Riette Rust is an award-winning Afrikaans journalist and author, whose fourth book was released earlier this year. The book, Vlees en Bloed, which was also translated into English, is a sequel to the bestseller Blood Sisters by author and journalist Ilse Salzwedel. GLAMOUR Book Club sat down with Riette to chat about her first foray into crime fiction.
How did you come to write Flesh and Blood?
Five years ago another journalist, Ilse Salzwedel, wrote Blood Sisters, a true story about two sisters, Eileen de Jager and Roelien Schutte, who clean up crime scenes, and scenes after devastating fires, floods and hoarders’ homes. The publisher, LAPA, decided it was time for a sequel and on the recommendation of a magazine editor and another journalist, approached me to write Flesh and Blood. I really don’t know why as I have never written a book on crime before – maybe because I’m so empathic?
The sisters and their franchisees have cleaned 7 500 scenes by now and had new and exciting true stories to tell. I had a different angle as I also spoke to experts about each subject the book covers. They answered questions such as why crime fascinates so many of us? What dangers lurk in blood? What can happen if we ignore post-traumatic stress? Are angels and ghosts real? How do you recognise the signs of depression? How does someone become a hoarder? What can each of us do about crime in this country? And wherein lies the kick of autoerotic asphyxiation teenagers die from? The book is not just about blood and guts; it gives an insight into the human psyche. The Blood Sisters, as we call them, are also very funny, so there is a lot of humour in the book. For example, I included a chapter on sex toys they find in the homes they clean.
What was the process of writing the book?
Because Eileen lives in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Roelien in Pretoria, we had to do many interviews via Skype. I identified various subjects then interviewed the two separately. After interviewing both sisters on a subject, I would write and rewrite the chapter before chatting to an expert.
The sisters and I clicked instantly and sometimes laughed so loudly that my husband, JD, couldn’t believe that I was writing about crime. Humour is one way of handling the stress. I only met the sisters in person at our book launch in Johannesburg, but it felt like we knew one another very well. They truly opened up and found the experience of sharing their life with me therapeutic. It changed my life and I’ve realised that not all people are bad. We shouldn’t let the 15% of bad seeds depress us because 85% are good.
What is your writing routine?
I start every morning at eight or nine, take a lunch break and write until about five or seven. These days I often write at night – sometimes until two in the morning. Writing is a lifestyle. It makes sense of my life and I cannot imagine living without it.
How did you feel about dealing with such intense and brutal content?
Whenever I am faced with blood, I faint; when an animal dies, I am devastated – even if I have never met the creature before; when one of my children is operated on, I faint and land up in the ICU myself. So I would say that I am a very sensitive person. Even so, I am more inquisitive. I love people and their stories, and I wanted to find out why the sisters do what they do. I was surprised to hear how sensitive and empathetic they are. They comfort the families of the dead and have to deal with post-traumatic stress themselves. Eileen is scared of injection needles and Roelien of spiders! They are truly passionate about their job – for them, it’s a God-given service to other human beings.
I was traumatised and I did get nightmares, but I would meditate and, like the sisters, make a point of also seeing the beauty in life. I tried to keep the bigger picture in mind and that kept me focused. But, it wasn’t easy and I still get bloodbath nightmares. I must add that the sisters are very inspiring and I still think about what they mean to me every day.
What do you hope people will take out of Flesh and Blood?
According to Eileen and Roelien, the book will save lives. There are many tips on crime prevention. And, once you have read Flesh and Blood, you will appreciate your nearest and dearest even more and never forget to phone and visit your parents.
I am writing nonfiction with a psychological theme, which I know many readers will find fascinating and helpful. It will be the first South African book on this specific subject. I don’t want to say anymore, though, as I don’t believe in counting my chickens before they’re hatched.
Want more author insights? Head to our Book Club for exclusive interviews and a few fun rounds of literary Boff, Marry, Kill.