Building a Wall.

A good while back I interviewed Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer for Bookslive about their collaboration as Frank Owen, and their “Cowboy Apocalypse” novel SOUTH.

Interested in what these two immensely talented writers had to say about their process, their world-building, and the things that inspired the horror of the world that is South of the Wall?  Read on.



Cat:  You’re very different writers in terms of stories and styles and backgrounds. Can you tell us a little about Frank Owen, and the different facets of Diane and Alex that go into making him the writer he is?

Alex: Writing is a personal process, and so it took some time to figure out how best to write together. The way I saw it was that I’d drive the story line – try to get the pace and plot going so that there’s something happening in every chapter. Then over that Diane brings a very accessible but literary style – smart and layered and mesmerising.

Cat: P.J. O’Rourke once made the comparison between the Voortrekkers and the American pioneers, noting how much they have in common. Do things like this give you the overlap to make the story engaging for both American and South African audiences?

Alex: We were both initially uncomfortable with the idea of setting it in America since neither of us has spent much time there – but even so, the place didn’t feel foreign to write. That stems largely from the cultural colonisation that America has been doing for a century, through movies and books and big brands. America has become both a country and a genre. We’re writing in the genre.

Cat: South is an alternative history of the US, with the timeline deliberately fudged. We spoke about this Great Divide you create in your version of America. You are also able to draw on your South African experience. What were your thought processes while building this United America?

Alex: This story is basically a transposition of apartheid onto the American continent, though the dividing line is literally one border – a bit like the ‘homelands’. ‘South’ explores what apartheid might look like there.

Cat: The characters in ‘South’ run the gamut, and there were those I hated, those I wanted to give a good kick up the arse, and those I loved. Could you talk to us a bit about your favourites to write, and how you approached the heroes and villains in your story?

Alex: The backbone of the narrative rests on our favourite: Felix Callahan, an ex-TV salesman and amateur meteorologist living in an underground shack. He’s pivotal, yet he’s a reluctant participant the whole way through. We like him because his agenda is pretty clear. He’s not motivated by love or money, but by the hope that he might be left alone to drink his whiskey.

Every villain in South is really only trying to survive. They’re not malicious for the sake of it. The real villains are up North, since they’re the ones who’ve decimated everything below the border. Those guys we deal with in the next book, North.

Cat: South has a distinct Dark Tower (Stephen King) feel, though your story has stripped the magic and replaced it with science. Was King a deliberate influence? What other stories fed into the writing of South?

Diane: King is God. But all of Bradbury and Le Guin get a nod, too. Michiel Heyns’s ‘The Reluctant Passenger’ and Claire Robertson’s ‘The Spiral House’ resonated. Real news stories infected the writing: Wouter Basson repeatedly getting away with his apartheid experimentation; Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit that lets mushrooms do the decomposition work after your death.

Cat: I know both of you have strong feelings on music. Was getting into the sound of the south important for you while working on this series?

Diane: I kept listening to Miss Texas 1977’s ‘Nettles’, and it twanged something in my head. Books are ballads, too. The curated nostalgia inherent in bluegrass and folk is fascinating – that history and experience that you find in every culture:

Johannes Kerkorrel and the Gereformeerde Blues Band; Valiant Swart. I also stumbled on The Civil Wars, and Iron Head Baker – the prisoner who first sang ‘Black Betty’.

And Gene Kierman of Miss Texas composed two tracks for the series. They’ll be downloadable from the site.

Cat:  I had some difficulties with accepting certain things – the winds and the viruses, and later the mushrooms. It turns out all this is plausible. Can you talk about the research?

Diane: A lot of mushrooms – like shiitake and oyster, not psychedelic ‘boomers’ – really are anti-viral as well as anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. China has known this for 10 000 years. Our government ought to be researching the hell out of these things. Mushrooms have direct implications for HIV, TB, hepatitis, and the common cold. They literally grow in wood and – usually – horseshit, though on a formal scale it’s a pasteurised substrate. Kimberley farmers tried large-scale oyster-mushroom farming in De Beers’s abandoned mine shafts: I’ve eaten some of those babies. South Africa has loads of sites – Mushroom Guru, Funguys Gourmet, and so on.


