Roger Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in Cape Town. Before turning to a life of crime, he was a screenwriter, producer and director. His debut thriller, Mixed Blood, was published in the U.S. and Germany in 2009. It won the Deutschen Krimi Preis 2010 in Germany and has been nominated for a Spinetingler Best Novel award.
His second book, Wake Up Dead , has been released in the U.S. and Germany and will be published later in 2010 in the UK, Japan, Italy and France.
Exclus1ves’ Lood du Plessis had the opportunity to catch up with him on his recent trip to Johannesburg to chat about his books, his career and South African crime fiction in general.
EB: For those of our readers who are unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your writing career?
RS: Prior to writing novels I was in the movie business, working in many different capacities in film and television. From starting off in the technical department and then producing, directing and ultimately writing – this was ultimately the bride between the two.
Wake Up Dead is my second book and it came out relatively quietly in South Africa. Both of my books have been published in a number of countries abroad including the US, Germany and Japan. Both books have done extremely well in Germany. I’ve been very lucky with the response and reception of my books internationally, in Germany in particular where Mixed Blood won a pretty serious award at the end of last year – The German Crime Prize, which is a fantastic honour. A group of 19 German, Swiss and Austrian critics who collaborate on a monthly basis to do something called KrimiWeld Crime Lists, also does a monthly list of their 10 favourite crime novels. Both of my books have been on that list, and Mixed Blood was voted at the end of last year the Number 1 crime novel of 2009. That was extraordinary and I feel privileged to have had that kind of reception.
EB: Would you say that the Cape Flats were the inspiration for Wake Up Dead?
RS: Yes, in many ways. I am originally from Johannesburg and I’ve lived in the Cape for 13 years. My wife is from the Cape Flats and I met her a number of years before I started writing. I became familiar with the Cape Flats and with how complex, fascinating, appalling and brutal the Cape Flats are.
And then there is this weird dislocation that is Cape Town, which is all about geography and money and race. You have everyone who is privileged living around the mountain and the beaches. It’s almost like money does not only buy you privilege, it buys you geographical privilege as well.
Then there’s the Cape Flats which is enormous and sprawling but ignored by and large by the people that live in privileged Cape Town. It’s the flipside of the picture postcard. Cape Town has become synonymous with the mountain and the ocean, both from the point of view of the people who live in Cape Town and foreigners.
One also cannot deny that Cape Town is vast and consists of much more and that there is this very strong Apartheid in Cape Town along social, economical and inevitably racial lines. Just the way that the media responds to crime in Cape Town is indicative of that. If someone gets murdered on the privileged side of Cape Town it is all over the media, it is front page news at times. Kids get raped and murdered on the Cape Flats every day they become a line on page five, a statistic and maybe the tabloids like Die Son or The Voice will say something about them. But again these tabloids are mostly read by the people on the Flats so there is this sense that other lives are somehow less important.
EB: With this book, you give us a picture of a Cape Town that is rarely publicised – filled with colourful characters that each has his or her own cross to bear. A prime example of this is Piper who is torn between his rep as a hardcore gangster and his love for his prison “wife”. What kinds of research does it take to make these characters believable?
RS: Sometimes a character will come to me without me having specifically met anyone or even a few people who I distil into those characters. But generally speaking, with characters that are far from my own experience it is very helpful for me to meet people who have lived that life, it helps me to imagine and be that character enough to write them with authenticity.
The Piper character is a prime example. What happened is that through my wife as a kind of introduction to The Flats and meeting people in a very specific kind of way, I was able to get close to people that other people might not get access to. I was able to meet with people that have lived out that experience of being in prison for years, of having committed murders at a level of brutality that is difficult for most people to comprehend.
There was one guy in particular who is a strange mixture. He is out of prison now, and he is reformed and he is actually an incredibly nice person and yet he can sit and tell you about the strange things that he has done, which are absolutely blood-curdling. It is that accommodation that he has made as a human being.
I think Piper is by far the darkest and most demonic character in the book. What I wanted to do was not to create one of the stereotypical American serial killers, that there’s this freeway in Texas with some strange guy that appears and kills a million people and disappears. I wanted some sense that this guy comes out of somewhere, that there’s some explanation for why he is like he is. It’s not like you can say that it’s only because he is a product of violence himself that he has turned out that way, but it certainly has been a contributing factor in his life. Even in this character that is as brutal and as brutalised as a human being can be, there’s still a capacity for some form of love, even if it is strange and difficult to comprehend. He still has a love for Disco and that is enough to compel him to escape from prison.
