S.L. Grey is a collaboration between Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. Based in Cape Town, Sarah is a novelist and screenwriter and die-hard zombie fanatic. She writes crime novels and thrillers under her own name, and as Lily Herne she and her daughter Savannah Lotz write the Deadlands series of zombie novels for young adults. Louis is a Johannesburg-based fiction writer and editor. He was a bookseller for several years, and has a Master's degree in vampire fiction and a doctorate in post-religious apocalyptic fiction.
Hello, how are things with the pair of you?
L: Fine, thanks. Between us, we usually average out; while one of us is having a crisis of some sort, the other’s calm and happy. Sarah’s in summery Shropshire and I’m in wintery Johannesburg, so we tend to meet in the moderate middle.
For those who don’t know who is S.L. Grey, and why did you chose Grey as your ‘surname”
L: We are Sarah Lotz, a novelist and scriptwriter who’s divided her time between the UK and Cape Town, South Africa, and Louis Greenberg, a novelist and editor born, bred and based in Johannesburg.
As I remember it, we wanted a simple and neutral sounding name for our collaborative persona. It helps that Greys are certain breed of hermetic Downsiders in The Mall particularly, and that the mannequins on our first-ever book jacket were grey. We like the idea of blending into the background and pulling the strings from behind the scenes.
How did the pair of you come to work together?
L: In mid-2009, Sarah came up to Johannesburg to speak at a crime colloquium at the university where I was finishing my doctorate. We’d been in touch before – she’d written a short story about zombies in Botswana for an anthology I’d just put together, and we’d met in Cape Town once. We bunked the afternoon session, had a few drinks in the student pub, and discussed our mutual interest in horror and decided to write a novel together. I’d just quit my day job, so I was in the position to jump straight in. By the end of the year, we’d drafted The Mall.
I’ll assume that this is a process that you both enjoy, as you are about to publish your fourth novel together?
L: Absolutely, and we’ve just finished drafting our fifth book together, due out next year. We’ve managed to keep the same, matching desire and work ethic over the last six years and we’ve retained the sense of trust and respect for each other we’ve had from the start. I think that’s quite rare, and we’re lucky.
Every duo has a straight man and a comedy foil, which of you fits which part?
L: We’re both deadly serious and ridiculously profane.
Like all relationships things are never all rosy 100% of the time, have you ever had a falling out about how a book should develop?
L: Nothing major. When we’re plotting a new idea, there’s a lot of give and take; and then in the second draft, when the proper, gloves-off criticism has to kick in, we need to be sensitive and constructive at the same time. If anything, our collaboration helps fuel us through the self-loathing phases of any novel process. We trust each other enough to give honest feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.
S: We also have fun taking the piss out of each other in the track changes comments when we’re working on a draft. As they’re ridiculously profane and offensive, these comments could never be published, and I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat worrying that we’ve sent the wrong draft to our agent or publisher.
Over the last few years the South African genre scene has really exploded, is there anything that sets South African genre fiction apart?
L: It’s a tough question, because what makes our work unique and challenging and stand out is still to some extent unpalatable or uncommercial to overseas markets. Because it was set in South Africa, we were surprised and completely unprepared for any UK interest in The Mall; the same year Lauren Beukes placed Zoo City with Angry Robot – even though it gives brilliant, unique insight into South African society now and its future potential, it was still a hard sell into global markets. The Clarke award is the main reason Lauren’s work got any major exposure and ultimately her success with Zoo City was a watershed that gave South African genre writers hope and permission to what they liked and not try to copy foreign formulae, and encouraged mainstream South African publishers to take a risk on genre, while indie publishers had been fighting the brave fight all along. There is tons of great South African work that’s still only published in South Africa in tiny quantities and you have to try hard to get hold of it, but that’s the way you’ll find out what really sets it apart. It’s a mixture of locality, a unique sense of the world, a honed political sensibility and a desire to break out of our confines and reimagine our various circumstances with the sheer power of narrative.
Why do you think it has taken so long for the genre scene in South Africa to be fully recognized by the wider world?
L: It hasn’t been fully recognised yet. The world sees the tiniest portion of what’s being created in South Africa, and it’s missing out calamatously.
The Mall is the first novel that you both worked on together, how did you come to work together on this book? And who came up with the idea initially?
L: At that founding pub session, we originally thought of matching zombies against vampires in a South African setting – Sarah was a long-time zombie fan, and I had studied vampire fiction for my Masters degree. But the next time Sarah came up to start brainstorming ideas, we went to the massive Eastgate Mall and our discussion about my bookselling days led to some location scouting in the back-corridors behind the mall’s shops and a panic attack for Sarah. That’s when the idea for The Mall took over.
