An interview with Janet van Eeden Harrison about Payback and Killer Country
(This inter-review was first posted on Litnet)
Mike Nicol is making a name for himself as a serious crime fiction writer. His first two novels in a trilogy featuring Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso have been well received in South African literary circles. Reading these two novels, Payback and Killer Country, recently has ensured that I will be looking forward keenly to Nicol’s third.
Nicol has mastered the genre of so-called pulp fiction, ensuring that his protagonists are as hard-nosed, slick and street-smart as anything Raymond Chandler would have created. Nicol flexes his prosaic muscles, writing with unadorned skill about the situations Bishop and Buso find themselves in. In Payback they’re into the dark world of gun-running. In Killer Country they’ve changed course, trying to live a more sedate life by running their own security firm. But as any good crime novel will have it, things are never quite as simple as they seem. Straightforward jobs become immensely complicated with more twists and turns than a game of snakes and ladders, and the body count is inevitably high.
Nicol’s use of imagery is crisp and sharp throughout and he never uses words which would be out of place in the mouths of our most macho men. He does allow for some tenderness, however. Both his protagonists are married and find their families a respite from the brutality of their daily lives. This detail does up the ante, though, as both men have far more to lose when things go wrong. Which they do. With constant regularity.
Nicol has embraced the crime fiction world, yet made his characters’ scenarios as South African as a shebeen. We recognise the scenery as we are given street names and landmarks throughout. It’s reassuring, as always in South African fiction, to feel at home in the prose. What is unsettling, however, is that Nicol uncovers the Zeitgeist of current South Africa where exploitation is at the heart of many business deals and lives are as cheap as chips. This is a reality we have to acknowledge, however grudgingly, as our own, and no amount of denial will allow us to forget this in these novels.
Nicol’s stories are peopled with characters as dark and varied as those who make the news headlines daily, usually for the wrong reasons. Some stand out more than others: a calculating hit man with a penchant for country music; an arch orchestrator behind the scenes – a woman with a serious grudge – Shemeena February, and a judge whose body is as deformed as his morals. This is more Pulp Fiction, the movie, than sedate film noir. And even though the hit list is high, the ironic writing brings humour, especially when conversations slip so easily from blueberry muffins to the best ways to kill yourself.
One worry I have is that the hit man’s love of the film Thelma and Louise is not a prophecy of any sort, as I’m really looking forward to the next instalments of Buso and Bishop. Nicol has created page-turning reads. These are perfect books to take along with you for the holidays. And while you’re lounging on the beach reading these crime thrillers, always remember to watch your back. You never know who might be watching you.
Q&A with Mike Nicol
Mike, you have an illustrious career and are known as an editor, non-fiction author and journalist. Amongst others, you edited George Bizos’s autobiography and also co-wrote Nelson Mandela – The Authorised Portrait. Your crime writing has placed you in a whole new genre, one which you seem to relish. Payback is the first in a trilogy of stories which feature Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso. Killer Country is the second. You have obviously found a rich vein for your imagination. Could you please explain to the readers of LitNet how you came to write crime fiction? What was, as the scriptwriters would call it, the inciting incident which made you decide to write in this genre?
A number of inciting incidents, actually. Probably it started with a discussion on a staircase in Berlin in 1997, when a Swedish writer told me how he loved reading crime fiction, especially late at night. I didn’t know anyone who read crime fiction. At the time I regarded it as trash. He went down several notches in my estimation that afternoon. Some months later I needed to radically rethink my writing life and my partner Jill suggested I read some crime fiction. What! I said, climb down from my literary pedestal? Never. Have to admit, I weakened and read Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, then Sherlock Holmes and on into the Golden Age locked room mysteries and the adrenalin-pumping hardboiled works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. By the time I got to the contemporary US crime novelists (James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley) I felt I’d come home. I raised the Swedish writer by the necessary number of notches and now look fondly on that afternoon on the staircase.
