Roger Smith :: Wake up dead (VO)

Hi Roger, how are you doing ? Your were the first winner of the Golden Broom prize in 2011 and you’re one of the potential winners for the second year. What do you think about that prize ?
Richard, it was an enormous honour for me to win Golden Broom 2011. The competition was fierce! I am very flattered that you are including me again this year.

I have received such wonderful responses from French readers and the media in France. It is a real thrill for me to know that my books are being translated into French and that I am part of Robert Pépin présente, in the company of Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block and many other brilliant crime writers.

I think that Wake up dead is even darker than Mixed blood. How did you get the idea to write this novel ?
South Africa is a society still divided by race, and increasingly, wealth. Predatory crimes like home invasions and carjackings frequently bridge that divide. Both Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead begin with violent collisions between privileged Cape Town and the Cape Flats ghettoes, incidents so commonplace that they often don’t even make 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.

In Wake Up Dead I wanted to take on the challenge of writing a female protagonist, and Roxy Palmer, the American ex-model, just seemed to jump fully formed onto the page. I loved writing her, and enjoyed the fact that her good looks and street smarts catapulted her from poverty in the States to the runways of Paris and Rome, and then to Cape Town where she married a South African gunrunner for his money. It’s great to have a foreigner, an outsider, in my Cape Town mix, because I can use her to highlight bizarre elements of South African culture. The conversations Roxy and Billy Afrika have about race, apartheid and African voodoo were fun to write.

What can you tell us about your three characters, who are very striking to me : Billy Afrika, Piper and Roxy ?
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. Not the super-models – they’re too busy launching their fragrances and clothing ranges in Paris and Milan – but the very young ones who are still trying to break in, or aging women terrified of the looming three-O, looking for any work they can get. 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.

Roxy is American trailer trash from Florida. Grew up with an alcoholic mother and a succession of “daddies”, the last took her picture and her cherry before she was fourteen. But she is beautiful and built a career as a model. Not a supermodel, though, and by the time she was thirty nobody had named a fragrance after her and she came out to Cape Town to find work and a rich husband. Roxy is a gold-digger, sure, and she makes some bad choices, but I like her. And most women who have read the book seem to empathise with the choices she makes.

There are many corrupt cops on the Cape Flats. There are good cops, too, who earn a pittance doing a thankless and dangerous job in a ghetto where policemen are killed almost daily. For their sidearms. For revenge. I wanted to write about one of the good cops, Billy Afrika, a man who prided himself on his incorruptibility until his partner was murdered and Billy handed in his badge and became a mercenary. Doing what many South African ex-cops do, signing on as “contractors” in Iraq. Earning dollars to send home to his dead partner’s family, trying to forget his past. Until he has to go back to Cape Town and face that past. And the man who killed his partner. You may question Billy’s methods, but you can’t fault his motives.

In the shadow of Table Mountain, just minutes from the city, squats the massive Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. Built to house 5000 men; home to double that. Mostly brown men grown up wild on the harsh, windswept Cape Flats, Cape Town’s sprawling ghetto.

Doing research for Wake Up Dead, I met some of these men, inside prison and out. 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. 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. These men found “wives” in prison: young boys who were easy meat. Most of these marriages were short-lived. But some endured. Some men even fell in love. Men like the psychopathic Piper, a lifer, who took a young “wife” and realized after Disco was paroled that he couldn’t live without him. Piper is so obsessed that he breaks out of prison to bring Disco back to Pollsmoor with him. Till death does them part.

Do you think that « Redemption » could have been a good title for this novel ?
Without giving too much away, I think a few of the characters move towards some kind of redemption, yes. Billy is pretty selfless. Roxy, initially narcissistic and self-seeking, moves toward some understanding that there is a world beyond herself.

The “partnership” between Roxy and Billy was interesting for me. Conventionally, they would have ended up in bed. But I resisted that, and many readers have remarked on how pleased they are that I didn’t go for that cliché.

And Billy is the conscience of the book, I guess. But he also reflects a very particular world view that allows for extreme responses. Responses that many people would find anti-social. But not in our anti-society, perhaps, which is quite an indictment.

Tell us about the High Security prison of Pollsmoor ? It seems to be an awful place.
Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison is a prison in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was the most famous inmate of the prison. Today some of South Africa’s most dangerous criminals and roughest gangsters are held in Pollsmoor Prison.

The majority of prisoners are from depressed communities where there is large-scale unemployment, a lack of educational and other facilities, homelessness and gangsterism. Inmates spend nearly all day in their overcrowded cells (frequently more than 30 men in a cell.) Drugs are commonly smuggled into cells, mainly from returning prisoners and corrupt prison wardens and the prison is ruled by the number gangs.

