By J. F. Penn
(NOTE: This interview with Tom Harper can be watched on YouTube here.)
Tom Harper is the international bestselling author of eleven historical thrillers, including his latest, ZODIAC STATION. He recently took some time off to talk to The Big Thrill.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you started your writing career.
It’s something I’d always wanted to do. I remember being eight years old and telling my teacher that I wanted to be an author when I grew up. By the time I finished university, I hadn’t shaken that idea and I knew it’s what I wanted to do. I also knew that it was incredibly unlikely.
So I went to work for an actuarial consultancy for a while, which was a really boring job, but at an interesting company. Then, I decided to have a crack at writing seriously. I saw an advert for a crime writing competition, the Debut Dagger Competition, run by the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK. It was one of those moments that changed my life.
It was just an advert in the Sunday Times one weekend. If I hadn’t bought the paper or if I’d not read that section, or it had gone into the recycling bin, I shudder to think how my life would be different. They wanted a first chapter and synopsis of a crime novel, and the deadline was several weeks away. I sent mine off to the competition, trying to think no more of it, but it turned out that I was a runner-up, which was amazing. Editors and agents, who were originally judges in the contest, started contacting me.
I took a sabbatical from work and blasted out that book as fast as I possibly could, signing with an agent who had judged the competition. She was able to sell the book very quickly once I’d actually finished it. So it was all very fast and it’s one of the real good luck stories in publishing.
Penny Lorimer was born in England, but has lived in South Africa from the age of six months. She grew up in Johannesburg, studied drama at the University of Cape Town, and was an actress for five years, supplementing her inconsistent income by waitressing and working for the Johannesburg Public Library.
After leaving the acting profession, she held a variety of positions, including union administrator, radio newsreader, dialogue coach for television, film editor’s assistant, and PA to an archbishop. She now works in the education sector for a national group of independent high schools serving economically marginalized communities. FINDERS WEEPERS, her debut mystery, was published in South Africa in May last year. It’s a powerful and moving story, and exposes the current South African education crisis along the way.
FINDERS WEEPERS takes place in a fictional rural school in the Eastern Cape. Girdwood, once a highly regarded private school that educated some of South Africa’s future leaders during the Apartheid era, has now fallen into disarray and is as bad as any rural high school in the country. Boniswa Sekeyi, a committed teacher educated here and in the United States, takes on the job of principal and is determined to restore the school’s previous high standards.
I asked Penny how she’d come to write FINDERS WEEPERS.
Would you tell us something about yourself and your writing?
I have always been a voracious reader—I cannot go a day without reading and would rather forget my toothbrush than my book when going on holiday. (I’ve done so in the past, in fact.) I think when you love reading, and read a lot, it’s inevitable that you begin to wonder whether you could do what these writers—who give you so much pleasure—are doing. So I’ve also been interested in writing almost as long as I can remember. I’d written bits and pieces at various stages of my life, but never anything lengthy or significant. I came second in a Fair Lady short story competition in the late 1980s, and my work always involved writing—speeches, website content, reports, and many, many letters. As my children got older I began to feel a need for another kind of creative expression and began to consider writing a novel, without really knowing how I would find the time.
I loved reading books about writing, and, in an essay, Maeve Binchy wrote that if you wanted to write you had to give something up. It could be exercise, playing poker, watching television, or time with friends and/or family. I didn’t play poker and the only thing I was willing and able to give up was sleep. At around the same time I got the beginnings of the idea for FINDERS WEEPERS and felt pretty passionate about it. So I started waking up at five a.m. every morning and writing for an hour before getting the kids and myself ready for school and work. On weekends I would work for a bit longer and in this way managed to complete the book in about three years. It was very long at first so there was still a lot of re-writing and editing to do before it got whittled down to its final form. Thank the universe for all the people that insisted on the shortening and showed me how to do it!
By Layton Green
If you enjoy international crime novels, and you have not yet heard of Leena Lehtolainen, then you’re in for a treat. Highly regarded in Europe, Lehtolainen is Finland’s bestselling female crime author, and her titles have sold millions of copies in twenty-nine languages, as well as winning a variety of awards.
Lehtolainen skyrocketed to fame with My First Murder, a series featuring a down-to-earth, music-loving female detective named Maria Kallio. The series has been adapted for television, and remains her most popular creation.
However, she is not a one-series-wonder: Leena has also published a nonfiction work on figure skating (voted sports book of the year in Finland in 2010), literary fiction, juvenile fiction (her first novel was published when she was all of twelve years old), and a trilogy of quirky international thrillers starring a female bodyguard, the first of which was recently released in the United States.
Lehtolainen is a gracious, widely traveled, and fascinating author. Here’s a peek into her world.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Leena. We’re thrilled to have you. I confess it’s the first time I’ve read a book set in Finland, and I loved the milieu. Do you live (or did you grow up) close to where the book is set?
Thank you, Layton. Yes, I grew up in Eastern Finland and live now near the sea and the Kopparnäs area. In my books the milieus are often real, but everything else is invented. I like to describe the Finnish nature so that people hopefully can feel that they really have visited new places with a book as a travel guide.
Joanne Hichens grills Colleen Higgs, the majority shareholder and managing publisher of Modjaji Books, an independent feminist South African publishing company, about the challenges of venturing into new territory. After publishing more than seventy home-grown literary and poetry titles, Modjaji Books, going strong, is now publishing crime and thriller fiction.
First, tell us a little about the origins of the name of your publishing house. I know that Modjadji the Rain Queen, the hereditary Queen of Balobedu, a people of the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is a legend unto herself.
The succession to the position of Rain Queen is matrilineal which means the Queen’s eldest daughter is the heir, and males have no claim to the throne. The Rain Queen is believed to have special powers, including the ability to control clouds and rainfall. I wanted to incorporate the idea of ‘making rain for South African women,’ especially as drought and lack of rain is a problem in this region of the world, and while mulling over the name, I decided on Modjaji would be perfect. We spell the name with only one d, to differentiate it from the living Queen, Modjadji. Also, I grew up in Lesotho and had a Sesotho name, Pulani, which means daughter of the rain.