And how did the process of writing it work? Did you both set out the narrative arc before sitting down to write it, or did you fly by the seat of your pants?
L: The Mall was totally seat-of-our pants. It was like that game of exquisite corpse, where you draw the head and fold it over then pass it round to your friend to draw the torso and so on. We wrote it chapter by chapter, spitefully leaving our characters in a deeper lurch for the other to write their way out of. We had very little sense of a plot while we wrote, and only after the draft did we tie things together. We start with a clearer sense of plot now, but still rely on that energetic sense of discovery when we write, and hope the reader experiences the plot twists similarly.
The novel tackles some important issues as, which seems to be the case with all of your books. Do you purposefully set out to tackle important issues in your books or is this something that just grows organically during the writing process?
L: We’re both fairly political people in various ways, so even while we set out to avoid politics in our writing it’s always there, motivating characters and causing dramatic conflict. But we’re at pains to keep it in the background. Our readers can choose to read that subtext, but it doesn’t spoil the adventure if they don’t.
Where did the idea of Mirror-Mall Hell come from?
L: A mixture of Sarah’s lifetime of horror-reading and viewing (I’m more of a wimp) and my experiences as a bookseller in a Johannesburg mall.
One of the other themes of the books is what if we didn’t lie, what if we where all upfront. Just how up front are the pair of you?
L: I think I put this best in another interview:
Q --What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?
A --I never lie.
S: I’m a massive and unashamed fantasist. Lying is way more fun than telling the truth.
It also takes a long hard look at the whole body image culture, why have we all become so obsessed with notion of the body beautiful?
S: The obvious answer is that we’re all consumers of inescapable and ever-escalating media spin. You can only read so many articles about someone’s perfect arse or ‘post-baby body’ before developing some kind of inner self-doubt about your exterior (or maybe that’s just me).
Your second novel The Ward is loosely connected to The Mall are all of your books going to part of this shared universe?
L: The Mall, The Ward and The New Girl are part of a trio set in the Downside universe. The next two books are stand-alone novels, set more in the ‘real’ world.
With The Ward you take a look at the healthcare system, I take it South Africa doesn’t have a free health care system like we do in the UK?
L: South Africa actually has a very progressive health system. There is free healthcare offered to all who can’t afford it, free anti-retrovirals offered to people with HIV, huge TB and anti-malaria programmes, and so on. While the UK is restricting the NHS, South Africa’s working hard to establish our own. But it’s a huge financial and organisational challenge, especially when private healthcare, big business and well-off citizens object to the scheme. The Ward’s picture of a public hospital is rather unfairly exaggerated and isn’t meant to reflect the reality of public hospitals here. It does, however, play on the fears of middle-class citizens who can afford private healthcare winding up in the public system. I must admit, my own experience of healthcare – in a private hospital – was the basis of much of the terror we wrote into that book.
The Ward, like The Mall, takes the viewpoint from the perfect clean world, but it also introduces us to the Downsiders. Had you decided at this point to turn the tables in your next book and take a look at the world from the Downsiders viewpoint?
L: When we wrote The Ward, we weren’t sure of the direction for the next book, but we did know we didn’t want to repeat the exact same structure, so bringing in the voice and perspectives of some Downside characters seemed the ideal way to break the pattern. While the three books are loosely connected, together they look at the Downside from various angles, which in the end readers have found quite satisfying. Of course, we didn’t want to reveal too much and make the Downside mundane. Mysteries will always remain.
The names of some of the characters in The New Girl, are rather humorous, how much time do you spend in characters names?
S: We have great fun with these! I think most of them are created spontaneously – I don’t remember any long discussions about them, although several do sound like we dreamt them up while on hallucinogens.
Which one of you came up with idea of the completely creepy concept of the reborn dolls? And why would you do that to us?
S: We’re sorry! I actually learned how to make them when we were researching the novel. They are quite creepy at first sight, but many of the stories behind the people who are drawn to them are heartbreaking and tragic.
The book takes a long hard look at the state of the school system in South Africa, how much of the book is based on your own experiences of school life?
L: I went to a faux-Victorian boys’-only high school, which was so horrible it would have been easy to write – but also entirely cliched. So we thought we’d instead pick at those modern, rather flakily commercial-spiritual schools that have been springing up lately.
