February 15, 2010
JC: Roger Smith has been a friend here at Three Guys One Book, ever since our conversation about his debut thriller Mixed Blood in October 2008. That book’s seen great success, with its brutal action and dynamic revelation of Cape Town’s dichotomy leading to rave reviews and film preproduction. He’s recently followed that up with a new novel, Wake Up Dead, another explosive thriller set among Cape Town’s picturesque vistas and horrific underworld. He took the time to answer a few questions from DH and me.
DH: Roger, I’ve read two of your noirs, Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead that take place in Cape Town. I have to wonder how close the Cape Town in your thrillers is to the Cape Town that I can locate on a map. If you would, please take a paragraph to describe Cape Town, both as it appears to the visitor and how it appears in your novels.
RS: I believe my books describe Cape Town very accurately. All of Cape Town. When I moved down to the coast from Johannesburg in the mid-90s, I thought (like many do) that Cape Town was a beautiful ocean city with a spectacular mountain growing out its middle, surrounded by pristine beaches and historic wine farms.
For a while I wafted around in this bubble of privilege, and hung out at restaurants like the one in the opening pages of Wake Up Dead – the kind of overpriced beachfront eatery where the likes of Angelina Jolie and Madonna rest up between shopping for brown babies.
Then I fell in love with a woman who grew up on the Cape Flats, the sprawling mixed-race ghetto that is home to more than two-thirds of Cape Town’s population, and the stories she told me and the people she introduced me to changed my vision of Cape Town forever.
The Flats – the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard – is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside of a war zone. Forty years ago, the apartheid government dumped anybody who wasn’t white out in this windswept maze of shacks and matchbox houses. Ruled by drug lords and gangsters, the Flats has the highest rape and homicide statistics in the world, and children are violated and murdered at a rate that defies belief.
Welcome to Cape Town.
JC: A few weeks ago, you participated in our “When We Fell In Love” series here on 3G1B. In that piece you noted Elmore Leonard and the Stark-Parker novels as influences. Both are pretty evident in your writing. Could you tell us some more about these influences and how they are reflected in your first two novels.
RS: I started reading Stark and Leonard as a teenager, and I loved how vivid their writing is – how economical and disciplined. No flab, no navel gazing, no room for lengthy descriptions of the landscape – inner or outer. Their characters are defined by what they do and what they say. I liked that.
When I first read Stark I was blown away by his amoral universe. His is not a neat world of good and bad, with good triumphing over evil. Everybody is tainted and corrupt, to a degree. Bear in mind that I was reading this stuff while growing up in apartheid South Africa, about as morally reprehensible an environment as Hitler’s Germany. So Stark’s dystopian vision struck a chord.
Elmore Leonard’s work, especially post-Get Shorty, has become lighter, more humorous, less violent. But his early work was gritty and dark. What I’ve always admired about Leonard is how effortlessly he weaves together his ensemble casts, moving from one point of view to another. And he doesn’t write mysteries: the reader is always a couple of steps ahead of the characters, riding shotgun with the flawed heroes and villains alike. He generates great suspense through the anticipation of what will happen when these messed-up people collide.
So, I’m very flattered echoes of Stark and Leonard have been found in Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead, but there was never any conscious decision to emulate them. I try to write what I like to read: fast-moving, multi-character stories without too much padding. I get very bored with those flabby, overlong, crime novels that bog down in endless interior monologue, or torment you with details of a character’s taste in wine, coffee or music. Almost as if the authors are ashamed of writing genre fiction, and feel that by fluffing up their manuscripts, they’re making them more “literary.”
JC: And Rudi Barnard, Mixed Blood‘s villian is as over-the-top ruthless as any rogue cop from the Ellroy catalog.
RS: Yeah, Rudi is a piece of work. And, like most of James Ellroy’s brutal creations, he is ripped from the pages of history. Barnard is a composite of a number of thugs from South Africa’s past, some of whom I have met. In the 80s – during the darkest days of apartheid – a group of South African cops, chosen for their brutality, were seconded to a hit squad responsible for assassinating political activists. The hit squad members, mostly white Afrikaners who are now middle-aged, were nothing less than state-sanctioned psychopaths, given complete license to do their worst. These men, often devout Calvinist Christians, justified their actions as the work of God – as fanatics often do.
So Rudi Barnard is fiction, but based on fact.
DH: Early in Wake Up Dead, Roxy Palmer makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to commit a capital crime. There is a wonderful sense that this crime creates the novel. Roxy takes advantage of a sudden “foolproof” opportunity to get rid of someone. It’s as if this were purely a practical matter, like taking out the trash.
