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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Jassy Mackenzie and the braai factor

jassy mackenziestolen livesSince she hit the scene with her Glock blazing in 2008, Jassy Mackenzie has been a book-a-year gal beginning with her first Jade de Jong outing, Random Violence, then the stand-alone My Brother’s Keeper last year, and now number two in the Jade saga, Stolen Lives. Her readership grows ever larger locally and she’s also cracked the US and German scene. In fact later this month she’ll be Stateside for the Bouchercon crime fest and then doing a book tour with the new star in the Irish crime firmament, Stuart Neville. But before that she needed a grilling at home. So here it is. Interesting factoid: the grilling of bodies features in both Jassy’s novel and Roger Smith’s Wake Up Dead. Maybe it had something to do with national braai day last month.

Crime Beat: So here we go, the return of Jade de Jong. But a little birdie told me that wasn’t your original intention. The little birdie – over a green slushy thing at a Mugg & Bean – also told me a delightful story about how Jade came rushing back. Do tell. Again.

Jassy Mackenzie: Well, OK, then – I’ll have to make a written confession now, I suppose. I wasn’t intending to write another Jade book. In fact, I was halfway through a novel featuring an entirely new and different cast of characters, when my publisher phoned and told me Soho Press in the USA had made an offer on Random Violence, and that they would like to make it a two-book deal if I had a Jade de Jong sequel in the pipeline. So of course I did what any ambitious writer would do in the circumstances – I told a whopping great lie and said yes, I was halfway through the sequel. I managed to bash out the first three chapters and the synopsis in record time, sent it off, and to my relief, they accepted it.

Crime Beat: Great anecdote, but that aside Stolen Lives is quintessentially a Jade de Jong story. It’s hard to imagine it was written for another character. And there’s the ongoing drama of the David Patel saga, her cop ‘lover’ from Random Violence.

Jassy Mackenzie: And it really is a saga, isn’t it? I had no idea when I dreamed those two characters up, that they would end up having so many difficulties romance-wise.

Crime Beat: Are they ever going to get it together? Or would that be revealing too much?

Jassy Mackenzie: All I can say is that in the next book, The Fallen, there are even bigger and more serious problems coming their way. These cause what is potentially a permanent rift, and I plan to explore this further in the following books.

Crime Beat: Jade and Margie Orford’s Dr Clare Hart have little in common except their weird relationships with the cop in their lives. Interesting that you should both have gone in this direction, strong women, indecisive men, and then, of course, the racial thing. What attracted you here?

Jassy Mackenzie: I think it’s unfair to label David that way. He used to be indecisive, but now he’s not so sure.

Crime Beat: Er!

Jassy Mackenzie: As far as the racial element goes, I wanted David to have certain elements in common with Jade, one of which was that he was an outsider who didn’t fit in with society’s norms. By making David half-Indian, I was able to achieve this and also to add some racial variety to my cast of characters.

Crime Beat: Margie Orford has said that one of the problems with having a woman as a lead character is the action angle. So she ups Clare’s mental acuity to compensate. Jade, on the other hand, is both a smart cookie and a killer. We learn more of her antecedent in this regard in Stolen Lives, but let’s put that aside for the moment. Let’s say that when Jade whacks someone she doesn’t let any squeamishness deter a good killshot. She’s reliable that way.

my brother's keeperJassy Mackenzie: I don’t think there’s any difference between men and women when it comes to having the killer instinct – it’s just a question of whether your nature, background and circumstances allow you to express it. Women might have a disadvantage in terms of raw physical strength compared to men, but they can engage in many other forms of weapon combat at the same level.

I think part of my belief comes from the fact that I’m from a family of five girls – my parents didn’t do boys. We grew up believing we could do whatever we wanted to do, and I think part of the reason was that we were never compared to boys in terms of “your brother can do that and you can’t.”

