Crime Beat: A quiet chat with Deon Meyer
Over the last couple of years, Deon Meyer has brought out two novels each year: one in Afrikaans, and the previous year’s English translation. It now seems that Meyer has exhausted that serendipitous run and so 2013 will pass without a new Meyer. However, the man is hard at work on his next book, let alone trying new tricks, such as directing a movie from one of his own scripts. In October last year Meyer’s 7DAYS hit the book shelves with considerable fanfare at the launches and in the press reviews. 7DAYS; is a change from sprawling style of TRACKERS with its multiple narratives. With this novel Meyer returns to the hermetic world of the police procedural, and continues the saga of his much loved Benny Griessel.
Crime Beat: The police procedural is a fairly claustrophobic place: it’s about cops tracking down the baddy to minimise the mayhem. I seem to remember your saying that you found it quite a relief to get back to a closely focused narrative?
Ddeon Meyer: I absolutely did. The previous book (Trackers) was an experiment in structure, a deliberate mixture of genres, and a mammoth first draft manuscript of more than 650 pages. So to return to the safe haven and familiarity of the traditional crime novel was a real relief. And I did not find it claustrophobic at all.
Crime Beat: The subject in 7Days is more about an individual’s twisted logic than about any major social issues, although these are woven into the background themes. In fact it is the Hawks who really are the focus of this novel. You have great empathy with this branch of the police, although the book is also highly critical of some systemic problems in the police services. Obviously novels are dictated by their stories and their characters but was there any significance in your closer focus this time round?
Deon Meyer: It started off as a very practical issue – Benny Griessel had to move on from his ’13 Hours’ role as mentor to young detectives, and the obvious place for a man of his talents, is the Hawks. And after spending a number of days with the elite unit in Cape Town, I came away hugely impressed, and rather inspired.
The great thing was that the structure and modus operandi of the Hawks (very much in contrast with the Lone Ranger approach of Benny) gave me lots of interesting material, and new sources of conflict. And then, there’s the very advanced technology the Hawks use, which came in rather handy.
Crime Beat: Your character Benny Griessel has a large following and reviewers often mention his hesitancies in dealing with the opposite sex, his battle to stay off the bottle, let alone his dogged persistence as a cop and his rather shambling approach to his job. Shambling in the sense that he does his own thing in a sort of pig-headed, yet self-deprecating way. These are the characteristics that have endeared him to readers. But what does he feel like from the other side. When you’re writing him, is he there instantly? Does he influence your stories?
Deon Meyer: Of all my protagonists, Benny is perhaps the least complicated. And yes, after four novels featuring him, he is indeed there instantly. But as Benny gets older, as his issues, circumstances and children (not to mention the SAPS) change, he fortunately changes too. So I have to keep up, and find new understanding. And then he hasn’t lost the ability to surprise me either.
Crime Beat: Now let’s have a look at Captain Mbali Kaleni. She appeared as the rather too large cop with an eating disorder – more of that is revealed in 7Days – in Thirteen Hours. She had a fairly minor role in that book but a great presence and seemed ready for development. Like Griessel – who started out as a minor character – Kaleni is now centre page. You have a soft spot for your minor characters.
Deon Meyer: Like people, and George Orwell’s animals, all minor characters are equal, but some are more equal (and boring) than others. So not all have interested me enough to use them again. But Kaleni – and Benny, who started life as a minor too – just jumped off the page straight away. I have a real soft spot for her.
Crime Beat: Kaleni is a complex woman and although we don’t get much insight into her private life in 7Days, she is probably the only female cop in our crime fiction – certainly in English. And like Griessel she is driven to an almost perverse degree, which has much to do with her personality. In fact there’s a vulnerability there that suggests that without her cop work the meaning of her life would cease.
Deon Meyer: Absolutely. Although I think she could have chosen any vocation and made a success of it (she’s a smart, dedicated and very focused individual). But a cop is what she wants to be, how she wants to make a real difference. The problem is, the pure, by-the-book way she approaches her work is always in contrast with most of her more laid-back male colleagues. But Benny gets her. I think she’s the cop Benny would have wanted to be if it wasn’t for his drinking problem.
Crime Beat: Do you plan to return Kaleni in future?
Deon Meyer: She’s already in the new Afrikaans book I’m writing (provisionally titled ‘Kobra’). Making life hell for the men. And maybe finding a bit or romance?
Crime Beat: A question that’s not about crime at all but about music. There have been plenty of references to opera in your novels and to Afrikaans rock music (Thirteen Hours) and again in 7Days. In fact Benny plays a mean base guitar. What is this thing you have with music?
Deon Meyer: Like all (crime) authors, I’m a closet rocker … I love music. A lot. It is by far the most powerful art form, and because I really suck at making it, I want to write about it …
Crime Beat: What’s next? Are you hard at work?
Deon Meyer: We’re in post-production with a new movie called ‘Die Laaste Tango’, my first directorial experience (and it was fascinating and very rewarding). But I’m furiously writing the new novel, and after a slow 2012, which I really needed, I’m enjoying the writing very much, and having a lot of fun.