Monday, February 15, 2010

A Cosy Chat with Roger Smith

A cosy chat with Roger Smith
March 25th, 2009 by Mike Nicol

[Click on article title to watch video of Roger Smith discussing Cape Town and his debut novel Mixed Blood. - jtf]

We’ve brought you his list of top 10 krimi reading. You’ve read the first chapter of his hard riding Mixed Blood. On the strength of it you’ve probably by now read the book. So Crime Beat did a stakeout on Roger Smith and when he emerged on the mean streets got him to answer some questions.

Crime Beat: You’ve hit Cape Town a bit like a bolt from the blue, and all we have is a short biog note about your being born in Johannesburg and being a scriptwriter. Can you expand on that?

Roger Smith: I grew up in Jo’burg 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. In the last five or ten years I’ve worked mainly as a screenwriter.

Crime Beat: What made you decide to head south?

Roger Smith: 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 to Slaapstad. But by the late 90s I got seduced by the promise of a very different lifestyle, so I slid on down. For a couple of years I lived quite happily inside a Cape Town bubble of sun and sea. Then I fell in love with a woman who grew up out on the Cape Flats and my vision of Cape Town had to expand dramatically.

Crime Beat: Okay, now to the book. Cape Town has become the setting of choice for many of the crime writers currently putting the city on a different sort of map. It offers ideal contrasts: a spectacular natural beauty that clashes with some of the worst urban slums in the country let alone the vast gap between the rich and the poor. You chose to look differently at the city. You set some of your scenes on the luxurious Atlantic seaboard but your real intentions are the Cape Flats or the railways suburbs to the north. Your Cape Town, too, is hellish in many ways: the mountain burns, the hard gritty southeaster howls, people are drunk or on tik, or gorging themselves on fast foods. This is not a nice place. Why did you want this background?

Roger Smith: No matter what the “shoowah” brigade may say, Cape Town is not a mellow, temperate spot. It bakes and blows and burns in summer. The sea rages and the city floods in winter. And two thirds of the population live on the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard, which is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside a war zone.

Crime Beat: You have been harder on the city than other writers. Apart from a brief beach scene with your protagonist Jack Burn and his son Matt, you pretty much stick with the bad edge of the city. What laughter there is is often cynical, we don’t see people having a good time. Or when they have a good time it is to get wasted or stoned – to escape reality. But then your novel is a hard concentrated take on Cape Town’s worst excesses. Clearly you didn’t want to offer any relief, in fact it’s an angry book.

Roger Smith: I’m not sure if Mixed Blood is an angry book – but some of its characters are pretty pissed off… I find your questions about my depiction of Cape Town quite amusing, actually, as if I’ve just gone and slapped the prettiest girl at the party! If I’d written a gritty skop-skiet-en-donder set in Johannesburg, I doubt these questions would be asked, because that’s Jo’burg isn’t it? Hard-edged, ugly, driven by greed.

Crime Beat: Ummm! I wonder…

Roger Smith: Whereas Cape Town is the beautiful one, and somehow demands special treatment. Yes, Cape Town is beautiful. It is Clifton and Camps Bay and the Waterfront. But it’s also the escort agencies and junk-food joints on Voortrekker Road, and the endless sprawl of the Flats.

Crime Beat: A Siamese city, in fact, two twins joined at the hip.

Roger Smith: I was interested in the collision between plush Cape Town and the Cape Flats, and portraying what I believe to be the reality of many people’s lives, without sentimentalizing that reality, even if it’s uncomfortable.

A great compliment came from a guy from the Flats who works in local publishing. The manuscript reached him via my New York publishers, so he had no idea who I was. After reading Mixed Blood he was convinced that I had to have grown up on the Cape Flats, saying only an insider would have been able to portray that world as I did.

Crime Beat: You’ve put into Mixed Blood an array of characters that are anything but likeable. Let’s look at the men first: Jack Burn might love his wife and son but he can kill as easily as the cop ‘Gatsby’ (Rudi Barnard) – named after that great delicacy of steak chunks, slap chips, eggs, industrial cheddar cheese and mayonnaise and chilli squashed into a half-loaf. Benny Mongrel might love his dog but he can torture and kill with the flick of his knife. And the supporting cast be they cops or gangsters are, for the most part, bad or weak men. Undoubtedly the best among them is Special Investigator Disaster Zondi sent in to investigate Gatsby’s rogue behaviour. But even he has his sexual appetites, although he has enough will power to curb them. They are a rough crew.

