An Interview with New Zealand Crime Writer Finn Bell, by Charles Rzepka, January 9, 2019
Whenever my wife and I travel, I make a point of acquainting myself with the crime literature of the countries I visit, and often make new discoveries. Preparing for a recent trip to New Zealand, I discovered Finn Bell.
Finn Bell is a new name in crime writing, at least relatively speaking, having published his first book, Dead Lemons, only three years ago. He’s also flown mostly under the radar of crime writing reviewers, deciding to self-publish his books in Kindle format. Despite that decision and his recent entry to crime fiction, he managed to win New Zealand’s prestigious Ngaio Marsh First Book award right out of the gate, and a clutch of other prizes and awards since. He’s just finished his fourth book, The Lost Dead, which should be available for purchase on Amazon sometime in April or May.
As you’ll soon learn, “Finn Bell” is not his real name. He’s had to adopt a pseudonym because much of his material is based on case files from his years as a forensic psychologist, and he is fiercely protective of the privacy of his former clients and case workers. That background has shaped, in ways both obvious and less so, his major concerns, characters, and plotlines. Finn’s books shine an intense light on our ideas of good and evil, free will and compulsion, nature and nurture, and, at the deepest level, what it means to be human. They do not really untangle these ideas, but they do help us trace the distinct strands of the knots in which they tie us up.
Finn Bell was born in 1978, in a small town in a wine-growing region of South Africa before the fall of Apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. In the interview that follows, you will learn more about his life growing up there and what brought him to New Zealand, which he now calls home. You will also learn how his work as a forensic psychologist set him on the path to become the crime writer that he is today.
When I first contacted Finn to ask for an interview, I had little hope of any opportunity materializing. My wife and I, and our two traveling companions, would only be in Dunedin, on the South Island, for two nights, and what were the chances that Finn would be free even for a brief meeting over coffee? I was therefore astonished, and delighted, to receive an invitation from Finn, extended to include all four of us, to join him and Lisa, his partner of 10 years, for a dinner at their home high above the Otago Harbour. Lisa would take my wife and our friends (avid bird-watchers) on a tour of a nearby bird sanctuary while Finn and I sat and talked. The result—besides an excellent dinner of several courses and a pleasant, spirited, and thought-provoking conversation among the six of us afterwards—was an interview of over two hours in length, of which the following is an edited and redacted version. I hope it will serve as a modest token of my thanks for Finn and Lisa’s generous hospitality, and perhaps do something to raise awareness of Finn Bell among crime writers and readers to the level I think he deserves.
Interview with Finn Bell – Dunedin, New Zealand, January 9, 2019:
CR [Charles Rzepka]: I’d like to begin with your writing, if I may, and get to your life as we go.
One thing that stands out to me in the three books you’ve published so far is that your plots are full of risks, and you are very good at building tension around them. Moreover, you seem to be fond of taking risks with your writing, too. For instance, in your first book, Dead Lemons, you decided to give your fictional protagonist your own name, which naturally raises a lot of questions in the minds of your readers, who can’t have known a thing about you at the time, like, “Is Finn Bell a paraplegic, too? Does he also have substance abuse problems?” Could you talk about what led to that decision?
FB [Finn Bell]: First of all, “Finn Bell” is a pen name. It’s not my real name. And I chose it, and gave it to the main character in my first book, because I lost a bet with friends about a 1990s film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations directed by Alfonso Cuarón, a Mexican director. He named his lead character “Finn Bell.” I bet that he hadn’t, which meant that I had to make my pen name “Finn Bell,” and furthermore, I had to have the lead character in the book also be named “Finn Bell.”
CR: That’s a much less interesting answer than I had hoped for! [Laughter] But it does show that you enjoy taking risks—basing such an important decision on a bet. Still, even if the matching names aren’t intentional, there seem to be many life correspondences between that fictional Finn Bell and you, the real one.
FB: True. I wanted somebody that to me was flawed, and it was easiest for me to base his flaws on mine. But that was after the fact. I had lost the bet, so I had to give the author and the character the same name, and at that point it started working backwards. I started basing the character’s flaws on my own, of which I have more than enough. So, it was an easy job. [Laughter] Originally, I wrote Dead Lemonsand Pancake Money, my second book, at the same time, as one big book.
CR: I’m surprised, because each of them seems complete in itself, even though the second is a prequel.
FB: Honestly, it took longer untangling them into two separate books than it did to write the whole thing. But after I looked at the entire story arc, I thought there was too much complexity here. Dead Lemonsis based on a time-jump narrative, and Pancake Moneyis not, its plot is chronologically straightforward. And Pancake Money, which you don’t read until after you read Dead Lemons,describes events that take place before Dead Lemons. It became the pre-story of Bobby Ress, the retired police detective turned priest, who’s a minor character in the first book, Dead Lemons.
But there was another reason for splitting it up, besides the ungainliness of the first draft. When I began it, I was still working professionally in forensic psychology. By the time I finished, I had come to a realization about my work and my life that made me rethink the whole thing.
I was binge-listening to a lot of Counting Crows at the time, which was stuff I had listened to in my teens. I hadn’t listened to it for about 20 years, and you know how things can take you back? I don’t know if I started to think or feel like I did back then, but there was this lyric by Adam Duritz, “I’m an idiot walking a tightrope of fortunate things.”
It stuck in my head. I got more and more obsessed with the idea of an almost divine providence, about this kind of invisible fortune that we all have, how lucky we all are that things don’t go as terribly wrong as they so often can. I think that’s what started moving me towards the end of my work as a forensic psychologist, because in that job you do see the things that can go wrong. People who live beyond their luck.
CR: Can you tell me more about that, your former job?
FB: It was a combination of profiling, therapy, and lots of lots of core work, which is basically just assessments before a prisoner’s release or next court appearance, which is, I guess, another form of analysis. But, it’s not within the traditional understanding of what therapeutic analysis is for, because you’re trying to assess a resistant client, or put another way – you’re trying to assess whether somebody is ready to be released back into the community. That process can be unkind, can be invasive, as it needs to be, because your client is the community, not the person in front of you.
CR: Was this work that you did here in New Zealand, or in South Africa?
FB: Both. It’s work that ended up bringing me here, to New Zealand. About a decade ago, I noticed that very interesting things were starting to happen here. The therapeutic models they were using were fascinating and very far advanced.
CR: In what way?
FB: We’re going to get a bit deeper into forensic psych here . . . .
CR: I’ve had a mini-course just reading your books.
FB: Ok, so, in my opinion, the Nordic countries are by far and away the best at changing human beings. In terms of forensic reality, not theory, if you want to take a given person, and you want to shift significantly their observable behavior over time, nobody else comes close.
These people have methods embedded in their communities and systems that are far in advance of most forensic science in terms of therapies and outcomes. They can turn people’s lives around. Whether that person wants it or not, they can do it far better than anybody else. And everybody else, I would say, is probably a good decade behind them in terms of the science, and practice.
New Zealand is this kind of outlier that is getting very close to how they do it there in some aspects, but with significant differences. Most of the Nordic countries are both ethnically and culturally quite homogenous in comparison. We don’t have that here. This is a country built on fusion, and that’s a lever for change that was fascinating to me. It still is. They were doing things here with bi-culturalism nobody else was doing.
CR: And you heard about it through friends, or through other professionals in South Africa?
FB: I was working at a South African university at the time. I’d been in and out of prison services then for a good while, and people started saying, “They’re doing interesting things in New Zealand.” I’d read a few articles and had been following some of the research, and the opportunity came so I applied, and I got hired over the phone, which was strange to me.
CR: They’re probably used to long distance interviews.
FB: If you’re this far away, you kind of have to be. But I had never had that experience before, being hired sight unseen from half a world away.
CR: And you fell in love with the country?
FB: Almost immediately. I wasn’t meant to. I was honestly coming for the job. I love traveling, always liked to see different parts of the world but I didn’t intend on staying. I thought, let me stay two or three years with this contract, and see what they’re doing, and then move on. And then the story of my life changed.
CR: Like the original story in your first book, I guess, where “Finn Bell,” also from Africa, ended up staying. You also began Dead Lemons with a pretty overt literalization of a generic terror trope, which is cliffhanging. That was deliberate, wasn’t it?
FB: Yes. Look, my books are fiction, and that was a nod to the idea of a “cliffhanger.” However, my books are also based on a scaffold of true crime, which is drawn from old case files and prison interviews, and work I used to do for the police, and court records, just stuff that I used to have to do on the job. All the “index” crimes —
CR: “Index crimes”?
