An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.

 

elevation

Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.

 

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.

 

The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.

 

You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.

 

Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.

 

You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.

Helen-Brain-garden-fence

Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.

 

Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.

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Interview: Matthew MacDevette, author of Blacker than White

 

Matt and I met online just over a year ago when he hired me to edit his apocalyptic fantasy novel, Blacker than White, in which a female Lucifer goes to war with Heaven when Jehovah decides it’s time for Judgement Day and the angels descend to slaughter humanity. She takes a hapless but brave Oxford post-grad along with her to help circumvent the inconvenient pact she made not to spill too much angelic blood.

The project was an incredible piece  of luck: here I was at the beginning of a career shift, assuming it’d be a long time before I built enough of a reputation to get the kind of book I wanted to edit, when the kind of book I wanted to edit fell into my lap. And it was good – well-written, funny, full of action, packed with quirky worldbuilding, and driven by tenacious but damaged characters. I got to discuss some of my favourite topics with Matt: gender in fantasy fiction, the mythology of heaven and hell (and his unique take on it), and the creation of fantasy societies.

Now that the novel has gone out into the world, I asked for an interview. Welcome to Violin in a Void Matt 🙂

 


Matthew-MacDevette-2So, why write a story about the Devil?

When I first heard about The Fall as a child, my main thought was, “yay God for winning”, but as I got older it changed to, “hang on, I kind of get where Lucifer is coming from”. The Devil embodies much of what we despise, yes, but also much of what we’ve come to value, like independent thought, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds and defiance of unyielding authority. She – I’m just going with ‘she’ – is also much more relatable than the Bible’s heroes. Bundle all of that with what she went through – getting violently cast from her home into a barren wasteland for all eternity – and you get a deeply interesting character. Dangerous? Yes. Scary? At times. Funny? Perhaps. A little twisted? Absolutely. But interesting. So I wanted to write her, but not like she’s usually portrayed: as the ‘ultimate evil’, a slick dealmaker, a farcical fool or, more recently, a trying-to-make-it-in-the-world regular(ish) guy. I wanted to write her as a person that, like any of us, has complex feelings and thoughts shaped by her own particular history. That, I figured, would make for one hell of a story.

Why represent Lucifer as a woman? What differs from the way we usually see the character portrayed?

Two main reasons. First, novelty. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Lucifer portrayed seriously as a woman. If you’ve just thought, “but what about Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled?”, slap yourself across the face. Second, misogyny. Our heroes tell us a lot about who we want to be. So much of what is idolised in monotheistic religion is male. Men men men, everywhere you bloody look, doing all sorts of great things. The women? Never mind, they’re over there tempting the men or cleaning for the men or just waiting in the background supposedly yelling, “I’m your receptacle for childbirth … I sure hope it’s a BOY!” The whole idea of femininity in the Bible – and elsewhere – is muddied. Screw that. Most powerful characters are male, but half the world is not. By portraying this powerful character as a woman, the story can explore a lot of interesting issues related to that. Exactly how, you ask? No spoilers!

Alexei and Lucifer both have to deal with intense grief, and Lucifer has a history of psychological dysfunction that not only affects her personal life but entire worlds and societies. How did these themes find their way into the story? What was your approach to writing about trauma and mental illness?

I think that being a little messed up is part of living a full and beautiful life, not a step away from it. I wanted to honour that through the characters. With Lucifer, I tried to get to the heart of what it must have felt like to be cast from Heaven – from her home, from her family – and depict it as intimately as possible. I was intrigued by the idea of her experiences literally changing the landscape of her world, and her trying to navigate that to safer ground, because I think that’s often how it feels for us. As for my approach, well … a lot of it was inspired by what I was going through at the time. I wrote the bulk of the novel a few months after the end of a seven-year relationship. That, together with ideas informed by the loss of my father when I was 18, means that it’s probably not the sunniest book you’ll ever read. But hey, it’s not a book of mourning – quite the opposite. While loss is a big theme, so is the reckless affirmation of life despite all the misery it throws at you. So I guess my approach is to do the trauma justice without giving it the whole courtroom.

Blacker-than-WhiteThe story gets pretty brutal at times, but there’s a fair bit of humour in there too. What kind of role would you say humour plays in horror and dark fantasy? How do you balance the two?

An important role! I struggle with stories that take themselves seriously ALL THE TIME. Just because you’re writing about suffering or death or loss doesn’t mean you have to portray your world or characters as only defined by those things. Because I don’t think the world is defined by those things. Humour reminds you that characters have internal lives separate from whatever terrible events are unfolding around them, and that even in tragic moments we can steal moments of joy. It’s an act of defiance in a world that wants you dead. Also, it’s a way to make your readers extra sad. By keeping them entertained and giving them an emotional reprieve from harsh things, they have energy to feel even more devastated when the next terrible event comes around. As for balance, I always appreciate it when authors: 1) aren’t so goofy that their story loses credibility; 2) stick to jokes their characters would actually make; and 3) use more than one kind of funny – it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be snark.

What does the title Blacker than White refer to exactly?

A few different versions of ‘it’s not as simple as we think it is’. In the most general sense, the play on the phrase ‘black and white’ is meant as a rejection of the idea that things are either one way or another – good or evil, hero or villain, virtue or sin. We are all different things at different times to different people. It’s dull and dangerous to pretend otherwise, and yet too many influential people do. It also refers specifically to the characters of God and the Devil – regardless of who you choose to cast as the hero, neither is truly innocent.

