interview each other
Roger Smith interviews Dave Zeltserman
Dave Zeltserman writes the darkest brand of crime fiction, putting a contemporary spin on a tradition that goes way back to Jim Thompson and James M. Cain. His novel Small Crimes was an NPR selection as one of the 5 best crime and mystery novels of 2008. Pariah was named by the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009. Killer, Outsourced, Caretaker of Lorne Field, and Essence are all coming over the next 18 months. He took time out from his punishing schedule to talk to Roger Smith about psychotic noir, Kung Fu moves and Hollywood deals.
Dave, the first two books in your “bad-ass out of prison trilogy” Small Crimes and Pariah, have attracted a huge amount of attention. I’ve read the upcoming Killer, and in my opinion it’s even better than the others, and is sure to get heaped with praise. Now, you don’t write the kind of formulaic crime fiction – with antiseptic good guys fighting off cardboard baddies, full of cartoonish violence – that seems to find its way onto the bestseller lists: your protagonists are the bad guys, about as mean a trio of bastards as you could wish to meet. Talk about your decision to take the road less traveled.
Well, Leonard March, my protagonist in Killer, might be a former hitman with 28 kills behind him, but I think he still comes across as sympathetic as he’s reduced to little more than a toothless old wolf hollowing futilely at the moon, with all these forces working against him. But yeah, Kyle Nevin, from Pariah, is certainly a bad guy. Really a force of nature, every bit as destructive as a hurricane. And Joe Denton from Small Crimes is certainly a piece of work also.
At one level I’m just trying to write strong stories that will grip the reader, but what I’ve come to realize is at another level I’m also trying to provoke and challenge my readers. By the end of Killer the reader is definitely taken out of their comfort zone, and Pariah, while at one level a fierce crime novel, at another level it’s very subversive, and among other things is an indictment of our celebrity-crazed society and how we’re willing to make some of the worst people into celebrities to sell books, movies and TV shows.
My first book, Fast Lane, follows along these same lines. It comes across as psychotic noir, but it’s also very much a harsh deconstruction of the PI genre. The book was published by a small press in the States, so it didn’t get much distribution, but I’ve heard from a lot of noir fans who love this book, but the book also has gotten an almost virulent reaction from some hardboiled PI fans who either consciously or subconsciously realized what I was doing with it.
The “bad-ass” trilogy is written in the first person, with an unreliable narrators reminiscent of the great Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Why did you choose this point-of-view?
All three of my bad-ass guys are at different levels unreliable narrators, at least in their perceptions of the world around them. While Jim Thompson showed with A Swell-Looking Babe that you can write an unreliable narrator with 3rd person, I think it would’ve been near impossible to write Killer and Pariah in anything other than 1st person. Those two really needed to be written that way since getting the reader into Kyle and Leonard’s heads and their thought processes was critical, especially with their unique way of perceiving the world. Small Crimespossibly could’ve been 3rd person. That one was more the way it felt to me—also some of my favorite crime fiction reads have been first person noir novels like Thompson’s Savage Night and Hell of a Woman, Cain’s Double Indemnity, Marlowe’s Name of the Game is Death, so I wanted to give readers the same sort of thrilling ride with Small Crimes. Anyway, first person point-of-view seemed to fit well with this trilogy, especially given that with all three of my noir heroes once they leave prison they go on their unique quests.
Pariah and Killer are very much Boston books, and they draw on the true story of a legendary Boston bad guy. How does your hometown influence your writing?
