Interview with Clive Algar

Why do you write fiction?
I love the infinite scope for creating new worlds. As a writer of mainly historical fiction (19th and early 20th century) I enjoy placing fictional characters among real historical characters to create events that could have happened. I love the blank page waiting for me to fill it.
Where did the inspiration for your first novel, Journeys to the End of the World, come from?
Journeys is set in three different eras but much of it takes place during, and just after, World War 1. I have had a fascination with the “Great War” since I was a child, as my late father fought on the Western Front, was mentioned in dispatches, was gassed in the trenches, and saw things he could not bear to tell me about. When I asked him about his experiences he told me a few amusing anecdotes but then always changed the subject. Later I realized that dredging up submerged memories of the horrors he had experienced there was extremely painful for him, even after the passage of so many years. He preferred not to look back. So to learn more about the war I read a great deal. I also read a lot of South African history, and I came across a remark by the missionary Dr John Philip about the behaviour of certain Khoi people (then known as Hottentots) during the Hottentot Rebellion of 1799. The symptoms he described sounded similar to those of World War 1 “shell shock”. Then I noticed a newspaper article about post-traumatic stress disorder among present-day victims of crime, and suddenly I saw a link between South Africans of 1799, 1916 and the present time. Isaiah Berlin said: “Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes people human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them.” I saw post-traumatic stress as the common factor, and from that grew the plot and characters of Journeys to the End of the World.
Some novelists say that they associate a particular piece of music with a particular book of theirs. Is this true of you?
I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one! For some reason a piece of classical music kept coming into my head while I was writing Comets. It was something I'd heard on the car radio – “Canon in D” by Pachelbel – which I found deeply moving, and played from time to time after that, sometimes when I was writing: gradually it became the theme music for Comets. The music is a lot older than the 1830s setting of the novel, but it is something that my protagonist Isabelle might well have heard on one of those rare occasions when she could have attended an orchestral performance. And its wistful, bitter-sweet melody to my mind mirrors the years of Isabelle's life portrayed in the book.
If you could invite one character from your novels to a dinner party, who would it be, and why?
I would like to invite Emma, the main character from Flowers in the Sand. I would make it a small dinner party because I would like to have plenty of opportunity to talk with her – there is so much I want to know about her life after the end of the book. Anyone who has read Flowers in the Sand will know that Emma had a really difficult time in the novel. She longed for children but was unable to have any of her own; her husband died in an accident and she was left to fend for herself in a desolate mining town with war closing in; she had to make extremely difficult moral choices. Eventually she saw a chance for happiness – and that is where I left her at the end of the book! There is a hint in an epilogue which takes the form of a letter ten years later, but I would love to know what happened during those missing years. I am fond of Emma, I'm sorry I made her life so difficult, and I hope I would feel better about it if she came to dinner and we could talk about it.
What are some of your favourite quotes from reviews you've received?
Reviews of my first novel, Journeys, gave me a lot of pleasure, largely because it was the first time someone had said anything publicly about my writing. Some of the reviewers said things that I wouldn't have thought of saying, and others said things I had hoped someone would say. Here are extracts from five of my favourite reviews of Journeys – they were written mainly by professional book critics and published in the book pages of newspapers.

“Spell-binding … a riveting read … serious and austere … an honest, authentic novel.”
– Phil Murray, The Cape Times.

“A haunting work that traces the patterns of violence, survival and the often guilty-feeling process of healing. The characters … are drawn with a delicate and subtle hand … This lovely book is engrossing and will leave the reader thinking.”
– Amanda Yesilbas, Historical Novels Review.

“Algar examines the effects of violence on individuals, both victims and perpetrators … [his] purpose is to look at issues of forgiveness and atonement … a thoughtful novel that brings together strands of our social matrix and carries it in a good story.”
– Jane Rosenthal, Mail & Guardian

“Clive Algar writes well … Although technically a historical novel, the book's themes and preoccupations reach beyond the period piece.”
– Anthony Stidolph, The Witness

“Ambitious and well-researched, containing a wealth of fascinating material … there is much here of real value.”
– Michiel Heyns, novelist and award-winning literary critic
Published 2014-01-10.
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Books by This Author

The Chain of Time
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 97,750. Language: English. Published: June 4, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Historical » General, Fiction » Literature » Literary
Based on the diary of Major William Hawthorne, a young veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who is sent to the Cape of Good Hope to manage the security of a mysterious VIP. Amazed at the man's true identity, his plan to protect him from assassins leads to a surprising ending and changes William's life forever.
Journeys to the End of the World
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 108,510. Language: English. Published: May 6, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Historical » General, Fiction » Literature » Literary
Vicky searches for the truth about her great-grandfather, Dan, who returned from WW1 with shell-shock. Like archaeologists in the Letterbox Cave, the novel brushes through the past, revealing Dan's story of war, guilt and love and reaching back to the foundations of South African society. The cave connects the lives of the characters and is where Vicky experiences her own life-altering crisis.
Flowers in the Sand
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 64,500. Language: English. Published: January 20, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Historical » General, Fiction » Adventure » War & military adventure
Trapped by tragic circumstances in a dusty Namaqualand mining town during the Anglo-Boer War, Emma Richardson must degrade herself in order to survive. Then the town is besieged by Boer fighters and Emma is faced with a fateful choice. With her vision of the ephemeral desert flowers in her mind, she sets out alone on foot by night on a desperate mission to create a new future for herself.
Comets
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 66,410. Language: English. Published: January 5, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Historical » General, Fiction » Literature » Literary
Set in the rich and fascinating milieu of Cape Town in the 1830s, Comets tells the story of James and Isabelle Forster whose lives are changed irrevocably not only by the appearance of Halley's Comet but by "human comets"; their upper middle-class existence threatens to spin out of control as they confront moral crises they seem unable to resolve.