On the other hand I suppose you could say I’ve long written a kind of crime novel. My first novel was about illegal diamond dealing, and the last of my non-genre novels was a sort of PI thriller. Then, given that the very first poem I ever wrote was about pirates, you could say I hadn’t strayed too far!
The other evening I watched an interview with Patrick Stewart who said, only half-jokingly, that his years of training as a Shakespearean actor were only in preparation for playing the most important role in his career: Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek. I agree with him. Having just written a corporate street theatre script to sell Dutch medicines, I drew on the same skills as I would have if I was writing a literary biographical tragedy. I enjoyed your style of writing in the Mace Bishop novels. Your style is spare and fast-paced, very similar to writing for film. There is no fluff or padding in the prose. The terminology is often colloquial too, and events and characters are drawn very much from the crime genre. Have you found you’ve needed skills other than those you would have required writing more serious fiction or even non-fiction?
When I started writing fiction the books were in the magic realist style of long sentences with clauses linked by conjunctions. This creates a certain rhythm which is definitely not the rhythm of pulp fiction. Pulp fiction is on the other end of the spectrum and I decided to use a style for the crime novels that was for the most part shorn of conjunctions, used adjectives sparingly, and definitely banned the adverb. Verbs and nouns are the essential arsenal of pulp. This makes writing the descriptive passages particularly challenging and it means you have to capture the atmosphere/setting as concisely as possible. There was another reason for my swing to a hardboiled style. Chandler observed that crime fiction was virtually a parody of itself. Hardboiled prose is about as tongue-in-cheek as it gets. It seems to me that the crime novel is taking the piss out of the author, the novel, and the reader. It’s a game. Unfortunately there are still some reviewers in South Africa who haven’t twigged to this yet and take the whole thing rather too seriously. This, of course, is another of crime fiction’s ambivalences: it confronts serious social issues but simultaneously says, don’t take me seriously. Glorious. But to your question of special skills: I think those were absorbed by reading widely in the genre. There can be no writing without reading.
Working in this genre requires you to access the darker side of yourself. I know that this can be quite cathartic as I’ve written a couple of very dark screenplays and plays too, one of which is almost as violent at the end as some of the events in your crime novels. What I’d like to know, however, is whether you worry about the fact that writing about easy killings and disdain for life, as your characters seem to display, may influence readers to be less respectful of life in some way. I must say that I find you are good about not salivating in the gore too much. I’ve read a few books that have written about horrific crimes gratuitously and I haven’t been comfortable with those. Your novels don’t seem to “get off” on the violence as some of the others do.
Ah, the violence question! Tricky one, this. Violence is part of the terrain, but how is it best used? I have to admit that I have no problem in writing violent scenes and I suspect this is because the concentration is on finding the right word and maintaining the rhythm of the prose. This probably buffers you from what you’re writing about. When it comes to reading violence in crime fiction I tend to skip the gore-fests. Recently I read Zulu by Caryl Ferey which is set in Cape Town. The violence is outrageously silly and I laughed out loud. Elsewhere in the world the book was taken seriously – it won a major award in France – and it seems the author meant it to be taken sincerely. But from a local point of view the violence was simply ridiculous. In fact the book was so mundane I didn’t finish it. I hope I’ve never indulged in this sort of gratuitous violence, and I do find that now that I’m four books into the genre the violence is less detailed. After all, it is such a minor part of the story, so when it is used it has to be for a purpose, otherwise there’s no impact. As for worrying about the “easy killings and disdain for life”, no, I don’t believe it influences readers in their attitudes. On the other hand, I find it disturbing that some humans can indulge in “easy killings” and this worldview feeds into the fiction.
You don’t judge your characters and their actions harshly, but somehow one gets the feeling that you are definitely on the side of your two main protagonists, Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso. They seem to have a moral centre of sorts even though both of them have committed heinous crimes in the past and also in the present. Do you ever feel the need to make a moral judgement on the actions of your characters?