Pariah was strongly influenced by my living most of my life in the Boston area. Like a lot of people from the Boston area, I was fascinated by the Whitey Bulger story, and for years read everything I could about him and the South Boston mob. It really is an amazing story—you’ve got Whitey Bulger as Boston’s most feared crime boss, and his brother, Billy Bulger, is State Senate President. Stories would come out about Billy squashing state police investigations into his brother, while Whitey would lean on other state pols to keep his brother in power. Quite a symbiotic relationship. And Whitey was really a piece of work—if he found out someone in the neighbourhood came into some money, he’d help them out by warning them that there was a contract on their heads, but for a price he’d see if he could make the contract to go away. And then it turns out that he’s an FBI informant who corrupted his FBI handlers—in effect using them to wipe out his competition, as well as warning him whenever someone wanted to give evidence against him. A lot of South Boston history worked its way into Pariah. And the city became one of the major characters of the book. Pariah is very much Boston noir.
Killer was also very loosely inspired by John Martorano, a Boston mob hitman who killed 20 people, then worked out a deal that got him out after 12 years by providing evidence against Whitey Bulger. In Killer, I took it one step further where my hitman is arrested on a racketeering charge and is able to work out immunity and 14 years for testifying against his Boston mob boss, and only after the deal is made do the authorities learn the true extent of his crimes. Other than this premise, Killer has nothing else to do with Martorano, but areas around Boston do play a big role in the book.
Unlike most writers, you fearlessly jump genres. The Caretaker of Lorne Field (coming July 2010), an eerie and atmospheric New England fable, reminds me a little of H.P. Lovecraft. Don’t you drive your publishers crazy by resisting being pigeonholed?
I’m sure Serpent’s Tail would’ve preferred that I publish Caretaker under a pseudonym. All about branding, right? But I’ve had horror stories published, and have written novels like Bad Thoughts which are a mix of horror and crime. Essence, which is out next year, is also mix of crime and supernatural with some metaphysical elements. Caretaker, though, is probably the best book that I’ve sold, and I’m grateful for Overlook Press for publishing it, especially since it’s a hard book to categorize. On the one hand it’s an allegorical fable, but it’s also got this noirish vibe about, but also with this creepy horror feel to it.
Here’s the story of how the novel came about. We used to have this type of tree on our property which had this root system spread under our yard where hundreds of these little trees would pop up everyday. I think these things were actually weeds, but they’d grow as big as a tree, and they’d grow fast—you’d have a forest of them if you weren’t careful. After a few days they’d start developing these thorns, and they’d get tougher to pull out if you didn’t get to them right away. So everyday during the summer I’d be walking around our property and pulling out hundreds of these suckers. After a month of this, I told my wife I was going to use this for a novel. She thought I was crazy, but this is how Caretaker came about, and it turned out to be my wife’s favorite of my sold books—and I think the favorite of my friends who’ve read books before I sell them.
You once told me that you see yourself as a pulp writer, and that if Gold Medal paperbacks were still around you’d be one of their authors. Talk a bit about the great pulp writers who influenced you.
Okay, I’ll tell you why I said I would’ve been a Gold Medal author. After I wrote Essence, all the rejections were the same—too dark, too gritty. This agent read it who used to be an assistant editor at Gold Medal, and she told me the same—too dark for today’s market. But she also told me that if she were still at Gold Medal she would’ve bought the book in a heartbeat. So there you have it, I was born about 30 years too late. But I guess if I was born 30 years earlier, I’d be dead now, or at least close to it, so what the fuck.
The Gold Medal authors I enjoy include Jim Thompson, Dan Marlowe, Peter Rabe, David Goodis, Gil Brewer, Charles Williams and Richard Prather. Discovering Jim Thompson was especially liberating, seeing how he’d break all the rules but still make it work. Seeing his schizophrenic split-ending of Hell of a Woman was almost like a religious experience. Reading those Jim Thompson books helped me break out of the rigid writing structure I was stuck in and more than anything help me find my own voice. There’s a strong Jim Thompson influence in my first book, Fast Lane (as well as a Ross MacDonald influence), but none that I can see in my other books, even if some of them have borderline sociopathic unreliable narrators. I just don’t see Thompson’s influence in the style or the plotting in those other ones. Years after writing Small Crimes when I was going through the copy edits I did notice a Dan Marlowe influence that I hadn’t been aware of. Other than that, I think these authors probably helped influence at some level my writing tightly plotted books.
