Since the days of King Solomon’s Mines, Africa has provided the setting for an untold number of thrillers. Typically, though, the continent has been a backdrop for the exploits of foreigners who have come to the continent from somewhere else.
Deon Meyer writes from a different perspective. His novels deal with people who, like the author, call post-apartheid South Africa home.
The locales manage to be simultaneously exotic for the reader and familiar for the author’s cast of characters. Keeping that balance between the new and the familiar has become second nature for Meyer.
“The problem with the rich and vibrant South African setting is that it insinuates itself into the story without me noticing,” Meyer explained. “It feels like an organic process in which you let your characters loose in this environment. As they start to interact with it more and more, the setting is created almost by accident.”
Meyer’s most recent novel, Thirteen Hours, is due for release in September from Grove/Atlantic Inc. Earlier this year, Thirteen Hours became the first novel translated from Afrikaans to be shortlisted for the 2010 International Dagger, presented annually by the Crime Writers’ Association in Great Britain. Meyer did not win (neither did the late Stieg Larson’s bestseller The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), but the judges nevertheless had high praise for the novel: “Benny Griessel has been put out to pasture, charged with mentoring a disparate group of new South African police officers. Suddenly, he has thirteen hours to save a life and solve a murder. Meyer turns the constraints of the clock into a tour de force of plotting.”
Meyer is not a series author as such, but the ideas of reviving characters from earlier novels and utilizing the “constraints of the clock” were the impetus behind Thirteen Hours.
“There was the fact that I owed protagonist Benny Griessel a resolution from an earlier novel (Devil’s Peak), some very interesting developments on the local music scene, and my fascination with time,” Meyer said. “One way or another, I’ve been fooling around with time in most of my books, and I’m always fascinated by how much it influences structure, suspense, and the writing process. After I finished writing the previous novel, Blood Safari, I realized that it was the book that played out over the shortest period of time of all my work–four or five days. And I liked the influence that had on the tempo.
“Which got me thinking: How short a period of time could still work? From there it was a short leap . . .”
Following stints in the military and as a reporter, Meyer worked as a press liaison, advertising copywriter, creative director, web site manager, and Internet strategist. While working full time he started writing and publishing short stories, a form he still believes “is the best way to learn the craft of writing,” then moved on to novels.
“My theory is that most skills in life are a lot like riding a bicycle: At first, you will probably fall off a few times and bleed a little. But if you keep at it, you will soon find a wobbly balance, and eventually be on your way. In other words, you have to pay your dues and how you approach the bike is often dependent on who and where you are.
“Starting with short stories worked for me during a phase of my life that was pretty hectic–I was holding down two jobs, taking care of two kids as a single parent, and simply did not have the time to invest in a novel which might not be published. The upside was that I learned a lot, fast, thanks to the magnanimity of magazine story editors who shared their knowledge. The downside was that it was still a huge leap and a steep learning curve from the short form to the novel.
“The secret, I think, is to get time in the saddle, irrespective of the form you use, and to get feedback from really knowledgeable people. Writing, like love, will find a way.”
Meyer published his first novel in 1994. Fourteen years later, in January 2008, he gave up his day job as a brand consultant for BMW Motorcycles and started writing full time. He retained his love for motorcycles, though, and the machines, like his passion for South Africa and its people, figure prominently in his books.
Meyer’s first novel was not translated from Afrikaans because he did not think it was on a par with the competition it would face in an international market. Since then, he has developed a truly international following. He is the author of six novels that have been translated into some 20 languages. He writes in Afrikaans, and then relies on translators to capture the nuances of his work in other languages. The trick, he said, is explaining the culture and history of South Africa to audiences who may know little or nothing about the country while retaining the flavor of the original Afrikaans language.
“When the good fortune of translations started to happen,’ he said, “I worried about that a lot. The problem is, trying to anticipate what readers from various countries would want or need to know to better understand the South African setting could drive you nuts pretty quickly. So I decided to revert to my original strategy of writing for just one person: Me.
“Names of characters are always an issue, and it’s a real challenge to balance difficulty and authenticity. The thing about South African names is that they often mean something. For instance, the first name of the female Zulu cop Mbali Kaleni in Thirteen Hours means ‘flower’–a concept very much in contrast to her personality. Hopefully this adds a little to the characterization.
“My only hope is that, if the story is absorbing enough, readers will tolerate a certain degree of difficulty with the names.”
Meyer is wrapping up his next project. Although it includes some characters familiar to readers of his previous books, Meyer insists the novel is not part of a series.
“The characters just won’t leave me alone,” he said. “But a series means a very determined focus, and I’m always worried that such a decision would interfere with story development. For me, story is still the most important aspect.”