Wessel Ebersohn In The Press
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Read these reviews of the Classifier in pdf format
Review by Litnet
Powerful, chilling Those Who Love Night a must for thriller readers
Interview with crime beat
by Mike Nicol in August 2010
New Ebersohn thriller set in Zimbabwe
Mike Nicol of Crime Beat interviewed Wessel Ebersohn on THOSE WHO LOVE NIGHT. Crime Beat is devoted to SA crime fiction. It includes a Who’s Who of SA thriller writers, and a short history of the genre here.
Crime Beat: Well, this came as a surprise, although I am not sure exactly why. Perhaps I thought you were intricately tied into the South African scene. But leaving that aside, Those Who Love Night is set in Zimbabwe. Why did you decided to go outside our borders?
Wessel Ebersohn: I have been fascinated by Zimbabwe and its travails for a long time. A well-ordered society is better for its citizens in every way, but it is not very stimulating. I recently spent a few weeks in Europe. I found much there that is interesting and beautiful, but not much to get the pulse racing. The chaos that is Zimbabwe, borne out by our own visits to that country, is a naturally exciting background for a thriller, not always the easiest or safest place to research though.
Crime Beat: You visited the country? In what way was conducting research difficult?
Wessel Ebersohn: Writers trying to get the real picture of Zimbabwe are always tense while in that country. Shortly before one of our visits, while working on Those Who Love Night, a Johannesburg-based journalist had fled the country. She found it necessary to travel via Zambia to throw the dogs off the scent. You are always aware that you are in a dictatorship and doing things of which the government would not approve. Not only that, but you are aware that you could be drawing unwelcome attention to the people you meet. For instance, we visited friends whose offices the Zanu PF headquarters looks down on. Passing through seemingly endless farmlands that had once been worked by white farmers, but are now lying fallow, also does little for the state of mind. The road blocks too are reminder of where you are. We were shaken down for US$50 by the police at one of them, but that was something that might happen to any tourist. It had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with opportunism. I took no notes while in the country, relying instead on my memory, which for matters important to me is a good one.
Crime Beat: Zimbabwe is a society in collapse. It is ruled by a neurotic and paranoid despot and this has bred a violent and sinister element in his security services. This is the sort of background you favour in your novels, but I wonder if this is not also a cautionary tale for South Africa?
Wessel Ebersohn: It certainly is a cautionary tale for our country. One has to understand that the leadership of that country do not see their actions as unreasonable. No dictators do. According to the pronouncements of its propagators, the recent attempts to bring the press to heel in South Africa also seems entirely reasonable. What has to be appreciated is that any such step can take the one who makes the decision down a turning in the road that can lead to some altogether unexpected destination. It may also turn out to be almost irreversible, at least for the foreseeable future. When the person or group making such decisions is at the head of a nation the consequences may truly be vast.
Crime Beat: Just to return to the topic of the Ebersohn territory: an iron-fisted state and a citizenry struggling for their rights. Why is this one of your dominant themes?
Wessel Ebersohn: I am enthralled by the struggles that people have when they live under dictatorships. We live in a continent from which many middle-class people – of all races – have fled. I remember something Reverend Beyers Naude said to Miriam, my wife, while I was in hiding finishing Store Up The Anger. She was afraid of being picked up by the security police. He gave her excellent advice, then he said, “But it is exciting, isn’t it?”
Crime Beat: Intriguing. Can you elaborate here, a little? You were in hiding! Why?
Wessel Ebersohn: I was finishing the writing of Store Up the Anger. And we knew the security police were bugging our phone. When completed, the manuscript was smuggled out of the country to Victor Gollancz, my publishers at the time. So visiting Zimbabwe was quite like the old days.
Crime Beat: Your new character Abigail Bukula, who first appeared in The October Killings last year, is very much at centre stage this time round. I thought she and Yudel Gordon got equal play in The October Killings, but that’s not the case here. In fact it is forty pages before Yudel appears. Why did you decide to give her the main role?
Wessel Ebersohn: It’s just the way the story was given to me. I don’t think future thrillers will all be like that.
Crime Beat: Do you see a series developing with the two of them?
Wessel Ebersohn: I do. Yudel arrived a long time ago, but Abigail just ambushed me recently. I cannot desert her now. She would never forgive me. As for Yudel, he will die when I do.