Dave, calling you prolific is an understatement. You put James Patterson to shame, and he has a sweatshop of flunkies writing his stuff! Tell us about that monster work ethic of yours – and does the black belt in Kung Fu help?
Roger, I don’t know. Partly, I think it’s a mirage—it took me so long to break in that I had a large backlog of books that I’m now selling. I’m certainly not writing at the level of George Simenon who would write a book in 6-12 days. If I pushed myself I could maybe write four books a year, but in today’s publishing world it doesn’t make sense to do that. The days are gone when writers like Ed McBain, Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block could publish 4-5 different books a year under different names. Publishers these days, unless you’re a mega bestseller, only want to publish one book a year from an author, and they don’t want you competing against them by publishing books with other houses. It’s probably okay for me to publish my crime noir with Serpent’s Tail and my supernaturally-tinged books with Overlook Press, but I’d be pushing it if I tried publishing a 3rd book a year with someone else. So from this point on I’m limiting myself to writing two books a year, and will spend the rest of my time working on screenplays and other projects.
I’ve been studying martial arts—Kung Fu and Tai Chi—for about eight years now, and it does help in keeping the brutality and fighting in my books more realistic. Not that there’s a lot of fighting in my books, but what is in there makes sense. With all the training and sparring that I do, I understand what it feels like to be punched, and I understand how much damage can be done when someone knows what they’re doing.
One of your upcoming books, Outsourced, has been optioned for the movies. Let’s hear about the book, and what attracted Hollywood.
I wrote Outsourced back in 2004—at that time it was the 4th book that I had written, and it’s probably the closest book to my own situation. The book has this oddball group of out of work software engineers who have been made obsolete due to outsourcing. Out of desperation they come up with a brilliant plan to rob a bank, or more precisely, rob the safe deposit boxes of a particularly brutal Russian mobster. The plan almost works, and things only go downhill from there.
This was one of those frustrating books where I had editors at several large NY houses try to acquire it only to be turned down because their editorial boards were afraid outsourcing wouldn’t be an issue by the time the book would be released in 2005 (any question now why the NY publishing houses are struggling??). But while it was having little luck in NY, my agent sent it to Steve Fisher at APA, who is one of the top film agents in the business. Steve doesn’t take on many projects, but when he finds something he loves, he usually pushes it until it gets made, and fortunately he wanted to take on Outsourced. I think Steve assumed that the book would get bought quickly by someone in NY, and it caught him by surprise that NY passed on it—not having a book deal definitely made selling the movie harder. But over the next 3 years we still came close several times—at one point we almost sold it as a cable series, at another time two very hot screenwriters wanted to take it on but they had to drop it due to another commitment. But one of the Hollywood guys who was sold on the book was John Tomko, which made sense since he had produced Falling Down and had been involved with Ocean’s 11, and Outsourced is a bit of a mix of both of those. In 2008 we got Impact Pictures involved—they’re the guys who do the Resident Evil movies, and once they were involved we got Constantin Film for the financing, and the film was optioned. Right now they finishing up the script, and will be going out soon for a director.
On the book front, after having a number of houses turn down the first version of Outsourced because they feared outsourcing wouldn’t be an issue by the time the book was published, I stripped out most of the outsourcing stuff from the book, making the engineers obsolete more because of time and their skill sets passing them by. This made the book leaner and more of a pure crime thriller. We still had everyone in NY turn us down—supposedly because the book now is too dark and violent, but fortunately Serpent’s Tail was quite taken by it, and the book will be released in the US this coming October.
I think what attracted Hollywood to it is that Outsourced is very fast-paced with a strong story, compelling issues, and an interesting cast of oddball characters. And for all you software engineers out there who I’ve worked with over the years and are thinking you might see yourselves in these characters, you’re out of luck. The characters are completely fictional, at most composites. None of you have a case, so give it up!
