An Interview with S.L. Grey
By Harry Markov
HM: I’ve read the majority of your interviews over the Internet to get a better of sense of what has been asked and try to outdo that. You’ve shared that your combined hatred for malls gave birth to “The Mall.” What about malls pushes your buttons?
S: Basically the fakeness and sameness of them all. Fake lighting, fake people (mannequins), fake music etc. And underneath all this artifice, the bare corridors and storage rooms that are the heart and soul of the mall. Louis took me behind the scenes of his favorite mall when I visited him in Joburg, and it creeped me out.
L: I don’t really mind malls. I live in Johannesburg and, despite our great weather, our city’s pastime is going to malls on the weekends because we don’t have any beaches or mountains or rivers to take the kids to. When I was a student I worked in a bookshop in a mall, though, and that gave me a different angle on malls. I got to see the back end.
HM: It’s been established that Louis wrote Daniel’s and Sarah wrote Rhoda’s chapters, while communication between the two of you happened via e-mail. In your interviews you mention how that worked for you, but I have to ask, didn’t procrastination hijack your e-mail threads into non-writing territory?
S: We’d occasionally go off on a tangent and talk crap, but the fact that I knew Louis was waiting for my chapter and vice-versa meant that procrastination and gossip was kept to a minimum, which was a new experience for me. I’m usually quite happy to be distracted and arse around when I’m writing – I think most writers are the same!
L: I also like to talk nonsense, but I reach a threshold pretty quickly. E-mail does work for us, because we generally stick to our point and purpose.
HM: Janet van Eeden likens “The Mall” to a consumerism fueled Alice in Wonderland. I can almost agree. To me “The Mall” is the twisted cousin of “Through the Looking Glass,” where everything is opposite. The ideal of plastic beauty is substituted with one of mutilation. Scars and amputations arouse; shoppers are royalty entitled to everything in the mall and money is not even mentioned. It’s obvious that you satirize consumerism and materialism, but I’d like to ask for your full intentions with this setting, the motivations left unspoken and known only to you.
S: Consumerism and advertising are based on lies or half-truths – airbrushed models, empty slogans that really mean nothing (‘because you’re worth it’, ‘Just do it’ etc), and its all designed to get people to buy a load of crap that they don’t actually need. We wanted to strip this away and peer behind this façade. In The Mall’s world, models aren’t airbrushed, they’re skinny sickly anorexics, Botox and plastic surgery are taken to the max, and slogans tell the truth. I think The Mall’s ‘reality’ is actually less disturbing than the one we deal with everyday; at least it’s honest.
L: I honestly didn’t have any broad political intentions. For me, I always focus on the specific characters and on how events affect them. For me, that’s a key strength of fiction – it brings political generalities down to a personal, affecting level.
HM: Your novel explores the conflict ‘reality versus irreality’. The monster in the halls in the back of the mall, the under-mall itself and whether what Dan and Rhoda experienced was real or delusional. Is this an intentional mind game?
S: I guess we were playing with the concept of reality which is slightly different for everyone. It’s up to the reader to decide if they want to buy into (scuse the pun) the downside mall and the journey Dan and Rhoda take to reach it. I hope they do.
L: We do like to mess with your mind.
HM: The remarkable thing about “The Mall” is the unorthodox direction the plot adopts. With a ‘hero seeking escape’ plot-line, the escape would be the objective, the prize and not the stop in the middle of the road. What prompted you to explore the story beyond this initial plot.
S: We were adamant that we wanted to look at what happens after the traditional ‘happily – or unhappily- ever after’ ending. I don’t think this is explored enough in horror fiction or movies, or if it is, it tends to be in the form of an epilogue. We put our characters though a series of bizarre and sometimes horrific experiences and it made sense to look at how this had impacted on their lives and personalities. It was the most challenging section of the novel to write.
