interview by Joe Vaz & Karen Jeynes


From Issue 17 (Jan 2012)

I OFTEN WISH I could bring the readers of Something Wicked along with me to the interviews I do. They are always a lot more fun and interesting than comes across on the page, mostly because for the written interview I have to edit all the tangents out for brevity. Sam Wilson and Charlie Human were no exception.

Sam and Charlie are extremely funny guys. We sat and talked and giggled like fools for an hour, about their books and philosophy and writing and (as so often is the case when you interview any writer in Cape Town), Lauren Beukes.

One thing that struck me about Charlie and Sam is how much more intelligent than I they are. If you were to hear the recording of the interview you might occasionally notice the few seconds of silence signifying my brain scrabbling to understand what the hell they just said.

What’s interesting about both Charlie Human and Sam Wilson is the fact that despite having both been in the public eye for quite some time, they have yet to publish their first novels.

Charlie’s short story ‘Land of The Blind’ won the Moxyland short story competition and was published at the end of Zoo City. He also featured as a guest writer in Zoo City and contributed a chapter.

Sam Wilson too contributed a chapter to Zoo City and was Lauren’s co-writer on the SABC animated series Pax Afrika. One of Sam’s stories, ‘Dead Meat’ was featured in Issue 5 of Something Wicked.

Both Sam and Charlie have stories featured in Pandemonium: Stories of The Apocalypse

So obviously the first question is how the hell did so many South Africans get onto this anthology?

SAM: It’s pretty much entirely Lauren Beukes. Pandemonium was put together by Jared [Shurin] and Ann [C. Perry], from Pornokitsch (the website) and they had already awarded Lauren the Kitschies Award last year… last year or this year, it might have actually been earlier this year, which is actually a lovely award. It’s a stuffed tentacle, which she was awarded for Zoo City, and they were there to celebrate her getting the Arthur C Clarke. They’d been very good friends to Lauren throughout the whole process. So when they asked Lauren to be part of [the anthology] and asked if there was anyone she knew who might be able to whip up some good stories, she very kindly said us.

CHARLIE: Ja, it’s like a lot of the things I end up writing, Lauren has either commissioned or sorted out for me…

SAM: [laughing] It’s basically anything Lauren is too busy to do herself.

So you’re basically her whipping boys.

SAM: Well, yeah. [laughs] No, we’re just kind of under her table clawing at the crumbs which drop from her mouth.

How did you hook up with Lauren, initially? I know you [Sam] worked for her.

SAM: Ja, back many years ago when I still had a hippie beard and long hair, I co-wrote a short movie which Lauren saw and didn’t particularly like, but she needed a writer and I’d forgotten to leave my contact details [on the disc], there were no contact details. So eventually I bumped into a friend, and by chance found out, “By the way, Lauren’s looking for you,” and went and met her. Luckily we got on like a house on fire; we had a similar sense of humour, had a similar taste in writing and I ended up co-writing a lot of the same cartoon series that she did.

CHARLIE: And I actually know Lauren through Sam, ‘cause Sam and I did the Creative Writing Masters through UCT together, and I remember when we first met there I told him that the story I was writing was sci-fi, urban fantasy, and he told me about Lauren and that she’d written Moxyland and that I should read it. So I went out and got a copy of Moxyland and I was blown away, and pissed off. I was like, “Oh shit, the bar has suddenly been set way higher for any kind of sci-fi story that I was going to write”. I eventually met her through Sam, so she knew I wasn’t a serial killer. She’s just been amazing, she was my supervisor for my creative writing course, which was just an amazing experience, ‘cause I went through a hard time. The supervisor I was with – we just weren’t seeing eye to eye, then the novel I was writing, my laptop and all my back-up were kind of stolen. So I took a year off…

To hate everyone.

CHARLIE: [laughs] To hate the world, and during that time I started writing again., It was a completely different story, I didn’t even attempt [to complete the first one] and then I met Lauren through Sam and eventually asked if she would be my supervisor, and she said yes, and it was a great experience. She really kicked my ass…

She’s very good at that.

SAM: She’s also very good at taking a chance. That’s something which I have definitely learnt from Lauren, which is not built into my personality at all: taking a chance and going, “What have I got to lose by asking someone to read my book, or be my supervisor or, you know”.

So let’s start with Charlie. What is your story called in Pandemonium?

CHARLIE: It’s called “The Immaculate Particle”. The basic premise is that the protagonist is a fake psychic who uses cold reading and all that. And the world that he is in is this apocalyptic world. An affliction called the dissolve has hit the world where matter has just begun dissolving and no one really knows why. And so he’s trying to eke out a living in this world, and his daughter was kidnapped by traffickers and so his quest is to find his daughter.