Heaven and Hell both conform to and subvert conventional ideas about them. Hell can be terrifying but it’s got a university. Heaven is beautiful, but its orderly splendour is disturbing. Can you tell us a bit about your worldbuilding for these settings?

The idea of Heaven has always bothered me – a place of eternal peace with no suffering, no death, no conflict, no disorder. It seems incredibly boring. It also seems like somewhere where it would be difficult to be truly human, since I’m not sure you can be human in a place where you’re leaving so much of your ‘earthly nature’ behind and being flattened into one kind of ‘good’. So I wanted to ask the question, ‘what would this paradise we claim to value really look like, and would we still want it if we found out?’. The idea with Hell was similar, in that the usual representations seemed boring – I’m burning and screaming and generally not having a good time for all eternity, sure, but what else? I was intrigued by the idea of Hell-as-a-state-of-being rather than Hell-as-a-place. I also wanted to explore the society of the Fallen angels. What would they be like? How would they have organised? How would they relate to a strange new world? How would they recover after the violence of the Fall?

Besides travelling to Heaven and Hell, the characters traverse multiple locations on Earth, and even make a stop in the little town of Paarl in the Western Cape winelands of South Africa. Why Paarl?

Ah, Paarl. I did my undergrad at the University of Stellenbosch, and I remember travelling with friends to places around there. Paarl was one of them. I have fond memories of those times and of some of the old farmhouses we visited and drank too much wine in. There is also something Afrikaans woven in. The friends I mentioned are Afrikaans, the Cape is very Afrikaans, and I’m partly Afrikaans. So for me the winelands are a mix of friendship, landscape and language that I call to mind when I think ‘South Africa’.

Apparently Blacker Than White took over four years from start to publication. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Well, I think I first had the beginnings of the idea in 2008 or 2009, but I didn’t write the first words until late 2011 when I moved to Oxford to do my master’s (hence the opening scenes). I wasn’t aaaallllll that diligent during 2012 – too busy waiting for the Rapture, as one does – but I did manage a first draft in March 2013. In April, I started work at the international development consultancy I remain at to this day, and it’s been pretty intense ever since. Fast forward to 2015, when I hired an editor who had the audacity to suggest actual changes to the story that were quite time consuming (Lauren Smith … heard of her?), and here we are.

Any thoughts on self-publishing?

It’s tricky! I tried a few agents in the UK and US before deciding that I’d rather spend the time building a kind of start-up out of it. At the time, I figured I could outsource the core functions of a publishing house, keep all the content I suspected some folks would find too controversial, and have some fun. I expected it to take a lot of work, but it’s turned out to be more than I anticipated – I didn’t expect to have to recreate the ebook approximately three billion times to get the formatting right, for example, and marketing continues to be a bit of a black box. I’d say if you want to do it, be prepared to be more business/project manager than writer for a long, long while. It’s true that you don’t need publishing houses to get your work into readers’ hands any more, but the value they add takes a lot of time, effort and problem-solving to replace. My internal jury’s out at the moment – I’ll update you in a few months!

What’s next? Will you return to any of the worlds or characters from Blacker than White?

I don’t plan to write a sequel. I wanted to write this as an open-and-closed story, and to do what I wanted to do with it I kind of had to. That being said, the world is still alive in my mind and I often find myself wondering and wandering around bits of it. So I may return to it, one day, but if I do it would be to tell a very different story that isn’t dependent on Blacker than White. In the meantime, ‘next’ for me is more stories! Always more stories. This is actually the second novel I’ve written; the idea of rewriting the other one – it needs some work – still tickles my fingers. I’m a bit of a split personality – I love economic/social development work but I’m also compelled to create stories in my head and write them down – and I’m still trying to find a way to balance the different parts of myself. But there will be more. A lot more.


Matthew was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but when he was two and a half decided that he needed a change from small(ish) town life. So he moved to George, which is even smaller. No one said he was a very clever toddler. He studied in Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Oxford before moving to Johannesburg in 2013, where he’s happily remained.

He works for a consultancy focused on international development, thinks that we all have more in common than what sets us apart, and is deeply passionate about Africa’s potential.

Blacker than White is his first novel.

Where to find Matthew:
Twitter: @mattmacdev
Email: matt@blackerthanwhite.net
Facebook: Blacker than White
Buy Blacker than White on Amazon

Interview: David Horscroft on bisexuality, psychopaths and violence

My bookclub recently read Fletcher by David Horscroft, one of the latest sff novels published in South Africa, from Fox & Raven Publishing. Set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world, it’s written from the perspective of K Fletcher, a murderous psychopath who investigates a murder-suicide and gleefully commits a lot more murder along the way.

I’ll admit that Fletcher proved to be a bit too much for me, but it did start an interesting discussion about unlikeable characters and psychopaths. I started chatting to David about it, and he kindly agreed to let me pick his brain on the subject.

avatarWelcome to Violin in a Void David! To get started tell us a bit about your novel and the world it’s set in.

