The Spark: Devilskein and Dearlove by Alex Smith
Inspired by John Scalzi’s The Big Idea, The Spark is a guest space on my blog, where African novelists can promote their new novels by writing a short personal essay about the inspiration (or the spark) for the story.
It’s a side project I run in my spare time because there’s incredible writing talent on the continent (and the diaspora) and I want to shine a blazing light on it.
Authors have previously written about how their novels were inspired by wondering what if the crazy tabloid headlines were true or by a popular Soweto ghost story, or because you were clawing your way out of depression, or trying to live down the embarrassment of being a black student mugged by a white guy, or because Rihanna saved your life or you wrote this story because you wanted to look fancy reading alone in bars.
In this installment, Alex Smith writes about how two mysterious names, Victorian relics and her unborn child helped inspire her YA novel, Devilskein And Dearlove, which has been nominated for the Carnegie medal.
Alex Smith is a mother, writer, traveller, teacher, textile merchant, and adventurer. She is the author of the Four Drunk Beauties, Agency Blue, Algeria’s Way and Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, has been shortlisted for the SA PEN Literary Award and 2010 Caine Prize, and won a silver award in the English category of the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. In 2011 ‘Four Drunk Beauties’ was awarded the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award.
The Spark of Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith
These two names arrived in my head: Devilskein, Dearlove. I don’t know what prompted them, but I wanted to know more about them. And when the names came, I was going through an obsession with keys, of every conceivable sort, I’m still very consumed by them; probably other stories will result. Whatever the story was, it had to have keys and in this story, Albertus Devilskein, has towering shoeboxes full of them.
I was pregnant and was convinced that having a baby would mean I’d never have time to write another novel, so I was determined to get some form of draft done before my son was born. But he affected what direction my exploration of these characters and their trove of keys took: in the first place, being very pregnant at the start of writing, I wasn’t able to fly anymore, so my usual pre-occupation with ‘place’ in a story had to be channelled into the immediate surroundings. Of all the streets in Cape Town, Long Street is surely the most fascinating. So there I had: two characters, a lot of keys and Long Street.
The unborn Elias directed me further – it became important to me to write something that he would enjoy one day. I thought of all the characters and stories that had influenced me as a young reader: like Scheherazade, brilliant woman of fiction who told irresistible stories to escape death – awesome. As a child too I was utterly enchanted by Jules Verne’s work and loved C.S.Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and oh, Alice, who could forget Lewis Caroll’s Alice and Michael Ende’s philosophical adventure The Never Ending Story. Jorge Luis Borges was an exquisite mind who did astonishing things with words. I think Roald Dahl is one of the finest storytellers that has ever existed and more recently Neil Gaiman…It was Gaiman’s idea of reworking Kipling’s Jungle Book into his award-winning The Graveyard Book, that provided the final spark for novel’s evolution.
I liked the idea of taking one story, one setting, one type person (or creature) and inverting it completely. I wanted a strong female lead, a young girl who was in some way, like Scheherazade, fighting for survival by telling stories. And I wanted this feisty child, like Alice, to be transported from (her bleak) reality into something more fantastical. Where there are keys there must be doors: so came to be the maze of doors that leads Erin Dearlove into wonderlands and finally the demonic vault of her nemesis, Julius Monk.
The Secret Garden, like The Jungle Book it is a Victorian relic from a colonial era, with charm of story, but some questionable ideas in our 20th Century context. Inverting it seemed the perfect challenge – so instead of being set on a country estate in England, it is set in an urban African context, there are no servants, in fact the opposite, there is no twee perfectly happy ending, there is transformation and sacrifice.
The Secret Garden begins with a tragedy that leaves a young girl orphaned; in South Africa, there is no shortage of tragedies to choose from, in the case of Devilskein & Dearlove, it is a brutal attack on a farm that leaves Erin Dearlove orphaned.
And while the story never loses sight of hope and a touch of magic, like a talking cricket, there is a constant undercurrent of violence: the talking cricket was directly inspired by a trip to Cambodia (made long before the book was thought of) I read a lot about the history, the glory days of Angkor Wat, the recent past horror of the Pol Pot era; it’s a place steeped in monsters and beauties. But aren’t all places … perhaps that’s why I treat place like a character; because the environment unflinchingly reflects the people who are in it. And as fabulous as Long Street is, it too has a dark side.