For Books’ Sake Talks To: Joanne Hichens

5th Dec 2012


Joanne Hichens lives in Muizenberg, South Africa, with her husband and three children. She co-authored crime-thrillers Out to Score and wrote Stained as part of the Ransom Publishing Cutting Edge series.

Hitchens also edited the first South African collection of crime-thriller fiction Bad Company, and edited The Bed Book of Short Stories for Modjaji Books.

Her noir crime novel Divine Justice was published by Mercury in October 2011 and was voted onto the Sunday Times 2011 Top Ten Thrillers and the Lit Net (South Africa) 2011 Top Ten Reads.

South African writer and poet Judy Croome caught up with Joanne in-between her hectic schedule of writing, editing and providing a taxi-service for her kids.

FBS: You co-authored Out to Score with fellow South African crime writer, Mike Nicol. Tell us how co-authoring a book works. How do you decide who will get to write the juicy bits versus the boring bits? How difficult was it to make two unique voices – and different genders too! – blend seamlessly into a single narrative voice?

JH: We were able to put our egos aside (which is hard for writers to do!) and share creative ideas, plot-lines and characters to end up with a novel hailed by best-selling crime writers Ken Bruen, C.J. Box and April Smith as a true original. Mike agreed that I brought a more feminine tone to some parts, and he, of course was very keen on upping the body count!

We both enjoy writing the hard-boiled genre so it was relatively easy to adapt a style we felt comfortable with. And of course, with rewriting and constant editing of each other’s contributions the inconsistencies were ironed out. So it really was a pleasure to collaborate. I was thrilled when Mike invited me to write with him, as he’s a seasoned and well-respected author, but we have since agreed to go our separate ways.

FBS: Your debut solo novel Divine Justice was well-received, making the 2011 top ten reads on no less than two prestigious South African book lists. Was it difficult to write a book on your own after having collaborated with another author?

JH: I knew writing was a lonely job as I’d already written a coming of age novella, Stained, which I’ll chat about later. I really am a people’s person, so I thrived on the collaboration. The dilemma was, once Out To Score was done, the characters still wanted attention! So I had no choice but to give it to them.

Rae, who played a big part in Out To Score had her hooks in me. I just knew she had so much more to give and I wanted to breathe more life into her. She’s my alter ego. She’s self-confident, sassy. She does and says what she wants. She’s a treat to write. And of course, her PI partner ex-cop Vincent Saldana wanted more page time too.

FBS: Rae Valentine labours under several disadvantages. She’s coloured, disabled, an ex-addict, and she’s the “good guy”! Why give her so many obstacles to overcome?

JH: Are these really all obstacles? I dispute that! Rae makes a quip about it at some stage, but to consider being a ‘woman’ and ‘coloured’ as obstacles is playing into stereotypes that have plagued society for so long.

Her ‘disability’ could well be considered a disadvantage, but coping with her addiction and amputation (one of her legs had to be amputated after severe drug abuse) has made her a stronger woman. And with so many great disabled athletes making waves, the view of disability these days is that above all, it’s a challenge.

And it’s traditional in crime fiction to introduce protagonists with at least some sort of obstacle they need to overcome, which is more ‘human’ after all. We want to read about and identify with flesh and blood people, and which of us doesn’t have tremendous challenges to face in life?

Most fictional cops and PI’s suffer some kind of addiction or another. Alcoholism and drugs might be top of the list, but there are plenty of ‘disabled’ PI’s and cops in crime fiction.

FBS: In Divine Justice, the streets of Cape Town and the sand dunes of Namibia are unrelentingly mean. Is the sudden rise of Africa’s crime writers, with stories inspired by strong violence, a response to the social upheaval and unrest in South Africa’s transition from an apartheid state to a democracy? Or are local crime novels simply following an international trend towards explicit violence in literature, cinema and art?

Violence is part of who we are. Every one of us knows what it’s like to lose our tempers. The first in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, starting with A is for Alibi, was penned probably twenty years ago now after the author lay in bed fantasising about offing her ex. As for movies, take the classic Silence of the Lambs – gruesome! I don’t think crime novels are any more violent than they have ever been. People wail ‘misogyny’, but even so, too many women remains victimised in real life. So modern crime fiction reflects that.

When it comes to South African crime novels, of course they’re inspired in part by the upheavals of our past, but writers here really have been able to move away from apartheid and explore other themes – to the good of our literature as there are so many different kinds of stories to tell. And ultimately, if you examine the motive of any baddie, there’s a universal commonality.

But yes, we do write violent stuff. Roger Smith, an SA author doing really well, is explicit as he scratches open the Cape Flats – an area to where coloured people were removed during apartheid – sores with his Noir prose. And another talented SA thriller author, Peter Church, feeds his victims to the sharks!

FBS: Why write hard-boiled, noir crime fiction? Why not romance or YA?

I’ve always been exposed to crime fiction. I sat on my dad’s lap as a child and watched Hill Street Blues with him, and Kojak and the original Hawaii 5 O.

I read Enid Blyton mysteries (yes, it’s early crime fiction!), the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew. I fell in love with Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Mike Hammer was another of my fave PI’s. I still revere my collection of Mickey Spillane novels. I love pulp fiction.

None of these are without romance. In fact, there’s a blatant machismo to the types of novels I really enjoy. James Crumley, Carver, Chandler, James M. Cain have written very sexy and seductive novels even as they deal with crime.

My YA novel Stained, short-listed for the Sanlam Youth Literature Award, tells of a township teenager who falls pregnant after being abused by her step-father. The book is published in the UK and France as at the time I submitted here, South African publishers felt it was too violent for readers (although this sort of personal tragedy happens far too often).

I’d love to write another YA novel, and I’m really interested in writing erotica.

FBS: Sadly, South Africa lags behind the rest of the world in literacy rates. Without readers, we can’t be writers. How do we foster a culture of reading and writing in South Africa?

JH: There are several fabulous initiatives that have got off the ground, take FunDza Literacy Trust for example. This is a fairly new reading initiative that is focused on amongst other projects, producing home-grown stories for young and youth readers.

The Harmony High series is a sort of a High School soap opera, which is getting kids hooked on reading. The shenanigans of township kids – who live pretty much in poverty – have grabbed the imagination of youth readers here.

We need more stories set here, as opposed to relying on imports which tell of a very different kind of life. And every kid these days has a cell phone, so hooking kids through Mobi stories (mobile books) is the way to go. FunDza has something like 300 000 active readers that connect daily. It’s incredible!

And there are projects like Sunshine Kids which has volunteers teaching reading to primary school kids. Actually reading with them so that kids aren’t intimidated by a closed book. They’re encouraged to experience the pleasure of reading.

Another great initiative is the fabulous Library in Every School Project, which collects and covers books for kids, and sets up libraries in SA schools. It’s a tragedy that there are so few libraries.

I believe that to truly foster a reading culture the image around reading has to be that it’s fun and cool. And can take you places in life.

FBS: Tell us about the next Rae Valentine novel. Do you see yourself writing a set number of Rae Valentine books? Are you involved in any other writing projects?

JH: The next Rae Valentine thriller, Sweet Paradise, will be published 2013. So I’m hard at work on that as my main focus. I blog at Voices on News24, which is a challenge but gives me the opportunity to voice my opinions. And July 2013 will see the publication of a new South African anthology of crime-thriller fiction short stories.

I’m currently curator of the Short Sharp Story Awards, in partnership with the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. I’m really pleased that they have committed to supporting the annual publication of a new anthology. And I teach creative writing in the Masters degree programme at Rhodes University. That’s about as much as I can handle right now!

Read an extract of Divine Justice here

Judy Croome