Apocalypse Now Nowby Bongani Kona / 29.07.2013
Sometime in 2008, the novelist and short story writer Charlie Human suffered a crippling blow when he lost 30 000 words of an unfinished manuscript he was working on after his house was burgled and the thieves made off with his laptop. The yet-to-be-completed novel, a work of science fiction with political overtones set in a future South Africa, formed part of his MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town (UCT). “I guess that was like a crisis point” he said; “because I was thinking am I even going to continue with the Masters. I was at a point where I was thinking maybe I should cut my losses.”
Even before the break-in happened, completing the novel was starting to feel like a Sisyphean undertaking and Human was weighed down by it. Besides having a hard time writing or as he candidly put it, “trying to be a writer” with a capital W, there were problems with the structure. “It didn’t kind of flow” he said, “It didn’t have me excited.” So when the manuscript was stolen, he considered quitting but after a period of soul-searching he said to himself: “if I’m going to continue doing this, then I’m going to do it, I’m going to make it what I’d hoped it would be.”
So with a renewed sense of resolve, Human set about laying the ground work which would eventually lead to the publication of Apocalypse Now Now, his astonishingly brilliant debut urban fantasy novel, and a five-figure two-book deal with Century in the UK. He roped in Lauren Beukes as his supervisor/mentor and he went to speak to the late Stephen Watson, then the head of the creative writing department, who told him similar stories of writers who had lost their manuscripts. “Think of it as part of the creative process” the poet and essayist said; “as having produced something that was purely for practice”. Those were reassuring words Human needed to hear. “And I think in a way it was true” he said; “having lost that, I kind of cleared the slate but I still had the skills that I had learnt and it sort of forced me into a new way of doing things. Because when I started writing Apocalypse Now Now I really didn’t have a plan of what it would be, I just sat down and started writing stuff that was dark, sarcastic and stuff that I thought was funny, you know; because that was the mood I was in. I was like in this kind of surly mood where, you know, all my stuff had been stolen and I didn’t have a laptop anymore…I guess that was where Apocalypse Now Now came from. ”
It’s 10.30 on a cloudy winter morning when I meet Human at a nondescript coffee shop in Claremont and four days after Apocalypse Now Now’s rapturous launch at the Book Lounge. The South African edition, published by Umuzi, comes with cover shouts from heavyweights Lauren Beukes (obviously) and Sarah Lotz who says: “the wit and humour are anarchic, inspired, contemporary and original”. True, Apocalypse Now Now does have some terrific quotable lines including this one: “You’ve got two minutes. If you try and sell me a cell phone contract or enlighten me in the ways of the Hare Krishna, they’ll never find your body.”
At the center of the novel stands Baxter Zevcenko, a Machiavellian 16-year-old boy who is the caporegime of a porn-peddling syndicate at Westridge High School in Cape Town. There’s not much to like about Human’s protagonist at the beginning of the novel – a surly, scheming, self-involved teenager – that is until his girlfriend, Esmé, is kidnapped and he grows into a more humane character. A luminous green tooth found in Esmé’s room points toward the work of supernatural forces in her disappearance and so Baxter teams up with an alcoholic supernatural bounty hunter, Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin (Think Rambo with a booze problem). Together they wander through Cape Town’s bizarre underworld, complete with zombie strip clubs, in search of the missing Esmé. A lecturer who read Human’s manuscript after it was completed said the experience of it was like watching several B-grade movies spliced together.
Born in Mowbray, Cape Town, Human said his love for stories and storytelling is something he can trace back to his two grandfathers. “My one grandfather used to make up science fiction stories for me, he used to tell me bed time stories and sort of just make them up on the spot” he said. “It was almost like fan fiction, it would be like Buck Rogers fan fiction.” The other grandfather, a World War 11 veteran who had fought on the side of the allies in Italy and North Africa, used to tell him stories about the Great War. “Hearing about the Second World War as a kid, it’s kind of like a story; it seems so far in the past as a kid that you almost can’t believe he was actually there” Human remembers. “So that was where my love for stories started.”
After a brief stint at Milnerton Junior School, the Human’s parents sent him to Rondebosch and he stayed there until he finished high school. Human may have developed a love for stories as a toddler but the idea of writing as a pursuit is something which came later, when he was a teenager. “I remember writing a short story in English class which did really well. It got an ‘A’ or something like that and it was one of the first times where I had actually like done really well at school, you know what I mean” he said. “I was usually like dead centre average, not doing anything more than I had to, just coasting through and all that. But I remember that short story because, I like enjoyed writing it and it didn’t feel like homework. So I remember I got it back and my English teacher was praising it and she made me read it out and all that and I think that was the first time I felt like I’m good at something at school.”
Encouraged by the experience and trying to emulate the writers he was into at the time – David Gemmell, David Eddings and J.R.R Tolkien – Human started writing an epic fantasy novel modelled along the same lines as Terry Brooks’ The Original Shannara Trilogy. But the novel didn’t get very far. “When you’re a teenager, its like write two pages and you’re like this is actually quite hard work.”
After high school and when he was “a typical angst-y teenager” with no idea what he wanted to do he decided to go travelling. “I went to the UK, lived and worked there like a total hippie, travelling to all these festivals and all that and working odd jobs, like I worked at an organic food stall and I worked at a backpackers, just kind of bumming around”. At one stage he found himself sleeping under a tree. “I went to Glastonbury for the festival but then I stayed in Glastonbury because I liked the town. So I stayed there for a couple of months, just sleeping under a tree there in Glastonbury and just hanging out with the local down and out hippies, you know? I was a down and out hippie and I had found my people there.”
When he returned to Cape Town, he spent two years working for a music shop in Rondebosch while writing angst-y, stream of consciousness, faux-Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson stories on the side. But when his father sold his powder metallurgy business, he sat Human down and told him he had one last chance if he wanted to go to university; something he had resisted doing since finishing high school. He took the offer and signed up at UCT for a degree in Film and Media, though he ended up majoring in Media Studies and English.
While at UCT, Human got his first experience of publishing when he started writing for humour section of the campus newspaper, Varsity. “It was my first experience of publishing something and having people say either ‘wow, I really loved it and I thought that was funny’ or like ‘wow, you really offended me, please publish an apology’. It was a really cool experience and I like that people were reading what I had written. I think that’s what got me hooked on the idea of not just writing as a pursuit but actually publishing” he said. Then something else happened which was as vital to his development as a writer.
A satirical piece he’d written for SAX Appeal mocking the mores of the southern suburbs caught he interest of the features editor at Cosmopolitan and Human ended up writing regularly for their supplement Upfront Man. “That was also a really cool experience because it taught me how to be edited” he said. “The best writing is collaborative so writing a column for a magazine where they can say ‘ok, no, you need to cut this for some space’ or ‘no, our readers won’t find that funny’ or ‘can you change this part, you know, we need to include something that our readers will identify with’. I think that was a really cool experience because it kind of toughened me up for the publishing process.”
Finally, having spent nights sleeping under a tree as a down and out hippie and working dead-end jobs Human signed up for an MA in Creative Writing and Apocalypse Now Now is the end product of that. In the acknowledgements page Human wrote an affectionate note to his parents which I think best captures the story of his own life: “not all those who wander are lost.”