or... The Dream Breakers
So, here’s how it goes. Ever since I returned to South Africa in 1995, I’ve wanted to leave. Hey, what can I say, I’m just contrary that way. I guess I felt safer in the UK, I felt more at home – my mongrel heritage is, after all, entirely European (north, east central and west). But I realised, having returned to South Africa, that I wasn’t going to get back to Europe that fast. I was, though, willing to work with a longer term plan.
When I discovered I wanted to write full time, I also realised that in order for me to have a more even chance of getting published, I really did need to be somewhere closer to the main centres of publishing - and for me that once more meant the UK. I started to set my plans in motion, including networking intensively with fellow children’s writers in the UK. I soon realised that pretty much all my friends lived there, not here – writers and others, including old uni pals and ex colleagues who’d made the Great Departure. Yep, I thought, I needed to move. I had to move. I was determined to move. I would make the dream a reality.
And then the global economic crisis hit and Lovely Husband ran scared. “Not a chance am I going anywhere in this economic climate,” he announced. Fair enough. I could get that. But as time elapsed and things settled a little, I also came to realise, and reluctantly accept, that the reality was that Lovely Husband didn’t want to leave South Africa at all. That was my dream, not his – but like women the world over, I’d figured I could change his mind. A word from the increasingly wise (yep, that’s me) – never try to change someone and never try to change their mind (oh would that I listened to my own good advice…). The universe gave us free will and it’s a hard nut to crack when it’s someone else’s.
I’ve had a tough time accepting that a long held dream is just not going to become a reality. That time has also been compounded by my mother’s recent illness, age and the acceptance that I’m going to have to sort something out for her – because she sure as nuts won’t do it herself (I can do without lurching from one matriarchal drama to the next). Looking at the two situations and given that I have a really hard time being a glass half empty person, I set my sights on the next thing. And what I figured I would do was find my mother a really nice cottage in a retirement complex, and a piece of land for myself where I could build my dream home. It was a good goal and dream to have, I figured. I actually became quite seriously excited. (Yes, there was a lot of bouncing about.)
But I swear, the gods must be playing a rough hand of poker up there or wherever the hell it is that they are. Or it might be that the buggers are all pissed out of their skulls on mead. I don’t know. Perhaps the ethernet connection between me and them is just faulty and my mail’s not going through. Whatever.
See, I found a plot, a really, really nice plot – one with sweeping 180 degree views across the mountains, the valley and the sea. It was in an elevated position on a mountainside and, I was convinced from the moment of seeing it, that it was mine. It just had that feeling about it. Of course, whether I could actually afford to fulfill this dream was another matter. Thank goodness for calculators, prudent financial planning and bean counters etc. Yes, I finally worked out it was indeed do-able and I was even up for the nightmare of building. Shucks, I’ve dealt with enough stuff in my life; builders hold little or no fear for me.
So, new dream in hand, I set out to make an offer to purchase. And what do you know. Enter Mr. and Mrs. Smith. No, I’m not kidding, they really are called Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But unlike the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie version of the couple, these two don’t assassinate people, just their dreams. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, you see are estate agents – of the unethical and unscrupulous variety, sort of like the greater striped venomous viper (yes, I know, like so many others of their species). Mr. and Mrs. Smith believed I should have made an offer on the plot through them. When Mr. and Mrs. Smith learned that I had put in an offer with another agent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith turned nasty. I have, indeed, spent the entire weekend doing battle with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I regret to say, that until or unless I can find a sneaky sort of solution, Mr. and Mrs. Smith have broken my deal and won. Exit the dream.
Frankly, I’m getting more than a little miffed with all this dream wreckage. I’m also wondering what the hell to do next. My motivation levels appear to have descended to the depths of hell where they’ve used up all the fuel in the fires so there’s none left to propel me back up and out again. The Black Dog is snuffling around, making growly noises and slavering in a most unattractive manner. I tried seeing the sod off with some choccie raisins, but he just came back for more; serves me right for trying to take a conciliatory approach with the beast. Now I’m just staring at the glass – you know, the one with the water in it (would it was champagne…), trying to figure out if it is half full or half empty. Just sitting here, staring and staring and staring…
I may be a while.
