South African writer Roger Smith is, without doubt, one of the world’s hottest names in crime fiction today. He’s been described as “master of cooly described nightmare” by Marcus Müntefering (Der Spiegel Crime Novels of the Month) and “the Elmore Leonard of South Africa” by Mike Ripley (Shotsmag).
Smith’s debut thriller, Mixed Blood (2009), was published in six countries. It won the Deutschen Krimi Preis 2010 in Germany and was nominated for a Spinetingler Best Novel award in the U.S. His second book, Wake Up Dead, was released internationally in 2010. Dust Devils, his latest book came out in June 2011. He spoke with us about his writing.
Tell us about yourself and your South African roots. Did you grow up in Cape Town?
I grew up in Johannesburg in the 60s and 70s and lived there until the late 90s. In the 80s I was one of those dinner party lefties, filled with loathing for apartheid but not ballsy enough to get locked up for my beliefs. Or go into exile. I was into movies, a founder member of a non-racial film co-op. Apartheid for export. Boycotted the SABC, that kind of thing. I started off with ambitions to direct, and did quite a bit of that. As well as producing. Then I worked mainly as a screenwriter.
Through the 80s and early 90s Jo’burg was the place to be, the centre of the action. I wouldn’t have dreamed of moving, but by the late 90s I got seduced by the promise of a very different lifestyle, so I slid on down to Cape Town. For a couple of years I lived quite happily inside a Cape Town bubble of sun and sea. Then I fell in love with (and later married) a woman who grew up in the Cape Flats ghetto and my vision of Cape Town had to expand dramatically.
So what made you quit a successful career in film to go into writing, and when and how did you decide you wanted to write?
Since I was a kid I was crazy about crime fiction and always wanted to write it. But during the apartheid years in South Africa writing crime fiction seemed to be beside the point: there was a far greater crime to talk about.
Then one day in 2007 I said to myself, “Okay, this is it. Time to see if you can write that crime novel.” So I sat down and wrote Mixed Blood. I had very few expectations and no sense at all that I was doing something that would completely transform my life.
You’ve had quite a roll in the last few years. Three books in three years? What’s been the secret of your success?
I love writing. It is as simple as that. And it never gets any easier. I’m about to start work on my fifth book, and the prospect of the empty page (or monitor screen) is as terrifying as it was when I started my first. More so, in fact.
You focus exclusively on the crime genre. What has most influenced your writing?
I started reading American crime fiction long before I started shaving, but it was a book by Richard Stark (the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) that really turned my head: The Hunter (1964). I still have it, a dog-eared little paperback with a plain silver cover sporting a bullet hole and the one-liner: a novel of violence. A tight piece of gutter existentialism – lean as a Brazilian supermodel – it follows Parker (no first name, no morals, precious little backstory) an ex-con out of prison and out for revenge. This is a sawed-off shotgun of a book, and Stark’s writing is cut to the bone, but he still produces hard urban poetry
My next major influence was Elmore Leonard, whose slangy, street-smart parables have been imitated by many – including Quentin Tarantino – but never equalled. The world of fiction would have been immeasurably poorer without his incredible input, and he continues to produce brilliant novels well into his eighties.
Whenever anybody trots out the old saw that protagonists have to be sympathetic, I point them in the direction of Jim Thompson’s string of dark and subversive novels. My favorite is his classic The Killer Inside Me (1952). The unreliable narrator, Lou Ford, is a small-town sheriff who appears to be a sweet, dumb, hayseed, but is a cold-blooded killer. A Thompson classic. His characters aren’t nice, but they’re damn interesting.
Now that I’m a writer myself I still read a lot of crime, and a lot of it still inspires me. But living in South Africa – one of the most violent and corrupt countries in the world – most of my inspiration comes from the violence and corruption around me. And reading crime novels has become an escape from the realities around me.
Your most recent book, Dust Devils just came out. Tell us about it.
With Dust Devils I set out to write a bloody, amped-up page-turner, but I wanted it to be fuelled by the things that anger me about South Africa.
When apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela came to power, there was a period in South Africa where we went from being the pariah of the world, to a role-model for transformation. A giddy time. Then Mandela moved on, and the rulers of the country became ever more self-serving and corrupt, as politicians tend to do.
Apartheid is over, but a violent crime epidemic, poverty and the highest incidence of HIV/ AIDS in the world present new challenges that are left largely unaddressed. Our constitution is glowing testament to enlightenment and individual freedom, but teenage girls are sold into slave marriages in the name of tradition and some men believe that raping virgins (often children) will cure them of AIDS. The ex-commissioner of police has been sentenced to fifteen years in prison for corruption.