And why choose to focus on publishing only women?
The history of publishing in South Africa is enmeshed with the culture of resistance that flourished under apartheid. Struggle literature may have emerged from the underground, but women’s voices—and particularly black women’s voices—are still marginalized. Modjaji Books addresses this inequality by publishing books that are true to the spirit of the Rain Queen, a powerful female force for good, new life, and regeneration.
By Layton Green
I love international crime fiction—thus this column—and I’d long wanted to read something set during the Troubles (the brutal internecine conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland that I remember so vividly from my youth.) Adrian McKinty, an award-winning Irish writer who grew up in Belfast, was recommended to me by a friend, and so I picked up a copy of GUN STREET GIRL, Adrian’s latest novel featuring Detective Sean Duffy, a Catholic police officer working the mean streets of Belfast during the Troubles.
And what an inspired recommendation it was. A fascinating mystery grounded in historical events, a setting that taught me something about the world, and spare but beautiful prose: GUN STREET GIRL was just what I wanted.
A little about Adrian: he’s written sixteen books in total, including four in the Detective Sean Duffy series. The first three form a loose trilogy, though Adrian tells me that any of the four can be read as standalones. While I’m itching to read the first three, I certainly had no problem jumping right in with GUN STREET GIRL.
Adrian’s complete list of awards and nominations is too lengthy to include. Some of the highlights: he’s been called a “master of modern noir” by The Guardian, and “one of his generation’s leading talents” by Publishers Weekly; he won the 2014 Barry Award for I Hear the Sirens in the Street (an Detective Sean Duffy novel), for which he was also shortlisted for the 2014 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; The Dead Yard was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the twelve Best Novels of 2006 and won the 2007 Audie Award for best thriller/suspense; In the Morning I’ll Be Gone won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for best fiction, was shortlisted for the 2015 Audie Award for Best Thriller, and was named as one of the ten best crime novels of 2014 by the American Library Association.
Writer Amanda Coetzee was born in Bedford, England, has an honors degree in Performing Arts, and has performed in several countries. She worked in adult education (including a brief tenure at Holloway Women’s Prison) before travelling and eventually settling in South Africa. She now teaches English at Potchefstroom. She experimented with various genres, but loves mysteries and finally came to the intriguing story of Harry O’Connor a/k/a Badger.
Harry was abandoned as a young boy and adopted by a clan of Irish Travellers (gypsies). There he earns himself the nickname “Badger” by carving out a reputation as a bare-knuckle boxer who never backs down in a fight. As an adult, Badger joins the London Metropolitan Police and severs all ties with the Irish band until fate draws him back in the first book, Bad Blood (2011). His Traveller roots proved crucial in Redemption Song (2012), and there was more trouble ahead for him in Flaming June (2013). One Shot was released last year. Sarah Lotz (bestselling author of The Three) said: “Badger is fast becoming my favorite crime fiction protagonist” and One Shot is “a cracking read that is her best yet.” I agree. I asked Amanda about writing the book.
One Shot has a complex plot. It begins with what seems to be a drug hit, but it turns out to have a lot more ramifications. Did the novel start with a collection of different ideas or did you have it all coherent at the start? I guess I’m asking if you’re a plotter or a pantser, i.e., do you plot your novels in detail or do you start with a rough idea and play it by the seat of your pants?
I do most of my planning internally before I ever pick up my pen. I start with a subject that intrigues or horrifies me and begin to weave ideas and research together in a random exploration. From there I get serious. I draw plot diagrams and character sketches and have imaginary writing sessions in my head before I start to write. I always have the title before I finish my previous book and despite the attempt at serious planning, the novel often develops in unforeseen directions while I am writing. I think the short answer is I see myself as a methodical writer with a deeply superstitious and intuitive streak…
By J. F. Penn
Alan Baxter is a bestselling and award-nominated author of dark urban fantasy novels and short stories. His latest book is BOUND, part of the Alex Caine series.
So, Alan, tell us a bit more about your writing journey. How did you get into being a writer?
The short answer is: I’ve always been a writer, I just didn’t realize it. When I was about seven or eight years old, we were sent home from school on a Friday, and we had to write a story for the Monday. When we came back on the Monday, most of the class had written one or two paragraphs, and I’d written about seven or eight pages about this guy who goes back in time and gets chased by dinosaurs and all sorts of stuff. The teacher got me to stand in front of the class and read it. My friends were coming up to me afterwards going, “Oh, yeah, that was a really great story,” and that was my first realization of the power of storytelling.
I did a lot of roleplaying games in my teens, and I used to prefer being the Games Master rather than the player, because I would get to write the campaigns and learn to tell stories that way.
In the mid-90s, I had a crappy job that didn’t occupy too much time or my brain: I could go and train, I could afford my training fees. But I started feeling like I was in a rut, and I knew I had to shake it up a bit.
About the same time, a friend and I decided to go and visit a mate in Australia and went on a round-the-world trip. While I was on that trip and thinking about things and seeing the world and everything, I decided to pursue writing seriously rather than as a hobby.
Also on that trip, I met my wife and I ended up moving to Australia, and then I started working on Realmshift, which was my first published novel. So that was the big transition period, walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu, and deciding to make life changes!
