S.S. Hampton, Sr.: Where were you born?
Charmaine Pauls: I was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
SH: You’ve had a varied professional career, both as an employee and an entrepreneur, including photography (I’m a photographer too). What led you into some of these fields?
CP: After completing a degree in communication, specializing in journalism and public relations, I wore many different hats in the industry, but the biggest portion of my working time was always spent writing. In my media and public relations capacity, it was always required of me to practice a certain amount of in-house photography.
My interest in photography really took off when I worked as public relations officer for the Performing Arts Council of the Free State (Bloemfontein). After completing two photography courses at a Bloemfontein college, it started out as a hobby. Soon after I moved to Pretoria and was employed as advertising manager for an international vegetable seed company (Hygrotech). I had to change from photographing ballet dancers and opera singers to carrots and cabbage. The task needed a different skill altogether, and I completed another two advanced photography courses at a Pretoria college. Food and events photography became an integral part of my professional occupation, and soon bloomed into social and wedding photography on the sideline, first as a favor to some friends, and later on as a business.
Simultaneously I was trained in graphic design to produce Hygrotech’s printed advertising material and discovered that I enjoyed it tremendously. When Hygrotech relocated to the north, I founded a (one-woman) graphic design company that I maintained for a few years until I was appointed as internal communications manager for an international banking group.
Shortly before my employment with the bank, I enrolled for a 4-year diploma course in natural medicine, another passion of mine, which inspired me to manufacture an herbal tincture range under my own label. My training in journalism, advertising, photography and graphic design helped tremendously in this regard. I however realized that the enterprise wasn’t my life purpose and continued producing herbal products for personal use while launching myself back into the corporate world, this time as brand manager for a French pet food company.
My professional career path encompasses a wide range of careers, from managing public relations for the National Council for the Deaf to marketing short-term insurance for Auto & General, but the common thread has always been writing. Born with a passion for writing, I wrote poems since primary school and won my first writing contest in 5th grade. I was finally able to turn my dream of being a fulltime novelist into reality in 2010.
SH: You’ve also lived in France and Chile. What led you to those countries?
CP: My husband is a Frenchman whose work takes him around the globe. After meeting and getting married in South Africa, I first followed him to France, and later to Chile.
SH: Why did you decide to pursue writing as a career?
CP: When I write, I know that I am doing what I was born to do. Planning plots and weaving sentences together to create a memorable piece of art that reflects meaning and emotion are what makes me tick. I believe in imagination and magic and there’s no better way expressing it than through a story. I’m happiest behind my laptop, in some world or another. I’m head over heals in love with this job.
SH: On a more personal level, please tell us about one of your happiest childhood memories.
CP: Some of my happiest memories are from our time spent in Heidelberg, Gauteng. We lived on the school grounds where my father was a teacher, far from town. For us it was like growing up on a farm with vast expanses for running, hills for exploring, dams for fishing, rivers for swimming and trees for climbing. Television only came to South Africa in 1976, and we didn’t have one until even later. Our only entertainment was the inventions and journeys our imagination took us on. It was a carefree and magical time of burying treasures, building secret hide-outs, reading in tree houses, hunting for mulberries and cherries, breeding silk worms, bicycle racing and developing a code language. Our time was spent outdoors until the very last ray of the sun had set. And when we came home, my mother used to wait for us in the door, always with a special treat, like melkkos (a traditional South African dish like a type of milk porridge with cinnamon) or tamaletjie (home made toffee).
SH: You’re married—how did you know when you found your “Prince Charming”?
CP: I’m a big believer in following your heart and ‘the signs’. When I went for an interview for brand manager with a French pet food company in South Africa, my friends strongly advised me not to entertain the offer, as it meant a substantial cut in salary and benefits. Obeying the pull of my heart, I attended the interview and stepped into the parking of the building at the exact moment of the eclipse of the sun. Considering this a powerful and positive sign, regardless the well-intended advice from my circle of support, I accepted the position. A few weeks later, a handsome Frenchman walked into my office, told me he was my new manager sent to South Africa from France for a three-year contract… and married me. I’ve known since the moment I laid eyes on my husband, that he was ‘the one’. It was a feeling stronger than that famous eclipse of the sun.
