Is it true that crime doesn’t pay? Dieter Losskarn asked four of South Africa’s most popular thriller authors. Roger Smith, Deon Meyer, Michele Rowe and Andrew Brown are getting away with murder on a regular base.
Photography: Guido Schwarz (Meyer, Rowe, Brown), Dieter Losskarn (Smith)
The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore. I will never forget the impact this first sentence in Roger Smith’s second novel had when I read it a couple of years ago. As soon as you read this entry to ‘Wake up dead‘, you know what you’re in for. A hard-hitting, unadorned crime thriller, whose setting is not in the US or Europe, but in in the Mother City. Beyond Table Mountain lies another Cape Town. One, haunted by gang wars. A stark contrast to the picture perfect city by the sea. And, according to Roger and his brothers and sisters in crime, Michele, Deon and Andrew, a perfect location for the set of a murderous novel.
What motivates the authors to write crime novels? When Roger was a kid his father always had a stack of crime novels next to his chair and when he was around twelve he snagged The Hunter, a Parker novel by Richard Stark. It blew him away. Roger was totally unprepared for its amoral worldview and gut-punch writing. And he still has that dog-eared little paperback. So he is trying to write what he likes to read.
Deon never really thinks in terms of genre. He loves telling stories, and about half of the stories he has written in novel form had been crime fiction. ‘Heart of the Hunter’ was a spy thriller, ‘Blood Safari’ a political thriller and ‘Trackers’ a broad suspense novel. And then was ‘Dirt Busters’, the off-road motorcycling guide.
Michele’s interest is really South Africa, its cultures and rapidly changing social and political landscape. She thinks crime novels, as opposed to other types of novels, give a writer enormous scope to enter into virtually every sector of society. A detective has the power to question taxi drivers, CEO’s or drug dealers, dentists or politicians and the reader will go along with it. This mobility enables her as the author to explore society with a broad palette. She regards crime novels as an ongoing modern social commentary.
Actually very similar to Andrew’s view, who thinks that crime novels allow him to explore the shadows of any society. It gives an author the freedom to write something that has plot and character and theme, hopefully in a way that engages the reader, but while also being able to consider some of the bigger issues that are at play in our country.
How do they go about writing their crime novels? Roger always starts with an image, something vivid that comes out of someplace deep and dark and grabs him by the throat and forces him to start writing. He doesn’t write outlines, he mostly doesn’t know how his books will end, he just let the characters jump out at him and let them take him with.
For Deon, the story develops in his head slowly. Usually while he is busy finishing another writing project. Then, he does a lot of research around potential subject matter, and finally, he sits and writes the novel over 12 to 18 months.
Michele’s job is writing, and for her it’s pretty much a job like any other, with maybe longer working hours and a lot less compensation. She also writes screenplays and teaches screenwriting, so she more or less follows the same daily routine. She has a kind of inventory of ideas that constantly preoccupy her and she tries to shape her stories around them. She wilI do a lot of research and then begin. Her stories are very plot driven, and are as much mystery as detective novels, so structuring them can be quite challenging. She has the opposite problem with characters. They pop out easily, so the temptation for her is to carry on inventing more and more of them. She always ends up with far too many and has to viciously cull them. Writing requires only that you have to be observant and curious about the world. Michele feels it’s a pretty solipsistic occupation, so it helps to have a taste for solitude. And of course you must write, and preferably every day.
Andrew still struggles to define himself as “a writer”, and for him writing is still a pleasurable hobby rather than a job or a career, so he tends to write when he has time rather than making time for it. He writes at night, seldom during the day, and only on one story at a time. He tries to write as often as he can, and he can feel that grumpy frustration build in him when he is busy with his day job as an advocate or other things and he doesn’t get the chance to write. Andrew is convinced you have to keep at it, keep the momentum going, otherwise you lose the focus and the ideas and it takes time to get going again.
Andrew’s research advantage is the fact, that he has worked as a police officer in the reservists for 18 years now, so he gets most of his ideas and stories from that. He does read other crime writers to see how they go about their writing, but ultimately it is what comes from inside him rather than from what he sees in other writers or films. As a sergeant in the SAPS reserves, he performs duties at least once a week. When he is on duty, he is a fully authorised police officer and there is no difference between him and the permanent officers. Andrew works in the child abuse team at Red Cross Children’s Hospital, and he has worked in the gang units. He also does a bit of bounty hunting on the side. Tracing people who have skipped bail. And he has worked in Langa, Nyanga, Masiphumelele and on the Cape Flats.