Roger Smith: I’m not really interested in squeaky-clean middle-class characters, or quaint and colourful working-class stereotypes. I like characters who are up against it, out on the fringes of society. I could have taken a more conventional (maybe even more commercial) route and written about some sweet, white bread American family who come to Cape Town and are gobbled up by the horrors of the city. Instead I purposely created a cast of characters who are nearly all compromised. This to me is more interesting. And more realistic.

By the way, I think there’s a lot of humour in Mixed Blood: albeit typically South African gallows humour. We do it well, because we’ve had so much practice.

Crime Beat: Just before we move on, I was intrigued to see another Zondi surfacing in our crime fiction. No doubt this is a tribute to James McClure’s Mickey Zondi. Actually your Zondi, like the original is smart and good at heart, and a worthy successor. Do you intend reusing him?

Roger Smith: Well spotted. The Zondi thing is a little tug of the forelock in direction of James McClure, who wrote a series of great crime novels back in the dark old days. My Zondi, though, is a very much of product of contemporary South Africa, with all its contradictions.

Investigator Disaster Zondi is smart, and would think of himself as “good” in the moral sense. But good at heart? I’m not sure he remembers where his heart is. Since he swapped his hymn book for Trotsky’s manifesto twenty-odd years ago, he’s insulated himself from his emotions.

I have no intention of writing a series, and Zondi’s nowhere to be seen in my second thriller, but he seems to be booking a place in my third.

Crime Beat: Let’s take a look at the female contingent. Jack’s wife Susan moves from a moral lapse (her association with Jack) to a decision to straighten out her life even though it will mean punishment. The other major female figure Carmen Fortune, a tik addict, living off her baby son’s child grant is about as low as anyone can go. She soon loses her baby to social services and takes to the street to earn money. But in the end she displays compassion towards a strange child, Matt, and visits her dying father even though he sexually abused her as a child. Both these women undertake a journey towards redemption whereas the only male character to do so is Benny Mongrel. The other two minor female characters Mrs Dollie and Berenice September stand for nurture and in Berenice’s instance due process. Why this contrast between the male and female characters?

Roger Smith: I suppose I could say that men are more likely to commit acts of violence, but that would be short-changing Najwa [Petersen] and Dina [Rodrigues]. Although they did hire in men to do the wet work. Simply put, Mixed Blood is a story driven by violent men. Women, children (and dogs) beware.

Crime Beat: Your story is a classic one and a classic one for the genre: a man on the run being run down by his past. Are you fascinated by this relationship the present has to the past?

Roger Smith: It’s hard not to be, in a country that lives so much in the shadow of its past. Both Jack Burn and Rudi Barnard are brought down by their past actions. Burn’s fate is pretty karmic. He commits a crime in the States and takes his family and runs to what he thinks is a safe haven: idyllic Cape Town. Total strangers – two tik-heads from the Flats – bust into his house one night ready to rape and pillage. Burn defends his family and it all goes to hell from there.

Barnard was a CCB hit man in the 80s, and Zondi, sent down from Jo’burg to investigate the cop for corruption, realizes that he has a personal score to settle with the fat man that goes back over twenty years. In this strand of the story, maybe I’m just tapping into a sense that some people want a different type of closure than the TRC had to offer, as laudable as it was.

Crime Beat: The end of the novel is about redemption: the baddies get their comeuppance. Now poetic justice has almost become a convention in crime fiction, did you feel that given the moral –or rather immoral – excesses of your story you needed to set the world to rights?

Roger Smith: I don’t believe the book ends on a redemptive note. Nobody rides off into the sunset. Some die. Others are left suspended in limbo, probably to be reclaimed by the tide of poverty and crime. Not a happy ending.

Crime Beat: Well, not for the characters perhaps, but certainly for the readers the world has been tidied up. Interestingly, Mixed Blood opens with a random act and closes with a random act. The only other local crime novel that I know of offhand that opens with a random act of violence is Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak. What made you go for this opener?

Roger Smith: I was robbed at knife-point outside my house when I lived in Jo’burg. A few years back I caught an intruder who was cooked on something (crack? tik?) in the bedroom of my flat here in Cape Town. Not long ago my 70-year-old mother was mugged and assaulted by two men in broad daylight in a leafy suburban Cape Town street. Friends of mine have been shot in hijackings and home invasions. So, no matter what the stats say, this stuff happens. To us and people close to us. And all of these incidents were random and opportunistic.

So to start Mixed Blood with an act of random violence seemed very believable to me. But the violence directed at Jack Burn and his wife and child has to be seen as a form of reply to the violent act he was part of in the States: the murder of a policeman after a bank heist. Burn is not an innocent. And neither is his wife: she fled the US with him, knowing what he was implicated in. Jack Burn can run, but he can’t hide. No matter how he tries to avoid his fate, there is a reckoning at the end of the book. The laws of karma are immutable. In this story anyway…

Crime Beat: I’d like to finish up by looking at the style as you’ve pared down your sentences until they’re as clear as glass and as sharp as glass shards. This has allowed you to write a book that is fast and gripping and lean. An ideal vehicle for your story? Do you think your scriptwriting background came into play here?