Priscilla Holmes is a Cape Town–based writer of many sorts of fiction, most recently a crime fiction novel. Set in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, NOW I SEE YOU is a modern-day thriller with dark undertones. It contains love and jealousy, human cruelty and sexual obsession, as well as humor and pathos. Part detective-story, part-elegy for a lost culture, it highlights the enormous changes that have happened, especially for young women in the years since the first democratic elections in South Africa. Thabisa Tswane (the feisty protagonist) is caught between two cultures. NOW I SEE YOU thrusts her into a powerful plot and some dark and dangerous situations.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve always been a writer. As a kid I wrote stories for all my friends and family, wrote plays at school satirizing the teachers (nearly got expelled!), and I’m a passionate reader. I worked most of my working life as a communications consultant in Australia, UK, and Hong Kong, and when I came to Johannesburg from Sydney to marry the man of my dreams (and yes, it has worked out!), I started my own training and communications business. We retired to Cape Town seven years ago and I started a writing group—The Write Girls—that has gone from strength to strength. We’ve collaborated on two novels that have been a great success. In 2004, I published a teenage novel The Children of Mer. And now, of course, I’m thrilled about the publication of NOW I SEE YOU.
NOW I SEE YOU has a deft, light touch. I think Alexander McCall Smith should make space for your fabulous Detective Inspector Thabisa Tswane! How do you feel about that?
Well, what a compliment! However, my book is a much darker, rougher version of his books. We are promoting it as a “thriller” but it really is so much more, with the descriptions of rural life, the violent crimes, and the constant fight for Thabisa between her past and present.
By J. F. Penn
Scott Mariani is the author of the acclaimed action-adventure thriller series featuring ex-SAS hero, Ben Hope. Scott’s novels have topped the bestseller charts in his native Britain, and are translated into more than twenty languages worldwide.
His next book THE NEMESIS PROGRAM, is available in the U.S., Feb 15, 2015.
Tell us a bit more about yourself, and how you got into writing.
The first book in the Ben Hope series came out in 2007, so that goes back a little while, and obviously, like everybody in this game, I’d been trying for a million years to get into writing. That sounds familiar, I’m sure. Eventually, it did happen, but it was a long road, like it is for loads of people. Some are obviously luckier than that, but for me it was a long road. I suppose it’s a cliché to say that one grew up writing little stories and all this kind of stuff, so I guess that writing is something of a disease that you catch early on in life, that then gets more and more chronic as you age, and it’s something you’re probably born with. So it’s nice, after all these years, to be able to say I am now doing this for a living.
Did you have another day job before writing?
I’ve had all sorts of jobs, some of them more interesting than others, like playing music. And, I’ve done a variety of things, like translation work in several languages. But writing was what I always wanted to do, really.
What languages do you speak?
I studied French and German, and I’ve got a French background, although my surname’s Italian, but it’s really from just outside of Nice, from the French side, so I’m sort of bilingual between French and English. I’m supposed to be able to speak German, but that, frankly, is something that fell by the wayside many years ago. I can understand a certain smattering of other languages, too, but those are the only two, French and English.
A varied group of mysteries and thrillers were published in South Africa last year. While several of the authors were featured in AFRICA SCENE, and Joanne Hitchens and I will be catching up with others this year, I thought we’d take a look at some of 2014’s literary highlights—apologies if we’ve missed any!
The South African thriller-publishing year kicked off with Joanne Macgregor’s debut, DARK WHISPERS, a nail-biting psychological drama. When a patient describes an experience of mental torture and sexual mutilation by a gynecologist at the private hospital where she works, psychologist Megan Wright investigates. Determined to find out the truth and stop the abuse, but bound to silence by the ethics of confidentiality, Megan enters the dark mind of a dangerously disturbed man. Joanne gave us more insight into the book in her AFRICA SCENE interview in October.
Next up, DEVIL’S HARVEST by Andrew Brown. After a secret drone strike on a civilian target in South Sudan, RAF air marshal George Bartholomew discovers that a piece of shrapnel traceable back to a British Reaper has been left behind at the scene. He will do anything to get it back—but he’s not the only one. The plot involves the search for the drone, a rare plant, war lords, and an unexpected relationship. It takes place in South Sudan, a country where undeclared war has become a way of life. Brown is one of our best crime writers. He told us more about the book and how he came to write it in the August AFRICA SCENE.
International Thrills: An Interview with Bestselling Japanese Crime Writer,
By Layton Green
This edition of International Thrills is off to Japan and explores the fascinatingly dark world of Fuminori Nakamura, whose crime novels also delve into more literary themes. —The Managing Editors
Fuminori started publishing when he was only twenty-five, and has penned ten novels and three short story collections since 2003. He has won numerous awards for his writing, including the Ōe Prize, the Akutagawa Prize (Japan’s most prestigious literary award), the Shincho Prize for New Writers, and the Noma Prize. Stateside, his novels have been named a Wall Street Journal Best Mystery and an Amazon Best Mystery/Thriller of the Month. The Thief, his first novel translated into English, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Just this fall, he was the recipient of the 2014 David L. Goodis Award for Noir Fiction at NoirCon.
LAST WINTER WE PARTED is Fuminori’s most recent work, and the third novel to appear in English, published by Soho. I had the pleasure of reading LAST WINTER WE PARTED, and was blown away. In short, the novel is about a writer assigned to interview a famous photographer sitting on death row for the murder of two of his subjects—both women who were burned alive. It is a menacing, labyrinthine, deeply layered tale that also manages to be a quick read, and I wanted to reread it as soon as I finished.
I recently sat down with Nakamura and his publisher (Juliet Grames of Soho Press, who provided excellent translation) after a book signing in Chapel Hill.
Thanks for taking the time to chat. Tell us where you are from in Japan, and a little bit about your background.
I was born in 1977 in Aichi, Japan. I spent my four years of college in Fukushima, and since then have lived in Tokyo. I’ve been an avid reader since I was in high school.
Deon Meyer writes heart-racing thrillers set in South Africa. The last book that kept me up until three in the morning because I just had to know what happened next was his Thirteen Hours. His latest novel—COBRA—which was released in the U.S. last month, is right up there with his best books.
Deon is the best known thriller writer in South Africa and the London Times called him “far and away South Africa’s best crime writer.” His books have been translated from the original Afrikaans into twenty-seven languages, have won a slew of prizes, and been optioned for TV series and movies. Deon also writes and produces movies for the South African market.
