Author Michéle Rowe, whose debut novel What Hidden Lies was the winner of the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, was the final speaker for 2013 at the Fish Hoek Library Literary Tea. The Lit Tea was informal with Michéle answering questions posed by her audience.
Question: “What made you set the novel in the Noordhoek/Fish Hoek/ Ocean View area?
Michéle: “After moving from Johannesburg to Cape Town about fifteen years ago, I wanted to settle in Noordhoek where I bought a piece of land but could not afford to build a house. So I lived in the City Bowl. However, I wanted to set a story in Noordhoek. I think of Cape Town as a city made up of different villages. The Noordhoek Valley is completely different from the other side of the mountain. The light is different here, and the people. It has the relaxed quality of the Cape Town of long ago. Even the climate is different – the wind, sand, temperature…. Place is very important – it defines character.
Using the Fish Hoek valley as the setting of my novel, but not knowing the area, had its challenges as well as its advantages. This area has its own mystique, but most residents don’t notice it. Main Road in Fish Hoek is like that of an English village. Character-wise, having a small population means there is a small group of suspects. All know another other and gossip about one another. One of my heroines is a young coloured police detective from Ocean View and the second is a middle aged white woman who hails from Noordhoek. The main heroine in What Hidden Lies is a composite character, based on a number of different women. I like my characters to relate across race, age and class.”
Question: “How do you manage to write about communities that you are not part of?”
Michéle : “My research for the screenplays and documentaries I have written has taken me to a wide range of communities across South Africa. Writing is also an act of the imagination. I try to get into the skins of the people I am writing about. I do the research and then forget about it and get into my own imaginary world.”
Question: “How did you choose the title of your book?”
Michéle: “It was a difficult choice. The title had to be about something hidden in the past that requires deceit. I wrote down words that I thought appropriate then asked my teenage son to choose from them. The title had to convey what happens on two levels: Hidden things, lies and deception leading to tragedy.”
Question: Will the book be made into a film?”
Michéle: “I have not written a screenplay for it. A screenplay is very exterior – you write about action which suggests character. You have to sense who people are through what they do. Film is a kind of shorthand. Subliminal images, like clothes and the environment, tell you about the character. When writing a script one page equals one minute of screen time. The scriptwriter puts out the blueprint and then the director, costume designer, person in charge of casting and actors give their input. You get the story going but then become invisible.
When writing a book one gets into people’s heads. Their actions might be different from their thoughts. In a multi-protagonist book, each character reads and sees a situation differently. This is the fun part.”
Question: “Most detective stories involve violence. Do you as a woman find it difficult to conjure up and write about violence?”
Michéle: “We live in a violent country. Women and policewomen in particular are vulnerable. Many policewomen are married to policemen and are terrified of what will happen to their husbands. The policemen have it very hard because they don’t like to talk about their feelings and experiences. The women are able to get emotional release and support through talking to their friends and family.
There are some really bad eggs in the police force – some gangsters in uniform – and then there are the real heroes, those on the side of good – many of them women.”
Question: “How did you get the idea for the book?”
Michéle: “I was at a bar when a man walked past saying ‘You see that man over there. He is a pedophile’. I thought: But what if that was not true? What would the impact be on that man’s life? How would he feel? This became the germ of an idea that I sat with for a year. Plotting takes forever but writing is rapid. Ideas cook for a long time and then one day you just put it down. Sometimes it does not turn out the way you expected!”
Question: “When writing the book did you think that it would become the first of a trilogy?”
Michéle: “My agent liked my book very much and asked whether there would be another. I hurriedly said ‘yes’ and so quickly had to think up a story and send her a synopsis. A second led to planning for a third.”
Michéle is currently working on the second book of the trilogy which will “hopefully be finished by Christmas.”
Question: “Was your writing a voyage of self-discovery?”
Michéle with a laugh: “More for my family. They had nothing to eat for a while! (More seriously): You can waste your life as a writer. You are not really living when you are writing – you are detached from real life. This bothers me.”
Question: “How did you become a writer?”
Michéle: “Writing happened to me. I was an Art School graduate who became a production designer for TV and films. When I fell pregnant it was not possible to be on set so I turned to script writing which allowed me to combine motherhood and writing. I love reading and always wanted to write a book. All writers start out as readers!”
Question: “Who are your favourite authors?”
Michéle: “ I read indiscriminately. I am not partial to magic realism but read everything else. I love history, and although my first book is a crime thriller I do not read many crime novels! I thoroughly enjoy Victorian novelists like Edith Wharton. Amongst my favourite authors are Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Ian McEwan … Books are the enduring love of my life – they are not as demanding as a hubby! (said with a wide smile)
Unfortunately at this point a halt was called to further questioning as time had run out. Those of us who had not yet read Michéle’s novel left intrigued, heading into the library in the hopes of finding a copy of What Hidden Lies available.
Michéle was a founder member of Free Film Makers, an anti-apartheid group which wrote, directed and produced their own short films. Some of her works have ‘’been nominated for or have won various awards, including an Oscar documentary and International Emmy nomination, a Mail & Guardian Short Films Prize, a Special Jury Award at Skip City International (Japan), a Banff World TV Award (Canada), a SAFTA (South African Film and Television Award), and the Andrew Murray – Desmond Tutu Prize.” (http://penguinbooks.co.za/penguin-authors/michele-rowe)
She wrote the scripts for “Heartlines”, a TV series promoting moral regeneration and education. This was a long project “involving ordinary people from mosques, temples and churches.” Nine films came out of it. Her documentaries have mainly been history projects. “I am very interested in the forced removals which left people with a history and a past that has not been acknowledged. One of the threads in the second book in the trilogy is the removal of people from Strawberry lane in Constantia.”
Michéle has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town.
Viv von der Heyden