“Cave Canem”—Beware of the Dog—you need no better Latin that I have to understand this warning.
True, once I was sleeker, younger, my teeth strong and my body lean. Now I am fat and feast on cracked bones and thick marrow. They feed me well because they think I am no longer needed.
Yet here you stand and I am here to answer.
It was not just men who broke Carthage and humbled Vercingetorix.
I can tell you this with a glance, only look into my eye–the one that still works–you will know the weight of the multitudes who stand with me. Their bones are dust, long lost on winds that can but sigh their names, yet they are here, for we have all followed eagles.
You may think I know little of men’s word, of emperors and legions of great deeds that stretch back beyond my short years. You would be right, thief. Theses things are of no matter.
It is the fire behind them that I know.
—the opening of Cave Canem by Toby Bennett and Nerine Dorman
It’s hard to keep track, but Toby Bennett has, I think, ten novels available self-published on Kindle, and an annual series of horror stories such as the Creepy Christmas series. His story “Caverns Measureless to Man” was published in the Short Story Day Africa anthology Terra Incognita. We meet at the Book Lounge on Buitenkant, a good place to buy Jungle Jim. We move on to the interview in a noisy café. Toby is a big, articulate guy, always smiling with a slight tendency to start, stop, and revise as he talks.
Toby: “I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve often said I wish I had a similar urge to be an accountant or a lawyer. It’s not really a choice to write. If I had any sense I’d say no.
“I’ve written about eleven novels. About eight are up on Kindle. I’ve also got a collaborative work with Benjamin Knox, a series called Viral which we’re just bringing out (in autumn 2016). The series was already published by a small press in four, 34,000-word novellas, but we’ve put it together in an omnibus edition, one big 150,000-word doorstop which we are now selling as the omnibus. We’re going with self-publishing.
“It was really rewarding to write collaboratively with Benjamin. It’s nice to get feedback and speak to other people. It’s like playing music and finding someone to jam with.
“The title Viral is a pun. On the surface it’s about an outbreak, but it’s also about how the media was spreading the news, viral in that sense. The monsters are human. We have these negative ideas about the Other rather than ourselves.
“Another one I wrote recently is Umbra. I enjoyed that. It’s about a city where they’ve found how to make shadows into energy, so people sell their shadows. You become bereft of a shadow. It’s almost the equivalent to selling your soul for a bit of quick cash.
“The whole place is becoming gloomier and darker and they’re burning the energy. They don’t realise the irony that lighting their city is actually making it darker. I like these themes that touch on society but not quite the way we do things in the here and now.
“The other one I’m fond of is Cave Canem—‘Beware of the Dog’ in Latin. Which goes to my love of dogs. It’s the story of a Roman war dog. I enjoyed doing the research. There’s no magic. The only magic is that it’s written from a dog’s perspective.”
Since that sounds to me like a potentially bestselling novel, I ask Toby why he goes down the self-publishing route.
Toby: “With the Viral series, the experience with a small press was that there was not much money from it and I lost control. The new edition we’re bringing out, we have a new cover that I prefer to the one they did.
“If you go to South African publishers or book fairs and you say to them why aren’t you publishing more fantasy? ‘Ooh, we love it personally but no one wants to read it.’ Then you say, ‘Well, what about Harry Potter? Does nobody buy that?’ And the response still is, ‘No, no, nobody really wants it.’
“We’re very much up against ... this is just my opinion ... there’s a lot of people obsessed with the idea of literature here in South Africa. It’s got to be deep, abiding, meaningful. A lot of stuff doesn’t have to be rooted in that idea to be a meaningful and to be fun. That for me is why I write—to have fun. And hopefully it’s why people read.
“Some time ago I got what I thought was an agent in England. The guy tried to charge me a fee just for sending the book to publishers and that’s when we parted company. If you have to pay, that’s vanity publishing, so I might as well publish it myself.