COBRA features Detective Benny Griessel. Benny was never meant to have his own series—he had a minor part in one of Deon’s early novels—but characters sometimes have their own ideas. This time Benny, with the help of his Hawks colleagues Mbali Kaleni and Vaughn Cupido, has to take on a ruthless assassin, the top brass of the police, Britain’s MI6, South Africa’s own State Security Agency. In the beautiful Franschhoek wine valley, at an exclusive guest house, three bodies are found, each with a very professional bullet through the head. A fourth guest is missing, and he just might be a very, very important man in the fight against terrorism and organized crime.
I asked Deon about COBRA and his current projects.
Unlike most of your books, the backstory concerns an event where South Africa is incidental—almost just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Did you set out to construct an international intrigue and then see how it would play out in South Africa?
Yes, and no. I’ve been collecting articles on the U.S.’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme, also known as TFTP, for some years now, knowing that a story was brewing. The challenge was, how do I make it work in South Africa (which is not part of the TFTP agreement, as far as I know)?
We’ve also been seeing a lot of foreigners bringing their criminal activity to South Africa, so I wanted to reflect that aspect as well.
International Thrills: An Interview with No. 1 Bestselling
UK Thriller Author Simon Kernick
In this latest installment of “International Thrills,” USA Today bestselling thriller author J. F. Penn interviews Simon Kernick for THE BIG THRILL. Read the transcript below or you can watch the video here on YouTube. —Managing Eds.
With his fast paced novels topping the Sunday Times bestseller list, Simon Kernick is one of Britain’s most popular thriller authors. His latest book, ULTIMATUM, is just out in the U.S. It opens with an explosion in a central London café and a threat from a terrorist group that promises escalation of the violence. Can Detective Inspector Mike Bolt and Deputy Commissioner Tina Boyd stop the atrocity before it’s too late?
So, Simon, tell us a bit about your life before you began writing bestselling thrillers.
I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a little kid, so I was always writing stories of some description. But to pay the bills, I’ve done a number of different jobs, from bar work to road-building, to laboring and Christmas tree uprooting, obviously very seasonal work.
And eventually I had a career for some years as an IT software salesman, which never gets a second question, so I’m going to move swiftly on! I did that for about a decade, and while I did that, I was trying to get published, and eventually, I was lucky enough to get a publishing deal. And the minute I got one—which is pretty much almost thirteen years ago today—I went full time. And I’ve been full-time writing ever since, and I don’t want to go back to work anymore!
Your books feature a lot of famous British landmarks, so I wondered if you could talk about a couple of places in Britain that are particularly special to you, and how they feature in your books.
Well, London is the main location for the vast majority of the books. They do move out into the UK a little bit more, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s London. My latest book, ULTIMATUM, features a very new and very famous London landmark now, the Shard. It’s an amazing looking tower.
I love London to walk around, to see how the old and the new can just live together, and the rich and the poor merge together; it’s such an amazingly cosmopolitan city. But when you get on the South Bank of the Thames, and you see the Shard stretching up like a piece of glass into the sky, it’s an absolutely incredible scene, and pretty much the moment I saw it, I wanted it to feature it somewhere in a book.
By Basil Sands
HARD CARBON carries all the edge of a Cold War thriller, with new twists that’ll have your mind spinning with the possibilities. Written with a been-there-done-that sense of reality, Salkin hits the nail right on the head.
A graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in English Literature and Communication, Salkin has been writing for as long as he can remember. Whether it was short stories, articles for trade publications, or novels, David has always been armed with a pen.
David, tell us about HARD CARBON.
Ivan “The Butcher” Bulovski is the ruthless head of the Russian Mob in Moscow. His organization is more powerful than some countries. Employing out-of-work Russian scientists and diamond cutters, The Butcher succeeds in developing synthetic diamond thin-films to create the next generation of super-computers. These computers will be used for the largest bank heist in world history.
Just two obstacles stand in The Butcher’s way—the FBI, which is following the bodies that lead from New York City to Moscow, and are getting closer every day; and one of Ivan’s diamond cutters who got spooked and took off with “The Star of Moscow.” Max, an old diamond cutter who is terrified of The Butcher, doesn’t know the flawless diamond is synthetic. If discovered, the diamond could unravel all of Ivan’s multi-billion dollar plans.
With so much as stake, The Butcher sends his former-Spetsnaz body guards after Max to track down his diamond, while evading the FBI until he can unleash his computer on the World Wide Web and crack every major bank around the globe. A rich story woven with high-tech computers, old-world characters, unlikely heroes, and action around the globe, HARD CARBON offers a glimpse into the diamond trade and cyber security.
By J.F. Penn
Val McDermid is one of the UK’s most well-known crime writers, a multi-award winning and many times bestselling author. Her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series was turned into the TV series Wire in the Blood, and her thirty-three books span crime, literary fiction, and children’s books, as well as many short stories.
Her latest book, THE SKELETON ROAD, opens with the discovery of a body on top of a disused building in Edinburgh. As cold case Detective Karen Pirie delves into the case, she follows a trail stretching from Oxford to war-torn Dubrovnik and uncovers a hidden past in a forgotten Balkan village.
British thriller author J. F. Penn interviewed Val for THE BIG THRILL when the book was released in the UK. It’s available in the US in December 2014.
Read the transcript below or you can listen to the full interview here on SoundCloud if you’d like to hear Val’s lovely Scottish accent.
THE SKELETON ROAD tackles the theme of geopolitics, hugely topical at the moment. Can you talk about what inspired you to write around this theme?
It’s one of those bizarre things that has turned out to be eerily in the headlines as the book comes out, because that really wasn’t what I had at the forefront of my mind when I was thinking about it. It’s one of those things where you have a story in your head for a long time, or a couple of stories in this case, and it just takes a while for them to come together. And, the starting point for this book was two pretty extraordinary women that I’ve known over the years.