It’s the almost-apocalypse. In 2012, poor containment procedures resulted in a haemorragic outbreak of global proportions. Two years later, and the world is only just starting to steady itself. Entire countries have been wiped out, Europe has descended into civil chaos, America has been crippled and Russia has somehow ended up as the most stable surviving country. Southern Africa is a desolate bloodbath, with the northern territories still being scourged by viral resurgences, civil struggles and opportunistic looters from what used to be the first world. Israel has completely annexed the Sinai Peninsula, and no one has heard a thing from China in almost sixteen months. Across the world, cities burned and rioted, and the ones that survived have only done so by cordoning off vast swathes of land into anarchic gutterages.

This novel has very little to do with these troublesome two years. Enter K Fletcher, stage left.

Fletcher is several things: problem drinker, slutty dancer, private investigator, corporate saboteur and discrete problem fixer. Fletcher also happens to be one of the most prolific murderers the world has ever seen.

K doesn’t deal with morals, but rather with puzzles: anything to stave off the boredom between each bloody, thrashing kill. One such puzzle involves a murder-suicide: man-kills-wife, man-kills-self, cue tears. But Fletcher is not convinced that it’s that simple, and ends up finding connections between the husband and a far more dangerous entity: the standard Evil Dystopian Corporation in the form of the munitions company RailTech. The book follows Fletcher’s investigation as they shake down, slice up and choke out any unfortunates in the way.

Fletcher

Photograph by Ruth Smith (@photo_bunny24)

 

Readers may not notice this (I didn’t!), but K Fletcher’s gender is never revealed. Why did you choose to write the character this way?

It was actually my goal from the start, simply for its own sake: I wanted to see if it was possible to write something of a decent length wherein the gender of the main character was ambiguous to the reader. It’s tricky: the level of violence K exhibits is stereotypically seen with male offenders, so it was a lot of fun to see how I could bring out the feminine side too. Fletcher is also the perfect character for this: a naturally volatile, aggressive personality is really fun to write when you’re completely unbound by societal expectations of something as often-silly as the gender of your character.

It’s also interesting that Fletcher is bisexual. On a practical level, bisexuality is another way of obscuring gender, but it also had me thinking that you don’t often see gay or bisexual characters who are really badass or openly psychopathic. Any thoughts?

I’d tend to disagree that you don’t often see bisexual characters which are psychopathic, but I’ll get to that in a tick. Bisexual and gay characters are starting to make appearances in mainstream media: several playable and non-playable characters in the Borderlands series, Admiral Jack Hardness (Dr. Who?, Torchwood), Omar Little (The Wire) and Frank Underwood (House of Cards). The main villain in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, was casually bisexual; in fact, there was a brief implication that 007 himself had gone through an experimental phase at the very least.

It’s starting to creep in, with the classic resistance (especially, as you’ve spoken before, in the SFF sphere). But there’s a common thread that I can’t be the only one to note. Bear with me for a second, and consider the following list:

Everyone mentioned above (minus Omar Little)
Dr. Frank ‘n Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
Oberyn Martell and Cersei Lannister (Game of Chairs)
Lisbeth Salander (Millenium trilogy)
Chloe (The B**** In Apartment 23)
Dorian Gray
Anyone in The Vampire Chronicles
Pretty much any evil protagonist written by the Marquis de Sade

All these characters have two things in common: they’re all degrees of bisexual, and they’re all sociopaths. Some are murderous, others are simply violent, and some are just largely harmless troublemakers, but they all share those two traits.

Why? Is this the bisexual version of the gay-lisp: an unfair stereotype that we’re all shifty, amoral psychopaths? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s the other way around: psychopaths strike me as far more likely to be bisexual. It makes sense for sociopathic characters to be bisexual: someone so inured to social convention and so aware of the power of seduction would be extremely likely to be bisexual, even if only for utilitarian means. As M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath puts it, it’s not so much bisexuality as it is gender indifference. The sociopath doesn’t see gender; rather, they see someone to manipulate and prey on.

This preconception extends way back into history. Lilith (of the Bible, not of Borderlands) is bisexual, having sex with both Adam and Eve. Loki chooses partners of both sexes. There’s apparently even an Aztec god called Huehuecoytl (thanks, TV Tropes) who is a gender-changing bisexual with a penchant for causing trouble just out of pettiness or boredom. Sound familiar?

Maybe that’s even why bisexuals get such flack from both the exclusively straight and gay communities: maybe humans instinctively distrust bisexuals since we instinctively see it as a “Sociopath Here” flag. It’s clearly pretty ingrained into our collective psyche.

If that warning triggered while you were around someone like K Fletcher, it might just save your life.

Fletcher is a very violent, unlikeable character, at least in the sense that their actions are typically questionable (e.g. frequent drug abuse), if not outright abhorrent (e.g. murdering a child on a whim or holding a woman prisoner for amusement). What was your approach in writing a character like this?

The book is written from Fletcher’s perspective, and I always made sure to write in as authentic a Fletcher-voice as possible. It was more important to me to have an authentic character than a likeable one, and I think Fletcher makes as much sense as this kind of character can, despite the madness and impulsivity.

What this means is that Fletcher is wholly unapologetic. The character wouldn’t care what you thought about them. In fact, the same personality type would probably go out of its way to shock and horrify those around them. That’s why Fletcher is perpetually spouting off violent thoughts and saying things like “Hey, remember that time I killed everyone in that orphanage, that was heeee-larious.” It’s almost a little cartoonishly evil at times, but I can imagine Fletcher giggling and getting off on people getting uncomfortable about that.