L: Throughout the writing, we wanted to keep our characters grounded in reality, despite their bizarre circumstances. We wanted the reader to engage with the story and ask, “What would I do if this actually happened to me?” Exploring the after-effects of the events was part of that psychological realism. I was very glad that Sarah wanted to go that route because that style is much more my writing comfort zone.
HM: Reading “The Mall” I kept thinking about the dimension of horror and fear. Pop culture has tied ‘horror’ to scream queens and cheap scares. What are the dimensions of horror for you?
S: I think there is horror to be found in the everyday. A subtle warping of reality, where the benign and seemingly normal is twisted, is far scarier than zombies or vampires or mythical creatures. Of course, true horror comes in the 1.am phone call, the car accident, sudden illness and life’s randomness.
L: Absolutely. I don’t need to make up monsters to frighten me. The thought of my family getting hurt in an accident or an attack is enough to keep me awake.
HM: Most chapters in the book end on a sort of ‘uh oh, what will we do now note.’ From your interviews, I see that these are challenges that your threw each other to write the characters out of complete peril. Was there ever a dead-end in the earlier drafts, which really did end it for the characters?
S: We did plan for Dan’s ending to be somewhat more gruesome! I actually feel guilty when I think about our initial plans for him. But as we progressed we were both open to doing U-turns and rewriting when something didn’t work. We didn’t stick slavishly to any ideas. I know it’s a cliché, but I think the characters ran the show more than we did.
L: Yes, during the writing, we had a couple of sticking points where we were like “Now what?” rather than Dan and Rhoda, but then we went back and fixed them up.
HM: If you were stuck in the under-mall, what would you be? A shopper, working for The Management or hiding in-between the cracks?
S: I think I would be hiding in the cracks. I’m not very good with authority, bureaucracy drives me mental, and I reckon I’d get bored with shopping after a while. I’m not a very good consumer.
L: Shopper. Definitely. Give me tons of money and plenty of time, I could find plenty of goodies to buy for myself and my friends and family.
HM: If you escaped the under-mall, would you return and why?
S: I think Rhoda and Dan are seduced by the fact that they have experienced something extraordinary, that is never boring, and have encountered a place where they are not judged. I think this could be seductive, but I like my current reality, so no, I don’t think I would make the choice to return. Besides, who’d feed the dogs?
L: I’d miss the sky and birds, open air, the chance to ever see the sun or the sea. As you can tell, I’ve toyed with the idea.
HM: So far, “The Mall” has been well received in the UK and South Africa. Are there plans to conquer the US and how do you think that the Mecca of Malls will react to the demonization of their favorite spot [though I tend to overgeneralize, cause malls are now global as well as the behavior assumed to go with it]?
S: I hope it hits the US soon. I have no idea how US readers will react – like you say, mall culture is global, so hopefully the people who haunt Wallmart and the strip malls will get a kick out of it.
L: We’d love to get it into the US. I think it would appeal to anyone who’s shopped in malls, whether they love or hate them. Those who hate malls would enjoy the satire, and those who love them would enjoy the sales.
HM: You’re next novel as S.L. Grey is titled “The Ward” and will expand on your universe, but this time the setting is a hospital, which most people find terrifying as it is. Is this novel a child of your accumulated loathing of hospitals? Why hospitals?
S: I don’t loathe hospitals at all, but I do hate medical aid and insurance schemes, which are a real-life horror here as well as in the US, and increasingly in the UK. If you have the money and the connections you have a better chance of good medical care and survival, which should be a basic human right. If we are satirising anything in The Ward, it is this. The real horrors lurk within the corporations and government agencies that play with people’s lives in order to make money. Sure, The Ward explores some visceral elements – hospitals can be scary places, especially if you accidentally find yourself in the morgue – but I hope we’ve created something fresh, new and terrifying that readers won’t expect.
L: As you say, hospitals are terrifying enough as they are, so we didn’t need to play that aspect up in quite the same way as we twisted malls. The idea of waking up, in trouble, in a vast and under-resourced state hospital served as a great starting point for our story.