TEXT AND PICTURE BY GARTH KING OF THE FALSE BAY ECHO
Sitting on a long, comfortable couch next to Joanne Hichens, drinking tea and eating cupcakes, having a good chat, looking over the bay to the Hottentots-Holland mountains, amongst fine furnishings, and some great examples of South African art, was a delight.
I was there to interview the long-standing and successful wordsmith – who, it emerged, endures the long, hard slogs that good editing and writing entails with a certain hardened, fatalistic fortitude, mixed with a curious, self-effacing gentleness.
In this modern age, the best writers and editors can be casually ignored by the litbiz establishment and their fellow-travellers in our brave new world, where rocketing hype can often overwhelm the literary market place..
Payment for marathons of work can be slender indeed. Editors, and writers, sometimes, feel like an old carthorse, flogged by a peasant master. Most professional writers and editors can tell you their horror stories.
In that context of the wordsmith struggle, Joanne humorously uses the vulgar South African expression in relation to the practice of her craft: “Kyk noord en &%$! voort.”
Her journey to being a published crime writer, a busy editor of a National Arts Festival book project, and a creative writing supervisor at Rhodes University, Grahamstown:
The daughter of a South African diplomat, Joanne as a child lived in Tapei, Houston, New Orleans, as well as Greece, Belgium and Canada – where she learnt to speak French. High school, though, meant life as a boarder at the St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls in Pretoria.
When the ANC came into power, Joanne’s father Alan Harvey, stayed on in government and became Chief of Protocol in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Once she matriculated Joanne studied at the University of Stellenbosch, where she achieved a Bachelor of Fine Art honours degree – then worked at the Fair Lady and Cosmo magazines in their art departments – jobs which she did not enjoy. Having completed an honours degree in psychology through UNISA, she then found a job as an art therapist at the Kenilworth Clinic, a psychiatric hospital, work which she relished. Around this time the writing bug bit and she completed a youth novel, “Stained”, which was shortlisted for the Sanlam Youth Literature Award. This led in part to her completing a Masters degree in creative writing at UCT.
In amongst all these challenges Joanne and her artist husband Robert were reproducing – and today they have three children: Jessica, 20, Louis, 18, and Kirsten, 11. Robert and Joanne have lived in their fine Muizenberg mountainside home for 19 years.
In past years Joanne has written several op-ed (opinion and editorial) pieces for the Cape Times, now blogs on News24, and has co-authored, with Glencairn author Mike Nicol, “Out to Score” a crime novel.
This led to her first solo crime novel “Divine Justice” a Mercury imprint of Burnet Media’s Two Dogs. “Divine Justice” was the first in a trilogy and the second is titled “Sweet Paradise” which will be published in March 2014.
Reviewer Brian Joss said of “Divine Justice”: “Rae Valentine (the private investigator in the novel) is a new star in South African crime writing and so is Hichens. Divine Justice is a gripping thriller that will pull you along page by page to an explosive climax with an unpredictable and surprising twist.” The work was named a Top Ten Killer Thriller by the Sunday Times and a Top Ten LitNet Read for 2011.
Last year Joanne initiated an innovative literary programme with Tony Lancaster, CEO of the National Arts Festival. “We came up with the idea of compiling an anthology of new work under the banner Short Sharp Stories, as part of the festival programme,” she said.
This provided a platform for new and established writers – the inaugural book in the project last was “crime writing” and as a consequence “Bloody Satisfied”, edited and curated by Joanne, was published. Said celebrated crime writer Deon Meyer of “Bloody Satisfied”: “ … these stories show that South African is a very sexy place for crime fiction – probably the sexiest in the world”.
The next Short Sharp Stories project, scheduled for the 2014 National Festival, is entitled “‘Adults Only’ — on the theme of love, list and sensuality,” said Joanne.
Her connection to Grahamstown also extends to Rhodes University – Joanne regularly travels there in the course of her duties as a supervisor in the Department of Creative Writing’s masters programme. “Presently I have five students aged 22 to 62 one of them a professor at the University of Johannesburg, another a businessman”.
While she enjoys the work “it does cut into my own writing time,” she said.
While her preference is for writing and reading fiction, Joanne realizes that non-fiction is more popular . “The popularity of ‘reality TV’ is now reflected in literature. But the novel is not dead – in my writing I deal with the reality of life in South Africa today: the selfishness, the lack of respect for others, the ethos of instant gratification, the racism, the absurdity of life in our own country. The battle between good and evil,” she said.