A Conversation with Malla Nunn, Author of Let the Dead Lie
Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Family stories about “the old days” are a great inspiration and an amazing historical source from which to draw characters and events. Add photography books, novels, news stories and a vivid imagination, and that about sums it up!
What gave you the idea to write this particular story?
Both my parents lived in Durban in their youth, and I heard a lot of stories about that time and place. That gave me the setting. The actual story spun off a very clear mental image of a young boy lying in the dirt of a freight yard. Like Emmanuel, I just followed my nose and found out what happened to the boy and why.
What is the writing process like for you? Do you generally know the plot of the novel before you write it or does it unfold as you go along?
I’d love to know the plot from beginning to end before I start! I generally write down fragments of the story as they come to me and then stitch it all together at various points. I do have a strong sense of specific events and conversations between characters before starting, and these mental scenes guide me into the world of the book. The word “organic” best describes my writing process.
Are any of your characters based on anyone in particular? Are there autobiographical elements to your work?
I draw bits and pieces from the people around me and from myself. I don’t believe that anything is entirely made up . . . it’s just rediscovered. For example, Emmanuel is an ex-soldier because many of my male ancestors were soldiers, and I remember meeting a few of the old men who’d lived through WWI and WWII. The novel is set near the harbor because my father was in the Merchant Marine and sailed out of Durban. I’m basically a story thief! I steal shamelessly from my parents, my relatives and my own childhood.
Lana mentions that she wants to move to another place when she has enough money, where no one knows her and she can start over. Is this a desire you have ever experienced yourself? Do you think it is human nature to want to find anonymity and start anew?
The desire to start again is an essential part of human nature. It’s important to be able to see a new future for yourself, your family and, in some cases, your country. My own personal history is very much driven by a desire to start fresh. My parents moved from Swaziland in southern Africa to Australia because they wanted to leave the past behind . . . to bury it forever. They didn’t want us branded by our race and told where to live, whom to marry and what job to hold. My parents’ choice changed our lives for the better. I’m a great believer in new beginnings. I live in Sydney but dream of a living on a small farm with chickens and a vegetable patch and a huge, open sky . . . or maybe an apartment in New York? It’s great to dream.
How were you able to write the character of Emmanuel from such a gritty, masculine point of view? Do you prefer writing male or female characters?
I had to work to refine Emmanuel’s masculine voice, but getting to know Emmanuel has been a real pleasure. I love spending time with him. Emmanuel is much less of a “talker” than I am, so I have to really listen to him and try not to put words in his mouth. If that fails, my husband, Mark, is always on hand to alert me to “girly” moments in Emmanuel’s dialogue and his actions!
I don’t have a preference for writing male or female characters, because I wrestle equally with the development of both. I like strong, believable characters, no matter their race, sex or age.
You paint a multicultural picture of South Africa, drawing on various cultures including Indian, Afrikaner, Zulu, Russian, Jewish and Greek, to name just a few. Was it important for you to involve many different cultures in your story? Can you talk about the different communities and how you decided to include them in the plot?
The community I was born into was pretty mixed. We were even labeled “mixed race.” Because we were always the “in-between” people and because my family lived in the independent Kingdom of Swaziland, my relatives were drawn from different “tribes.” There was nothing cool or hip about belonging to a mixed community back then because we were always overshadowed by the belief that race mixing was somewhat shameful and dirty. My multicultural South Africa is a simple attempt to reclaim history. South Africa wasn’t just black or white: it was Indian and Italian and English and Zulu and Xhosa . . . to name a few.
Every one of the cultures included in my book was real and present in South Africa in the 1950s. Indians were (and still are) a huge part of life in Durban. They were brought out to work in the sugarcane fields of Natal by the British and many stayed on. Their influence on the culture has been immense. The British, the Zulus and the Afrikaners all shed blood in the fight for control of South Africa. These three “tribes” helped shape South Africa . . . for better and for worse.
Also, Durban is a port town. People come in and out on the tide. I used that fact to really mix things up a bit.
How were you able to understand the underbelly of the gangster and criminal world? Was this something you learned through experience, research or imagination?
I drew inspiration from old black-and-white photographs published in Drum magazine in the 1950s. The photos are gritty and urban and full of life. My father also told me stories about growing up in Durban that contradicted the sunny tourist postcard images. He knew Afrikaner boys who smoked weed and drank beer in darkened playgrounds . . . in the early 1940s. My mother talked about avoiding the botanic gardens at night because of the bad things that happened there. I just loved the contradiction between the rosy historical pictures and the underbelly of the city. Research and imagination did the rest.
You were born in South Africa. Did your own heritage factor into your desire to write a novel set in South Africa?
I was born in Swaziland in southern Africa, but the cultural and economic shadow of white South Africa loomed large in my childhood and shaped my parents’ lives. We left southern Africa behind, but I still have the most vivid memories of my grandmother’s farm after the rain and of white-robed baptism services held in outdoor pools, of funerals and weddings and the dusty playing fields of the boarding school. I grew up in a very tight-knit community, and the place and the people have never left me. I write about South Africa because it is literally “in my blood.”
Emmanuel was given a “second chance” by the major. Have you ever been given such a second chance at something?
Absolutely. Three years ago I was a stay-at-home mom who worked part-time selling wine over the phone. I wanted to be a writer but felt I’d missed my chance. Today, I’m living a totally new life thanks to the fact that my husband, Mark, gave me the space and the time to write. My friends and family believed in me without seeing a word I’d written. Their support gave me the courage to take a second chance after years of stumbling.