I lived in Grahamstown for four years while studying Journalism at Rhodes University. I loved my time there more than words can say, but in my final year I tried to find some words anyway and wove them into a book that would become Keyflame.
That’s why it makes me so happy when people call the book “atmospheric”. My first draft was always meant to be a time capsule. Beneath the made up characters and fictional adventures, I wanted to give the reader Grahamstown as I remembered it, spooky magic and all.
All of the people and events are completely fictional, but the places are mostly real – although they have been altered slightly to fit the narrative and some are no longer there at all.
The university is currently known as Rhodes University, but I intentionally didn’t name it in the book because the name is a sore point and subject of much debate. What I didn’t know at the time of writing was that Grahamstown itself would be renamed before I published.
Grahamstown is now officially known as Makanda – yes, like Wakanda! I contemplated changing the name in the book, but Makanda had the wrong sound to it. It brought to mind the recently-released Marvel movies and it sounded like somewhere exotic, rather than a sleepy colonial town. So, instead, the book is officially set in 2017 – the year before the town was renamed. Certain details in the book link specifically to 2017: The dates of term starting and ending, the time of the tides when Lilah and Kalin train on the beach, even Lilah’s class schedule. Yes, her class schedule is 100% real. As dates played an important part, especially later in the story, it was useful to anchor it in a real year.
As to the locations…
The St. Peter’s lawns are much smaller in real life, but they do exist, as do the beautiful overgrown paths behind the law department where Lilah gets lost early in the book.
Lilah’s res is loosely based on Canterbury House, a residence I stayed in over one vac and thought was truly historic and beautiful. The rooms are pretty small though!
The Rat and Parrot, Friars and Kaif are all real and I tried to be as true to them as possible. Ma Pam who stands outside the Rat with her boeriewors stand is also real. Whenever I meet old alumni, they always mention fond memories of The Rat and the Kaif (and more cringe memories of Friars) which is why I tried to keep them as true to real life as possible.
The historic house where the live music society gig happens is based on a place that was a res known as The Blue House and then became a night spot called Pirates, and then became a restaurant called the Fork and Dagger. In real life, it’s not opposite BP but a few blocks away on the same road. The real place where live music society gigs happened was called The Taphuis and it was really out of the way so would be impossible to casually have characters walking past.
The BP is real, and BP runs are a real thing. Similar to the Rat, I wanted to keep it as accurate as possible so ex-students could identify with it. The night after graduation I watched the sunrise from BP. So romantic, I know.
The monument, the standing stones and the fort are all real – they’re what gave me the idea for the novel.
Lilah’s home is not real – I knew the area where I wanted her to live because it’s very upmarket and invented a house there. I gave her Laurie Janey‘s bedroom though, which I always loved as a teen.
Kalin’s home, however, is 100% real…well 90% real. I played with the floorplan. It’s based on the Settler’s Cottage where I lived in my final year. I stayed in an outside room that is not there in the novel. The real cottage is much bigger with a number of rooms and no study. I left the little garden alone though, and it really is a heritage site!
(Credit: Lara Salomon, Evanescent Photography)
Everything to do with Darren’s family is fictional as I only introduced them in a later draft, long after I left Grahamstown. So his little flat and the B&B are made up. There were some friends I’d visit who were Grahamstown locals (brothers) and lived in a similar flat, played a lot of x-box and had a sofa that I sometimes slept on, so I think Darren’s flat was inspired by their place and that’s where I put it on the map.
The restaurant where Lilah works is based on the restaurant where I worked, although my managers were lovely and not at all like grumpy Harrold. I would have probably kept working there forever if I hadn’t moved away after graduation. I also put her restaurant in the same place as my restaurant on the map. So if you do happen to visit Grahamstown, you’ll find a real Italian restaurant there – try the lasagna!
The Long Table is also real and most people who’ve been to The National Arts Festival will have a story about it. I only went once – on my birthday in 2006. I was such a broke student when I was working at Fest that year that I think my other suppers were tea and biscuits.
As to where I was working – The Village Green, just like Lilah. I helped out at my mom’s friend’s clothing store, but I have sold jewellery at markets before. Kalin’s career is actually my mom’s career. I can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about jump rings. The Village Green hasn’t actually been on green for a long time. It’s now on wood shavings because they protect the grass of the field at the school where the market’s held, but I didn’t think that was a relevant detail.
Hogsback is real. I once camped there but got sick and spent the entire weekend inside the backpacker’s lodge. I don’t think you’re allowed to fish there, but it truly is that idyllic and I’d love to go back one day.
The Old Gaol is real and it’s been a bar, a backpackers and a coffee shop in the last few years, and it is really rumoured to be haunted. The story about the ghost walking to the gallows is a real story people tell about the place. The ghost tour is also real, although I never went on it myself and so I made up absolutely everything about it to suit the story, although I tried to draw on real ghost stories when possible. I remember a local friend telling me he went every year growing up, so I gave that to Darren.
Grey Dam is real. On the coldest day of the year people swim across it as a challenge.
George’s beach house is entirely fictional, unfortunately. I’d love to visit somewhere like that!
Fatso is not real, but his looks are based on my friend and beta reader’s cat whose name is Mooch.
*Spoilers below this point*
The fae realm
I’ll do a proper post about this one day, but originally (in 2010) there wasn’t any mythology to back up who Kalin was or where he came from. When I went to do my rewrites, I started looking for something that fit his narrative and found the Irish myth cycle of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
They arrived in Ireland from the “North”, led by their king, Nuadha. They fought many enemies, but were eventually defeated by the Milesians who sent them to the “Underworld” or “Otherworld” that later became synonymous with the fae realm. In the real myth cycle, Nuadha did not spawn a long line of kings and queens. He was succeeded by Lugh (whose stories are in and of themselves great fodder for the imagination).
I love playing with parallel worlds, and as the Keyflame world is parallel to ours, so is the fae world. The Tuatha Dé Danann brought four great treasures with them. The Orbs were not among them in our world’s myth. But in Lilah’s world, they were. I’m excited to show you all the other ways their world diverges – but you’ll have to see that in the next book 🙂