Peter Church, Steyn du Toit
| Peter Church returns with the follow-up to Dark Video
Bitter Pill is an edgy, racy thriller set primarily in Cape Town, that explores topical and controversial themes with classic page-turning storytelling. It is the follow-up to the author’s debut novel, Dark Video. He spoke to Steyn du Toit about what to expect this time around.
This is your second novel. How did it go this time around in terms of getting published – was it easier?
It was probably harder. Financial constraints on publishers, the challenges of fiction in South Africa and changes in structures and personnel at the publisher all add to the complexity. You have people who believe in you and those that don’t. You need to prove yourself each time. Tim Richman, the editor of my first novel, Dark Video, has created a new publishing company, Burnet Media, continuing with best-selling non-fiction such as Alex Parker’s 50 People who stuffed up South Africa. His new imprint, Mercury, aims at publishing the best of South African thrillers. I was very pleased to work with him again.
I read in the acknowledgments that the creation of Bitter Pill took 18 months. Please take us through the process of having an idea to eventually seeing the book on shelf?
I was told a story about a young lady who’d had her drink spiked while on holiday in the Eastern Cape. She was found in a parking lot unable to remember how she’d got there. It started me thinking about what can happen to someone who is unable to recall events in their recent past. Months of research and character development followed. I wrote an initial draft and then submitted it for reader reviews, which seemed to focus too much on the sensationalism and sex involved in the story. It’s a long back-and-forth process with editors and reviewers before a final draft is agreed on and the manuscript is sent to the printers.
Do you still enjoy being a writer and has it made you rich yet?
Rich? What’s that? I love being a writer, but I haven’t put down any deposits on an island.
Why the decision to do a follow-up to Dark Video as opposed to a completely new storyline? Are you planning a series?
Dark Video’s finale prompted “So what happens next?” questions which influenced me to consider a sequel. But I got some very good advice from Mike Nichol and decided to write Bitter Pill as a standalone novel with certain characters following through from Dark Video. Regarding the series: I am working on number three. Most of the Bitter Pill characters are down on their knees; not sure if any can be resuscitated for a continuation.
For those readers not familiar with Dark Video, how does Bitter Pill follow on from there?
Both novels are independent stories with a common villain, the character Carlos, who is the mastermind behind an illicit video-sharing company. Carlos’s video business is under threat from the internet and he is forced to refocus his energy into offering more “hands-on” services. He links up with the Mickey Finn Club, a consortium of barmen spiking the drinks of selected patrons.
Once again, you highlight some very disturbing trends much closer to home than most people think. A few years back, drink-spiking was a big feature in the news, but has since quietened down. How much of an occurrence/threat is it still today?
Drink-spiking continues to be a menace in our society. But it can also be used as an excuse for general alcohol abuse and binge drinking. Intoxicated people, young and old, are vulnerable if isolated from their group. Bitter Pill is a stark reminder of what can happen to those in diminished states of responsibility.
What other forms of debaucheries do your characters get up to in the novel?
Carlos’s rich clients are a pretty depraved bunch prepared to plunge the depths to satisfy their thrills. But someone is systematically outing them. Bitter Pill introduces my first police character, the battle-weary Kaptein Vermaak.
Which character in Bitter Pill did you enjoy writing most and why?
Julian Lynch is a complex character. He is fixated on his daughter Holly and frustrated by his ex-wife’s attempts to keep them apart. I did a great deal of research on the psychology of such an individual. I enjoyed developing his character. I also enjoyed finishing with him.
Your new hero, Robbie Cullen … tell us a bit more about him. How did he come about and who is he based on?
Before Dark Video was published, some friends asked expectantly if they were a character in the book. After they had read it, no one asked that question again. Robbie Cullen in Bitter Pill is more like the kids I met at university. He acts on his instincts, which is admirable, if not so clever. There was this guy I knew at UCT who stopped to buy a pie at a late-night café. He heard a girl screaming down a dark side-street. Without thinking he ran in and tackled the girl’s assailants, knocked one out clean, got knifed in the arm by the other. Robbie is that sort of guy.
Locations play a big part in your narrative. What exotic places does the reader get to visit this time around?
Location is key, especially since many local readers suffer from that “it can’t be happening here” misperception. Plettenberg Bay is the getaway town this time. It’s sheer paradise. I spent my childhood holidays there; it’s a place where your wildest fantasies can come true.
I believe Dark Video was banned in a number of libraries, and at one school it was kept in a locked cabinet with copies of Mein Kampf and The Satanic Verses! Any juicy stories with regard to Bitter Pill so far?
Only the one about the guy who came to the launch at Mavericks and lost his book. He was seen at Exclusive early the next morning buying a replacement.
Lastly, have Wilbur Smith and Jeffrey Deaver read your first novel yet?
Haha. Who knows? If either of them comes up with a novel about illicit videos or drink-spiking then we’ll know for sure …
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