Saturday, November 22, 2014

12 Questions for Roger Smith, author of gritty South African crime thrillers

"Smith is Charles Willeford via James Ellroy – proof that noir is alive and flourishing."


WAKE UP DEAD, MIXED BLOOD & ISHMAEL TOFFEE are published in eight languages and two are in development as movies in the U.S. His books have won the Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Award) and been nominated for Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel awards. He also writes horror under the alias Max Wilde.

CLINTON GREAVES: In your novels, you delve into the dark side of human nature by chronicling brutal and surprising violence in a way that is profoundly poetic. Personally, I love the gritty aspect of your novels. But I wonder: have you had any resistance to the violence in your books? This could be from your publishers, or your agent, or readers.

ROGER SMITH: No. There is a particularly South African brand of violence and savagery and the general consensus is that my books reflect it accurately. I have one guiding principle: if people do it, I’ll write about it.

CLINTON GREAVES: I first became aware of your work with the publication of WAKE UP DEAD, but I didn’t first read you until DUST DEVILS. To say it was a revelation for me would be an understatement. I’ve since read every crime novel you’ve written and so has my wife. When you publish a new book I can honestly say that my needs and desires are secondary to my wife’s reading. I know in the competitive landscape of publishing that sales and reviews matter. What has been the response to your writing from readers?

ROGER SMITH: Thank you. I’ve been very fortunate that my books have received an overwhelmingly positive response from readers and the media in Europe and the States. What’s been interesting for me is how both European and American readers have embraced my writing. During the apartheid years there was a great awareness of South Africa in countries like the UK, Germany and France where, happily, my books have been praised for tackling the harsh realities of post-apartheid SA. There is a general misconception that Americans are only interested in reading books about America. My experience couldn’t have been more different. American readers have been fascinated and sometimes (understandably) appalled by the stories that I tell.

CLINTON GREAVES: Your first two releases, WAKE UP DEAD and MIXED BLOOD, were released through Picador, a division of Macmillan. Now I see you’re published with Tin Town. I’m interested in your publishing journey. How difficult was it for you to see that first novel published and the novels since? 

ROGER SMITH: I was very lucky. The first book I wrote, Mixed Blood, attracted my agent, Alice Martell, who landed me a two-book deal with Henry Holt/ MacMillan in the U.S. On the back of that came a string of deals with international publishers. 

CLINTON GREAVES: Now let’s get on to current business. Tell me about MAN DOWN, your latest thriller.

ROGER SMITH: Man Down is different from my previous books in that it is set in both contemporary America and South Africa ten years ago. At the start of the book John and Tanya Turner and their nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, have been living in Tucson, Arizona, for nearly a decade after fleeing violence-torn South Africa. Their life appears comfortable and peaceful: John has prospered by selling automatic pool cleaners, Tanya is a college law professor and they live in a large house outside the city. One night three gunmen invade the house and terrorize the Turners, exposing the fault lines in their marriage and triggering a series of flashbacks that reveal that the John Turner of a decade ago was a very different creature: a small-time drug dealer in Johannesburg who got in over his head and was involved in the kidnapping of a rich man’s teenage daughter. As the night spins into an orgy of bloodshed John is forced to confront the truth about his complicity in that brutal crime and ask himself a question: is it payback time?

CLINTON GREAVES: I believe some of the best writing is happening in genre fiction, crime novels in particular. What drove you to write within the genre?

ROGER SMITH: Since I was a kid I’ve been 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.

CLINTON GREAVES: As you sit down to start writing a book do you let the story come to you? Or are you a careful plotter with file cards and charts and an extensive “story bible”?

ROGER SMITH: I always start with an image, a fragment, which is often—but not always—the opening scene of the book. These images arrive unprompted and making sense of them is the start of the writing process for me: identifying the characters and their predicaments. I like to keep things loose. No cards and charts. I’d find that too sterile and stifling. I need to be surprised as I write or I’ll become bored and walk away. Once my characters have me by the throat I work pretty quickly, writing a first draft in six to eight weeks. Then I spend many months revising and honing the book.

CLINTON GREAVES: In previous interviews I’ve talked about my writing process and some of the peculiarities in it. What is your writing routine like? And what are some of the quirks in yours?

ROGER SMITH: Nothing weird or quirky about my routine. I sit down at my computer and write for five hours a day, six days a week. One thing that I’ve learned after eight books is that writing is a job like any other: you have to show up and get the work done. Some days are good—a little muse-like thing flutters down from above and kisses me on the forehead and the words flow like honey—but most days are tough and if I had to sit around waiting for that muse I’d have a bunch of unfinished books on my hard drive.

CLINTON GREAVES: I love to read as much as write. Do you have much time for reading yourself? What are some crime fiction books that you think should be on everyone’s bookshelf (or Kindle, Nook, etc.)?

ROGER SMITH: I have always read voraciously. You can’t be a writer without being a reader. Some of my favorite crime novels:

The Hunter (1964) by Richard Stark (the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) A tight piece of gutter existentialism it follows Parker (no first name, no morals, precious little backstory) an ex-con out of prison and out for revenge.

Glitz (1985) by Elmore Leonard ushered in more than a decade of classics. It is Leonard at his best: a multi-viewpoint narrative that moves like hell. Great dialogue (of course), a tough-but-vulnerable hero, a sick and nasty villain, with a good-looking woman thrown in.

No crime collection is complete without The Ripliad—the series of five Tom Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) & Ripley Under Water (1991) featuring the most seductive anti-hero series fiction has ever produced. What makes the books so compelling for me is the cool, matter-of-fact attitude toward murder and mayhem that Highsmith maintains: Tom Ripley is never brought to justice and is burdened by no long-term guilt.

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 The Killer Inside Me (1952). A Thompson classic. His characters aren’t nice, but they’re damn interesting.

CLINTON GREAVES: In the previous question I mentioned the electronic reading devices. The emergence of eBooks has probably been the most ballyhooed change in publishing. Then, of course, you have these protracted battles between Amazon and large publishers like Hachette. What are your thoughts regarding the publishing industry these days? Encouraged or discouraged?

ROGER SMITH: This is an exciting time to be a writer. Sure, there are no certainties and the publishing landscape resembles the Somme, but despite the bombardment of other media (movies, games, some really sensational TV—all that great stuff on American cable—and the endless riptide of the internet) people are still reading fiction. I think the impulse to actively engage the imagination by reading a story is hardwired into us. I really don’t care if people read my books on paper, on an e-reader, on a tablet, a phone or the back of a toilet door—just as long as they are reading them.

CLINTON GREAVES: Okay. What’s one question you wish an interviewer would ask? And go ahead and answer it.

ROGER SMITH: I’m often asked about crime writers I admire me but I’d like to mention a so-called literary author who has influenced me: Ian McEwan. He uses suspense masterfully—at moments of peak intensity McEwan slows time down (take a look at the hot air balloon accident in the opening chapter of Enduring Love) a form of torture that readers enjoy despite themselves. Of this technique McEwan says: “A high-value, rich experience, can mean that two seconds are worth 1,200 words.” He can teach most genre writers a thing or two about ratcheting up the tension.

CLINTON GREAVES: As I mentioned, my wife and I are both tremendous fans of your work. What are you currently working on and when can we expect to read it?

ROGER SMITH: I’m busy with a new novel but I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Should be out next year some time.

CLINTON GREAVES: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Any last thoughts?

ROGER SMITH: Just a big “thank you.” This was fun.

Order Roger Smith's Thrilling MAN DOWN!
Amazon: MAN DOWN

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