‘That was for my second book, Forbidden. I was probably a bit young. The concept was based on ‘the forbidden experiment’ raising a child without any interference—only I set it on a Scottish island. Somebody inherits the island with that experiment, a tribe of people. The big moral question was, ‘You’ve just inherited a fortune and your own the island. Do you say something about the experiment and lose millions or do you just leave this in the backyard?’
“One book, Heaven's Gate, was on the free special, and I got seven thousand people downloading it. It was done over three days. I just watched the counters go up. It was my most amazing moment. ‘People are noticing me.’ I always said, ‘If just one person reads it and it touches their lives, then I’ve done something that matters to me, to them; it was worth it.’ Then I see the seven thousand. (In a villain’s voice) ‘Where’s more? I want more. I want the counter to go up!’ And then the counter went away. And, uh, there’s this hollow feeling.”
We talk about“TOBY BENNETT’S RULES FOR SELF PUBLISHING” (see below)—the results are at the end of this article. We talk about IT, The Matrix, and Toby’s biography. Toby’s parents, like Nick Mulgrew’s, emigrated from the UK. He lived in Cape Town, where he went to high school and then to the University of Cape Town, where he studied philosophy. He now works as a web designer and programmer in a business with his brothers.
Toby: “When I left high school everyone was going to do English. I decided I wanted to know how to think, not what everyone else had said. I enjoyed philosophy for its own sake. I enjoyed Socrates. I always like the idea of being the guy who knew he knew nothing. And Descartes, which also feeds into I don’t know anything. The whole methodical doubt thing.
“I know a philosophy person who says relativism is dead. There may be scientifically objective facts. But if I said, ‘Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived.’ And you said, ‘I hate all his plays,’ how can I say, ‘That is not true’?
“It’s almost impossible to get into someone else’s head, but it’s recognizing that someone else’s head exists. The things that I know and seem so solid to me may not be solid to them. There’s a strange thing people do when they see someone being wrong they say, ‘Ah ha they were wrong.’ I often think if they’re wrong I can be wrong. I see error in someone else as a potential weakness in myself.
“There’s something you can do with fantasy or science fiction: you can abstract a philosophical issue. You can zoom in on that feature and look at it in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you were being strictly realistic.
“The downside of that is that you are in control of your fantasy world and responsible for it. I always agonize over ‘Am I putting this character in for good reason? Is this titillation? Is this something that is organic to the story?’”
GR: “So you live in a society that reminds me very much of the United States of America in the 1960s—where the relations between the races seem to be perfectly proper and polite, but it looks like in fact people are living in two totally different spheres.”
Toby: “Oh totally. I can only speak from one of those spheres. You only need to look at the student protests at the moment (Autumn 2016) to see we’ve got a problem.
“The very fact I’m a writer means I’m privileged. Writing takes some free time, it takes resources to do. Just imagine myself in a different situation. I’m all ‘Oh, I’m having to self publish,’ and they’re saying, ‘I can’t sit down to write a book. I’m barely making ends meet.’ Nothing makes me special.
“Why do I like fantasy and escapism? Possibly because the reality is something that ... essentially, if you want to talk being a white middle-class kid growing up in South Africa towards the end of apartheid, part of it is that you didn’t want to know in a certain sense. ‘This is horrible, but isn’t there a lovely world over there?’”
Toby and I then talk about technology and how it’s changing things.
Toby: “In a rural Indian village they just put up a computer with no explanation and within a week these kids had worked out how to get on the computer, get online, and hack things. They were picking it up like that.
“In many ways, Africa is home of the smartphone. Companies will roll out the early tech here so that they can test it, because we have such remote regions where people rely on the internet. So the developers say, ‘Hey, we can set up a network there and test things.’ We are a sorting house for early tech sometimes. I wrote an article years ago on the subject ... it was about five years ago.”
(To read one of Toby’s articles on South African apps, click here.)
I then ask Toby about his early reading and its influence.
Toby: “I’m first generation—my parents came to South Africa from England, so I straddle those two things, the two cultures.