As always, it was a pleasure chatting with these two immensely talented humans, and I suggest you go check out South. And maybe stock up on mushrooms….


Blackberries and bicycles

bicycle-788733_1280It’s a quiet, warm Sunday, and there’s a magpie strutting about my fresh-mown lawn, looking for bugs. Everyone in the house is sick and/or asleep, so I mowed the lawn with the little push mower Brian bought and I just love it!  It actually cuts the grass, makes fairly little noise, and is fuel-free so good for the environment. While out in the back garden I discovered that it’s not all weeds and grass, but also the neighbour’s plants which have crawled over the fence and began to establish themselves. Which means, for the first time in my life, I have brambles!

Also discovered we have blackberry brambles. 😀

A photo posted by @cat_hellisen on

LOOKEE, actual real blackberries, not just stuff I read about in books. I am ridiculously excited about this, it’s kinda sad.

While we have hardly any furniture (beyond cardboard boxes charmingly “decorated” with my scarves), I did get myself a bike. I also discovered that though I walk a lot, walking and biking use a very different set of muscles. My knees are like HOLY MOTHER OF DRAGONS WHAT IS THIS WHAT DID WE EVER DO TO YOU?

I am loving it here in Scotland, though I am feeling a little lonely. My family and friends are all on the other side of the world. On facebook I see my friends doing stuff around Cape Town, having birthdays, celebrating book launches and all those things, and I realise just how isolated I am at the moment. I know no-one nearby here and it’s a little scary. One thing I am looking forward to is going to Fantasycon in Scarborough in September, where at least I will see some familiar faces and feel a little less like a lost fart in a perfume factory.

Writing has been on the backburner (haha let’s not lie, it has been off the hob completely) while we were making the final immigration moves, and I’m feeling a bit pointless at the moment. I need to knuckle down on Monday and try get my head back in the right space for making and fixing words. I know people are waiting for me to send them stuff or respond to emails but my mind has been totally occupied with the move (and the *wonderful* flu that came with it :P). Things should get more or less back to normal now.

Enter Scotland

I’m here. I totally made it, and while the flight was long and tedious, immigration was a breeze. I also arrived at Peak Brexit so I’ve been avoiding the news as much as possible because yeah.

So far Scotland has been living up to expectations haha. Also holy crap I love this place.

A photo posted by @cat_hellisen on


I haven’t had time to settle in properly, obviously, but here is a quick list of observations about Scotland and the UK.

  • The Scots are amazingly friendly. Like, so friendly I don’t quite know how to react. Last time I lived in the UK I was in Nottingham and I do not remember this level of helpfulness and what seems like genuine good feeling. The kids seem a bit more meh, but hey kids are little shits pretty much everywhere so yeah.
  • Bacon is cheaper than chicken. Again, just for the sheer WTFness. BACON IS CHEAPER THAN CHICKEN. Thank you, gods of Scotland.
  • Brooms are apparently impossible to buy. I have no idea why I’m finding a broom so hard to buy in a shop, when those same shops have a drug section like a chemist’s and entire aisles of hard alcohol. So weird.
  • When Capetonians talk about their weather being changeable, they don’t know shit. The weather in Fife seems to do complete 180s on a ten minute roster. I have no idea what to wear anymore – one minute I’m boiling, the next I’m drowning in cold rain and being lashed by Muizenberg-style winds. When the sun is out though, the whole place just looks amazing.
  • Scotland is so green. SO VERY GREEN. INSANELY GREEN. Things grow here, the trees are very tall and there are roses everywhere, whole hillsides covered in roses and foxgloves and nettles. And other things. My knowledge of UK plant life is fairly limited.
  • I can now recognise common local birds (we share a few – starlings, sparrows, wagtails etc), but yeah – magpies, rooks, carrion crows, woodpeckers, pied wagtails, herring gulls, robins, blackbirds, wood pigeons, and my favourite so far – jackdaws. The common lbjs are still beyond me, but it’s early days.
  • The sense of history. Just…mind-blowing. Walking around ruins of towers that are a thousand years old is pretty staggering.
  • The summer days are really long. It’s messing with my head a bit, especially when you discover school only starts at 9 am, so in summer you’ve had 5 hours of daylight before you get to your first lesson. 0.o.
  • Things like buying a sim card and getting connected, and opening a bank account, are piss-easy. No stupid RICA sim registration nonsense, bank staff are friendly and helpful (this seems to be a trend).


