Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Mark Fine discusses his novel, "The Zebra Affaire"

Thank you, Mark, for agreeing to be ‘interviewed’ via my blog. First things first, time for us to find out about you, via one of your books. I read “The Zebra Affaire” and got sucked in! This was my review…

5 stars – Review on Amazon and Goodreads

“The fictional tale of Elsa, a white native South African, and Stanwell, a black foreigner from Malawi, and their forbidden love story within the harsh Apartheid regime of South Africa in 1976 is beautifully written and I shed a tear at its climax. The addition of non-fiction extracts throughout the story added a depth to the tale that made the situation more real. With the death of Mandela in 2013 it is important to reflect on both the man and the situation in his native South Africa.

I have recently been reading many historical fiction novels based on slavery and colonialism and was extremely glad to stumble across this book. The fact I have Dutch relatives only added to my appreciation of the novel, since I understand the language somewhat.

This is not a typical narrative, but it is definitely a book I would recommend to anyone interested in issues concerning racism and inequality within a tense romantic setting.”

What do you think of my review?

I’m touched my historical fiction novel moved you, emotionally. The fact that you cried tears, rather than was bored to tears, is a wonderful compliment. It meant you became vested in the plight of the principal characters’ struggle at the centre of the story, despite the unkind real-world circumstances they both faced.

I also agree with your supposition that it’s important to consider Nelson Mandela’s legacy. Will his shining example be emulated?  Or will current and future South African leadership follow the tragic norm in Africa—that of abuse of power, corruption and incompetence?  I hope for the former, but frankly I fear the latter will be closer to the truth…

If I must critique your review, there is one change I’d suggest. The third paragraph as written seems to suggest “The Zebra Affaire” was written in Dutch (not English). I know your intention was to say “…the novel feels very authentic because some of the local colloquialisms, a curse here an exclamation there, are written in the Afrikaans language—derived from South Africa’s first Dutch settlers.” [Fair point, Mark…  I am happy to be corrected!]

By the way I appreciate your elegant summary of my book with your phrase “… (it’s about) issues concerning racism and inequality within a tense romantic setting.” Perfect. [So glad you liked this]

What or who inspired you to write this story?

Though they don’t realize it, I would have to credit my two sons. I have this belief that if a people don’t know their history, they are destined to be forever lost. It was important to me that my sons learned about their African roots from their father; but my personal story isn’t that interesting. So I chose to couch the story from the perspective of far more intriguing characters, that of Elsa (who’s white) and Stanwell (who is black). The cruel dynamics of the love-struck couple’s story is all theirs, but the place and time that I inserted them is very much mine. This then provided me with the platform to shine a bright light on the dark underbelly of racism and tribalism. 

I was brought up in Gibraltar and I experienced the opposite. I felt like an alien for being a redhead and so pale, whilst living amongst tanned brunettes! Do you think people are always faced with some form of oppression wherever they are?

Such a complicated topic: and one that inevitably devolves into name-calling, hyper-sensitivity and frustration.  But let’s first focus on two specific words you used, Vanessa: “always” and “oppression”.  No, I don’t believe being different inevitably leads to oppression. As a personal anecdote: I arrived in a frigid, snowbound Minnesota neighbourhood in 1981—and to my surprise I found myself considered “an exotic”—apparently I was the first “white African” that this American Midwest community had met! And as such I was rather revered. I’m sure, unfortunately, that this isn’t everyone’s experience.

Vanessa, drilling deeper to the true intent of your question, you are certainly correct. There is little doubt that generally humans are not tolerant of others unlike themselves. And that this corrosive behaviour is in the end mutually destructive.  I wish the lessons of the past were learned, but that’s not the case. (Hence the need for historical fiction to constantly remind us.) Instead, we compulsively repeat the same disgraceful patterns of individual and institutional torment. Sadly, there is always a chosen victim that predators—like bullies in a schoolyard, gang up against. And invariably the victim is a minority. Except in apartheid South Africa! Here the oppressed were the majority. This shocking fact alone makes “The Zebra Affaire” a story worth telling.