FB: Index crime is a common term in law enforcement for the more serious crimes– murder, rape, theft—that get tallied when serious crime rates are determined, as opposed to non-index, or less violent and less severe crimes. In forensic settings typically we’ll refer to ‘the index crime” when speaking of an individual offender or group of offenders. Here it usually means either the most serious crime an individual or group has been sentenced or charged with, or that has the greatest risk of recidivism that they’re currently being treated for.
CR: Thanks. So, all the fictional crimes in your books are based on real index crimes?
FB: Yes, like that cliffhanger that opens Dead Lemons, that really happened.
CR: So, there really was a person in a wheelchair who was hanging over a cliff?
FB: Yes and no. I have to respect the privacy of my sources of information, so I do adapt, and I do camouflage significantly. The case in question occurred when a man became aware of the fact that his neighbors were drug dealers. This was down near Invercargill. It was a good few decades ago. I don’t think he’s even alive anymore, but I’ll keep the names out of it.
At one point, the criminals next door figured out that he knew, and he figured out that they knew that he knew, and he was wheelchair bound, and they took him for a ride under the pretense of going pig hunting. Halfway to the seaside cliffs he started getting suspicious. So, while they were still driving along in this –what we call a “ute”; you’d call it a truck, or a flatbed–he grabbed the steering wheel – he was quite strong in the arms from being in a wheelchair – and wrestled it away from the driver. Because he was panicked, thinking that as soon as they stopped, he would be in trouble. A man in wheelchair – how is he going to defend himself? So, during the struggle they went over the cliff, the ute got stuck, and the driver went through the window, fell, and died. The guy in the wheelchair managed to stay in the truck, and that was the key event. When the police found him – he was alive; he made it –the whole messy story came out. So that was not something I made up. It happened. I don’t think I could have made it up, I don’t think I have a particularly good imagination.
CR: Well, but the cliffhanging part –the whole truck was hanging over the cliff? Not just the guy in the wheelchair, as in the book?
FB: Yeah. It became wedged as it went down.
CR: It just turned out to be a literal cliffhanger?
CR: In the book you keep coming back to the scene over and over again with jump cuts between the events of four or five months before and the present scene where Finn is trying to figure out, “Can I let myself just fall on the rocks, and crawl away before the rest of the bad guys show up?”
FB: I interviewed this person and at that time – he was by then much older–and obviously, it was to him a traumatic experience. Being there trapped, not able to leave, injured, hanging there, wondering when this truck is going to fall, and just as in the book, he could see the other guy’s body way down below him. This was not over the water—that I added—but he could see where the body below him was. I had several conversations with him – this was in prison, quite a bit later, because he had his own set of choices to make in life–and there were moments in the conversations when his mind kept jumping back there and you could see that he never really left it behind even years later. I think we all have a story to our lives, where we are now, and where we were. It’s the story we tell ourselves.
That experience didn’t fit inside his story. It interrupted him, consistently. I was very attracted to that idea – the idea that something could happen to you that’s so far removed from your sphere of experience and expectation that you had to keep resetting and confronting yourself. That was the basis for the jump-cut narrative in Dead Lemons.
And I remember when I was talking to him, it was captivating; it was captivating to see him try to fit this real thing that happened to him into how he views his life, and what his world is supposed to be. And that repeating moment occurred over many years of his life. It was more than a few decades after the event when we spoke, and still he never really got out of that truck.
CR: So this character’s predicament is based on someone you knew, but you said that once you had chosen Finn Bell as the name of your protagonist –
FB: Because I lost the bet.
CR: – yes, because of the bet—then he started to assume features of your own life?
FB: Yes, once I ended up with both of them—the author and the protagonist—named “Finn,” and then like I said, I had that lyric stuck in my head, “I’m an idiot walking a tightrope of fortunate things,” all at once I started feeling, “That’s me. That character is me without all the good luck. Me without good fortune.”
I kept thinking, really, how can I have this searing amount of good fortune in my life? How come me, and not the people that I work with? Why am I so special? Because honestly, after a while, you spend enough time in prison to make you realize there’s almost no difference between them and you. People like to think that there’s a difference, that the extremes of depravity and darkness, these things that some people do, are beyond you. You think, “Oh, I would never do that.” And then when you spend enough time with them, you realize that that’s just the stuff you tell yourself to sleep at night. If you’re hungry enough, if you’re hurt enough, I think you’ll do anything.
Once I started basing Finn Bell’s flaws on my own, a few things got dragged along. I wanted a character to express experiencing New Zealand as an outsider, because I don’t think anybody born here can really appreciate what they have. How fortunate they are. If you come from Africa, and you come here, you just cannot compare the two.
It’s an unequivocally humbling experience to think that there’s such distance in the world between how people live. How can you have this much when other people have so little? I come from that and I wanted something of that in the character.
CR: But there are also elements that might seem extraneous to readers, even incongruous, like the Benin twins, who are the twin detectives that just come out of nowhere, except (as far as I can see) your own African experience and knowledge of Africa.
FB: Well, Benin is a lovely place.
CR: But then, telling us there are more twins in Benin than anywhere else, as though this explains why there are twin African detectives here, in New Zealand? This is what I mean by risk taking!
FB: Oh, if you’re talking about the writing process, then it’s unconsidered. For me it’s like blinking or breathing. It’s weird when you think about it. I don’t try to think about it. I just do it. So, what comes out is what comes out. It started as a therapeutic process.
CR: That was one of my questions, as a matter of fact. Do you want to pursue it?
FB: Sure. Look, I wasn’t a very good therapist. I wasn’t. I took shit home with me that you shouldn’t. You really should not. But if you’re going to be in forensic psych, you’re going to work in prisons and other hard places, you’re going to see and hear stuff you don’t want to. That’s part of the job.
And I was fine. That was the weird thing. I thought I was fine. There was this tipping point that I reached without feeling it at all, which tells you that I was not in a good space, anyway. It was the most inconsequential thing. I remember it clearly – but first I need to tell you it’s not like on TV, right? It’s not CSI, or any of these weird crime shows with colorful offices, and very attractive people bouncing around between crime scenes.
CR: The characters are always very attractive.
FB: Right, it’s nothing like that. All it mostly is, is quiet, dingy government offices, and e-mails, lots of e-mails with horrible attachments. That’s the job. Nobody anywhere in the world has money for all the exciting ways they do stuff on TV. You don’t hold a crime scene open for all these people to come and stand around in. Usually whichever uniformed guy is on the scene takes photos (usually on a cell phone) and sends it to the working groups. It gets forwarded on along with the rest. Which means down the line your job is looking at e-mails with horrible attachments, just lots of e-mails full of reports and things.
So, getting back to my answer, by this time I had done crime scene work, a lot of ministry of justice stuff, lots of profiling and prison work. I was in the field a while and it’s like anything. You get used to it. At the time I was – what? – about ten years in? Fine with most things.
And then I got an e-mail, just another day at work, and I opened the e-mail, and the case was about a man who had killed his wife, and two children – twins, young girls –I think around four years old. And him and his lawyer were pushing for temporary insanity due to drug use, nothing special. It’s the kind of stuff that comes across your desk, right? And it had the attachments, as they do, and one of them was a photo of a cricket bat lying on the side of a bed, just kind of sticking over the edge, and where the light met it you could just make out the teeth embedded in the cricket bat’s face. So, he’d used the cricket bat as a murder weapon. And I know that maybe this sounds extreme, but if you’re in the field it’s really not particularly.
And yet, it was this one inconsequential thing, another-day-at-the-office, nothing particularly tough or special about that one detail, but I went home, and I could not get that cricket bat out of my head. I couldn’t. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.
CR: And you’d seen all kinds of weapons, of course, and wounds, and –
FB: Yes, I’d seen some things. And there’s safety around you, right? You have a therapist while you’re a therapist. You have a supervisor; you have check-ins; you get assessed. So, it’s not that I was irresponsible, or floating without supervision. I’d just reached that point in myself, I think. And that was really it. From then on, I started writing. I think it was about two weeks later. And the writing became a way of sleeping.
CR: You were having trouble sleeping?
FB: Yes. For me the stuff at work . . . it’s like you reach a point in yourself where you just can’t go on. It started keeping me awake, and it never had before. I’ve always kept a journal, and kept diaries, but now they shifted more towards the index crimes.
CR: So this is where the 3:00 a.m. moments come from, in Dead Lemons?