The first one was someone I knew when I was at Oxford, a philosophy tutor at my old college, and we became good friends while I was an undergraduate, and stayed friends for years. She was very involved with the Underground University movement, when the Soviet Empire was still in place, and she and her colleagues would pretend to be going on holiday to a place like Czechoslovakia, but they’d secretly be conducting philosophy seminars in people’s spare bedrooms and the cellars underneath pubs. She eventually got barred from Czechoslovakia for her activities, but she transferred her attention to Yugoslavia, where she inadvertently got caught up in the Siege of Dubrovnik and became a great supporter of the city during the siege, but also afterwards; she became a great fundraiser and she ended up being honored by the state, and by the city, and she was made an honorary general in the Croatian Army, and had a square named after her in Dubrovnik.
Bonus GIVEAWAY: Scroll down and ask Joanne a question or post a comment for a chance to win a copy of DARK WHISPERS! Comment within a week and you may be the winner chosen at random!
Joanne Macgregor lives in Johannesburg and her background includes teaching English at high school, IT training, management consulting, and being a theater dogsbody. Perhaps the most intriguing job was being an in-store frozen vegetable demonstrator. Surprisingly, all this led to her current career as a counselling psychologist in private practice, dealing primarily with adult victims of crime and trauma, a very large change from frozen vegetables!
She is a successful author of books for young adults, and I guess that provides some counterpoint to what she deals with in her day job. But her first adult novel, DARK WHISPERS, is filled with psychological tension and is as dark as the title suggests. South African thriller writer Mike Nicol, whose standards are very high, says, “It’s gripping—so shocking you won’t be able to breathe until you get to the end.” He’s spot on. I asked Macgregor about her writing transition to DARK WHISPERS.
You are a successful writer of young adult fiction. It’s quite a giant step to DARK WHISPERS! What drew you to this new genre?
I didn’t set out to try my hand at adult fiction. It was really the story idea, sparked by a news report on a deranged Australian doctor, a story that wouldn’t let go of me and demanded to be explored and then written. And quite clearly the subject matter was not appropriate for young readers, so that’s how I wound up writing a psychological thriller for adults.
I did enjoy the challenge of tackling a different genre and enjoyed the freedoms that come with writing for adults, such as being able to use more advanced vocabulary or the odd swear word, the characters can have sex, and exploring some dark and existential themes. But it’s a misconception that young adult novels are easy to write. Good fiction, whether for teens or adults, requires clever plotting, complex characterization, and intriguing conflict. So, for me at least, it was a step sideways rather than a step up.
Bestselling author Lauren Beukes is based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her works include the international bestseller THE SHINING GIRLS, which tracks a time-traveling serial killer and a surviving victim who turns the tables and begins to hunt him down, and ZOO CITY, “a gritty phantasmagorical noir about magical animals, pop music, refugees, murder and redemption in the slums of inner city Johannesburg” that took home an Arthur C. Clarke Award and a Kitschies Red Tentacles.
BROKEN MONSTERS is her latest novel. It features a large cast of characters who collide in the underbelly of Detroit. As detective Gabriella Versado tracks a crazed killer, the complexities of the bizarre and twisted case reveal urban lives trying to survive in a decaying city. BROKEN MONSTERS will be launched during a six-city US tour in September.
Beukes took some time to talk to THE BIG THRILL.
Congratulations on your new book. Who, or what, are the Broken Monsters? Can you describe the essence of the novel and what it means to you?
Thank you! It’s about twisted art and disturbing tableaus of half-human, half-animal bodies turning up in abandoned places in Detroit. It’s a procedural about fear and ambition and pride and being seen or trying to be forgotten, art and social media and new journalism, haunted cities, haunted people, the things that rise from the dark.
We’re all broken monsters. We all have little broken pieces inside. We’ve all experienced bad things in our lives, on a scale, of course, but it’s how we live with it that determines who we are. But it’s also a statement that even the monsters don’t work. We talk about a notorious killer as a “monster,” like apartheid torture camp operator Eugene de Kock for example, who was recently up for parole. But it’s much worse than that. He’s human. There are no monsters. There’s only us and everything we are capable of, good and bad. We have to be able to face that—the monstrousness within, whether it’s cruelty or ambition or pride or powerlessness.
By Layton Green
This month kicks off a new series for THE BIG THRILL—International Thrills—where authors Layton Green and Joanna Penn will span the globe covering thriller writers from around the world. We couldn’t think of a better way to start the series than with Layton’s excellent interview of international powerhouse Nele Neuhaus.
—The Managing Editors
Nele Neuhaus is one of Germany’s most popular crime writers. She is the author of the phenomenally successful Taunus crime series, which features police detectives Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff. Set in the picturesque towns and villages of the Taunus, a mountainous area north of Frankfurt, the Taunus novels are psychological thrill rides that probe the dark side of human nature. The series has sold more than five million copies in Germany alone, reached readers in more than twenty countries, and gained acclaim as a highly successful television series.
Though she has had #1 bestsellers in Germany and elsewhere, Neuhaus is probably most famous in the United States for the fourth novel in the Taunus series, SNOW WHITE MUST DIE, which was nominated for a 2014 ITW Thriller Award. The sixth novel in the series, BAD WOLF, has also been translated into English, along with SWIMMING WITH SHARKS, a stand-alone Wall Street thriller.
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to chat, and welcome. I know you’re from the Taunus region yourself; tell us a little bit more about your background.
I was born in Muenster/Westfalia and raised in Paderborn, but my family and I moved to the Taunus region when I was eleven years old because of my Dad’s job. I started writing stories at age five, before I learned how to write formally in school. Anyone who wanted to understand what I had written had to read it out loud, because I was only able to use phonetics.
