Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Visit with South African Crime Writer, Roger Smith

Photo by Shelley Christians

Roger Smith tells it like it is in his native South Africa. The brutality of his novels will shock most Americans but he writes about a way of life in the country of former apartheid.

Roger, you've been called the Elmore Leonard of South Africa and the shooting star of the crime scene. What sets your work apart from the other crime novels?

I’m very flattered to be compared to Elmore Leonard and I can only imagine it’s because Wake Up Dead is an ensemble piece like most of Leonard’s work, with the POV shifting between a number of different characters. And there’s something Leonardesque about the attraction/ repulsion hot American widow, Roxy Palmer, feels for conflicted ex-cop turned mercenary, Billy Afrika. But the body count in Wake Up Dead is way higher than in Leonard’s books – especially the later ones.

International readers tell me they are fascinated by the South African setting of my novels – which is new to most of them – and appalled by the brutally of the society I depict.

Why do you choose to write about violence, brutality, poverty, exploitation, gang and prison life?

I live in – and write about – an extremely violent country. When apartheid ended in the mid-90s South Africa went from being pariah of the world to everybody’s darling under Nelson Mandela, but the bubble burst when Mandela moved on: crime and corruption replaced apartheid as our number one social ill.

We now have the highest homicide statistics in the world. One in three South African women will be raped in her lifetime, and nearly 1,500 children were murdered in South Africa last year. Most of those children were also sexually violated. A few days ago South Africa’s ex-commissioner of police – head of Interpol at the time of his arrest – was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for racketeering.

So I don’t portray anything that doesn’t happen every day in South Africa. I loathe the comic book porno-violence of a lot of European and U.S. crime writing (and movies, TV and video games, for that matter) where bloodshed is used to titillate. People aren’t turned on by what I write – they’re shocked. As they should be.

What about your own background?

I grew up under apartheid in South Africa. 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.

In the 1980s I was a founder member of a non-racial film co-operative that produced anti-apartheid films for foreign TV networks. As a screenwriter I have written for movies and TV in Africa – everything from sit-coms to drama series. No soaps, I’m pleased to say. I now write crime novels fulltime.

Tell us about your latest novel, Wake the Dead.

Wake Up Dead 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 – two-thirds of the population – 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 husbands. Rich ones. 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 speed 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 dead 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.

How important is humor in crime novels?

I’m not a great fan of comic crime novels – “capers” and whimsical cozies leave me cold. But all great crime writers like Chandler, Leonard, and one of my current favorites, Daniel Woodrell, weave humor into their novels, through dialogue or the dark and outrageous predicaments they contrive for their characters. The criminal world is rich with black comedy.

I think there’s a lot of humor in Wake Up Dead: albeit typically South African gallows humor. We do it well, because we’ve had so much practice.

How do you research your books?

Around ten years ago I moved down to Cape Town, and I fell in love with – and later married – a woman who grew up out on the Cape Flats, a sprawling ghetto outside the city, home to millions of people of mixed race, where the rape, murder and child abuse statistics are the highest in the world. The true stories she told me and the world she introduced me to changed my view of Cape Town forever and inspired me to write crime novels.

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. I knew I wanted to write about men like him.

My wife is my greatest critic. She keeps my work honest and realistic.

Here’s the YouTube link to a short video interview I shot with an ex-convict from the Cape Flats who closely resembles Wake Up Dead’s psycho-killer, Piper. He tells of life in prison – including a bloody gang-murder. Not for the faint-hearted.

How important is an agent and how did you acquire one?

Getting published without an agent is nearly impossible, unless you go the vanity press route. I was determined to have an agent in New York and pursued Alice Martell. She read the manuscript of my first novel, Mixed Blood, agreed to represent me and got me a two-book deal in a matter of days.

Is there a difference in the reading tastes of South Africans and Americans?

Not really. If you visit a bookstore in South Africa you’ll find pretty much the same books you’d find in the U.S. or the U.K. But there is more of an appreciation of noir crime fiction in the U.S. and Europe; South Africans tend to favor more conventional mystery fare.

Advice to budding crime/noir novelists.

Read voraciously. Learn from good (and bad) writers. Finish that first novel even if it’s a mess. When you rewrite your work (and you should, many times) be ruthless in your editing. In the immortal words of Elmore Leonard: cut out all the bits that readers skip.

Thank you, Roger.

Roger's website:


Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks for joining us from South Africa, Roger, and for informing us of what life is really like in your native country.

Roger Smith said...

And thanks for hosting me on Mysterious Writers, Jean.

Bill Kirton said...

You do great interviews Jean and this is one of the best. So direct, so informative - Roger speaks about writing and the specifics of South Africa with a fascinating mixture of passion and the sort of detachment a writer needs if he/she is to depict things fairly. Thanks to both.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks for the kind words, Bill. Most people in America think that the South African type of violence can't happen in this country, but look at Arizona and our other southern border states. . .

Jeff Barkley said...

Thank you, Jean, for featuring Roger Smith. This interview rises above the generic type of writer advice post. His words may be shocking but they're something we all need to read and digest.

Roger Smith said...

Thanks Bill and Jeff for the comments. I was, of course, responding to Jean's excellent questions! Being a crime writer, I am first and foremost a story teller, but I would hope that some of the harsher realities of contemporary South Africa find their way into my books. Even if those realities are uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

This has got to be the most interesting writer interview I've ever read. It's certainly a wakeup call to the apathetic and complacent--readers and writers alike.


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