Interview de Roger Smith : Mixed blood (VO)

Mixed Blood - Roger SmithRoger, could you tell us about your childhood and how did you start writing polars ?
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the apartheid years. Of course, being white, I suffered none of the brutality that black South Africans had to endure, but the Calvinist apartheid state imposed draconian censorship laws that limited access to books and movies. You couldn’t read Karl Marx or William Burroughs or D. H. Lawrence but crime fiction (always underestimated) slipped under the radar.

So I started reading American crime fiction long before I started shaving, and 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 if 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.

Since I was crazy about crime fiction I always wanted to write it. But during apartheid in South Africa writing crime fiction seemed to be beside the point: there was a far greater crime to talk about. So I worked in the movie business as producer and director, was a founder member of an anti-apartheid film collective and also did a lot of screenwriting.

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 (Melanges de sangs). I had very few expectations and no sense at all that I was doing something that would completely transform my life.

When I was happy with the book I sent it to over two hundred literary representatives in the USA. There was a surprising amount of interest and I ended up with an excellent agent in New York and she sold Mixed Blood to a major publisher in three weeks. And that’s when my life changed.

Is Cape town really so dangerous ? Can you tell us about the flats and the gangs ?
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 crime statistics are hard to believe.

Mixed Blood is fiction, of course, but they are a very realistic depiction of Cape Town. All of Cape Town, not just the tourist spots. Forty years ago, the apartheid government dumped anybody who wasn’t white out in this windswept maze of shacks and matchbox houses. Ruled by drug lords and gangsters, the Flats has the highest number of rapes and murders in South Africa, and sex crimes against children are off the charts.

In both Mixed Blood and my second book Wake Up Dead (due in France in 2012) – 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 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.

I did 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

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.

What is your feeling about the end of Apartheid and the future of your country ?
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.  The South African commissioner of police has been sentenced to fifteen years in prison for corruption, and a trail of cover-ups leads straight to the presidency.

South Africans have much to be proud of, be we dare not ignore the social ills in our country.

How are polars considered in South Africa ?
Sadly, South Africa is not like many European countries where more people are murdered on the pages of crime novels than in real life. It is a country suffering from an epidemic of violent crime and corruption and this changes the way crime fiction is perceived, especially crime fiction set in South Africa. People are less likely to read it for relaxation.

And the crime situation in South Africa also demands a certain response from authors : I believe crime writers from South Africa have an obligation to present an honest picture of the realities, otherwise they are just exploiting the suffering of others for their own commercial gain. Crime fiction is more than just entertainment.

You show all the Police’s corruption in your first novel in France Wake up dead with the character Gatsby Barnard, a very bad cop. Is there a lot of corruption in South Africa ? Can you also tell us about this character ?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, the South Africa’s ex-top cop (chief of Interpol at the time of his arrest) is headed for prison on corruption charges, and the media is filled each day with accounts of corruption at every level.

Rudi “Gatsby” Barnard is all too real. He’s a composite of a number of thugs from South Africa’s past, some of whom I have met. In the 80s – during the darkest days of apartheid – a group of South African cops, chosen for their brutality, were seconded to a hit squad responsible for assassinating political activists. The hit squad members, mostly white Afrikaners who are now middle-aged, were nothing less than state-sanctioned psychopaths, given complete license to do their worst. These men, often devout Calvinist Christians, justified their actions as the work of God – as fanatics often do.

After Mandela came to power, some of them were offered amnesty from prosecution if they appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and confessed to their crimes. Others were imprisoned. Smaller fish, like Barnard, just disappeared – some back into the police, others into civilian life. But they are still out there. So Rudi Barnard is fiction, but based on fact.

On a lighter note, let me explain his nickname. A gatsby – nothing to do with F. Scott Fitzgerald – is the Cape Flats’s contribution to world cuisine: a bread loaf the size of an alligator head, stuffed with steak, baloney, fries, onion and egg, lashed with mayonnaise and chili sauce that can clear backed-up drains. In my carefree youth I fought down a few gatsbys, but I’d be terrified to go near one now !

What is your secret to create such characters that we can’t forget, like Jack Burn, Benny Mongrel, DisasterZondi… ? Could you tell us about the beginning of this novel ?
The book started writing itself, somewhere in the back of my head, a long time ago. As a teenager in Johannesburg, I watched white cops mow down black school kids my age during the 1976 youth uprising. A few years later I was drafted into a white army fighting a meaningless bush war against older versions of those black kids. Disaster Zondi, Mixed Blood’s Zulu investigator, is one of those kids 25 years on. And my rogue cop, Rudi Barnard, is a relic from the apartheid era, roaming the badlands of Cape Town, still slaughtering people darker than himself.

Around ten years ago I moved down to Cape Town. People say it looks like the south of France, or California, just more beautiful. I fell in love with and married a woman who grew up out on the Cape Flats and the true stories she told me, and the world she introduced me to, changed my view of Cape Town forever.

A few years ago, I went with her to prison to visit her brother. He’s in his thirties, a human canvas of prison artwork. Since the age of fourteen he has spent a total of two years out of jail. He knows if he ever goes out into the world again he won’t stand a chance, will end up where he always ends up: back in prison. Part of that man found his way into my ex-con night watchman, Benny Mongrel.

So, I had these men – products of South African violence – running around in my head, looking for a home. Then I saw a TV news report about an American couple who’d robbed banks in the US and were hiding out in Cape Town. After they were captured they were sent back home to do serious prison time.

This story made me think : “what if ?” What if a man with a past, a man on the run – Jack Burn – brings his family to Cape Town, seduced by those images of mountains and beaches and freedom ? What if they are building new lives for themselves when they are confronted by a random act of violence – a collision between the Cape Flats and privileged Cape Town – that hooks them into the world of Rudi Barnard and Benny Mongrel and Disaster Zondi ? Those “what ifs” became Mixed Blood.