Talking of software engineers, you were part of that world until a few years back. When did you start to write and how tough was it committing yourself to being a fulltime author?
I was a software engineer for 25 years, most of it in the esoteric art of building network management software. Anyone who looks for me on Amazon will find along with my crime novels some technology books. During most of my career, I was at a leadership level where I was expected to define what needed to be built, architect the product, design it, and then lead a team in building it, and where I’d still end up building a large portion of the software. At that level I had to be dedicated to the job. But there would be stretches where I’d find myself between projects, and to keep myself sane I would work on a book. In ’92I was in one of those stretches and I wrote Fast Lane. Then I had to shut myself down to writing until ’97 when I hit another slow stretch and wrote Bad Thoughts. In 2001 I was part of a company that got bought by Lucent, and in 2003 they laid off the whole division, but not before paying us substantial bonuses, and I wrote Small Crimes before finding another job. In 2004 the writing bug had gotten in too deep and I wrote Outsourced in whatever time I could squeeze in, but by this time I was starting to lose some of my enthusiasm for software development. In 2006 when the company I was at folded, I wrote Caretaker and Pariah before looking for another job, but I already reached a point where more than anything I wanted to write and was having a hard time mustering the necessary enthusiasm for the demands of my new job. When the film options for Outsourced sold, I quit to write fulltime—at this point I didn’t have much choice. Writing was all I wanted to do.
Astonishingly, between all the novels you still find the time to write short stories. Is this a passion of yours?
I always read a lot of short stories—everything from Hammett’s Op stories (and I reread those every few years), to HP Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Harlan Ellison, Bruce Jay Friedman, and many others. As a kid I used to always go through the Alfred Hitchcock paperback collections whenever they came out. So yeah, I like short fiction, especially now short hardboiled and noir fiction, which is part of the reason I started the Hardluck Stories webzine a few years back. For me writing short stories is easy—while a good day might be 2000 words for a novel, I can sit down and pump out a 5000 word short story in one sitting. The problem is there aren’t too many paying markets for short fiction, so these days I tend to only write stories if I’m being invited to an anthology. But I did hear from Ellery Queen that they’ll be buying my second Julius Katz story, and I’ll keep writing more Julius Katz stories as long as they want them.
Judging by your output, you don’t have much free time. But who do you read when you want to kick back and put the feet up?
I tend to stick with a lot of the older writers. I love Donald Westlake, but have only read about half of his 100 or so published books and want to work through the rest of them. I like Lawrence Block and tend to read his books when they come out. I recently discovered George Simenon’s romans durs (serious novels), just finishing Dirty Snow, and plan to read more. Last year I made a point to reread all of Hammett, also read a bunch of Peter Rabe.
Newer writers, other than yourself, who I’ve read recently and like a lot include Paul Tremblay—his narcoleptic PI sounds gimmicky, but it’s actually the most original and best hardboiled PI I’ve read in years and Sean Chercover. I also like Scott Phillips, Max Allan Collins recent Hardcase Quarry books and Vicki Hendricks. Scott Smith only writes a book a decade, but I think he’s a tremendous writer. Ed Gorman has been around for a while, but I love his stuff—he has that Gold Medal sensibility with just this great style to his writing. There are other writers also, that’s just a sampling, but I do mostly stick with crime fiction.
And what’s next from the pen of Dave Zeltserman?
I have 4 books coming out: Killer, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, Outsourced and Essence. Outside of those I have 3 books that still need to be sold. One of them, Vampire Crimes, think Sin City with vampires. Very hardcore, ultra violent stuff, but with strong noir sensibilities. It’s one of those books that young editors have loved, but then they get shot down by their bosses because a) it’s a vampire book that’s not a teen romance b) it’s a thriller that’s actually noir. Seriously, those are the reasons we’ve been given. But one of the producers involved with Outsourced loves this book and is working on a film deal for it, and eventually NY will come to their senses.
