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From fact to fiction – on life and writing

Joanne is an author and editor with broad interests, having written thrillers, young adult novels, and a moving memoir titled Death and the After Parties.  In her crime novels, she features Rae Valentine, an ex-junkie amputee turned PI and motivational speaker. I find Rae one of the most interesting protagonists of the South African crime genre, and I’m delighted that Catalyst Press has just published the first Rae novel, Divine Justice, in the US. Publishers Weekly loved it, saying that “Staccato prose moves the action along at machine-gun pace reminiscent of classic hard boiled mysteries…” and that “…fans of George V Higgins and James Elroy are sure to have a blast.” 

This is Sunshine Noir at its best! Welcome today’s guest blogger, Joanne Hichens.

What a wonderful array of blogs to choose from on Murder Is Everywhere!

As an unknown entity on these pages, I thought I’d tell you a little about who I am as a person and writer. I live with my son, and partner, two dogs and two cats in Cape Town, South Africa, in a seaside suburb called Muizenberg.

If I had to post a view from my window it would be the one attached here, which shows the vista across False Bay, looking over the swell of the ocean toward the Hottentots Hol­land Mountains, with Cape Hangklip to the left, and the famed Cape Point to the right. I work from a room with this view, which might account for fewer books published than I’d like! I swim every day, choosing between one of the many tidal pools along this coastline, my favourite being Dalebrook pool in the next suburb along from mine.

As South Africans, we’ve just recently come through six weeks of beaches being banned; after a resurgence of Covid-19 we were denied our summer and so I’ve been making the most of getting out, dunking in the water, loving the cold slap of it. With lockdown easing after this second wave, and with the beaches reopening, the world seems lighter, the stress less severe — the Covid oppression lifts, at least for a while. My life really revolves around staying sane during this trying time, keeping my cat off my computer so I can put in my writing quota, and feeding my son more than pizza.

I was thrilled that in January my crime novel, Divine Justice, was published in the US by Catalyst Press. My memoir titled Death and the After Parties was also recently released. Going from one to the other, though, from writing crime fiction to memoir, was a little like being in an insane asylum of my own design, as I hopped in and out of a number of ‘heads’ including my own, interrogating truth then engaging with fiction and back again. 

After my husband died from a massive coronary several years ago, I found myself on the path of memoirist, dangerous and convoluted at times, as I tried to accept and understand his death, who I was, and am, and how my childhood had a bearing on how I coped with loss. I think I know myself better now as I’ve interrogated this difficult and emotional period of my life.

            But writing crime fiction… what does it give me? It gives me pleasure.

Crime writing gives me the opportunity to slip right out of my skin. It allows me to take my own life less seriously. Writing about death and dying was intensely focused on harsh reality, the passing of my mother, then in quick succession, the passing of my husband, father and mother-in-law. Obsessed by death, waves of melancholy would often sweep over me. Exposing my grief, and how I dealt with it, through writing, meant I had to look deep, and not shy from my flaws, or the truth of how I could – when seeking compassion from others – be sometimes less than compassionate myself. The gaze, the journey, of the memoirist has to be inwards, and inclusive of the past.

Writing Rae Valentine thrillers, on the other hand, offers the opportunity to rub my hands in glee and allow my imagination to run wild. I write from multiple points of view, exploring a number of characters – including the baddies – each with their own self-identity and unique perceptions. Although it can add to the stress of what sometimes feels like a multiple personality disorder, it’s also perverted fun.

Divine Justice sees Rae Valentine’s first solo case as a private investigator as she becomes embroiled with a white supremacist group, The Core – a motley crew of disenfranchised fanatics spoiling for trouble – who want to set up their exclusive homeland. Add a mad pastor to the mix and unpredictable Cape Town weather patterns, this is a recipe for turbulence, and violence, and of course, a satisfying ending when all is said and written. James Earl wrote that it could be taken ‘a little tongue in cheek’, and yes, this fantasy or over-the-top element reflects my love of writers such as Carl Hiaasen and Mark Haskell Smith. I’d always wanted to be a movie director, so this is the next best thing – creating a story and directing every bit of it, including a cast of whacky characters.

Generally I’m aware of a theme when I begin writing, with the theme of ‘hate’ coursing through Divine JusticeWorldwide we’ve seen the rise of ‘othering’, of setting apart anyone not like ‘us’, whatever ‘us’ is perceived to be. One group hates the other, and the hate is fomented by unsavoury leaders who want all eyes on them, who want absolute Power. (It continues to shock me that Trump will not ratify Bided as legitimate President of the US.) I wrote about this rising white supremacy for CrimeReads, and how it influenced Divine Justice.

