Marq de Villiers is a journalist and the author of more than a dozen books. His vision and skill have been recognized with prestigious literary awards both in Canada and in his native South Africa, including a Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction for his book Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource and South Africa’s Alan Paton Award for White Tribe Dreaming.
A resident of Port Medway, Nova Scotia, he’s been nominated for the Evelyn Richardson Creative Non-Fiction Award seven times and received it twice: in 2005 for A Dune Adrift: The Strange Origins of Sable Island and 2008 for The Witch in the Wind: The True Story of the Legendary Bluenose.
Looking at your other books, it seems to me that Hell and Damnation is quite different, not concerned with the environment or a tangible thing from history such as the Bluenose, but with an idea – the idea being hell. What attracted you to the topic?
Well yes, Hell and Damnation is pretty different. Most of my previous books have been either on environmental issues (I count the Witch in the Wind book among those), or about Africa, plus one or two oddities: a book about wine, for example, and a travelogue on Russia. Why Hell? It started when I was reading a biography of Galileo, and came across a curious episode in the great scientist’s life: he calculated backwards from the presumed size of Satan, and the notion of Dante’s that Satan’s navel marked the exact centre of the earth, and told an audience of clerics in Florence that hell must be somewhere around 650 kilometers beneath the surface of the earth – or, if you read his calculations another way, that the Dome of Hell must have a roof at least 640 kilometers thick to support it. This fascinated me – he was a great scientist, with all that implies, but this was surely not one of his signature achievements! In any case, that got me going. It also told me that the idea of Hell was going to be difficult to take seriously, and so it proved.
What religious background did you grow up with? What was your idea of hell as a child?
Religion played no role in our family life. My parents for some reason went to church regularly once a year on Christmas morning, but otherwise religion, heaven and hell were entirely absent from my childhood. As a consequence, I cannot recall any time in my life when I believed in anything supernatural. I grew up in South Africa. We had more seriously issues to deal with than mulling the afterlife.
It looks like writing the book might have been fun. In fact, one of the blurbs on the back calls it “a sly and madcap romp,” which is really unexpected for a book about hell. Was writing the book “fun”?
Thus yes, free from having to actually worry about the torments of hell, this was a purely fun book to write. I was fascinated to find that “our” hell, the Judeo Christian one, was far from the only afterlife invented by people across history. I particularly liked some of the eastern Buddhist traditions, which generally have a separate hell for each sin. The Burmese, for example, had no fewer than 40,040 different hells. They included hells for people who keep other people’s books, pretending to have lost them, people who lie about their ages when they get married, people who throw broken pottery over fences, those who write anonymous placards, those who allow their mules to be a nuisance and people who complain about the weather. How could you really take those seriously?
What has the response been like from readers?
The response from readers has generally been in the spirit in which I wrote the book, enjoying it for its folklore and not for its theological content (which is pretty small in any case). A few people were offended by it, not having known it wasn’t a serious examination of eternal torment. But the book has sold well – first printing sold out pretty quickly, so some of them must like it.
Many of your books are related to Nova Scotia in some way. What about this one?
I’d be hard put to find a Nova Scotia connection to this one. Now, if I were to write a book about paradise, it might be different.
I see from your website that Hell and Damnation is under option for TV. Tell me about that. Would you be involved in the adaptation for TV?
The only book of mine that has so far actually been made into a miniseries was Water, written in 1999. In retrospect, the producers gave me too much of a role in the filming, which didn’t really improve things much. If this one gets made, I plan to stay out of the filmmakers’ way as much as possible.
Your books seem to have long titles. What’s the secret to a good book title?
Yes, many of my books seem to have long titles, or at least subtitles. I think long subtitles are something of a fad, one to which I am unfortunately prone. Many book don’t need subtitles at all. Sometimes the publishers write mine. I am not necessarily very good at titles, and will take whatever help I can get.
What is the role of awards? Is being nominated important to you?
The role of awards is complicated. These days when the number of reviewing options is so small, awards play a really valuable role in bringing new books to the attention of readers who might otherwise not have come across them. And they do work for marketing. My only Governor General’s award was for Water, and there is no doubt that it sold well because of that. I think the Evelyn Richardson award is similarly valuable. It may not have the same reach as a GG, but it is recognized as credible, and I think readers trust it. In past years (before 2000, I think) only the winner was announced, and not a shortlist. I think that was a good change to make. There is even a case to be made for publishing a short list and NOT announcing a winner – fairer to all. (Though who gets the cheque, then?)
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’m still writing. It’s all I know how to do! This wretched pandemic has in a peculiar way made it easier – fewer distractions. I’m closing in on a first draft of a new book whose deadline is this fall. Back to environmental issues: this will be a history of the human use of, and interactions with, wood. Forest, tree, wood, the whole progression.
– Questions by Marilyn Smulders