If someone from South Africa in 1976 time-travelled to the present day, what do you think they would say?

A 1976 South African would be devastated by what they’d witness in today’s 2014 South Africa. Despite the fall of apartheid and the wonderful vision of Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation”—under the corrupt and incompetent leadership of current president Jacob Zuma, the nation is leaderless. Though the cruel laws of apartheid have been removed, they’ve been replaced by rapacious black tribal elites who are lining their own pockets to the detriment of their own people—and are using progressively blunt tools to keep the masses in check.

 And so I know what a time-traveller would say for I personally know such a person. A veteran of the guerrilla war against apartheid that was forced into exile for decades during the long campaign for liberation, and lifetime member of the ANC (African National Congress); this veteran is distraught by the self-inflicted wounds forced on the nation by the current administration. “I cannot believe this is what we fought for,” were the words shared with me, “I guess we have to soldier on.” The sense of betrayal felt by this veteran of the liberation struggle was palpable. Such a shame! [I agree… humans are capable of so much, yet they fail on so many levels when competing against each other for dominance!]

Why do you think no one speaks out when violence is staring them in the face? Is fear the reason people ignore abuse? For example, in hindsight, it is easy to point the finger at Nazi Germany, but The Book Thief recently got me thinking. I imagine most people did not know what was going on. How do you think people who do know live with themselves? Are they just evil?

Without a doubt it is primarily fear. Becoming invisible is a natural survival instinct; akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the ground. Though it may save one’s neck in the near term, it does not guarantee one’s long term survival. Appeasing a bully really doesn’t work, but it takes a special strength to stand up to that bully, alone. Clearly British Prime minister Neville Chamberlain blinked when dealing with Hitler, but to your point: he didn’t really know what was going on. Surely the true villains were the German political and military leadership who were well aware of the illegal military build-up and other secretive behind the scenes preparations. These senior men stood by and did absolutely nothing.  Certainly some were evil, some were ambitious, some were ideologues, but most were cowards.

In South Africa there was a duality that added further confusion—or plausible deniability to this mix. As I wrote in The Zebra Affaire: “Elsa was no racist. She never had to be; her government assumed that responsibility.” What I’m attempting to say is that Elsa never had to face within herself any personal demons of racism, she never had to go there, ever, as the laws scripted the rules of behaviour between the racial groups, and as such relieved her of any personal responsibility.  So add to the above list of sins, indifference.

Do you think love breaks down all barriers? Is not the point of, for example, the classic “Romeo & Juliet” that forbidden love is both a curse and a cure?

Love certainly has the potential to break down all barriers. I’ve always been intrigued by that which triggers the attraction between two distinctly different individuals; and in doing so creates such an immutable bond that very little can destroy it. I even question whether death can destroy it. For example in the “Romeo & Juliet” scenario, though the two lovers die their love ultimately lives on in the reconciliation of their two warring families. Or maybe I’m just a romantic… [nothing wrong with being a romantic!]

How did you find mixing fiction with fact in such an obvious way? At times, this detracted from the story, but I found it helpful and emotional. Especially at the end.

I had three principles guiding me: entertain, inform and to be sincere. If it was solely a work of fiction it would have been easier to write, as I would not have been bound by the inconvenience of facts. But “The Zebra Affaire” is an important story, and quite disturbing considering these events happened not too long ago. So I needed it to be believed, and so I wrote it in a way that it was both authentic and sincere. This realization compelled me to fill the reader’s knowledge gap on South African history. 

To do so I could have used conventional Chicago Manual of Style formats such as footnotes and endnotes to provide the historical or societal constructs of the period. But footnotes are tiny, difficult to read. And endnotes, they are parked somewhere at the back of book. So I introduced something novel—one reviewer called them “anywhere notes”—where I provide italicized expositions within the context of narrative.  Judging by the accolades this technique has received readers have embraced this format and now better understand the motivations of the characters (both good and venal) as the tension in the story builds.

