Two South African authors have recently been travelling and researching widely across borders for their new novels: Well-loved South African author MARITA VAN DER VYVER, who lives in France, talks to IRNA VAN ZYL about her latest book, the bestseller Borderline. And in turn Irna talks to Marita about Blood Stone that is set in London, Antwerp, Cape Town and Hermanus. 

Marita Van Der Vyver 

What was the trigger for writing a book on the border war, more than 40 years after the event? 

It was a war that messed up the lives of so many people I know. I already wrote about it in a previous novel, Childish Things, published in 1994 at the dawn of the new democratic South Africa.

At the time I naively thought we could stop looking back at our dark past, but now I know that we carry the damage of that past with us. The invisible wounds of the war haven’t healed – as proven by the  astonishingly emotional reaction of many readers to Borderline. 

Tell us more about Borderline and its main characters. 

Theresa Marais is a middle-aged woman who opens a box of army souvenirs belonging to her ex-husband, after he dies whilst in a mental institution.

She finds a blood-stained letter, written in Spanish, and realises it was taken from a dead Cuban soldier who addressed the letter to his young daughter.

She sets out to Cuba to try and find the daughter, to deliver the letter, to atone for whatever her husband did as a conscript in the border war in Angola, and to try and understand the psychological damage her husband suffered. 

In Cuba she meets several locals who help her understand the enemy’s side of the war as well.  

Marita Van Der Vyver  Photo: Robert Hamblin Vrouekeur
Marita Van Der Vyver  Photo: Robert Hamblin Vrouekeur

You went to Cuba as part of the research for the book and recreated a wonderful Cuban world in the book. How did you do that from one short visit? 

By reading as much as possible about Cuba before the trip, by paying attention to all my senses – hearing, smelling, tasting – while I was there, and by giving free reign to my imagination afterwards, at the same time writing the story.   

You really manage to get under the skin of your characters, especially the Cuban ones. How did you go about creating them? 

My stories are always more character-driven than plot-driven – though with this one I had to do a lot of plotting too – so Ive learnt to watch and listen carefully.

Some of the Cuban characters started quite simply, with people I noticed in the street or in a bar, whom I would then use in my imagination to build them up into believable characters.   

What would be a single statement about war that you would want to make in general and do you think it comes across in the book? 

Very few soldiers die heroically. Most die messy, horrific, senseless deaths. I really hope this comes across in the story, so we can stop glorifying war. 

Borderline is a fast-moving novel which almost reminds one of the suspense genre. You normally read prolifically, but did you expand your reading matter for Borderline to include suspense or crime? 

I wanted the search in Cuba to be full of suspense and surprise twists, which is why I paid more attention than usual to plotting.

I didn’t read any specific crime novels but my partner, who is French, reads crime fiction from all over the world. We often discuss the books were reading, so maybe I was indirectly influenced?  

Blood stone cover

Irna Van Zyl 

How would you summarise Blood Stone for a reader who hasn’t read any of your books? 

Blood Stone is my third thriller in which the detectives Storm van der Merwe and Andreas Moerdyk play the lead roles; this time to investigate the death of a famous fashion designer at an hotel in Hermanus and search for a very valuable and expensive red diamond that has disappeared at the same time.

The story starts with Storm’s mother falling under a train in London and the question quickly arises: is this incident linked to the death of the fashion designer who was a client of Storm’s mother? 

What are the challenges  and rewards  of returning to the same detective character for the third time? Specifically, in which way was writing this novel different from writing the previous two? 

The rewards of the same character reappearing are that you know her back story so well that you don’t have to spend too much time writing her biography before you start the book, but that is also the challenge – you have to find something new that is intriguing about her. 

That said, I have found that I’ve spent much more time working on my character’s back stories and the plot than before. I think this assisted me in being more confident in my writing.  

The structure of the novel is impressive  all that jumping to and fro between cities and countries as well as jumping backwards and forwards in time. How did you plan this and how did you keep track of it all? 

It was important for me that the story plays off almost simultaneously in London and in Hermanus in the Western Cape.The only way I could do that was to have Storm in the present tense in London, as well as seven days before in Hermanus.

From there the time frame evolved. I always keep a chapterbychapter timesheet of the story when I write, but I had to concentrate on it a bit more with this book! 

What was the trigger for setting the story against the backdrop of the fashion industry? 

I heard a story of how diamonds are smuggled to South Africa in fruit and vegetables and then started putting ideas together. I ended up with tapping into the brains of my friends that work, or used to work, in fashion. 

Irna Van Zyl

The bumbling detective Moerdyk is a wonderful character. The eternal loser in all of us, who still survives in spite of all his mistakes. How do you manage to make him so endearing to the reader? 

I especially enjoy writing the Moerdyk chapters and I think probably when you really like your character, he becomes endearing to readers even though he is clumsy and at times infuriating for the other characters in the book 

In your acknowledgements you thank someone for checking the inner dialogue of a rather sleazy character called Whitey. Tell us more about this process?  

I approached the Editor-in-Chief of Sawubona, Ingrid Jones, who grew up in Worcester, Whitey’s hometown, to check the dialogue for me. She kindly, and greatlyassisted me. 

What next? Already plotting another crime novel with Storm van der Merwe as protagonist? 

There will be another Storm book soon, but I am halfway with a new book that is not about police procedure. I’ve created different characters; we’ll see how that works out.