Once I got used to pulling no punches, it became very easy to write in Fletcher’s voice. I started writing this book for myself long before I even considered taking it to a publisher, so once the blend of flippant atrocity took form it was something I could easily step in and out of. I can be a bit of a sick twist myself, at times, so I’m sure that helped… a lot.

Unlikeable characters have stories to tell. They might not be well received, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them, and it definitely wouldn’t stop a character like K from doing so.

Doesn’t this mean that Fletcher actually does care what people think, albeit in a twisted way? They don’t care about being hated, certainly, but evoking fear, shock and horror is essential because that’s what Fletcher thrives on. They’re not totally indifferent.

I think there’s a difference between caring what people think, and how people react. I wouldn’t expect Fletcher to care what people thought about them in the long run, but when they’re interacting with the character it’s almost like a form of mental torture. Fear, shock, horror, revulsion: these are all instinctive reactions. Even lust is an instinctive one (considering Fletcher’s thing with occasional seduction).

If someone jumps out from behind a curtain with a knife, you don’t think: “Wow, this person seems pretty unpleasant. I can’t say I’m very fond of who they are and what they’re trying to do.” You don’t think at all. Your brain kicks into instinct mode and overrides any thinking.

Fletcher does this on a literal level when engaging in violence, and on a lesser level when engaging with people. Saying horrifying things is, to them, the social equivalent of jumping out swinging a meat cleaver, with the same fruits in the form of the instinctive skin-crawlage and discomfort.

So no, I don’t think this means that Fletcher cares what people think, when you consider that thinking is a very intellectual approach to a force of nature like K. Invoking fear and repulsion is simply the social equivalent of feeling someone struggle and thrash as you beat them to death with a claw hammer.

One of the things I found interesting but difficult to handle is the fact that there are no good guys, or at least no group or person who “should” come out on top. K goes up against an evil corporation called RailTech that murders its own employees and tests weapons on poor African villages. K, however, is just as evil on an individual level. Was this a consequence of the broken world in which the novel is set? Or did you have some other purpose?

A core motif in Fletcher is this concept of the “grinning flesh”, which K uses to refer to humanity in general. In their opinion, the almost-apocalypse didn’t change humanity; rather, it just took off humanity’s collective mask of sanity. It shows: the vaulting depravity of the Midnight Hour and the unfettered expansion of brutal mega-corporations such as RailTech show us that the good people are going crazy, and the bad people are profiting. Fletcher is both bad and crazy: this new world makes a lot of sense.

It’s the authenticity angle, all over again. Good people simply don’t stand a chance against Fletcher, unless they sacrifice a bit of themselves to stack the odds a little, like Vincent. You’re stuck with the only contenders being the ones who are willing to get their hands dirty, which can leave readers feeling either torn between wanting K to win or die, or indifferent as to what happens at all.

I’m OK with that, I guess. It’s still a bit weird to me that Fletcher got published at all. In the same way that unlikeable characters have stories to tell, those stories may often contain plethoras of other unlikable characters. At least there’s a conflict: for example, I think “Everyone is Shitty” is a more engaging stance than “Everyone is Hugs”.

I sometimes found the violence of the book alienating; K kills frequently, cruelly, and indiscriminately. Some random stranger could easily get their throat torn out just because Fletcher is bored or annoyed. However, I appreciated the fact that the violence was never sexual. Did you have any particular reasons for avoiding this sort of violence?

The violence is meant to be jarring. It’s meant to be there as a wake-up call to anyone who is cheering for Fletcher: “I am not a nice person.” But there’s no reason to avoid it, since violence is such an important part of K’s existence. Murder makes Fletcher feel alive and powerful like nothing else.

Sexual violence, then, doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying Fletcher would have anything against rape; rather, the character simply has no interest in it. As they say themselves: “cheating is pointless if the game is the goal”; Fletcher kinda gets a kick out of being sultry and seducing people. It’s a power trip: “I’m going to seduce you into taking your clothes off for someone who has killed more people than you’ve left-swiped on Tinder.” Violence doesn’t help that goal, and inherently destroys any mental manipulation. Similarly, if Fletcher wants to murder someone, rape would be unnecessary as it wouldn’t be a direct contribution to the finality of their death.

Don’t mistake the lack of sexual violence to be an indicator of some moral compass. Fletcher has simply realized that fucking and filleting are two incompatible forms of entertainment.

I’ve asked quite a few questions about what a terrible person your main character is, so tell me, what do you like about K Fletcher?

I like several things about Fletcher, which worries my team of psychologists greatly. It makes sense, though: sociopaths often have some traits we admire, and a narrator like Fletcher would exacerbate those traits in themselves. Why do you think Bumblefrond Cucumberpatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes has won him such acclaim? People want to be Sherlock. People want to be the cold, calculating sociopath who can stare down death, crack wise and solve the mystery before tea.

In that regard, I like Fletcher’s honesty (with themselves and the world). I like their curiousity and glibness. I definitely admire the character’s resourcefulness, and can relate to that boredom they constantly feel. The snark was fun to write, too.

I like the fact that K kept Valerie and Vincent around, because I really enjoyed writing about the dynamic between those three.