Monday, September 27, 2010
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Tabitha Suzuma is yet another of the remarkable authors I have met online via Facebook – it highlights how social networking can indeed enrich lives – and I very much look forward to meeting her later this year. Tabitha is not only a gifted writer (she has won, been nominated for and shortlisted for multiple awards); she is also a warm, funny, extraordinary and courageous person.
I had not previously read any of Tabitha’s work but I was aware of the subject matter she chooses to write about – and let’s be clear about one thing – Tabitha does not choose easy subject matter. In her latest book, Forbidden, Tabitha Suzuma tackles the taboo of sibling incest.
“How can something so wrong feel so right…?”
Before you recoil, read on.
A romance with a dramatic difference, Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden should come with a warning label: “Expect to have your world rocked.”
Forbidden is without doubt one of the most emotionally disturbing, powerful and haunting novels I have ever read – even Nabokov’s Lolita pales next to it. Richly complex and emotionally dramatic, Forbidden left me reeling.
Tabitha’s words are beautiful, her characters are vividly alive, the raw emotional power is palpable, and her story is challenging and intense. Forbidden is not a story for the faint-hearted, but it is a novel which will grip and hold you throughout.
This is writing at its most potent. This is a story which will push your buttons and leave you seriously questioning an openly accepted moral taboo and legal crime as you face, just as Lochan and Maya Whitely face, the forbidden love which Tabitha Suzuma has so bravely written about.
Lest you think that sibling incest is both an exception and something morally bereft, consider this:
History is littered with examples of brother-sister love: Cleopatra VII was married to her brother Ptolemy XII, the Roman emperor Caligula is rumoured to have had sexual relations with all three of his sisters, and the Hapsburg and Bourbon dynasties are riddled with incest. It is interesting to note that incest is not illegal in all jurisdictions and the taboo is more often than not driven by religion. On the flip side, “incest” is fairly normal in the animal world and, at its most fundamental, the issue for humans is that avoidance is about genetics and gene pools - inbreeding creates small gene pools and those groups subsequently die out. At its most simplistic, it becomes then, a matter of biology rather than morality. Taken like this, the taboo and law against incest becomes an interesting one, particularly if abuse is not involved. As Tabitha's Maya says: “They’ll never stop us. Not as long as this is what we both want. But you’ve got to stop thinking it’s wrong, Lochie. That’s just what other people think; it’s their problem, their stupid rules, their prejudices. They’re the ones who are wrong, narrow-minded, cruel…”
In reading Forbidden, the reader truly feels for Lochan and Maya Whitely; one does more than just empathise with them and one might even support their “forbidden love”. If it feels so "right", how can it be "wrong"? Forbidden raises many interesting moral questions, some of which are highlighted in an article The Guardian ran in 2002 entitled Forbidden Love in which it becomes quite clear that incest happens all around us, all the time. In short, sibling incest is far more common and prevalent than we’d like to think.
“You’ve always been my best friend, my soul mate, and now I’ve fallen in love with you too. Why is that such a crime?”
But enough of the background, let's get on with the interview.
I am totally delighted that Tabitha agreed to be interviewed on Absolute Vanilla, even though this is the toughest interview I’ve done to date. Tabitha, I'm afraid, found my questions equally challenging and begged to bow out on some of the more complex ones, so if it appears that there are "holes" in the interview, well, there are.
Genius, tortured souls, worlds falling apart appear to be trademarks of your storytelling, and you are unafraid to tackle emotionally challenging topics such as depression, alcoholism, dysfunctional families, and, in Forbidden, sibling incest. What draws you or influences you to write stories of this nature?