SH: Your first book with Mélange Books was “Between Fire and Ice.” How did that come about?
CP: I am intrigued by opposites and the (sometimes elusive) balance to be found in the middle of their extremities. Examples are light/dark; sun/moon; yin/yang; male/female; good/bad; past/future; fire/ice. When we first moved to Chile, my husband and I, both keen travelers, first visited the two most opposite parts of the country in both distance and characteristics: the Atacama Desert (fire) in the north and Patagonia (ice) in the south.
When I stood on top of the highest dune in the Atacama Desert, looking down over the eerie crater formations of the Valley of the Moon, I realized that this was the perfect setting for a fantasy romance. Marrying the desert to its complimentary counterpart, Patagonia, created a beautiful and metaphorical backdrop for my story. It also inspired me to attribute the regions’ geographical characteristics to the protagonists’ personalities – Cy (sun) is from the Atacama Desert, a fiery and dark warrior, while Elena (moon) is from Patagonia, a pale and gentle woman with a special gift of healing. From there I took the characters on a journey through Chile, following very much in my exploring footsteps from the Elqui Valley that is claimed to host the earth’s magnetic center to fascinating Easter Island. The plot for the story was inspired earlier that year during a family holiday in France, in the magical forest of Rochefort-en-Terre, but I didn’t know the intricate details and metaphors the tale would take on until the Chilean landscape enchanted me. The book took five months to write and another two to edit. It flowed amazingly smoothly and some say it’s because of that magnetic Elqui energy. Smile. I was delighted when Mélange offered me a contract, setting my dream in motion.
SH: In hindsight, is there anything different you would have done in the writing of “Between Fire and Ice”?
I would have hopped less between the female and male protagonists’ point of views in the love scenes. At the time I believed it was important to give the reader insight into the minds of both characters acting out in one specific scene, as I kept on asking myself, “How does he feel?” and “What is she thinking?”. In retrospect, I’d stick to one point of view per scene. And I’d tell less and show more.
SH: You have a new book, “Second Best,” being released by Mélange Books in February 2014. Would you please give us a brief synopsis of it?
CP: The first time Molly sees Malcolm is in Oudtshoorn, South Africa in 1978, when he jumps from the back of an army truck to challenge her through the school yard fence. Little did she know then, when she boldly gave him the middle finger, how their lives would become intertwined.
Surviving the secret horrors of an industrial school, juvenile delinquent Molly van Aswegen grows into a tough and troubled woman who has sworn never to love anyone enough to be vulnerable. When Malcolm McLeod, rebel journalist and soldier, comes home from the Angolan Border War to save Molly from her institution, he starts fighting a different war altogether – the battle for both of their souls.
Molly’s fight for survival and Malcolm’s moral struggle will expose them as anti-conformists, at risk of being branded and outcast from society during a politically turbulent time when South Africa is in the midst of a twenty-three year long war.
Second Best is a story about the scars of the human soul, and the road that leads to healing.
SH: Would you explain how that book came about?
CP: I was inspired by both my father and my brother to write this story. My father was a teacher at several industrial schools for juvenile delinquents in South Africa. I’ve always wanted to write a story about a character from such a school and the challenges that come with the unconscious social branding. Growing up around and living on the grounds of these schools have sparked in me a special empathy with the children who often ended up here due to cruel circumstances. At the time in which the novel is set, we lived in Oudtshoorn, in the Cape Province. It was during this time (1980) that the famous and feared military reconnaissance unit, who played a major role in the Border War (1966 to 1989), was founded in Oudtshoorn. My brother, posted to the dog explosive unit for the two years of his compulsive military service, inspired the character of the protagonist, a journalist who arrives in Oudtshoorn for his three months of basic military training.