Roger’s wife Sumaya grew up in the Cape Flats, understands the gangster lingo Sapila – a rapidly spoken melange of English, Afrikaans and Zulu – and, to survive in this environment, she had to use a weapon on numerous occasions, to eliminate attackers. She supplied him with a lot of first-hand material for his books. One of his most memorable research expeditions was a series of interviews with an ex-convict at his home on the Cape Flats. A video Roger shot of him describing his leadership of the very brutal prison gang murder of an informer that involved evisceration, heart eating and blood drinking, can be found on YouTube. If you have the stomach. https://youtu.be/ro7FKZpQwp0
Deon is thinking and writing, every day, day after day. He reads a lot of newspapers, magazines, books and internet news sites. He watches movies, and good TV, and yes, he also talks to people, including cops and criminals. But mostly, he thinks and he writes.
Michele spent time as a researcher, doing on the ground research for political documentaries and film, but she also did a lot of archive and historical research. She is drawing on all of these experiences in her books. In her opinion crime novels differ from other novels in that they revolve around the solving of a crime. Although arguably many other novels do as well. But having said that, she adds, that there are many variations on the theme, and crime novels take on very different forms. She thinks this explains the enduring popularity of the genre. It is always reinventing itself.
She is very comfortable with interviewing people, and very used to the process of story gathering. She always did on the ground type research for her movie work, which gave her access to a lot of different people across a broad spectrum of society. And because she teaches screenwriting she continually watches film and television.
In this regard she is definitely following her agent’s advice: Don’t give up your day job! Just like Andrew, who is an advocate in Cape Town. Both think that there are writers making a good living out of crime writing, but they are the exceptions. Although crime thrillers are probably the most popular form of novel, the readership in South Africa is small and Andrew is convinced that without an international market, there is no chance of a writer surviving on local sales.
Roger and Deon belong to those lucky few who made it. For them crime pays, they make a living with writing. They did quit their day jobs years ago and made a name for themselves internationally.
And what is the worst and best part about being a crime writer? For Deon the worst thing is perhaps the fact, that the book totally dominates his life for 12 months. The best? Just about everything else. He gets to see the world, meets wonderful people, and does something he really loves.
For Michele the best thing about being a crime writer is that you get to investigate all areas of the justice system, so you get to explore many social issues. And you also get to meet other crime writers, who she adds, are usually the nicest, least violent people around. The worst thing for her is the pressure to continually churn out books. It means the quality of the writing can really suffer. She admits to being a slow writer and that’s a bit of a kiss of death for publishers. But she is serious about writing, and she wants to write good books, so that is the trade off she guesses.
Andrew enjoys that he is always alive to stories, always looking for interesting characters in the people he sees, taking note of crimes, of stories that could work in a book. That is also the worst part of it for him. Never switching off, always being aware.
A crime author’s life must be full of great experiences and anecdotes. Roger laughs. He says most people might think book tours are glamorous. And recounts one freezing night a few years back, when he did a reading at the Vienna public library to promote one of his German translations and only two people pitched up: a homeless man, who seemed to be insisting that he was a serial killer (the finer points were lost in translation). And an elderly lady who wanted to discuss in great detail (in German) the varieties of fynbos on Table Mountain.
Perhaps the greatest thing was hearing the story of how his books reconciled a senator and his daughter in Bremen, Germany, remembers Deon. While Michele was on a panel with Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, and he said that when you write a series, in his case the Rebus books, you tend to forget what you have written about your characters over the years, especially in the earlier books. Invariably some train-spotter will want to know why Rebus detests haggis in Book 2, but can’t get enough of it in Book 6. Some people get a thrill from catching crime writers out for some reason.
One of the best parts of writing the police non-fiction books and the crime novels is for Andrew to see how his police colleagues react. His latest book ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’ caused much excitement. In different ways. Senior management were unamused and tight lipped, whilst his fellow constables and sergeants were all clamouring for copies to see if they were mentioned! Andrew had changed names and descriptions, but it took them only a matter of seconds to work out who was who. To much laughter and joking at each other’s expense.
Is there any advice the professionals can give to an aspiring young South African crime writer? Read, read, read, says Deon. Really get to know the genre before you write in it. Michele doesn’t like to dish out advice. She never takes it, and most people ignore it anyway. She would only say that if you want to be a crime writer, write a crime novel. As simple as that. Andrew makes the same point. Write, just write it down. Don’t worry about the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter. So many people get stuck on page one when they write and get no further. Stop worrying about the audience, just write what you want to write, and once the words are all down, you can go back and start improving it. And Roger hits it once again spot on. Hell, it’s South Africa. Just keep your eyes and ears open. And your head down.
Andrew Brown: www.facebook.com/andrewbrownsa
Deon Meyer: www.deonmeyer.com
Michele Rowe: www.michelerowe.co.za
Roger Smith: www.rogersmithbooks.com
Published in GQ June 2017