Having had the pleasure of reading The First Rule of Survival, the debut novel by Paul Mendelson before its UK paperback release on Thursday 17th April; I contacted the novelist on twitter @MendelPS and he was happy to answer some questions for me via email. To Mr. Mendelson I am eternally grateful for his time and to read my review of the novel, please follow the link here.
- What was the gestation of The First Rule of Survival?
From a really early age, I have always written stories - my study's drawers are filled with unpublishable novels - and, about four years ago, I decided to write an adventure story set in Cape Town, in the style of the early James Bond books. I loved doing it and the few friends to whom I showed it were very keen that it should be published. A couple of literary experts said that they liked the writing, but that the story was not quite right for publication, and they persuaded me to write something more serious.
- Have you always wanted to write a work of fiction?
My writing career started off at the National Theatre when, being in the right place at just the right moment, I was lucky enough to have a one act play produced. "You're Quite Safe With Me" attracted quite a lot of publicity as, at the age of 21, I was the youngest playwright to be performed there. From that, I got a literary agent, and found myself working on scripts for TV series like "The Bill" and "Moon and Son". That kind of writing didn't agree with me, and I moved away from fiction into writing non-fiction on mind-sports such as bridge, poker and casino gaming, as well as a weekly column for the FT and feature articles for magazines and newspapers elsewhere in the world. All this time, short stories, novels and other fiction has been spouting from my pen/keyboard - but just for fun. Now, it seems, the fun is over...
- Born and bred in London, what is the appeal and attraction of South Africa for you?
I was invited to Cape Town just as negotiations for Nelson Mandela's release were coming to fruition. I stayed with a family deeply involved in anti-apartheid politics and spent much time with politicians and campaigners. I fell in love with this large family and the city of Cape Town, which I thought was one of the most interesting and beautiful places on the planet. I have been visiting pretty much every year since. It's my spiritual home now.
- How much research was required into the SAPS and politics of the country?
Without being at all party political, I have always been fascinated by politics and particularly the formation of a new constitution in South Africa. The transformation from the years of hideous oppression to one of the most forward-thinking constitutions in the world was an extraordinary achievement. Several of my friends there had
friends in the SAPS, so it was wonderful to be able to get opinions from different officers about crime and the institution of the SAPS itself.
- What are your influences? Which thriller/crime writers do you admire?
James Elroy is my ultimate inspiration. His early work is incredibly raw and immersive in the culture of America in the 1950s and 60s, and I marvel at the simplicity of his language and the power of the images he creates. Then, his more recent work incorporates a series of fascinating (if quite repellant and amoral) characters weaved into American history from the time of JFK to more modern times. In this later work, his use of language is amazing - a contemporary form of poetry; the speech rhythms and the breadth of story-telling awe-inspiring.
Other writers who I think are fantastic would include Deon Meyer - in my view South Africa's pre-emininent thriller writer - whose books impress me more than I can say; Michael Connelly's early Bosch novels; Robert Crais' seemingly effortless prose-style and sharp wit, and Mark Billingham's gritty and truly frightening London crime stories.
- How long did it take to write with redraft and edits?
Because I was writing it more for my own pleasure than with an eye on publication, I took my time and the whole novel took perhaps two years to come together. Then, it required substantial cutting as it was way too long, but with excellent editors - Krystyna Green and Martin Fletcher - it wasn't too painful. There were, basically, no re-drafts, just one or two short extra passages recommended to me for clarification. Then, almost a year's wait until publication.
- Vaughan de Vries is a magnetic personality, will we be seeing more of him?
Thank you for saying so. I wanted to try to create a character who, like everybody else, is far from perfect, but with a strong moral compass (whether you agree with his moral code is another matter). In the SAPS now, if you are a senior white police officer, you certainly have to be determined to find your way through the layers of positive discrimination and general life-sapping bureaucracy, to do any work. This is what De Vries strives for. And, yes. De Vries is back in the sequel which, as I write this, is sitting on my desktop, 98% completed, and hopefully will see the light of day next year.
- You write books on card games also, was it always an intention to write a work of fiction to show another string to your bow. Myself, I have many interests as my blog can show, so find it hard to focus on one specific category. Is that a cause for concern or just another challenge?
Your blog's subject matter is certainly diverse and, these days, it seems rather old-fashioned just to be interested in just one or two things - everything is happening so fast. My brain is split into two defined parts: the creative and the logical/arithmetic. I have written 12 books on various mind-sports and I still earn my living teaching and writing about bridge and poker, probabilities and strategies for casino gaming and other odds-based activities. I've done this for thirty years and the creative side of my brain is definitely telling me that it is about time the logical side backed off and let the creative side have free rein so, all being well, there will be a little less bridge and poker work, and more fiction writing because, really, this is what I love. I guess like other artists (I use the term generously in my case) you have to suffer for your art and, earning your living doing other things, is what most writers have to do these days.
- What are you working on currently?
Having just finished the sequel to "The First Rule of Survival", I am already at work on ideas for my third book. I have plans for more De Vries mysteries, but also a slightly skewed version of a detective story set in the UK. I can't decide quite with which to move forward yet. I guess it will depend on whether Vaughn de Vries captures the imagination of enough readers to warrant his return. personally, I hope so.
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