The Zebra Affaire — Interview
Q: As my guest, I want to give readers a chance to learn about your book. The stage is yours, lay it on us?
A: The Zebra Affaire is an apartheid love story. It’s springtime in 1976 South Africa and Elsa, a white woman dares to fall in love with Stanwell, a black man. For this crime of love they are hunted down by the racist regime. A sociopath Secret Police officer, Mal Zander pursues his prey from the City of Gold (Johannesburg) to the exotic but dangerous wilds of the African bushveld. But reviewers have described “The Zebra Affaire” in more cinematic terms. Think “Romeo & Juliet” meets “To Kill a Mockingbird” in “Out of Africa” with a twist of “Born Free”.
Q: Your story deals with many areas of history and many ethnic groups. How much of the final product was the result of inspiration and how much research?
A: The schism between the various races and tribes was my motivation to write the novel after a false start or two in another direction. I’ve felt the world had a simplistic bumper sticker view of what in reality is a far more complicated state of affairs. It has invariably been seen in stark black and white, when in fact it’s anything but immutable — with white clans hating each other (English speakers versus the Afrikaners with their Dutch heritage), as do the various native tribes (Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Xhosa and on and on). It always bemused me that South Africa’s motto was “Unity is Strength” when in fact it was such an intensely balkanized society, across all strata of the population.
Of course, in order to document all these community moving parts within the context of a shocking — for that time and place, interracial romance, I needed to do a great deal of research. But I always made it my goal to first entertain the reader — and the courageous love story of Elsa and Stanwell, the two of them on this collision course with the mighty racist regime then in power, is the compelling narrative that draws the reader through my pages. If the reader becomes better informed in the process, well that’s an added bonus.
Q: Are the characters of Elsa and Stanwell based on people you knew?
A: Yes—in that grand tradition of fictional writing where a specific character in the novel is a composite of many people I knew in person, or by reputation. A fine gentleman called Stanwell worked for us, he was the majordomo of our household. And he was from Malawi. But that’s where any similarity ends. Thereafter the character is an amalgam of experiences and observations. That said it was a deliberate decision to make the cast of characters relatively small in order that the reader had an opportunity to become better acquainted with each personality—both good and venal. Strangely, in the process I got to better understand the motivations of real people; real people that I thought I knew.
Q: What inspired you to write The Zebra Affaire?
A: Having the benefit of time and space, I wanted to explore the circumstances that led to my emigration—I was then in my early 20’s—from South Africa during the late 70's. What I discovered fascinated me because with distance I now found I had a better perspective of events. This brought clarity to the confusion, corruption and callousness I saw growing up in South Africa. But along with the unfair and disparate ways in which people lived, I was also reminded of the country’s beauty; both its natural splendor—for example the thrilling wildlife, and the kindness and courage of individuals—who did take personal risks for the greater good.
The elevation of racial tensions in the United States has troubled me, and I felt a timely spotlight on the South African apartheid years could provide a cautionary tale. Another motivation to write the book is the plight of Southern Africa today. Despite the seismic changes in South African society since its 1994 liberation, it unfortunately remains an unhappy nation. I believe there are still systemic problems that need to be addressed—specifically the corrosive role of tribalism in this multicultural society. This is an issue that continues to be sadly ignored.
Additionally, I wanted to write a love story. But it needed to be significant—far more than just a couple quibbling over “who left the toilet seat up." And through the eyes of my fictional lovers, I wanted to tell the factual story of South African life in 1976 as the backdrop to my story. So in my mind the adversity the romantic couple faces in The Zebra Affaire, being persecuted by their government for being in love, is about as harsh as it gets; and so the mixed race story of Elsa and Stanwell breaks new ground for me.
Q: Animals seem to be a wonderful support cast in your book?
