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Rosemund Handler on Novel-writing

This entry was posted on 15 August 2012.
A Q&A with fiction author, Rosemund Handler (plus an extract from her newest novel).

Your first two novels, Madlands and Katy’s Kid have a strong focus on characters, whereas your third, Tsamma Season, is predominantly a novel about place. Could you elaborate on your previous titles and your approach to novel-writing in general?

My novels are both character and story driven. It is important to me that readers be entertained, and amused as well. Madlands focuses on a single issue, Bipolar Disorder, but character development is central, as it is in Katy's Kid. Tsamma Season is told against the sweeping backdrop of the Kalahari, and inevitably this glorious wilderness assumes centre stage, the capricious god of those who dare to take it on.

Us and Them is a truly captivating novel. Could you tell us more about it?

Us and Them, my new novel, is probably my most ambitious to date. It's about a Cape Town Jewish family with a mysterious predilection for too much religion and superstition, and too little balance and love. Quirky and humorous, the story weaves among the family members and between past and present, exploring the dangers of obsession and the effects of their family background on the lives of twin daughters, who are raised in a home that is seldom free of fear and uncertainty. The magnificent Cape Town mountains are never far from the heart of the story, and to my mind they are a significant part of it.

Your books all feature very strong characterisation, making for incredibly well-formed stories. Do you have any tips for budding writers?

My advice is to observe, take notes, take your time, do the research. All of it. As the story begins to take hold, let the characters go it alone, you never know where they'll take you and no matter what happens, you'll never regret the ride!


Us & Them description

Why would a young mother deliberately alienate her twin daughters? Would anybody believe her if she claimed it was to protect them?

Growing up in Cape Town as the only child of orthodox Jews who escaped the Holocaust, Jen rebels against the religious beliefs and superstitions her parents impose on her. Her aim in life is simply to have fun. But she quickly finds she can escape neither her heritage nor the consequences of her choices. Jen’s life is overshadowed by the dybbuk – the malign force that she believes robs her of what she holds most dear.

Her twin daughters, feisty and individual, are every bit as rebellious as she was. Burdened with the shifting sands of their home, the sisters are propelled inexorably towards the breakdown of all they have shared and deeply loved.

Beautifully crafted and unpredictable, this captivating novel leaves long echoes, drawing readers into the undergrowth of family, the ambiguities of parental love and the ageless power of superstition, which binds even those who scorn it. 

Read and extract of Us & Them here.

About Rosemund Handler

Rosemund J Handler lives in Cape Town. She climbs the mountains of her city every weekend and delights in exploring the vast open spaces of Southern Africa. Us and Them is her fourth novel for Penguin. Madlands, her first novel, was published in 2006, followed by Katy’s Kid in 2007. Tsamma Season, published in 2009, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) in 2010.