I’m probably a bad person to ask that question of: considering I did as much as possible to really adopt Fletcher’s voice while writing, a little part of me wants to shout “Fletcher’s great! I especially love the face-puppet part. With the actual faces and the actual puppets.”

It’s probably wise for people not to have dinner alone with me.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?

Nothing tangible in the writing sphere: a few potential Fletcher stories and a nice zombie premise.

I’m mainly bundled up in my programming at the moment: playing around with fun cryptography systems for high-risk websites.

Thanks for your time David!

 

David is a South African programmer with a wide range of fascinations, including biology, medicine, psychology and technology. He spends most of his time obsessing over pet projects and is a sucker for bad puns, good vodka and interesting people.

You can find David on Twitter @forealiously.

DARK WINDOWS by LOUIS GREENBERG: Cover reveal and Joey Hi-Fi Interview

I have a particularly good post for you today: South African author Louis Greenberg asked me to do the cover reveal for his upcoming literary thriller Dark Windows, as well as an interview with artist Joey Hi-Fi. I will politely keep all squee-type noises to myself, but seriously, how awesome is this?!

Dark Windows – forthcoming from Umuzi in April 2014 – is Louis’s first solo project since The Beggars’ Signwriters was published in 2006. Since then he’s teamed up with Sarah Lotz to for the horror-writing duo S.L. Grey. Now he’s dabbling in the literary side of speculative fiction, which is my drug of choice. Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

Dark Windows is set in an alternative-present Johannesburg. A wave of New-Age belief has radically altered the country’s political landscape, but not everyone buys into the miracle. Gaia Peace, the party which swept to power ten years ago on the back of a miracle cure for crime and a revolutionary social welfare programme, is still firmly ensconced, but the cracks are showing.

Jay Rowan does his job and doesn’t ask questions. He’s already in probationary therapy for a drunk driving accident, and he’s not looking for trouble. Now Kenneth Lang, a veteran political aide, has hired Jay to paint in the windows of apparently random vacant rooms.

Lang has survived a long career of political change, and is not about to start questioning orders, even when they are as misguided as senior minister Meg Hewitt’s latest obsession, project Dark Windows. A mystical charlatan has convinced her that she can attract a world-changing supernatural visitation, the Arrival.

Beth Talbot, the married woman Jay is seeing, is compelled by the supposed suicides of two students in a residence building. Her growing interest in the case leads her to a seditious student group and back into the past she’s been trying to avoid.

A unique and genre-defying plot like that is perfectly suited to Joey Hi-Fi’s bizarrely beautiful illustrated covers. Joey’s work became well-known on the sff scene after designing covers for Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes and the Miriam Black series, Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human, and all of Lauren Beukes’s novels (most notably The Shining Girls and Zoo City). But enough phaffing about; here’s the cover you came to see:

Dark_Windows

Once again, Joey has created the kind of cover that makes me want the book regardless of what’s inside it. And here’s the man himself, to tell us all about it 🙂

Welcome to Violin in a Void Joey! It’s a great honour to have you. You’re one of the few people who’s had the privilege of reading Dark Windows; the rest of us will have to wait until next year. What did you think of it?

It grips you from the first page. It’s unusual, straddles a few genres and takes you to very, very unexpected places.
It’s an alternate history of South Africa you’ve never read before.
Unlike most cover designers, you’re known for immersing yourself in the novel before creating its ‘face’ – you read the book when possible and collaborate with both the author and the publisher. Can you describe this process for Dark Windows? What was it like working with Louis?

“She was screaming, but the door was locked. When they got inside, there was nobody. Just the window open. The way Trini likes to go. Sonia was on the bed, blood coming out everywhere.”

I loved The Mall, which Louis co-wrote with Sarah Lotz under the guise of S.L. Grey. It still has me looking nervously over my shoulder while shopping at malls! So I was very excited when the cover design brief for Dark Windows landed in my inbox.

That being said, It was fantastic working with Louis. He supplied me with additional info whenever I needed it – and his insights were invaluable during the design process. It’s always a plus when you have access to the author.
 
Although I try to apply the same steps in the design process to each book-cover-design project, every novel is obviously different and publishers and authors work in a variety of ways. Along with the brief, I usually ask for a manuscript and any other additional info (either from the author or publisher).
 
Along with the manuscript, I received a rough cover concept from Louis as well. His rough idea immediately intrigued me – but having not read the novel I wasn’t sure of it’s significance as yet. About 2 or 3 pages into the manuscript I was pretty sure that It was a solid direction for the cover. By the last page of the novel I was convinced of it.
 
The title of the novel is very evocative and conjures up a particular set of images in one’s mind. The plot in part deals with windows that are being painted black by the protagonist in the novel. So I thought that image would be unique and mysterious enough to draw the viewer in.
I also decided that the cover concept would be best communicated by using either a photo or a photorealistic illustration. I’m not a big fan of using stock photography on book covers, so In the end I decided to engage the warp drive on my Wacom pen and go the photorealistic illustration route.
Thus the cover is not one photo at all – but mostly an illustration with a little photography thrown in.
Illustrating the cover gave me more control over what kind of window frame I wanted, how I wanted the paint to look and what the atmosphere of the room should be.
 
Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Using Louis’s initial rough idea as a starting point I worked from there to produce a first draft. To get both Umuzi (the publisher) and Louis on board I initially presented a more pared-down version of the cover. I wanted them to be happy with the direction before taking the illustration and design further.