FB: Yes, yes. [Laughter] That’s true. And that’s what started the writing, and then over time that developed into – oh, I wouldn’t call it art, but narratives. And it became a way, I guess, for me to wrap some kind of answer around these questions.
CR: So, when you were journaling, was it a process of creating hypothetical situations in your mind? Did it somehow make the transition into fiction in the journals?
FB: It literally started with base analysis. I wrote down the specific index crime, or case, or issue that I was unable to sleep on, which was typically just stuff at work. And after a while I started categorizing them, as you would in my job, and started looking at central themes. And then I started doing the analysis on myself, which is what I was trained to do. If I was a plumber, I’d try to find the leak.
And I guess, from there I just tried in my way to feel safe using my own skill set, trying to understand what it was about these things that I couldn’t leave at work anymore.
CR: Like what bothered you or obsessed you so much about them?
FB: Yes. I tried to find a way to make sense of what was scaring me. Because none of this was new. I’d done this for years.
CR: Are the books themselves a way of working along the same lines, working things out? And do the books represent topics, or themes, or subjects, or characters that are in your mind that you can’t stop thinking about?
FB: Yes. That’s it. Look, that’s why my titles are weird. Everybody says, “Your titles make no sense.” They make perfect sense to me. They are about things, experiences that I’m trying to find words for.
CR: For what it’s worth, they make perfect sense to me. You even spell it out for us in Dead Lemons—in fact, in every book. I might be wondering about the title as I’m reading along, but at some point, not very far in, I’m going to find out.
FB: Again, for me, it’s the things that bother me. That’s how it started.
CR: It was therapeutic.
FB: Yes, it still is, but turning that into writing that other people would read, that was further down the road, and not something we’d really considered. Lisa, my partner, talked me into it.
CR: She talked you into writing?
CR: Into journaling, or into writing fiction?
FB: Writing fiction. She said, “You should put a cover on this.”
CR: Is she a writer, herself?
FB: No. She’s not, but she read what I had written. I had shown her stuff, and she encouraged me to take the leap. But honestly, by then, I had accepted too many promotions at work. At some point people are going to offer you steps up that you can’t refuse. I was uncomfortable with the clinical work by the time the offers were made, finding it hard, so I took the promotions to get away from it.
And I took the next promotion, and the next promotion. And by the time I was 34 I was the national manager in our rehabilitation organization, and I had an apartment in Wellington, living and working away from my partner, Lisa, in Auckland. The writing had grown by that point, and I was further and further away from the actual clinical work. But it still bothered me, and does now. Maybe I’m never going to get out of that car hanging over the cliff, either.
CR: It was lingering. And it’s the inspiration, your artistic –
FB: Oh, artistic is a big word to slap on what I’m doing.
CR: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I work on crime and detective fiction, which once upon a time was not very respectable as an academic subject.
FB: I’m not an artist. I’m just a guy who writes books. I’m not into the whole identity of it.
CR: Frankly, I don’t like making those distinctions between Literature with a capital L and everything else, but sure, go ahead. Whatever you want to call yourself is fine with me.
FB: Anyway, I was working in Wellington, and the whole job had changed by then. I shifted into funding work, which is an evil you unfortunately have to put up with to get the jobs done in the field. And I remember I came home one night, and I realized that I didn’t feel bad about a single horrible thing I did that day. And I really should have. [Laughter]
That’s the point where I knew it was time to quit. It was time to do something different before I completely lost the ability to even sense that I was doing the wrong thing. By then the writing had evolved significantly. I talked about it with Lisa and she said, “Well, you should take the risk, and do it.”
CR: So, we’re back to risk-taking, aren’t we? You leave counseling entirely behind, no going back, no hedging your bets.
FB: No. I’m writing full-time. This is me; I write books. We’ll see how it goes. I might not write books forever, if the money doesn’tcome in. But we’ve taken the leap, fully.
CR: It is a full-time job, as far as I can tell, for anyone I’ve ever talked to who makes a living writing.
FB: Yes, and it’s early days, still. I’ve been in the market a little more than two years, since June of 2016, when I released Dead Lemons and Pancake Money. Since then, I’ve done the others.
CR: Well, The Easter Make Believersis out, but is the fourth one done yet?
FB: Oh, it’s done. We’re just waiting on the release. It should be about April or May.
CR: And are you still happy with self-publishing in the Kindle format?
FB: Yes. But there are a lot of people who are very opinionated about being traditionally published as opposed to independently published. I’m okay if you’re one or the other or both. I started independently just because I thought nobody’s going to publish this. It’s not firmly decided, but I haven’t exactly had publishers hammering down my door either.
CR: Really? Given the prizes you’ve won already?
FB: I think it’s a competitive marketplace, and I don’t know if I write the kinds of things that the most people want to read currently, commercially. We’re maybe past about 60,000-ish in sales, so it’s not big.
CR: But it’s nothing to sneeze at.
FB: Right. But I’ve got to eat, so at some point it’s going to need to do better than that, or I might have to get back to my day job.
CR: That’s one advantage of having an established publisher, I suppose: the publicity machine, and all the rest of it. Book signings.
FB: Yes, but I do like the freedom of publishing independently. Everything on the page is exactly how I want it. Nobody else edits it; nobody else tells me what I can’t write. In Easter Make Believers there’s a line where the lead character, Nick, pulls a piece of wood from his chest, and he says, “Fuck you, you fucking fucker,” which is a real line that somebody yelled at me once during a therapy session. When I wrote that, I thought, “I’m going to publish that sentence,” and I knew right then that this book was never going to be called art, because look what I’ve just put in there. I don’t know if I could have gone to a traditional publisher with that line in there.
CR: I don’t think most of them would have a problem these days. I really don’t.
FB: Maybe, but then I can’t complain about how things have gone as an independent author. Last June  I’d been in the market about a year, and things had gone surprisingly well. There’s no way to say this without sounding horribly arrogant, but at that time I had two books published, and I’d won nine awards and had an Amazon best seller. I felt pretty good about that.
CR: You should.
FB: That’s when Lisa, again, said, “Now, look, we should really try and approach traditional publishers.” She said to get an agent. So, we were responsible. We asked around and did some research, and worked out who the good agencies were, and the relevant agents, and all that stuff and built a list of – I think it was 40 agents, good agents. Sent them all of it. Every single one of them said, “No,” which to me was unsurprising. Lisa was quite floored. She said, “But you won all these awards, and you’ve had all these sales and everybody likes them.”
CR: My reaction is Lisa’s–I’m surprised.
FB: I wasn’t at all. I don’t think what I’m writing is mainstream enough. But I should say that some of the feedback was fascinating.
CR: Such as?
FB: I had three different agents tell me there’s no way that they could publish this book, which I’m fine with, but the reasoning given was roughly because it’s a male lead character coming from a white Western culture to a bicultural country like New Zealand, and then solving the mystery without any help from characters with other cultural identities, and without any strong female leads. Now I didn’t think that was actually the case in the books at all but I’m sure it could be interpreted that way. So, basically, the feedback was that it was a chauvinist book.
CR: But the guy’s in a wheelchair, so you’d think the people-with-disabilities advocates. . .
FB: Yes, you would. But I quite enjoy the feedback, especially the negative reactions. For instance, when you are cruel to animals in a book, a lot of people, including on Amazon and Facebook, get really upset. I’ve had no end of complaints. There’s actually a term for it – “animal hurt porn.”
CR: Which fictional animals are we talking about?
FB: In Dead Lemons, there is one (and only one) scene where the main character’s pet cats get nailed to the front door, right?
FB: There are very vocal people on the Internet who will tell you in no uncertain terms that this is not okay. I’ve tried to point out that I’ve done much more horrible things to the fictional human characters in my books than to the fictional animal characters, and yet that has carried very little weight.
And, again, that was based on an actual case, where somebody had done that with somebody’s sheepdog.
CR: To get back to autobiographical topics, when we were e-mailing back and forth, you told me that you were 12 when Nelson Mandela was released, and suddenly everything around you in South Africa changed. I’m wondering if you could tell me more about your family circumstances at that point, and how your family reacted to all of these changes? You said that the next day you went to school, and it was like the country’s whole history had changed.
FB: It was very strange.
CR: This must have impacted more people than just you. It must have impacted your whole immediate circle?
FB: It was a country tearing itself apart. To give you context, I grew up in a very small town in the wine country in the mountains. It’s still there.
This place was a bastion of the old South Africa, of the cultural norms, and the key tenets of apartheid. It was all there. That entire economic system, and the culture that floated on top of it, was ultimately based on a form of slavery. There was no way that they could work the farms and produce that amount of wine and wealth without significant amounts of inequality. That was just part of the system.