EB: When you read Wake Up Dead, you sometimes have to take a step back from the novel to come to terms with what you’ve just read. How do you as an author break away from the content of your works?
RS: It’s difficult, really it is. There were some scenes in the book that was really difficult for me to write, for instance where Piper and Disco rape and murder that family – I found that a very difficult thing to write. It was essential to me for the book, and it wasn’t gratuitous and it had to be there but it was a hard one.
What I find quite intense when I write is that I always create this ensemble cast, so there are a number of different characters who I almost set in motion and then, without being too esoteric, I almost feel as if I’m channelling them. There’s information coming to me that is sort of separate from my own consciousness, so it really does become quite complicated at times. Often when I’m writing, in the deepest part of writing the first draft especially, I have to sleep with a notebook next to my bed because I go to bed and wake up at three o’clock in the morning and there will be an absolute download of information and if I don’t write it down, I lose it. It is like these people are in my head for a period of months and they are continually inputting. Your reality becomes mediated by their viewpoints.
What I always come back to is that I am writing fiction and that at the end of the day it is a piece of entertainment, even though there may be some gritty and hard edged aspects to it and it may be challenging to some people on a certain level. But it is a piece of entertainment, it is not reportage but it is unfortunately quite realistic.
EB: Apart from Wake Up Dead, you’ve also written Mixed Blood. Can you give us a brief overview of what the book is about?
RS: Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead, to me, are companion pieces. You don’t have to read the one in order to read the other since there are no common characters. They do however share geography and theme.
Mixed Blood, in a nutshell, is about an American fugitive, a man who got caught up in a bank heist in the States wherein a cop was killed. He fled with a whole lot of money and came to Cape Town, because it was off the map in terms of the investigation and the people who were after him. So he disappeared and came to Cape Town with his pregnant wife and small child. Right at the beginning of the book there’s this random incident – they’re living in a house in a nice part of Cape Town and while they are having dinner there is a home invasion. It is clear that these guys are going to rape his wife and probably kill him. Because of his criminal background as well as the fact that he was in the American military, he was relatively able to deal with this and doesn’t back off. So he kills these guys, he can’t go to the cops and he has to make these bodies disappear. This enmeshes him in a situation where he gets caught up in a really violent situation where he is trying to protect himself and his identity, but also protect his wife and child.
There are some quite interesting characters. There’s an ex-security policeman that came out of the Apartheid era who is now a cop on the Cape Flats. He is a sadistic and unpleasant character – who was a lot of fun to write. There’s also a Zulu guy who’s an investigator with the Scorpions, or the books version thereof. He was sent down from Johannesburg to Cape Town to investigate corruption in the police and he specifically is investigating this security policeman.
Mixed Blood has been optioned for film and is in development in the States and Samuel L Jackson is on board to play the lead and he’s also coproducing. Phillip Noyce who has just directed Salt with Angelina Jolie, is on board to direct. It looks like they are going to go into casting and pre-production before the end of the year. Shooting will start in Cape Town early next year.
EB: Your work has been compared to that of Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. Who would you name as your literary influences?
RS: Both of those. It was a very good and very flattering comparison. Elmore Leonard because he writes these ensemble casts as well and he doesn’t write mysteries. You know who has done what to whom. It is suspense with that sense of inevitability. I started reading crime fiction when I was very young, 10 or 11 years old and I read the early works of Elmore Leonard and they were much grittier and harder than his later stuff. His later stuff is quite funny and quite light in parts. But the books that he wrote in the 70s and 80s were quite hardcore.
And certainly [James] Ellroy. I’m not a huge fan of his later stuff but his work in the 80s early 90s I thought was extraordinary.
And then way back, other writers that influenced me are Jim Thompson who wrote in the 40s/50s/60s – very dark amoral noir crime fiction. There is a movie being made of his book called the The Killer Inside Me, it was released in the states quite recently. It’s dark stuff, it is the kind of dark amoral universe where no one is good.
