Deon Meyer talks to Michael J. Malone
Our very own Crimesquad.com reviewer and author, Michael J. Malone managed to talk to one of his crime fiction idols, Deon Meyer. Here is how their encounter went...
Michael Malone - How much of you is in Bennie Griessel?
Deon Meyer – (laughs) Bennie was a side character in my first novel – and the main character in that book was more like me. Bennie was supposed to be the comic relief in that book, but he was just such a fantastic character – he was a bit of a cliché – you know, the alcoholic cop – but I enjoyed writing him and he found his way to being the main character. And there is only a little of me in Benny.
MM - He is a finely nuanced character. How careful were you in depicting him, or did you run on instinct?
DM – I do a lot of thinking about my characters ...what are the emotional moments in their life – what possible genetic markers do they have. If you don’t know your character when you are writing them, you are going to make a lot of mistakes. I did spend a lot of time thinking about Benny and I tried to be very careful to get him right. It’s not difficult – once you know your character, once you know the pressure points that are going to drive him or her then it becomes and easier process. “7 Days” is my third Benny Griessel novel and I’m getting to know him better and better.
MM – I thought the counterpoint provided by his relationship with Alexa was interesting. He is off the drink and she’s going through that battle. And it provides a nice piece of mental torture for Benny. He’s in love with this woman. He knows how she is suffering, but booze is always near...
DM – We have an expression in Afrikaans to make the wolf the sheepherder. Benny is of course an alcoholic. His wife used to fight to keep him off the drink and now he’s got to do that. He has the other end of the stick. And that for me was an interesting tension to the story – how will Benny cope?
I think the whole idea of the genre is to create conflict. Conflict is the mother of suspense and to give Benny these challenges creates extra suspense.
MM – What do you think makes Benny such an endearing character?DM – I dunno. You’re asking the right guy. I like him and I just hope the reader will like him. My approach is to make all my characters as human as possible and I think readers respond to humanity in characters; to frailty. Life is difficult for all of us and if you have a character who is finding it difficult to cope ... and as I said, readers respond. And Benny he does stupid things, but at heart he is a good man. He tries so hard, but he has so many failings.
MM – Roger Smith is another very fine writer to come out of South Africa, but if his books were the only reference to the modern state that is South Africa, you would never set foot in the place. Your books are much more balanced in that respect. Do you feel a responsibility to do so?
DM – No I don’t. When I do interviews and people ask about South Africa, then I feel I have a responsibility to try and convince people that South Africa is a fantastic and safe country. An interesting fact is that the UK crime rate and the South African crime rate is not all that different.
The thing to bear in mind about crime fiction is that it’s a small window into a very big world. And it’s usually a small window onto the dark underbelly of society. When I read a book set in Scandinavia or London, I don’t immediately think this is a very dangerous place. And I don’t think readers do either. So that’s why I don’t feel any responsibility. I do try to be honest and depict SA as it is but you can’t reflect reality. Crime fiction isn’t a mirror on society. It’s a prism. You set the light to suit the story.
I think if you try to portray SA as it really is, which is a fantastic, beautiful and safe country, then you affect the story. Just trying to get the story right is difficult enough, I don’t any other pressures.
MM – Your responsibility is to the story?
DM – Yeah. When I do interviews; when I visit other countries, I do feel I should talk about the wonders of my country. Unfortunately, through the media, SA does have a reputation of being a violent society but I didn’t create that perception and it’s not up to me to alter it.
MM – Another element I found interesting in the story was a moment when Benny considered the new SA and how Afrikaaners have had to adapt to big changes...
DM – Yeah, one of the great things about writing is that you get to see your country through the eyes of different characters. One of my characters is a Zulu cop. She looks at SA through Zulu eyes and that enriches me as an author and it enriches the reader because they get different points of view. There’s a scene when Benny thinks how unfair the media is when talking about cops. The police get too much attention from the media and politicians and the police authorities continually get hit with the political stick. They get an unfair deal and I wanted to portray that.
MM – What about the soccer World Cup, was that of benefit to the nation?
DM – Absolutely. We are still reaping the benefit of the World Cup. Tourism stats went up during the tournament and they have continued to rise. Every day, when I go into Cape Town I get to drive on the new highways that were built for the World Cup. The stadiums are being used for other sports events and for disadvantaged communities. And also on a psychological level it really brought the people together. The pride we took, that we showed the world we can host a very successful world event. I must tell you that I found it very charming when I was in the UK before the World Cup a lot of journalists were saying how can you host a World Cup, it’s going to be a fiasco, there’s so much crime. And in the run up to the Olympics the UK had a problem with GS4. We never had such a mess.
MM – Back to the books. You are amassing an impressive backlist. Do you have a favourite?
DM – I don’t really, but there is always the last one. Because you have lived with it so long and you feel the relief. Devil’s Peak and Trackers are probably the ones that I’m proudest of. But there are other books and other characters that I am also proud of. It’s like asking which of my children I love the most. It’s a very difficult thing to answer.
MM – There will be, I imagine, a number of aspiring writers reading this interview ... could you describe your writing process for them?