When Roxy tries to escape her problems by committing this act is she making a moral mistake… or is it just a mistake in tactics?
RS: For Roxy Palmer, Wake Up Dead’s American anti-heroine, getting carjacked at gunpoint by two meth-heads from the Cape Flats, is just another in a series of life-changing accidents. The ’jacking leaves her South African gunrunner husband, Joe, lying bleeding on the street as the gangsters, Disco and Godwynn, scream away in his convertible, and offers Roxy an opportunity.
Ex-model Roxy’s good looks and street smarts catapulted her from a Florida trailer park – living with an alcoholic mother and a succession of “daddies”, the last of whom was an amateur photographer who took her picture and her cherry by the time she was fourteen – to the runways of Paris and Rome, and then to Cape Town where she married South African Joe for his money.
So, Roxy grabs the opportunity and does a bad, bad thing, setting off a chain of events that leaves her fighting for her life. There’s nothing calculated or premeditated about what she does. She acts on impulse, like she always has.
Because this is South Africa, a country more violent than Iraq, and Roxy is protected by her skin-color, beauty and status, it seems at first that she’ll get away with what she has done – that the law won’t touch her. But Roxy loses what innocence she has left, and – the laws of karma being immutable (at least in this book!) – she has to pay for what she’s done.
JC: To follow up on Dennis’ question – your characters don’t really live in a moral universe, do they? They may follow a sort of code – prison code, honor among thieves, do what you have to do, etc, but they are typically amoral. Or is that just semantical? Doesn’t any moral judgement in your books comes from outside – the writer and the reader – justifiably horrified at the casual violence of the Flats and beyond?
RS: In Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead – which are linked by theme and geography even though they are stand-alone thrillers – I was interested in the contrast between plush Cape Town and the Cape Flats, and portraying what I believe to be the reality of many people’s lives, without sentimentalizing that reality, even if it’s uncomfortable.
I’m not really drawn to squeaky-clean middle-class characters, or quaint and colorful working-class stereotypes. I like to write people who are up against it, out on the fringes of society. In both books, I purposely created a cast of characters who are nearly all compromised. This to me is more interesting. And more realistic.
I agree that most my of characters are amoral – reflections of a corrupt and amoral society – but I would argue that my books are very moral. Not that I have some omniscient authorial voice lecturing the reader on good and evil – I avoid that like the plague – but justice is seen to be done: street justice, karmic payback, whatever. The very bad guys meet very bad ends. And the not-so-good-guys take their knocks too. Nobody is left unscathed.
DH: There’s an interesting argument about capital punishment in your book and it’s paradigm is the jailbird Piper. He murders for reputation, for the exalted status that knocking off people is going to give him with his devoted gang members. Since he will never be executed for committing murder, all prison amounts to is home base. When he escapes, he goes on a rampage; not caring about getting caught because he is going to be awarded more status with his peers back in prison. Are you suggesting that this is a case of civil compassion gone haywire? That forbidding capital punishment is a license to murder?
RS: I don’t support capital punishment, and I’d never advocate bringing back the death penalty. Until the late 80s in South Africa, hundreds of people – mostly black and brown men – were put to death each year with a casualness that makes Texas look positively restrained.
But there are a lot of men in Cape Town’s prisons, like Wake Up Dead’s psychopathic Piper, who – crazy as it sounds – don’t want to be paroled. Prison is all they know, the place where they have power and status. To make sure they stay there, they commit crimes that ensure multiple life sentences, knowing that now that the death penalty has been scrapped, they will live happily ever after behind bars.
Just minutes outside Cape Town is the massive Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. Built to house 5000 men; home to double that. Mostly men from the Cape Flats. Doing research for Wake Up Dead, I met some of these men. They had a similar story to tell: under apartheid, going to prison was inevitable if you weren’t white. And in the racially segregated prisons they quickly found they had power over weaker brown men. They joined the prison gangs, wore the tattoos of rank, murdered fellow inmates as part of initiation rites. Found that they never wanted to leave this world of brutal discipline and unbreakable codes. Every time they came up for parole they committed another crime and had time added on to their sentences, and gained more power in the gangs.
Piper’s universe has shrunk, defined by the walls of the prison. Under apartheid he knew that parole would leave him a powerless brown man in a white man’s world. Now, years after apartheid has gone, he has been in prison too long to ever be able to return to the world outside.