One of the things that attracted me to crime fiction was the moral ambiguity it creates. There are no angels. These damaged crime-fighters are the best we can get and we throw in our lot with them even though we find them awful, not the sort of people we’d like to know. Crime fiction manipulates you in that way; you find yourself siding with the disreputable, and I love the irony of this. Take it further: I suspect most crime novelists believe in due process, yet how often don’t crime novels end in that murky region where moral justice triumphs. Why is that? Is it because we don’t see our justice systems delivering justice? Is it because we have an innate desire to have good stomp all over evil? A final word: I don’t want to cast a moral judgement on the characters and their actions: they do what they do and the story is what counts. I have no moral agenda. As for the readers, they can make the moral choices.
I’ve always enjoyed creating the “baddies” in my stories, sometimes even more so than the good guys. Do you have a particular fondness for anyone of your antagonists? Sheemina February is an arch-villainess, for example. Does she perhaps fall into this category, as you write her so compellingly? Do you have any other favourite characters you’ve written about?
Writing Sheemina February was about as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a character. There was a freedom about her – probably because she was a no holds barred character – a liberty which other characters don’t have. Other characters should have qualities with which the reader can empathise. Sheemina didn’t need any of that stuff. She could be in your face and to hell with it and you didn’t need to like her. All I required was that you shivered when she stepped on to the page. Baddies are always the characters one enjoys writing, although I have to admit there were two that I found slightly repulsive: Captain Nunes in The Powers that Be and Daupus in Horseman. Perhaps the context was different, whereas with Sheemina you are in the land of the magical genre and anything goes.
You co-wrote the authorised Mandela biography. Did you find any similarities between writing about a real character and writing about fictional ones? What I want to know, really, is can you find the arc of a story in a real person’s life and is that what you look for when tackling a biography?
The short answer is yes, you can tell real lives as stories with a narrative arc. And yes, there is a similarity in the way one constructs the story, whether fiction or non-fiction. But a cautionary: writing biographies has to be the most demanding of all the writing projects. I’ve now written two short biographies and I don’t see myself rushing to write another one, especially if the person is alive or recently deceased. At issue is the arc of the story. Narrative is one of our major tools for understanding the world. We constantly tell ourselves stories, and biographers go looking for the narrative in the lives they are writing about. Because of this, the narrative arc changes depending on who is looking at it.
The first biography I wrote was The Invisible Line: The Photography and Life of Ken Oosterbroek. Oosterbroek was a phenomenal news photographer, shot dead by friendly fire days before the 1994 election. I had access to his diaries, family, friends and colleagues, but the Oosterbroek I presented wasn’t one his colleagues recognised, so they condemned the book. Did I get it wrong? I don’t think so: that portrait was based on his own thoughts and a wide range of opinions. But it wasn’t the Oosterbroek his colleagues in the newsroom believed they knew. Then again, it would be possible for someone else to write a completely different life of Oosterbroek. The same with Mandela. When I wrote that biography it was 2005 and the accepted narrative was the one presented by the autobiography and Anthony Sampson’s authorised biography. My task was constricted by time – I had two months – and it had to be written from secondary sources. All you can do then is give a nuanced account and suggest there might be other interpretations. While people are alive, or while the memory is alive, there will always be a controversial response.
Your crime fiction has very complex plots. How do you go about your actual writing? Do you plot your story out beat by beat, as screenwriters are supposed to do? Or do you have a general idea of where you’re headed and aim for it in general while perhaps taking a few twists and turns you hadn’t expected along the way?
I’m the messy type: jump in with a general idea of where things should be heading – or where I’d like them to go – and then hope to hell the characters take charge. Time was I thought character and plot were quite separate literary devices. These days I reckon character is plot. However, one needs to do some plotting along the way as otherwise it becomes hell on wheels keeping track of what’s going on. I have a great fondness for complex plots, although there are definitely times when I think, “Why don’t you go with a simple cause and effect plot instead of these labyrinths?” Suppose in the end it’s got to do with keeping oneself amused.