I have been using my instagram for actual pictures, so if you’re keen on seeing my view of my new country, you can go follow me there:


Forth Bridge from coastal walk

A photo posted by @cat_hellisen on

Getting Ready for the Weekend and Remembering faces


So this weekend is Kingsmead Book Fair, and I am pretty excited to be part of this, on a panel with Joanne Macgregor, Edyth Bulbring, and chaired by Bontle Senne.


We’re on at 13:45 in the Gym:

GymYoung Adult novelists Edyth Bulbring(Snitch)Cat Hellisen(Beastkeeper) and Joanne Macgregor(Scarred) discuss the themes of bullying and bloodlines, beauties and beasts and the transformative power of first love. Chaired by fellow youth writer Bontle Senne.

There will be an SASL interpreter at this session.

Now, fun stuff aside, I’m going to offer an apology in advance, and a small explanation.

Firstly, if you see me and want to say hi, PLEASE DO!


Secondly, even if we have met several times before, it’s probable I won’t recognise you. This is not because of you, it’s because of me. I have great difficulty remembering names and faces. I try very hard to build up a mental index card that matches people up, but if you do something like comb your hair differently, wear (or not wear) glasses, change your clothes, meet me in a different place, my index cards get scrambled and I need to re-sort them. This can take a while, and it’s very embarrassing for me because I hate making people feel like I don’t care who they are. I really do care, I just have an actual problem. The problem is made worse when I am anxious or stressed, and public situations make me both.


So, if it appears I have no idea who you are, just be gentle and say your name and remind me when we last saw each other and I can reshuffle my index.  😀


I other news, I’ve put CHARM up on Smashwords with a new cover, and added my Mundus short story Oma Zoli’s Mirror.

charm(1)Irene Kerry has grown up with the memory of her mother’s suicide, and has been in love with her best friend Rain for as long as she can remember. She thinks she’s dealing with both just fine until the day her best friend falls in love with a much older man. A man who knew her mother, and believes Irene is a magician like her. In order to protect her friend and family, Irene gets dragged into a hunt for an ancient magician who steals and eats magic, and discovers that the things she thought she knew about her mother’s death were all lies.





OMA ZOLI'S MIRRORDylan McKenzie is a collector of magical artifacts from this world and others, but when a voice underground tells him to look for his heart’s desire, he is pulled into the web of a fallen goddess, sent to murder her sister and bring back her soul.

Oma Zoli’s Mirror shows your heart’s desire. Or her heart. Or her desire. She spins webs to get what she wants, but will the man she’s trapped do as she commands?

Gimme100 and the May Patreon Project

May is feeling pretty damn stressful. I’m still trying to sort out paperwork for the UK immigration thang, I miss that guy what I married once, I may have an aikido grading coming up, I’m still fixing the house, and I’m trying to reignite an old project for the agent-person. Add to that, I’ll be away part of May for the Kingsmead Book Fair.

Hev1LeLSo yeah. Feeling a wee bit eeeeeeek.

But mainly I need to be productive and all that nonsense, so to that end I have two small projects running. The first is a twitter-based bit of fun designed to get over that horrible feeling of, “oh god, words, they are scary, I cant make them, I’m going to watch Sherlock (again) instead.”

It’s called #gimme100, and the premise is that simple – give me 100 words every day. You can write more, but don’t write less.

and people have started joining in, which is pretty cool.

My other project is for Patreon, where I’m growing a story from seed, showing how I grow, compost and prune a short piece of writing.