A: Yes, I also enjoyed adding the animal world and their natural behaviors into the story, as allegories, to demonstrate the foibles of human behavior—this I hadn’t anticipated, but I’m so delighted I found a happy place for it in the book. It makes the African experience all the more authentic, and kind of foreshadows the human narrative at the heart of the story in a fresh way. For instance, we meet the Ostrich, Wildebeest and Zebra. Most dissimilar creatures. Yet they herd comfortably together — so unlike apartheid — as one creature can SEE better, one can SMELL better, and the other can HEAR very well. This unlikely trio of creatures represent “rational behavior” to me by teaming up together for the common good — as an early alert system against hungry predators. I wish the human inhabitants showed similar wisdom and cooperated with each other.
Q: How much, if any, of the book is autobiographical?
A: I admit to guilt on that charge! There’s no single character or circumstance that completely represents me, but I’m splattered about those 350 odd pages. As for specifics, well, I shall not tell.
Q: What brings your writing into focus? Is it the characters, the stories, or a love of words?
A: It's a real love for Historical Fiction that provides the window into the world I'm creating; and having the fictional narrative bound by actual facts and real people--and documented events and circumstances--brings an automatic focus to my writing. Historical fiction has always intrigued me; it’s a wonderful way to be entertained and at the same gain priceless knowledge such valuable insights in other societies and bygone periods. I personally found that by reading powerful storytelling within the context of a factual background made the process of learning painless—and I devoured works by, for example, Herman Wouk, Leon Uris, Ken Follett, Colleen McCullough, Alice Walker, Irving Stone, and anything by my current favorite, Alan Furst. And let's not forget South African masters such as Wilbur Smith, Andre Brink and playwright Athol Fugard.
Some of my readers of The Zebra Affaire admitted they played a game as they read my novel; verifying the facts on Google as they progressed through the story, happily my research proved sound. But it is undeniable that the rubric of truth provides a solid foundation in my work-leaving me with the challenge of layering a fictional story, that's both emotional and compelling, over this structured historical foundation.
Q: Other than telling an amazing story did you hope to accomplish anything else with the book?
A: Most see apartheid simply in terms of black and white. I felt it’s far more nuanced, complicated. For example, most people can’t conceive of the bitter rivalry between the two “white tribes”—the Afrikaners (Dutch heritage) and the English Speakers. Nor is the destructive force of tribalism well understood. The rivalry between the indigenous tribes, Zulu versus Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana etcetera was, and remains so unkind. Finally, the role of South Africa’s Jewry in the freedom struggle has not really been told. Though not a focal point of my book; the quiet heroism of some South African Jews can be witnessed. For example the reader will learn that Nelson Mandela’s leading military officer, when he established the “Spear of the Nation” military wing of the ANC, was a veteran of Israel’s 1948 war, and that several Jews were rounded up with him and charged with treason.
Q: When did you first realize “The Zebra Affaire” had to be written?
A: When I realized that I finally had access to information that had previously been censored by the apartheid regime. It was this act of discovery that provided the impetus to write the book.
Q: How did you come up with the title?
A: We who are born in Africa speak in terms of having the “dust of Africa within our veins”—this extends to the way Africa’s wildlife inspires us. For the life of me I don’t understand this nihilistic poaching of precious Rhino and Elephant—it’s so anti-African. Well, my favorite childhood memories are going on safari with my father, and watching how the beautifully striped zebra and ugly wildebeest teamed up together, grazing the veld so contently. This lack of awareness of skin/hide differences displayed by these creatures made a marked impression on a young lad in segregated South Africa. I can’t claim that this notion was all my own, I was too young for that, but my dad wisely pointed out this evolved behavior. Thus the image of the zebra, with its discrete black and white stripes, remained indelible to me.
Q: Did you find that, as your characters developed, they changed parts of the story from your original vision of the book?
A: The story arc remained surprisingly consistent. In part, because I wrote the end first. Not having a legal mind, but impressed by the power of a Closing Argument and the need for a final destination as a guidepost, I instinctively focused on the conclusion of the book. Of course, this ending was further refined as the characters assumed a life of their own.
Q: Who is your favorite author and why? Which book by that author is your favorite?
A: Herman Wouk and Leon Uris awoke me to the merits of historical fiction. I learned that I could read big tomes like “Winds of War” and “Exodus” and be thoroughly entertained—and at the same time acquire stacks of knowledge, painlessly. And, of course, Wilbur Smith who has so richly told the Southern African story in his vivid Courtney sagas.
