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Deon Meyer Chats to Michele Magwood on Becoming a Writer: “It Went Way Beyond Anything I Ever Imagined I Could Be”

Deon Meyer and Michele Magwood

One thing rang true at last week Wednesday evening’s Times Talks event with Michele Magwood and Deon Meyer – the Icarus author is well-loved by his readers, and so are his characters.

Meyer has written 11 novels that have been translated into 25 languages. Magwood asked emphatically, “You are routinely mobbed at French festivals; could you have imagined any of it?”

“Absolutely not,” Meyer said. “I’m not sure if in the answers I give I can really convey my sense of awe of what has happened in my life.”

Growing up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Klerksdorp in the North West, Meyer had no concept of what it meant to be an author. “It went way beyond anything I ever imagined I could be – authors were highly cultured, intelligent people who smoked pipes and spoke deep thoughts.”

When Meyer started writing he was a single parent of two small children, holding down two day jobs to put food on the table. “The only time I could write was from four to seven in the morning.”

Deon MeyerDuring his discussion with Magwood at Kingsmead College in Melrose, Meyer’s humility shone through. “I’m always terrified of being self-confident,” he said. “My first novel is like having a brother in jail – I can’t deny him but I don’t want to talk about him.” The first time he saw his book outside South Africa was in a German bookstore, “it shocked the hell out of me”. He said that being uncertain about your work gives you an “energy to try and do better”. Self-doubt is essential, otherwise you start to “bore the reader”, he explained.

Meyer’s mother is his first reader and his biggest critic. Every time she reads his books, she says to him, “Haai my seun, ek het jou nie so grootgemaak nie.”

During the spirited question and answer session, a French woman stood up and asked on behalf of her mother, sitting next to her but unable to speak English, when Lemmer (pronounced in a beautiful lilt) would again make an appearance in Meyer’s books.

“The strange thing to me is that so many French women like Lemmer,” Meyer replied. “I also have a lot of readers who say please bring back Thobela Mpayipheli, and Lemmer as well, and I want to. I’m just waiting for the right story to come by that really works. I believe in the story coming first, the story is the most important thing.”

Another audience member reflected on the character development of Vaughn Cupido, Benny Griessel’s partner, and asked when he will get his own book. “It’s very possible,” Meyer said, explaining that when Benny fell off the wagon in his latest book, Icarus, he needed to give Vaughn a bigger storyline (and a love interest). “He loves the spotlight.”

Similarly, Benny was never supposed to be a protagonist, Meyer told Magwood. He was created in Dead Before Dying for comic relief and was named after Meyer’s favourite teacher in high school. “I needed him to be a drunk for one scene,” he said, explaining that when he did decide to bring him back as a more important character, the drinking had to go to avoid him becoming the “cliché of an alcoholic cop”.

Magwood asked why Meyer then decided to let Benny fall off the wagon again. “You know, it’s a good question,” Meyer said. “The answer is that it was time.” Benny has been struggling with his alcohol addiction for five books now, and “for me as the author and my readers it gets very boring when he just keeps on battling and winning”.

On a more serious note, Meyer explained that in his research he’d found that police officers develop drinking problems because they want to protect their loved ones from evil but know that they can’t.

Magwood observed that the English translators have kept more and more of the idioms of the Cape Flats and local slang in his books. “I have a very good British editor,” Meyer said. “We all feel it’s important to have South African texture in the book. We want to have that texture, that grittiness of South Africa.”

How does the Korean translator, for example, translate something like “skelm”? “He consults me,” Meyer laughed. “I’m in constant conversation with all my translators.”

Die ballade van Robbie de Wee en ander verhaleIcarusDead Before DyingInfantaIkarus
CobraOnsigbaar13 uurProteusFeniksWie met vuur speelKobra


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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) live tweeted the event using the hashtag, #livebooks:



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