Monday, April 28, 2014

Masha du Toit's Crooks and Straights

Today I'm excited to introduce you to Mash du Toit. She's a fellow Capetonian, and I recently proofed her YA contemporary fantasy novel, Crooks and Straights. Also, at the end of this blog post, we've got a question and ebook giveaway for readers, so keep your eyes open for a chance to lay hands on an ebook version of Crooks and Straights. I absolutely adored the story and pretty much gobbled it up. Masha weaves in her love for her location and its people with a magical reality that is utterly bewitching. So, welcome, Masha, and tell us more about the setting for Crooks and Straights, and also a little more about the initial story seed that sparked it.

The seed that sparked this story  came to me out of nowhere – I pictured a South African girl putting sunblock on a little Irish fae. I liked the idea of a supernatural foreigner in South Africa, suffering from the sun on their pale skin. The rest of the story grew from there. What would South Africa be like, if magical creatures from other countries came here – possibly as refugees? What would they be fleeing from?  How would they survive here?

Who are the main characters people will encounter? Can you tell us a little about the challenges they will encounter? 

The story is about a girl called Gia and her family. Gia is sixteen years old, and she's at that stage where she's enough of an adult to chafe at her parents' restrictions, but still not quite ready to stand on her own in the scary world out there. As the story starts, the family business has fallen on hard times, and they've moved into a distinctly working class neighbourhood. This means that Gia is seeing another side of life, one that was hidden from her before. In particular, she's seeing the magicals – the trolls, fairies, werewolves and other creatures who live among humans in this version of South Africa.  As she explores this new world, she accidentally sets off a train of events that puts her little brother Nico in danger.

What were some of the challenges with the story that you encountered, and how did you overcome them?

One of the important characters is Nico, Gia's little brother. Nico is not like other boys. He cannot speak properly, and it's clear from the start that he has some kind of mental or behavioural abnormality. This was a challenge for me. Firstly, I had to spend some time with children who are not neurotypical, so that I could base Nico on a real child instead of on my preconceptions of what such a child would be. Then, although I based a lot of his traits are that of an autistic child, Nico is not autistic. The reason for his difference becomes apparent only quite late in the story. So I had to find a way to portray him as "different but not autistic" without seeming simply to be writing an uniformed version of an autistic child.

Was there a particular scene that is one of your favourites? Then, to flip the coin, was there a scene that you struggled with?

I think my favourite scene is the one where Gia's mother, Saraswati, comes to have a late-night chat with Gia, and gives her a belated birthday present. At that stage in the story the two of them are not getting on very well, and they both need to find a better way back towards one another. Saraswati tells Gia how she felt the very first time she saw her (Gia was adopted), and Gia starts to realise how life must seem from her mother's point of view – something she's not been very good at doing up to that point. For me, the heart of this book is Gia's relationship with her mother. In some ways, Saraswati is the real heroine, and the book is about Gia discovering her mother's story.

A scene that I struggled with? I think this is one that a lot of writers come up against – how to introduce the story-world to the reader, without simply "info dumping", writing a long, boring lecture that slows the story down. Gia attends a lesson on magical creatures near the beginning of the book, and that is also the place where the reader gets enough information to be able to understand how her world works. Or at least, I hope so! I had to rewrite that quite a few times, removing all the things I was so proud of figuring out, but that the reader really did not need to know about.

You've got a few other titles out. Can you tell us a bit more about your other works?

My other books are a two-book series The Story Trap and The Broken Path. Like Crooks and Straights, they are urban fantasy books set here in Cape Town, and, like Crooks and Straights, they are both illustrated by me. The Story Trap is about a girl, Rebecca, who goes into an unexplained coma. Her sisters discover that the coma is the result of a witch's spell, and the book is about their attempts to bring Rebecca back. In The Broken Path, Rebecca has recovered, but she longs to be back in the magical world that she inhabited while she was in the coma. All of this is mixed up with a witch who is willing to do just about anything to save the ocean from humanity's pollution.

What aspects of your home town do you find inform your writing?

I'm heavily influenced by my surroundings. I write about magical creatures and impossible situations, but I love making them seem normal and real by setting them in the places I see every day – like Cape Town station, or the Civic Centre, or Main Road Woodstock. This has the effect of giving me a sort of double vision wherever I go, as I "remember" the story events that played out all over my version of Cape Town.

Can you tell us a bit more about your literary influences? 

I have so many!  Some of them are obvious, like Charles de Lint or Diana Wynne Jones, both writers who like to mix up the every-day world with magic. Garth Nix is another one, the master of monsters. Others may not be that apparent – I love the humanity of children's writers Arthur Ransome and Elizabeth Enright, who have such empathy and respect for their characters. And recently, I've been entranced by Jonathan Stroud, who has a unusually delicate, wry, moral angle to his writing. I read pretty much everything though, from old classics to popular genre fiction, and all of it feeds into my writing.

Getting back to Crooks and Straights, you've left the story at a bit of a cliffie, which suggests there's more to come. Are you able to tell us more at this point?

Oh yes indeed! I worried about that quite a bit, but in the end, decided that I could not fit the entire story into a single book. I've already started on the sequel and am having a lot of fun with it. Quite a few werewolves in this story, and the sea is important too – I'm figuring out a new angle on mermaids. It helps that I've just started doing volunteer work at the Two Oceans Aquarium.  Lots of source material there.

And now, for the question. Masha wants to know:
Is there a magical creature that doesn't often get featured in books, that you would like to read more about? Tell me about it! Email Masha at

Kindle versions on, Kindle versions on, online first chapter.
My "books" site with info on all my books is here and my Google+ profile.

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