And Sam, what’s your story?

SAM: My story is called “Post Apocalypse” and it’s a kind of comic story. It’s about a physics department at a university which invents a device which when you look into it, it creates an image which responds to your world-view. And using this, one of the grad students starts being able to mimic other people’s world-views very accurately and she starts entering their universes and she starts to realise that, like all the French philosophers would have said, reality is entirely constructed in the mind. When she goes into the world of, for example, a fundamentalist Christian, then the world really is full of demons and so there’s a scene in which she keeps on shifting between these different universes until…

Don’t tell us the end!

SAM: [laughs] I came up with that idea because, well, first probably because I went to university and did philosophy and that’s ruined me forever, but also because I was directing The Kenny Kunene Show and that was fascinating because… You know Kenny Kunene, Mr. Sushi? The guy who ate sushi off women?

Oh right.

SAM: That’s what started the whole association of sushi with massive over-spending in the new South African elite.

Okay…

SAM: I was directing the reality show, so I was following him and his friends around and that was just constantly, constantly challenging my world-view – well, everyone’s world-view, because he was constantly saying, “Why do people assume that just because I’m an ex-convict that I am still a convict? What’s wrong with me sleeping with as many women as I want? Why is everyone being so moralistic about it?”

The story itself is a parody of this idea that there is no fundamental reality but at the same time it makes you feel woozy to constantly be shifting your world view from one to another, or to try and understand other people’s world-views; it’s a very disturbing thing to do.

CHARLIE: One of the things I liked about Sam’s story is that he drew in so many different elements to further the story, which I thought was very cool – like from philosophy but then also from just these general life ideologies and that sort of thing, it was mixed up really nicely.

Maybe I should get you two to review each other’s stories and interview each other.

SAM: Charlie’s story was tripe! [laughs] No, actually it was very brilliant.

Charlie, a lot of SA writers tend to locate their stories elsewhere. Yours is set in Cape Town – what motivated that decision?

CHARLIE: Mostly because I know Cape Town the best. I think most of what I write is going to be set in Cape Town. The novel that I’m writing now is also set in Cape Town. Which might just come across as a small-town mentality, but I don’t really feel comfortable to write in another locale. It’s also one of those things where I am inspired by the city a lot, as well. I think there are a lot of stories to be told, and also I think because not a lot of stories are told about the city, at least the kind of stories that I’m going to read, you know? That’s also a big motivation for me – that I want to write the stories about Cape Town that I’d like to read.

SAM: I really wish that, you know because people really tell you to write what you know, and that’s very, very smart and you should take that advice. It’s why I wrote about Roman Britain, because I have no fucking idea what I’m doing.

Well this is the thing. I mean, this question has been popping up a lot since District 9. I guess the real questions should be, why are you not writing in your town?

CHARLIE: [laughs] Why are you writing about Roman Britain?

[laughs] Exactly.

SAM: I’m actually embarrassed. I actually worked out why my novel is about Roman Britain and it’s very sad. Basically I wanted to write science fiction but I thought that was too obvious. [laughs] So, you know, the nearest thing was to have another completely different universe which is based on reality, but [from] which I can take elements and create an entirely new world.

Sam, do you think it’s possible not to see the world through a particular mindset?

SAM: No, obviously we’re bound into our own particular mind-sets. My [Pandemonium] story is a parody of the idea of complete relativism. I think there is a fundamental reality and I would say that that is the reality which, you know… Look, the fundamental tenet of science is ‘assume nothing’, and based on that, try to create a world based on as few assumptions as possible. So based on that I would say that the scientific world is a relatively safe one, but at the same time our universes are so incredibly coloured by our mindsets.

Is a personal hell scarier than an apocalypse for the entire world?

SAM: Hmmm, interesting question.

I think it would be very difficult to split the two, wouldn’t it?

SAM: I would say so too; I mean, the thought of a hell which I am not a part of isn’t actually a hell. It’s just for other people who are bastards.

It would be a heaven, really.

SAM: [laughs] True.

Now, Charlie. How strong a force do you think denial is?

CHARLIE: In reference to the story, the protagonist is going through this process of trying to find his daughter and coming to terms with his own role in [her] disappearance, and how that happened through his neglect, and it does form a very strong motivation in his world. And how much of what we actually block comes out in other ways. In the story there is this group of people called The Cutters who try to live in this [denial] bubble and it comes out through self-mutilation. The effort, the kind of emotional effort required to deny this fundamental fact comes out in their psychology through self-mutilation, which is the only way they can get relief from this lie that they’re living.

