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Michael Sears interviews Vivian de Klerk for the Big Thrill

Author speaks about digging into the mind of a sociopath

03 May 2022 - 13:01 By Michael Sears

Published in the Big Thrill (02/05/2022)

Vivian de Klerk had an impressive academic career at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape for more than 30 years. When she retired, she turned to writing fiction, and her debut novel Not to Mention was widely acclaimed for its deep study of a hugely overweight woman slowly being killed by her mother. In Serpent Crescent, she has focused on a sociopath who tells us her story in first person. Part of the attraction of the book is the in-depth look at how such a personality develops, but there are many twists and turns along the way.

Megan Merton lives in a crescent with nine houses. Each has its own story, and Megan has interfered with the lives of all the occupants (among others) for good or ill. But she’s careful. She keeps below the radar. No ostentatious serial killings for her. Then one neighbour, Elizabeth Cardew, who is a senior academic at the nearby university, has a stroke and is taken to a care home. Megan goes to see her, out of curiosity rather than sympathy, and an unlikely relationship forms between the two.

In this interview with The Big Thrill, De Klerk answers a few questions about her book, the rationale behind her choice of the main character, and where that led.

You specialise in unusual female characters. Megan Merton is a case in point. She’s a self-proclaimed sociopath, yet she has flashes of empathy, especially in her relationship with Elizabeth Cardew. What did it take to get into the mind of such a person?

Megan is a dark protagonist. I’m drawn to people living on the edges of society, people who would be regarded as abnormal in some way, and was also fascinated with the idea of “schadenfreude” — the pleasure someone derives from another’s misfortune. I believe most people have something to hide — sometimes very minor things, and sometimes huge and horrible experiences — and I wanted to create a sociopath who has a sense of humour, with plenty of her own secrets to hide.

In my research into sociopaths, the most fascinating aspect for me was their ability to hide their true selves behind a façade of normality. Supposedly callous and lacking empathy and guilt, they have to practise carefully, from early childhood, how to cry, how to apologise convincingly, how to express feelings of any kind, because they need to blend into society as normal people to live their extraordinary lives. Megan recounts how she did this, and how she was careful never to shine at school (although she claims to be super-bright). Daughter of the local butcher, she uses well-practised sexual guile to hook Charles Merton as a convenient husband and gets appointed as English teacher at the local school, which enables her to play the part of a local upstanding member of the small community of Qonda.

Once I had imagined scenarios involving sociopaths, from the petty and trivial to the most serious imaginable, including rape and murder, I simply needed to work them into her memories of the people of Qonda, and particularly those who lived in Serpent Crescent. As the author, I enjoyed myself immensely.

Megan makes no bones about the pleasure she obtains from the misfortunes of others, especially if she’s instrumental in producing them. However, she likes to see herself as a righter of wrongs, and usually picks on unpleasant people. Is this self-justification — hardly needed by a sociopath, I’d guess — or is it simply that she wants a purpose in her life?

Megan resents the descriptions psychologists have given of sociopaths as callous, unfeeling, untruthful and so on, and this fuels her desire to set the record straight. She shows she has righted many wrongs and feels intensely, experiencing envy, pride, anger, and especially schadenfreude — her righteous “zing” of pleasure when she sees “justice” has been done.

Megan displays a complex mixture of religiosity, driven by her familiarity with the Bible, Dante’s circles of hell, and St Augustine’s Confessions. The book is, in essence, a confession of sorts, in which she defends her actions and goes to considerable lengths to justify them. Yes, her purpose in life is to ensure bad people get their come-uppance in one way or another, but often fate takes a hand before she can, which leaves her feeling a little cheated.

I wondered if she’s a reliable narrator. Although she’s quite explicit about some of her actions, fate seems to be unusually co-operative for her also. Would you comment?

Megan is analytical and very honest about her feelings, and so one would like to believe her. But while she is careful to record the finer details of what she remembers, she makes the point (repeatedly) that she might have misremembered some things, especially when it comes to what happened to her baby brother Matthew in the swimming pool. So the reader cannot be sure either.

There are other clues to why the reader might have doubts: She goes to some lengths to defend her “credentials” as a sociopath, regularly reminding the reader she has no regrets, and no feelings (apart from schadenfreude), and yet she reveals sympathy for people who suffer abuse (like the mother and daughter living at number four), she defends people who are disabled, and she has concern for the elderly who are mistreated, and for the poor. She worries about Mrs Stuart at number seven, and she forgives the town “flasher” for occasionally exposing himself.

Despite initially going to visit Elizabeth out of callous curiosity, Megan is slowly drawn into the rhythm of helping with her therapy and surprises herself with unaccustomed feelings of compassion. Perhaps she’s not as bad as she makes out?

Click here to continue reading their conversation.

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