At the present there is someone I admire a lot is another American writer called Daniel Woodrell, but I haven’t seen a copy of his books here. It is dark stuff with compromised characters and that is in both of my books. I don’t set up a situation where you have some kind of squeaky clean middle class character. In a way I did not want to reinforce the stereotype that privileged or white South Africans are preyed upon. Of course hijackings and home invasions happen, but if you look at the statistics most of the people who are victims and perpetrators of crime come from the ghettos. So I didn’t want to set this up to create this situation where you had these white or privileged characters being preyed upon by people from less privileged background. I wanted a sense of everybody in some way is compromised. So in Mixed Blood this guy has a history of his own that he is hiding. In Wake Up Dead the obvious character of Roxy is a very compromised one. For me the hero of Wake Up Dead is pretty much Billy Africa, but even he’s objectives are supportable his motives are questionable.
EB: You’ve worked as writer, director and producer in the film and television industry in South Africa as well. Would you say that this influenced your writing style?
RS: Absolutely, ja. With Wake Up Dead I wanted to write an incredibly intense story, I wanted to feed off that mania that’s always out there in South Africa, bubbling under the surface no matter where you are and then in some places it erupts, it dominates and there’s a specific kind of mania that I really wanted to jack into – that whole world of tik, that shifting reality. When I read the book now, two years after I wrote it, I can see how charged it is, that I wrote this thing that moves at an incredible clip.
I don’t write lengthy descriptions of the dappled light on the slopes of Table Mountain or the pasta this guy cooks with this sauce or the specific blend of coffee he takes. I know that as a reader I tend to skip those things. I’ll go along with the story and when I get to a description I get a little bored and jump. What I try to do when I edit my work is that I write my first draft very quickly, and it tends to be messy. Then I hone it.
EB: Crime is part of the everyday life in South Africa. Would you say that South African crime fiction is an inevitable by-product of our society?
RS: Absolutely. It is spot on. Back in the Apartheid days what were writers writing about when they were conscious? They were writing about Apartheid. That was the elephant in the room. I think that now the thing that everybody in some way or another is grappling with in this country is crime as a very broad based issue, whether it is very violent, in your face, gun in your face crime or whether it is this dripping tap of corruption that happens almost silently in the background. It impacts on every facet of the culture and it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of South Africans, or a lot more South Africans are writing about crime because it is the prism through which you could view the society, as you could via writing about Apartheid.
I feel that if you write about something that is as much of a social ill as crime, you have a certain responsibility. As a crime writer I think I have two responsibilities. One is to entertain the reader, I don’t want to stand on a pulpit and preach to them. You want to satisfy the conventions of crime fiction, you want people to be whizzed a long by your work, enraptured and turn the pages excited and stimulated. I feel that my other responsibility is to acknowledge the fact that crime is rampant, that there is a social ill, and not to sugar coat or glamorise it. I would never to write an Ocean’s Eleven type novel set in SA where you make crime look glamorous. Other people might be able to, I wouldn’t be able to. I feel that with my book you are not going to turn around and say: “Hey, cool. Let’s go and smoke some tik and disembowel someone. That sounds like fun.” There’s no glamour attached to crime. My book doesn’t leave you with anything, I hope, other than a sense of how intense the brutality is and the suffering of both the perpetrators and their victims.
EB: What do you think the future holds for crime fiction in South Africa?
RS: I think what’s going to happen, what’s already happening, and will happen more is that you are going to have more and more writers from different backgrounds writing crime which will make for an incredibly interesting spectrum of crime coming from SA.
I’ve recently heard about a guy from Durban who’s written a book set in Umlazi in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It would be fascinating to read from the viewpoint of someone who’s grown up in that world and writing a crime novel about it. I look forward to that, this democratisation of crime writing in SA is going to be interesting.
What I think is difficult and I do understand it, is that South Africans live with crime every day and it is reported in the papers every day. it wears away at you. Crime fiction traditionally is escapism – it’s the kind of stuff that is supposedly entertaining and it’s the stuff that you read for pleasure in your down time. So it is tricky if it is crime set in South Africa and dealing with the realities, maybe then it is not quite as escapist and maybe people are slightly resistant reading it. And I know that is the case. People do seem more comfortable perhaps reading a Swedish crime novel or even an American one rather than something on their own doorstep, and I sympathise with that. As much as I want people to buy my books I do understand that.
EB: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us. I’m sure our readers will appreciate it.
RS: It was a pleasure.