I was also lucky enough to watch a wonderful two-part documentary on female assassins a while ago, which definitely helped to inspire me. It was the Kill Bill series, filmed by Quentin Tarantino. (It was a documentary, wasn’t it?)

Crime Beat: Accessories mean a lot in crime novels. So Jade’s choice of firepower is significant. Why a Glock?

Jassy Mackenzie: When I was doing my gun research, I liked the fact that the Glock 19 was a gun that would fit easily into a woman’s hand and allow her to carry concealed. So for reasons of convenience and stealth, Jade became a Glock lady.

Crime Beat: You’ve upped the white-knuckle barometer considerably from the get-go with Stolen Lives: a police raid, an abduction, and a car chase with bullets. All that before the reader’s fifty pages in. Clearly this was a deliberate strategy: pin the reader to the page. You’ve previously gone for the high pulse rate opening but here you really piled it on.

Jassy Mackenzie: I love reading books that get into the white-knuckled action from the word go, so I set myself the challenge of writing one. I soon found that it was much more difficult than it looked. Writing convincing action scenes – and slotting them into a compelling plotline – takes a lot of mental energy. I went through kilograms of chocolate and crates of biscuits while writing that book. My poor overworked brain kept begging for more carbs.

Crime Beat: Nor does it let up much. In fact you’ve got a story that writhes like a tormented puff adder. I know many of these twists came about in the writing, but how much was plotted?

Jassy Mackenzie: I had to give the agents a synopsis of this book (yes, the one that was supposedly half-written already) so some of the twists were set down in this outline but to be honest, the outline didn’t bear much resemblance to the end result at all. The characters – especially Xavier – defied my original plans for them. They developed their own personalities which grew stronger with every rewrite I did, and to a large extent, these changes dictated many of the plot twists. This was the most-rewritten book I’ve done so far and as a result, it was also the one I’ve had most misgivings about – I had no idea if readers would like it or not.

Crime Beat: I’ll go further, Stolen Lives has the bite of a tormented puff adder. The reader has to confront some nasty stuff, some gruesomely tortured characters, some scenes where interesting things are done with knives… In fact you’ve ventured some distance into the dark heart with this book. Obviously the subject matter dictated the terrain but there’s also the feeling that you’re testing boundaries.

Jassy Mackenzie: Human trafficking is a dark subject and it’s not one that I felt I could gloss over – not if I wanted to write with integrity. The truth is that the sex industry, with all its glamour and girls and fast money, attracts some very nasty, evil and violent characters. If you think I’m exaggerating, just ask Lolly Jackson. [The owner of a strip joint chain shot dead some months ago.]

As far as testing boundaries goes, to use a chilli metaphor, I didn’t want to make Stolen Lives a blander read than Random Violence. A reader who enjoys Random Violence and goes out to buy the sequel will do so because they like the recipe I created, and are comfortable with the amount of “burn” in the first book. So I aimed to give Stolen Lives the same heat factor. I might have ended up putting in an extra pinch of curry powder for luck, but no more than that.

Crime Beat: Just to stay on the violence issue for a moment. There is, as there should be, a fair amount of violence throughout the book. Violence goes with the territory. But there’s been some debate recently about how far a writer should go. John Connolly, for instance, feels if he were writing his first books now, he might calm them down a bit. There are many who feel that Karin Slaughter does the gruesome stuff for kicks. Roger Smith says if it’s realistic it’s okay, if it’s titillating it’s not. What’s your position here?

Jassy Mackenzie: My position is that absolutely no harm will ever come to animals or children in any of my books. As far as levels of violence and gore go, I use the Lee Child yardstick. For me, the amount of the rough stuff in his books is perfect. It leaves me wide-eyed and makes me shiver when I read it. It paints a dramatic picture but doesn’t sicken me to the extent I wouldn’t want to pick up the book again. So that’s the level I’m comfortable with as a reader, and also as a writer.

Crime Beat: Human trafficking is a major subject. As it happens also the subject of Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours. Must be the zeitgeist at work. What was it led you here?