DH: The relationship between the sadist convict, Piper, and his sometime fellow inmate and “wife”, Disco, is the sickest gay relationship, or just the sickest relationship, that I have ever encountered in a story. (And most readers of the Three Guys blog know I’m gay.) Maybe I should warn readers to wear gloves when they read Wake Up Dead.
But I wonder if you would tell me that I should stick to cozy mysteries about Botswanan lady detectives…that relationships as horrific as between Piper and Disco are common in prisons and so you are not exaggerating.
RS: DH, I’ll talk to my publisher about distributing latex gloves with the book. Not a bad gimmick!
The picture I paint of Pollsmoor Prison is no exaggeration. People like Piper exist. And youths who are sent to prison for the first time are easy meat. This is by no means unique to the South African prison system, but perhaps the level of violence is higher than in most countries.
The relationship between Piper and Disco is all about power and abuse. As a child on the Cape Flats, Piper was sexually abused, like many children are, and grew up to be an abuser, like many do. Disco, cursed with a beautiful face, is gang raped on his first night in prison, until Piper becomes his protector. Disco has to pay a price for the protection. Piper makes Disco his “wife” and rapes him for the duration of his sentence, and brands his body with crude tattoos, a sign of ownership.
When Disco comes up for parole Piper gets him to swear that he will commit a crime, deliberately get caught, and returned to prison. Disco has no intention of doing that, and lives in terror being sent back to Pollsmoor, into the arms of Piper. And Piper is so obsessed that he breaks out of prison to bring Disco back to Pollsmoor with him. On the outside he commits barbaric rapes and murders – forcing Disco to participate – knowing they will both be sent back to Pollsmoor Prison for life. Until death does them part.
JC: There are a lot of visual and cinematic elements in Wake Up Dead, like its predecessor. Can you talk a little about your screenwriting background and its influence on your fiction writing.
RS: Over the years I’ve written a lot of stuff for African TV: everything from sit-coms, to cop shows, to HIV/ Aids dramas. I have a stack of feature film screenplays (including a couple of thrillers) gathering dust, since getting movies financed in South Africa is pretty near impossible. Having directed and edited film and TV has also influenced how I write my novels. Directing obviously encourages an eye for the visual, and the process of editing movies isn’t that different from paring down a novel to its tightest and leanest form. “Cutting out all the bits the reader skips,” in the immortal words of Elmore Leonard.
A screenwriting background helps with plot, structure, pace – and dialogue, of course. It also encourages a certain leanness, stylistically. Having written scripts led naturally to a multi-POV structure, an ensemble cast, which is pretty much a screenplay norm. I can’t imagine ever writing in the first person.
When I write, I often find myself visualizing the scene through the lens of a camera. It seems quite natural to start in close-up on a face, a gun, a knife, and then – bang! – go wide almost like a jump-cut in a movie.
My writing isn’t particularly interior, I prefer my characters to be defined by action rather than introspection and reflection. The stories I tell – the lives of desperate people played out against a stark and brutal urban landscape – lend themselves to a more visceral, cinematic, approach.
JC: One last pair of questions: First, what’s the current status of the Mixed Blood film production?
RS: Mixed Blood is in development with GreeneStreet films in NYC. Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) is adapting, and Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Patriot Games, Salt) is on board to direct. Samuel L. Jackson loves the book, and has signed on to play Zulu investigator, Disaster Zondi. Shooting is scheduled for late 2010 in Cape Town.
JC: And what’s next for you?
RS: I completed my third book, Dust Devils, late last year. Again it’s a standalone thriller, but it reprises Mixed Blood’s Disaster Zondi, who returns to the rural village he fled as a youth, to rescue a teenage girl – who may or may not be his daughter – sold into marriage to a Zulu warlord.
Dust Devils is quite a change from the first two books, in that is opens in familiar territory with a hit in Cape Town, then becomes a bloody road trip across South Africa, ending in a Zulu tribal valley, where AIDS, savage feuds, and poverty have left the population decimated. It plays out against a background of political corruption and tribal customs in conflict with 21st century Africa.
JC: Thanks for your time, Roger.
RS: It has been a pleasure, guys.
Roger Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in Cape Town. Before turning to a life of crime, he was a screenwriter, producer and director. His debut thriller,Mixed Blood, was published in the U.S. and Germany in March 2009 and released in paperback by Picador Crime in December 2009. Mixed Blood won the Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Award) and was voted #1 crime novel of 2009 by the influential German KrimiWelt.
His second book, Wake Up Dead, is now available in the U.S. and Germany, and will also be published in the U.K., Japan, Italy and France.
Visit Roger’s website: http://www.rogersmithbooks.com/