This is the background against which Dust Devils is set, and what I’ve written is no love letter.
Do you draw from real life? How much of what you write is drawn from your own background?
As a teenager in Johannesburg, I watched white cops mow down black school kids my age during the 1976 youth uprising. A few years later I was drafted into a white army fighting a meaningless bush war against older versions of those black kids. Disaster Zondi, Mixed Blood and Dust Devil’s Zulu investigator, is one of those kids 25 years on. And Mixed Blood’s rogue cop, Rudi Barnard, is a relic from the apartheid era, roaming the badlands of Cape Town, still slaughtering people darker than himself.
How do you go about picking your storylines and how much research goes into your novels?
There is no shortage of stories in contemporary South Africa. My books are fiction, of course, (and hopefully entertaining fiction) but they are my attempt to convey the reality of South Africa – the stuff that most tourists don’t get to see. I believe a crime writer working in a country like South Africa has an obligation to present an honest picture of the realities. Crime fiction is more than entertainment.
The South African homicide statistics are off the charts and one in three South African women will be raped in her lifetime. Nearly 1 500 children were murdered in South Africa last year. Most of these children were also sexually violated. South Africans have much to be proud of, be we dare not ignore the social ills in our country.
I do a lot of research, of course. Wake Up Dead’s villain, Piper, evolved after a series of intense interview sessions with an ex-convict from the Cape Flats. A video I shot of him describing prison conditions and a very brutal gang murder (not for the fainthearted) can be found on my website www.rogersmithbooks.com.
Your books are set in South Africa and yet you have managed to build a strong fan base overseas in the US, Germany and elsewhere. Are you surprised by that or do you write with an international audience in mind?
I’ve been very fortunate that my books have found a wide readership and have received great reviews internationally. My debut thriller, Mixed Blood: A Thriller (2009), was published in six countries and won the Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Prize). My second book, Wake Up Dead (2010), was a 10 best pick of the Philadelphia Enquirer, Times (South Africa) and Krimiwelt (Germany) and was nominated for the German Krimi-Blitz Reader’s Award. Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead were nominated for Spinetingler Magazine New Voice Awards in the U.S. and both books are in development as feature films. And my third book, Dust Devils, has just made it to number one spot of the influential German Krimizeit ten best list.
You paint quite a grim picture of Cape Town. Is life really that dangerous in the Cape Flats?
Recently the French Slate magazine ranked Cape Town the most dangerous city in the world, ahead of Baghdad, Rio and Juarez, Mexico. The Cape Flats – the sprawling ghetto outside Cape Town – is home to millions of people of mixed race, where the rape, murder and child abuse statistics are hard to believe.
In both Mixed Blood: A Thriller and Wake Up Dead – which are linked by theme and geography even though they are stand-alone thrillers – I was interested in showing the contrast between privileged Cape Town and the Cape Flats, and wanted to capture the reality of many people’s lives, without sentimentalizing that reality, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Just minutes outside Cape Town is the massive Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. Built to house 5000 men; home to double that. Mostly men from the Cape Flats. Doing research for Wake Up Dead, I met some of these men. They had a similar story to tell: under apartheid, going to prison was inevitable if you weren’t white. And in the racially segregated prisons they quickly found they had power over weaker brown men. They joined the prison gangs, wore the tattoos of rank, murdered fellow inmates as part of initiation rites. Found that they never wanted to leave this world of brutal discipline and unbreakable codes. Every time they came up for parole they committed another crime and had time added on to their sentences, and gained more power in the gangs.
Readers from the Cape Flats are very positive about my books and say that they accurately reflect life on the Flats. I often get comments that, if anything, I have down-played how brutal the Cape Flats environment is.
Can we expect a fourth book in 2012?
I have just finished my fourth book, Capture, which will be published in 2012. Even though it is also set in South Africa it is a little different to my first three books, more of a psychological thriller. That’s all I’m going to say about it right now . . .
How easy was it to find a publisher for your first book?
When I finished Mixed Blood I decided to try and have it published in the U.S. For that I needed a top agent in the States. I sent out 250 queries, and Alice Martell, based in New York, loved my book and agreed to represent me. Within days a few major publishers put in offers for the book. I now have publishers in seven countries.
What advice would you give to young upcoming writers in South Africa, the rest of the continent and everywhere else?
Your challenge is to find stories and characters that move, stimulate and excite you — material that you are passionate about. If you find yourself shocked, appalled, terrified and moved by what appears on the page, then your readers will be too.