Now, I didn’t see these things when I was a kid, not at first. You’re born, and you accept the world you see for what it is, and you believe the grown ups: your parents, and your teachers, and the church, and the minister. They tell you how the world works, and you go, “Uh huh,” but then the cracks start to appear, the narrative doesn’t always fit what you see; the map doesn’t always fit the reality that you are confronted with. But back when I was a kid, I just did the same things I saw the grown ups do. I didn’t think about it.
So, I lived in a tiny little town, with a river running right through the middle of it, and of course, this being Africa, in summer the river is just a bed of rocks. And, this being South Africa, one side of the town was white, and one side was black. In the summer, after school, all the boys from both sides would come to the two riverbanks, and we would throw rocks at each other. And we did that because that’s what we did. There was no conscious reasoning to it.
CR: And how did the adults look at this– it was just the way things were?
FB: It was just the way things were. I don’t remember anyone ever stopping us or talking to us about it.
CR: Your parents, too?
FB: Yes. We were all just a part of our time I think, in as much as I, from the perspective of a child, could understand such things. But I knew as I got a little older that there were changes coming; that something was wrong with the country. There were killings, and bombings, and the black resistance had become more and more active. But a lot of these things happened beyond the sphere of an eight- nine- ten-year-old’s awareness, and then, when I was 12, Mandela was released, and that was a chaotic time.
CR: Please forgive me for asking, but you’re Afrikaans, right? Not British? Aren’t those distinct groups within South Africa?
FB: It’s broader than that, a little bit more complex. South Africa has 11 national languages, which means back when I was a kid everybody pretty much spoke their own language and also either Afrikaans or English so that you could get along and understand everybody else. But Afrikaans was definitely the legacy language of oppression. People spoke it because they had to, they made you. That’s my language. The language I was raised in. It’s my mother tongue; English is my second.
CR: You are writing your books using English as a second language?
FB: Yes. I learned English from books mostly. And even though language mattered back then, it wasn’t the most important thing at the time, with the segregation, the apartheid. The important thing was whether you were white or you were not. Everybody that was not white still belonged to a diverse group of ethnicities, and cultures, but they all shared one thing: they were not white.
And everybody that was white was “European” – it didn’t matter what language you spoke. That was how they made that divide, which stems from colonial times, I think. A lot of issues within southern Africa, not just South Africa, in my opinion derive from before ‘black’ and ‘white’ even met. I think part of it comes from the fact that many of the tribes prior to European colonialism were nomadic. They had territories but they also moved around a lot. They moved with the rain and they had been moving around for millennia, quite possibly.
Then the Europeans came, and they had lived in a different way for a long time. They always built settlements, actual structures at key points. All of a sudden, there’s a map; there are borders, and lines, and places, and roads, and boundaries and people telling other people “This is mine now. You can’t come here.” And not dissimilar to most examples of Western colonialism, the expansion was quite rapid. And those two ways of life met and the systems just didn’t work together – one was about sharing and one was about ownership.
Our country, South Africa, was an extension of that not-working. It culminated, I guess, with the fall of the regime. I mean, zooming out for me, of course, as I grew older, I realized that there was more to it. Bigger things. There were economic sanctions, and international pressure, and larger timelines, and elements of momentum, but for a child, these things were irrelevant. I didn’t see it. I heard on the radio that Mandela was being released, but nobody I knew had known this was coming and nobody really knew what it meant.
I remember walking home from school and my friend was walking with me. His house came before my house on the way home.
And when we got to the turn of the road, where we could see his house, his father was packing very rapidly, in a kind of panic, throwing things in the car. And my friend’s mother saw him, and yelled for him to come, and he ran and they left that day. They only came back several days later. There was such fear. But nothing happened. The fear people had about the world ending didn’t come true. There were still killings and violence. In a way it never really stopped, even now, up to the present, that level of fear and uncertainty infects everything. But it was always there, I do remember that. Although I didn’t understand it or have the words for it at the time.
CR: Did your experiences with apartheid, and then with the end of apartheid, play any role in exciting your interest in forensic psychology, or questions of good and evil, or human motivation generally? Was there anything in the way that you were brought up that–
FB: Well, a more accurate answer is, I don’t know. It might be the case, but then maybe I would have been the way I am even if I grew up elsewhere. Nature or nurture, that debate’s open. I remember things bothering me. I saw things that I didn’t understand and wish I did and then also saw things I understood that I really wish I didn’t.
FB: Well once . . . I saw a man who worked for my father – a black man – I saw him hang himself from a lamppost. I saw him do it. That was a scary thing. I saw him do it. I had seen people hurt other people before then, but I had never seen anyone do something bad to themselves before.
CR: How old were you then?
FB: I want to say seven or eight, because I had just started going to school, and we started going to school at seven back then.
CR: Why did he hang himself? Or wasn’t it explained to you at that time?
FB: No. It wasn’t at the time. But the bit that stayed with me was, I didn’t get the sense that anybody really cared. Even then, I had that moment of realizing that if this was a white man, everything would have stopped. Everything would have changed. But they just cut him down, and I remember it clearly, very clearly, they put him on the back of the ute – what you would call a flatbed truck. They put him on the back. They didn’t even put a towel or blanket over him, or anything over him, nothing; he was just lying there, face up. I remember that. Then people started working again. And that was one of the earliest times when I thought something about life doesn’t make sense. Something’s not right. I didn’t have the words for it then. But I knew that he was different from me, that if that was somebody white, it would have been an important thing. But they cut him down, and they put him in the back of the ute, and he lay there for a long time, maybe an hour, before they left.
CR: And you were allowed to stay there, and watch all this, when you were only seven? Or did your parents not know that you were there?
FB: This was at my dad’s workplace. There were a few people around, and I wasn’t the only kid there but no, nobody said anything to us.
CR: Oh, I see. Oh.
FB: And I found out later that the black man who hung himself had been accused of stealing by a white man. I don’t know whether that was true or not, but I do know now that if you were accused of stealing in the old South Africa and you were black, then you were going to starve. In that old South Africa, there was nothing for you now. No one would employ you. No one would help you. You were going to starve.
FB: Yes. This is Africa. It’s not like here. Back then, you’re dead. Your family is dead. There’s nowhere for you to go. Nothing for you to do. I didn’t understand that then but realized it later on as I got older – what it meant if a white person accused a black person of something bad. There was nothing left for that person then.
But look, this all seems misleading. I feel like I shouldn’t give you these big key events, these big moments, because ultimately, they don’t matter.
CR: It’s interesting to me to hear you say they don’t matter.
FB: They don’t. Here’s why: these big, key things, yes, they can disturb the equilibrium of the psyche; they can impact the way we see the world. They can scar you to a degree, but ultimately, what makes you, you, aren’t those big juddering events, it’s the small things that happen over and over again every day. I think the slow accretion of character is much more fundamental to who you are, and how you see the world, than these few big things.
These big things, whether they are good or bad, we want them to mean something. We want to build a story out of them. It’s natural. But if you look at the psyche, it’s the small things that happen over and over again, it’s the countless small accepted traumas of a normal life that will ultimately shift the trajectory, shape you and change you. And I can’t say that I’m free of that. We talk about these big things because they’re easy to remember.Everybody remembers pain; your brain is built to remember pain better than anything else. But it’s all the small things, all the invisible small things that I think end up meaning more.
CR: I’d like to move on to the question of literary influences, if “literary” isn’t too big a word to use?
FB: Oh, “literary” it is!
CR: You told me at one point in our earlier discussions that it was your grandfather who introduced you to Sherlock Holmes?
CR: Was this your paternal or maternal grandfather?
FB: Paternal grandfather, Scottish.
CR: Was he a big reader?
FB: He was.
CR: And a fan of detective fiction? Or just of Sherlock Holmes?
FB: I think he was a fan of everything. It was difficult to know for sure, as I was young. But definitely he loved books and reading. He was by far my strongest influence. No one else in my family were really readers. But he was a very big reader, was my grandfather, and he was a great storyteller, too. He could tell bullshit stories of the highest order, just all kinds of nonsense. And you know how young kids ask adults how things work, or why does this do this? Well, he would tell you complete and utter hogwash, but he lied in such flawless ways that you bought it. You believed him. You thought this was how it worked. And then, you would innocently pass on his lies to other people who knew better, and they would laughingly correct you.
CR: So, he was very persuasive?