I also wrote a retelling of Frankenstein from the point of view of the monster. Usually I don’t spend more than a few hours researching any of my books—but with this book I spent 6 months of research. In this retelling, the monster is a heroic, if not tragic, figure, while Victor Frankenstein has far more depraved reasons for wanting to build this creature than what was given in Shelley’s book. This is a book I’m very high on. I think under normal times this would’ve sold quickly, but my agent was sending it out around the time the publishing world was crumbling last fall. But I am keeping my fingers-crossed that big things will happen with this book.
My 3rd unsold book is more of a commercial thriller, but with enough of my sensibilities in it to make it something I’m happy with. We’re waiting until the market improves before sending it out.
As far as what I’m writing now, I’m working on a very dark noir novel that I’m gearing for Serpent’s Tail. After that I have a 4-book crime noir series in mind that I’m very excited about.
Thanks Dave, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Dave Zeltserman interviews Roger Smith
Roger Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in Cape Town. Before turning to a life of crime, he was a screenwriter, producer and director. His debut novel, Mixed Blood, was published internationally in 2009, and is in development as a movie with Samuel L. Jackson to star. His next thriller, Wake Up Dead, is being released in the U.S. and Germany in February 2010, and in the U.K. in August.
Roger, I’m going to get to Mixed Blood and South Africa and Cape Town and movie projects soon, but first I’d like to mention something very cool about the blurbs both myself and Ken Bruen gave you for Wake Up Dead, which by the way, has already gotten a bunch of well-deserved starred reviews. So here’s what I find cool. In different words, both Ken and I are saying the same thing about Wake Up Dead, that it’s dark, brutal, poetic and haunting. Where we differ is only that I sense a strong Elmore Leonard influence, while Ken sees more of a Charles Willeford and James Ellroy influence. So to put you on the spot, which influences, if any, do you see yourself in Wake Up Dead?
Dave, it’s hugely flattering for a newbie like me to be compared to these great writers, all of whom have influenced me over the years. A couple of reviewers have also picked up on the Elmore Leonard thing, and I can only imagine it’s because Wake Up Dead is an ensemble piece like most of Leonard’s books, with the POV shifting between a number of different characters, and there’s something Leonardesque about the attraction/ repulsion relationship between hot American widow, Roxy Palmer, and conflicted ex-cop turned mercenary, Billy Afrika.
What I’ve always loved about Elmore Leonard is that he doesn’t write mysteries: everything is out there from page one and his characters are driven by a weird kind of karmic energy. What’s so enjoyable is the suspense, the anticipation of what will happen when all these messed-up people collide. If I achieved a little of that, I’m a happy man. But the body count in Wake Up Dead is way higher than in Leonard’s books – especially the later ones – hence the James Ellroy comparison, perhaps?
Okay, I’d like to get to more on Wake Up Dead, but first, Mixed Blood, South Africa and movies. You burst on the scene last year with your first novel, Mixed Blood, which is a brilliant debut with a great compulsory vibe to it, and is a book that every crime fiction fan I know who has read it has loved. How’d this book come about?
Dave, thanks for talking me up! The book started writing itself, somewhere in the back of my head, a long time ago. I grew up under apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager in Johannesburg, I watched white cops mow down black school kids my age during the 1976 youth uprising. A few years later I was drafted into a white army fighting a meaningless bush war against older versions of those black kids. Disaster Zondi, Mixed Blood’s Zulu investigator, is one of those kids 25 years on. And my rogue cop, Rudi Barnard, is a relic from the apartheid era, roaming the badlands of Cape Town, still slaughtering people darker than himself.
Around ten years ago I moved down to Cape Town. People say it looks like the south of France, or California, just more beautiful. I fell in love with a woman who grew up out on the Cape Flats – a sprawling ghetto outside the city – home to millions of people of mixed race, where the rape, murder and child abuse statistics are the highest in the world. The true stories she told me, and the world she introduced me to, changed my view of Cape Town forever.
