The JT Lawrence interview: From Joburg with dystopia
I am a born and bred Johannesburg girl; I bloomed in the city of gold, she said. Think pavement weed, not flower.
I first came across Janita Lawrence through her book How We Found You.
As with many of these author conversations, it was through the 20Booksto50k group on Facebook – she had posted what I thought was a beautiful cover, a rambling thing involving a ruined mall escalator, and she had asked for feedback. It was a work of speculative fiction. I dropped my two cents in and wandered away.
A week or so later, the book came out. I read it. And I was stunned. Here was someone who wrote like Margaret Atwood crossed with William Gibson – the wild gene-editing storylines of one married to the high-tech low-life sprawls of the other – and wrote about a country I had never really read about in science fiction: South Africa. It was immediately obvious how much research and life went into the book. It painted a picture that felt more real than anything I’d touched in years.
[Image: the original cover that sparked this conversation.]
Needless to say, I reached out and started reading more of her work. JT has done extraordinary things, and wears more hats that I can count. She’s been a Swiss au-pair (I had to Google that), a Thai waitress and an art director at The Jupiter Drawing Room (an advertising agency named after a Parisian bordello). Now she’s a mother, a playwright, an international bestselling author who genre-hops with effortless ease.
I’ve now gotten to know her much better, and we’re working on an shared-universe anthology together – it’s titled 2054 – and the amount of effort she puts into everything is truly extraordinary.
Note: this interview has been edited lightly. JT gave me this interview late last year: it’s my fault that it didn’t go up earlier – I was too busy writing and tweaking this site. Let me add my apologies for the delay.
1. So I got to know you through Why You Were Taken and How We Found You . . . which (I think I’ve said quite a few times before), as a very devout reader of dystopian fiction, I consider right up there with Margaret Atwood. How did that series come about? What was it like to write that, and how did it do?
In around 2000 I heard an engineer saying that water-scarce South Africa would have a serious shortage in the near future and something in my head clicked. Soon the story of the savage drought was complicated by a fertility crisis, and given layers of colour and texture by a protagonist with synaesthesia. I thought it would be a 50,000 word YA cyberpunk story, but then an ambisextruous biker and an assassin with burn scars stepped in and upped the ante.
I wrote Why You Were Taken as a standalone, but there were still so many things left to discover. What became of the Genesis baby? What happened to all the discarded SurroSisters? Next thing I knew, I had a story arc ready to span five books. I wrote the second in the series because I had to know what happened next, the third because I’m now addicted to a dystopian sphere where the edges blur between biomimicry and bionic creatures, and neuroreality and the real world. I need a break now, I need to write something less bleak, but book four is already nipping at my subconscious like a robotic piraña.
[Image: the series that the book grew into.]
2. You genre-hop under your own name, which is rare for indie authors. There was the hugely successful Memory of Water, The Underachieving Ovary, and Grey Magic … how have these books worked out? Do your fans hop with you, or identify you in a particular way?
I don’t stick to genres in reading or writing. I don’t just stick to novels either: I write short stories and plays and radio serials. There’s way too much fun to be had by experimenting with different forms and genres, and I’ve always liked a challenge.
Some of my fans will genre-hop with me: it’s both a compliment and a curse. If I was shit-hot at marketing I’d have five pen-names with their own mailing lists and targeted retail strategies, and my reviews wouldn’t start with: “This isn’t my usual genre …” but I’m sleep-deprived and time-starved, and for now I choose writing for love more than money.
I have a feeling that despite my habit of getting in my own way, my hard work will eventually pay off. I like to call it ‘borrowed confidence’: a concept my credit card has a great deal of experience in.
3. As an indie author, you hit a lot of the bars perfectly – great covers, stories that people fall in love with – what’s your secret? Are there any literary influences that you hold dear?
Thank you! I have no secrets. I write every day. I no longer strive for perfection. I trust the creative process. Sometimes I get nervous when other authors break their ideas and problems down into identifiable pieces: for me, that’s like taking an engine apart. I don’t even know some of the names of those parts, or what they’re supposed to do. I just write. I go with my gut feel and nonsense-prayers to whichever goddesses happen to be listening.
