Crime Beat: Wessel Ebersohn comes clean
Abigail Bukula and Yudel Gordon are back. Yudel Gordon’s been around since the late 1970s but Abigail Bukula only appeared on the scene last year in Wessel Ebersohn’s The October Killings. I’m pleased to tell you they have returned in Ebersohn’s new Those Who Love Night. As has become the way of things, I sat him down on the hard seat and put the interrogation lamp in his eyes:
Crime Beat: Well, this came as a surprise, although I am not sure exactly why. Perhaps I thought you were intricately tied into the South African scene. But leaving that aside, Those Who Love Night is set in Zimbabwe. Why did you decided to go outside our borders?
Wessel Ebersohn: I have been fascinated by Zimbabwe and its travails for a long time. A well-ordered society is better for its citizens in every way, but it is not very stimulating. I recently spent a few weeks in Europe. I found much there that is interesting and beautiful, but not much to get the pulse racing. The chaos that is Zimbabwe, borne out by our own visits to that country, is a naturally exciting background for a thriller, not always the easiest or safest place to research though.
Crime Beat: You visited the country? In what way was conducting research difficult?
Wessel Ebersohn: Writers trying to get the real picture of Zimbabwe are always tense while in that country. Shortly before one of our visits, while working on Those Who Love Night, a Johannesburg-based journalist had fled the country. She found it necessary to travel via Zambia to throw the dogs off the scent. You are always aware that you are in a dictatorship and doing things of which the government would not approve. Not only that, but you are aware that you could be drawing unwelcome attention to the people you meet. For instance, we visited friends whose offices the Zanu PF headquarters looks down on. Passing through seemingly endless farmlands that had once been worked by white farmers, but are now lying fallow, also does little for the state of mind. The road blocks too are reminder of where you are. We were shaken down for US$50 by the police at one of them, but that was something that might happen to any tourist. It had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with opportunism. I took no notes while in the country, relying instead on my memory, which for matters important to me is a good one.
Crime Beat: Zimbabwe is a society in collapse. It is ruled by a neurotic and paranoid despot and this has bred a violent and sinister element in his security services. This is the sort of background you favour in your novels, but I wonder if this is not also a cautionary tale for South Africa?
Wessel Ebersohn: It certainly is a cautionary tale for our country. One has to understand that the leadership of that country do not see their actions as unreasonable. No dictators do. According to the pronouncements of its propagators, the recent attempts to bring the press to heel in South Africa also seems entirely reasonable. What has to be appreciated is that any such step can take the one who makes the decision down a turning in the road that can lead to some altogether unexpected destination. It may also turn out to be almost irreversible, at least for the foreseeable future. When the person or group making such decisions is at the head of a nation the consequences may truly be vast.
Crime Beat: Just to return to the topic of the Ebersohn territory: an iron-fisted state and a citizenry struggling for their rights. Why is this one of your dominant themes?
Wessel Ebersohn: I am enthralled by the struggles that people have when they live under dictatorships. We live in a continent from which many middle-class people – of all races – have fled. I remember something Reverend Beyers Naude said to Miriam, my wife, while I was in hiding finishing Store Up The Anger. She was afraid of being picked up by the security police. He gave her excellent advice, then he said, “But it is exciting, isn’t it?”
Crime Beat: Intriguing. Can you elaborate here, a little? You were in hiding! Why?
Wessel Ebersohn: I was finishing the writing of Store Up the Anger. And we knew the security police were bugging our phone. When completed, the manuscript was smuggled out of the country to Victor Gollancz, my publishers at the time. So visiting Zimbabwe was quite like the old days.
Crime Beat: Your new character Abigail Bukula, who first appeared in The October Killings last year, is very much at centre stage this time round. I thought she and Yudel Gordon got equal play in The October Killings, but that’s not the case here. In fact it is forty pages before Yudel appears. Why did you decide to give her the main role?
Wessel Ebersohn: It’s just the way the story was given to me. I don’t think future thrillers will all be like that.
Crime Beat: Do you see a series developing with the two of them?
Wessel Ebersohn: I do. Yudel arrived a long time ago, but Abigail just ambushed me recently. I cannot desert her now. She would never forgive me. As for Yudel, he will die when I do.
Crime Beat: An interesting way to look at it. Abigail is very much a part of contemporary South Africa and their ‘partnership’ possibly reflective of an ideal state of being. Author and reviewer Louis Greenberg commenting (not altogether flippantly) on SA crime fiction recently noted that these partnerships – often private/public and often different race groups – are an unconscious attempt by crime novelists to show nation building. A sort of metaphor for the country’s transition. Would you go along with this, given that we also have the McClure duo Kramer/Zondi as a template?
Wessel Ebersohn: Mr Greenberg does not have it right in my case. I am not a writer who plans that sort of thing. My writing is essentially intuitive. Very little reasoning goes into it. I have the greatest difficulty in answering questions about why I did this or that in a novel. I usually do not know the answer.
Crime Beat: At the end of The October Killings, Abigail had stabilised her marriage. But here again she and her husband, Robert, are on rocky ground. It seems that both are to blame for the tension in their marriage, and both are prepared to think about straying, but don’t. These difficulties make for useful drama, but do you also mean something else by their emotional turmoil? Can we read it as reflecting a greater turmoil in society?