Q: Favorite quote and why?
A: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts,” another profound nugget by that gargantuan statesman and wordsmith, Winston Churchill. This quote is for me a useful principle by which to navigate the realities of life.
Q: Would you compare your writing style to anyone else and who?
A: Compare…No; Aspire…Yes. That’s Author Alan Furst. He renders these amazing stories, set between the two great wars, in such patient and atmospheric hues. The first book of his I read is titled “The Foreign Correspondent” and have been hooked on his writing ever since.
Q: What was it like for you living in South Africa during apartheid?
A: What galls me was how blithely unaware we whites were; we enjoyed having our large domestic staff and privileges of color — and failed to address the sinister underbelly at work. My only excuse was the bubble the regime placed over us; they controlled the media, imposed censorship, and applied oppressive state security laws that circumvented any notion of due-process. The regime took advantage of the fact that South Africa was so remote from both Europe and the United States—and that with the absence of any television and a free media, we wouldn’t know to question the imposed status quo.
For me personally, and clearly trivial compared to the harsh deprivations of South Africa’s black citizenry, was the strict imposition of “blue laws” on Sundays. In many ways the apartheid regime was a Calvinist theocracy and everything was shut down on Sundays; no movies, no shopping, no organized sports…no nothing. Censorship of everything, film, music, theater and literature, was super aggressive based on blaspheme and prudency. Frankly I loathed this. It gives me great satisfaction to realize that “The Zebra Affaire” would have been banned in the South Africa I was raised in.
Q: If “The Zebra Affaire” is made into a movie, whom would you want to direct it and play the starring roles?
A: There’ve been discussions in this regard, and there’s a debate whether “The Zebra Affaire” is best served as a Docudrama or a Romance Suspense movie. Frankly I’m inclined to wait for an adaptation to be written before deciding. I strongly value the creative insights that other minds may provide. As for the actors, too early to say, but when writing the book I envisaged Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator) and Charlize Theron—my imagination seemed to have subliminally keyed to the fact that both actors were born in Africa.
Q: If you had to choose a piece of music as a soundtrack to the book what would you choose?
A: Two pieces of music were written into the story; both broke musical stereotypes and transcended conventional music genres—and as such serve as musical metaphors for the powerful blending of race as heralded in “The Zebra Affaire,” they are Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Dollar Brand’s (Abdullah Ibrahim) “Mannenberg.”
Q: What is the one thing you would like to say to your readers?
A: After experiencing the tyranny of censorship under apartheid, and now realizing how much it stifled free thought and expression—and now knowing the consequences of being programmed to behave in a manner that is most improper…please, please, please question everything! And read, read, and read from all sides of the societal spectrum.
You have a time capsule that will be opened in 100 years, what three things will you put inside?
- Cereal and legume seeds (note the Millennium Seed Bank)
- Kalimba (African “thumb piano—no batteries required)
- Copy of “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell (have any lessons been learned?)
Q: What a parallels do you see, if any, between South Africa and the U.S.?
A: Not having lived here during the Civil Rights movement, nor having spent any time in the South I’m not an authority on the U.S. experience. But a couple of distinctions are apparent to me. Segregation in South Africa was the official law of the land. To ignore it was to break the law with the possible tough sanctions. This had the strange effect of insulating racist behavior from the heart and soul of the individual. You see it was seldom personal among civilians (as opposed to the government thugs and bureaucracy that implemented apartheid). Both blacks and whites understood that apartheid was government imposed; which in part explains the relatively peaceful transition presided over by Nelson Mandela. This does not diminish the deprivations and pain experienced by each and every black South African—but not every white was a venal, bigoted thug either. So it was a strange state of emotional purgatory we all inhabited at the time. However, the other distinction that separates experiences in Africa to that of the U.S. is tribalism. The destructive tribal factionalism that’s at the heart of most societal problems is an added complexity that’s difficult to fathom in America—ironically, as one would have hoped by now America would have a better appreciation of the ways of this continent’s indigenous people, the Native American.