Sounds extremely dark. Having worked on There Are No Heroes, a short film based on a short story of yours, that’s also a pretty fucking dark story. And you [Sam] tend to do the extreme opposite; you tend to write the comedy.

Now I have a question here: why do you think light and dark are so intrinsically tied up in so many visions of death/hell/afterlife?

SAM: I’ve got a rough idea, which is basically ’cause when you’re dealing with death and the afterlife it’s like the… It’s like the end of the bill, you know, at the end of life. What, in summary, is it all about? So obviously you’re going to go to extremes like light and dark, The Divine Comedy.

Right. When you said “the end of the bill” there, I thought you were going to say, you know, here is a list of all the good stuff you enjoyed, and now here’s the payment due.

SAM: [laughs] Well that’s it. You got it.

So what’s next for the two of you? I know you both have novels on the go.

CHARLIE: Ja, I’m in the process of polishing my novel, for possible publication. I’ve got an agent, who is an amazing guy, so I’m just working on that right now. It’s been a long process, the novel, it’s been long and hard, so hopefully now it’s the last stretch and I’m excited about it.

SAM: I’m writing the synopses for the two sequels to the first novel and I’m also working right now on a science-fiction comedy series pitch, which is quite exciting. And various things… I’ve just recently become freelance, which is another way of saying unemployed, and I’m suddenly far busier than ever with far better prospects than I ever had working for a company, so it’s good, but I’m busy as heck.

CHARLIE: I’m jealous.

We all end up freelance eventually. I don’t want to pressure you, though I have been waiting for your fucking book for three years now [Sam].

SAM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But any hazarded guesses as to when they might see the light of day?

SAM: I’m hoping my book will be out before the end of [the] year, and I’m guessing you’re hoping the same thing.

CHARLIE: Same. Ja.

SAM: Within the next twelve months, hopefully.

[Charlie], how did the short film There Are No Heroes come about?

CHARLIE: That was a story that I wrote for the Moxyland competition, which was run by Angry Robot. I didn’t know Lauren at that stage; it was through winning that she then kind of knew who I was. Then Kyle [Stevenson] and Don [Leitch] saw that story [‘Land of The Blind’] and liked it and approached me. When they approached me I thought, they’re doing their post-grad, student film-makers, and I thought, “yeah sure, whatever”, kind of expecting them to get their mom to act in it and whatnot, and then when I actually saw it I was like, “wow, that’s good.”

I also had no idea it was going to look that great. I think that’s what’s so rewarding about working with students: yes, 50 to 60 percent of the time it’s going to be a pile of poo and if so, so what, you kind of help them along their way, but when it works, it works, which is great.

SAM: [Charlie] you going to do a sequel to your book?

CHARLIE: I don’t really have a plan to, I just want to get it done. I’m thinking about doing a story on the original novel that I was going to write [the one that got stolen], which There Are No Heroes is kind of set in that world.

SAM: Presumably you have some other ideas.

CHARLIE: I’m kind of exhausted by the whole process, I just want a break. But ja, I have some other ideas. I’d like maybe to get more into screenwriting as well; it’s not something I have done a hell of a lot, but it’s something I’d like to do more of. And also more short stories – I really enjoyed doing ‘The Immaculate Particle’. My problem is I tend to overdo it on the ideas, it’s always the criticism I get: whenever I submit something to someone it’s like, “Whoa, okay, you need to really trim this down,” and I think a short story is cool, because I get to explore an idea but I don’t have to write a whole novel on it, I can just go, “Okay, I’ve explored that idea to the point where I want to, and now I can move on.” I’d like to do more of that because I always have a lot of ideas going on in my head and it’s not often they get realised.

SAM: It was also really great working with Jared and Ann, they were really great people to work with.

CHARLIE: And really great editors. The way that they shaped my story was excellent. They really got the essence of it, which was cool, really good experience.

Thank you both very much.


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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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Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes is a writer: of plays, tweets, television, poetry, fiction, radio, and pretty much anything people will pay her for. She has an unnatural obsession with reality television, Good Omens, and Nutella.

She lives in Cape Town, which is bloody distracting when you’re trying to hit a deadline but the city is basking in the sunshine. She has two boys who are far more entertaining than she is, and frequently teach her new shortcut keys on the computer. She’s optimistically attempting to adapt Jane Austen for her Master’s Degree. You can follow her @karenjeynes or read her occasional blog at karenjeynes.wordpress.com

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