Wessel Ebersohn: No, I’m not that subtle. What you see is what you get. Don’t look for something deeper. It isn’t there. But, having said that, Abigail and Robert are both ambitious, strong-willed and passionate. They appreciate each other, but they are likely to bump heads often. Their careers may come into conflict and other problems may arise. Abigail is closer to being truly monogamous than Robert, but she too is not beyond being excited by another man.
Crime Beat: And in this instance a rather dangerous excitement, given the man she gets turned on by. This is a side to her personality we hadn’t seen in the earlier novel.
Wessel Ebersohn: She surprised me too. I also did not see her falling so hard for the wrong man. But perhaps I should not have been surprised. She is a passionate woman whose life is not likely to be governed by any man.
Crime Beat: Without giving too much away, there is a ‘soft’ ending as far as their relationship is concerned. Is this partly to meet the genre’s conventions, or because you feel they shouldn’t be allowed to part that easily?
Wessel Ebersohn: That’s the story so far. I have not received the rest yet, so I cannot say what lies ahead. I am currently working on the next in the series so we shall see.
Incidentally, this genre is not all there is in my life. I expect that my next novel to be published will not be a thriller.
Crime Beat: Ah, a betrayal of the faith…
Wessel Ebersohn: Well, I have in the past also written novels that were not thrillers. Store Up the Anger, that went into some eight translations, was not a thriller. Neither was Klara’s Visitors. Having said that, I love writing thrillers and I do believe that Those Who Love Night is my best yet. All those close to me who have read it agree. And I do think that Abigail’s unexpected passion and the added danger that results from it have added greatly to the story.
Crime Beat: Back to the Those Who Love Night, Yudel Gordon and his wife Rosa, on the other hand, have a very stable relationship. Yudel’s eyes might wander towards pretty women but he knows that Rosa is the mainstay of his life? Is this happy marriage a deliberate contrast to the mayhem that swirls through society?
Wessel Ebersohn: Yudel and Rosa have been married for a long time. They think of people who have been married for 20 years as newly weds. They have had their problems, most of them caused by Yudel. They may still have squabbles, but I believe that the big problems are passed.
Crime Beat: Let’s move to the story. It obviously has a grounding in real events – the massacres in Matabeleland after independence and the on-going instability these caused – but where does reality end and the fiction begin? Presumably with the personal ties between the sinister Chunga, Abigail and the imprisoned dissenter Tony Makumba.
Wessel Ebersohn: Those Who Love Night is a work of fiction. I hope the characters are as real to the readers as they are to me, but don’t go looking for them. They’re not in the telephone book. The dictatorship in Zimbabwe is a backdrop, but it is a detailed backdrop. If you go looking for the street names, Zanu PF’s headquarters, the road blocks, the dictator’s daily cavalcade, Chikurubi prison and much else, you will find those. But you won’t find McDooley’s Inn or the offices of Smythe, Patel and Associates.
Crime Beat: Yes, but I must press this point. How much of the backdrop’s detail fed into the fiction? Is the assassination of the lawyer based on an actual case, for example? Certainly the opening scene seems ‘true’. Although it has probably been repeated all over the world, throughout time. But the point I’m trying to get to, is the one where non-fiction ends having stimulated the imagination. Did you, for instance, have a newspaper article at your side, which gave an account of soldiers torching a village?
Wessel Ebersohn: No newspaper article, but over many years I have read extensively about the Gukurahundi massacres. The account is not based on a real event, but was inspired by many. The little village in which it takes place is also not based on a real village. It too is an amalgam of many that I have visited down the years. The kind of incident that is described is only a small sample of what the Ndebele people suffered at the hands of the regime in those years.
Crime Beat: Those Who Love Night is a strong critique of due process. Clearly the rule of law does not apply in dictatorships. Yet the charade is maintained, and gives you material for satire.
Wessel Ebersohn: The rule of law is not absolute anywhere. In dictatorships it only exists in minor matters. Even in democracies it is weighted heavily in favour of the rich and powerful.
Crime Beat: You have never been a great one at depicting violence. There are violent incidents in your books but they are handled fairly quickly. The reader gets the picture but there is no excessive detail. Was this a conscious decision to play down what for many crime novelists has become a necessary part of their fiction?
Wessel Ebersohn: I am not a lover of pornography. The pornography of violence sickens me still more. Most of my books have a powerful violent element, but that does not mean that I should revel in it. I did in one book long ago. I do not expect to be going there again. What other writers do is their business.
Crime Beat: Fair enough. But some would argue that the depiction of violence illustrates the horror of actual true violence. That what they are doing is presenting the truth as they perceive it?
Wessel Ebersohn: What they do is up to them. I do not think that I hide anything from my readers, but I don’t shower them in blood either.
Crime Beat: Finally, is the next in the series well advanced, or is that a question that shouldn’t be asked?
Wessel Ebersohn: The next novel, entitled The Classifier, is done and I am working on the next Yudel Gordon/Abigail Bukula thriller. I expect to have it completed before the middle of next year. The theme is a powerful one, but I would rather not expand on it now. The act of writing is, after all, a solitary activity.