In the opening pages of Kiare Ladner’s debut novel, “Nightshift,” 23-year-old Meggie is a bit of a wallflower, a good girl with a boring job and a nice boyfriend who mostly suppresses her cravings and accepts her fate.
Then comes a new collaborator named Sabine, radiant with style, sensuality, mystery and, finally, life. Meggie has a strong desire to be Sabine’s friend – if not more; eventually, she realizes that she wants to turn into Sabine.
Desperately trying to keep the enigmatic and elusive Sabine close, Meggie follows her into a new job cutting articles, working a night shift for two weeks followed by two weeks off. The schedule and the slippery Sabine wreak havoc on Meggie’s balance and her life begins to spin in sometimes dangerous new directions. Lander’s propulsive beat mimics Meggie’s frantic emotional state; in the heat of her obsession with Sabine, Meggie pushes her own limits, trying to figure out who she really is.
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Like Meggie, Ladner came to London from South Africa in the 1990s (when the book is largely set). Unlike his intense personas, however, Ladner has an easy smile and quick laughs. In a recent video, Ladner explained what working nights were like for her and why it was important for Meggie to be able to turn her life around without being judged.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You said that Sabine “feels to me like someone I know incredibly well.” But she’s an enigma to Meggie and to us. Did you know her better than Meggie, and then hid her from Meggie and us?
The book is fiction. I never had a Sabine, but I had close and obsessive relationships and friendships. I thought a lot about female friendships – some I had that seemed to burn and then die.
So I feel like I have a definite idea of Sabine, but probably even now I couldn’t tell you what school she went to or what aspects of her life were true or not. It’s more a basic thing about the kind of person she is that I can channel.
I have a lot of feelings for this kind of person. I like a woman who is tough and vulnerable and irrelevant. I feel very protective of this kind of person. You can see aspects of this in yourself.
Q. Have you ever worked nights?
I worked nights in the job that Meggie does. The experience of doing nights really imprinted on me. I was always trying to find ways to make a living and write. My obsession was writing. I found it fascinating. I considered myself a night owl before doing it. So I thought it would work wonderfully.
Your perception of time changes a lot. Like Meggie, I also couldn’t sleep during the day. I used sleeping pills all the time and they screwed me up and I was in a fog. Also, I drank a lot. It was fun but I could never get out of it. And I was in a crazy relationship with a jazz musician who had his own crazy hours. Sometimes I tried to live for days and nights. It was an amazing experience, but to write I need a really clear brain and I didn’t have that.
Q. Were you inspired by those fast-paced relationships or the way you obsess over writing to capture Meggie’s compulsive behavior towards Sabine?
Both. I’m quite an obsessive person in some ways, so it’s easy for me to get into it. Every week I have to do this huge race because as long as I can do it, I can do it. But also I find it strange but fascinating to watch someone sleep. I’m not a scary person but there is just wonder in seeing another person’s existence. I can’t help marveling at other people. I sound like this alien from another planet when I say things like that.
Q. Meggie makes bad decisions, big and small, some of which put her well-being at risk. But she’s no longer passive, she’s in control of her life, doing these moves on her own even when she’s just trying to be her own version of Sabine. How important was this sense of control to her?
She sincerely tries to explore herself and dare to go as far as she can and push those limits. In the darkest scene in the book, she originally had less agency but I changed it. She pushes to the point where she wonders why is it important to respect yourself. It’s a dividing line with readers, but for me it was really important – the book is about her taking nothing for granted, not even daylight. She doesn’t conform to what we’re supposed to conform to, she takes away all that BS we’re told we want to eliminate and just asks, “Who am I? What can I become?
I’m interested in what happens when you want to be someone else – when your lived life doesn’t seem to reflect who you are – you can accumulate a lifetime of experiences and how that appears to others can always leaving you feeling that there is something that is integral to you that is unexpressed and the sum of the parts of your life does not add up to the whole of you.
She pushes away her boyfriend and Earl who is a good guy, but it’s not just about her rebellion – Earl doesn’t quite understand that it’s something she has to do. She must be very alone to get lost, which she wants to do. Looking back, she would have no regrets – she was vital then.
Q. Was it important to you that Meggie not suffer long-term from her explorations and indulgences with drugs and sex, that she not be punished for it, even if friends disapproved?
I wanted to give Meggie the freedom to go as far and as deep, to explore as much as she needed.
I’m trying to understand the dominant narrative in society, the puritanical approach to these subjects, which I’m totally opposed to. I find it incredible that stories of alcohol, drugs and, in particular, excess and risk, are meant to align with conservative notions of self-care. There’s this bizarre disjunction – where society allows us to mask the growing risks of our behavior to the planet but encourages extreme risk aversion on a personal level.
It is frustrating that this critical approach targets women even more than men. It especially troubles me when, as a writer, you feel this subtle pressure to make your story conform to a certain message. In terms of excess and risk, there’s always a sense of good story around these topics being “what a consumer audience needs them to be”.
I think ‘Nightshift’ will find its readers and someone who doesn’t understand the attitude of the book won’t open their mind – I think they might hate it. I wasn’t interested in writing a morality story. It would have bored me. It would have hurt my soul.