Roger Smith – Interview

March 5, 2010
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I was introduced to the novels of Roger Smith by Dave Zeltserman. The typically blurb shy Massachusetts author had nothing but raves for Smith’s debut novel, Mixed Blood:

“This is a very dark, violent book where the violence is played straight and not for laughs, and plays almost like a Parker book if Parker ever ended up in Capetown, and found himself a family man and his 4-year old son kidnapped. While this is a first novel, it doesn’t read like one. Not one moment of slack from beginning to end.”

Of course, the blurb and Zelterman’s near constant praise wasn’t enough to sell me on Mixed Blood. In recent years, I’ve been gun shy about purchasing internationally penned noir/hardboiled novels, especially after the lack luster glut of Icelandic novels which have invaded U.S. shores and—no pun intended—have left me cold.

But I finally relented and purchased Mixed Blood and rapidly devoured the debut novel in two all too brief sittings, leaving me wanting more.

Smith quickly followed up with Wake Up Dead and fulfilled the promise of Mixed Blood and delivered one of the most breathless thrillers in recent memory.

I contacted Smith in hopes to entice the South African to write a piece for my little thug of a publication, Crimefactory magazine (Which, to my surprise, he enthusiastically agreed to.) and along with the piece, he also agreed to sit down and participate in the first of a series of print interviews I’ll be conducting for Spinetingler magazine.

I hope you enjoy it.

Check out the review after the jump.

Keith Rawson: Before becoming a novelist you worked in the film industry, what did you do in film and how long were you involved in it?

Roger Smith: I can say in all honesty that over the last 30 years I have done every job in the movie industry with the exception of hair-styling. I even did make-up, once. Years ago, on an ultra-cheapo movie, the make-up artist walked off set and I got drafted in. Man, not my finest hour.

As a twenty-year old I started off as an animator, long before the computer graphics revolution. Everything was done by hand back then, frame by frame. After a few months my brain started melting and I fled out into the world of live-action film, where I began as a gofer and later worked as a camera assistant, a cameraman, an editor and then as a director, producer and screenwriter.

I have written a huge amount of stuff for movies and TV in Africa – everything from sit-coms to drama series. No soaps, I’m pleased to say.

When did you decide to make the jump from film to writing novels and what was your motivation to do so?

My motivation was hunger, pure and simple. At the beginning of 2007 all the screenwriting work I had lined up for the year evaporated. Projects were cancelled, finance disappeared, and I was left staring at an empty year. So I did the craziest thing a grown man can do: I mortgaged my apartment and sat down and wrote my first thriller, Mixed Blood. Happily, I sold it!

Why did you decide to focus on crime fiction and who or what influenced that decision?

I’ve always loved crime fiction, especially the edgy American stuff. As a teenager I lapped up the Parker series by Richard Stark/ Donald Westlake, Jim Thompson’s dark opuses, as well as the early, gritty, work of Elmore Leonard.

I always wanted to write crime, but I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and the quickest route to irrelevancy in the 80s and 90s would have been writing crime fiction. So I founded a non-racial movie co-operative that produced anti-apartheid films, and did what little I could to oppose the sick bastards who ran my country back then.

Thankfully, apartheid ended by the mid-nineties, and South Africa went from being pariah of the world to everybody’s darling under Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, the bubble burst when Mandela moved on: crime and corruption replaced apartheid as our number one social ill. We now have the highest homicide statistics in the world. One in four South African women will be raped in her lifetime, and children are raped and murdered at a rate that defies belief. South Africa’s top cop – still commissioner of police and head of Interpol at the time of his arrest – is on trial for racketeering and taking bribes from organized crime.

So writing crime set in South Africa isn’t only relevant now, for me it’s about the only way to stay sane.

I recently read that your first novel, Mixed Blood, has been optioned for film. What production company/studio bought the option? Is there a director or actors attached to the project?

The Mixed Blood movie is in development with GreeneStreet films, NYC. Kelly Masterson is adapting, and Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Patriot Games, Salt) is on board to direct. Samuel L. Jackson will play Zulu detective, Disaster Zondi.

How far along in the process is it to actually being filmed and how much involvement do you have in it?

The screenplay is done, and shooting is scheduled for late 2010 in Cape Town.

As a screenwriter, I’ve adapted books by other writers and know that the best thing for the project is for the author to remain in the background. Kelly Masterson wrote the twisty neo-noir Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – one of my favorite movies of recent years – and I’m excited to see how he translates my book to the screen. I look forward to watching the movie with a box of popcorn in my hands.

You paint Cape Town as an intensely violent city in both Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead, how much of that is fiction and how much of it is fact?

My books are fiction, of course, but they are a very realistic depiction of Cape Town. All of Cape Town, not just the tourist spots.

The Cape Flats – the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard – is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside of a war zone. Forty years ago, the apartheid government dumped anybody who wasn’t white out in this windswept maze of shacks and matchbox houses. Ruled by drug lords and gangsters, the Flats has the highest number of rapes and murders in South Africa, and sex crimes against children are off the charts.

