Mike Nicol is unquestionably one of South Africa's leading journalists and authors with a broad range of work from memoir to biographies to novel and lately crime fiction.
He was the co-author of the popular 'Out to Score' and then the author of the thriller 'Payback' and is regarded as being in the vanguard of the rise of South African crime fiction ? a genre that is making its name globally.
iafrica.com asked him ten questions
You have written a broad range of works ? from journalism to novels to biography to crime, but your last two have been crime. Are you now a crime writer? Did journalism help in this?
The question of writer?s identity! I'm still writing journalism as that's what keeps me alive and I find it (especially long non-fiction) a very exciting form. My fiction has turned to crime and I'd be only too happy to be known as a crime writer. And, yes, being a journalist has been a great help because it got me to places most people don't see. But in the end fiction is about the imagination and no matter how many gangsters you meet, if you can't imagine their lives they're dead on the page.
Would you agree South African crime fiction has come of age in recent years with the likes of you, Margie Orford, Deon Meyer leading the charge? Why has Cape Town featured so prominently?
You need to add Richard Kunzmann to the list of usual suspects. As for Cape Town, it might simply be because most of us live here but if we're going to get deep about it, it might be because Cape Town is an old city (in our terms) and that accretion of time has given it a social complexity. Then again it is spectacularly beautiful and rich and spectacularly degraded and poverty stricken. And crime fiction is all about contrast.
What do you think has caused this surge?
Definitely the ending of apartheid. The cops, for one thing, are no longer an invading army. And we're now maturing as a society and have given ourselves permission to write schlock fiction. I do not think it has anything to do with the true crime situation. Crime fiction is about fantasy and good stories.
Do you think 'we' stack up with the best of the genre internationally or are they only doing well because of local resonance?
Um. We are not really stacking up internationally yet. And it takes a long time to encourage a local readership to buy local. Years of pedantic apartheid literature are against us at the moment and readers are inclined to say: 'A South African book, please, no, take it away.' That said, the sales of local crime fiction have started improving and there is no doubt that book festivals and the Cape Town Book Fair help because readers get to meet and hear the writers and are beginning to realise this stuff is fun.
How do you avoid or do you want to avoid slipping into the cliche of American PI/cop thrillers?
They've set a damn good model and its one that is applicable to us and to a certain extent we're going to be drawn into it. Those of us subversive enough will no doubt also seek to subvert it. The local angle I suspect should draw us into a territory of our own.
How did you find co-writing something as personally creative as a crime thriller?
We followed a rigid process and that made the co-authorship possible. However, it did make me realise that I am (like most authors) a writer of solitary persuasion.
Mullet is now a much loved figure ? will he be back?
Yes he will. The novel's US publisher is keen on developing a series.
What are you working on at the moment?
Crime, crime and more crime. Also a story of the radio station 702, and a biography of Christo Brand, Mandela's favourite warder. And the Crime Beat blog takes a huge amount of material.
There is lots in the book ('Payback') ? is this part of a desire to comment on our society extensively yet entertainingly?
Since I started writing my intention has been first to tell a story and then to do what the novel automatically does which is to ferret around in society's underbelly. Crime fiction allows (almost demands) this and it can be done as satire so it's funny. Hitting out at the corruptions of government, politicians, businessmen, all the sacred cows is just so exhilarating.
What are your views on the SA readership given that Jake White's book and 'Spud' top best seller lists?
My feeling is we have a very sophisticated readership that buys mostly imported books. If they could be persuaded to try local authors then the local industry would do better. 'Spud' sold because of word of mouth which is what moves most books. Jake White's book sold because of Jake White and rugby but I'm not sure you could call his market the SA readership.