Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Book of the month!

Hotdogs under the Dakota – Johannes Gouws

In South Africa in the 1950’s. A young boy struggles to realise his individuality while dealing with an abusive grandfather and a wayward mother. Set against the background of an emerging Apartheid with its vicious consequences, this gripping story of cruelty, duplicity, love and ultimately murder keeps the reader enthralled.

This book does exactly what it says on the cover; it does keep the reader enthralled. I knew it was going to be an emotional read as all the ingredients were there, Apartheid, abusive family etc. It is rather like seeing a car accident you don’t want to look but your morbid curiosity gets the better of you and yes the emotional roller-coaster is well worth it as reading this book is more of an experience than just a good read.


  • Your characters have a lot of depth to them, are they bbased on real people?
  • Did you develop a plan of your story or did you just write what came to you?
  • How did you manage to write about Petie's pain and confusion with such clarity?

1. Characters; 
My writing is character based rather than plot based. I spend much time before I start writing thinking about my characters. I make notes on "character cards;" age, height, weight, hair and eye colour, etc., likes, dislikes, and so on. But in addition to the card, I "get to know" each character in my head until I can picture him/her and hear their voices. Now, this process calls on knowledge and observations of countless people I have seen and met, and some specific characteristics are certainly drawn from real people. But generally, my characters are composites of many. On the subject of character, I believe (for a writer) environment and character interact. The one cannot exist without the other. Imagine Granddad in my story and background as a City Banker and you will see what I mean.         

2. Plan/plot; 
It started with an idea. A splash of abuse cases appeared in the press, and I began to think about the children involved in cases where the abuser is a close relative. Someone the child trusts and looks to for love. To me, the starkest issue was the rupture of trust, and the demolition of self worth a child suffers in these circumstances. Although the consequences of abuse are well documented, I wanted to try and understand the child's journey. There are many books on sale about abused children, graphically descriptive, and almost always written by people who had fist hand experience. What could I hope to contribute that these unfortunate beings had not already done?  
Well, that's the advantage of fiction; I would be an observer, able to peek into the heart of every character, and hopefully, lay bare the emotional interplay that causes such damage. Its a downbeat subject, so my character would be someone the reader would root for, not as a victim, but as a fighter, a cheeky survivor. This was the gist of my story. 
That gave me my arc, showing a child overcome his circumstances through strength of character. I came across this quote that seemed to fit exactly what I wanted to say about Petie.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle". Attributed to Plato Ref:..Wikihow.

Petie was certainly fighting  a hard battle, and I would show how he grows to meet his challenge. 
I drew up a "growth" plan for Petie, which I have to admit I altered several times during the writing. Some of the scenes "just happened" on their own, the characters taking the lead. Even after the second draft I was still moving chapters around. Thank goodness for Cut & Paste.
This is the result, as outlined by the blurb;
The unspoken battle we all face is how to get through life with the least pain. Petie, the character in Hot dogs under The Dakota, sets about this challenge by trying to manage the people around him to improve his lot. When this fails, he turns to witchcraft and then religion, but his problems remain unresolved. Finally, he looks to himself, realizing the answer to coping with life lies within himself.  

3. How did I capture Petie's anguish? 
To prepare for my writing, I attended our local Crown Court, sitting in the public gallery with my notebook, witnessing cases of abuse prosecution. It was into my third day at court - after a day's gruelling witness testimony by a twelve year old girl against her own father - that I realised what I had let myself in for; I went home that night and threw my notes in the bin. I was sick to my stomach. It took several days for me to pick up the reins again. Writing about Petie's pain and confusion is without doubt the most difficult I have ever tackled. I did not want to sensationalise, cheapen, or God forbid, titillate some warped mind out there. So, graphic descriptions were out of the question. But how to express love to an abuser without sounding hypocritical remained a challenge. Many hours of wrestling with words ensued. The result is a book of which I am enormously proud. It was written from the heart, and I hope it will touch the hearts of those who read it.  

Johannes (Laddie) Gouws.   

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