Friday 21 October 2011

Is writing a thrilling option?

Deon Meyer, Novel Books, Bryanston, Johannesburg, October 2011

According to Deon Meyer, speaking to the largely female fan-club of crime fiction at Novel Books in Bryanston, Johannesburg, writing is more perspiration than inspiration. All this stuff about waiting for one’s muse is nonsense. Writing is hard work; a laborious task that forces him to struggle with every word to find exactly the right one. The first quarter of the book takes him half the time of the total. This is because each book is a uniquely lived experience and this uniqueness has to be developed at the start.

He starts his day at 7am and likes to work in a confined, dark space, so he always chooses the smallest room in the house for his workspace. There must be no distractions; no music, no telephone, no visitors. It takes him at least half an hour to get into the mind-space of his fictional world before he can put pen to paper. If there is a distraction, it will take an extra half hour.

Story ideas come from the writing process itself, from reading widely and from aspects of life that fascinate him. In Thirteen Hours, the book that won the 2011 Barry Award for best thriller in the USA and was short-listed for the 2011 CWA Dagger Award in the UK, he developed an awareness of how important the role of time was in creating suspense and so he decided to experiment in how few hours one could compress a whole novel.

Meyer doesn’t believe he fits any specific categorisation within the crime genre, as his books are part mystery, part detection and part thriller. For him, the traditional novel structure is very rigid and follows that of the Greek dramatic structure written in three acts: the introduction, the development of the characters and the resolution. But the crime novel is one big second act. You start with the action, move to the climax and end with a short resolution; hopefully leaving your reader wanting more in terms of character. Aware of the dictatorship of this structure, he continually wants to challenge himself, to grow as an author and to bend the rules.

In his latest novel, Trackers, he decided to write three different stories as though they were three completely different books and then bring the whole together in some kind of resolution. The first story idea was suggested by his brother, a director of the big Transport Company called Golden Arrow in Cape Town, who mentioned the new technology he had installed on all of his trucks; a mirror which tracks the progress of his trucks and saves an image whenever the truck accelerates too quickly. Hundreds of separate images are collected and sent off for collation. The next morning they are delivered back to him in a format that he can scrutinise. It has saved him millions in identifying staff training needs and in resolving cases of road traffic disputes. In this scenario, Meyer perceived an interesting source of conflict which he says is the mother of suspense; so he is always on the lookout for sources of conflict everywhere he goes and in everything he reads.

The idea for the second story came to him when he moved from the cosmopolitan and culturally-aware Melkbosstrand on the Cape West Coast to the more conservative Afrikaans suburb of Durbanville.  His workspace happens to overlook the outside yard of the grand house of a typical Afrikaans family; a successful businessman, his very attractive wife and the obligatory two and a half kids. He began to wonder whether the attractive housewife might be thinking of escape – of leaving tracks - and what would happen if she followed her dream. The third story was suggested by his reading about the black rhino that are hunted for their horns and wondering why their horns are so valuable. He found he couldn’t decide which story he wanted to write so decided to write all three as one book.

When working as a journalist, Meyer learnt how to do research and to make useful contacts. He has developed close relationships with individuals within the police force to help with his research and they read the manuscripts for accuracy before he sends it to the publishers. A motorcycle enthusiast, he rides around the country picking up interesting facts and other useful research material. One has to shut oneself away during the writing process but at every other opportunity one needs to be open to and relating to as many people and as many experiences as possible. Sometimes he gets so fascinated by his research that it is tempting to put too much of this absorbing detail in and then he has to cut it back and only put in what actually moves the story along.

Ideas for his characters may come from people he meets or sees, but on the whole he spends a lot of time creating them, imagining a back story for them so that he can feel how they will react in different circumstances. The more time he spends with them the more real they become and sometimes he is even surprised by how they react. Writing a book takes about 12 to 18 months and during that time the fictional characters are more real to him than the real world. He chooses names for his characters from a telephone book. It is important to him that the name is right as he has to get to know this character. He always chooses the surname first and one of his foibles is that the bad person should have a name starting with the letter ‘B’.

Meyer speaks fluent English but is in fact an Afrikaans speaker. He writes in Afrikaans and has a translator for the English version. In fact his books have been translated into 29 other languages around the world. He says the subtleties of words are too important to him and he feels more intimate with his mother tongue. When he speaks English, he has to think too much about it because he has to translate it first.

Writing is fun but to do it well is hard work. For Meyer, reading as many books in the genre you want to write in is essential. Ed McBain, Robert Harris and Ian Rankin are a few of the many writers who have made an impression on him. His books and characters are based in South Africa, a country he still loves and will never consider living anywhere else.


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