Palme D’Or-nominated Elaine Proctor’s first novel, Rhumba, impressed with an informed portrayal of African immigrant life in North London. Her second novel, The Savage Hour,returns to her country of birth South Africa, as elderly doctor Ouma is found drowned on her homestead in rural South Africa. A reflective tale about attitudes to race, dementia, and sexuality, it is receiving recognition as a brave and important work. The Culture Trip spoke with Elaine about her craft.
You’ve previously described turning from screenwriting to novel writing for your first bookRhumba as “like coming home” but with The Savage Hour you really have returned to your homeland. How did you want to portray South Africa? What impressions did you want your readers to take away?
It was important to me that The Savage Hour told the story of a diverse range of characters within the greater South African story, those whose lives have been transformed by democratic rule, those who continue to cling to the margins of social and political prosperity and those it dispossessed. But even more important than that breadth of perspective, was the intimacy that the book endeavoured to reveal about the inner lives of the people it described; their loves, loyalties and longings. In other words I wanted to get at South Africa’s beating heart through the capacity of people under duress to find love and connection, with the land, and with one another. And finally, I was interested in the way they all responded to the death of someone they universally held dear. I guess I wanted the reader to emerge from the experience of reading the book with a sense of the authentic complications of the place but also its redemptive power.
With this setting and the portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease, which you have familial experience with, this seems a deeply personal work. Did that make it harder or easier to write than your first novel?
In some ways The Savage Hour was a harder book to write than my first novel which surprised me at first. Although the book is not autobiographical in any literal sense my personal experience with a similar context meant that the work of it becoming a mature book, required a process of separation from the specifics of my own story. For it to be an authentic novel, it had to find its own literary autonomy, and face the same demands of invention of character and narrative that face all writers of fiction. I found it challenging to do this without losing access to the emotional root that moved me to write it. What I found tremendously exciting, though, was that what emerged out of that imaginative process began to feel properly literary and very much alive.
Did you feel a sense of responsibility in portraying Alzheimer’s Disease and its effect on loved ones? Did the process of writing about it change your outlook at all?
Yes, I think writing about a condition that affects many people requires a different kind of care. But that doesn’t mean one is compelled to skirt the complex issues associated with this tragic condition. On the contrary, I felt it necessary to treat it with near skinless honesty. I wept for my mother as I described some of the scenes of bewilderment and despair I had seen her experience and I knew that they would resonate for others who had witnessed the same. To simply bear witness to the real agony of the disease, the degree of suffering that the Alzheimer’s patient experiences and is unable to express, the thousand little deaths of memory and selfhood that assail them every day, the fear and anxiety that their loss of capacity brings with it. It also became, as I worked, part a metaphor for someone who was no longer able to comprehend the meaning of her contemporary political and social reality. I felt it crucial to broach the question of an individual’s right to die, even though that was not something my own family could navigate with much openness. It is an important conversation for us to have as a culture, and we are late to the table.
Aside from your mother, are any other characters in the novel inspired by real life people?
None of the characters in The Savage Hour are based on any actual individuals. But certainly some of their characteristics, their strength, weaknesses or fears, may have been seeded by an insight into or experience of people and events that I have known. In truth, the business of writing a book means that, at best, something happens to what you know, something mysterious that transforms it into something greater than your own individual understanding. It is what we, as writers, hope for.
In your film work and so far in your novel writing you are not shy in tackling social issues and depicting the darker side of society. Here you deal with racial divides, sexuality and mental health. How important is it to you that your fiction writing addresses such ideas? What are the differences you have found between portraying social issues in film form and in literary form?
I’m not sure that they feel to me like social issues when I am writing although I know I am affected by a political engagement with the world. I hope that my political preoccupations become simply part of the life story I am revealing. It was important to me to deal with HIV aids because it is a huge social and psychological challenge for us to navigate as a culture, as is xenophobia, and those ideas were certainly part of the genesis of events in the book but I hope that as they become STORY they are elevated beyond that. At best, in both film and prose, the social context and its tribulations are shown, not told, so they become personal, not political. I believe that to be the art of it.
What is your writing process?
Like all writers I work long and hard. The beginning phase of invention and experiment requires enormous discipline because it involves the conjuring of new material and the discovery of the voice of the book. I need to know the basic shape of my intention before I dive into the prose, maybe this is a function of my history as a film writer? As the work matures I work long hours more easily, I write and rewrite until the language begins to hum. When I have a complete draft I share it with my publisher and editor, I get their responses and then do another few drafts, each time checking in with them for their responses. I rely deeply on the conversation I have with them both.
You have a distinctly visual style in your writing, with evocative use of colour, and a cinematic structure – in The Savage Hour, your inciting incident is mentioned in the very first sentence! Do you consciously absorb screenwriting principles in your novel writing? Are there any screenwriting habits you’ve had to purposely quell in order to complete your novels?
I write with the muscles of a screenwriter and somewhat instinctively in that I understand that story functions as the powerhouse of the narrative. But I have come to love the interiority that is possible in prose. I’m aware that my challenge as a writer of both books and film is not to be mired in the limitations of either form but attempt an integration of their strengths to achieve something of a hybrid literary voice. I’m certainly not alone in this, much contemporary writing is engaged in the dynamic conversation between the two forms. I have needed to learn to quell the film writer’s rule of describing only what is ultimately see-able. In literary fiction one has the freedom to refer to thought as thought, feeling as feeling, without giving it physical manifestation. This builds a subtle and mysterious private conversation between book and reader and gets at the profound difference between the two forms.
The poetry of Elisabeth Eybers features both within the storyline and in between story sections. You have a personal connection to Eybers but, as the first Afrikaans woman to publish a volume of poetry, she is also viewed by many as epitomising South African womanhood. What were your reasons for including her poetry so heavily in your writing? When did you decide to do so?
Just to clarify, she was the first woman to publish a volume of poetry in Afrikaans, which gives you a sense of the patriarchal culture into which she was born. The skill and facility of her work elevated the language and its cultural expression, and she continued to do so for the whole of her life. I’m not entirely sure when I made the decision to include her poetry in my book, I seemed to just look up and she was there, at the table, so to speak. She consolidated her place when I realised that the detective, Jannie Claasens, would have found her insight into mid century female experience not unlike his own skirmishes with contemporary conservative Afrikaans culture as a gay man. She brought a sense of indefatigable resourcefulness to the people in my book who knew her work, as if to say, I know what this is like, inside. And you are not alone.
The Savage Hour is saturated in South African terminology, mannerisms and scenery. Are there any other South African authors that inspire you? Who might you recommend to fans of The Savage Hour?
Early South African influences were J.M.Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and AC Jordan. More recent are the non-fiction writers Mark Gevisser, Jonny Steinberg and Moeletsi Mbeki and the amazing writers on the Sunday Times Fiction Prize short-list; Zoe Wicombe (October), Imraan Coovadia (Tales of The Metric System) and Masande Ntshanga (The Reactive) and Damon Galgut (Arctic Summer).
What’s next for you? Do you know what the next novel will be about and where it will be set?
Yes, I’m well into two new books, one set in South Africa’s Western Cape and one in the North West corner of London I have come to know so well. The one is about faith, the other, sex.