Jassy Mackenzie: The Fifa World Cup. I was looking for a high-concept, topical theme, and the amount of publicity on human trafficking got me interested in the subject. With any major sporting event, there is a massive increase in human trafficking, which is why it’s been so much in the news here recently.

Crime Beat: Because human trafficking is such an international issue, Stolen Lives involves many countries. However, the one you really had to come to grips with was the UK and the workings of the British police. How did you undertake that research?

Jassy Mackenzie: After lots of back and forth and appointment-making, I travelled to the UK, where I interviewed three different Scotland Yard detectives. It was one of the most fascinating mornings I’ve ever spent – and one of the most expensive as well, because their police force charges a sizeable hourly rate for interviews in order to bring in extra income for the departments. I was glad to hear that the Human Trafficking branch was planning to use the money I paid them to buy two new GPS units for their vehicles.

Crime Beat: One of your secondary themes concerns the appalling state of the department of home affairs, the corruption, the inefficiency, but mostly the corruption that has made the South African passport an international document of trade. Crime fiction easily accommodates this sort of social criticism doesn’t it?

Jassy Mackenzie: I cannot even explain how irritated I am at having to get a visa whenever I travel to the UK. Steam comes out of my ears when I start thinking about it. It’s wonderful to be able to tackle topics like this in my writing, though. Even though David’s wife Naisha is one of the most annoying characters in the series and I really don’t like her very much, I pray every day that there really is somebody like her in Home Affairs, working tirelessly to get the department into shape and stamp out all the corruption and inefficiency.

Crime Beat: Jade’s backstory – about her mother, and the strange and sinister character Xavier who floats through the novel – is something you could have released the first time round, or at any time in the future, why did you feel it was right to tell it in Stolen Lives?

random violenceJassy Mackenzie: Random Violence introduced Jade as a character. Stolen Lives explores the first part of the backstory. But that is only the start of it. Jade has many more unwelcome discoveries ahead, and these will form a subplot which will weave its way through the subsequent novels.

Crime Beat: The problem with interviews like this is that the ending of a crime novel is often so significant, yet one can’t talk about it because that gives the game away. So let’s talk about your ending in abstract terms. In fact let’s talk about it in terms of My Brother’s Keeper. In that novel, what happens between the two brothers at the end restores the world to rights, in a sense. An evil has been eradicated. Much the same happened at the end of Random Violence. It is becoming a sort of Jassy Mackenzie trademark. Why’s that?

Jassy Mackenzie: I love ending thrillers that way. It’s very satisfying as a writer and I think it’s satisfying for a reader too. But I don’t think it will be possible for all my books to finish on this note – some will end up being darker or more ambiguous. At the end of The Fallen, I have a horrible feeling I’m going to have to kill off a character I really like and who plays a crucial role in the story, but I’ll see how it goes. Maybe I can just let them off with a nasty flesh wound…

Crime Beat: Finally, you’re off to the much talked about Bouchercon crime thriller convention (14 – 17 October) in California soon? What will you be doing there? Apart from chilling and hanging out with the heavy names?

Jassy Mackenzie: I am on a panel entitled Flags of Terror, which is moderated by Peter Rozovsky who writes the phenomenal crime fiction blog Detectives without Borders. The panel also features Stuart Neville, James Benn, Cara Black, Lisa Brackmann and Henry Chang. So – a real international flavour in keeping with its title. Then after Bouchercon, I’m going on a mini author tour with Stuart Neville. We’ll be doing talks and signings at two specialist mystery bookshops in Houston and Phoenix.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    October 5th, 2010 @12:38 #

    That braai scene in Stolen Lives was pretty damn hectic. But in a necessary-to-the-horror-of-the-plot way rather than gratuitous-gore-porn way, which I appreciate.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 5th, 2010 @21:58 #

    "My position is that absolutely no harm will ever come to animals or children in any of my books." I *heart* Jassy.


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