Q: What scars, if any do you carry from your experience with Apartheid?
A: As a white person, or European as we were categorized during the apartheid years, it seems petulant to claim having been damaged by apartheid due to the immunity our white privileged lives afforded us. After all we weren’t the majority targeted for dehumanizing treatment. But the scars of my generation are more subtle; I resented being programmed by the authorities that the status quo they’d established was in everyone’s best interest. So I feel foolish, conned. And then there’s the guilt…
Q: If you could return to South Africa and make any sweeping changes, what would they be?
A: Out with the men! The women of Africa are saints. That image of destitute woman walking miles in the heat of the day, in worn shoes, with a five gallon bucket of water balanced on her head—and with a baby wrapped in a blanket bound to her back, is for me the personification of selfless sacrifice for the greater good. These women should be the true voice of Africa, tireless and dedicated. Sadly they remain underappreciated, unheralded and marginalized due to their gender and tradition. I believe it is time for an authentic, nurturing, honest African woman to become the next president of South Africa.
Q: What's your favorite way to interact with fans/readers?
A: No doubt it's the Book Clubs, whether in person...wine, coffee, snacks, and an immersive three hour conversation. Or, if need be virtually through Skype and Google Hangouts. I've really come to appreciate the level of engagement enjoyed by both myself and the book club members, when they have read my novel, are beyond curious, and pepper me with relevant questions. And at times reveal a part of themselves in the two-way exchange. For me a profound moment was discovering how uniquely my words resonated with some readers based on their life experiences. My book is about racism in 1976 apartheid South Africa; but hearing from one reader how my African story surfaced suppressed memories from her childhood in the American South, specifically Georgia, was quite a revelation.
Also, and I'm not sure other author's see it this way, but I'm humbled by meeting one-on-one those that have taken the time to read my book. I've come to realize the price of purchasing my book is not the real cost; it is the time these men and women have taken...several hours out of their lives, to read my words...and that is truly rewarding. So unabashedly I'm ready and willing to make myself available for book clubs (be it real or virtual) and welcome any invitation.
Q: What do you think readers will like most about your book?
A: First the time period: the late 70's with rich descriptions on the fashion, music, morals and history of the time. Second an exploration of surprising human behavior in the face of brutal laws. How was it possible in a nation with such a small minority, that they controlled the large majority so cruelly,and for so long? The black population seemed so accepting. It begs the questions, “Why? How was it possible?” Three, the terrible repercussions ordinary people face when doing routine things; it should challenge the reader to consider what would he or she do if faced with similar circumstances. Especially if your elected government is behaving badly and at your core you know its edicts are morally wrong. Four, there are fascinating "locations" in the novel, from a mile underground the earth’s surface in the dark depths of a goldmine to the thrill tracking lion, rhino and zebra on a photo-safari in the African wilds. My hope is that readers will immerse themselves in an exotic journey within the book. Finally, as I lived in SA during this period, I believe readers will detect a certain authenticity in the narrative. This brings a sense of immediacy and first-hand knowledge to anyone reading the book.
Q: What about your career outside writing and how did it influence your work?
A: I was a music executive in both South Africa and the United States for four decades. This gave me the opportunity to be creative, and work with super artistic men and women throughout my work life. And as such, I learned to trust the creative process. By witnessing so many recording artists work their craft, even under the stress of release deadlines, I was innately confident and never felt creativity would desert me— even during those inevitable challenging moments during the writing process.
I also had the opportunity to launch my own record label through the PolyGram group—Hammer & Lace Records; it had a rather inventive mandate to produce benefit albums for a variety of causes, such as breast cancer awareness, the blind, at-risk children, and wildlife conservation. In the course of these projects I had the privilege of collaborating with Sheryl Crow, Sting, Bon Jovi, Boys II Men, Bryan Adams and many others My only regret: I never once tried to write a song with any of them! I so admire the songwriter’s craft; the ability to reduce a big idea down to a pithy three minute song… Instead, I finally wrote this novel solo—by myself, and crafted 85,000 plus words to tell my Zebra Affaire story.