SH: How did researching and writing “Second Best” impact you, personally?
CP: I was touched in a great variety of ways, all of those most intense. I appreciated our soldiers anew for the role they played in defending the country’s borders. Simultaneously, I was haunted by the scenes I had witnessed from some video clips and photos. It was impossible to imagine what these brave men had been through. It also awakened in me a new understanding of some of the intricate politics that shaped our country.
SH: Understanding that the manuscript is not yet edited, would you provide an excerpt from “Second Best”?
The smell of burning human flesh was unmistakable. He knew it from his days in the army explosives dog unit, when soldiers were torched during the Angolan war. Two steps brought him to the sofa. Slowly, he reached for the hand that held the candle. Gently, he wrapped his fingers around her wrist.
“Easy, Molly.” He moved her hand holding the candle away from her scorching skin and extinguished the flame between his thumb and forefinger.
She watched as he knelt down in front of her, his coat flaring out behind him and his leather pants stretching over his muscular thighs. As always, he exuded confidence and strength. With the calm sureness of someone who knew what he was doing, he wordlessly commanded her, moving her arm this way and that, his head bent low to study her injury. Raindrops dusted his dark hair.
He let go of her to walk to the end of the room that served as a kitchen, his metal pointed boots sounding angry on the wooden floor. When he returned, he pressed a dishcloth filled with ice cubes onto her red skin.
Only then did he lift his black eyes to meet hers. “Jesus Christ, Molly.” Sighing, he sat down next to her, pulling her against him to cradle her head against his chest.
When she pulled away, he said, “Do you have aspirin?” She shook her head. “You’re going to need some. I’m going to the emergency pharmacy.”
Instead of verbally arguing, his lips set in a determined line and his eyes fixed on her broodingly. If she hadn’t known him better, she would have found him terrifying. The darker skin tone under his eyes gave them a demonic look. Stubble tainted his olive skin. His square jaw and straight nose give him a gypsy-like appearance. But it was the look in his eyes that mostly had people on guard. If it weren’t for the long lashes softening his features, he would have looked like the devil himself. Malcolm wasn’t a man to be crossed. Although, he did let her get away with defying him more often than not. This time, he turned and left.
When Molly woke up, she smelled cigarette smoke. Her wrist pulsed with pain that she ignored. She padded barefoot to the backdoor where Malcolm stood on the landing in the drizzle. The end of his cigarette burned red as he inhaled, staring into the distance. Molly stopped in the door and leaned against the frame.
“How are you feeling?” he said without turning.
She shrugged. The night was cold from the summer rain. Her skin broke out in goose bumps under the thin T-shirt and denim shorts.
As if sensing her tightening flesh, he flicked his butt into the yard and removed his coat. “Here.”
She shook her head, hugging herself.
“Then come back inside.” He walked past her and stood waiting, a silent instruction for her to follow.
Satisfied only when she had obliged, he threw the coat onto a chair and inspected the contents of the fridge. Molly watched as he prepared a sandwich and a cup of tea, which he handed her with two painkillers. She swallowed the pills dry, but took the cup anyway. It warmed her hands.
“I suppose you are here for the next chapter,” she said.
He didn’t answer. His intense look was fixed on her face for such a long time, that her fingers went involuntary to the scar, tracing it from her forehead across her eye to her cheek. Seeing his expression, she quickly lowered her hand, tugging her wheat-blonde hair behind her ear.
His eyes followed the movement. As if pulled there by her action, he lifted his hand and touched a strand of her hair. “What happened, Molly?”
“Don’t you want to hear the next chapter of my life?”
“I didn’t come here for that.” He twisted the wisp of hair around his finger.
She stepped back. His expression darkened as he watched the lock slip from his grasp.
“Why are you here, Malcolm?”
“I was at the club. Thought I’d come and see why you weren’t.” His voice softened. “What happened, Molly?”
She turned away from him to stare at a window. “He fired me,” she finally said.
“It’s not your fault.”
Her laughed sounded hollow to her own ears. “How do you know?”