FB: He could spin a rational framework out of complete lunacy, and with a straight face, explain to you, “This is how this works, and this is how that works, and you see that.” And you bought it. Even after you knew he’d fooled you before. He was so good at it that you fell for it again.
CR: Do you think he had more of an influence on you than just introducing you to Sherlock Holmes, like getting you interested in storytelling—which, after all, is just another word for “making things up”–since he had that gift?
FB: I don’t know. I do know I wanted to be like him. I do know that. I definitely admired him, the kind of person he was.
CR: What did you admire most about him?
FB: I’ve thought about that many times. I think he had a kindness to him that, sadly, I don’t find in myself. But maybe kindness is the wrong word. You know how some people have kind of gravity to them; other people want to be around them?
FB: And you don’t necessarily know why different people have that same quality. Some of them are loud, some of them are quiet; some of them are funny, some of them are not. But certain people you just feel good being around them, being close to them. He had that. He had that thing.
And maybe kindness isn’t the right term, although he was a very kind man. I just liked him. If you’re a boy, I think you choose your role models, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. He was mine. I wanted to be like him. I don’t know if that carried over into the storytelling. I never intended to be a writer. I never intended to do anything of the sort. Like I said, all of this is a fairly recent development, and in many ways for me it’s nothing more than a belated coping skill.
CR: You said that he introduced you to Sherlock Holmes with The Speckled Band?
FB: That was the first story of his that I read all by myself. He introduced me to Sherlock Homes way before.
CR: He read the stories to you?
FB: Yes. I would be at pains to tell you when it started, because even in my earliest memories it had already happened. He read us books, all kinds of books.
CR: So not just Sherlock Holmes, but among them Sherlock Holmes stories?
FB: Yes. And he had a great voice. I would fall asleep listening to his voice.
CR: And The Speckled Band was the first one you read on your own?
FB: On my own, right. That was a great thing. I had read the dumb ‘Cat in the Hat’ things before then but I had never read a real story about real people up to then. It’s a different experience when you actually read something that you think is true and real by yourself for the first time. It’s cognitive, and it’s immersive, and it’s emotional. And I had heard the story before, and we had discussed it, and he had kind of taunted me, and said, “Oh, you can’t really read this. You’re not ready.”
He did help me with the big words, but I remember that was the first story I read. It’s not a long story, but it’s good.
CR: The snake? The helpless damsel?
FB: It really grabbed me. It’s still one of my favorites.
CR: You said one of your current favorites, or one of the authors who are your favorites besides Conan Doyle, is Cormac McCarthy, especially his No Country for Old Men. Do you see any links between these two stories, which are both about having to deal with unmitigated evil? I’m thinking of Grimesby Roylott, who was the incarnation of evil in The Speckled Band, the stepfather who murders the one stepdaughter, and then he plans to murder the other one the same way, so he could get hold of their inheritance?
FB: Again, I don’t know. There might be, and it would make a good story, but I can’t consciously say that that’s so.
CR: Ok, but sticking to classic detective influences, what about Golden Age detective writers, like New Zealand’s own Ngaio Marsh, for instance?
FB: A real favorite of mine, Marsh, even long before I came here.
CR: Agatha Christie?
FB: Yes. But look, I’m in no way extremely well read, I read what I read, and I read all over the place, but I feel like a lot of the crime fiction I read these days is less formulaic than it should be, and I think there’s a motive behind that that can be most annoying. I feel like too often writers are trying to be different for the sake of being different, instead of just trying to write a good story. Maybe it’s a sign of the times; maybe it’s because writers are more commercial now, and you have to have these considerations.
CR: I ask about Marsh and Christie because there are moments in your three books where I’m saying, “This is almost like something I would have found in Agatha Christie,” despite the dissimilarities in style and subject matter.
FB: That at least I can say is completely intentional.
CR: So, for instance, in chapter 43 of Dead Lemons, you have someone saying – I think it’s Finn saying, “All the pieces have been there all along; we just didn’t see.” And that’s exactly what those crossword-puzzle type of classical detective stories —
FB: Yes, that speech I can say is completely intentional, because I do love the older method writers. I think that there’s a purity and simplicity in those formulas. And I get why people evolved beyond that, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t, but a lot of what I’ve seen in the last – what? – two decades is people trying to be different for the sake of being different. Pushing a boundary because they think that on the other side of the boundary is art, instead of recognizing that the art is in the mastery, and that the formula is not Agatha Christie’s. She didn’t try to invent a formula. She tried to get closer to something pure, something simple in storytelling and the formula was the result. I don’t know. Maybe people need to be less focused on branding, and standing out and being different, and let the story be what the story wants to be.
But for me personally, absolutely, following those patterns are intentional. And I get criticized for it. People say, “Oh, your denouements are too long. You’ve built all this tension, and then you slowly deflate it with this big explanation at the end,” and yes, it’s intentional. It’s not something I want to change.
CR: And that’s the classic form, isn’t it? The detective figures it out, and then assembles all the suspects in the library, and explains how he or she came to the conclusion, and points to the one who’s –
CR: – and there it is staring us in the face the whole time, but we don’t see how the pieces all fit together.
FB: See, that’s completely intentional, but people say that I’m too predictable.
CR: What I enjoy, as someone who studies this genre, is seeing these threads of continuity from one generation of writers to the next. I enjoy being able to say to myself, “Oh, this is a cliffhanger,” or, “Oh, this reminds me of Miss Marple.” You have a description of a forensic psychologist, Ann Bowlby, in Pancake Money.
CR: At one point, you describe her as a “tiny, old lady, friendly wrinkled face, and gray curls in a flowery dress with the mind of a serial killer.” And it’s not word for word, but it’s very similar to Christie’s descriptions of Miss Jane Marple in The Body in the Library.
FB: Yes. I know.
CR: And you know? Sir Henry Clithering tells his friend Conway Jefferson, “Sitting in the lobby of this hotel is a spinsterish looking little old lady with…” – not the mind of a serial killer, but something like – “who is familiar with the sink of human iniquity,” and so forth. It’s all there?
FB: Yes. It’s funny how much flak I get for it from a lot of critics, but too much of what I read these days makes me want to throw the book at the wall, or drown the Kindle. Just because it’s new or different doesn’t make it worth reading. Often, I go back to the older forms. I still read a lot of Sherlock Holmes, and I read all genres. One older book I’m currently reading is ‘A Good Clean Fight’by Derek Robinson. It’s almost 30 years old and it’s not crime fiction. But it captures a snapshot of the time and has a style reminiscent of the older forms.
CR: When was it written?
FB: I think it was the early ‘90s, but it is set in 1942. Ironically, another book my granddad gave me.
CR: Please tell me more.
FB: My grandad was in North Africa during the Second World War, and the book and the way the story is told reminds me very much of how my grandfather used to tell stories.
CR: And classic storytelling? That’s what it sounds like.
FB: Well, the stories he told me matched this, yes. Both this and Sherlock.
CR: Were there other Cormac McCarthy books, like Blood Meridian that you read?
FB: Yes, but No Country for Old Men is probably my favorite, because of Sheriff Ed. I like him. There are parts in the book where the way that character says things summarizes, I think, a moment in experience that I just attach to. I don’t know why, but I do. There’s a scene where he sits with his wife, and he talks about seeing his father in a dream.
CR: Yes, and he’s carrying a light in the darkness.
FB: It’s such simplicity. It’s a simple scene. There’s nothing dramatic about it, but there’s a humanity that is so easy to connect with. He does that, does Mr. McCarthy. And maybe that’s why I identify with that character. He reflects somebody who’s trying to deal with a world he doesn’t understand. Horrible things are occurring, and he’s trying to fit them into a way of life where he can still be himself.
CR: His familiar world has just gone over the edge into an abyss, and he doesn’t know where the bottom is.
FB: Yes. Maybe for me that’s the attraction. McCarthy writes many good characters, and many good books. But that has always been a very attractive character for me. I am a serial re-reader of good books.
CR: Good. Me too.
FB: I don’t know – do you think it’s good to re-read books? Because there are so many books you can never get to, after all.
CR: It’s a question of quantity versus quality. There are some books, Great Expectations, to name one that I’ve read five or six times, or Middlemarch, that demand to be read more than once. But to return to Miss Marple, I see many of her “descendants,” if you will, in your books. There’s Betty Crowe, Finn’s therapist in Dead Lemons and Ann Bowlby, professor of forensic psychology in Pancake Money, along with Angus Woo, the crotchety Otago doctor with the man’s name, and Margaret, the mother of Tobe, the older of the two detectives—she’s the psychiatrist in Easter Make Believers–they are all older women, wise, tough, independent-minded older women. Are they based on a character in your life? There are a lot of them and they all seem to have the key to what’s going on in the criminal psyche.