Haha – when you put it like that, it makes me sound completely mad, which is only partially true! I guess I write about what I know, what fascinates me, and what I think is important, and all of these topics fall into at least one of those categories. The genius in A Note of Madness and its sequel A Voice in the Distance is Flynn, who is a musical prodigy, and his ‘genius’ was greatly influenced by my then teenage brother who is currently training to become a professional concert pianist. I am also fascinated by the link between mental illness and the artistic temperament. I studied psychology for a while, and one of my favourite books is Touched With Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, which studies this link by exploring the lives of the many, many illustrious writers, musicians, composers and artists who suffered from some sort of mental illness.
Most of my books revolve around mental illness or mental suffering because it is something I am very familiar with. Refractory clinical depression is a condition I have lived with for most of my life and one which has come close to ending it on numerous occasions.
In Forbidden, in addition to the central tenet of the novel, you also draw together the threads of a broken family, an alcoholic mother, social phobia, older children raising younger children and the constant threat of intrusion by social services. Where did you start with this story and how did you find the various threads came together?
The threads you mention came from the need to find a reason for the two main characters, Lochan and Maya, to be drawn together into a romantic relationship. Consensual sibling incest happens more often when the siblings in question are brought up apart and meet for the first time as teens or adults. Consensual incest between siblings brought up together is relatively rare and so I needed some form of explanation for this to occur. Making them child carers, without any real or positive parental influence, forced to act as adults from a young age and to look after their younger siblings enabled me to make their relationship different from most brothers and sisters right from the start. They were close friends, partners, who shared an incredible burden that the rest of the world was unable to understand. They had to act like parents themselves which drew them into a relationship very different from your average brother and sister. It also alienated them from others as they were not free to hang out with friends after school and Lochan’s social phobia reinforced this sense of alienation by creating an actual barrier which prevented him from being able to reach out and talk to his peers. The threat of social services coming in and tearing the family apart placed an extra burden on Lochan and Maya and meant they had a secret (that they were living without parents) which drew them even further together. All of these factors pulled them closer together and made them increasingly dependent on one another for love and support.
In Lochan Whitely you have created a brilliant yet deeply troubled, complex and tragic character. How did he arise for you and how did he form as you wrote?
Lochan was a great character to write. I put a lot of myself into him, as well as a lot of the kind of person I would like to be. His social phobia was just an exaggeration of the kind of social discomfort many teens experience at some point or another and his sense of responsibility from being the eldest was greatly influenced by my own experiences growing up as the eldest of five. His kindness and sensitivity towards others was influenced by a close friend of mine and his brilliance was inspired by the link between genius and the troubled mind.
Troubled male main characters, albeit often balanced by strong secondary female character, seem to be prevalent in your writing. What draws you particularly to write from a male perspective – and the troubled main character perspective at that? And how important do you feel a balancing female protagonist is, and why?
I put a lot of myself into my main characters and when I started my very first book, A Note of Madness, I decided to try writing it from a male perspective so that I was able to create some distance between the character and myself. So that I could be less self-conscious, I suppose, and free to put as much of myself into the character as I wanted without actually feeling as if I were writing about myself. I guess it was a form of camouflage. But I also wanted to write a book about a teenage boy suffering from a mental illness because I think that society makes it far more difficult for boys than for girls to talk about their feelings, especially when things are going wrong, and much more difficult for them to speak out about their problems and seek help. Not that it’s easy for anyone, but teenage boys are much more inclined to keep their feelings bottled up. I also felt there were far more books about troubled girls in YA fiction and that more books about troubled boys needed to be written as they suffer just as much but often receive far less help. I now feel extremely comfortable writing from a male perspective but I also enjoy writing in a dual narrative, as in Forbidden, because for a love story I think it’s important for the reader to experience the feelings of both characters involved.
Lochan and Maya’s mum is a hopeless, and ultimately destructive character, who clutches at her fading youth, a bottle of booze in hand. Were there any particular influences and inspiration behind the creation of her character, which is the primary and fundamentally abusive force within her family?
I think her complete disinterest in her family and her selfishness and most importantly, lack of parental love was influenced in part by my late father, who was physically abusive towards me when I was a child and rarely showed affection.