You’ve been criticized for the amount of violence in your novels, what is your attitude when you read these kinds of reactions and does it ever cause you to second guess yourself when you’re writing?

As I’ve said, I live in – and write about – an extremely violent country. I don’t portray anything that doesn’t happen every day in South Africa. I loathe the comic book porno-violence of a lot of European and U.S. crime writing (and movies, TV and video games, for that matter) where bloodshed is used to titillate. People aren’t turned on by what I write – they’re shocked. As they should be. Each day children are raped and slaughtered out on the Cape Flats, just miles from where I live. My partner – who grew up out on the Flats – counsels abused children, and tells me stories that give me nightmares. If this was happening anywhere in the West there would be an outcry. Here it barely makes the newspapers.

Every South African has had direct experience of violent crime. I have been robbed at knife point. Friends of mine have been shot in carjackings and home invasions. In most parts of the world criminals try to avoid violence, knowing that if they wound or kill, the police will be more zealous in pursuing them, and, if convicted, they face severe sentences. But in South Africa criminals deliberately inflict pain on their victims, beating, raping and killing them.

All of this has found its way into my books, Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead.

For those who are unfamiliar with Wake Up Dead, would you mind briefly summarizing the novel?

Keith, this is the jacket copy I wrote for the book, and I think it sets the scene without too many spoilers:

On a blowtorch-hot night in Cape Town, South Africa, American ex-model Roxy Palmer and her gunrunner husband, Joe, are carjacked, leaving Joe lying in a pool of blood. As the carjackers make their getaway, Roxy makes a fateful choice that changes her life forever.

Disco and Godwynn, the ghetto gangbangers who sped away in Joe’s convertible, will stop at nothing to track her down. Billy Afrika, a mixed-race ex-cop turned mercenary, won’t let her out of his sight because Joe owed him a chunk of money. And remorselessly hunting them all is Piper, a love-crazed psychopath determined to renew his vows with his jailhouse “wife,” Disco.

As these desperate lives collide and old debts are settled in blood, Roxy is caught in a wave of escalating violence in the beautiful and brutal African seaport.

Your two protagonists, Roxy Palmer and Billy Afrika, have the feel of being neither hero or villain, they simply exist without a moral compass. How difficult was it to write these kind amoral characters and yet make them so sympathetic?

I’m not really drawn to squeaky-clean middle-class characters, or quaint and colorful working-class stereotypes. I like to write people who are up against it, out on the fringes of society. In both my books, I purposely created a cast of characters who are nearly all compromised. This to me is more interesting. And more realistic.

I agree that most of my characters are amoral – reflections of a corrupt and amoral society – but I would argue that my books are very moral. Not that I have some omniscient authorial voice lecturing the reader on good and evil – I avoid that like the plague – but justice is seen to be done: street justice, karmic payback, whatever. The very bad guys meet very bad ends. And the not-so-good-guys take their knocks too. Nobody is left unscathed

In Wake Up Dead I wanted to take on the challenge of writing a female protagonist, and Roxy Palmer just seemed to jump fully formed onto the page. I loved writing her, and enjoyed the fact that her good looks and street smarts catapulted her from a Florida trailer park – living with an alcoholic mother and a succession of “daddies”, the last of whom was an amateur photographer who took her picture and her cherry by the time she was fourteen – to the runways of Paris and Rome, and then to Cape Town where she married South African Joe for his money.

Yes, Roxy grabs an opportunity and does a very bad thing, setting off a chain of events that leaves her fighting for her life. There’s nothing calculated or premeditated about what she does. She acts on impulse, like she always has. But I like to believe that although Roxy isn’t a “good” character in the straightforward sense, that she is believable and sympathetic.

Likewise Billy Afrika. Here’s a guy who grew up rough on the Flats, ended up in a gang as a kid, then got set alight and left for dead. What nearly killed him saved his life: a policeman rescued him, took him to hospital and later became his mentor when Billy joined the cops. When his mentor was killed by the savage Piper, Billy handed in his badge and became a mercenary to support the family of his dead partner. And when he comes back to Cape Town he does whatever is necessary to try and save the family. So, again, this is a tormented character, a flawed man, but still a man who is acting selflessly, and even though his methods may be questionable, his motivation is not.

How difficult was it to work with such a large cast of characters in Wake Up Dead? Did you work on the characters parts separately and then tie it together as a whole or did you write the novel straight through?

I guess my background in screenwriting has made me familiar with creating an ensemble cast. I always flesh out my characters before I start the writing process, so that I have clear idea of their motivations and back stories. I also create a mini “character arc” for each of them, and that gives me some kind of roadmap.

Prior to writing I always have three major dramatic events locked down: the opening, which is the catalyst for the story, the mid-point of the book – usually where the conflicts begin to escalate – and some idea of the ending, although that often changes.

Then I sit down and write in a linear progression from beginning to end. As soon as my characters take life on the page, they grab me by the throat and drag me along with them, deep into their dark and messed up lives. I don’t have to think too much, just go along for the roller coaster ride.