FB: Maybe that’s a combination of my own life, and a part of the job I used to have, and my grandmother. [Laughter] And so –
CR: Was this the grandfather’s –
FB: Yes. My paternal grandfather’s wife, she was South African born.
CR: He was Scottish and she was South African?
FB: Yes. She was a very outspoken woman, tough, and very forthright, very direct. I never understood what the connection was between them, because he would spout bullshit constantly. Sometimes you couldn’t get an honest word out of the man. And she was harder, humorless at times, frank, straightforward. But it seemed to work.
CR: They seem complementary.
FB: Yes. At one point, when I was in my mid-teens, 15 or something, I visited my grandfather and grandmother– [laughter] – and when I walked in the back door into the kitchen, I saw my grandfather looking at me from a few steps away. At first, I thought he was nodding at me, but no, he was ducking. My grandmother had thrown a teacup at him, which ended up hitting me instead and spilled all over the floor.
There was a crack in the floor and suddenly my grandmother started yelling about getting the tea out of the crack, because if it goes into the crack and there’s milk in it (as there was in the tea) it stinks when it dries. I was so shocked–because I wasn’t used to having cutlery thrown at me by my grandparents–I was so befuddled that I just wordlessly grabbed the dishtowel and tried to clean it up while she kept yelling after my retreating grandfather and I kept wondering, “What’s happening?”
When I had finished cleaning, I stood up and handed my grandmother the dishtowel, and she looked at me as if noticing me for the first time and said to me–and I can remember this vividly: “All women should marry, but not to men!” [Laughter]
CR: She’s no longer alive, I take it?
FB: No. They have both passed.
CR: But it seems she had the same kind of personality that I find repeated with variations in these wiser, older women in your books.
FB: I can’t say if that’s a conscious choice or not. I can say, though, that I’m a very staunch feminist, because of the work I’ve done. There is an undeniable uncomfortable reality if you work in crime, and forensics where you are forced to confront the stark differences between the kinds of crime perpetrated by men and perpetrated by women. That’s just true. So, I don’t know for sure if those early influences from my grandparents got in bed with my later working life, and growing up I saw the damage that men can do to people, to a country, and it was difficult for me to take even before I started working.
CR: Your grandmother’s personality—direct, no-nonsense – is so strikingly present in your books, she must have represented something important to you.
FB: That’s yin and yang, though, right? If you believe in the negativity of one aspect, naturally, you’ll start believing in the positivity of the other, to create a sense of balance. I think in a way that was how it worked for me, if I sincerely believe that men are capable of terrible things, then maybe I need to believe that women are capable of the opposite.
CR: If that’s so, then the seat of wisdom will be with an older woman, won’t it?
FB: Yes. Maybe, naturally we seek some kind of safety, I don’t know. My suspicion is that my strong female characters are a combination of my own past, and the stuff I’ve seen at work.
CR: You know, you are so aware of and so deeply informed about how environment affects human behavior, and crime, and therapy, and so on, I was surprised to read– I think it was in the notes you add at the end of Pancake Money—that you believe it’s time to bring back the death penalty.
CR: Do you really believe that?
CR: But why, if you credit the absolute power of chance in determining our fates, and the value of therapy?
FB: Let me say, first of all, that very few people who have been in the field a long time are unlike me, I think. If you’re in the field long enough, you will have seen the kind of suffering that goes on inside most penal facilities, if it is a choice between quality of life or quantity of life, then I’ll choose quality.
And I would hope that somebody chooses that for me if I can’t choose it for myself. The suffering that we put some of these offenders through is massive, and often we do not have the science to cope with them. We are nowhere near addressing in a tangible way the needs of many of the people we incarcerate. And the scary thing is you can work with them, and spend time with them, and there’s intimacy there.
And then you start to realize how little choice they had in what they were going to do, that set of crimes, or that index crime, at that moment, was almost inevitable for them. It wasn’t even just them. It started with their parents and grandparents, and trauma, and socioeconomic factors, and it accumulates and intersects in this single human being making this single choice. But then as a society we say, “You – you the individual – you alone will now pay the price for the sum of all our pathologies that this one terrible act comes to. You alone, in isolation from everybody else who influenced you, and who influenced them, and so on—from all that intersected in this choice. You, as an individual, we will crucify alone.”
CR: So you think the death penalty is more merciful.
FB: In some cases, yes. And I can put the same question to you. If I said to you, “Here are your choices: We could give you a dignified death now, or we could leave you to continue in your depravity and sickness for decades more and then let you die in pain, ashamed, alone in prison.” Which would you choose? And to be clear, a lot of those people do suffer, real suffering. They don’t want to do the things they do, but they know they will. They’re “Dead Lemons”–the books became a way to describe people like these.
I’ve had people ask me these same questions you are asking now about whether I would support the death penalty or not or about the moral or ethical underpinnings of what we do. Honestly, at first, I gave them the stock, standard answers. Because if you toe the party line, you say what the science says, whatever policy currently demands you say. But then, you get into the field a few years and you start looking at the actual results. You look at what we call recidivism rates, or the likelihood that somebody will reoffend, and you look at what we know, and how little our best efforts currently can help people to change, and how little hope there is in some cases.
CR: So, it’s not a question of punishment; it’s a question of –
FB: Mercy. No, it’s not punishment. No, not that. It’s what I would want if that were me, and it could be me, trust me. You spend enough time in there, and you realize how little difference there is between people, and how little of what you think is you is really you; how much of your life is created by things beyond you, how random the world can be, how cruel. If that were me in there, if I had no way of changing or being or doing better and hated what I had become, I would want to be afforded the dignity of choosing not only a dignified death but also a moral one. If we actually had the science to help people, to change people, this would be a different conversation, but we don’t.
CR: But there are psychopathic killers who apparently have no sense of suffering, or remorse, or is that just something that I’ve gotten from too many TV series and movies?
FB: There are people like that yes. That’s completely fair. But that’s a different conversation from the one about ending suffering or being allowed to choose to live (or end) your own life on moral grounds. If you’re a pedophile, who realizes what you’re doing is wrong, but you can’t stop, and you know that you cannot be released from prison, because the impulse has become too strong and the court declines your request for chemical castration, what do you do? You don’t want to be what you are but you can’t change it. What then? What if that person knows that there’s nothing anybody can do to help them be different from the way they are, and they sincerely judge themselves to be not worthy, to be something that they find abhorrent and antagonistic? Do we say, “Well, here’s the treatment model; try this. Maybe it works this time, even though it hasn’t every time you’ve tried it before. Here’s the latest talk therapy; try that. I know it’s not going to work but jump through the hoop anyway and hope.” How is that moral or humane? For, me it’s not a question of punishment.
CR: The word “penalty” in the death penalty is the tricky word, then.
FB: Yes, penalty implies punishment, but for me it’s a question of mercy. Whether that’s right or wrong, or whether people agree with it or not, that’s a different matter. Would I say that I would rather end somebody’s life unwillingly, or allow them the right to end their own life, on terms where they can feel a measure of dignity, an act of morality, where they and we can feel that that is an ethical choice, versus forcing them to continue to deprave and demean themselves often against their own will, and in defiance of what they would want to be? Yes, I would. Would I say that it’s okay to kill a psychopath, because he has no ability to feel remorse? No. That’s another question entirely.
CR: But as it stands in Pancake Money, that opinon doesn’t come with all of this explanatory context.
FB: That’s true. But look, the statement still stands, and I still stand by the statement. My thinking behind it, perhaps, is different from what you had assumed.
CR: In that case, “assisted suicide” might be more accurate than “death penalty,” and would prevent confusion.
FB: Yes, that too, but also the death penalty unchosen. Given the context of my field, there are so many cases where you wish that all this could have ended long before. And we don’t end it, or allow those who are suffering to end it. That is Dead Lemons, that is the book’s key concept. We have these people in our prisons, and they suffer, and they create suffering for others. That is their entire lives. Pain and suffering. I’ve seen that. Sometimes you are assessing a prisoner, and you look at them and you realize if this person gets released from prison they’re going to do it again. This is the end of somebody’s family sitting in front of you.
Whatever kind of brief reprieve from the anger and the pain that they get in these moments of violence, or sexual release, these stolen moments of intimacy that they use to just find a way to not feel the constant trauma sitting inside them, they know that they are going to crave that for the rest of their lives, it’s all they have. Because there is no way that we can change it, help them be people.
