Mike Nicol is, without a doubt, one of South Africa's most prolific authors. His works have been published across the globe, and his uniquely South African brand of crime and espionage thrillers have a loyal following. Yet for all his success, he is not seduced by the hype and remains humble on the subject of his career and his writing process. As a new writer, it was a privilege to sit down with a master and hear how its done.
To start off, could you give us an elevator pitch for Agents of State?
That's the worst question you can ask me! So I'm going to talk around the question rather than answer it. To me, it's an interesting question because it says so much about how we talk about books today. I couldn't sit down and pitch my book to anybody. It would just sound so embarrassing that I wouldn't be able to do it. I suspect this is because I have a very different idea of what a book is. In that sense, a book is not a product, its an attempt to get to grips with life as its being lived in a particular time and place. Because I have that attitude towards it, I can't see it in a marketing perspective. I have lots of friends and good writers who can do that and have a sensible attitude towards it, but I don't have a sensible attitude towards it.
It sounds like a romantic attitude...
It probably is. I look at books and particularly the novel as being essential to the way we live. The novel teaches us to empathise with other people, and that is an important part of what it is to be human. From that point of view, the novel is a very important social tool. The other thing is, we are who we are because we tell ourselves stories. The novel is about creating those stories. And yes, both of those things are romantic ideals.
So some aspects of this plot could be any day in South African politics. Do you think the truth is stranger than fiction, and what truths inspired this novel the most?
One of the things I have learnt since starting to write crime fiction is that although it may seem to be like the real world, it actually isn't. It is a story and it is about characters that have been made up and are going through experiences which may mirror things that happen in real life. When I came to move out of crime fiction towards espionage-based fiction, I then found myself up against the day-to-day politics of our country. I thought there is no ways you can compete with politics anywhere in the world, particularly not in South Africa where it is almost an hourly drama. You have to decide what issues you want to write about, and then you have to write away from the reality. In this book I wanted to look at an all-powerful presidential figure and show what power did to that individual. I also wanted to look at human trafficking. Those were the two issues I wanted to deal with, so I created a story in which they are the story. So it's a matter of not competing with the reality at all, it's a matter of creating the story.
Also, and particularly in South Africa, people won't read local literature because they feel they will get politics stuffed down their throat. That may have been true in the days of Apartheid, but this is no longer how these books are. We're about telling stories, and I think those stories are the same as stories anywhere else in the world.
I find your characters relatable, and quite fun in parts...
I wanted to write books with funny parts to them as well. Some of the characters would be funny in what they did, even if the humour was black humour, it still had to be humour. Crime fiction does that very well as a genre. One of my favourite things is to use two characters that become a knockabout duo that spar off one another.
In every new novel, the author grows or evolves in some way. What did you set out to achieve in this novel, and what do you feel you ended up achieving?
All I've ever wanted to do was produce a novel. So when the project starts each time, all I hope is that I will get to the point where I finish the first draft and say, 'OK, this works as a novel.' Now there have been many, many occasions in my writing career when this hasn't happened. Before I got published there were six manuscripts that all ended up in the trash, because they just refused to be novels. Even after I started publishing, there have been three novels that have ended up in the drawer because they refused to work. Whether you have done one or ten, there is no guarantee when starting a novel that it is going to work.
Genre fiction conforms to certain things within the genre. There are certain things you have to do in a crime novel, and certain things you have to do in a spy novel. I don't mind doing those things, but I also want to subvert them. Yes, when you buy one of these novels you know what you're getting and you know how its going to end (order is restored from the chaos), but I need to sometimes subvert this. At the end of this one I decided to solve the climax in a certain way which could have gone very differently. Readers will have to read the book to find out how that happens...
How do you make a call on whether a book is a novel or is not?
It's a gut feeling. For my own books and the books I read on my creative writing courses. When I see books developing, there are ones that you know instinctively are going to turn into books and there are others that will be put aside. Interestingly enough, there were two books in one of my classes that started off in minor ways and I thought to myself, 'these two are going to make it.' They are going to be published next year as a matter of fact. The one person had to go through a lot of rejections but that's par for the course. She got taken in the end. I said to her, "You've just got to persevere, it will get published." It's gut feel, and for the publishers it's gut feel too.
You seem to publish quite quickly in succession. Between Power Play and Agents of State you only had a year. Can you tell me a bit more about how you achieve such momentum in your writing career?
Power Play and Agents of State has a year separating it but in reality it was slightly different. The one was finished and I held onto it. One of the nice things about getting old is that the rush to publish has gone away. I'm quite happy to keep a book lying for six months. Between Agents and the next book is going to be a longer gap.
I write very slowly - I write 250 words a day. These books are 100-110 000 words. If you write 250 words a day for 365 days of the year, at the end of the year you have about 80 000 words. In a year and a half, you reach your goal. So you can do it, very slowly.
