Based on her personal experiences, South African author Sarah Lotz's 'Pompidou Posse' is an enthralling tale of two English runaways' trip through the underbelly of Paris ? from lecherous artists to a rag-tag posse of Parisian hobos, it is a harrowing, yet darkly comedic, yarn that grabs you immediately and never lets go.
When Vicki and Sage commit a petty crime in England they feel their only option is to escape to Paris to work as au-pairs, but when the promise of employment falls flat the unlikely pair find themselves on the street with little to protect them.
Sweet and naive Vicki finds herself in one dodgy situation after the next, while hard nut Sage, who is hiding her tragic past from everybody including Vicki, seems to be harbouring more than just feelings of friendship towards the other girl.
Despite the subject matter, 'Pompidou Posse' is never short of humour and with its well fleshed-out characters and rollercoaster storyline, it is a must read.
We chatted to Lotz about the streets of Paris, how it spilled into the book and what's next for her.
I believe that a large amount of this book comes from personal experience ? so where can one separate the fact from the fiction in the book?
The events in the novel took place almost two decades ago, and as I didn't entirely trust my memory (for various reasons), it made sense to create a work of fiction rather than a memoir. The line between fact and fiction in the novel is totally blurred, some parts are recreated recollections and some are stitched together vignettes that are a melding of factual memories and fictional elements. The characterisation of the two main protagonists is possibly the most fictionalised element of the novel. The peripheral characters are drawn very much from life (and memory); although some had to be toned down to avoid caricature.
Assuming these two characters are based on yourself and a friend, are you Vicki or Sage?
The cryptic answer would be both! I think that the personality of most authors bleeds into their main characters to some extent ? it can't be helped! At a push, I would say that Vicki is based on me as a teenager (although she's far more naive and better looking than I was!) but I also share some of Sage's traits ? especially her fruity language and slight misanthropy.
The book is both harrowing yet comedic (often at the same time) was the reality of the situation the same?
There?s a line in the book where Vicki describes their situation as 'just like a movie', which, although a cliche, is a perfect description of the outrageousness of many of the experiences my friend and I underwent on a daily basis in Paris. It seemed that every day was extreme in some way or another ? we were either on the verge of being arrested, in fear of our lives, painfully hungry, or dosed up on drugs and alcohol. The humour in the novel is used to numb and paradoxically highlight the many harrowing situations the protagonists encounter ? sometimes the only reaction to a shocking event is to laugh.
Did you find the process of reliving the experience cathartic?
I find all writing cathartic ? even writing a good television script (my day job) can put me on a high for days. Some elements of the novel were harder to write and relive than others. For example, the scene where Vicki narrowly escapes being sexually abused was horrendous to recreate, and I'd hesitate to call it cathartic (although no doubt a therapist would disagree with me.) Just before I decided to write the book I returned to Paris for a recce ? it was a powerful experience to wander around the city visiting old haunts and rekindling memories that would otherwise have lurked, hidden, in the back of my brain.
The book finishes with an open ending, the ultimate fate of the two main characters a mystery ? is there room for a follow-up to the story? Or did you choose to leave the reader guessing?
The ending is one of the totally fictionalised parts of the story, and I didn?t initially plan to end it this way ? the characters seemed to do their own thing and it practically wrote itself. The real end of the story is both less and more exciting. After we left Paris we returned home to the UK, burned our clothes (they were infested!) and then we packed up our rucksacks and headed back to the Pompidou centre. But it wasn?t the same, and within a month I was bound for Israel, which, a couple of months after my arrival, was enmeshed in the Gulf war. I found myself carrying a gas mask around and watching scud missiles falling in Tel Aviv. There is no sequel to 'Pompidou Posse' planned.
Although 'Pompidou' revolves around the hobos of Paris is it fair to say that the story is universal? For example, these characters could very much inhabit Cape Town.
My characters live on the streets voluntarily (their reasons for leaving England aren't convincing enough, I think, to warrant their extreme lifestyle). Both Vicki and Sage come from reasonably stable homes, and could quite easily have returned to England when things became too hectic. In Europe the homeless and indigent can normally source food, shelter and medical care, but this is patently not the case in much of Africa. The street people I encountered in Paris were often ex-cons on the run from the law, or alcoholics who had chosen to opt out of society. Poverty and homelessness are not a choice for many of the population here.
What is next for you?
My second novel is with Penguin at the moment. It's a crime story based on the true-life events of a rape that occurred in a police cell in a small Klein Karoo town. I'm hoping it will appear next year. It's a vastly different book, although I hope I've managed to maintain the balance between harrowing events and humour. I also have a couple of novels in the pipeline ? a young adult speculative novel, and a book based on the Cape Leopard Trust ? an amazing organisation that was started by my brother-in-law, Quinton Martins.