How restrictive is genre writing? Do you ever wish you could break out of it in the middle of the novel, or do you always have to respect the conventions of crime fiction at all times?
Conventions are wonderful things, which is why I was so often attracted to writing sonnets. I mean, you can abide by the rules or you can bend them, even break them occasionally. But you have to understand that readers like crime fiction because of the conventions, and if one is attentive to their demands then you don’t stray too far over the borders. However, if in the middle of a novel I found it was demanding an approach that was not part of the genre, I wouldn’t force it back, I’d go where it led.
Do you have more than enough material for your third novel in the trilogy or are you feeling as if you’ve almost exhausted your characters? Do you think you’ll continue past the trilogy and make Mace and Pylon as familiar to crime readers as Philip Marlowe?
Oh yes, there was more than enough material. Thing is that I never meant to write a trilogy when I started out with Payback. But at the end of that book, when Sheemina February walked off into the rain, I thought, ah, she wants me to follow. So Killer Country came about and at the end of that matters between her and Mace were still unresolved. I rubbed my hands together thinking: quartet. But that would have been pushing it. Also my own reading of series characters is that I can only live with them for three or four books. After that they become more of the same. Now I know that this is what crime readers want, so I suppose I’m not a fully signed-up reader in that sense. I mean how many times can you read a Jack Reacher novel? Twice, in my case. But that’s a rather long answer to saying that a trilogy it is. I have a feeling that Conan Doyle also only went three novels with Sherlock Holmes, although Holmes appeared in lots of short stories.
Crime fiction has really taken off in South Africa, as is evidenced by your success with your website Crime Beat (http://crimebeat.bookslive.co.za) and also the wealth of crime writers in this country. Your own novels are sold in other countries now too. Could you tell the readers of LitNet how your novels have been received and what it feels like to be appreciated outside of your country?
Quite honestly it’s a bit too early to give you a decent answer. Payback was one of 12 books chosen for the Waterstones Fresh Blood crime fiction promotion during the summer in the UK, which I suppose says something. Where the books have been reviewed on blogs they have, happily, been well received. But nothing like the response I’ve had from reviewers in this country. I couldn’t have asked for better readings here of both Payback and Killer Country.
I loved the line “You want to kill anybody, you take them to South Africa. Bam. Sounds like it’s part of the background noise.” It is true, unfortunately. Do you think crime fiction is so popular in this country because we survive in a continual state of fear of the possible violence which could befall us as individuals and which often does?
I’m not sure that crime fiction is as popular among South African readers as I’d like it to be. Certainly the English-speaking crime novelists don’t sell in anywhere near the numbers the Afrikaans crime writers do – with the exception of Deon Meyer, who sells well in English too. You could put this down to cultural cringe, sheer indifference, or a narrow perspective on our society. Some have said why should they read local crime fiction when they’re faced with real crime daily. I try to explain that crime fiction is fantasy, that it’s got nothing to do with our crime situation. But for many it is easier to read about the horrors of Michael Connelly’s LA simply because LA is far away. Then again, I think that book fairs, and people like Jenny Crwys-Williams of 702 who have provided public platforms, have helped us find a readership. Quite simply, if you are entertaining and amusing, people will buy your books. Next weekend (November 27th and 28th) we hold the first ever crime fiction fest in Johannesburg called CrimeWrite. I’m intrigued to see the public response – it will be some indication of how we’re being received.
You must hate this question, but have you started work on the third of the trilogy yet? If so can you give us a brief glimpse into what we can expect from Mace, Pylon and Sheemina in the next instalment?
Actually the third book, Black Heart, was finished in January and will be published next March/April 2011. Brief glimpse? Well, now that would be telling, wouldn’t it!
Lastly, the money question! Does crime (writing) pay?
The short sharp response is no. But I live in hope. Some friends, colleagues, one reviewer (all, interestingly, academics) believe I’m rolling in it. I wish that were true. I keep asking the gods to test me with loadsa money. Deaf ears on Parnassus.