A few years ago, I went with her to prison to visit her brother. He’s in his thirties, a human canvas of prison artwork. Since the age of fourteen he has spent a total of two years out of jail. He knows if he ever goes out into the world again he won’t stand a chance, will end up where he always ends up: back in prison. Part of that man found his way into my ex-con night watchman, Benny Mongrel.
So, I had these men – products of South African violence – running around in my head, looking for a home. Then I saw a TV news report about an American couple who’d robbed banks in the US and were hiding out in Cape Town. After they were captured they were sent back home to do serious prison time.
This story made me think: “what if?” What if a man with a past, a man on the run – Jack Burn – brings his family to Cape Town, seduced by those images of mountains and beaches and freedom? What if they are building new lives for themselves when they are confronted by a random act of violence – a collision between the Cape Flats and privileged Cape Town – that hooks them into the world of Rudi Barnard and Benny Mongrel and Disaster Zondi? Those “what ifs” became Mixed Blood.
While I saw a strong Elmore Leonard influence in Wake Up Dead, Mixed Blood to me felt almost like a very violent Richard Stark/Parker book, with a Parker-like American fugitive on the run in South Africa.
Man, I love those Parker books! I first read The Hunter aka Point Blank as a teenager, and I was blown away by the book’s stripped-down prose and amoral universe. I still have that dog-eared little paperback on my bookshelf.
But, I suppose I tried to write what I like to read: a fast-moving, multi-character story without too much padding. I get very bored with those flabby, overlong, crime novels that bog down in endless navel gazing and descriptions of the landscape (inner and outer), or spend pages telling you about a character’s taste in wine, coffee or music. Almost as if the authors are ashamed of writing genre fiction, and feel that by fluffing up their manuscripts, they’re making them more “literary.”
Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead both are very visual. You’ve been involved in films and TV in South Africa?
Yes, I have directed and produced film and TV, and worked as a screenwriter, which is mostly a frustrating experience. Anybody in the movie business will tell you that screenplays spend so much time in turnaround that your head’s left spinning. Out here in South Africa, the movie industry is tiny and underfunded, so I have a stack of unproduced screenplays (among them a couple of thrillers) gathering dust. The TV market is more robust, and I have written everything from cop shows to comedies, to dramatic series dealing with the HIV/Aids epidemic. You name it, I’ve written it. Everything except soaps.
I’m writing novels fulltime now, but having a screenwriting background helps with plot, structure, pace – and dialogue of course. It also encourages a certain leanness, stylistically.
You portray the Cape Flats as a violent hell-hole where death is cheap for everyone. Is it as bad as you portray it, or worse?
Worse. I’m been amused by some of the responses to my depiction of Cape Town from the city’s elite, as if I’ve just gone and slapped the prettiest girl at the party! Cape Town is not a mellow, temperate spot. It bakes and blows and burns in summer. The sea rages and the city floods in winter. And two thirds of the population live on the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard – the Cape Flats – which is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside of a war zone.
In both Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead I was interested in capturing what I believe to be the reality of many people’s lives, without sentimentalizing that reality, even if it’s uncomfortable. I know I’ve got it right when readers from the Cape Flats are astonished that I’m some white guy. They tell me that I’ve portrayed their world with the eye of an insider.
Rudi Barnard is quite a character, one that most readers, at least those unfamiliar with South Africa, probably think is a gross exaggeration. How realistic is he?
Dave, Barnard is all too real, man . . . He’s a composite of a number of thugs from South Africa’s past, some of whom I have met. In the 80s – during the darkest days of apartheid – a group of South African cops, chosen for their brutality, were seconded to a hit squad responsible for assassinating political activists. The hit squad members, mostly white Afrikaners who are now middle-aged, were nothing less than state-sanctioned psychopaths, given complete license to do their worst. These men, often devout Calvinist Christians, justified their actions as the work of God – as fanatics often do.
