Regular readers of this blog will know just how highly I rate Roger Smith’s excellent new novel Nowhere. It contains fantastic characters, a compelling plot, along with a detailed view of South African politics (old and new).
It’s available to pre-order at the moment but will be available to buy on 23rd February. I highly suggest you grab a copy. Otherwise you’re missing a treat.
Roger was kind enough to answer some questions about the new novel recently. He really gave me some very illuminating answers that should make folks want to read this superb novel
Nowhere is without a doubt the most political book of your career. And South Africa is such a prominent supporting character in the story. Was it your intention to bring more attention to the politics of your country with this novel?
The three books I wrote before Nowhere (Capture, Sacrifices and Man Down) were all pretty intense, almost claustrophobic, psychological thrillers. Since they were set in South Africa (although Man Down was also set partly in the US) the particular nature of South African society—which is a very politicized society—informed the books, of course. The decisions the characters made (and the crimes they were able to get away with) were a direct consequence of living in South Africa, but the unique political sensibility of the country was implicit in those quite contained stories rather than highlighted.
So, before I wrote Nowhere, before I had any idea what the book would be about, I felt the impulse to write something more expansive, something on a broader canvas, and something that would allow me to use all stuff crammed into my fifty-five-year-old South African head: memories, fears, anger, disillusionment—the fallout from growing up under apartheid, going through the giddy Mandela era and then witnessing the rise of the cynical, corrupt regime that is in power now.
I’d been obsessively reading Shelley’s Ozymandias, with its powerful image of a broken statue’s trunkless legs and head lying in the desert sand—a warning about the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build—and it struck me that all that remains of the Afrikaners’ forty-six year blight of apartheid (when they had felt so all-powerful) are some old statues of their forgotten leaders lying in sheds or standing in the dust in a couple of tragic little white homelands whose inhabitants still cling to the notion of Boer superiority, and it left me with the certainty that this new regime will come to dust, too, in time.
What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?
I was worried that it was too South African. That it would be incomprehensible—or, worse, boring—to foreign readers. I wrestled with that while I was writing it and then I thought, fuck it, just write the thing the way it wants to be written. I’ve been very encouraged by the early feedback on the book (including yours) from readers in the UK, Europe and North America.
There is one particular moment when Steve Bungu recalls a specific piece of torture to a loved one. Was this based on research?
Over the years I’ve known people who were tortured by the SA security police and I’ve also spoken to security policemen and I’ve heard stories that are hard to stomach and difficult to comprehend, so, yes, the stuff in Nowhere is rooted in fact.
Speaking of Bungu: In my own humble opinion, you write the best villains in crime fiction – how do you manage to create such vile, and yet three-dimensional antagonists?
Thanks, Martin, I appreciate that. Well, villains are always the most interesting characters to write, aren’t they? And the challenge is to give them dimension, to make them complex, to force the reader to identify with them to some degree, even if that’s uncomfortable.
The genesis of Bungu was quite interesting. Around thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I lived in Johannesburg and was involved in making anti-apartheid documentaries. This was a bad time: states of emergency, draconian media gags, troops in the townships, arrests, political murders. Nobody had any inkling that it would all be over in a few years. Anyway, I was put in touch with a Zulu poet who was quite a prominent figure in the Black Consciousness movement who had been detained and tortured by the security police in Durban and had escaped and was hiding out in a brothel in Hillbrow, a very rundown, dangerous part of Jo’burg.
I met the guy (I won’t mention his name as he was a lovely man, not at all like the monstrous Bungu) and we struck up an unlikely friendship. Here was this Black Consciousness (by definition anti-white) poet befriending a young white guy. The police had beaten him badly and all but destroyed his left knee. He’d been unable to get proper medical attention for fear of being apprehended and lived on painkillers and booze. The hookers cooked for him and cleaned his room and probably provided other services, gratis, to soothe him. He had no interest in discussing politics with me, he just wanted to drink Scotch and talk about books. He was going through a Beckett phase, I guess the absurdity of those plays struck a chord and informed his poems. We had wonderful, wild conversations. He was a very funny man. After a month or so he disappeared back to Durban and I never saw him again, but I never forgot him.