One Christmas my parents bought me a yellow portable typewriter, which was the source of innumerable works: horse stories, love stories, screenplays, and many others. Some of them I kept, but most of them went into the rubbish bin. Toward the end of my schooling, I dreamed of being a writer, while my classmates signed apprenticeship contracts or enrolled at university. Everyone knows writing is an unprofitable art, and so I did what I had to do: I took on a job and made money. Inwardly, I was still convinced that one day my secret dream would come true. I wrote more and more for the drawer and usually without finding an ending for my story, but in that time I learned one thing: writing is, to a large extent, a craft that practice helps perfect.
Andrew Brown is an unusual man. An anti-apartheid activist, he was given a three-year jail sentence for his activities in support of the African National Congress. He argued the sentence down to community service, studied law, and became an advocate and occasional acting judge in the same High Court where he’d appeared as a defendant. Not content with that as a contribution to the community, he is also a police reservist with the rank of sergeant, which led to STEET BLUES, a book based on his experiences. STREET BLUES was short listed for the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction.
Somewhere between all these activities (and bringing up a family), Andrew finds the time to travel and write taut political thrillers that lay bare the issues of Africa through gripping characters. In 2005, COLDSLEEP LULLABY was published and went on to win the Sunday Times Literary Award, South Africa’s premier award for fiction. It was followed in 2009 by REFUGE, which was short listed for the Commonwealth Literary Prize: Africa.
This year saw the publication of DEVIL’S HARVEST, and I’d put money on prize nominations going its way also. Set mainly in South Sudan, it follows a professor of botany on an academic quest into the midst of the war-torn country while the big players try to hide the evidence of an assassination gone wrong.
I asked Andrew about writing and DEVIL’S HARVEST.
The Africa Scene — An Interview with Annamaria Alfieri author of STRANGE GODS
Annamaria Alfieri is the author of three critically-acclaimed historical mysteries set in South America. The Washington Post said of her debut novel, “As both history and mystery, CITY OF SILVER glitters.” The Christian Science Monitor chose her BLOOD TANGO as one of ten must-read thrillers, and Kirkus Reviews said of INVISIBLE COUNTRY, “Alfieri has written an antiwar mystery that compares with the notable novels of Charles Todd.”
With that sort of track record, it’s exciting to see her focus move to Africa. Her new novel, STRANGE GODS is set in the burgeoning British East African town of Nairobi in 1911. Described as OUT OF AFRICA meets Agatha Christie, it captures the beauty and the danger of the African wild and the complexities of imposing a culture on a foreign land.
A world traveler, Annamaria takes a keen interest in the history of the places she visits. Many of her travel experiences feature on Murder is Everywhere where she blogs every Monday. She lives in New York City, and is a past president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
I asked Annamaria about writing historical fiction and her new series.
You have three successful historical mysteries set in South America. What drew you to Africa and to Kenya in particular?
All of my stories are inspired by the history of places I have visited. In the course of two month-long trips to sub-Saharan Africa, I became completely entranced, you might say infatuated with it. Since my ability to spend time there is limited, I decided I would satisfy my longing by being what Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) called “a mental traveler.” That worked to the extent that I was able to produce a book out of it. My longing for Africa, however, is not at all satisfied. If anything, writing STRANGE GODS intensified it.
Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ is a thriller writer with roots in the US and Kenya. He’s also a poet, essayist, and professor of English at Cornell University. His columns have appeared in The Guardian, International Herald Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times. He’s been a guest on Democracy Now, Al Jazeera,and the BBC World Service, and his fiction has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize and for the Penguin Prize for African writing.
His latest thriller, KILLING SAHARA, starts as partners O (short for Tom Odhiambo—not Oprah!) and investigator Ishmael Fofona, originally from the US, are called to the scene of a murder of an American male in Kenya’s Ngong Forest. Shortly after the gruesome discovery of the body, a bomb explodes at the Kenyan Norfolk hotel: ten Americans die along with the fifty Kenyans. The cases are intertwined as the partners and friends pursue the culprits.
Please us a little about the first adventure in the series, NAIROBI HEAT.
In NAIROBI HEAT, Ishmael a black American cop is investigating the murder of a white young woman in Madison, Wisconsin. His main suspect is a Rwandan professor who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the course of his investigations he finds that he has to travel to Nairobi where there is a large Rwanda refugee community and teams up with Tom Odhiambo, a Kenyan detective whose conscience is subservient to getting the job done. It is in Kenya that he meets Muddy (Madeleine), a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide and ex-fighter in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who tries to heal through spoken word poetry but whose first language is violence. I think in NAIROBI HEAT Ishmael is undertaking a journey of self-discovery in terms of his identity and at the same time coming unhinged as he relies more and more on violence.
KILLING SAHARA, a rollicking thriller, takes O, Ishmael, and Muddy from Nairobi to Tijuana to California and back again to Kenya. There’s plenty of action for thriller fans. But it’s certainly also a story of identity and explores the idea of the “place” we call “home.” Can you comment on that?
There are various levels of home and what it means. Muddy for example lives in Kenya effectively in exile—she has been away too long to go back to Rwanda and yet cannot be fully Kenyan. Ishmael on the other hand has come to terms with his blackness and his relationship to Africa as an African American. In fact he has claimed Kenya as his home but the more he settles in, the more he misses the United States in spite of the racism and classism that sets him apart. Thus in the end home to him is a paradox. O on the other hand is Kenyan but even then questions of ethnicity, and ethnic violence, keep challenging what being at home means.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir has been described as the Queen of Scandinavian mystery writers and she certainly has the credentials. She is an international bestselling crime writer from Iceland. She has written six books in a series about her protagonist, the lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Yrsa’s standalone horror novel, I REMEMBER YOU, was nominated for the Scandinavian crime fiction prize, the Glass Key, and has recently been published by St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne line in the U.S. It is presently being adapted for the big screen, and the Thóra series for English-language television. Yrsa is also nominated for the U.K. Petronia award, for Best Scandinavian Crime Fiction, to be awarded this spring.
Beyond that, she is a director of a large Icelandic engineering company and has a family. How she fits all this into twenty-four hours is hard to fathom. She is also the most delightful person you could hope to meet.