In your second novel, you describe Gang 26 and Gang 28 and their internal organisation, could you tell us about that? What must one do to rise  up in the hierarchy of those gangs ?
There are actually three major prison gangs in the Western Cape: the 26s, 27s and 28s. To go into the history and complex structure of the gangs would be a book in itself, but they are around 100 years old, and have their own unique para-military structure and codes of discipline and punishment. They have their own gang slang and tattoos. Initiation rites include rape and murder. One of the more savage forms of punishment is known as « slow puncture ». The offender’s anus is cut open so it bleeds, thus ensuring infection. The gang holds the offender down and the HIV-infected prisoner then proceeds to rape the offender.

I’ve visited prisons, and met ex-cons. One man in particular, who served over thirty years in prison, served as a model for Piper. This man, Ice, rose to be a general in the 27s prison gang, fell in love with his prison “wife”, and committed crimes in prison – including a brutal murder – in order to stay inside, where he had power and prestige. I shot an interview with him, which is up on YouTube and he evokes the prison environment more eloquently than I ever could.

At the « Quai du polar Salon 2012 » in Lyon, I met the South-African writer Deon Meyer, who says that South Africa is not more violent a country than others, but your novels say otherwise. Could you explain this difference of opinion ?
The highly respected South African Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation was contracted by the SA government to carry out a study on the violent nature of crime in South Africa. Their report, published at the end of 2010, says: “Our own crime statistics, and the comparison of data on violence in South Africa and other countries, demonstrates convincingly that South Africa is amongst the most violent countries in the world.”

It goes on to say that “South Africa is not only affected by a subculture of violence and criminality but is also characterised by a more general ‘culture of violence’ based on the pervasive normative acceptance of violence.”

This report, as valuable as it is, doesn’t convey the realities of living in the poor (black and brown) communities in South Africa. Let me try to personalize this :

Just over a year ago my wife’s 27 year old brother was shot dead in broad daylight outside his parents’ home on the Cape Flats. He died in front of his family. Before he walked away, one of the gunman said to my wife’s mother: “Close your child’s eyes.” His death was never investigated by the police and his killers are still out there. His murder wasn’t reported in the media. Just another dead brown man.

Hospitals on the Cape Flats have divisions that deal exclusively with child abuse. We’re not talking about isolated cases. Literally hundreds of children are admitted each month, most from the Cape Flats ghettoes: babies raped, children tortured. Nearly 2000 children were murdered in South Africa last year. Many of them had been sexually violated.

To research my fourth novel, Dust Devils, I travelled to Tugela Ferry, a remote part of the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, where the incidence of HIV/Aids is the highest in the world. In addition, this rural slum is plagued by violence, much of it for control of the lucrative taxi routes to Durban and Johannesburg. People live in poverty and fear, with little hope of a better future.

Rape is out of control in South Africa. A sick statistic: A South African woman has more chance of being raped than learning to read.

The truth is that black and brown lives still mean very little in South Africa. Tourists who fly in to drink wine in the Cape and see The Big Five in the game parks should remember that when driving past the urban ghettoes or rural slums where the majority of South Africans live.

There is a culture of denial in South Africa. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid denied his policies were discriminatory, saying,  “apartheid allowed for different ethnicities to be separate but equal.” A lie, of course, but generations of white South Africans supported this lie because it suited them. Ex-President Thabo Mbeki denied that HIV caused Aids and set back South Africa’s Aids treatment programme by a decade and cost untold lives. And now, there is this denial that South Africa is plagued by violent crime.

To borrow a line from my latest book, Capture : The truth is just the lie you believe the most.

The Concierge is curious , you know that ! Could you tell us about your next novel to be published in France ?
Dust Devils will be out in France in 2013. 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 jailed for fifteen years for corruption, and his successor was fired a few weeks ago. Also for corruption.

This is the background against which Dust Devils is set, and what I’ve written is no love letter.

Could you tell us about the « Muti witch’s medicine « ? I find this incredible !!  Is there really a traffic of human beings ?
Muti is a term for traditional medicine in South Africa. Most traditional medicine is harmless herbalism, but murder and mutilation is associated with some traditional cultural practices — called Muti killings. Muti killings are not human sacrifice in a religious sense, but rather involve the murder of someone in order to excise body parts for incorporation as ingredients into medicine and concoctions used in witchcraft. Some South Africans believe that the harvested body parts of children or old people will assist in them becoming rich and powerful.

A few years ago cops at the police morgue in Cape Town were convicted of mutilating corpses and selling off their body parts for muti.

How about your projects for the cinema ? Will your novels be used to make movies ?
Both Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead are in development as movies in the States. The Hollywood wheels turn slowly, but I’m pretty confident that at least one of them will make it to the screen.

When will you next come to France to meet your readers ?
Sadly, I have no plans to visit France this year, but maybe in 2013 ? I hope so !

What will your final word be ?
As always, thank you Richard. I appreciate your interest in my work. And good luck with spreading the word about crime novels in France.