We can’t fix them. We can’t heal them. We can’t make it better. I have had those moments where I’ve sat in those rooms, and I thought if we could kill you now, instead of four decades from now, look at all the suffering we could prevent for your victims, and for you, and for the people who love you.
And again, it would be a different conversation if I knew we had the science to help people, but we’re nowhere near.
CR: I wanted to ask about something that could be related to my last question in ways that might emerge. There’s a lot of Catholicism in your books. Were you raised a Catholic?
CR: But you’ve got Bobby Ress, an important character in Pancake Money, who, it seems, was the basis of the first combined book that you conceived, right? Was that great big book originally the story of Bobby Ress, who was a detective, got fed up, reached a point of despair, and became a priest? And if so, what happened to change him?
FB: Well, there’s a story arc you’re skipping over between Dead Lemons and Pancake Money.
CR: Does it have to do with something happening to Emma, Bobby’s girlfriend, and her daughter, Eva?
FB: I’m not telling. [Laughter]
CR: Well, they’re there in the early going, which is in Pancake Money, the prequel.
CR: But they’re not there, afterwards, when he’s the priest in Dead Lemons, right?
FB: Well, they’re not characters jn that book, yes. They don’t have any screen time. There’s another book that’s set between those two. I don’t want to give anything away.
CR: That’s a book that’s going to come further down the road?
FB: Yes. When I wrote Dead Lemons and Pancake Money at the same time, I untangled them, and the bit that’s left from the untangling, that’s the book in the middle.
CR: That tells us how Bobby Ress became a priest?
CR: When I saw that Bobby Ress, the priest in the first book, was formerly Bobby Ress, the detective in the second book, I said, “Aha! The beginning of a series detective figure.” But no.In your third book, Easter Make Believers, a book that’s tailor-made for religious themes, the lead detective is Nick Cooper, not Bobby Ress. Why not?
FB: I don’t know. But, again, you can tell that this is not a consciously commercial venture. You don’t publish the third book, then the first book, and then the second, if you’re out to build a fan base. [Laughter] But I’d like to answer your question.
CR: Right, why all the Catholicism? Where is that coming from?
FB: I think religion, in general.
CR: There are a lot of other religions out there.
FB: But Catholicism is the most fun.
CR: Well, having been raised a Catholic, I would have to say I disagree with you.
FB: When I say “fun,” I mean the levers are big, and easy. It’s so fundamentally against what is inside most people. That’s been proved true now to a boringly depressing degree, what with all the cases of child molestation by priests across the world. It’s a global phenomenon.
I’m not a member of any specific faith, so I judge them all equally, and equally negatively, if I may say so. I don’t judge people for their beliefs or for their commitments to their beliefs, but I definitely don’t trust any kind of organized religion. I’ve studied how church history developed, it became a bit of a hobby with me, because I was interested in that point where science is born and separates from faith. Where people start disagreeing about what is true and why.
You think about where truth comes from, where what is right and wrong, and real and true in the world, where it comes from. For millennia, the disciplines were melded. Science was not separate from the religion, and neither was law. It was all just one kernel of wisdom, and there were these caretakers of the wisdom, and they told you everything about how to live.
CR: It was all divine. All divine wisdom.
FB: And then, at some point, you have the kind of split where science begins to disagree with the dominant narrative of religion, and then law shifts slightly, and other disciplines follow. In other parts of the world, different examples of the same thing occurred at different times.
But I was interested in the question, at what point does knowledge become separated from faith? And for me, Catholicism is the most striking example of the struggle to hold them together. Because they tried for centuries to bring knowledge back to faith by burning people, and imposing sanctions and punishments and all sorts of things.
CR: Well, they also tried to rationalize Catholic doctrine. There are no better reasoners in the world than the Catholic theologians.
FB: True. But what I enjoy most is the Church’s attempts to keep pulling in their errant children—the sciences. You can almost hear the Church fathers of the past saying, “Can’t you all just shut up and stay close to me, so I can keep you under control.” That to me is very human and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that my grandfather hated Catholics.
CR: It doesn’t surprise me at all. He was probably a good Scottish Presbyterian.
FB: Yes, he was, but in his retirement he worked at a Catholic Church as the custodian.
CR: A church of believers that he hated.
FB: Yes. But he was an exceedingly kind man and he had a way of enjoying the hates that he had. And I remember as a small boy on school holidays I’d go stay with my grandparents. So, I would go to the church with him, and while he was fixing things, he would tell me just the most ridiculous stories about what Catholics do, and how they are, and because he was such a good bullshitter, I of course believed it all. That may have helped trigger my fascination with Catholicism.
One time, in his inventive way, he told me his version of Catholic history, and I just remember it being very funny and human. His stories were nothing like the Church I had grown up in, had been made to go to at home when I wasn’t on holiday. Of course, that all changed later when the country changed, when Mandela was freed; then you didn’t have to go to church anymore. Up to that point, the church had gotten government money. Apartheid’s political framework, its rationale, its propaganda, was all explained in church. Stories for kids. They explained to you why white people were “the chosen people,” and why the black people needed to be helped. There was the “special enlightenment,” and the “general enlightenment” that God gives, and he’s given us this special mandate to take care of the land and the people, and how we need to help them. That we are the custodians. They said nothing about oppression.
CR: But why make Bobby Ress a Catholic priest? Why not a Presbyterian minister?
FB: When I said that Catholicism was the most fun, I also meant as a literary mechanism. It is tangible and it easily creates tension. Traditional Catholicism is so anachronistic; so at odds with the way that people live now, but I think also in the past. There’s always been such a distance for them between how things are and how things ought to be.
CR: Things of this world, and things of that world?
FB: Yes. They delineate sacred and profane in such a willful way. That difference between how things are and how things ought to be is what, for me, made Catholicism the most striking example of forcing the gap between them wider and wider while trying to narrow it. For instance, let’s desexualize our priesthood. How has that worked out?
CR: But the Catholic priests in Pancake Money are all generous; they’re helping the people.
FB: And in Dead Lemons you have Bobby Ress helping the police.
CR: None of the Catholic clergy that you create exemplify the abuses that you’re talking about. So what represents how things are in the Catholic Church in the two books where Catholicism is featured, especially Pancake Money, the most overtly Catholic of your three books?
FB: The treatment center for priests who were sexual abusers and Pollo’s experience and attitudes towards them, as well as the tangible symbols and icons of the religion.
CR: And the way that things ought to be with Catholicism would be represented by the benevolent priests, like Bobby Ress? Is that the source of interest for you?
FB: Yes. I am attracted, whether it’s from my past, or from my job, or just from me–it’s difficult to untangle any of those–but I am attracted to that distance between how things are and how they ought to be.
CR: Between what people profess, and how they behave?
CR: That also captures what some people call “ideology.”
FB: Yes. That for me is tangible in Catholicism. It’s visible. It’s things you can see and touch. It’s in the crucifix; it’s in the prayer beads; it’s in the confessional booth.
CR: Is the concept of sin something that you found interesting, or intriguing? It plays such a big role in Catholicism, where it’s something that can be absolved through the ritual of confession. In Pancake Money you even bring up its etymology, it’s origin in the idea of “missing the mark.”
FB: Yes. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of sin and with whether it has an opposite. But also, mostly about whether if sin exists (and I do believe it does) whether it can actually be absolved.
CR: Perhaps it can’t. But I think that’s part of the tension that fascinates you, between what things are and what they ought to be, missing or hitting the mark, if you will.
FB: Which leads us to Buddhism.
CR: Yes, in one of our email exchanges you said that for you writing crime fiction is the literary practice of Buddhism. But you also said you couldn’t accept Buddhism because it has no concept of sin.
FB: Buddhism is a beautiful thing, and I admire people who align with any ethic, any rubric of understanding that they think is going to make them better people. I respect any person’s commitment to making themselves better. In no way do I judge people for it. But as I said in that e-mail, I’m a man who’s uncomfortable with my own beliefs. I wish I didn’t believe the things I do, but I do. The reason I don’t like my beliefs is because, for better or for worse, I’m married to this concept of believing things that are (to me at least) observably true in reality. Can they be reality tested? Do they explain the world? My former job has led me to believe some horrible things about the world because they are undeniably real, not because I like them.