Yrsa recently visited South Africa to take part in the Knysna Literary Festival, promote her books here, and see the country. Between game viewing trips one day, I asked her about her thoughts on South Africa, writing, and her books.
You were recently a featured author at the Knysna Literary Festival. How did you find the responses of local readers and authors compared to those in other countries?
The local readers were wonderful. No one asked me, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, which is highly unusual, and in the question-and-answer part of my appearance there was a lively discussion about sex, which is also pretty much out of the norm. I must add that the festival was excellent and I really enjoyed the literary dinner which took place in three different homes by the shoreline—the appetizer in one, the main course in the second, and the dessert in the third. The houses were all breathtaking, in particular one that I though must belong to Justin Bieber, Abramovich, or someone endlessly wealthy. It turned out to belong to a British kitchen cabinet maker.
Kwei Quartey’s first book, WIFE OF THE GODS, introduced a memorable new detective—Darko Dawson in Accra, Ghana. Michael Connelly said of his writing: “Kwei Quartey does what all the best storytellers do. He takes you to a world you have never seen and makes it as real to you as your own backyard.” WIFE OF THE GODS went on to be an LA Times bestseller. In the next novel, Darko faced a serial killer of homeless kids in CHILDREN OF THE STREET, and everyone has been waiting impatiently for the third book in the series. The new Dawson novel—MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS—was released last month and was certainly worth the wait.
Kwei is a medical doctor and lives in Los Angeles, but spends plenty of time in Ghana researching his books. He divides his day by writing in the morning before he starts his medical work. I asked him about his new book and where he sees the series going.
In MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, the backstory—indeed it’s up front and center—is the exploitation of Ghana’s offshore oil resources. Was this the hook that drew you to Sekondi-Takoradi and the new book?
As usual, I can’t remember exactly what made me want to write MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS (MAC3P) in that setting. I just saw greed and lust and murder written all over oil discovery. Or it might have been a friend in Takoradi who told me how much a bunch of oil execs in town hated him because he went on the radio and accused some folks of corruption. Then I met a journalist who fed me some more scandalous information, which of course was all perfectly juicy for me. You know us mystery writers: the more nefarious things can be, the better.
Roger Smith is the best-selling South African author of MIXED BLOOD, WAKE UP DEAD, DUST DEVILS, CAPTURE, and SACRIFICES. His thrillers are published in seven languages and two are in development as movies. He recently agreed to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
Two of your books, DUST DEVILS and CAPTURE, have just been published in print in the U.S. for the first time.
Yes, I’m very pleased by this, because I have quite an enthusiastic following in the States. The books have been published in print and digitally in UK, Germany, France, Spain, and Czech Rep, but were only available digitally in the U.S. until New Pulp Press—a very exciting independent publisher that specializes in dark, transgressive crime fiction—brought them out in print in February.
Your novels are page-turners, but more than that, they’re character driven. You place people in conflict, you wait for the clash, you tighten the screws and the drama deepens…. Is this intimacy something you’re consciously trying to achieve?
Yes. I don’t write conventional mysteries or police procedurals where outsiders are brought in to solve a crime and restore moral order, I write tragedies. I want to take the reader deep into the world—into the minds, under the skins—of the protagonists and antagonists and, increasingly in my books, the distinction between the two is blurred. There are no good guys. There are no “easy” characters for the reader to cruise along with. I would hope that reading one of my books is an emotional, visceral experience, rather than an intellectual one.
This month Joanne Hichens interviews businesswoman and author Angela Makholwa. A very busy woman indeed. Apart from writing thrillers and running her company Britespark Communications, she is also a wife and mother to two tots.
Angela Makholwa’s debut crime thriller, RED INK(2009), is set in gritty contemporary Johannesburg. The story is loosely based on her C-Max prison interviews with a convicted serial killer. Pan Macmillan launched her third novel, BLACK WIDOW SOCIETYin 2013. The title menacingly makes reference to the deathly Black Widow spider—the female latrodectus, which, as an act of sexual cannibalism, eats her partner after the mating ritual. So you know what you’re in for with this read! BLACK WIDOW SOCIETY could succinctly be advertised on twitter: A triumvirate of wealthy women run a secret society aimed at eliminating errant husbands…Now doesn’t that sound like a book you’d just love to get your fangs into? Certainly if you have man troubles.
As a sexy, intelligent, comedy of errors, BLACK WIDOW SOCIETY not only had me chortling away, but had me thinking deeply about the nature of abuse meted out by both genders.
Angela, The Black Widow Society is indeed led by a Triumvirate of strong, powerful, unstoppable and very nasty women. So tell us which ‘bitch’ we’ll love to hate?
Talullah is at the apex of the Black Widow Society—she’s tough, ruthless, and single-minded in her purpose. She’s the one most people love to hate. Yet underneath her steely exterior lies someone who truly believes she has a purpose to serve—to save women from abusive marriages. There is also a vulnerability to her, which she is only able to explore through her unusual sexual escapades.
Pixie Emslie has a varied career as a journalist, writer, and industrial communications specialist. Her recently published thriller—CRY OF THE ROCKS—is based on many years of inside knowledge of the South African mining world and the people who work there. The book received immediate recognition by winning the SA Writers Circle Award for the best self-published book of 2012, and was recently optioned for a movie by well-known South African producer/director Gray Hofmeyr. Commenting on the story, Gray said, “The elements of suspense thriller, revenge, love story and underground mine disaster, against the background of turmoil that faces the mining industry and South Africa as a whole, has the potential to make an emotive and spellbinding movie.”
If you are interested in understanding more of the background to the upheaval in the South African mining industry, set against a good story, try CRY OF THE ROCKS. It’s available from Amazon in paperback and kindle formats, and in other ebook formats world-wide.
I asked Pixie about how she came to write the novel and her fascination with the industry.