When it comes to Rae Valentine, she’s triply disadvantaged – as female, disabled, and a woman of colour. Separated from her biological parents as a young child, she lived with her foster parents in a posh suburb in Cape Town, but ran away as a teenager and survived on the street for months before finally going into rehab, a few times. Losing her leg was the turning point. She spoke her truth and from then on she was sought after as a counsellor and motivational speaker. She has presence, guts, communicates easily. But terminally flawed, she continually looks for love in the wrong places. Although I’m not a romantic, relationship issues intrigue me and Rae certainly has her difficulties.

All her life she’s been conflicted, has carried guilt that she too could have grown up in a so-called ‘coloured’ township, without the advantages she’s had, that she wasted that head start by getting into marijuana while at high school, then turning to hard drugs and turning her back on her foster family. She had her leg amputated after shooting up heroine between her toes once too often. A government issue prosthesis was her first ‘leg’, but she’s hoping, certainly as the series progresses, to have a state-of-the-art designer number made for her exclusively.

            Rae indeed, has become a real person for me, someone I could meet around the next corner as she reflects so many realities of Cape Town culture and society.  Even her surname, Valentine, is ‘Cape Town’, a slave name, indicating her descent.

As a newly minted PI she interacts with the underbelly of the city. Poverty and wealth collide on every level of life. Cape Town is as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as any other big city, with office space, galleries and new apartment blocks, but also as problematic, with informal pavement stalls spilling into the streets and an increasing number of homeless setting up camp under bridges and along highways. A stone’s throw from a wealthy suburb like Bishop’s Court, a twenty-minute drive from the city centre, where mansions have tennis courts and swimming pools, is a township like Kayelitsha, where homes are shoebox shacks of corrugated iron, packed together, separated only by narrow alleys. Whereas the city is green, the shacklands are grey, stark and bleak. All of it lies under the shadow of Table Mountain, the iconic landmark that will remain long after we’ve all given up on the battles raging on.

With plenty of fractures in society, plenty of conflict, plenty of clashes, plenty of human dissatisfaction, crime is rife. I’m certainly not spoiled for choice when it comes to material.

With this potted history of me, of Rae, and a few photos, I hope to leave you with a sense of my life, and what I bring to crime fiction.

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  1. Jason

    First Draft for a Short Story

    On a cold Sunday night in September when reasonable people were sound asleep and President Rhamaposa had once again placed the country under lockdown, I should have said ‘no’ when I got the call from the call from the person staying in my b&b.

    Maybe you’ve decided to take a weekend break in a small seaside town. Friends have been telling you about the amazing and unique accommodation you can find on this Airbnb thingy. You load the app on your phone, hit the Start Travelling button and get scrolling. Pictures glide down your screen. Each villa or bungalow more unique than the last. Well, most of them. That one looked a bit like an advert for bathroom tiles. But you keep scrolling, because you’re hooked.
    Then you spot your dream villa (villa?) on the coast with a deck and a private pool. You stop. This is it. You click. This looks like quality and there’s a picture of the host with a medal obscuring his left eye. Superhost! What’s that? Looks like a decent chap, anyway.
    That’s me smiling back and hoping you’ll book for your dream weekend getaway with loving wife in tow. That’s me hoping you won’t vomit on the carpets, break the wine glasses and steal the hairdryer.

    This is me getting up from my bed, dragging on my clothes, and stumbling sleepily through the garden around to the side of the house where the guest entrance is located. This is me cursing in the dark, because I didn’t get the booking from you and loving wife, I got Martin, instead.

    I was there to open the gate for my guest who had been locked out, although it was long after the presidents curfew.
    As I stood behind the closed gate, remote in hand, where was my self-preservation, where was my instinct for survival? All I had to say was, ‘Martin, is that you?’ All I needed to do was peer through the gap and see who was there, but I didn’t. I’m was here to open the gate and then I was going back to bed. Should I give him a lecture about curfew? Maybe I wouldn’t bother.
    I pressed the remote and the gate opened.