When I sat down to write Nowhere I was fascinated by the idea of a young man, a student who loved Beckett, who had the ambition to be a playwright (as Bungu did) whose life became overwhelmed by his battle against apartheid. Who, after a devastating period of torture and detention, went from being an idealistic pacifist to a stone killer.
Many of your novels involve messed-up family units – what makes this such a compelling theme for you as a writer?
What did Philip Larkin say? “They fuck you up your mum and dad . . . but they were fucked up in their turn.” I suppose I’m fascinated by the whole sins of the fathers thing. The karmic wheel creaking. And the messed-up family is just a metaphor for the broader messed-up society, isn’t it?
You’ve now written three novels that involve Disaster Zondi: do you have any further plans for the character?
You know, as much as I liked Zondi when I wrote Mixed Blood, I had no intention of writing him again. I resisted the idea of creating a series character, which can pigeon-hole a writer. When I was working on Dust Devils a couple of years later Zondi would wake me up at night (I’m serious, he would appear in my dreams and wake me) and insist I put him in the book. I did, and it worked. But when I was done with Dust Devils I was sure I was done with Disaster Zondi, too.
But, for a while, my French publisher, the irrepressible Robert Pépin, has been at me to write another book featuring Zondi. For whatever reason Zondi has quite a following in France. And when I started work on Nowhere I realized Zondi would be a perfect addition to the ensemble cast: an older, jaded, disillusioned Zondi, in the twilight of his career.
Will I write him again? No plans, but it’s not impossible . . .
What does your writing process involve (for instance, initial plotting, research, and then the actual mechanics of writing and redrafting)?
I start off with an image, usually quite random, that often becomes the opening of the book. With Nowhere it was the image of the president of South Africa murdering his wife with a spear in the dining room of his official Cape Town residence. I had no idea where this came from or what to do with it, but I wrote the scene and then Steve Bungu, fully formed, dressed in his check shorts and golf shirt, walked through the door of the dining room and I was off and running.
I don’t like to structure things too tightly, I find this stifling. It tends to encourage formulaic plotting. I like to give my characters their heads, let them surprise me. And new characters just appear as I write, which is great. Like the bushman cop, Jan Assegaai. Zondi walked into a rural police station and there Assegaai was, standing by the window that looked out onto the desert. I had no idea that he’d be there but I loved writing him. (Now there’s a character I could bring back . . .)
Research tends to happen as I write the first draft and it happens in response to what I’m writing.
I bang the first draft out as fast as I can, in around eight weeks. Then, when I understand what I’m writing about, I write draft after draft after draft, honing and refining, for another three to four months.
There has been talk of a film adaptation of Mixed Blood: any further news on that front?
Shit, it’s a slow process. It’s been going on for years, with different producers and screenwriters. Movies are tough. All that money, all that risk. If it happens it happens . . .
What novelists have most influenced your work?
In no particular order: Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Jim Harrison, Pete Dexter, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Graham Greene, Richard Ford, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Ross Thomas. Many, many more . . .
Are you currently working on any new writing projects?
I’ve just finished writing an international espionage novel under a pseudonym. I can’t really say more as publishing deals are still being inked, which is very exciting. But there’ll be more South African books, for sure
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
Turning on the computer each morning and typing that first word.
What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? Hobbies, interests etc.
I have a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, so I spend a lot of time in kidland, which is a sweet antidote to my work. I live by the ocean, so swimming and walking on the beach is fun. I read a lot. I do ashtanga yoga every morning before I write.
What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching? Do they influence your writing at all?
I love movies and TV right now is astonishingly good, isn’t it? Series like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were an inspiration. Vince Gilligan, who was the Breaking Bad showrunner and is now doing Better Call Saul, is a real innovator: the structure of his scripts—the way he messes with time—is fascinating.
I worked in movies and TV for years and people have said that my writing has a “cinematic quality” so there’s been some cross-pollination, clearly.
Nowhere can be bought here now and will be available for download on 23rd February