“My mom read Lord of the Rings to me at three years old. Blame it on my mother, it’s all her fault. She was always a big fan of these things. I started off reading them. I found them great escapism but I was always drawn to the darker side. I liked the hobbit but I liked the Nazgul more.
“I was dyslexic so I had it read to me and then started reading from the age of ten. I used to read constantly, just eating up Michael Moorcock.
“Moorcock was more chaotic than Tolkien, he had those darker demon creatures and those things appealed to me. I’ve always loved the beginning of the Elric series. He’s on a throne with a whole choir who have been surgically altered to make an individual noise. The very strangeness of it. Elric’s not human, he’s an alien. Moorcook was very much into ideas of order and chaos.
“Lovecraft came a bit later, Robert E. Howard as well. Edgar Rice Burroughs had an appeal for me. I’ve written stuff inspired by them. I did a series called the Akna series, about a dream thief, that started life as a tribute to those dark old fantasy adventures.
“And the idea of the multiverse I’ve always loved. Right now I'm reading the Dark Tower series, which goes back to multiverse. I read the first one back in university. King said it was based on his love of Lord of the Rings, but didn’t want to tell a Lord of the Rings kind of story.”
I then ask him if his books are much different from what he would have written if his family stayed in England.
Toby: “Probably not. I over-worry about authenticity. With Cave Canem, I kept worrying, ‘Have I got the history right?’ I keep researching. Do I know enough? One of the big issues is ‘Can I speak for someone else in this situation? Can I say this is how it is for someone else?’ You can sidestep that if you can say, ‘This is another world.’
“I don’t think I’m going to define the experience of living in a township. I’ve been there a few times but that’s not enough. It’s a difficult situation to look at. You are aware that you are very lucky. I remember somebody saying to me that the people who can make it into the City are way better off than even the people who can’t even afford to travel. You go to Cape Town and see the cosmopolitan Cape Town. How many people can’t even get here? Their lives are not even on the radar for a lot of the people living in the city.
“I went to a multiracial school from the start. I was ironically one of the poorer kids in the class. They were the children of politicians. Weep for the aristocrat with the threadbare silk coat. I wasn’t seeing this as I was growing up. Apartheid was practically over before I realized ‘Oh my God, this happened,’ because I was kept in this environment. I’m someone at the edge of the bubble who can see, yeah there’s a bubble there.
“If you actually could take on a lot of what’s happening ... there’s pain avoidance. It’s not necessarily a good thing. Here, around the world, everyone. We like to think ‘Well, where I am I have all these problems today, we can’t realistically begin to take on the worst problems.’ It’s like there is a competition for attention, a competition for which is the worst problem.
“Like with Syria, it’s where I get overloaded. I can’t take it on. One of the things that we don’t do very well is admitting powerlessness. I’m vulnerable, I’m small, I can’t really do this. I can do little things, but can I change bombing?
“Back to not assuming that you are the only person in the room who knows what’s going on: it’s so easy to say ‘I’m seeing everything’, but of course you’re seeing fractions. The question is how much do we see? I always liked the idea when I drove down the street of imagining in every house there’s a person there. ‘Wow, there’s a lot of them.’
“I don’t feel like I have enough to say. I always told myself that as I got older I’d learn more and I’ll be able to say something definitive. But no, it never seemed to come.
“So, many times I’m saying I want to have fun and entertain people. That’s not a bad thing either. I may not be able to define pi for everyone, but maybe I can make them laugh and have a bit of a thrill. And there’s also the self-indulgent aspect. I’m enjoying doing this.”
Since this interview, Toby has had another collaboration with Benjamin Knox, “Dreamshock” published in The Lovecraft eZine.
He has also had his story ‘The Strange Case of Mary Carter’ published in Omenana magazine.
Finally, as a departure, he’s started to read his stories aloud on YouTube. For example, this is him reading the complete novel Cave Canem.