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GLAM Book Chat: Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer is one of SA’s favourite crime writers, his fast-paced writing, local flair and relatable characters make his books dangerously engaging. A bespectacled and soft-spoken Deon chatted to GLAMOUR about the art (and sometimes the uphill battle!) of being a full-time novelist.

The crime genre is one that’s been tackled by so many authors, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. What do you think the secret is to a great crime novel?

The humanity of the characters. If you don’t care about the characters, you won’t care about the story, so that for me is the most important first step. Furthermore you need to get the pace of the novel right and you need to get the suspense factor right.

The SA landscape, both literally and figuratively, is very prominent in your writing. You mention landmarks like restaurants and road names and incidents like Marikana. While this is great for SA readers, does it not isolate international readers?

I don’t think so at all. If you read a book by Michael Connelly set in LA or something by Ian Rankin set in Edinburgh, they both use the city as backdrops very effectively and I’m certainly fascinated when I read a novel set in a foreign city. I think the descriptions give the backdrop texture. And readers who haven’t been to Cape Town will benefit from descriptions that give the city colour. And hopefully you’re inspired to visit the city if you haven’t been there before!

How do you conduct your research for your novels?

First of all, I go to all the places that I write about and I take my camera and I take notes. I try and find people with knowledge about what I’m writing. The metrorail played a large part in Cobra, so I went to spoke to people from Metrorail to better understand the train system. I try to do as many personal interviews as possible. And I read as much relevant material as I can; books, newspaper articles, anything on the internet. I use everything that I can lay my hands on!

You’re now a full-time novelist. But you used to write part-time. What was the leap from part-time to full-time like?

The leap from part-time to full-time writer was a very interesting one. I was lucky enough that in my last few years writing part-time, I worked as special projects manager for BMW motorcycles, I had a very flexible schedule so it was a slow transition from part time to full time. There were some big adjustments to make, for example going from earning a salary every month to only getting paid in book royalties twice a year takes some a serious mindshift in financial planning. The other big adjustment was that in my previous jobs I was always going out and meeting people as part of my job. Suddenly, when you write full time, you become very lonely, very fast. So you have to adjust and make sure that you allow time for socialising and that you make it happen.

What does your working day look like?

I try to write for at least eight hours every day, not without breaks though. And then I obviously have to do chores and those sort of things – the garbage doesn’t take itself out! Usually by the last quarter of the book, I just want to wrap it up and then I’ll write for hours on end. You get to the point where you’re on a roll and you can’t stop.

Do you think you need formal courses or training to be a novelist?

I did the Masters in Creative Writing course at Stellenbosch but long after I’d started publishing my books. It was a fantastic course and so is the UCT one. But writing is something that takes a lot of practice. My first book, for example, was not great, but I learnt a lot. But if you do one of the Masters courses, you don’t have to write a bad book to learn all those first crucial lessons. So I am in favour of taking a good writing course. But ultimately, the best training for writing is reading. Nothing teaches you more about writing than reading really, really great books in the genre that you love and would like to write.

What do you like to read?

I have very wide and varied tastes. Some of my favourite authors are: J M Coetzee, William Gibson, Michael Connelly, Ian Rnakin, Lee Child and Mark Bowden. I absolutely love reading and I’m a news junkie! While I’m writing my own books though, I tend to stick to reading non-fiction. When I read fiction while I’m writing my own books, I find I’m far more critical of what I’m reading and I don’t enjoy reading as much.

You write in Afrikaans and then have your books translated into English. Would you ever consider writing in English yourself though?

Afrikaans is my mother tongue and my whole life is in Afrikaans. Writing is hard enough as it is, to practice it in your second language would be even harder. And I love Afrikaans, to my ear it’s the most beautiful language in the world.

What has been the most challenging thing for you as an author?

I find writing very satisfying on the one hand, but really hard work on the other. A novel is a long journey. For me, it’s an investment of 12-14 months of my life. The most daunting thing is just taking those first steps in writing a novel, the first quarter of the novel, because you can never predict if it’s going to work out.

What is your favourite moment in the writing process?

About three quarters of the way through, I usually have that ‘Aha!’ moment. It’s that moment when you realise, ‘OK, this is actually coming together’ and that’s where the writing process really becomes fun. It’s sort of like a runner’s high. I used to jog quite often in my younger days and when you’ve been jogging consistently for two or three weeks, you experience a runner’s high and then you keep on jogging so that somewhere along the line you can experience that feeling again. And, that’s one of the reasons that I keep writing novels: to experience that little buzz when you realise that whatever you’re writing is actually going to work out. And when that happens, writing is wonderful.

What’s your advice to any aspiring writers out there?

Writing takes discipline. So if you want to be a writer, you have to write every day (even if it’s only for half an hour), because that’s how you eat an elephant: bit by bit, paragraph by paragraph. There is always time to write. Don’t expect the people closest to you to be objective about your writing: they will always tell you that it’s great. Expose your writing to people who will be objective; send it to publishers, keep an open mind and show a willingness to learn. And then last, but not least: read, read and read.

What can we expect from you next?

Well, I’m halfway through my next novel. So English readers can expect the translation sometime this year.

By Lauren Voges

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