Joburg writer Louis Greenberg has a Master’s degree in contemporary vampire novels and a doctorate in post-religious apocalyptic fiction and his smart, strange fiction reflects his weird inclination, from his Coupland-esque first novel, The Beggar’s Signwriters to the very smart and creeeeeepy horror thrillers he writes with Sarah Lotz, under the pseudonym S.L. Grey, including The Mall, The Ward and The New Girl.
In this installment of The Spark, the guest blog series where African novelists write about what inspired their new books, Louis starts with a death and talks about how sometimes it’s okay to abandon ship.
The Spark: Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg
The spark for Dark Windows is shrouded. All I remember is that early in 2011 Sarah Lotz and I had just finished writing The Ward, the second S.L. Grey novel.
Between juggling a dozen freelance editing and tutoring projects, I was tooling away rather unconvincingly on a solo novel involving cricket umpires, an agoraphobic psychologist and a sports betting scam.
I had plotted the whole thing out on my whiteboard in different-coloured pens, even as far as detailing the day-by-day weather conditions in the city where it was set. But I had no momentum. The fact that I was romancing my whiteboard instead of sitting down and writing suggested that I wasn’t feeling the plot or hearing the characters.
Then one morning I came into my office with the kernel of Dark Windows – maybe it came to me in the bathtub or during those five extra minutes of sleep – flipped the white board around and started typing. This new idea had enough fuel to get me started. You need that propelling momentum when you start a novel, like the massive tanks required to get a tiny capsule up into space. Once you’re there, you can drift around exploring for quite a while before inevitably burning your way back down to earth.
I think that initial burst of energy came because Dark Windows was the sort of novel I wanted to read right at that moment – (by the time you’ve finished, of course, you’re onto other things) – so I had to set to writing it. I’m inspired by writers like David Mitchell, Scarlett Thomas, Audrey Niffenegger, Haruki Murakami and our host, Lauren Beukes, who blend magic and rich ideas with recognisable, concrete cityscapes. That’s what I wanted to do with Johannesburg in Dark Windows: apply a magical filter to it that would make it just that little bit less familiar and mundane, because to someone who’s lived here all his life, despite all their fits and starts Johannesburg and South Africa can sometimes be depressingly predictable.
As an antidote, I wanted to imagine a Johannesburg that is radically transformed – the novel’s set now, but hippies have taken over the government and ostensibly cured all social ills with their altruistic governance – and then test the limits of that transformation. It’s not a dystopian novel, but rather a vision of utopia rubbing up against reality. What happens to utopian ideals when they’re transplanted into a real city? And is it true that imagining the end of the world is the only way we can think ourselves free of the political, social and economic traps we’ve bought our way into? Is this the appeal of apocalypse?
There is more than a hint of apocalypse in the novel, a countdown to a possibly supernatural event – or is it just a scam? There are deaths, drug dealers, riots, police raids – violence lurks beneath every freshly painted surface. The harmonious rainbow is starting to crackle and peel.
There’s also love. A lot of love stories. I challenged myself, after the intercut narratives of my first book, The Beggars’ Signwriters, to stick with the same characters and let their relationships develop through the length of a novel. There’s the love story between window-painting Jay Rowan and Beth Talbot, who’s married to someone else. You also get to look in at the bonds between estranged couples, a father and a daughter, and between lovers.
I wanted to tease out these affairs in a complex, convincing way, with neither knee-jerk cynicism nor fallback cliché. I treated the politics and the love and the faith and the apocalypse in the novel with equal ambivalence. Despite my best efforts, I find it hard to draw an opinion and stick to it; the more I learn about life, the less virtue I find in firm opinions and immutable beliefs. In Dark Windows, I hope to let you draw your own conclusions and maybe change them tomorrow.
And as for the umpires book, in its time with its face to the wall, it’s crystallised into something else, something better and more compelling. The umpires shuffled away, perhaps into their own story, and I was left with the agoraphobic psychologist still sitting in her comfortable suburban house, looking, terrified, out of the window. She’s become a star of the novel I’m working on now. I’ll stick to that story if I’m ever asked what her spark was.
Download the first chapter of Dark Windows for free here: http://www.randomstruik.co.za/books/dark-windows/5392
Events, news, bookshop links at my website: http://louisgreenberg.com
Read an interview with Joey Hi-Fi about his cover design for Dark Windows: http://violininavoid.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/dark-windows-by-louis-greenberg-cover-reveal-and-joey-hi-fi-interview/