- Can you tell our readers about your new novel Rhumba?
In Tottenham, North-East London, ten-year-old Flambeau shines his shoes in preparation for his mother's arrival from the Congo. He waits for her on a London pavement for two whole days, but she doesn't come. RHUMBA is the story of Flambeau's search for his mother in the dark reaches of a city he barely knows. Along the way he makes a sort of a family with Knight, a Congolese gangster, and his Scottish girlfriend, Eleanor. This motley band of originals lead us through all manner of joys and sorrows to the book's startling conclusion.
- Where did your inspiration come from for the novel?
Congolese Rhumba music which is all about encounters, as is this book.
The gut wrenching and wholly anachronistic sight of an African woman prostitute waiting for trade on the side of the road in sunny Tuscany. She was holding an umbrella over her head to keep off the sun. She didn't want to be there.
The startling number of people in some form of contemporary slavery - nobody really knows but it could be as many as 24 millions souls.
A deep interest (stemming perhaps from my coming of age in South Africa's darkest hour) in people who know how bad things can be but who can still make it through the night.
- Where did the inspiration for the main characters of Knight, Eleanor and Flambeau come from?
Knight was inspired by the modern day dandy in all of us. He wears beautiful clothes as one would armour in a war, to protect himself from the harsh realities of his powerlessness and alienation. Also he is the most damaged of the characters in the book and so best placed to be its redeemer.
Only someone raised in a wild place (in her case the Northern tip of Scotland) would dare to love a man like Knight and Eleanor does love him absolutely. She has hot blood in her veins.
Flambeau is a luminous little boy inspired by the capacity of children to understand that they need mothers, above all else.
- How do the other roles in your life such as a filmmaker and screenwriter affect your writing?
Being a film writer and director affects the way I write books in that I have a film maker's habit of trying to keep a compelling, bums-on-seats narrative going. In my view books are just as visual as films. In both it is crucial to locate and explore the two or three most salient images that communicate the heart of your story. The difference being, I guess, that because you don't have to actually create the image in a book, it can be perhaps more ambitious or particular?
I'm a child of the show-don't-tell-school that’s germane to film but not always so to books.
- When did you decide to break away from these other roles to write?
I loved writing film scripts but didn't love the struggle of getting them made. It was an intense relief to write a story I that just WAS without having to raise millions of dollars to make it so. Apologies for the cliche but writing this was like coming home.
- How did you go about writing from a child's perspective?
Good question, but I don't think I did. While the child, Flambeau, certainly determines the events of the book, the perspective, the voice, the gaze, whatever you want to call it is necessarily more adult than that - the perspective comes first from the encounter and then from the ties that bind them.
- Why did you decide to connect the characters in the novel through the theme of dance?
Because it involves no words. It seems to me that the enjoyment of Rhumba music and dance is the way Congolese people cock an exuberant snoop at the legion of troubles that face them. When two characters recognise the dancer in one another, they are really seeing a declaration of aliveness. Eleanor longs to be able to dance because it would mean she belonged to the same world as her lover and her friend.
- The novel has a very real and emotional undercurrent, how do you balance this with the romantic and artistic element to lighten the mood?
Managing the darkness was a challenge and keeping it within bearable limits for myself and the reader was essential. The lightness of touch came from knowing that there is no single story. Grit, joy and pain are all mixed up together. The images, the pace, the poetry of the language all helped me do that.
- This is your first novel, do you have plans for another?
It's nearly finished! An old lady is found dead at the bottom of a muddy dam. We search for her killer amongst the dark and dirty (but also transcendent and mysterious) world I know best. We arrive somewhere at once shattering and altogether fresh.
Interview by Lucy Walton