DM – I have a very fixed schedule. I think that the first step in being a writer is writing often and writing regularly with discipline. I am usually sitting down to write about 5 o’clock in the morning. It’s an old habit, because when I started writing I had a proper day job, so the only time I could write was between 4 and 7 in the morning. ..
MM – 4 and 7?
DM – Yes, I was a single parent at the time so had to get the kids up and dressed and fed and take them off to school and then go to work. And in the evening the kids needed care and attention. So I got into the habit of getting up very early because that really was the only time I could write. And it is a fantastic time of the day. So quiet. No distractions. That became my habit and I know write between 5 and lunch.
MM – Who are your literary influences?
DM – I think I was probably influenced by Ed McBain and John B McDonald. I was reading them as a teen and into my twenties. They made a huge impression on me and I still admire their writing so much. One is influenced by so much ... I’m a huge John le Carre fan. And many others ... like Graham Greene.
MM – What are you reading at the moment?
DM – I’m reading a book on movie directing (laughs). We created a movie company. A friend and I. We made a movie a couple of years ago - I wrote the script and he directed - and it was such a fun experience. And the movie did quite well in SA, so we thought, let’s do this more often. And I’ve just finished an original movie script and I really think I could direct it, but I have more to learn before I can get there. It’s something different.
MM – And, I guess, it’s a different part of the creative brain that you get to exercise...
DM – Yeah, it’s still all about storytelling. This is a wonderful book by two female movie directors from the US and it’s by far the best guide I’ve come across on how to direct and what I find fascinating is that it is all about storytelling. There are many similarities in the writing process. When you write a book you consider: what is the best way to tell this story? In a movie, you think about when do you start a scene, when do you end a scene. That’s the same in a novel when you think about your chapters. In essence it is all about telling a story.
MM – Yeah, you are just presenting your information in a different way. What would you say was your biggest lesson from that book so far, that it’s all about storytelling?
DM – No. My biggest lesson is that I still have a hell of a lot to learn. There is much that a director has to do. You take the script. You have the establishing shot. The medium shot. Where do you put the camera? How do you do the lighting? And so much more. When you write a book you don’t think about all that. The other interesting thing is that in a book you can write a scene where 100,000 people fill a city square, but if you want to do that in a movie it’s going to cost you millions of dollars to film that scene.
Filmmaking is a hugely collaborative process. You have an art director, a cinematographer ...even the actors bring their talent to bear. To me that’s the magic of making movies. When you write a novel it’s just you and the story and it’s a world no-one else can enter.
MM – From your books’ perspective, where is your biggest market at the moment?
DM – France. My books sell well in France. But there’s also Germany, US and the UK. I was recently on the top ten in Holland as well.
MM – Do you find a different reaction in some of the countries that you go to?
DM – Yeah, some countries just don’t get me. The Italians are just not into me. In Spain, we’re getting there slowly. I’ve just realised with this Dutch thing that it makes a difference if you get a good publisher who sticks with you. My first book sold dismally in the UK, but Hodder decided to stick with me and now we are making real progress. I am very fortunate to have that and in other markets it doesn’t always work that way.
MM – You write in Afrikaans, don’t you? Do you translate it yourself?
DM – I have a translator who I work with closely. When she’s finished I go through it closely, I spend maybe a month working through the translated work to make sure it is as close as possible to the Afrikaans version.
MM – And are you published in both languages in SA?
DM - Yes, and my English version comes out a year after the Afrikaans version and my English readers are not so happy about this. But there’s nothing I can do about that. It takes so long to do the translation.
MM - What would you say is the best thing and the worst thing about being a writer?
DM – I would say that the best thing is this huge privilege to be able to see the world. To meet book people. I’ve never met a book person I didn’t like and that to me is just a huge privilege. I wouldn’t have that honour if I didn’t write. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. You know, I come from a small South African mining town. I never thought when I started to write that I would get all these opportunities that I would get to see so much of the world.
The worst thing is that you can only blame yourself for anything that goes wrong. You create the book. You write the book. There is always something that scares you: if you get it wrong then it’s all just your fault. I find the writing process a slow, tough one...
MM – It’s not getting any easier then?
DM – No, if anything it’s getting more and more difficult. I think you are obligated to keep on learning, to keep on improving. If you spend so much time and effort building a loyal audience, reader by reader then you owe it to them and to yourself not to do something stupid and spoil it all for them.
MM –Thinking back to the beginning, was there ever a “moment” when you thought to yourself, “I am a writer”?
DM – I still don’t think I’m a writer. The term of author or writer sounds so intelligent and arty and I think of myself more as a storyteller. My job is storytelling.
MM – And did you come to all of this “storytelling” early on in life?
DM – Yeah, I think I was nine or ten years old. Difficult to explain ... we were three brothers. We all read voraciously. We went to the library three times a week. But I was the only one who went from this to wanting to tell stories that would please, entertain other people. Why me? Why not one of the others? I simply had this urge – I knew this was what I wanted to do.
MM – And we are so glad you carried on. Deon, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.