I just finished Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer. I'm putting it on my Top Ten for this year. I read it in just under Six Hours (I'm a slow reader), not the full "Thirteen", but I couldn't put this book down. Meyer is a master of pacing, and he kept me going wanting to know what happened to everyone in terms of their lives and characters. A+++ for Thirteen Hours.
Yvonne Walus Interviews Deon Meyer. Yvonne Eve Walus is a Polish South African New Zealander, which at least gives her something to talk about at parties. She’s a fan of Harlan Coben’s writing style and Agatha Christie’s logical puzzles. Her murder mystery books, set in the old South Africa of the apartheid era, contain elements of both.
This year, South Africa has a lot more to offer than the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Enter Deon Meyer’s latest thriller, “13 hours”, tells the story of a young American backpacker running for her life in Cape Town.
If you haven't read Deon Meyer yet, you're missing out. His books are what I call "fast-paced thrillers with a lot of heart". In other words, they give you both the breathtaking action and the total emotional immersion into his characters' plight. His police detectives are non-stereotypical, both extremely realistic and larger than life, and if that's a contradiction in terms, Deon Meyer uses it to his advantage by creating unforgettable protagonists.
More people must feel the way I do, because Deon's books reap awards and are being made into films. “13 hours” is optioned to a London filmmaker, with the legendary Roger Spottiswoode as director and script consultant.
I feel privileged when Deon agrees to the interview. We're conducting it on email, so I can't tell you what his house looks like or the type of watch he's wearing today (that information you can find on his website http://www.deonmeyer.com/). For a crime fiction reader, however, it's not exactly the most pressing question.
YV: Deon, thank you for giving us your time. Your signing schedule alone is enough to make us appreciate how busy you are: France and Spain in April, South Africa and Canada in May... Do you find that all the promotion work is keeping you away from writing?
DM: It does to a certain extent, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now that I have the privilege of writing full-time, I tend to work seven days a week, for months on end. Book tours have become welcome breaks during which I can rethink what I’m writing, and get stimulation from new people and places. Also, I’ve learnt to use a few hours on a train or plane, or in a hotel room, to get a couple of pages done. YW: Your books are firmly set in South Africa yet they have been translated into some 20 languages. What do you think makes them transferable across continents and cultures?
DM: I think stories are an international language. Characters too. And hopefully, readers on other continents find the Cape Town setting as interesting as I find books about Los Angeles, London, New York or Stockholm.
YW: Couldn’t agree more. Speaking of characters, you spend a lot of time finding the right names for yours. The protagonist of... hang on while I check the English title... "Dead at Daybreak" is an Afrikaans cop christened Zatopek. Other than the obvious benefit of getting Czech publishers hungry for the translation rights, why did that name feel right?
DM: Now I know why the Czech bought the book ... The history of Zatopek as a character name is a long one. I heard the name of Emile Zatopek, the Czech long-distance runner, on the radio as a child, and was fascinated by the wonderful sound of it. Twenty years later, as a young newspaper reporter, I invented a character called Zatopek van Heerden, a Private Eye, to try and make my letters to friends a little more interesting. And when I started telling my children bed-time stories, Zatopek became a little boy who had weird and wonderful adventures in a tiny fishing village on the West Coast.
It was also the name of lesser characters in my first two novels, and finally, in Dead at Daybreak, I decided the time had come to put him centre stage.
YW: The children must have been excited to see “their” Zatopek in a novel! One of the many things readers value about your writing is the lack of gratuitous violence. Still, sometimes bad things need to happen. As a father, do you find it difficult to write the scenes in which children or young people get hurt?
DM: Absolutely. Writing is a very visual process for me, so I experience scenes pretty intensely.
YW: I'm curious about that one book you never finished. 50 pages before you realised it wouldn't work. What was the insurmountable flaw?
DM: There were two problems with the attempted novel. The first was that the story was too one-dimensional – just a woman looking for her lost brother. The second was that I attempted a female protagonist for the first time, and just could not get a real grasp on her voice. But nothing goes to waste. I resurrected part of the story for what finally became ‘Blood Safari’ almost a decade later, when all the pieces came together.
YW: They did, indeed, though I had to look up the original title to pinpoint the book. Which brings me to my next question: in your interview with CrimeTime, you mention it's difficult to write in Afrikaans as "it's so isolated and incestuous". While it may have been easier to get published in Afrikaans to begin with, have you considered switching to English now that you're internationally acclaimed?
DM: The Crime Time interview dates back more than seven years, and I am happy to say that a lot of things have changed since then. Back in 2003, I was just about the only South African writing crime, still very much struggling to establish myself in the local market, a virtual unknown abroad, and there were very few new voices in South African literature.
In the last few years crime and thriller fiction has exploded over here – other genres too. So I definitely don’t feel isolated any more, and the incestuous-ness is a thing of the past. And, no, I have never seriously considered switching to English. Afrikaans is my mother tongue, and I find writing difficult enough: getting it right in a second language would be even more difficult.
YW: (At this point, I’m ready to pronounce Deon one of the most down to earth celebrities I know.) Your books have that unputdownable Harlan Coben feel to them. You list him as one of the authors you enjoy reading. Is he also a conscious influence in your writing? While you were still honing your craft, did you ever think: "One day I'd like to write like Coben"?
DM: I was first introduced to Harlan’s work when we did a marketing evening together in London in 1994, if I remember correctly. And although I think he’s a great guy, and really love his work, it was perhaps too late in my career to be influenced.
YW: The three crime fiction writers you most admire?
There are so many that I admire, but the top three will have to be Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald and Michael Connelly.
YW: How would you describe the genre today and where do you see crime fiction going in the future?
DM: The genre today is so much more rich in its diversity than a decade ago. Translations from Scandinavia, Germany, France, Spain, Cuba, Africa, South America, really interesting new sub-genres, risks being taken with traditional story structure, more depth and social issues, crimes of the state and big business becoming more prevalent, the influence of CSI, and, of course, the massive rise in the genre’s popularity ...
It’s impossible to predict where it will go, but I would venture to say that it would continue to surprise and entertain.
YW: Continue to surprise and entertain? You bet! As long as Deon Meyer continues to produce a thriller a year, that is. His new one is coming out in October, and I’m ever so glad I don’t need to wait for the translation.
The African issue of Mystery Readers Journal contains many more articles, interviews and Author! Author! essays. It is available as hardcopy or .pdf download HERE.