Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The one about the 2 crime writers and the publicist stuck in a lift ...

During the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in July this year, I had the good fortune to interview the charming and talented, Deon Meyer in advance of his September publication of "7 Days".

We met in the hotel lobby and on the way up to the media suite - we got stuck in the lift. Cue lots of gags. Thankfully, the lift had almost reached the right level. We managed to open the doors and step up and out onto the hotel landing. Mr Meyer demonstrated that he was a real gentleman by being the last person to exit the lift. I wasn't quite so courteous.

How did our conversation go? First, here's the blurb for 7 Days ...

“I'll shoot a policeman every day until you arrest the murderer of Hanneke Sloet.”

Shortly after the South African Police Services receive this threatening email, a policeman is shot by a sniper and recovering alcoholic Benny Griessel is ordered to reopen the Sloet case.

Hanneke Sloet was a sensual and ambitious lawyer. At the time of her murder she was working on one of the biggest Black Empowerment deals in South African history. She was found dead in her luxury Cape Town apartment, a single stab wound to her chest.

After forty days, the trail has gone cold. The first investigation could find no motive and no leads, only a set of nude photographs, an ex-boyfriend with a rock-solid alibi, conniving attorneys and financial double-dealing.

Benny has to deal with immense pressure from his superiors, the media and the unfathomable sniper, whose emails keep coming and who won't stop shooting. And then there's Benny's love interest, former pop sensation Alexa Barnard, who is also trying to rebuild her life after the ravages of alcohol, and Benny has to make sure she stays sober for her comeback.

At the same time, Benny's feisty colleague, Captain Mbali Kaleni, is hunting the shooter, trying desperately to find what connects him to Hanneke Sloet.
Both Benny and Mbali are about to endure seven days of hell.

And here's the first part of our interview ...

MM - How much of you is in Bennie Griessel?

DM – (laughs)Bennie was a side character in my first novel – and the main character  in that book was more like me. Bennie was supposed to be the comic relief in that book, but he was just such a fantastic character – he was a bit of a cliché – you know, the alcoholic cop –  but I enjoyed writing him and he found his way to being the main character.  And there is only a little of me in Benny.

MM - He is a finely nuanced character. How careful are you in depicting him, or do you run on instinct?

DM – I do a lot of thinking about my characters ...what are the emotional moments in their life – what possible genetic markers do they have. If you don’t know your character when you are writing them, you are going to make a lot of mistakes. I did spend a lot of time thinking about Benny and I tried to be very careful to get him right. It’s not difficult – once you know your character, once you know the pressure points that are going to drive him or her then it becomes and easier process. “7 Days”  is my third Benny Griessel novel and I’m getting to know him better and better

MM – I thought the counterpoint provided by his relationship with Alexa was interesting. He is off the demon drink and she’s going through that particular battle. AND it provides a nice piece of mental torture for Benny. He’s in love with this woman. He knows how she is suffering, but booze is always near...

DM – We have an expression in Afrikaans, to make the wolf the sheepherder. Benny is of course an alcoholic. His wife used to fight to keep him off the drink and now he’s got to do that. He has the other end of the stick. And that for me was an interesting tension to the story – how will Benny cope?
I think the whole idea of the genre is to create conflict. Conflict is the mother of suspense and to give Benny these challenges creates extra suspense.

MM – What do you think makes Benny such an endearing character?

DM – I dunno. You’re asking the right guy. I like him and I just hope the reader will like him. My approach is to make all my characters as human as possible and I think readers respond to humanity in characters; to frailty. Life is difficult for all of us and if you have a character who is finding it difficult to cope ... and as I said, readers respond. And Benny he does stupid things, but at heart he is a good man. He tries so hard, but he has so many failings.

MM – Roger Smith is another very fine writer to come out of South Africa, but if his books were the only reference to the modern state that is South Africa, you would never set foot in the place. Your books are much more balanced in that respect. Do you feel a responsibility to do so?

DM – No I don’t. When I do interviews and people ask about South Africa, then I feel I have a responsibility to try and convince people that South Africa is a fantastic and safe country. An interesting fact is that the UK crime rate and the South African crime rate is not all that different.
     The thing to bear in mind about crime fiction is that it’s a small window into a very big world. And it’s usually a small window onto the dark underbelly of society. When I read a book set in Scandinavia or London, I don’t immediately think this is a very dangerous place. And I don’t think readers do either. So that’s why I don’t feel any responsibility. I do try to be honest and depict SA as it is but you can’t reflect reality. Crime fiction isn’t a mirror on society. It’s a prism. You set the light to suit the story.
     I think if you try to portray SA as it really is, which is a fantastic, beautiful and safe country, then you affect the story. Just trying to get the story right is difficult enough, I don’t any other pressures.

MM – Your responsibility is to the story?

DM – Yeah. When I do interviews; when I visit other countries, I do feel I should talk about the wonders of my country. Unfortunately, through the media, SA does have a reputation of being a violent society but I didn’t create that perception and it’s not up to me to alter it.

MM – Another element I found interesting in the story was a moment when Benny considered the new SA and how Afrikaaners have had to adapt to big changes ...

DM – Yeah, one of the great things about writing is that you get to see your country through the eyes of different characters. One of my characters is a Zulu cop. She looks at SA through Zulu eyes and that enriches me as an author and it enriches the reader because they get different points of view. There’s a scene when Benny thinks how unfair the media is when talking about cops. The police get too much attention from the media and politicians and the police authorities continually get hit with the political stick. They get an unfair deal and I wanted to portray that.

MM – What about the soccer World Cup, was that of benefit to the nation?

DM – Absolutely. We are still reaping the benefit of the World Cup. Tourism stats went up during the tournament and they have continued to rise. Every day, when I go into Cape Town I get to drive on the new highways that were built for the World Cup. The stadiums are being used for other sports events and for disadvantaged communities.  And also on a psychological level it really brought the people together. The pride we took, that we showed the world we can host a very successful world event. I must tell you that I found it very charming when I was in the UK before the World Cup a lot of journalists were saying how can you host a World Cup, it’s going to be a fiasco, there’s so much crime. And in the run up to the Olympics the UK had a problem with GS4. We never had such a mess.

MM – Back to the books. You are amassing an impressive backlist. Do you have a favourite?

DM – I don’t really, but there is always the last one. Because you have lived with it so long and you feel the relief. Devil’s Peak and Trackers are probably the ones that I’m proudest of. But there are other books and other characters that I am also proud of. It’s like asking which of my children I love the most. It’s a very difficult thing to answer.

Keep your eyes peeled for the rest of the interview ...


  1. Be interesting to read a story with so many viewpoints on your country.
    Good interview, guys!

  2. Thanks, Alex. When you get the chance you should check Deon's books out. He really is an excellent writer.