Nobody Dies by Zirk van den Berg
Zirk van den Berg wrote his first, rather literary, books in South Africa. The country also provides the setting for his crime novel Nobody Dies, even though he now lives in New Zealand. The book was first published by Random House New Zealand in 2004, to good reviews.
Can you sum up Nobody Dies in no more than 25 words?
A police woman in charge of the witness protection programme kills her charges. Being between lives, they’re never missed or found. Until now...
What was your motivation for writing it?
The premise of the story excited me. And it touched on issues of identity, which were relevant to me around the time I migrated from South Africa to New Zealand.
How important is a book's central character?
I believe the central character in any book is the narrator. The first character an author has to create is the one telling the story, even if it appears to readers to be “the author” whose words they read. As a person I’m rather retiring, but as the narrator of a story I can be as outspoken and opinionated as anything.
Nobody Dies is probably more about the almost innocent Daniel Enslin who goes into the witness protection programme than it is about the policewoman Erica van der Linde. The dangerous criminal Baas Ferreira and Erica’s colleague Mike Acker also have major parts in the story.
What's your favourite part of the writing process?
It’s a toss-up between writing something I like, on the one hand, and on the other reading something I’ve written earlier and finding that I still like it. It’s wonderful to read something after many years, liking it, and realising you’d written it yourself.
As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?
I like books with interesting narrators, in other words ones where the telling of the story comes from an angle that is captivating, where the person telling the story seems to take an interesting view of things. This doesn’t have to be first-person narrators, by the way.
Then I like interesting characters in the story too. They don’t have to be weird. Stories about almost ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances tend to strike a chord with me.
I prefer something that’s original, rather than another Raymond Chandler copy. I don’t care for clever whodunnits and don’t read books about serial killers.
My favourite crime authors are Charles Willeford, K.C. Constantine, Elmore Leonard and some books by Jim Thompson, whose Pop. 1280 is the greatest crime book out there, unless we count Dostoevsky.
As a writer, how would you describe your ideal reader's taste in crime fiction?
A reader for whom character, theme and prose matters more than plot twists and violent thrills.
What are you reading now?
Hard Rain by Dutch crime writer Janwillem van de Wetering. His books can take a bit of getting used to, as the characters have strange Dutch names (Grijpstra and De Gier) and have an unusual philosophical take on the crimes and society they deal with. There's lots of off-beat talking. But the books are unlike anything else out there and well worth getting into.
What makes you keep reading a book?
I want to be delighted from paragraph to paragraph, either by the insights or the sparkle of the prose. And I need to care for the characters.
Where do you find out about new books?
I check out recommendations by friends and hang around second hand bookshops and libraries. But the most exciting way is to try and find out which authors my favourite authors read.
What's the best collection of short stories you've read?
Anything by Alice Munro. The woman is perhaps the greatest short story writer ever.
What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?
Being able to use e-publishing to get books directly to readers, without first having to convince publishers (who are, after all, business people) that there’s prestige to be gained or money to be made.
Ever tried your hand at screenwriting?
Yes, I had some one-off pieces produced on South African TV 20 years ago. I like movies as a medium, but writing for them is so collaborative that it’s less satisfying. Also, you’re even more constrained by budgets and popular tastes than you are when writing novels.
Ever tried your hand at poetry?
Not since my teens. I’m not clever or deluded enough.
How do you feel about the ease with which anyone can publish?
It’s good in the sense that it removes the publisher as gatekeeper, but it’s bad in that the market is flooded with drivel. It makes it harder for readers to ferret out the good stuff.
Which author should be much better known?
You mean, apart from Zirk van den Berg?! Everyone I’ve mentioned so far that any reader doesn’t know.
What's the book you've recommended most to friends?
King Solomon by Romain Gary (writing as Emile Ajar) and The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom. The crime books I’d recommend most would be Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford’s four Hoke Moseley novels. They’re best read in order, starting with Miami Blues. But the one I like best is Sideswipe. It’s a lovely story about ordinary life in which the detective hardly features.
Do you read outside of the crime genre?
A lot. Some sci-fi by Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith and William Gibson. The 1930s spy stories by Alan Furst. And lots of semi-forgotten books that used to be mainstream.
Do you have any other projects on the go?
We’re just finishing the editing of No-Brainer, a light-hearted mystery romp featuring a struggling sculptor who blackmails people into buying his work. It falls somewhere between Kinky Friedman and K.C. Constantine in tone. It should be out shortly. I’ll post updates on my website, http://www.saybooksonline.com/. I’m also writing a sequel to that book and have a finished historical novel set in the Boer War that is still being prepared for publishing around the end of year, hopefully.
Nobody Dies by Zirk van den Berg