I heard that Mixed blood is going to be translated into a movie, can you tell us about this adaptation ?
My first two books are both in development as movies in the States which is very exciting! My agent in New York got Mixed Blood to Samuel L. Jackson, who loved it and immediately wanted to play the Zulu detective, Disaster Zondi.

The book is in development with GreeneStreet films and Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Patriot Games, Salt) is on board to direct. The screenplay is done, and casting is underway, and I expect a shoot date to be announced soon.

Kelly Masterson, who is adapting the book, wrote the twisty neo-noir Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – one of my favorite movies of recent years – and I’m excited to see how he translates my book to the screen. I look forward to watching the movie with a box of popcorn in my hands

You won a Deutsch Award, the «DeutschenKrimiPreis», what does this award represent to you ?
I was completely blown away to win an award like this – especially with my first book! Mixed Blood was also voted Best Crime Novel of 2009 by the 19 KrimiWelt critics – which is very prestigious.

I have been really lucky with the critical response to my books internationally.

My second book, Wake Up Dead (2010), was a 10 best pick of the Philadelphia Enquirer (USA), Times (South Africa) and Krimiwelt (Germany) and was nominated for the German Krimi-Blitz Reader’s Award. Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead were both nominated for Spinetingler Magazine New Voice Awards in the U.S.  My third book, Dust Devils, was recently published in Germany where it was a Der Spiegel Crime Novel of the Month in June has just made it to number one spot of the influential German Krimizeit July ten best list.

This kind of  recognition of one’s work is fantastic.

What will your next novel translated in to French be ? Can you please tell us about it ?
Wake Up Dead ( I’m not sure, yet, what it will be called in France) opens with this line: “The night they were highjacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.”

Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Eurotrash rub shoulders with gangsters and hookers from the old USSR. Leaders of dubious African “liberation movements” live in lavish exile on the slopes of Table Mountain, while plotting coups in their home countries. And people of mixed race live on the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard, the Cape Flats, which is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside of a war zone.

Each African summer a skinny tribe of botoxed and Brazilian-waxed beauties from around the world migrate to Cape Town, hustling for shoots in the ad industry. And looking for a husband. A rich one. Women like Wake Up Dead’s flawed heroine, Roxy Palmer, whose first bad decision was marrying a man for all the wrong reasons. Her second bad decision leaves her fighting for her life.

Wake Up Dead begins with a car-jacking, a violent collision between privileged Cape Town and the Flats, an incident so commonplace that it barely makes the local news. What fascinates me is to look beyond the statistics, to get into the people who are flung together by these violent events, and the impact on their lives.

When Roxy’s gunrunner husband, Joe, is left dead after the car-jacking, the blame falls on Disco and Godwynn, the ghetto gangbangers who sped away in Joe’s convertible and Roxy becomes their target.

Billy Afrika, a mixed-race ex-cop turned mercenary, moves in on Roxy because Joe Palmer owed him a chunk of money – money he needs to protect the family of his partner who was butchered by the psychopath, Piper, who breaks out of prison to be with his prison “wife” Disco.

The result of these entanglements is, inevitably, bloody.

What are your habits when you write ? (in the evening ? in the morning ? sittingatyour desk ?)
I am a dedicated ashtanga yogi, so six days a week I wake up early, do my yoga practice, and then work (on a laptop, at a desk) lunch time. The afternoon is taken up with correspondence and reading and editing what I have written in the morning.

Once my characters have me by the throat I work pretty quickly, writing a first draft in six to eight weeks. Then I spent another few months revising and honing the book.

Did your family read your novels and what do they think about them ?
My family and friends have been very supportive and say they love my work. (But, of course, they have to say that !)

How did you meet Mr Robert Pépin, your French publisher ?
The American publisher of Mixed Blood sold the rights to Robert Pépin at the time he was just starting up his new imprint, Robert Pépin Presente. I was thrilled he had bought the book, because I had heard of him, and knew he had intorduced many international crime authors to French readers.

When I was in Lyon in March, at Quais du Polar, I (along with fellow authors Craig Russell and Michael Koryta) was hosted by Robert and others from Calmann-Levy, and Robert is a fascinating man to spend time with, having worked with the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Joesph Heller amongst many, many others.

I met you at « Quais du Polar » in Lyon last March, what do you think of France ?
This was my second visit to France and my first to Lyon. I love France, of course! The culture, beauty and cuisine. The fact that French readers and cinemagoers enjoy dark crime fiction is a real bonus.

What are your favourite music and favourite song ?
Well, that changes all the time, and I like a lot of different music. Right now I am listening to Eminem, late Johnny Cash and early Bob Dylan.

Can you please tell us about your passion for the cinema ?
Well, I love movies, but these days I would rather watch them than make them. I have directed and produced film and TV, and worked as a screenwriter, which is mostly a frustrating experience. Anybody in the movie business will tell you that screenplays spend so much time in turnaround that your head’s left spinning. Out here in South Africa, the movie industry is tiny and underfunded, so I have a stack of unproduced screenplays (among them a couple of thrillers) gathering dust. The TV market is more robust, and I have written everything from cop shows to comedies, to dramatic series dealing with the HIV/Aids epidemic. You name it, I’ve written it. Everything except soaps.

I’m writing novels fulltime now, but having a screenwriting background helps with plot, structure, pace – and dialogue of course. It also encourages a certain leanness, stylistically.

And my last question : when will you come back to France ? I’d love to seeyouagain…
I’ll be back in France just as soon as I am invited again. And this time I’ll bring my wife – she’s never been and she’ll love it.