Once both Louis and the publisher were on board with the direction the cover was headed, we discussed ways to take it further. I’ve always loved working with positive and negative space. So The positive and negative spaces provided by the black paint seemed like the perfect opportunity to add additional detail to the cover. I liked the the idea of the cover having details which wouldn’t be immediately visible – but would be revealed upon closer inspection.
I then asked Louis for a list of elements he thought were key in the novel. Working from this list I picked a few which I thought would work on the cover.
I then weaved those into the illustration of the black paint.
 
Once I’d crafted the cover somewhat I presented the final draft of the cover – which was approved by Umuzi and Louis.
Thus the cover for the mysterious creature that is Dark Windows was born.
 

“the hospital’s obscene smokestack pumping burned waste-flesh into the air between spitting pines and concrete”

The title suggests windows made of tinted glass, but the blurb and your cover describe a window obscured with painted images. One reality blocks out another. What is is being covered up and why? Is this how Jay paints the windows?

As the cover and title suggests, part of the mystery in the novel involves windows which are being painted black by Jay (the protagonist in the novel). 
So the cover is inspired by a scene in the book. The images weaved into the black paint are more representative of events in the novel and are not mean’t to be taken literally. To find out  the significance of the black painted windows and various images you would have to read the book!
The cover could have focused only on the window pane, or the window and the frame, but it takes a step back to include the wall, putting the viewer inside a cold, hard space. Why the interior perspective?
 
The vacant rooms mentioned in the novel have their own dark story to tell. So I wanted to communicate that in a subtle way using lighting and colour.
I felt that just a close crop of a window would lack that uneasy, almost eerie atmosphere that I thought the cover needed.
 
Let’s look at the images on the window; what made you choose these?
All the images are inspired by events or characters from the novel. I wanted to choose a set of images that I thought would represent the world of Dark WindowsAnd since the novel deals with themes that are quite varied in nature, this meant everything from New Age symbols to ritual sacrifice to protesting students to political intrigue … and haunted rooms.
 

“A dreadlocked kid lolls against the jamb, holding a fat joint. The opaque smoke seems to defy the breeze as it wends upward from his hand against his dark T-shirt, but is finally whisked over his shoulder in the current.”

Louis described the novel as a “literary thriller”, and for me the cover evokes both mystery and horror. Many of the images are explicitly threatening (the screaming woman, the heavily armed police) while more innocuous images take on a sinister tone. The man having a hot stone massage looks to me like some kind of cultist or human sacrifice; the smoker with the dreadlocks looks more like a Predator than a human. Was this intentional or is it just my weird interpretation?

That was intentional. Although Dark WIndows is a ‘literary thriller’ it also has mystery and horror elements to it. All the images included on the cover depict scenes or characters from the book in some way. Since the novel has this undercurrent of unease and menace throughout, the images tend to lean towards the darker side. As you read the book the meaning behind each image will become clearer.
This is a relatively sparse piece compared to your other covers, which typically feature a riot of detailed illustrations. Does the tone of Dark Windows require a more subtle approach?
In a way yes. I obviously take my visual cues for the cover from the novel, and I let the novel dictate what the cover should be.
For Dark Windows, I thought the image of a window painted black captured the tone of the book well. I also felt it was an interesting and strong enough image to carry the cover.
 
Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

There’s a lot of texture in the paint of the window and the wall – will the cover have any finishes to match the visual with the physical?

I hope so! *Looks longingly at the publisher*. We have discussed adding a UV spot varnish for just the black paint on the window.
Well I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thank you so much for your time and insights Joey!
_________________________________________
I also have to thank Louis for inviting me to do his cover reveal; it’s an honour and a pleasure to host it. I really enjoyed doing this interview, not only because I love Joey’s work but because it made me take a close look at every element in the Dark Windows cover.
I hope everyone finds this close-up equally illuminating. Now we just have to wait oh so patiently for Dark Windows to be published so we can discover the true significance of all those images and find out exactly what happened in those vacant rooms. I have already demanded my review copy…

An interview with Terra Whiteman

Terra Whiteman is a scientist by profession, a philosopher by hobby, and author of The Antithesis series. After graduating with a degree in biochemistry, Terra now works as a clinical toxicologist while continuing her writing endeavors on the side. Whiteman’s genres include science fiction and gritty dark fantasy, sewing together intricate plots and philosophical themes.

The Antithesis is my favourite indie series, and one of very few series that I follow compulsively. I seldom make it past book two, even if I like a series, but Terra’s characters and ideas have kept me hooked through four books and I’m eagerly awaiting the final novel, due to be published later this year. In the meantime, I asked her to tell me a bit about her life as a writer and her thoughts on The Antithesis.

Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer.

Not much to say, really. I’d never actually considered writing professionally until I was approached by 1889 Labs. I ran a web serial as a hobby and it ended up attracting a lot more attention that I’d anticipated. I think The Antithesis had over three thousand regular readers that showed up each week to read each chapter (at the time called ‘episodes’) before I signed a contract with 1889 Labs. The Antithesis itself was sort of an escape from my real life as a broke, overworked and sleep-deprived student. Before The Antithesis I’d only ever written short stories which I’ve never published or even let anyone read.

As an indie author, you’re responsible for so much more than just writing the book. What has your experience been with the publication of The Antithesis series?

