Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.

THE BOOKSELLER: Audrey Rademeyer – Kalk Bay Books

Kalk Bay Books

Audrey Rademeyer is the owner of Kalk Bay Books, Cape Town’s southern peninsula gem that offers a range of interesting literary fiction and non-fiction and has an impressive newsstand.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. The antithesis of depressing, it’s about so many things, among them, death and our sticky relationship with life itself. The sometimes prolonged and senseless suffering of “medicalised” death, and how we could and should die better, with more dignity and with less trauma to ourselves and to our loved ones. I think that this is one of those books which come along every once in a while and fundamentally shift things in our collective mind.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

We are very lucky in that we don’t have a huge problem with this, but when it does happen it’s likely to be Long Walk to Freedom or Shantaram.

The biggest seller of the past year?

Sapiens by Yuval Harari. He tells a gripping history of our species, and has been accused of vandalism, recklessness and caricature. But there is an urgency in what he is trying to get us to comprehend about ourselves, because there isn’t any time left. He’s setting us up, at lightspeed, for Homo Deus, in which we glimpse the successor we are currently nurturing. The one who we probably aren’t going to like very much in the end, precisely because of who we are and what we’ve done.

The most underwhelming book youíve read in the last year?

The Heart goes Last by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my all-time favourite authors. But I don’t think it was Margaret’s fault entirely. Some of it was mine.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?
What will People Say by Rehana Rossouw. An illuminating, important novel set in Hanover Park in the 80’s, and also a great read.

The last thing you read that made you cry?
Eventide by Kent Haruf. He has an exquisitely delicate hand in his dealings with the human heart.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

Yes, in fact there is a startling number of them. But I discussed this with my colleagues and we decided that as an answer to this question it might as well be our favourite mutually hated book, that excremental anti-erotica called Fifty Shades, which is an insult to pleasure and a criminal waste of ink and paper.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?
That we’re still here despite being picky and difficult and occasionally grumpy, and that we’re useless at social media, and that we don’t have SnapScan.

The three writers you admire the most?

I must choose three friends, above all others? This is impossible and unfair. Off the top of my head, randomly then: Kent Haruf, whose quiet affection for his characters extends to his readers. His books are genuine treasure. David Mitchell, who writes the kind of stories I most like to read, adventures into which you can completely disappear and when you come out the other side, wild-eyed and shaken up, you’re still possessed for weeks after. George Monbiot, who is fearless and tireless and was reckless long before Harari was, and who is always lucid, and who should be taught in school.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Corporatocracy in the book-supply chain means that certain leviathans, having chomped up all the little guys, have created a perverse situation in which it’s easy to imagine that the intention is to keep books and readers apart. We have speculated that these entities would really rather that bookshops didn’t exist at all.

Describe your archetypal customer.
The one who comes in looking for a book we don’t have, and leaves with three other books instead, then happily comes back for more.

The best part of being a bookseller?
I get to do what I like best, for work. I get to hang out among books with other people who like to hang out among books. It does seem a bit unfair to be this lucky, and sometimes I wonder whether I’m just imagining it.

And the worst part?
That there are just too many good books, and I will most certainly die before I’ve read them, or stocked them, or even seen them.