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The magical world of Cat Hellisen

With names such as Lauren Beukes,SL Grey and Lily Herne paving the way for South African genre fiction, and making an international footprint, it’s good to know we can add another name to that list.

Cat Hellisen, a Cape Town author, celebrated the foreign release of her young adult fantasy novel When the Sea is Rising Red (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) at the end of February and has created a world filled with magic and fascinating characters, with a seaborne peril that visits the mythical city of Pelimburg.

Cat Hellisen

Hellisen elaborates about her “Hobverse”, as her world with its collection of towns and cities has affectionately become known: “Pelimburg is a sea-side town in the country of Oreyn. It’s got the usual life-blood of a harbour city – fishing, whaling, trade – but it also runs on magic.

“The most powerful class in Pelimburg can augment their latent magic by taking a drug called scriv. Unfortunately for them, scriv is hard to come by and extremely expensive so it’s jealously hoarded, and being a patriarchal society, the women are given little access to it.”

Like many of the younger generation of South African authors making their mark in the publishing industry at present, Hellisen grew up in SA during the height of the apartheid era.

Conflict that is based on a class struggle reflects in Hellisen’s writing. She says: “I’m not sure how anyone can grow up in the changing times we did and not be influenced.

“As a child I was as much indoctrinated by my government and schooling and family and peers as Felicita is in her world in the novel.

“Today people make a choice to look at their upbringing and decide, no this isn’t right, and try and change themselves. Without writing a specifically South African book, that’s what I set out to do.”

Magic and the ability to wield it defines the classes in Hellisen’s novel, of which there are three “acceptable” kinds of magic, all of which are related to scriv.

“Felicita is one of the War-singers who are able to control the air, but there are Saints, who tell the future, and Readers, who can see emotions. Any other magic is considered wild, and eradicated,” says Hellisen.

What makes her novel refreshing, however, is the manner in which Hellisen turns existing tropes on their heads.

She brings in unicorns and vampires, among others, and makes these creatures her own and to a degree demystifies them from the usual fare in the fantasy genre.

She says: “My unicorns are glorified goats that were produced to have one horn through selective breeding, and my vampires are as mortal as any other person, they just have a high sensitivity to sunlight and some other adaptations.”

In seeking publication, she chose representation with a US-based literary agent and went on to sell her novel to a US publisher, as opposed to taking the local route.

While the use of e-mail has made it easier for folks from around the globe to seek publication in the traditional centres, the process is still somewhat challenging.

Hellisen says: “When I first began looking for an agent years ago, I had an urban fantasy novel set in Johannesburg. Unfortunately I was never able to sell that novel – it was considered too South African – and none of the local publishers wanted to look at fantasy.

“In the end I wrote new novels and did a lot of querying before I finally found my agent. She sold my book for me, handles all the legal stuff, and has contacts with editors that I don’t have.

“It wasn’t so much a difficult process as an exhausting one – you just have to keep revising, keep writing, and not give up.”

As for the state of young adult fiction in SA, Hellisen reckons: “I haven’t read much South African young adult fiction – only Lily Herne and SA Partridge. I have a Maya Fowler book too but I can’t read Afrikaans, so it’s sitting on my shelf and looking pretty. There’s loads of writing talent in this country and, with focus, we can make a name with our work.

“But good writing isn’t about being from a particular country, and while I love that people are writing young adult set here and aimed at our teens and their lives, I just worry that we will become too insular and not reach a wider audience for our stories.”

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