Growing Stories in small spaces


(start here)



I heard funeral chants. They were distant dreams while I was buried under a blanket of soft goat wool. I was neither awake nor asleep. Instead of being alive, I lay in a half-world of raging sands and alternating fogs so damp and heavy that they pinned my arms to my sides, kept my eyelids pressed shut. It was better to stay there than wake and deal with everything I’d lost.

My skin feels tender and stretched, even the slightest movements pull at stitches, remind me of my bruises.

Read More →

Finding new shapes in words

I’ve spoken a bit before about losing the joy in writing. For a good while now (since writing and selling Beastkeeper), I’ve been struggling with my novel-writing. No matter how many novels I start, I decide they are trash, will never sell, and that I’m wasting my time. I junk that book and start the next one, hoping that this time I can stop sounding like Cat Hellisen and instead write something that will appeal to a wider range of readers and therefore to editors.

Lather, rinse, repeat, because you know how people talk about “finding their voice”? Yeah. I have a voice. This is my voice. If we were talking in terms of singing, I am not Britney Spears or Lady Gaga or anyone else whose name you know. Maybe I’m Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy  (though he’s more productive and better known than me, Especially as The Palace Brothers, which was my intro to his sound, so…maybe not). Still if this is what I sound like to other people then it might explain my lack of chart success. (FTR, this is one of my favourite songs).

Anyway, so now I have to take a different path. Less of the “finding my voice” and more of the “accepting my voice”. Knowing its limitations and working on those areas, reveling in the bits that sound like no one else but me.

But that means not throwing away the stuff I’m working on, and damn, let me tell you – that’s scary. To keep writing something even if you know most people are going to go eh, whatever, Next! That goes against everything I wanted for myself as a writer (a career, fans, books in book stores).

So I’m doing it in small steps. I am writing 750 words a day on my novella and NOT DELETING because Cat, you can fix this later, stop hating on everything you write. At least for the moment.

I’m remembering to enjoy doing small things that give me space to sing – like poetry, or fanfiction, or flash pieces. Stop worrying about selling by writing stuff that I know already doesn’t sell, so it doesn’t matter.

The Migratory Patterns of Family Recipes

When I am done with the novella, my agent wants me to work on an old novel that I had (once, again) abandoned, and it is all stitchery and witchery and women’s gods and women’s power, so I am pretty excited to get back into that world. This is why I write, so I can play.

In the mean while I have books out there on submission, and one day they will find the editors they are meant to find. Or they won’t. And that’s just how it goes. All I can do is keep writing small and large about the things that interest me. Making up my own songs, drumming my own beat.



(start here)



We wake alone. The house is standing expectant, waiting for Eline to strike. I think of the body cooling in the blue room and press my fist against my mouth until the urge to sob passes.

Another little game piece, fallen. We met at a party, and her first words to me were about the Ives’ girls who had just been brought into the House games of power and prestige. I couldn’t tell if she felt sorry for them or not. Certainly, she didn’t see them as innocents. But she never had their weapons, their training. And she lost because of that, and more importantly, because of me.

I let the tremors pass through me. She’s gone. She’s not going to paint raw and wild pictures, or smoke ‘ink in back street tea shops.

Read More →


(start here)



What are you trying to do?” Jannik says the moment we are alone in our suite of rooms.

I don’t know what you mean.Outside has gone dark with the afternoon thunderstorm. If Pelimburg was a city of impossible times, MallenIve in summer is a pocket-watch. By three the clouds begin to gather low and black, rumbling ominously to each other as they convene, and within the hour, they release their downpour on the sweating city. A fat blob of rain splatters on the glass. Four o’clock, then.

Thishurting people, using them. It’s not like you.He walks closer, and the room shifts around him, growing small and close. Trapping me. “First Merril, and now her.”

I protected you,I say.Would you rather I stood back and watched you suffer?I can hear the tears in my voice, that thick sound of a female weakness for which my brother always mocked me. I swallow over and over, willing myself back to a calm state – a vacant, logical state.

