The first scene in Shadows was based on a nightmare I’d had. It was one of those bad dreams that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote it down to exorcise it and the next thing I knew I had the beginnings of a novel. The characters and the story took over from there.

Could you tell us a little about the journey from concept to published?
Once I’d finished the first draft I asked a few friends to read it. They all gave me lots of comments; some were shocked by it, but on the whole they were all very supportive. I then edited it with their comments in mind and started submitting it to publishers. I cried when I got the first positive feedback from one of the bigger local publishers. They wanted to see the full manuscript. I was so excited and thought I was on my way to being a best selling author. So when I got an email from them 6 months later telling me that they would publish it if I completely rewrote and turned it into something similar to One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest I was devastated.

After a few more similar emails from other publishers both local and international I realised that most publishers wanted me to tone it down or turn it into something that had already been done. I tried the self-publishing route and even started a publishing company with a couple of friends called Rebel e Publishers. I eventually left Rebel due to financial reasons. A few hours after I’d announced that I’d left Rebel, I got a message from an indie publisher called Generation Next offering to publish Shadows.

From everything I have read, you seem like an extremely nice person. How did you come up with some of these characters?
I think some of them have come from observing people and the really horrible things they do to each other. Kevin, on the other hand, is based on a couple of ex-boyfriends. Revenge is sweet.

I think, no matter how nice a person is, we all have a dark side and mine comes out in my books and in the characters I write about instead of in the real world.

You explore some incredibly dark and taboo subjects in Shadows. Were you deliberately pushing these boundaries or did you find that the characters just took you in that direction?
I wish I could say it was deliberate and that I’d planned it all, but I can’t. The story was like a movie playing in my head and I simply typed out what I saw. The characters took on a life of their own, I was just along for the ride.

It seems an incredibly brave choice to come in, guns blazing, with a novel like Shadows as your début. Were you ever tempted to tone down or self-censor the book in any way?
There were times when I was writing it, when I’d look at what I’d just written and think: I can’t believe I just wrote that. They’re going to crucify me for this. You’re not supposed to say things like this, let alone write them. But then I realised that if I did tone it down or censor it that I would be a coward and that I would be cheating the story. I think that it’s important to be true to the story and that as a writer, it’s my job to push boundaries and explore those taboo subjects.

How did your personal experience inform the sexual violence in the novel, is this a subject you feel particularly strongly about?
Having been raped, it is something that I feel very strongly about. If you look at the rape statistics in South Africa, more than forty women are raped every day and those stats are based on reported rapes. Most rapes are never reported. It’s a subject that should be important to every woman in this country. It’s also something that should be talked about and written about. Victims of rape should feel free to talk about what happened to them, it’s not something that should be swept under the carpet and ignored.

You are pretty merciless with your characters. How do you pull that off?
I’ve never thought of it as being merciless. I think I just try and be as honest as possible.

Which brings us, finally, to Jack. Tell us a little about him.
Jack, to me, is the ultimate bogeyman. He’s a demon so he can take on any scary form. He can invade your dreams and knows what your deepest fears are. And unlike vampires or werewolves, he can’t be killed. But because demons come from humans in some form or another, he still has some humanity in him.

How did you come up with Jack?
Jack just showed up while I was writing Shadows. He has this wicked sense of humour which, to be honest, I’ve never had. So I’m not entirely sure where he comes from. They do say that all the characters that writers came up with are different facets of their personalities, so I guess somewhere deep inside me I do have a wicked sense of humour – it just took a demon to help me find it.

I love the way you turn the reader’s perceptions of Jack around. Was this your intention from the start, or did Jack just win you over as you were writing?
I think we’ve established that nothing I do is deliberate or planned. His particular story arc just happened. And even though Jack is supposed to be evil, I couldn’t help but love him and it seems that most people who have read it, have ended up loving him too. He seems to be everybody’s favourite.

One of the more powerful scenes in the book, without giving anything away, is when Jack says, “I can make it stop”. It’s also where Sarah’s character takes a turn from passive to active.
That was an incredibly difficult scene to write. I had to step away from it more than once, so I’m glad you liked it and that it worked. It’s always a relief to know that a difficult scene has accomplished what I wanted it to.

I read somewhere that you have future plans for Jack. How much of his history/future have you already mapped out?
I know how he became a demon, even wrote a short story about it that was published by Wily Writers. I’ve started piecing together what happens between him and Sarah in the future. I’ve also got some ideas on the demon world he comes from. There are still some aspects I’m figuring out and it’s those aspects that are unfortunately holding up finishing off the sequel to Shadows.

What writers have influenced you and why/how?
People keep asking me this and I never quite know how to respond. Stephen King has probably influenced most modern horror writers in one form or another. Just his body of work is awe-inspiring. Another writer who I think has influenced me is Alexandre Dumas. I love the way he managed to mix fiction with the real historical characters of his era. Also the way he made me cry and laugh at the same time with one sentence. I wish I could do that.

Talk us through your writing process – a day in the life, as it were.
I must admit, the day in the life of Joan is pretty boring. My alarm goes off at 7am followed by my husky, Tolstoy, howling outside my door. After I’ve let him in and been licked and chewed to death, I turn on the radio. I laze in bed until about 8am which is when I switch on my laptop. While it’s doing its start up thing I traipse into the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee or hibiscus tea. With cup in hand I check my emails, Facebook and Twitter. By about 9am I start telling myself I have stuff to write and that I really should get to it. At the moment I’m supposed to be working on the second draft of a novella, starting a short story for an anthology, and working on the course material for an on-line college that has asked me to do a course on writing horror.

I first work on the novella, which invariably involves me staring at the screen, reading sentences that I think are completely terrible and having no clue how to fix them. After much smacking myself on the head and telling myself I’m a useless writer and should just give it up, I eventually spot a line that I can do something with. A couple hundred words later my head is empty and I need to step away from the screen before my brain overheats – time for another trip to the kitchen for more coffee.

With coffee in hand, I grab a notepad, sit outside and try to scrape together the little experience and knowledge I have on writing and on horror fiction into coherent sentences. After smacking myself with the notepad and telling myself I’m a useless teacher, I manage to come up with a few sentences for a couple of the modules.

It’s now after 12pm. My stomach is growling. No wonder, since I skipped breakfast.   I throw a sandwich together or munch leftovers from the night before. While I eat my lunch, I switch on the TV and watch something I PVR’ed the night before, invariably something like Castle. Got to say, none of the authors I know live like that. Rather depressing. While the TV flashes images in front of me, a line pops into my head and I rush over to my laptop and find the right spot in the story to slot it in. The next thing I know, it’s 5:30pm and time to feed the animals.

So what’s next for fans of Joan De La Haye?
My second book, Requiem in E Sharp, has been picked up by Generation Next and will be released as an e-book, hopefully by the end of the year.  It’s a thriller about a serial killer, set in Pretoria.

Could you give us a few reading recommendations for our readers?
There are so many good books to choose from. But here are a few that I think are brilliant.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Mall by SL Grey
Payback by Mike Nicol
Old Man Scratch by Rio Youers (even my Mom enjoyed this one)
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman

Thank you for your time, Joan.
It was my pleasure! Thanks so much for taking the time to come up with these great questions.

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Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.

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