I usually get a first draft out pretty quickly – in 8 to 12 weeks – and only then do I really begin to understand what I’ve written, and can start to hone and tighten the work through a number of further drafts.

You portrayal of Pollsmoor Maximum Security prison is very detailed. How much research went into accurately depicting Cape Town prison life?

I went into Cape prisons. I met with ex-convicts and spoken to them at length, and read all the available research material in print and on the Internet. I consulted with experts on the prison gang subculture. People who are familiar with Pollsmoor say my depiction of the place is very accurate.

Now on the flip side of the ease in which you wrote Roxy Palmer, how difficult—or easy—was it to write Wake Up Dead’s bleak antagonist, Piper? (Who, I might add, is one of the darkest villains I’ve encountered in quite some time)

Glad you enjoyed him, Keith. I love creating villains – the process probably allows me to exorcise my own dark side. Piper was great to write: a genuinely evil being, capable of the most extreme acts of violence, but with a really sick streak of sentimentality running through him.

And Piper is rooted very much in reality. Doing research for Wake Up Dead, I met guys like him. They had a similar story to tell: under apartheid, going to prison was inevitable if you weren’t white. And in the racially segregated prisons they quickly found they had power over weaker brown men. They joined the prison gangs, wore the tattoos of rank, murdered fellow inmates as part of initiation rites. Found that they never wanted to leave this world of brutal discipline and unbreakable codes. Every time they came up for parole they committed another crime and had time added on to their sentences, and gained more power in the gangs.

I wanted Piper to be more than a run-of-the-mill psycho, so I gave him a weakness: his sick love for the beautiful and tragic Disco, one of the men who carjack Roxy and her husband at the beginning of the book.

The relationship between Piper and Disco is all about power and abuse. As a child on the Cape Flats, Piper was sexually abused, like many children are, and grew up to be an abuser, like many do. Disco, cursed with a pretty face, is gang raped on his first night in prison, until Piper becomes his protector. Disco has to pay a price for the protection. Piper makes Disco his “wife” and rapes him for the duration of his sentence, and brands his body with crude tattoos, a sign of ownership.

When Disco comes up for parole Piper gets him to swear that he will commit a crime, deliberately get caught, and returned to prison. Disco has no intention of doing that, and lives in terror being sent back to Pollsmoor, into the arms of Piper. And Piper is so obsessed that he breaks out of prison to bring Disco back to Pollsmoor with him. On the outside he commits a string of barbaric rapes and murders – forcing Disco to participate – knowing they will both be sent back to Pollsmoor Prison for life. Until death does them part.

Billy Afrika seems like an ideal character to start an ongoing series with, are there any plans for his return in future novels?

Even though I enjoyed my time with Billy, I have no immediate plans for him. But you never know . . .

And as a follow up to that question, are you feeling any pressure from your editors and readers to create a series character? And do you have any reluctance in creating a sustained, multi-book character?

I made a conscious decision to write stand-alone thrillers rather than a series. I believe series are better suited to mysteries, where the hero may be beaten, battered and betrayed, but he’ll always survive because the author wants readers queuing up at the bookstore for the next installment.

Not so in a stand-alone thriller, where characters are placed in extreme jeopardy that may cost them their lives. To me this juices up the experience for the reader and raises the stakes to the ultimate. This is the level of intensity at which I like to write – an intensity that a series can’t match.

Also, I don’t do first-person stuff, I’m really drawn to multiple points-of-view, where the reader is always a couple of steps ahead of the characters, riding shotgun with the flawed heroes and villains alike. I try to generate suspense through the anticipation of what will happen when these messed-up people collide.

Having said that, I have reprised one of the characters from Mixed Blood – Zulu Detective Disaster Zondi – for my third book, Dust Devils. But he is part of ensemble cast and plays a supporting role.

So now the inevitable question of what’s next? When can we expect a new novel and what are you currently working on right now?

Dust Devils will be out in early 2011. It’s quite a change from the first two books, in that is opens in familiar territory with a hit in Cape Town, then becomes a bloody road trip across South Africa, ending in a Zulu tribal valley, where AIDS, savage feuds, and poverty have left the population decimated. It plays out against a background of political corruption and tribal customs in conflict with 21st century Africa.

Right now I’m working on a fourth thriller, which goes deep into the world of child abuse and murder in Cape Town.

Looking forward to Dust Devils and the fourth novel, Roger. Thank you so much for your time.

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Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift.(New Pulp Press) He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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2 Responses to Roger Smith – Interview

  1. Frank Bill on March 5, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Awesome interview Keith. Roger Smith has become one of my top five favorite writers after reading Mixed Blood. Like you I wasn’t believing all the hype. But now I know, Roger is the real deal. Violent, brutal and gritty.

  2. Naomi Johnson on March 6, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Smith is so good at this. I loved Mixed Blood, was leery about what Wake Up Dead would be like (sophomore novels can be so troublesome) but it just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

    What really makes me awestruck though is that few novelists start out at the top of their game. They get better with time and experience. Doesn’t that just give you chills when you think about where Smith’s work could go?

    Excellent interview, Keith.