“I know you.”
She flung around, desperation creeping into her eyes and her voice as she said, “I can’t go back, Mal. If they find out that I’m without a job, so soon, they’ll take me in.”
She picked up his coat and pulled it on with jerky movements. “You’re here now. Do you want the story or not?”
“No. Not tonight.”
“I want to do this.”
There was a knowing look on his face when he advanced slowly, stopping short of her. She knew that look. He was allowing her to defy him. His gaze held hers as he leaned over her and retracted a hand-size tape recorder from the coat pocket. The way her body reacted at the contact with his said something entirely different, and she could see that he knew that too, but he played along with her when she moved away from him by keeping his expression unreadable and putting more space between them, placing the recorder on the table and switching it on.
When she started talking, he walked to the backdoor and lit another cigarette. He dragged on it while she spoke, sending the smoke into the night. He couldn’t look at her while she told her story. His guts pulled into a ball, his fingers into a fist in his pocket. It was his job to listen to people’s stories. And he heard his fill of bad ones, hundreds of them, worse than hers. But hers affected him. Even if he wanted, he couldn’t take a distance. It was long past that, as much as she denied what they shared.
He understood her refusal to acknowledge their bond. The reasons were there, in her life history. But it was his private war, one he intended on winning, no matter how long it took. If listening was agony, far worse than what had been done to him in the war, he did it for her. He said he was doing it for him, because if she had as much as an inkling as to why he was really doing this, she would refuse.
It had been a few seconds since she had stopped taking to his tape recorder before he turned, switched it off and dropped it into his pocket. He looked at her from under his long lashes.
“Eat,” he said, nodding at the sandwich before moving to the front door.
“I can get it later.”
She removed it and handed it to him. His eyes moved to her wrist. “Make sure it doesn’t get infected. There are wax strips in the bag.”
Molly watched him walk up the hill from the door of the old Richmond metal factory until his shadow melted into the night. When she reentered her empty loft, the loneliness was a punch in her stomach. It was as if he had never been there, his presence but a dream.
She had spent the afternoon before Malcolm came, after getting fired, playing the event over in her mind, and then trying not to. Freddie had fired her and he had gotten away with it. She was letting him get away. But there was no other way. Unless she wanted to risk being locked up. She thought that when she had left that school it all of that was over, but she was wrong. It had only just begun. When the images of her humiliation wouldn’t stop coming, she hit her head against the wall, but they only returned clearer. The only way she could ease her emotional torment was with a physical pain.
“Get your sorry ass in my office. Now.” Freddie didn’t have to shout. The contempt in his voice was more effective.
As Molly watched him walking through the car repair workshop and taking the stairs to the glass box, the others watched her. She gave the men in the blue overalls a look that made them lower their eyes. Then she snapped her teeth at Gertruida, the receptionist, and when she walked past her, the older girl cowered.
Molly took the steps two by two, aware of the men below who tried to glimpse up her skirt. She slammed Freddie’s office door behind her.
“I told you, when I hired you, not to pull funny tricks.” He pushed a piece of paper over his desk. “You left me with no alternative.”
Molly glared at the black text that swam on the white sheet. She blinked, but her eyes wouldn’t focus.
“You’re fired,” Freddie said with satisfaction.
“On what grounds?”
“Theft. It’s the second time this week that there’s petty cash gone. I should have known not to trust your type.”
She crossed her arms. “I didn’t touch your money and you know it.”
His eyes followed her movement, lingered on her breasts and then flickered to her legs. “I have proof. We’ve gone through your bag.”
“Then it was planted there.”
“It’s your word against mine. Who do you think they are going to believe?”
Molly picked up her dismissal and slowly rounded his desk. In a second, Freddie’s dominant stance slipped. He pulled at his collar. His voice was high-pitched when he said, “You stay where you are.”
Molly smiled as the man, twice her size, wheeled his chair away from her. Rumors. What did he think? That she was going to kill him? She continued her advance, until she was bracing one hand on the arm rest, the other crumbling the paper into a ball.
