She's young, quick-witted and has a way with words, but now blogger extraordinaire and marketing mastermind Alex van Tonder (aka Cape Town Girl) has put pen to paper for a different purpose: she's written a novel, This One Time.
1.Writing for a blog, you’re usually trying to promote or sell something: a product, a lifestyle, an image. How is writing fiction different?
Blogging and fiction – is there a difference? Great question. I guess with both you are creating fiction (even bloggers who claim to give honest depictions of their lives are creating fiction), and on both counts the goal is to show and not tell.
But blogging is an instant fix, whereas you really have to exercise some delayed gratification muscles with writing novels. It takes months or even years before you start to even realize what you’ve created with a novel.
It’s a good question though – one that I deal with in This One Time, which is about a blogger who creates a larger-than-life persona who lives a glamorous projected life of money, women and parties, but shit hits the fan when he loses control of it. Living vicariously through your carefully curated online avatar may seem like harmless fun, but what happens when that fantasy you’ve created turns around to bite you in the ass with its aspirational, branded fangs? That’s what This One Time is about.
I guess the difference between writing fiction and blogging is that when you put down your book you get to walk away from it, whereas most bloggers are trapped in the daily soap opera that is the maintenance of a personal brand… with blogging, the fiction never ends.
2. The announcement of This One Time came as quite an out-of-the blue surprise to most of your followers. How long had you been working on the book before you decided to go public?
I don’t really like to talk about projects until the finished product is in my hands. I am involved in many interesting projects that I don’t talk about online. Some things need silence and space and incubation. Most things, in fact. We don’t need to share everything we do with the internet. Also, a book was recently published that consists purely of tweets by writers tweeting about their books instead of writing them. I try to just shut up and get on with it. Or at least shut up about writing – I blab about all kinds of other nonsense online, sure.
3. Your blog had a lot of success, very quickly, and has been recognized by various award committees. Did this give you the courage to dabble in writing?
No. The CTG blog enjoyed success because it had a relevant positioning and was branded clearly, and it was brand-friendly at the time that brands were ready to work with bloggers. There was a gap for a female mainstream platform at the time that it launched. It didn’t rise to success because it was good writing. Or maybe it had the odd good post. I consider it more a branding / marketing success, definitely not a creative one.
Writing novels is something I’ve always known I wanted to do, and always tried to do (not always successfully). I read obsessively growing up and still do, and the influence of a father who was a writer and a mother who was a librarian helped I’m sure. Plus I have amazing friends such as Lauren Beukes and Paige Nick who are doing so well as novelists, and they are extremely inspiring.
Blogging was an experimental divergence that fed my advertising and specifically social media expertise, and the learning gleaned from blogging helped me specialize in digital storytelling as a copywriter. I’ve helped set up social media marketing divisions, conceptualized SM campaigns, consulted for brands on social media marketing, developed influencer and celebrity campaigns and story-telling strategies, etc. Things I don’t really talk about online because it’s behind-the-scenes work. It’s not about me, it’s about my clients.
That said, all this experience informs what I write about. This One Time’s main character, while he is a work of fiction, is at the center of a world I know very well – this world of self-made celebrity, the complex relationships between brands and bloggers and the rise of the ‘Personal Brand’.
4. You’ve been quoted as saying that “no one is particularly interested in being deep”, do you think that this belief/attitude gives you the edge as a writer of fiction because you're not aiming to challenge, you're aiming to entertain?
Hahaha! I sound shallower than a kiddies’ pool. That quote was specifically regarding the CTG positioning strategy, plus I think it may be a little out of context – the ‘no one’ I was referring to was the CTG target audience, for whom it probably still rings true. Fashion and PR bloggers are largely consumers of pretty pictures and trends and brands and material goods. They’re not looking for intellectual discourses. They are visual readers.
With This One Time I just wanted to write the kind of book I want to read. Which means I was definitely out to entertain more than make a point, but my main aim was to stay true to what the story wanted to be. Depth is honesty in a creative work, in my opinion. Any creative work – art or writing or music.
And whether honesty means keeping it light or getting heavy depends on the story you’re telling. I enjoy works that are good stories before they’re anything else, because depth tends to emerge naturally.
I’m very inspired by authors like Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, Gillian Flynn – who are all very entertaining because they’re dark (I love the dark), and probably wouldn’t be described as ‘deep’, but their work teems with substance. But not only them – storytellers like Martin Scorsese, Jeff Lindsay (who created the Dexter character) and True Detective’s Nick Polazzo, Tarantino and even Lady Gaga. Their work has much depth, but first up they’re damn good stories and entertaining works. They make you think, but it’s effortless.