After Mandela came to power, some of them were offered amnesty from prosecution if they appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and confessed to their crimes. Others were imprisoned. Smaller fish, like Barnard, just disappeared – some back into the police, others into civilian life. But they are still out there. So Rudi Barnard is fiction, but based on fact.
Rudi’s favorite meal is a gatsby. Tell me about those. Do you eat them?
A gatsby – nothing to do with F. Scott Fitzgerald – is the Cape Flats’s contribution to world cuisine: a bread loaf the size of an alligator head, stuffed with steak, baloney, fries, onion and egg, lashed with mayonnaise and chili sauce that can clear backed-up drains.
In my carefree youth I fought down a few gatsbys, but I’d be terrified to go near one now!
Mixed Blood has been optioned, with Samuel Jackson to play Disaster Zondi. How’d this come about, and any news on its development?
These movie deals are very exciting, as you well know, Dave. My agent, Alice Martell, has an association with Jody Hotchkiss, who was instrumental in selling properties like The Kite Runner and American Gangster to Hollywood studios. Jody got Mixed Blood to Samuel L. Jackson, who loved it and immediately wanted to play the Zulu detective, Disaster Zondi.
The book is in development with GreeneStreet films. Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) is adapting, and Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Patriot Games, Salt) is on board to direct. Shooting is scheduled for late 2010 in Cape Town, so I’ve got my autograph book at the ready.
If you could cast the rest of the film—Jack Burn, his wife, Benny Mongrel, and of course, Rudi, who would you pick?
Okay, I’ll play! For me there is only one Jack Burn: Viggo Mortensen, with his tough/ vulnerable, brooding quality. Naomi Watts looks a lot like the Susan Burn of my imagination, and she’s a fantastic actress. Rudi “Gatsby” Barnard is a man-mountain of flesh, so casting him would be interesting! John Goodman (of course) comes to mind, but he may be a little old. Dave, you once suggested Brendan Gleeson, and though he’s not quite built to the scale of Goodman, he could definitely play Barnard. Benny Mongrel, a one-eyed, mixed race, ex-con – covered in gang tattoos – is another challenge for the casting director. For some reason I see Giancarlo Esposito in the role. Now, Esposito is a very debonair, handsome man, but he has the compact leanness of Benny M., and with state-of-the-art FX make-up, he could pull it off.
I understand Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead are very hot in Germany. Any touring plans?
Mixed Blood (translated as Kap der Finsternis) did really well over there last year, attracted a lot of great press, and was number one on the influential KrimiWelt 10 Best, the choice of 19 top German, Swiss and Austrian critics. It also made a bunch of “best of 2009” lists in the German-speaking countries.
Wake Up Dead (Blutiges Erwachen) is out this February, and my publishers have invited me over in early March for appearances at a series of high-profile crime fiction events in Germany and Austria. The Germans take their crime writing seriously, so I’m really looking forward to this trip.
Roger, getting back to Wake Up Dead and Elmore Leonard’s influence, the large ensemble is part of it, but also the leanness of the writing and the way the characters violently collide. Also, the desperation of the characters brought Rum Punch to mind.
Elmore Leonard famously said: “Cut out all the bits that readers skip.” Words to live by.
South Africa is a society still divided by race, and increasingly, wealth. Predatory crimes like home invasions and carjackings frequently bridge that divide. Both Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead begin with violent collisions between privileged Cape Town and the Flats, incidents so commonplace that they often don’t even make the local news. What fascinates me is to look beyond the statistics, to get into the people who are flung together by these violent events, and the impact on their lives.
Something that I’ve always admired about Elmore Leonard is how he – unlike many other male crime authors – writes great female characters. His women aren’t bimbos, happy homemakers, or psychotic femmes fatale, they’re ballsy, vulnerable, conflicted and real.