Getting back to Buddhism, let’s consider the first two of the eight precepts: the first of them is that you shouldn’t kill. Secondly, you shouldn’t take what’s not given—that’s against stealing, but it’s essentially the same thing, right? To not take something from others. And yet nothing that lives can live without killing, taking another life, whether that’s directly, or indirectly, whether you are physically killing the things that you are using as a food resource, or depriving something else of the resources to live. Nothing that lives doesn’t kill. But for me the concept of not taking life at all (as with many other religious or philosophical concepts) simply fails to explain the world as it is – whether I would like it to or not is irrelevant.
A lot of the uncertainties and also certainties that I have, a lot of the things that I can’t seem to put behind me, are the result of logical inconsistencies that I know to be both true and irresolvable in the world.
CR: You mean in any religious outlook?
FB: Yes, but sticking with Buddhism, how do you get past these first two precepts? I know that people say, “Oh, the precepts can be interpreted in different ways, and there are ways to function within them.” I believe that that might be the case for many people, but what I want for myself – and it’s selfish, childish perhaps, I know– is something simple. An undeniable belief. A way to understand and explain the world that can withstand my own most cynical scrutiny. I know it may be childish but what I want is something simple and true that can give me peace. Peace without death. And I don’t think the world is going to give me that.
CR: It doesn’t sound childish at all.
FB: I want to believe in good things, I can say that’s true. But also, irrelevant. What’s true doesn’t take my wishes into account. I have not seen any tenet of faith in any religion that I’ve encountered (and I’ve looked at a few) that stands up to objective observation, objective reality testing.
There are many that I would want to be true if I could wave a magic wand. Most of them have beautiful stories, have realities that I would love to be a part of. That would be God, and that would be Heaven, and these would be the rules, and how happy we would be. But when I look at the world, at what people do to other people, I cannot explain the bulk of human behavior, including my own, looking at it through the lens of any of the faiths that I’ve encountered.
CR: You seem to have a rather standoffish attitude towards organized religions.
FB: Very much so.
CR: Okay. You seem nonetheless to be unable to not think about these things.
FB: I very much value the results of organized religion, just not organized religion itself. [Laughter]
CR: And yet I would argue that you are a religion-obsessed man, based solely on your third book, The Easter Make Believers, which is essentially a book-length secular allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ, which is certainly the creation of a highly organized religion.
FB: Do you know how few people pick that up?
CR: I was raised Catholic. Are you kidding?
FB: But I thought the symbolism would be plain to anybody. Honestly, I thought a lot of people would ping me on it. Almost nobody has, maybe only a handful of people.
CR: Rolling the stone away from the mouth of the cave, and rolling it away from Christ’s tomb; a father sacrificing himself for his son, instead of God sacrificing his son for humankind.
FB: I was sure somebody would pick that up, but so few people have.
CR: I’m flabbergasted. Look at the title! And it’s set at Easter! You’ve had lots of correspondence with readers about this book, and none of them has said anything about it?
FB: As I say, there’s a handful. I thought that all the symbolism in there was too overt. Even the timings of events. They’re all in threes, like the Trinity.
I felt very bad after releasing that book. I had expected that people would easily pick up the themes, because they had in the first two books. I paraphrased the Book of Luke in 22 different places – 22! – I pretty much retranslated each exact phrase into newer English. But almost no one mentioned it. I felt quite bad about not having that picked up in the feedback, because I know I didn’t do it well.
CR: Were there any reviewers?
FB: None picked it up. I’ve had maybe four or five people that e-mailed me who are fans of my work and picked up some of it, but that’s it.
CR: I think the device of the gathering storm, which you return to repeatedly throughout the book, and which literally precipitates a blizzard at the end, is very effective. What gave you that idea?
FB: I wanted to introduce an element of the unknowable, an element that is almost God-like and that seems random, that seems beyond us, and yet that we are afflicted by, surrounded by, completely vulnerable to it–how things that are seemingly uncaring, and vast beyond us, can impact us.
I wanted a way to include that sense of vulnerability, the sense of us living our small planned, controlled lives that can be completely derailed beyond our best attempts to hold on to safety and control, which is what the storm, hopefully, conveys.
CR: It has the same effect as the standard chaos theory illustration of the butterfly’s wings in China resulting in a hurricane, contributing to this terrifying result through an infinite series of tiny, random events.
FB: I wanted that, but also, I wanted a metaphor for God, and that would be the natural element. But I also wanted a natural element that illustrated a dichotomy between–and now we’re back to how things are not how they ought to be—between the sacred and the profane. It’s really hard to find a natural phenomenon that lends itself to a description of something that looks pure but is actually at its center impure. And that’s snowflakes. They’re built around tiny molecules of dirt.
CR: And is that the purpose of the oil fire at the beginning of the storm, which gets things started?
FB: Yes. I wanted something that looks pure, but at its center is dirt. And yet, the birth of that purity is something that is dirty. That’s the oil, which becomes pure, becomes the core of the snowflake, in fire. I like that circular metaphor.
CR: It took you awhile to develop these symbols, and I was puzzled until I saw the threads coming together, but then I said, “This is interesting, it’s working well.”
FB: I’m happy to hear you say that. Personally, I don’t know if I succeeded.
CR: You have for me. I just have one other question and it’s about your relationship to Māori culture. At the end of Dead Lemons, in the author’s notes section, you talk about those who use it as another handy tool to exploit the people around them, and there’s a section at the end of Pancake Money on the Manga Kahu gangs, Māori gangs. Did you get some negative feedback about your representations of Māori characters and culture?
FB: Oh, endless; still do.
CR: And what is it? That these are stereotypes, or you don’t understand it, or you’re an outsider, so how dare you talk about it?
FB: All of the above, but that sort of thing was much more intense in my previous job. After all, I’m a white man from South Africa. The stereotype fits too easily. And I’m confident, or appear to be. I’m argumentative. I’m opinionated. I’m a white man from South Africa who comes into a prison system in New Zealand and sits in judgment about the freedom of Māori men. On top of that there is a sensitivity and a protectiveness, rightly so, in most colonialized cultures directed against Western European culture. And I probably look like Western European culture. So, I have to wear the white racist hat. And that’s okay. I get much less of that as a writer than I did in my previous job, which is a more politicized arena, to be fair, but it’s still there. People are a lot more permissive, or I guess more ambivalently uncaring, about what happens in the arts, than about what happens in prisons and the judicial system.
And I don’t blame them even if I don’t agree with them – Western culture has infected the world. That’s the terror. The terror of the culture that I identify with is that we’ve gone global. We spread, and we turn other cultures into cheap copies of ourselves. So, yes, I have gotten a lot of pushback both for being born white and male in Africa and for coming here to work across cultures and now for writing about it.
So not only am I a white man coming from South Africa to New Zealand and working in the prisons with the Māori, but then I write books about this, as if I understand their reality. That’s the general theme of the complaint. Personally, I think the idea that I don’t or can’t understand another person’s reality because I’m different from them, at least at its most fundamental level, is just nonsense. Pain is pain. People are people. You don’t need a cultural lens to understand pain. Or to connect with another human being. Caring isn’t cultural.
I think, perhaps ironically, that my thinking our likenesses are more important than our differences is more ethically sound than the belief that they’renot.
CR: But you can see why that position, that we’re really different, would offer the oppressed a defense against the covert appropriation of a statement like, “You know, we’re really all the same,” which many dominated cultures would interpret as meaning, “We’re really all white, under the skin. But it’s the skin that matters.”
FB: I can understand that, but it doesn’t shift my belief in the fact that people are people, and that everybody’s red—the color of blood–on the inside.
CR: You’ve seen enough gunshot wounds to know.
FB: True. The fact is, I’ve not met anybody that I can’t identify with regardless of race, color, creed, etcetera. We’re all born knowing fuck-all and we’re all going to die knowing maybe a little bit more. And that’s it. I think when people are at the intensities of their experience, when they’re as happy, as sad, or as hurt as they can be, they’re all the same. I think we all want the same things. None of the rest of it, the stuff that we think makes us who we are or makes us different from each other, is relevant. I don’t believe in those things. I don’t. Even when you boundary-test humanity, the outliers all look the same.
But look, that’s my opinion. I can’t say it’s right or wrong. I just can say it’s mine. I’ll continue to get criticized a lot. That’s ok. I enjoy the conversations, and the comments are thought-provoking.
CR: Well, this conversation has been very thought-provoking, and a real pleasure. Thanks for your patience.
FB: Thanks. I hope it was useful.
[End of Interview]
In the southernmost region of New Zealand’s South Island, the Catlins, where Dead Lemons is also set.
The Lost Dead, originally titled A Pearl For Every Child, will soon be available on Kindle.