Would you say that in creating Forbidden you wrote intuitively or did you have to do a considerable amount of research?
The only research I had to do was regarding incest and the law, and the details in the final chapters.
So now, Tabitha, the obvious question arises: what motivated and inspired you to write a book about sibling incest?
It started with the desire to write a tragic love story. It came down to incest by a process of elimination. I wanted the book to be set in contemporary London and I needed the two teens in question to be old enough for their love for each other to be taken seriously. But I quickly realised that (fortunately) in modern-day Britain there are very few – if any – obstacles that could keep a couple in love apart. Cultural and religious difference maybe, but if the couple were determined enough to go against their families' wishes, they could always run away together. I needed something that would be condemned by everyone wherever they went – a relationship that could never be and moreover, was against the law.
Many authors believe their writing is autobiographical to a greater or lesser extent. To what extent does your own life inform your writing?
As I mentioned earlier, I suffer from clinical depression so on the one hand I have always viewed writing as an escape from the real world and as an escape from my own problems and from myself. On the other hand, I also find it very therapeutic because I am able to discharge a lot of my own pent up emotions onto the page. I think it’s an escape because I’m not writing about myself directly and I’m not writing about my own immediate problems; however I definitely use the intensity of the emotions I’ve experienced at various points in my life to make my books as real as possible. I often also find, upon re-reading, that I have unconsciously used many episodes in my life to influence my writing and choice of subject matter. Obviously, my books about depression stem from my own battle with the illness but it took me a while to realise how much of Lochan and Maya’s responsibilities and concern for their younger siblings mirrored my own childhood. I am the eldest of five and although I wouldn’t go as far as saying I was a child carer, I did leave school at fourteen when my youngest brother was born and played a big part in bringing him up: I did the school run, the bedtime routine, bathed him, dressed him, even had his friends round to play. My sister, ten years my junior, called me ‘mummy’ until she was three.
Your characters and your voice are mature, some might even say more suited to an adult as opposed to a young adult readership. What is your view on this and what it is to write for young adults?
I never set out to write for young adults. In A Note of Madness, if you read the prologue, you might be able to tell it was intended initially for an adult audience. But then I found that because I was writing about teens, the book seemed more suitable for a teenage audience. I find myself drawn to writing about teenagers and about what some might call teen issues. Therefore my books fit better in the YA section. However I have had a great number of adults write to me to say how much they have enjoyed my books and I certainly don’t change my style or significantly simplify the vocabulary I use.
I know that in writing Forbidden you went through many revisions, edits and rewrites. What was the view of your publishers on presenting them with the initial manuscript and what were the points on which you differed?
Actually there was only one, major rewrite. And that was in order to remove several of the sexual scenes. I was very keen to keep the story as realistic as possible and didn’t want to do any ‘glossing’ or tasteful fades to black. In order to keep the story real, I felt there would also be quite a lot of sexual content seeing as the couple are more or less left to their own devices. However my publishers felt that Lochan and Maya’s relationship was too sexual and not romantic enough and so I had to rework some scenes and do a lot of negotiation until we found a middle ground we were both happy with.
Do you get to interact much with your young adult readers and, if so, what sort of feedback have you had from them on Forbidden?
I am fortunate enough to get a lot of wonderful emails from my readers. So far, the feedback on Forbidden has been overwhelmingly positive which feels great. However many readers have also written to tell me how much the book moved them, often to the point of tears, and many told me they never thought they would find themselves rooting for a brother and sister to be allowed to have a sexual relationship but that their feelings changed completely during the course of the book.
Finally, what next for Tabitha Suzuma? I know you are working on a new novel, can you tell us a little about it and when it will be published.
My next book is a tragic love story with, as its central theme, euthanasia.
Many thanks to Tabitha Suzuma for agreeing to be interviewed and I wish great success with Forbidden and her forthcoming novel.
For more about Tabitha Suzuma you can connect with her via:
Her Facebook fan page
Her books can be found on Amazon UK
and Amazon USA
For those interested, overviews of incest and incest taboo can be found on Wikipedia.