Actually it’s not that much different than traditional publishing. I don’t self-publish (self-published and independent published authors seem to be blocked together nowadays; before that wasn’t really the case). I have two editors, one for content and grammar and the other for contininuity and flow. I write the books, send it to one, then the other, and then it gets published after hours of arguments and tantrums and negotiations over what I should and shouldn’t change.

I think the real difference is the fact that I do have more control. Though my book covers are designed for me, I get to tell them what I want. I also get a say in how I want to price books and promote books. 1889 Labs is an independent publishing company, and albeit small, they’re very efficient in giving the author as many resources as possible. They even gave me my own publicist.

The Antithesis takes a sci fi approach to the war between Heaven and Hell. Nothing is as you’d expect it to be, and there aren’t even any gods in the traditional sense. What inspired this story?The Antithesis was actually a scientific project in a literary sense. I’m a biochemistry major with a serious passion for philosophy. That being said, The Antithesis (which will be called TA from this moment on) isn’t actually about the war between Heaven and Hell. At its core, it’s about relationships and a complete rejection of duality. The entire point of this story is the fallacy of good and evil and there was no better way to set the stage than to use the two most renowned symbols for these polarizing ideals: angels and demons. TA explores a very messy shades of gray character cast, set within an idea of how Heaven and Hell might exist, could it actually be explained in a scientific sense.

How has your background as a biochemist influenced the series? 

I’ve been obsessed with the biochemical sciences since early high school. It’s one of my passions, and it was only natural for me to incorporate it into the series. I feel the hard science in TA gives it a very realistic component to the otherwise fantastical premise of the story. Basing the Vel’Haru race off of the biological behavior of ants, for example, allows readers to quell the disbelief of certain elements revolving around them. Providing a world with a gaseous, oceanic core while its land masses are actually suspended above it in layered islands because of the alterations in gravity allows a more realistic approach to how the Nehel (or the angels and demons for that matter) could have evolved into winged beings.

And, well, the only obvious representation of God would be a genetic engineer. Clearly. Though giving him OCD and making him a teenage prodigy was a nice touch, don’t you think?

I do 🙂 

Your main character, Qaira Eltruan, is one the most temperamental, reckless bastards I’ve ever come across in a book. He’s killed so many people and is even responsible for the collapse of his own society. How did you come to create such an unlikeable character, and yet still allow the reader to empathise with him, even like him (I like him; I can’t explain it).

Qaira is an enigma. He took a lot of planning. And although he’s an arrogant self-righteous bastard, he’s necessary. You can’t explain why you like him because we’re taught throughout our entire lives that some actions are good while others are, well, not good. In our functioning society this might be true. However for a project that deals with an underlining theory that good and evil doesn’t actually exist, Qaira is the supporting evidence. He’s neither evil nor good; he’s a moral nihilist. He does what suits him and isn’t necessarily restricted to any forms of moral principles. But his goals aren’t usually sinister, and he does have the capacity to love and care for others. Actually, his love for Leid is proof enough that he does in fact have a heart. He would do anything for her.

He and Yahweh also have a very interesting friendship. Despite being complete opposites – one a benevolent leader who is bound to his moral principles, the other a reckless temperamental ex-Regent who frequently walks the line between villain and hero – they respect each other and understand that their existences are necessary.

TA purposely places readers into uncomfortable and sometimes appalling situations in order to make them question how they themselves would react. We have plenty of ethical guidelines–one specifically being that ‘killing is intrinsically wrong’ (thanks Kant), but in some situations is it actually wrong? Could we honestly say we wouldn’t fall apart or lose our sense of morality in moments of grief, despair or fury? We can’t truly hate Qaira because despite all of the horrible shit he does throughout the series, there’s always a reason for it.

The next book – Three Beta – will be the last in the series. Do you have any plans for future projects?

I already have two books of a new trilogy completed, which will be out sometime in 2013-2014. It takes place in the TA multiverse and explores all of the things TA fails to explain (much because Qaira knows nothing about them). This is a prelude to The Antithesis, and the title of the series is called The Sanctuary.

I am also currently working on a stand-alone science fiction novel titled The Key of Ascension. It’s a clash of steampunk and dystopian/apocalyptic with a strong emphasis on genetics/eugenics. Very violent and not for children.

Very violent and not for children? Awesome 🙂 I can’t wait to check out the new books. Thanks for taking the time out to chat on Violin in a Void!

Looking for Terra?
Email: terra[AT]1889[DOT]ca
Facebook
Website

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Links to my reviews of the books in The Antithesis series

Book One
Book Two Alpha
Book Two Beta
Book Three Alpha

1889 Labs Interviews Me

On Christmas Eve Terra Whiteman, from the awesome indie publisher 1889 Labs, interviewed me about blogging, reading, and the art of storytelling. It was pretty intense for my first interview but I love talking about that stuff. Anyway, now that the holidays are over and everyone’s back at work, I figure you might be looking for a little distraction, so check me out as I wax literary over on the 1889 Labs blog.

And if you’re wondering why the name sounds familiar, Terra Whiteman is the author of the Antithesis series, which takes an irreverent sci fi approach to the eternal war between heaven and hell. I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but now it’s an addictive, guilty pleasure.

Jeyn Roberts on her debut Dark Inside and a giveaway!

