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Knucklebone – the debut novel of veteran writer NR Brodie – was started six years ago. Read William Saunderson-Meyer’s interview with the author

Published in the Sunday Times

NR Brodie, author of Knucklebone. ©Sarah de Pina (Sunday Times).

NR Brodie is Nechama Brodie – veteran journalist and bestselling author of five non-fiction books. Knucklebone is her first novel – an unusual thriller about poaching and magic, driven by an engaging ex-cop, Ian Jack, and former colleague Reshma Patel.

Your previous writing was non-fiction. Now you produce this crime/occult thriller out of the blue. Explain.

It’s the illusory magic of publishing, that anything happens ‘out of the blue’. I started writing Knucklebone nearly six years ago, finished a first draft five years ago. Fiction publishing is a constant exercise in patience and humility.

If you had asked me, as a child, which I was more likely to write, it would have been magic, made-up stories. The non-fiction happened by accident. A very happy, wonderful accident, but not intentional.

Now I sit in the fortunate position of really loving both. I have an unpublished young adult fantasy, and another two works in progress. They all have an edge or core of the supernatural or fantasy. I write the stories I love to read.

You wrote a highly rated contemporary history of Johannesburg and one of the pleasures of Knucklebone is that you know the city so well. Tell me about you and Joburg.

When the first edition of The Joburg Book came out in 2008, it was harder for people to declare their love for the city. The book was part love song, part dirge, part call to action. The city felt rough, but redeemable. And it has done more than that in the last decade.

Nobody owns Joburg, which is the way it should be. But Joburg is a character. I have a very specific relationship with its parts. What does fear feel like in a suburb? What does belonging feel like in another place?

When you write histories of cities – I have written a history of Cape Town, too – you train yourself to observe people and spaces in specific ways. I try and imagine or understand how the parts fit into the whole. Joburg is unique, in the ways that it threatens you and the ways it rewards you.

Sangomas and witchcraft are a reality for many. Suburban covens of white witches, perhaps less so. How does it all fit into your world view?

I encounter many people who put faerie signs in their gardens, or dreamcatchers in their cars, but would treat African traditional beliefs as primitive or suspect. But, yes, sangomas are a reality in many lives. I would be wary of using the term witchcraft. It implies a great deal and not mostly positive. When used in print, it is often to do with the murder of a woman, typically an elderly woman, accused of ‘witchcraft’. Usually that has very little to do with actual traditional beliefs, and more to do with systems of fear, suspicion. Old women are easy targets. This book attempts to acknowledge that, and unpack some of our societal prejudices.

I am writing my PhD thesis on murder. I spend my days trying to explore rational explanations for things that, honestly, are so damn hard to explain. I reject the Hobbesian notion of life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. But it also is like that. The entire world exists on a spectrum.

There are charlatans that try exploit the gaps between faith and facts. Prayer doesn’t cure HIV. Neither does olive oil and garlic and African potato and vitamins. But that doesn’t mean faith, belief, has no place. Perhaps the shorter answer is: just because I don’t believe in something or I can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true, or that it doesn’t exist.

During the writing of the book, I did meet and talk with women who identified as what perhaps we would call witches, and who also referred me to other reading and resources on magic and pagan beliefs in South Africa. I also met and consulted with different izangoma, at different stages of my work.

As regards the poaching, I think I started off with what I had read in the news – at the time I started writing Knucklebone, rhinos were big in the news, and the carnage seemed to defy any rational explanation. I don’t believe stereotypes of supposedly hypersexed Asian men count as valid explanations; even a slightly more nuanced reading of stories on animal poaching shows how poor these stereotypes are in informing us of reality, and how wide the web is outside of Asia.

There’s a lovely touch of Hogwarts on the Highveld about the way that Ian Jack changes from prosaic cop to warrior against the forces of darkness. What are your fictional inspirations? What are you reading?

Jack is looking for a way to do the right thing, without becoming part of the wrong things. I think this is a personal conflict for me, for many people. How do you make your community safer without having armed patrols infringing on others? Am I going to donate towards anti-poaching mechanisms that target poorly educated poachers and local communities, rather than the fat cats?

Reshma is the bureaucrat – she wants to do the right thing, but also wants to follow the instructions. Ian doesn’t think the instructions work anymore, but he doesn’t want to turn into a law of his own, which is kind of like his dad and many apartheid-era cops were. Magic is just a narrative device for hard human choices.

I like characters that are a little cynical, but who don’t give up too easily. Hard-boiled detectives, the guys Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett wrote about. But a little less boiled, less resilient. I like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch a great deal. I was a big fan of the late Sue Grafton and her PI, Kinsey Millhone. Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski is still a favourite. I like Deon Meyer’s Bennie Griesel but I I want to shout at him sometimes – the character, not Deon – which is a sign of engagement.

I have a growing pile of books to be read. I have to read by mood. I can’t do certain books when I’m not in the right frame of mind. I really want to get to Christa Kuljian’s Darwin’s Hunch, about the African origins of humankind and racism in paleo sciences. And I need to get properly stuck in to Hennie van Vuuren’s Apartheid Guns and Money. I have Nick Harkaway’s novel Gnomon lying on my dining dining room table (which is where I also work), but I’m not allowed to read it until I’ve met certain writing targets on my own books. @TheJaundicedEye

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