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.
The editor at the time was not known for promoting equality of the sexes. Indeed, when it came time for salary increases us girl reporters discovered that ours were about 40% less than the men. Why? we asked. Oh, you don’t have to pay for your own beers, was his reply. So a number of us resigned. It was the start of a whole host of new opportunities for me: I was employed by what was then General Mining as the in-house editor and my world changed. Over the next two years I flew on company aircraft to every corner of South Africa. I visited and went underground at gold mines in the Free State, platinum mines near Rustenburg, manganese mines at Hotazel, chrome mines, coal mines of every sort from the giant opencast mines to the underground pits. I even flew to asbestos mines in the arid plains about 100 miles from Kuruman and I went to the huge uranium and copper mines in Namibia.
I loved it. I loved the people, the robust energy of mining, even the harshness of that world. And through my work I came to know every aspect of the mines. I was privy to management discussions on the one hand, and sat in on trade union meetings with the workers on the other. I had ‘correspondents’ on many of the mines, and spent long hours talking in the pubs, hostels, sports fields, and communities around the mines.
What prompted you to write about a mine, and this mine in particular?
During my journalistic career I had always been involved in teaching communication and journalism and became active in IABC (International Association of Business Communicators), which is headquartered in San Francisco. One of their senior people at the time, Dr Don Beck, (based in Dallas, Texas and head of Spiral Dynamics) frequently visited South Africa as he was coaching people like President FW de Klerk (then in office) and Nelson Mandela (still in prison) prior to his release. I was telling Don about one or other underground mine visit and he said, Pixie you have to write a book. Well, you could say that comment stuck and when I finally stopped full-time work in Johannesburg I sat down to see what I could do.
In a sense Nkuti Mine is a character in its own right in the story—perhaps the central character. Did you set out to tell the story of the mine and then build the thriller around it or did it happen the other way about?
I am definitely what is called a ‘pantser’ when it comes to writing. That is to say, I write as I go along, by the seat of my pants! I actually started the book originally as a story about one young man working in a deep rock mine. That turned out to be the book’s character Bombi. It was only once I had written the whole underground rock fall, that the main story began to emerge. But by then I had developed the mine of Nkuti, and in my own mind I knew the whole layout of the mine, who was where and what they all did.
It was probably all a bit boring until a wonderful professional reader said to me that I had a great background, and a superb mine, but what about a story? That prompted me to do a major revise, moving the original near-ending to the beginning and so on and voila, suddenly it all came together and only then did the thriller aspect get properly introduced, begin to flesh out and grow.
At one level the book takes place over just a few hours during and after a violent rock burst—the cry of the rocks—chillingly portrayed. The story is built by interweaving scenes of what happened before that led to the crisis. What persuaded you to structure the book that way?
Again, I think it grew that way more or less of its own accord. Interestingly it was written long before the massacre at Marikana, at the South African platinum mines but there had been a simmering unrest going on at our mines for a long time. The scene, for example, of the fight at the long service awards was purely fictional but it did reflect the kind of tensions I was well aware of. With so many men from so many diverse backgrounds working together and often forced to live in hostels it was inevitable that tensions would arise. The only way I could see to portray some of these tensions and what lay behind them was to intersperse the story with background pieces. Typical of these was the description of the kitchens too, which are true to my experience of many different mine kitchens. Somehow one simply had to weave that in and still keep up to speed with the emerging main story.
There are many thriller plots based on manipulating commodity prices in order to make big windfall profits, but none in quite this way as far as I recall. What gave you the idea?
The global commodity market has been volatile for a long time and one cannot help but wonder sometimes if there are not artificial forces behind some of the wild swings. I guess it was simply my imagination running along those lines and it grew around Thandi. There had to be a real reason for her kidnapping though it eventually became bigger than that on its own.
CRY OF THE ROCKS has been optioned for a movie. Tell us about that.
Yes, that is an exciting development. Well-known South African TV and movie director/producer Gray Hofmeyr (seven Schuster movies, ISIDINGO, JOCK OF THE BUSHVELD, etc.) has taken the movie option. Gray has written a screen script and he says there are still several challenges ahead. He says the single biggest of these is to find backers. The movie is, he says, big budget and it cannot make a profit in South Africa so has to be made for an international market.
Do you have another thriller in the pipeline?
I have just completed another book in a totally different genre. It is a love story which I just wanted to write. Now that is behind me I am fiddling round the edges of a new thriller, this time based on a coal mine. Coal mines are magnificent, huge opencast areas and tremendous black cliffs. I’ll see what emerges.