Roger Smith: Thank you for your kind words. Having written scripts led naturally to a multi-POV structure, which is pretty much a screenplay norm. I can’t imagine ever writing in the first person, and I dislike the mixing of first and third, which so many people are trying now. I find it clumsy and pretentious. But I suppose I tried to write what I like to read: a fast-moving, multi-character story without too much padding. I get very bored with those flabby, overlong, crime novels that bog down in endless navel gazing and descriptions of the landscape (inner and outer), or spend pages telling you about a character’s taste in coffee or music. Almost as if the authors are ashamed of writing genre fiction, and feel that by fluffing up their manuscripts, they’re making them more “literary.” What was it that Elmore Leonard said? “Cut out all the bits that readers skip.”

Crime Beat: Finally, what of the future? You’re writing another stand-alone, I believe. Have you thought further ahead than that?

Roger Smith: I’ve finished my second book, ‘Wake Up Dead’, to be published by Henry Holt in early 2010. Yes, it’s a stand-alone, also set in Cape Town. I’m doing preliminary scratchings on my third, which looks like it’s going to start in Cape Town and then hit the road and end up in Zondiland. Or Zumaland. KZN. We’ll see…

Roger Smith will be interviewed by Kader Asmal at the Book Lounge in Cape Town this evening at 6pm. Be there.

Roger Smith's Backstory

One day in June 1976, when I was sixteen, I was riding on a bus in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, watching as a few thousand black school kids my age smashed store windows and torched cars. Watching as a lot of them got taken down by white cops with pump-action shot guns. This was day one of the youth uprising that spread out of Soweto and started a two-decade-long struggle that finally killed apartheid. These kids, like me, are a lot older now. Wiser, less idealistic.

Some of them still have old scores to settle, like Disaster Zondi, the Zulu detective in my debut thriller, Mixed Blood.

When I was seventeen I was drafted into South Africa’s white army busy fighting a meaningless bush war against ragged bands of black men with guns, some of them those kids from Soweto. The army called them communists and they called themselves freedom fighters. One Sunday morning I saw thirty of them dead, dumped off the back of a truck, the tailgate dark with blood. They lay on the sand and a group of white men in black suits – some still carrying bibles from the church they had just been praying in – walked among their bodies like vultures. The men had blunt haircuts and brutal accents and believed that whatever they did, they did in the name of their god. I saw these men often through the next decades; on the streets; in bars; in cop cars; on TV, standing over corpses – always fuelled by the belief that what they were doing was just and good.

Men like Rudi “Gatsby” Barnard, the psychopathic cop in Mixed Blood.

Tired of Johannesburg and its hard edges and grit, I moved down to Cape Town, seduced by the mountain and the ocean. People say Cape Town looks like the south of France, or California, just more beautiful. More than geography separates picture-postcard Cape Town from the windswept badlands of the Cape Flats, a sprawling ghetto home to millions of people of mixed race. The rape and murder count on the Flats is the highest in the world and every day children are violated and slaughtered and nobody seems to pay much attention. The media prefers to discuss who is wearing what and eating where and dating whom, back on the beautiful side of town. A few years ago I fell in love with a woman who grew up out on the Flats and the true stories she told me and the world she introduced me to changed my view of Cape Town forever.

The first person I met in her family was her brother. I went with her to prison to visit him. He was in his thirties and, since the age of fourteen, had spent a total of two years out of jail. We took his child with us: a boy of five. The prisoner, in his orange jumpsuit – gang tattoos carved into his skin – scared the boy. He scared me too, with his dead eyes and shaking hands. And I think we scared him, because we were part of the world outside. A world where he was powerless. He knew if he ever went out there again he wouldn’t stand a chance, would end up where he always ended up: back in prison.

Part of that man found his way into Benny Mongrel, Mixed Blood’s dog-loving, ex-con night watchman.

So, I had these people – all products of South African violence – running around in my head, looking for a home.

Last year I saw a TV news report about a good-looking American couple who lived in a smart part of Cape Town, just minutes away from my apartment. They ran a restaurant and everybody said how friendly and nice they were. But they’d robbed a couple of banks in the US and were hiding out in my city. 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, Mixed Blood’s conflicted hero – 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 “Gatsby” Barnard and Benny Mongrel and Disaster Zondi?

Those “what ifs” became Mixed Blood.

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