GLAMOUR: Your novel has been described as fitting into various genres. How would you classify it?
CONSUELO: Lady Limbo is perhaps most easily and best described as a mystery novel. There are some big dollops of mind-twisting suspense, and plenty of character development, as well as sex, fear and violence. The mystery genre aims to keep the reader perched on the edge of her or his seat, without being as restrictive as a whodunit. It allows for the more interesting whydunit perspective. In Lady Limbo the emotional stakes are high and villainous external forces mirror the internal conflict.
Yet it seems an inadequate description. We lead complex modern lives that straddle many dimensions. It seems natural to me that novels should also portray a fantastical undercurrent. Cross-genre ‘complex’ stories − the longer the better − with layers of secrets and surprises are the kinds of novels I love to read so perhaps it’s natural that my inclinations as a writer tend in that direction too. For me the best novels − like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient or Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin − are multi-genre.
The cross-genre approach allows Lady Limbo to probe and play with the light and dark of human motivations and moralities, even while actions and events overtake the characters.
How do you create a strong sense of place when describing the book’s setting (and in other parts of your writing)?
My first novel The Good Cemetery Guide was set in Kalk Bay and I was at pains to describe it as an allegorical place, but I realize now with Lady Limbo set largely in Cape Town and Camps Bay that these very familiar places allow me to explore familiarity and defamiliarise it.
A French air hostess who told my mother about an unusual organisation in Belgium that allowed women to procreate with real men (rather than sperm donors) became the inspiration for Lady Limbo, the novel. For the overseas locations of Paris, Rome and Brussels I employed a mix of first-hand experience, impressions gained from movie settings, material gleaned from newspaper stories (which I find incredibly useful) and Internet research.
When I needed to get closer to my central character Paola I’d head for Camps Bay and wander onto the beach, or sit at an outside table at a pavement café; places that to me were imbued with the lingering intimacies of the nightly Camps Bay social scene. The secrets of Lady Limbo are fictionalised secrets that have grown out of true stories shared with me, and real people I’ve encountered, watched and eavesdropped on in my daily South African life.
I will have done my job properly as an author if a reader of Lady Limbo visiting Camps Bay recollects a scene in Lady Limbo, and suddenly feels certain that practically everyone around them is thinking about sex, in one way or another.
What was the biggest challenge that you faced while creating Lady Limbo?
Lady Limbo is a mix of fact and fiction. I faced a curious dilemma because the truest part of the story (the air hostess’s account of how she planned to have a baby without the complication of a possessive male partner) feels fantastical. How was I to satisfy the modern reader’s paradoxical urge for integrity and immersion?
I reworked endlessly, attempting to draw the reader closer and closer to what was real about modern life by taking them further and further into a labyrinth of fantasy’s pleasure.
From the beginning I’d envisaged the story starting with an email message picked up by three university friends. The Internet became a background narrative that grounded the events in a kind of ‘real’ fictional time that began in 1994 with the era of Internet chat sites, mostly between universities − I had no idea when I started the novel what an enormous amount of research would have to be done into the origins of the Internet in South Africa before I could tie up the chronological order of a big multi-layered story.
What music were you listening to while writing Lady Limbo?
R.E.M. was constantly playing in the background. It was Daniel’s theme music. I felt as if I knew him as well as any real live man of my acquaintance when I listened to R.E.M. I became an R.E.M fan years earlier when they played live in Cape Town.
When Daniel de Luc barged into my novel with all his unpredictable energy he arrived together with R.E.M. Periodically Daniel would withdraw from the world (and Paola) by listening to R.E.M with its underlying rebellious undertones. The music of R.E.M was ideal for Lady Limbo as a kind of activist male anthem. Its cunning appeal comes from beautiful edgy lyrics − ‘Everybody Hurts,’ ‘The One I love,’ and ‘Losing My Religion’ − that ring true. The enigmatic aura of the melodies suggests that pain and confusion is part and parcel of living life, in a deeply spiritual sense. In the novel it’s R.E.M’s mysterious ‘Nightswimming’ that finally brings some peace to Paola’s tormented thoughts.
What keeps you writing when you’re feeling uninspired?
The best advice I was ever given hit me like the voice of a lesser god out of a cloudless blue sky while jogging on a Transkei beach, desperate for inspiration for my first novel: ‘Listen to your characters!’
With Lady Limbo it was arrogant and charming Daniel de Luc, the missing husband, who appeared first, but when it came to transcribing their unusual love story into a novel it was his wife, the emotionally conflicted career-driven Paola, I heard and would keep listening to, through all the numerous slumps and rewrites. Later the child Simone kept intruding, bringing me back to what Lady Limbo was really about; the mysterious unpredictable nature of love.
What’s your number one tip for young and aspiring writers?
Take notice of what trusted (this may take time) commentators have to say about your writing, whether it’s a friend, a writing group or an editor. If they say something is not working they’re often right. But don’t ask them how you should fix the problem, because most times it’s just a gut response and it’s your story and your characters, not theirs. Only you can fix what’s wrong.
Which South African authors should we be reading right now?
Twenty years in the making, Ron Irwin’s Flat Water Tuesday has won enormous praise and international accolades. Irwin has put 15 years of teaching creative writing at UCT to excellent use by producing a moving world-class novel about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who becomes part of a prestigious school rowing team. It’s primarily set in the USA (there’s a South African connection) but it has all the things we want good novels to be about: resilience, achievement, friendship, and love. (Check out our interview with Ron Irwin here.)
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival I listened to Gareth Crocker, a South African author I’d never heard of. Crocker writes what he calls ‘emotional thrillers’ (his latest novel King features an autistic child and a lion cub). Apparently writing heartwarming fiction can make for a solid writing career − Reader’s Digest has translated his work into several languages thereby allowing him to be a full-time novelist.
Redi Tlhabi’s Endings & Beginnings: A Story of Healing impressed me hugely with Tlhabi’s ability to draw me in across cultural barriers while she walks in the shoes of her fascinating characters. Tlhabi displays empathy and openness to the best and the worst of human nature: a sure sign of that rare writer, a storyteller who is the ‘real thing’.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m busy with book II of the limbo trilogy that picks up on Lady Limbo but will also stand alone, which seems like a metaphor for its overriding theme. The focus has moved to the mysterious gathering of dark forces that threaten the young girl Simone. There are plenty of magical plot twists as Paola sets out to rescue her daughter.