In Wake Up Dead I wanted to take on the challenge of writing a female protagonist, and Roxy Palmer, the American ex-model, just seemed to jump fully formed onto the page. I loved writing her, and enjoyed the fact that her good looks and street smarts catapulted her from a Florida trailer park to the runways of Paris and Rome, and then to Cape Town where she married a South African gunrunner for his money. It’s great to have a foreigner, an outsider, in my Cape Town mix, because I can use her to highlight bizarre elements of South African culture. The conversations Roxy and Billy Afrika have about race, apartheid and African voodoo were fun to write.
Billy Africa is a great character. Is he coming back?
Yeah, I had a good time with Billy! I have no immediate plans for him, but you never know . . .
A couple of bloggers have already commented on the opening line for Wake up Dead: “The night they were highjacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.” That really is a great opening line. How’d you get the inspiration?
Cape Town is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Eurotrash rub shoulders with gangsters and hookers from the old USSR. Leaders of dubious African “liberation movements” live in lavish exile on the slopes of Table Mountain, while plotting coups in their home countries. I wanted to show that side of the city, to dig beneath the veneer of glamor and sophistication.
A few years ago I watched a documentary shot by a South African crew in some central African country. The leader of some ragged-assed militia, high on weed and bloodlust, cornered an enemy and – while the poor bastard was still alive and conscious – hacked out his heart with a machete and ate it while he grinned for the camera. An image that for me is uniquely African. I hope the opening line captures something of that.
Saying you don’t shy away from violence in your books is a massive understatement. The violence in your books is horrific, brutal and real. This is risky, especially when so many thriller readers seem to want over-the-top cartoons as opposed to anything approaching reality. You also step over another taboo for many mystery readers where you have children dying violently.
As I’ve said, I live in – and write about – an extremely violent country. I don’t write about anything that doesn’t happen every day in South Africa. I loathe the comic book porno-violence of a lot of European and U.S. crime writing (and movies, TV and video games, for that matter) where bloodshed is used to titillate. People aren’t turned on by what I write – they’re shocked. As they should be. Each day children are raped and slaughtered out on the Cape Flats, just miles from where I live. My girl friend counsels abused children, and tells me stories that give me nightmares. If this was happening anywhere in the West, there would be an outcry. Here it barely makes the newspapers. I write about this stuff because it freaks me out. Writing about it seems the only way to stay sane.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading your third novel, Dust Devils. I know it’s a bit overused these days to say a novel transcends the genre, but while Dust Devils is still a page-turning thriller of the highest-order, you have certain themes running through the book that does make it seem to transcend the thriller genre, including the sad history of South Africa.
When apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela came to power, there was a period in South Africa where we went from being the pariah of the world, to a role-model for transformation. A giddy time. Then Mandela moved on, and the rulers of the country became ever more self-serving and corrupt, as politicians tend to do.
Apartheid is over, but crime, poverty and the highest incidence of HIV/ Aids in the world present new challenges that are left largely unaddressed. Our constitution is glowing testament to enlightenment and individual freedom, but teenage girls are sold into slave marriages and our president has just tied the knot with wife number five (or is it six?). The South African commissioner of police is on trial for corruption, and a trail of cover-ups leads straight to the presidency. This is the background against which Dust Devils is set.
This book also seemed very personal to me, as if there was a bit of you in the hero.
There is a little of me in Robert Dell, a forty-something white liberal journalist who goes on the run when he is framed for the murder of his wife and children. Dell and I both came out of the Left, the anti-apartheid movement, but Dell was a lot braver, more of an activist – I was one of those dinner party lefties, filled with loathing for apartheid but I didn’t have the balls to get locked up for my beliefs. Or go into exile. But the loss of Dell’s idealism mirrors the experiences of a lot of my generation.
Roger, it’s been great talking with you. One last question, anything exciting in the works?
I’m working on a new book, which goes deep into the world of child abuse and murder in Cape Town. It’s not an easy or comfortable book to write, but there’s no way I can dodge this subject. Not if I want to sleep at night.
Dave, thanks for taking the time out to interview me. I am honored.