She brought her nose inches from his. “Don’t think I don’t know your type.”
“I know what’s going on in your head, Freddie boy.” Her gaze lowered. “And in your pants.” She blew his thinning hair from his forehead.
He glanced downstairs through the glass, to where his employees were witnessing their every action. Molly straightened and placed her boot against the edge of his chair, between his legs. His eyes widened as she wiggled the toe. She laughed, seeing where his attention had gone, to where her skirt had lifted. With a firm kick she pushed his chair to collide with the wall at his back.
“I know how you’ve been looking at me. You’re a sick boy, Freddie.” She took his stapler from his desk. “So, you’re always on my case about going to church. I know what you are thinking when you sit in the front row of the Sunday service.”
His pushed himself flat against the chair back when Molly moved forward, the stapler in one hand, and the crumpled paper in the other. Not giving him time to recover from his daze, she straddled his chair, her skirt creeping all the way up her thighs. He opened his mouth as if he was going to scream, and at the same time, she felt his hard-on growing under her skirt.
As her hand with the stapler lifted, caressing his earlobe, he whimpered, and when she clacked it twice next to the cartilage, a muffled sob escaped his throat. His hands shot up, protectively cupping his exposed ears. But instead of crunching the tender flesh, Molly stapled the paper ball to his tie.
As swiftly as she had jumped him, she hopped off his chair. She stared at the embarrassing bulge in his pants, grinning, watching as his humiliation turned to anger.
His hands lowered from his head to grip the armrests of his chair. “You little bitch.”
She straightened her skirt. “I bet that’s what you like to call them in bed,” she said sweetly. “Or do you fuck in alleys?” His eyes narrowed in his flushed face. “I refuse to be fired, Freddie boy. So take that piece of paper and shove it up your fat ass.” She turned and walked to the door. “I resign.”
No one looked at Molly when she made her way downstairs and through the workshop. Gertruida made herself small in a corner as Molly glared at her. With a swift movement of her arm, Molly swept Gertruida’s desk clean. She didn’t look back as she walked from Cheetah Spare Parts and Repairs into the street of the industrial Johannesburg suburb.
She went straight to her nearby loft, and sat on the kitchen counter for a very long time, until she could even her breathing. She thought about what had happened, and why they had set her up, until her head ached. And then, when she wanted them to, her thoughts wouldn’t stop. She bashed her head against the wall, and took a candle from the drawer.
SH: Though people may move far from where they were born and raised, there is still a place we call “home.”
Considering all that South Africa has experienced in the past decades, what is your greatest hope for South Africa?
CP: My greatest hope is that this beautiful country will host and protect a rainbow nation with security, safety and equality for all.
SH: Is there anything else you wish to add?
CP: Be on the lookout for my novel “The Winemaker”, inspired by the world-famous Chilean winemaker Francisco Baettig, due for release by Mélange Books in June. Thanking you for the interview Stan!
Charmaine Pauls Bio
Between Fire & Ice, About the Book:
Cy is heir to the powerful empire of his parents, a mining enterprise in Chile, South America. Their future power depends on his ability to produce an heir himself, a daunting prospect, as the human race is becoming infertile. But Cy’s mother – a brilliant, cold-hearted scientist – left nothing to chance, when she, in the year of her son’s tenth birthday, headed a project to artificially inseminate a fertile woman. At thirty years of age, Cy is instructed to marry Elena, who his parents surrogated and adopted for one purpose only – to have his baby.
Elena was hidden in a secluded cloister in the ice-lands of Patagonia, where the nuns, renowned for their mysterious magical practices, taught her the art of meditation and healing. A cruel education ensured that Elena submitted to her destiny, namely to give Cy a child. But soon Cy will learn that there is more to his bride than shy submissiveness. Under her gentle beauty hides a powerful woman who can give Cy the peace he is yearning for. She holds the key to his heart, and for once, he may just begin to believe in the destiny that had been preached to him all his life.
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