5. On your earlier blog, the precursor to CTG, MyBrandedLife, you wrote that the blog “mated with itself 2 create a life of its own”. This One Time – a similar experience? Did the story grow its own legs, or do you feel more control over the fictional creative process?
Lols. I guess so, yes. With my first book I had total control over the story and characters, and I was dictatorial in my plans for them, and it didn’t work out that well. After that book I gave myself more freedom to listen to characters, to be true to them and stop trying to control everything. This One Time wanted to be all kinds of interesting, new things - things that didn’t fit my check list of ‘the kind of book I would see myself writing’, but accepting what it wanted to be freed me up to just bring it to life and forget my ego and let go of the idea that I had any control in the first place. So, in a way, yes, This One Time did come about a bit like that.
In This One Time, the protagonist’s created blog persona is nothing like who he really is, and eventually this persona takes over his life. His projected character becomes bigger than him, even in the real world, and he is held accountable for the behavior of someone who doesn’t actually exist. But that’s the thing with ideas, especially in the online space. You put them out there and you never know what might happen. Kurt Vonnegut put it aptly when he said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
6. You claim that the persona cultivated on Capetowngirl is a projection, and not the ‘real you’. Does This One Time reveal a bit more about who you are?
All branding is a projection, and that includes personal brands, whether we do it consciously or not. If you’re online, you’re putting out an objectified version of yourself, known to most of us as a ‘personal brand’. You might think you’re keeping it simple or authentic, or avoiding building an online presence, but even that is a strategy, even a non-presence is a presence. Even an ‘authentic image’ is contrived.
This One Time is a fictional story. It’s not about me. I write fiction to escape me, for the same reason I read it. The whole point is to entertain myself and hopefully whoever reads it. Obviously This One Time draws on my experience – the book is about a blogger after all – but the story isn’t mine (thank God – some terrible things happen to the blogger).
The book definitely deals with themes that mean something to me, ideas that are important to me, most of which have been influenced or observed during the course of my own experience. These include privacy issues and the internet; the ease at which you can release an idea into the world and it can snowball; the relationship between bloggers and brands; how women’s bodies have become public property online with little to no legal recourse or protection; how brands invade the space and as users you’re not sure what is real and what isn’t; the ethics behind how much is revealed to be branded and how much is truth; how you can put an idea out there on a whim and a mouse click and it can turn into a monster than could ruin your life.
These are all issues that fascinate me – ‘the dark side of digital’ so to speak. These are the kinds of stories I tell. My next book is also in a similar vein.
7. You have a busy day job, you administer a highly successful blog, where did you find the time to write?
Well, I haven’t blogged in over 2 years. I just tweet and Instagram. My focus remains on my advertising projects and my novels get my extra time. You could say I’m pretty disciplined. I write in the evenings, every evening, and all day on most weekends. My friends call me a nerd… but novels take a lot of work and besides, that’s just the reality of life when you have two jobs you’re passionate about. So I make time for it and schedule my life around it.
The protagonist in This One Time struggles to find the time to write. That’s what gets him into trouble. For him, the temptations of being young and famous and fabulous in the city of New York are too distracting for him, so the story starts when he’s on the verge of losing a 7-figure deal he has been offered by a publisher for the first draft of his autobiography. But he can’t get it together for long enough to actually write it. So he accepts a free stay (as bloggers do) at a luxury lodge out in Alaska, figuring the snow and isolation will keep him out of trouble so that he can finish the manuscript. Of course, something very sinister is waiting for him at the lodge.
8. Pan Macmillan’s Adult Fiction: talk us through the phrase ‘Adult fiction’?
It’s not erotic fiction, if that’s what you mean! I guess ‘Adult Fiction’ means all fiction that is not aimed at children or young adults, so it encompasses genres such as humour, thriller, romance, crime, etc. Sorry to disappoint.
9. What are your tips for fledgling writers?
I’m a fledgling author myself, so I hardly feel in a position to give advice. But maybe start with, well, writing. I set myself a goal of writing a bad first draft and just getting it finished. You can always make a bad first draft better, but you can’t improve on something that doesn’t exist. Oh, and read. Novels, not articles on the internet.
10. When is the book going to hit shelves?
We’re looking at about February 2015.