    Martin was not standing outside my gate on that quiet suburban street, in Plumstead, in the middle of the night. Two complete strangers faced me and two sets of car tail lights glowed in the dark. They were not alone. The forces of darkness came to visit me as my neighbours lay, peacefully in their beds. The forces of darkness wore non-descript, navy and grey sweats, came from townships like Mitchell’s Plain or Grassy Park and the smell of weed and alcohol clung to them like armour. The armour that says to the world, ‘Fuck you, in your comfortable homes. You owe us and we’re here to collect.’
    They are the messengers who pass between the townships and the suburbs, every weekend. They bring dagga, heroin and Extacy to bored, wealthy kids who order in like UberEats.
    Two pairs of scuffed Nike Allstars crossed my threshold and still I believed that reasonable words would resolve the situation and they would leave.
    ‘Where’s Martin,’ I blurted, but it was too late. They spoke words, but we all knew that whatever was said had nothing to do with the reason they were there. ‘Ashley sent us to look for Martin.’ They were close up to me now. The taller one with a navy blue top had his hand in his pants, massaging his genitals. For an absurd moment the thought crossed my mind, ‘That’s not something you do when we’re still busy with introductions.’
    ‘Speak to Ashley, she wants to know where is Martin,’ he held out a phone to me; a cheap little Nokia. Ashley’s voice drifted groggily across the airwaves. All I could think was, I need to get reinforcements and I need to stop them getting inside.
    The big roller door was still open and the back door from the garage to the house wasn’t locked. I stepped between the parked cars, opened it and yelled through for Martin’s housemate, whom I knew was asleep inside.
    Eventually he staggered out. ‘These guys are looking for Martin.’ Like a confused lamb to slaughter he stumbled past me towards the roller door. I turned to look past him and saw six guys now occupying my driveway. I turned back, locked the house door and put the key in my pocket. Immediately my mind went to the gate in the lane where I had undone the padlock earlier.
    For the moment I was not on their radar, but the housemate was encircled and protesting in a whining voice. ‘I don’t know where Martin is, guys,’ he was pleading. I walked round, closed the padlock, with myself on the outside. Since that day I’ve asked myself many times why I stayed on the outside. I can’t answer that question with any certainty. It comes back to self-preservation or the lack thereof. Why did I even care what might happen to the drunken, whining housemate if I’d locked myself behind my burglar bars?
    One of them was rummaging on my workbench. He came back with a wooden mallet as I came round the corner, and mock charged me with his weapon raised to strike. My arms came up, instinctively to shield my head. I pivoted away, blind to other threats. Then a body slammed into my right side and I went down like a tenpin with no time to break my fall. My hip hit the concrete. Immediately I tried to regain my feet, but something was wrong. My left leg folded. Like a crippled deer with a shattered limb I tried repeatedly to stand. Eventually the signal reached my brain, you only have one working leg!
    When I was down I became the target. Navy Blue was pulling at my jacket, pawing at every pocket. In a moment of clarity I grasped the keys in my pocket and thrust them as far as possible under my car.
    I knew he needed a prize; something to show for his nights work. ‘Take it! Take it!’ I blurted pointing at my pocket. His hand plunged in and found my big, new smart phone. As if on cue, there was a kicking and pounding on the back door. The door I had so recently locked.
    Navy Blue held the phone aloft, ‘Manne! Manne! Ek het dit!’ (Guys! Guys! I’ve got it. Let’s go!) he yelled horsely. The pounding stopped and as if this was the signal they’d been waiting for, they all sprinted toward the open gate and with a squeal of rubber they were gone.

    In the fridge in the, unoccupied, guest flat is a small, green and white cardboard box. Inside the box is a plastic bag containing the head of my femur.

    Dr Cindy Patterson came to my bedside in the Wirth Ward, at Victoria Hospital, with paperwork and her bouncy auburn ponytail. ‘Mr de Smidt I just need you to sign this waiver and inform you of the risks of surgery. With all operations of this kind, there is a risk of infection and of clotting,’ she adjusted her stethoscope with a rote gesture and smoothed the leg of her pink pantsuit. She was ready to drop the final tidbit of medical knowledge. ‘Of course, if we don’t do the hip replacement then necrosis will follow and the bone will die.’
    There it was, the Catch22. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. When she said ‘bone will die’ we both knew she meant ‘you will die.’ It was plain as the horn-rimmed spectacles on her face.
    I looked up and the orthopaedic team were now gathered at the foot of my bed. There was the blonde, Dougie Hauser look-alike, with the skinny jeans and leather satchel. Next to him the Good Doctor, with matching grey wind cheater and trainers. His well-pressed chinos only drew ones attention to the odd way he walked on his toes as he moved around the ward. Definitely on the spectrum.
    Only Cindy wore Belville chic the rest were straight out of Constantia, or some other wealthy address. Ironically, Dr Nel, the lead aneasthatist, in his theatre scrubs and lab coat looked the most like a normal person. The rest were types from Greys Anatomy. But I had decided to put my faith in Cindy for all her professional ice.
    Unless they want you to sign something they don’t address you directly. ‘The patient is a 64 year old male with no previous history and no chronic ailments. We picked up a slight murmur on his ECG,’ they don’t make direct eye contact either. With the waiver signed and the business done it was time to move on to the next folder at the next bed.
    Maybe it was the painkillers talking or maybe I wanted them to think of me as more than just a patient when they put me under the knife.
    I blurted out ,’Hey Doc, I need you to keep that piece of bone for me when you pull it out, will you?’
    The team paused, looking slightly bemused. Even the looks that said ‘why isn’t he in a private hospital?’ were twitched aside for a moment.
    ‘What do you want it for?’ Cindy looked perplexed.
    Pushing my luck I asked ,’Can you put it in formaldehyde for me? I want to display it on my desk.’
    ‘We’ll do our best,’ Cindy placated. Now they were convinced I was high. The team exchanged glances and turned away in unison. Cindy closed my folder firmly and joined the exodus.

