Africa Scene: An Interview with Deon Meyer by Michael Sears
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.
Tyrone Kleinbooi also is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a sympathetic character—he has “business ethics” and supports his sister at University—yet he is a pickpocket preying on the tourists of Cape Town. How did you develop him and make him—almost—the hero of the story?
Tyrone just sort of happened in the writing process. I knew from the outset that he had to be likeable, because I was hoping that the reader would invest in his very perilous journey. So his reason for stealing had to be ‘noble,’ at least. But he became a real personality, and a hell of a lot of fun to work with.
That does not always happen, so I really enjoy it when it does.
It’s another tough one for Benny Griessel! Things are going too well on the domestic front. Despite being respected, he feels he doesn’t quite fit in with the Hawks team. And the temptation to wash away his problems with alcohol is always near the surface. Yet at the end he seems to have found some resolution. What’s ahead for Benny?
I’m about two-thirds through a new Benny novel, and he is really up against it. The incident in which a colleague died towards the end of COBRA, is haunting him. The big question is: Is he going to hit the bottle again to cope?
Mbali has grown in this book. She still has a rigid approach to life, but we see that it’s the backbone of her character. She’s the one who draws the line at convenient compromise when it threatens what is right. She wants to be Commissioner one day. Can you see her making it?
Who is going to stop her? Mbali is a force of nature, very determined, and very capable. If she plays her political cards right, there is every chance …
You are involved in a variety of activities these days—directing and producing movies as well as writing scripts and novels. How do you balance these, and is writing still at the core of your artistic expression?
Writing (novels) is still very much at the core of everything. Making movies is a wonderful, fun activity (and it gets me to work with other people, as opposed to the lonely job of writing), but it will always be secondary activity.
What’s the next project?
I’ve written a new screenplay earlier this year. It’s called, The Scorpion Next Door, about a nine-year old boy befriending the very dangerous hit man who is hiding out in the house next door. We hope to turn that into a film in 2015.
But at the moment, it’s all Benny Griessel’s new novel, ICARUS.
Celebrated as the “King of South African crime,” Deon Meyer is a world-class writer whose page-turning thrillers probe the social and racial complexities of his native country. In Cobra, a famous English mathematician is kidnapped and his two bodyguards are killed at a guest house in the beautiful wine country outside Cape Town. It’s clearly a professional hit, and the spent shell cases offer a chilling clue: Each is engraved with the head of a spitting cobra.
To learn more about Dean, please visit his website.
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