Author Q&A: Justin Cartwright

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Justin Cartwright’s 20th book, Up Against The Night (Bloomsbruy, £8.99), follows protagonist Frank McAllister as he returns to his native South Africa after living in England for 30 years. Frank is a descendant of the Boer leader Piet Retief, who was murdered by the Zulu king Dingane in 1838. When his maverick Afrikaner cousin Jaco contacts him, Frank and his family are dragged into a world of violence and delusion.

Up Against The Night connects South Africa’s violent past to suffering in the country in the present day. To what extent are the two linked?
I think that South Africa has suffered from the violence which was originally fostered by apartheid. Now the problem is that education is poor and many teachers are incompetent. This is one of the many problems hindering South Africa’s progress.

Do Frank’s feelings about returning home to South Africa reflect your own view of the country?
I think both Frank and I are ambivalent about South Africa: it is beautiful and – for me – always fascinating, but I am aware at the same time that there is always a possibility of violence.

Like Frank, you are a descendant of the Boer leader Piet Retief. Has Retief’s story influenced your life and writing career?
To be honest, it has not been a huge concern in my life. When I wrote about Piet’s fate, I became very interested in his murder and his rather naïve views of the Zulus, which led to the massacre of Piet’s family and retainers.

Does South Africa’s landscape inspire your writing?
There is no question South Africa has a truly wonderful landscape and terrific variety, from the tropical north to Cape Point. I have twice featured landscape in books – especially in White Lightning.

What are the long-term effects of apartheid for people in South Africa? And do you think the country will ever recover from its turbulent past?
Corruption is a huge problem – with the president himself involved. A corrupt government has only survived because the president has paid his supporters, which is one of the reasons he has stayed in power.

Despite the themes of exile, addiction and alienation, the novel is bitterly funny in parts. Was that intentional?

Yes, it was intentional. Almost all my books have elements of comedy and humour. I don’t think I could live a day without humour – humour often gets right to the depths of what we think and what we are.

You have published 20 books over your 40 year writing career. Where do you draw inspiration from?
I am always interested in the way people describe themselves and their habits, and their delusions, but also I take notice of what is going on. I am a copious reader of newspapers.

How did readers in South Africa react to Up Against The Night?

I think South Africans understood what I wrote, but at the same time many of them would have preferred me not to have written it.

Do you have plans for another book?

Yes, I have, and it is on its way to my publisher. I love writing serious novels – with jokes.

Saskia Murphy

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