Read More →

UK Ancestry Visa and the Mountains of Paperwork



Many years ago, The Boy and I discussed leaving South Africa (he had just been stabbed multiple times on the way home from watching the F1 at our local; I was home with a 3-month-old baby and four-year-old spawnlet). We looked at Australia and Canada, but it was a feeble and half-hearted sort of looking, and after a while the idea was placed on the back burner and we got on with our lives. We moved back to Cape Town, started over from scratch, moved around until we settled (very happily) in my lovely Muizenberg.

The idea came up again after The Boy discovered that several of his cousins had emigrated on the UK ancestry visa. We had known that his granny was UK-born, but it had never really registered as an option. So we thought – stay in Muizenberg forever, or try go overseas and see what happens?

Well, I hate the word forever, so we went for see what happens.

We checked out the info on and realised this was an actual real possibility. Though it did pain us to discover if we’d started this a few years back we would have missed that damn International Health Surcharge (at £200 per year of your visa, per person, it is a phenomenal amount of extra cash to add to your costs,especially with a family. Be warned.)

We began the lengthy process of organising all our paperwork. The Boy’s granny’s birth certificate was super-easy – we looked up her details online, applied, paid the ten quid, and had it in our hands within a matter of weeks.

The South African paperwork was not to be as simple or easy. Some stuff was relatively quick (and in fact, in the case of the Spawn’s passports, joyous – the passport staff at Cape Town Home Affairs were wonderful – efficient, friendly, helpful, and we had the passports in under a week.)

Applying for birth and marriage certificates was a whole other experience. Because of the discrepancy in information (some websites said unabridged certificates, others insisted unabridged were no good and they had to be vault copies) we decided to get both the unabridged and vault copies of all the relevant birth certificates to be on the safe side:

The Boy’s Mother’s, his own, and The Spawn’s.

We also needed the marriage certificates of his grandmother, and mother, and our own.

Thanks to what I believe was a Home Affairs system crash around 2002ish, some of those documents took close on a year to get, with us having to fill in multiple requests. In the case of Elder Spawn, we had to fill in paperwork for Late Registration of Birth twice, despite the fact that she had both her abridged birth certificate and her passport. So, fair warning if you have paperwork from that time period, as there could be major delays.

The Achieving of The Works of Paper took so long that I do believe most people thought we were joking about emigrating, but once we had everything in hand, we could finally take the next step.

TB certificates. Yes, the country that sent us all their consumptive wretches wants us to prove we’re not bringing the disease back to them… 😉

There is only one place in Cape Town you can get your required TB certification, and it’s in Parow shopping centre. The address is on the UK gov site, you can make the booking, and you’ll need about R1600, a passport photo, your passport, and proof of a UK address. We had booked The Boy into a hostel in Glasgow for a week, and paid a 10% deposit, and that proved fine.

The Boy would be going over first to scout and settle (we had already decided on Scotland for Reasons (Hogwarts)) and, armed with reams of paperwork, sufficient proof of funds (this varies, make sure you can support a single person for around 3 months on UK terms, this was pretty distressing for us as the rand was tanking and we were watching our possible pounds rapidly diminishing), six months of bank statements, proof that he had been applying for work (printouts from job application sites, and a letter from one recruitment agency stating that they had a client who was very interested in The Boy), his TB certificate, and a huge chunk of money to pay for the International Health Surcharge and UK Ancestry Visa fees (£1000 and £405 at time of writing), he filled in the online application form, paid all the fees, and made a booking with the Biometrics/Visa place in Green Point.

A week of anxious waiting and finally The Boy went in to hand over all his (triple checked) supporting paperwork, passport, and printed application, and have his fingerprinting etc done. The application was sent to Pretoria, and we had to deal with a whole lot more anxious fretting, but in 12 days he had an email telling him that a decision had been made.

They don’t tell you via email or phone if it’s a yes or no, but as soon as The Boy was able to pick up his papers, there it was – a lovely stamped entry visa. The entry visa is not the actual visa, but a 30 day time frame in which you can enter the UK, you can still be turned back at immigration. The actual visa is now a separate card you can carry in your wallet, called a biometric residence permit, and you pick it up when in the UK.

Naturally much joy was joyed, and hallulujahs rung.

Next, we had to get him over.