I read widely and I love film, too, and I’m sure that I absorb every beat in some way or other. Of course I have favorite authors: Michel Faber; Margaret Atwood; Kate Atkinson; William Boyd; Neil Gaiman; Hilary Mantel; Ann Patchett; David Mitchell; Kelly Link; Sarah Waters; Marisha Pessl; Barbara Kingsolver; Kazuo Ishiguro (note: Ishiguro later won the Nobel Prize for literature)… but I’m not sure I can single any one of them out individually as a literary influence. Rather, they’re the collective shoulders I stand on.
4. How do you approach the writing of a novel? Are you a plotter or a pantser? What’s your process like?
I pantsed a book once. A psychological thriller. It was a joy to write, completely experimental, sexually explicit, and it didn’t honour any of the tropes. It hit #1 in category in the free store (Amazon UK), stayed there for nine months, and was downloaded over 45,000 times. The Memory of Water is a Marmite book: you either love it or hate it. It’s how I’ve met some of my most loyal fans and picked up some of my most scathing reviews.
One reader in particular bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t give it ‘minus five stars’. I think I laughed and cried at the same time.
Since that particular pantsing exercise I’ve gradually learned to respect story structure (and my readers) more, and I’ve begun to understand the value of tropes. I still write for myself first, but now it comes from a place of understanding more than it did before. That said, in the end, the work itself will always trump my (or my readers’) expectations or opinions. It’s just the way it is and the way it has to be.
How do I plot? I have a simple ten-point outline, and every story I write starts there. I don’t plan too much; the rest is a road of discovery.
5. How has local reception been? South African science fiction seems to be pretty rare: it seems to be dominated by US and UK authors. How has it been adapting to markets and breaking in those US-dominated markets? Is there any advice you’d like to give for authors from similarly emerging scenes (like Asia?)
Local reception has been incredible. Marcia Love from Exclusive Books (the biggest book chainstore in SA) read a review copy of Why You Were Taken and worked with me for over a year to get my books into the stores, and continues to give every new release fantastic placement. I was invited to speak at the Kingsmead Book Fair, and I was the first indie author to be invited as a panelist at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, which is SA’s premier lit event. I got to speak about craft, magic and the transformative power of sex in the village’s church on my baby’s first birthday. It’s not a day I’ll soon forget.
Once I was able to liberate myself from the tyranny of local traditional publishing (a hopeless circular energy-suck of gigantic proportions … think Betamax sinking sand; Vogons; Kafka trapped in amber). I found more encouragement and support than I imagined possible.
All that said, my main target market is, without doubt, the USA and UK. I have mouths to feed and tailoring my work to the local market is a sure way to starve. Earning dollars while you sleep is extremely motivating way to start your day.
6. And lastly, what’s ahead for you? What are you working on now, and what do you intend to work on the next two, three, five years down the line?
I’m knee-deep in my edit of book 3 in the dystopian thriller series (When Tomorrow Calls) and it keeps reminding me how weird I am.
I oscillate between thinking it’s good and original and dark, and then thinking it’s a rehash and deserves to be chucked in the fire. Luckily it’s the eighth book I’ve written so I know the drill, and I know that if I just keep putting the hours in, it will get to where it needs to be.
Next up is to write the prequel novella to the series, and then I’ll leave it alone for a while and work on some smaller projects: I’ll publish a few bonus chapters for my infertility memoir, deliver the scripts for the radio conversion of How We Found You, and write twelve new short stories to add to my Sticky Fingers collection. There’ll be some time spent on audiobooks, translations, and adaptations.
The next big writing project then, in 2018, will be taking my magical realism / urban fantasy Grey Magic and creating a 5-book series. It’s about an eccentric hexing-and-texting witch with a special talent for getting into trouble, and it’s so much fun to write. The first book pretty much wrote itself (and it happens to sell itself, too) so I’m really looking forward to that. I’m going to refresh the cover, save the episodes up and then publish them rapid-release style to cast a spell on the Amazon algorithms. I’ll let you know if it works!
The three years after that is uncharted territory. I’ll most certainly be writing and publishing, hopefully at double the rate, but who knows what the muse has in store for me?