S: Apart from a couple of years of being bullied when I was pre-teen, I didn’t mind school, so I was more than happy to let Louis take the lead on this one.
If you could change one thing about the school system, what would it be?
L: Teachers in government schools must be paid and respected better.
S: A better selection of books being proscribed. I know too many kids – especially in South Africa – who were turned off reading at a young age because the material they were forced to study was preachy or drab. I do think this might be changing though (I hope it is!)
Your latest book Under Ground is aimed at the young adult market, other than the obvious toning down of the sex and violence what else do you have to take into consideration when writing for this market?
L: We didn’t intend to aim Under Ground at young adults. With a couple of key protagonists being teens, you might think that, and it would be cool if young adults enjoy it as much as anyone else. But now I’m furiously thinking back on the story trying to remember any parts I wouldn’t want my kids to read! Even though the situation is tense and nasty, perhaps there are some tonal differences that might seem to make Under Ground a gentler read than the Downside series – for one thing, we deliberately wrote a couple of characters who you could root for, though they’re certainly not all likeable – heaven forfend!
Having read the book, for me the book is more a study in racial tension and the narrow mindedness of certain sections of our population. With the majority of the tension coming from a camouflaged clad family. How did you ensure that this family felt real and didn’t come across as a cliché?
L: Through the drafts, we were careful to keep those characters more than simple stereotypes. They are certainly types, which is how Under Ground operates, but we tried to make them a little more complex, and allow them to surprise us in certain of their actions and reactions.
I particularly liked the scene where their hatred for another family is based the assumption that they come from China, which is the source of the deadly plague that is sweeping the world. Was this a move designed to highlight the ignorance displayed by people of hate?
L: I don’t think deliberately. It was just part of the set-up and a fairly believable reaction to that. Maybe we’re so surrounded by racism that racist characters’ views are pretty easy to channel.
S: That’s not to say we’re racist (!) just that hate-speech is becoming ubiquitous: an obvious example is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to read anything on the internet without at least one arsehole weighing in with a racist or sexist comment intended to hurt or shut someone up.
The book has an extremely claustrophobic feel, how do you pull this of in a novel form?
L: Claustrophobia was essential to this novel. And it was one of the challenges in the writing – how to describe location when it’s so restricted. So often you can use location as a change in pace or imagery, a bit of a mind-break in the story, but there was no opportunity for that in Under Ground and perhaps that relentless gloominess works to build the claustrophobic atmosphere.
You had me wondering throughout the whole story, (possible spoilers ahead) where you ever tempted have the plague turn into something else? Personally I thought it was a brave move not to bring the undead into the mix.
L: We were clear from the start that the threat would be from the inside rather than from the outside. As it turns out pretty quickly, the outside situation is ironically irrelevant to what happens inside.
The story is a mix of first person and third person narrative, why did you choose to use this style of story telling?
L: The third-person narrative is immediate and continuous and not at all reflective so it could almost as easily have been first person throughout. But with six main perspectives, we thought we’d mix it up a bit to help the reader immediately identify who was narrating. The first-person narrative is a touch more intimate, and readers may find that they identify more closely with the first-person tellers.
Would you ever consider signing up to such a thing as the Sanctum?
L: I’d take my chances outside.
S: Not only are these luxury survival condos way above my pay grade, like Louis I’d rather join the zombie hordes/catch the virus/live in the woods with the other nutters.
And if you did who would be your ideal co inhabitants, and whom would you least like to have live with you in such a confined space?
S: Boringly, my husband Charlie. I spend most of my time locked in a room anyway, and he’s excellent at bringing me coffee at regular intervals and making sure I eat. I would least like to live with someone who is rabidly fanatical about something, be it religion or homeopathy or exercise or their diet or whatever. I find fanaticism scary yet dull.
The book is very close to publication; do you still get nervous prior to its release?
L: The fact that we’re well into the next book and thinking of future plans helps keep the nerves at bay. But we’re always glad when we get positive feedback. It’s been especially gratifying that people who enjoyed the Downside trio have liked Under Ground too, and taken the leap into different territory with us.
What does the future hold for the pair of you both as individual writers and as a writing pair?
L: The fifth S.L. Grey novel, House Swap, is due to be published by Macmillan in the middle of 2016. We’re brooding plans for more collaborations after that. I have a couple of solo novels in various states of undress.
S: I have a book out now called Day Four, and my first novel, which was published in South Africa almost 10 years ago and flopped spectacularly, will be re-released by Hodder in September. Now that’s scary.