Do you find it hard to write historical fiction? Do you spend hours doing the research?

Research took a year, including wonderful weeks in the field—the South African bush, documenting the behaviour of the animals in their natural environment. The climax of the story needed the suspense of an authentic safari. And it was crucial the animals and the bushveld played their role in supporting the human saga unfolding within their midst. I used both a video- and still camera to record these experiences; and I personally enjoyed reliving these moments when writing the story.

Writing historical fiction is a double-edged sword; there’s the benefit of an existing structure of date-stamped facts, but then there is the deficit when facts refuse to conform to the fictional narrative’s structure. But for me it is well worth the trade-off. I learn so much during the research process.  Believe me, it’s really interesting stuff—quite eye-opening actually. And for me a reward for working in the historical fiction genre is knowing that I’m able to transfer this knowledge to the reader within the context of a compelling, vivid story—set in an exotic location, without any of the pain of formal study. 

But I must emphasise, my objective is to first entertain. I’m focused on creating memorable characters, within a story construct that is filled with suspense, fraught with danger, and filled with passion. It just happens that the reader will learn something new about their world as the story unfolds.

Do you think social media is important? If so, how do you prioritise your time?

Vanessa, I wish I was as capable as you in this social media space. [I can but try…] Yes, it is important and I have found myself engaging with folks from all around the world due to its no-cost ubiquity and reach. I was delighted by the generosity displayed by strangers on social medial when creating the book. For example, I polled their opinion when selecting the best book cover.

Regarding the promotional reach, it has also proven to be helpful. In fact, Vanessa, that’s how we met. But I must admit it consumes too much of my time. This is due to my inability to process it efficiently.  I’d like to think it’s a flaw in the structure of Facebook, Twitter, Google + or whatever, but being honest I’m probably not using these platforms correctly. In short I’m overwhelmed by the volume of data I don’t need, and I’m constantly missing the most important stuff. Time to send out an S…O..S… [Ha, ha... I'll have the lifeboat waiting for you!]

Do you have an author you admire? If so, why?

It is not a coincidence that historical fiction is my genre of choice. It’s by reading Herman Wouk (“Winds of War”), Leon Uris (“Exodus”) and Irving Stone (“The Agony and the Ecstasy”) that I learned so much—without realizing it, because they are masters of weaving wonderful tales that both enthral and inform. These are the best attributes of good historical fiction. Add Ken Follett, Alice Walker, Tom Clancy and South African greats, Wilbur Smith and Andre Brink and I’ve been fortunate to have feasted on a rich, fulfilling diet of magnificent literature. My current favourite is Alan Furst (“The Foreign Correspondent”).

[I have read & enjoyed Leon Uris and Ken Follett… my husband is a fan of most of these!]

Where we can find out more about you and buy your books?

Vanessa you are welcome anytime to visit my site, leave a comment or two, and hopefully write a guest blog.  Your readers are most welcome as well. You will find me at my BLOG 

“The Zebra Affaire” is available to purchase in both paperback and Kindle editions via AMAZON.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

Vanessa, it’s my pleasure. I very much appreciated your interesting questions.


  1. Great interview! Mark fine, your well written book is a truly important contribution to the history of S Africa's Apartheid era.
    I'm the reviewer who coined "anywhere notes," and I found it a really refreshing way of inserting information. I personally find footnotes and end notes tedious and I hate darting around in a book.

  2. Great interview. I loved The Zebra Affaire. Not only was it entertaining, I learned a lot, too. This subject I was only partially aware of when I was a kid, was unfolded before me in the form of a moving story. And I agree, the Anywhere Notes are a great way to introduce information.

  3. Thanks for commenting. Ester & Ben - it's great to know someone reads these interviews! Mark has written a fantastic book. :)