Crime Beat: An interesting way to look at it. Abigail is very much a part of contemporary South Africa and their ‘partnership’ possibly reflective of an ideal state of being. Author and reviewer Louis Greenberg commenting (not altogether flippantly) on SA crime fiction recently noted that these partnerships – often private/public and often different race groups – are an attempt by crime novelists to show nation building. Do you think so, given that we have the McClure duo Kramer/Zondi as a template?
Wessel Ebersohn: Mr Greenberg does not have it right in my case. I am not a writer who plans that sort of thing. My writing is essentially intuitive. Very little reasoning goes into it. I have the greatest difficulty in answering questions about why I did this or that in a novel. I usually do not know the answer.
Crime Beat: At the end of The October Killings, Abigail had stabilised her marriage. But here again she and her husband, Robert, are on rocky ground. It seems that both are to blame for the tension in their marriage, and both are prepared to think about straying, but don’t. These difficulties make for useful drama, but do you also mean something else by their emotional turmoil? Can we read it as reflecting a greater turmoil in society?
Wessel Ebersohn: No, I’m not that subtle. What you see is what you get. Don’t look for something deeper. It isn’t there. But, having said that, Abigail and Robert are both ambitious, strong-willed and passionate. They appreciate each other, but they are likely to bump heads often. Their careers may come into conflict and other problems may arise. Abigail is closer to being truly monogamous than Robert, but she too is not beyond being excited by another man.
Crime Beat: And in this instance a rather dangerous excitement, given the man she gets turned on by. This is a side to her personality we hadn’t seen in the earlier novel.
Wessel Ebersohn: She surprised me too. I also did not see her falling so hard for the wrong man. But perhaps I should not have been surprised. She is a passionate woman whose life is not likely to be governed by any man.
Crime Beat: Without giving too much away, there is a ‘soft’ ending as far as their relationship is concerned. Is this partly to meet the genre’s conventions, or because you feel they shouldn’t be allowed to part that easily?
Wessel Ebersohn: That’s the story so far. I have not received the rest yet, so I cannot say what lies ahead. I am currently working on the next in the series so we shall see.
Incidentally, this genre is not all there is in my life. I expect that my next novel to be published will not be a thriller.
Crime Beat: Ah, a betrayal of the faith…
Wessel Ebersohn: Well, I have in the past also written novels that were not thrillers. Store Up the Anger, that went into some eight translations, was not a thriller. Neither was Klara’s Visitors. Having said that, I love writing thrillers and I do believe that Those Who Love Night is my best yet. All those close to me who have read it agree. And I do think that Abigail’s unexpected passion and the added danger that results from it have added greatly to the story.
Crime Beat: Back to the Those Who Love Night, Yudel Gordon and his wife Rosa, on the other hand, have a very stable relationship. Yudel’s eyes might wander towards pretty women but he knows that Rosa is the mainstay of his life? Is this happy marriage a deliberate contrast to the mayhem that swirls through society?
Wessel Ebersohn: Yudel and Rosa have been married for a long time. They think of people who have been married for 20 years as newly weds. They have had their problems, most of them caused by Yudel. They may still have squabbles, but I believe that the big problems are passed.
Crime Beat: Let’s move to the story. It obviously has a grounding in real events – the massacres in Matabeleland after independence and the on-going instability these caused – but where does reality end and the fiction begin? Presumably with the personal ties between the sinister Chunga, Abigail and the imprisoned dissenter Tony Makumba.
Wessel Ebersohn: Those Who Love Night is a work of fiction. I hope the characters are as real to the readers as they are to me, but don’t go looking for them. They’re not in the telephone book. The dictatorship in Zimbabwe is a backdrop, but it is a detailed backdrop. If you go looking for the street names, Zanu PF’s headquarters, the road blocks, the dictator’s daily cavalcade, Chikurubi prison and much else, you will find those. But you won’t find McDooley’s Inn or the offices of Smythe, Patel and Associates.
Crime Beat: Yes, but I must press this point. How much of the backdrop’s detail fed into the fiction? Is the assassination of the lawyer based on an actual case, for example? Certainly the opening scene seems ‘true’. Although it has probably been repeated all over the world, throughout time. But the point I’m trying to get to, is the one where non-fiction ends having stimulated the imagination. Did you, for instance, have a newspaper article at your side, which gave an account of soldiers torching a village?
