Thursday, June 28, 2012

9mm interview: Zirk van den Berg

For the 64th instalment in the ongoing 9mm quickfire author interviews here in Crime Watch, I thought I'd feature an intriguing local author with international roots, Zirk van den Berg.

Namibian-born van den Berg moved to New Zealand in 1998. After having written screenplays and fiction in Afrikaans while living in South Africa, he published his first story in English in 2004, NOBODY DIES. At the time, van den Berg told Iain Sharp of the Sunday Star-Times that he moved his family from South Africa partially because of the violent crime there; an atmosphere and setting that was very well evoked in a novel  'about identity' that went on to receive great reviews and acclaim. The New Zealand Listener asked if van den Berg's impressive debut made him the 'best thriller writer in New Zealand', and the New Zealand Herald chose the book as one of the best five thrillers, worldwide, of that year.

More recently, in a large feature in the Sunday Star-Times about local crime and thriller fiction in late 2010, Book Awards judge Stephen Stratford said he was still eagerly awaiting another thriller from van den Berg. Last year, van den Berg established Say Books, an online publisher of eBooks. He re-released NOBODY DIES as an e-book with a new cover, and then later published his second thriller, NO-BRAINER, the first in a planned series of mystery romps featuring sculptor cum blackmailer Jules Dijkstra.

But for now, van den Berg faces down the barrel of 9mm.


Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, if I have to be honest. But since he’s been done to death, I’d give an honourable mention to two lesser acclaimed contenders – Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley and Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza’s Inspector Espinosa. Check them out.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Exodus by Leon Uris when I had just turned 15. I was surprised and delighted to discover that I could read a book in English, a language I had only encountered at school and in movies up to then. Suddenly a massive new world opened for me. I went on to read 75 or so English books in the next six months. I know, because I wrote down all the titles. So if anyone asks me what I was doing in the latter half of 1975, the answer is easy: I was reading.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I had published some magazine stories in my youth, in my native Afrikaans. My first published book was a volume of short short stories (two pages on average) that was perceived to be quite literary. Many of the stories have been anthologised and one seems to have taken on a life of its own, popping up all over the place. Then I wrote a historical novel which had some good moments, before moving to New Zealand and switching to writing in English.

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I play designer board games. (Banish that image of Monopoly that had just popped into your head!) The games I enjoy are far more clever and demanding. Most are built around a theme, often business, politics or warfare. Predictably, I’m drawn to the narrative aspects of the games, which can function like story generating machines. The Europeans, significantly, call their game designers “authors”. My favourite game currently is De Vulgari Eloquentia. Player characters roam around Renaissance Italy to study early Italian texts. Your character can join the church and one of them can rise to become Pope. It’s terribly geeky... but then so is reading or playing chess.

I’ve also become a bit obsessed with the ATP tennis tour. Most of my days start with reading the overnight results. (When you live in New Zealand, much of what happens in the world happens when you’re asleep.)

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I was born in Walvis Bay, Namibia, a town whose greatest claim to fame is that Brad & Angelina went there to have a baby for unfathomable reasons. If you go there, head into the desert and sand-surf down a dune. Then leave before you fall in love with that barren place.

I’ve lived most of my life in Cape Town, which has no shortage of amazing tourist attractions. If you happen to be there on a full moon evening, go the the University of Cape Town campus on the mountainside or the neighbouring Rhodes Memorial and watch the moon rise over the distant Hottentots-Holland mountains. It moved my soul as a student. But then so did many things.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I’d love to say Andy Garcia, who’s so dashing and brooding. But for the sake of realism probably Dan Aykroyd or John C. Reilly. I’d give Jim Caviezel a shot too if he’d crack a smile once in a while. (He’d be my choice to play Daniel from Nobody Dies, when someone sees the light and turns this book into a movie.)

Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
It has to be Nobody Dies. The theme meant a lot to me at the time and I still think the basic premise is strong. My forthcoming historical novel Half of One Thing is close to my heart too. Both have significant, albeit masked, autobiographical elements.

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Hearing that the first book was accepted after ten years of rejection wasn’t as much of an event as seeing the printed book for the first time. But then the next morning life is back to normal. Publishing a book, unfortunately, doesn’t change your life.

My most memorable experience as a young writer actually came about ten years before that, when I had a slightly surreal love story published in a magazine at 19. I saw a girl reading it and ventured closer, “anonymously” asking what she was reading. “Your story,” came the answer. I’m not sure how she knew who I was, but was terribly embarrassed and got out of there pronto.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
There’s this little old lady who accosted me after an author event to tell me a long story, followed by her idea of how to turn it into a novel, which she wants me to do. This kind of thing happens to every writer, I suppose. But over the course of eight years this one lady has now done it to me three times! I have to develop a better memory for faces.

Thank you Zirk van den Berg! We appreciate you taking the time to chat with Crime Watch.


Have you read NOBODY DIES, either back in circa 2004, or more recently? What do you think of van den Berg's interview? Have you been to Cape Town? Do you like South African-set crime fiction?


  1. Another entertaining 9mm interview! That little old lady telling the long story was oddly familiar but damned if I can remember where I've heard her before. We'll watch your back next time, Zirk!

  2. Autobiographical elements, Zirk? Hopefully not the killing bits, LOL.

  3. Ever since No-Brainer, I've thought of vdB as the Elmore Leonard of the southern hemisphere. He has a great ear for conversations 'on the other side of the tracks.' Fortunately, he's also a damn sight funnier than Leonard.