I think many people will find that inspiring. They think you have to write big chunks of words every day. So many people say they don't have the time to write...
Like you, I have a job. I don't have time to write, so most of my writing occurs in the first two hours of the day. From 6:00 until 8:30 I write, and then I have to think about serious stuff. But if you sit down and concentrate, you can get 200 words done in that time. It's not a lot to do. First, I sit down and read what I have written the previous day. From the moment I stopped writing the day before, my mind has been working on it, so I can plug in and start where I left off. Writers' minds work when they're not working. If you're there with your novel every single day (and you have to be with it every single day), your mind will work behind the scenes. It makes it much easier and makes the binge-writing unnecessary.
I think this idea of 'writing when inspired' is really false...
You have to write, even if the next day you ditch the 200 words. It doesn't matter. You have to write.
What drew you to writing crime fiction in particular?
I had published four novels up to 1996, and then hit a very serious slump. I worked on a novel for four years and it went nowhere. My partner suggested I try something completely different. Now, I hadn't read crime fiction since I was a teenager. Because of the way my mind works, I started with Sherlock Holmes and Wilkie Collins and went up to the present day. I started working on a novel that took seven years to write and went through endless permutations. I had to get rid of the whole literary idea of how you write a novel, and I had to accept all the genre conventions. There were certain things I couldn't do with characterisation because I didn't have the space. The story and the plot are paramount. The characters are important, but you have to move the story along.
I've always written about fairly bloody things, that doesn't bother me. Sometimes writing a crime scene where a character gets seriously hurt can take four days. However, when the focus is on getting the correct word, one is less occupied with what the visuals are. For me, to actually do this is not difficult.
You're published here and internationally. How do you strike the balance between writing stories that are deeply rooted in Africa but yet are celebrated globally? To reveal my bias here, I've always had the fear that African narratives are harder to sell overseas or if they sell, they have to play to certain stereotypes.
They can be harder to sell, but not because of the stereotypes. Faulkner wrote a whole series of novels about a very small community. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, that in order to get to the universal, you have to focus on the specific. I have found that South Africa is my subject and I write for South Africans. I sell far more copies overseas than I will ever sell in this country. I don't write for those people, I write for here. The problem I have found is in the translation from South African English to UK English where I have to lose lots of the slang and the local foreign words. Other than that, South African books are bought because they are South African books. You certainly don't have to conform to stereotypes. In fact, if you don't conform to stereotypes, you're more likely to get the book sold. In the crime genre, we were once everybody's favourite nation, but now we are having to fight against everybody else. The truth is, books about Europe sell because the readers are all there and they are reading about their experience. So the bias is towards Europe, but that doesn't mean you can't find a market. Deon Meyer is a case in point. So is Lauren Beukes. If the book is good, and local, and smacks of what it means to be South African, it will get published. I have no doubt about it.
Why do you think such great crime writing does come out of South Africa?
We had a very sharp rise and its kind of dropped it. I think the rise came because the genre was new. To write cop novels during Apartheid was just not on. But after 1994, things were more fluid. Deon started writing hard-boiled crime novels and not selling too well, and then getting the books translated and not selling too well either. But as the books started to gain an international reputation, his local market grew. Unfortunately South Africans often need books to have an international reputation before we read our own writers.
Now the Afrikaans crime fiction is growing and that is feeding into the English crime fiction market. It's a different sort of theme. They're more into internally focussed, looking at murders within families whereas English crime fiction is more socially orientated. That's going to change how crime fiction is seen.
I know that one of your day jobs consists of teaching creative writing through an online course. What excites you about emerging writing talent in South Africa?
I've been lucky to find teaching later in my life. It started at UCT and then I got hooked onto online teaching, which is absolutely wonderful. I have found that the online tutorial forums allow you to engage with students and have pretty meaningful conversations. I've found that it has been better than face-to-face stuff. Teaching has always excited me - I love the light bulb moments particularly.
Obviously there are lots of people that want to write. Some of them have great talent while others don't. Often the ones that have the most talent don't make it, and the ones like me that are hard-arsed and persistent do. You've got to sit down and you've got to do it. I've watched many students write fantastic stuff and disappear. But then you see the dogged ones that are the real writers. They get rejected, and come back. They get rejected again, and come back. It's those ones that I will spend any amount of time helping because I know eventually that they will make it. It's a matter of time. For me, that's why I wanted to teach.
I think there is an obsession with being published, when there should be an obsession with craft.
I have never had an idea for a novel, not once. What's happened is I've heard a character and I've sat down and followed the story. Even with this one, I was sitting in an airport with a six hour wait, took out my notebook. I described the setting, I sat a character down next to me and asked her what she was doing there, and that's how it went.
Find Mike Nicol's latest novel, Agents of State, at your favourite local bookstore, or on Amazon.