Wessel Ebersohn: No newspaper article, but over many years I have read extensively about the Gukurahundi massacres. The account is not based on a real event, but was inspired by many. The little village in which it takes place is also not based on a real village. It too is an amalgam of many that I have visited down the years. The kind of incident that is described is only a small sample of what the Ndebele people suffered at the hands of the regime in those years.
Crime Beat: Those Who Love Night is a strong critique of due process. Clearly the rule of law does not apply in dictatorships. Yet the charade is maintained, and gives you material for satire.
Wessel Ebersohn: The rule of law is not absolute anywhere. In dictatorships it only exists in minor matters. Even in democracies it is weighted heavily in favour of the rich and powerful.
Crime Beat: You have never been a great one at depicting violence. There are violent incidents in your books but they are handled fairly quickly. The reader gets the picture but there is no excessive detail. Was this a conscious decision to play down what for many crime novelists has become a necessary part of their fiction?
Wessel Ebersohn: I am not a lover of pornography. The pornography of violence sickens me still more. Most of my books have a powerful violent element, but that does not mean that I should revel in it. I did in one book long ago. I do not expect to be going there again. What other writers do is their business.
Crime Beat: Fair enough. But some would argue that the depiction of violence illustrates the horror of actual true violence. That what they are doing is presenting the truth as they perceive it?
Wessel Ebersohn: What they do is up to them. I do not think that I hide anything from my readers, but I don’t shower them in blood either.
Crime Beat: Finally, is the next in the series well advanced, or is that a question that shouldn’t be asked?
Wessel Ebersohn: The next novel, entitled The Classifier, is done and I am working on the next Yudel Gordon/Abigail Bukula thriller. I expect to have it completed before the middle of next year. The theme is a powerful one, but I would rather not expand on it now. The act of writing is, after all, a solitary activity.
more from Crime Beat (a link to their site)
What others have said about Ebersohn’s books
Joanne Hichens in April 2010
“On the SA scene I read Wessel Ebersohn’s The October Killings, just sold to Minotaur in the US. Same St Martin’s Press imprint that published Out To Score under the new title, Cape Greed. Riveting story, as lawyer Abigail Bukula in association with eccentric Jewish psychologist Yudel Gordon, race against the clock to keep one ex-cop Leon Lourens from being murdered. Kept me enthralled and provided escape from my life for a day (phew, what a relief). For a weird little grey-haired bloke trying to find his feet in the new SA, Yudel Gordon ain’t half entertaining, and has a predilection, it seems, for biting into flesh himself, though not to draw blood – he sommer likes to nibble.”
A chat with Wessel Ebersohn
First off, it is a pleasure for Crime Beat to welcome back to the publishing scene Wessel Ebersohn. But before that here’s a bit of literary history: in the dim dark days of 1978 (memory is not exact, I’m afraid) I wandered into the offices of Ravan Press in Braamfontein where Mike Kirkwood sat behind his untidy desk, a typescript on his lap. He was dressed in a suit – which was unusual for Kirkwood – but understandable as he had returned from a visit to the censorship board in Pretoria to argue for the preservation of the literary magazine Staffrider – the first issue of which had been banned. I sat down and he held up some pages from the manuscript he was reading and said, ‘You know this would make us a fortune but it’s been sold to Gollancz in the UK. And I can’t blame the author at all. I would’ve done the same.’ Kirkwood was referring to Wessel Ebersohn’s first thriller A Lonely Place to Die, which went on to be published in 14 countries. The next Ebersohn novel, The Centurion was published by Ravan and Kirkwood also published a later Yudel Gordon Divide the Night. This novel and another stand-alone, Store up the Anger, were published in the UK first and immediately banned in South Africa before the Ravan editions were even printed. However the banning orders were opposed and overturned. In the case of Store up the Anger, the censors then banned the cover and its replacement, and the novel finally appeared in a plain dustjacket that carried only the title, Ebersohn’s name and that of Ravan Press. Ebersohn is one of the big names in our crime fiction and his intensely socially and politically aware novels have done much to influence the way we write crime fiction today. That he has published again and intends publishing more in the Yudel Gordon series is seriously good news.
Crime Beat: It’s been nineteen years since the last Yudel Gordon novel (Closed Circle), which is a long time, did life simply get in the way? I know you became disillusioned with writing after the publication of Klara’s Visitors, was that part of what led to your withdrawal from the publishing scene? Or is the return of Yudel simply a matter of his forcing his way back into your life?
