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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Spark: Alex Latimer on The Space Race

Inspired by John Scalzi’s awesome The Big Idea, and with his blessing, I want to create a regular feature on this blog to highlight South African(ish) talent by letting local writers talk about what sparked this particular novel for them.

Want to write one? More details right at the end.

First up is Alex Latimer, who I first got to know through his awesome and slightly demented kids picture books featuring ninjas and devious rabbits and sunburned crocodiles and also a time-traveling pencil-throwing monkey.

His debut novel has the same wit and twisted charm – and a glorious flipbook animation illustration on the edge of the page –  but with a whole lot of skop, skiet en donner action too. I’ll let you tell him about it.  (Translation for non SA-readers: kick, shoot and beat-up – only much more punchy in original Afrikaans)



The Spark of The Space Race – Alex Latimer


Ideas for books come where and when you least expect them, like a dinosaur in your cupboard next Thursday. Here is the dinosaur that appeared in my cupboard:

Afrikaners are a fiercely pioneering people + they also built amazing technology like the Rooivalk helicopter and six and a half nuclear bombs = what if they used those nuclear bombs to build a spaceship in order to colonise a distant planet?

I thought it was a fun idea – and the more I looked into it, the more weird facts there were to bolster the theory. The Vela Incident was a nuclear double-flash just off the South Africa-owned Prince Edward Islands in 1979. Vastrap was South Africa’s nuclear testing site in the middle of the Northern Cape desert where nuclear weapons were stored and were due to be tested in two secret underground shafts. And nuclear space travel though dangerous, is also the only viable way of getting really far into deep space.

But when it came to writing a novel about it, I had a problem – travelling through space is really, really boring.

 Pages 1 to 6 could have read: “Wow, looking out at the star-speckled blackness of space is amazing, it simultaneously gives my lowly life more and less meaning.”

Then pages 7 – 250: “I’m tired of weeing in a bag and I wish that arsehole Francois never got on board.”

Equally, writing about life on other planets is hard – guys like Philip Pullman managed to create some entrancing worlds based on our own, but as soon as he tried something entirely new and made animals co-dependent on tree-nuts that they used as wheels, I was like… sorry Phil, I draw the line at tree-nut wheels.

So my solution was to set the whole book on earth. Nothing in my novel takes place in space. It’s all about how the original four Afrinauts that were meant to be on board this secret ship, never got on board – and how four random strangers managed to hijack the thing. (I couldn’t resist the idea of the very first South African space ship being hijacked.)

So here’s the set up:

Charlotte is a little over-protective of her sister, especially so when a stranger asks her out on a date. So she follows the poor guy out of town, all the way into the scrublands on the Kalahari desert and stumbles on to the supposedly ‘abandoned’ airbase of Vastrap. What she discovers will have her on the run with a total stranger in a hazmat suit, pursued by a crazy Angolan war veteran with a lot of motivation (millions worth) to make sure certain secrets stay that way.

The book has enough charm, action, serious insights and momentum to get a reader to the end without looking up at the page numbers for solace. But what I found strange about the finished book is that when I sent it to my publishers, they thought it was hilarious. The Space Race is weird and quirky and sometimes quite dark – and all that stuff can be hilarious if that’s your thing.

What was even stranger though is that in subsequent one-line write-ups someone decided to describe The Space Race as “a funny book”. For me it’s a funny book just like you might say, “What’s that funny smell in here.” or “I have a funny mole on my arm.”

The Space Race is my first novel, but my ninth published book – the previous eight have been kids picture books (The Boy Who Cried Ninja, Penguin’s Hidden Talent and Lion vs Rabbit) as well as a collection of illustrated works and two volumes of cartoons. So a novel is a strange new direction and I think I certainly brought some of the fun and quirkiness of my other books along.

My great fear though (besides being helicoptered and dropped in the middle of the ocean at night) is that some loving mom will pick up The Space Race and think that it’s “a funny book” for kids – and an eight-year old girl will read it and lie awake at night, confused and traumatised.

And that she will grow up to be a helicopter pilot.

Alex Latimer’s Web Site

Twitter: @almaxlat

Buy The Space Race on Amazon or support your friendly local book store.


Want to write a guest blog for The Spark?

Please read the following guidelines VERY CAREFULLY. Or your query will end up in my spam folder.

Please query me first, do NOT send me a completed essay.

You should be a South African or African writer, in the broadest and most inclusive sense of that.  I’m looking to highlight all kinds of writers across all kinds of fiction. 

You should have a new novel or short story collection out (allowing for a three month window. eg. if your book came out in the last three months, it’s eligible.) If it’s coming out later this year, query me now with the release date.

I’m not doing non-fiction at this time.

The book has to be published by an established third party publisher (ie. no vanity press, Smashwords, Amazon Digital Services etc, no self-published ebooks). Please don’t try to convince me otherwise. It’s my blog, my rules.

What I’m looking for:

You should be able to write a personal guest blog 400-1000 words that will give readers insight into what sparked off this book for you, what it’s about, what you put into it, how you built that spark into a blaze. It can be funny, moving, sad, gut-wrenching, silly, enraging as long as it’s personal. The idea is you get to talk about your work and pitch it to a potential new audience.

To query me, email me via my contact form with the words THE SPARK QUERY in the subject line.

In this pitch, please include your name, a sentence about you,  the title of the book, a sentence or two on what your spark was and what you’re going to write about and the book’s publication info (release date, publisher)

If I say yes, awesome, then I’ll slot you in and give you a deadline for your essay.

I’m not going to edit it for you, so please make sure you’re happy with it. And don’t miss your deadline!

Please write it in Word or Notes. Please include all formatting (ie. italicizing the title of your book, so I don’t have to)

Your essay should be accompanied by:

A low-res author photograph (for web, size should be around 200k is fine, 2MB is not)

A low-res cover image (seriously, please don’t send me high-res, it’s for web)

A link to your website and Twitter handle

A link to where to buy the book, ideally on Amazon, if possible, for international audiences.



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