CRY OF THE ROCKS gives us a convincing portrait of a modern South African platinum mine. Clearly you have a great deal of inside knowledge about that. How did you become so familiar with the operations and issues of deep mining?
This goes back a long way. After graduating I became a newspaper reporter, largely because I enjoyed a book about a girl who was one. My first newspaper was THE DAILY NEWS in Durban, at that time an Argus Company newspaper, so they sent me to Cadet School and so on. After a year or two I left to work in the UK, where I became Assistant Editor of the magazines BEAUTY PLUS and 101 EASY WAYS TO SLIM. After a stint there I returned to South Africa and joined the Johannesburg paper, THE STAR as a reporter.
Mike Nicol is one of the leaders of South African crime fiction, and his Revenge trilogy – PAYBACK, KILLER COUNTRY and BLACK HEART are important novels of the dark side of twenty-first century South Africa in any genre. Deon Meyer has said of Mike’s style that it is “by far the best in South Africa” and that he creates “deliciously complex characters.” His latest book – OF COPS AND ROBBERS – certainly maintains those very high standards.
Before coming to crime fiction, Mike wrote four acclaimed literary novels, non-fiction, poetry, a memoir, a book on the 1994 election titled THE WAITING COUNTRY and collaborated on the mammoth MANDELA – THE AUTHORISED PORTRAIT. Mike has been a freelance journalist, author, reviewer and lecturer for thirty years. In 2007 he started the Crimebeat website, which is the window on South African crime fiction to this day.
There’s been a two year gap in Mike’s crime fiction since BLACK HEART, but his new book was worth wait. It was released in South Africa a few months ago, is already available on Kindle worldwide, and will be available in paperback in the US in February.
Margie Orford is an award-winning journalist and internationally acclaimed author, widely regarded as one of South Africa’s best writers of mystery thrillers. Her novels have been translated into twelve languages. She recently signed a five-book deal with a UK publisher, and her books will be released in the US soon through the new digital imprint of Harper Collins—Witness Impulse.
Margie was born in London and grew up in Namibia. A Fulbright Scholar, she was educated in South Africa and the United States. She is Executive Vice-President of South African PEN, the patron of Rape Crisis and of the children’s book charity, the Little Hands Trust. She lives in Cape Town.
Her protagonist—Clare Hart—is likeable and complex and has developed through the series. I’ve enjoyed all the books—LIKE CLOCKWORK, BLOOD ROSE, DADDY’S GIRL, GALLOWS HILL—but for my money WATER MUSIC is the best of a very good bunch. It’s a tense and grueling thriller which is impossible to put down. As Jake Kerridge (leading UK crime fiction critic) said in THE TELEGRAPH, “Orford plots so brilliantly that to stop reading is as harrowing as to carry on.”
In WATER MUSIC, Clare Hart’s mission is to use her psychological expertise to solve, if she can’t prevent, crimes against women and children. A young girl is discovered emaciated and on the point of death, yet no one has reported the child missing. Shortly after that, Clare learns that a brilliant young cellist, Rosa, has suddenly resigned her scholarship at a classical music college and vanished. Most people shrug it off, but her grandfather believes something terrible has happened to her. Clare tries to follow her movements over the last days before she disappeared, but her investigation leads nowhere. There seems to be some connection between the two cases, but it’s hard to fathom. By the time Clare learns the answer, she is in deep trouble.
Michael Stanley chats to Joanne Hichens about the newly released South African crime-thriller fiction collection of short stories BLOODY SATISFIED – ‘A cracking collection, with stories of stunning originality and skill,’ says Sarah Lotz.
Editing an anthology is a great deal of work even if a publisher is in place. You had to find the publisher, raise the money, solicit the stories. What were the major challenges and how did you overcome them to make BLOODY SATISFIED a reality?
Certainly there’s a tendency to underestimate the behind the scenes work involved in getting an anthology off the ground. I’d done it before with BAD COMPANY for which Lee Child wrote the foreword, so I understood the kind of effort it required. I’ve never been afraid to approach people for support, so the first thing I did was ask Deon Meyer to write a foreword. He was positive about the project, as was publisher, Tim Richman of Mercury, an imprint of Burnet Media, and so with an internationally respected author to lend lustre to the collection, and a keen publisher on board, it was all systems go.
This month Joanne Hichens interviews Michele Rowe.
Michele Rowe, a new voice in South African crime fiction, has just published, through Penguin, her debut novel WHAT HIDDEN LIES, an intriguing mystery in which detective Persephone (Persy) Jonas is forced to work with retired criminal psychologist Dr. Marge Labuschagne to solve the murder of an escaped sex offender. Although Michele works primarily as a screen writer, it seems that a life of ‘crime writing’ is really what she’s cut out for, and has been from an early age.
‘When it came to crime fiction,’ says Michele Rowe, ‘I read widely and indiscriminately. I started out reading Agatha Christie as a child, then in my teens developed a taste for Gothic horror, writers like Poe and Wilkie Collins. I still prefer the almost Gothic suspense mystery novel, rather than the classic thriller. WHAT HIDDEN LIES falls between the two. It is a mystery but has action and suspense. That’s my film background I suppose. Chases and shoot outs are de riguer!’
And in this case it’s all paid off as her manuscript won a CWA Debut Dagger. So my first question has to be: How high did you jump (for joy) when you learned you’d won a prestigious Dagger?
My first feeling was one of disbelief. I never imagined I’d get short-listed, let alone win. When I heard I felt sort of stunned and thought they may have made a mistake. But it gave me a huge boost. I’ve always coveted a Dagger award, and now I have one, and for my first book. It still seems a little unbelievable.
What lies behind the cryptic title WHAT HIDDEN LIES?
The title refers to how lies and rumors can cause untold damage, even incite violence. It’s also about what lies hidden beneath the surface of our society, like the covering up of the fate of people, particularly South Africans who were removed and displaced. It also alludes to things hidden or buried in the character’s past histories. Hopefully, once the reader finishes the book, the title will make perfect sense.