Wessel Ebersohn: My disillusionment came earlier than that, as far back as the 1980s. All my novels, except Klara’s Visitors, are set against the South African background of the time in which they were written. I was disillusioned by the killings on both sides in the liberation struggle. At that time, I fled with my wife Miriam to the Knysna Forest to avoid it all and lived there for six years. It really had nothing to do with Klara’s Visitors.
For the last fifteen years I have been involved in the establishment of Succeed magazine. Succeed is the other half of my Jekyll and Hyde personality. It is a stimulant for South African entrepreneurship, while my fiction is something much darker. It is my intention that each should reflect a different aspect of reality. Now that the magazine is, at last, running well I have the opportunity to return to fiction. When I say that it is running well, I mean that I now have my evenings free to write.
Crime Beat: Before getting into your new novel, the eccentric Yudel Gordon really does need to be welcomed back. He first appeared in A Lonely Place to Die then in Divide the Night and Closed Circle – all of which were well received and published in the UK, US and went into numerous European translations. When he first appeared in the late 1970s he was an unusual protagonist in a crime novel which is perhaps why he is such a fascinating contribution to the genre. Why did you choose to have a prison psychologist as your main character?
Wessel Ebersohn: Prisons are full of criminals and Yudel himself had been working away in my soul for some time. I had to let him out. I am not sure if I chose him or he chose me.
Crime Beat: Some of your books were banned during the 1980s. Were you ever told why they were considered offensive?
Wessel Ebersohn: The censors of the time seemed to think that they undermined national security. Those are not their exact words, but it came down to that. Both of the banned books dealt with deaths in detention, subjects that made them feel uneasy, I suppose. Divide the Night was the only Yudel Gordon to be banned.
Crime Beat: Writing crime fiction in the apartheid years was a tricky business. You couldn’t be sympathetic to the cops because the cops were as good as an invading army. You also might face the charge of being frivolous in writing popular fiction when writers and critics considered the only local novel of worth was the apartheid novel. Did you ever come up against this sort of criticism?
Wessel Ebersohn: No, but then the Yudel Gordon stories all reflected a great deal about our society of the time. In the same way, The October Killings reflects my view of the country as it is now. I never once was aware of any criticism that suggested my use of the thriller as a medium was frivolous. Oops, no there was one – from another novelist. I put it down to sour grapes.
Crime Beat: Certainly Yudel’s life and career is evidence of the difficulty and uncertainty of those years. As is the life of his cop friend, Freek Jordaan. Neither are completely at ease in government service. Clearly this was an alienation you wanted to exploit and highlight?
Wessel Ebersohn: The truth is that I do not decide these things on a rational or, should I say, an objective basis. My stories come to me and I write them down. I have always used the word, intuitive, to describe the process. Your question is completely understandable, but the fact is that I don’t know the answer.
Crime Beat: Was it the crime novel’s natural inclination to social criticism that attracted you to the genre?
Wessel Ebersohn: Partly, I’m sure. South African society has been utterly fascinating for as long as I’ve been alive. And yes, the crime novel does allow the writer to reveal all sorts of elements of the country that normally stay hidden.
Crime Beat: Presumably, given the criticism of the current prison system in The October Killings let alone the pot-shots at the avarice of the new elite, it’s the same sort of attraction for you now?
Wessel Ebersohn: My attraction is to thrillers. I like thrillers, or rather the thought of thrillers. Like many people, I find the battle between the good guys and the bad guys both interesting and stimulating. I am also impatient with most thrillers. The overwhelming majority leave me unfulfilled and I do not even finish reading them. In the Yudel Gordon books I try to do the things that I feel many thriller writers ignore. Most of all, I try to reflect some of the hard, unpleasant realities of my country. As for the pot shots at the new elite, perhaps my approach is a little more complicated. Yudel has been retrenched, but Abigail, the other half of the team, has seen her husband fall into an empowerment deal of absurd proportions. This does not, I believe, make her a less satisfying character.
Crime Beat: Far from it, it makes her a more interesting character as her reaction to the empowerment deal is muted, in fact she is embarrassed by it. But before we get to Abigail, let’s turn to the novel as a whole. In The October Killings we find that Yudel has taken the package – a polite way of saying he has been booted out by affirmative action policies – and has left the department of correctional services. But now he is being rehired as a consultant. There is implied criticism here – as elsewhere in the novel – that the government’s policies are ineffective and that they were rash in getting rid of what expertise there was. This mix of the fictional world with factual realities has always been a factor of your crime novels. Indeed, it creates a certain tension in the story as if at any moment you could step off the page into the real world.