Jeyn (pronounced “jen”) Roberts grew up in Saskatoon, Canada. She started writing at an early age, but when she was twenty-one she moved to Vancouver with dreams of being a rock star. For the next several years she played in an alternative/punk band called Missing Mile. A former singer, songwriter, actress, bicycle courier, tree planter—Jeyn graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Writing and Psychology. Shortly afterwards, she moved to England, where she received her MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. An avid traveller, she’s been around the world, including teaching in a high school in South Korea and writing novels in her flat in Vancouver. She’s taken some time out to chat with me about her latest addition to the YA dystopian genre, Dark Inside.

Welcome Jeyn, and thanks for joining me on Violin in a Void.
You’re a new writer on the YA scene, but there already seems to be a lot of excitement about Dark Inside. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the novel?

Sure. What can I say about myself? I love to travel and explore. I’ve been lucky enough to live in three different countries in the past decade. I’m hoping that number grows because I love learning about new cultures. I hate to sit still. I love being outdoors. And I like to do animal rescue work when I have free time.

Dark Inside is my first novel. One day everything is normal. Then the earthquakes begin and a terrible evil is unleashed. Overnight, the darkness inside is released and people are turned into crazy killers. No one is safe. Mason, Aries, Clementine and Michael are four teenagers who are just trying to stay alive. This is their story.

Macmillan is marketing Dark Inside as dystopian fiction, although I would call it apocalyptic, as it’s not about a dystopian society but rather about the destruction of society altogether. What drew you to this genre, this kind of story?

I think it’s very terrifying. For me, isolation is quite possibly the scariest thing around. It’s even scarier when there’s nowhere to run and hide.  What happens when the people who are supposed to keep you safe are gone? It’s also the sociological aspect. How will people behave when there are no more rules? I find it all fascinating.

The catastrophic earthquakes and psychological changes of Dark Inside leave behind survivors of all ages. However, the story is told from the perspectives of teenagers and almost all the major characters are adolescents as well. What made you choose their perspectives, their experiences over other possibilities?

I really just like writing for teens. There are so many great YA books on the market right now. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? One of my teachers once summed it up perfectly. She said there will always be someone inside of us, pushing towards the surface, with a story that needs to be told. I guess all my inner voices are teenagers.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing style and the structure of the novel? For example, the narrative is composed of five voices – Mason, Aries, Clementine, Michael, and a mystery voice whose chapters are labelled ‘Nothing’.

I don’t particularly think I have a certain writing style. I tend to write in all styles. Currently I’m working on a first person/present novel.  But when I was in the early stages of Dark Inside, this is what felt right. ‘Nothing’ was the first character I created. But then Mason and Aries came along. Clementine and Michael followed. I liked being able to have them in all parts of North America because I felt their journey would be the most important part.

With its mass destruction coupled with tragic but hopeful human stories, I think Dark Inside would be an incredible experience on the big screen, especially for YA fans. Would you be interested in a film adaptation?

I sure would! Currently I have a film agent (the same agent who sold The Hunger Games).  So hopefully there will be a movie in the future.

The novel leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the how, why and what next of this apocalyptic scenario, and the ending feels like another beginning. Does this mean that there’s a sequel in the works? If so, is there anything you can tell us about it?
There is indeed a sequel in the works.  It will be out next spring. I’m currently working on the final edits. Personally I think it’s even better than the first book. You’ll get to learn a lot more about each character, and quite possibly learn the identity of Nothing. There are some great new characters including a university student named Raj and a failed leader called Ryder. But that’s all I’m giving away. Don’t want to spoil it!

Will the next novel pick up where Dark Inside ends? Should readers get ready to witness the rise of a new, dystopian society created by the humans who’ve been transformed by the darkness within them?

The next book picks up three months after Dark Inside ends. It’s close to Christmas but no one is feeling very festive. Everyone is trying to adjust to this brand new world. The Baggers are starting to rebuild society and forcing survivors to work for them. They are rounding up people into camps and killing everyone who refuses to obey. Relationships are being formed and broken. There’s even a bit of romance.

Thanks so much for the interview Jeyn!

Jeyn’s been on a blog tour since 22 September, and if you want to know more, take a look at the tour schedule, where you’ll find all the relevant dates and the urls of some great YA blogs.

You can also find Jeyn online:
Website
Facebook
Twitter

MySpace

Dark Inside is out now. US readers will have to wait until 1 November before they can buy it in print, but the Kindle edition is already selling on Amazon. If you’re interested, you can read my review of the novel here.

And now for the bit you’ve all been waiting so patiently for – the giveaway! Macmillan Children’s Books is giving away two copies of Dark Inside to Violin in a Void readers.

To enter:
1. Follow Violin in a Void via WordPress, email (sign-up in the sidebar) or Twitter (@Violin_InA_Void).
2. Leave a comment on this post.

Terms and Conditions
This competition is open internationally.
Entries close on Sunday 9 October at 12pm GMT+2. The winners will be announced on Monday, after being selected using random.org.
Following by any means other than the three listed above doesn’t count, and I check all entries.
The prizes are sponsored by Macmillan Children’s Books, and as a result I will be passing the winners’ postal addresses on to my contact there so that they may send you your books. Distribution of the prizes is therefore the responsibility of the publisher.

Good luck everyone!