    I’d not had the clarity to express the truth when she questioned me about my strange request. Foolishly I thought a bit of humour sounded better. But in the back of my mind or pushing through the Tramadol haze was another feeling. Somewhere, sometime, when this ordeal was over, in a quiet spot at the bottom of the garden, I would lay that smooth, white bone to rest and release the stored up pain of the night that changed my life and drove me to write this story down.

    Speaking of Tramadol, the administration of painkillers is top notch at Victoria. Soon after I arrived back in the ward, from the operator theatre, another needle was inserted, this time in my left arm. To this was attached a thin plastic tube that snaked up to a small water bottle sized container filled with clear liquid. The final touch to this getup was a small, grey pump with a large, soothing green button in the centre. This was the junction of the little pipes.
    ‘When you feel any pain, you just give it a long hard push,’ said the sister. ‘Don’t worry. You can’t overdose.’
    As soon as the epidural began to wear off, I tried it. In my haste I pushed it too hard and my vein protested weakly. But, after that I kept saying to myself, ‘What pain? I don’t feel any pain.’ Well I didn’t because Tramadol is a Schedule IV opiate and highly addictive if you take it for long enough!

    Dr Nel was an extremely amenable anaesthesiologist. He really tried to make my time under the knife as interactive as possible. He hovered around my head monitoring my vitals and answering my questions as the grinding and hammering began.
    If I’m to be really critical I could call him out on one incident that made me yelp at the outset.
    There I was, positioned on my side by the efficient hands of the team. After the initial administration of the epidural injection, my head rested on a very comfortable cushion and my hips were gripped in the padded clamp.
    Oh, let me tell you about the clamp! Before they put the protective screen up to block my view, they wedged my lower back firmly against the back pad. Then the front pad, in black leatherette, was screwed into my gut. When I say screwed, I mean I swear I could feel it pressing against my spine! Luckily I’d had nil by mouth since midnight.
    The blue medical screen came up and I caught a last glimpse of the team in there hair nets bowing over my hip. By now I had no voluntary control over my legs, but I could feel them being moved into position. My right leg was half bent below and the left, surgical leg, was straightened and placed in some kind of sling.
    But hold on! I hear you say. Why are you still awake? It’s simple. This is an epidural, baby. Just like a mum in labour.
    Well, once the legs were sorted they began cutting open my hip. But this was where Dr Nel and I didn’t see eye to eye.
    The knife was like a hot laser drawn, relentlessly, down my skinny hip.
    ‘Hold on! I can feel that!’ The blade stopped.
    ‘Did you feel that?!’ Dr Nel asked redundantly.
    ‘Yes,’ my lip quivered. ‘Please, wait a bit.’
    He murmured apologetically and they waited.
    Maybe because he’d caused me some pain he was most helpful with my next request. I’d seen him consult his phone in a little plastic bag on the side table.
    ‘Could you take a picture for me?’
    He raised his phone over the blue screen and snapped a picture. His phone came close to my face and I saw my white hip with a red gash running down it. Surprisingly little blood at that stage.
    He even apologised, ‘It’s a bit over exposed. Bright lights, you know.’ I was satisfied.
    In hindsight I’m sorry I didn’t ask for more pics, but I guess he would probably have refused to show me the really gory bits, anyway.
    I thought the drill would have a high-pitched whine like something out of a torture scene in a 007 movie. It sounded a more like my old Bosch drill in need of some lubrication. The sensations were muffled, but I’m guessing they were preparing my femur to insert the pointy bit with the ball on the other end. Then they set to work on my pelvis, where the replacement acetabullam had to be fitted. Again the angle grinder really needed some oil! They ground away for a very long time. It really wasn’t a pleasant noise, but there was more to come.
    ‘How’s it going? Are you comfortable?’ Dr Nel asked again, in his kindly voice. Just then a ten pound hammer crashed into my pelvis and I felt my lower spine doing a bone rattling jig.
    ‘Geez!’ I groaned. ‘Can you please slow down?’
    But this time Dr Nel couldn’t help. The job just had to be done. After about ten more blows I was praying that I wouldn’t need corrective surgery on my lower spine after the hip replacement. Then it stopped and Dr Nel came back into my range of vision.
    I was not going to let them forget about my piece of bone. ‘Please, ask Dr Paterson to keep the bone she took out,’ I reminded him. He nodded and patted my shoulder.
    Afterwards, in the holding area, two kind, chatty sisters helped with my pressure socks and fussed around me until the Porter came to wheel me back to the ward. Just before I was wheeled away one of them placed a little green and white box on my stomach and said, ’Hold onto this.’ It rattled with something solid inside it.

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