Wessel Ebersohn: This is a fine criticism, Mike. Thank you. I hope that people do feel that they may be reading about the real world. Perhaps they are. There is no question but that government, guided by their determination to replace white bureaucrats by black ones, with very little care as to their abilities, did a lot of damage to the services they are supposed to provide. Some smaller municipalities barely function. Sadly, they still measure success by the number of black faces in an organisation, not by its effectiveness. None of this suggests that there are not many hard working and committed black bureaucrats. But there are also plenty who should not be occupying their positions. As for Yudel, his retrenchment has worked to his favour. In The October Killings he is now earning better than before.
Crime Beat: Indeed he is. Which is another criticism of a poor administration which is now costing the taxpayer considerably as outside expertise has to be brought in. However, enough of the real world at this point. Your novels have always been highly readable commercial fiction and The October Killings is no exception. With this novel you introduce a new heroine, Abigail Bukula, a lawyer in the justice department with a horrifying story in her past. She is a useful foil for Yudel but what attracted you to such a character in the first place?
Wessel Ebersohn: I had nothing to do with it. Abigail ambushed me the way Yudel had many years before. With her determination, her refusal to take crap from anyone, her sense of justice, her sheer zest for life and her looks, how could I resist her?
Crime Beat: I guess you couldn’t. Abigail is a feisty character. Sharp, bright on top of her game. Yet vulnerable at the same time and actually a bit of a loose cannon. Like Yudel she doesn’t seem cut out for government service.
Wessel Ebersohn: They both definitely have a problem there. Long, long ago I too was a civil servant and I also had a problem in that area. Free thinking tends to be frowned upon in civil services the world over. Yudel has been walking the tightrope of what he wants to achieve and what is expected of him for a long time now under both the apartheid government and the new South African one. It has not been easy, but he has managed.
Abigail is new to it and the whole thing is far more difficult for her. Things that Yudel would let go, she hangs onto. Her past in the liberation struggle gives her more confidence to take on the system, when she feels she has to.
Crime Beat: Abigail brings a useful moral argument into the story: the nature of good and evil. Her life has been saved twice: the first time by a soldier of the apartheid regime; the second by an MK soldier who exacts a heavy price for his troubles. As it happens both soldiers are white. Presumably the flip sides of the same coin with the racial baggage removed?
Wessel Ebersohn: Nothing in life is ever quite the way it seems. In the Second World War, for instance, all the self-sacrificing bravery was not only on the side of truth and justice. There was also much bravery among the German forces, ordinary boys fought in the Nazi uniform and not a few psychopaths on the side of the allies.
The same applies to the South African liberation struggle. While there is no doubt where justice lay, there were bad guys on both sides.
Crime Beat: Was there anything in particular that led you to this story?
Wessel Ebersohn: I suppose the moral ambiguity does appeal to me. It may not have thirty years ago when I saw the world in sharper shades of black and white. But the years have changed me and they have changed South Africa too.
Crime Beat: Much of the new crime fiction has been set in Cape Town so it is a welcome change of scene to travel about Pretoria and surrounds. What’s it about the city that makes it an attractive background for you?
Wessel Ebersohn: Pretoria is headquarters. Politically, it is the centre of things. And just down the road is Johannesburg, which is the centre of things commercially. Most of all, it is the region where I live. Probably the Cape Town stories are written by authors who live there.
Crime Beat: On a less serious note, the crime novelist Margie Orford contends that the crime novel is another way of writing a love story. In fact there are two love stories running through your book: that of Yudel and his wife of long-standing (and long-suffering) and that of Abigail and her editor husband, Robert. Both marriages are rejuvenated by the harrowing journey Yudel and Abigail undergo. It does seem to be a triumph of love over hatred.
Wessel Ebersohn: I never gave it a thought. Orford’s view is certainly an interesting one. There are two love stories in The October Killings, but the parties in both stories are married to each other. I guess in more ways than one, I am out of step with the times.
Crime Beat: One last question: a note on the dust jacket of The October Killings says there are more novels (I assume crime novels) to follow. Will Yudel and Abigail feature in these?
Wessel Ebersohn: They are the central characters of ‘Nights Like These’, the book I am working on at the moment. The title comes from King Lear: “Even things that love night, love not such nights as these.”