Irna van Zyl is the author of the popular thrillers Dead in the Water and Death Cup. She is an award- winning journalist and media entrepreneur who headed up the magazines De Kat, Insig and Boeke-Insig. Before becoming a full-time writer, she was the executive director of a leading marketing agency. Irna was awarded the Order of Tafelberg for her business achievements. She lives in Cape Town and her latest crime thriller is Blood Stone
I got to meet Irna Van Zyl when I was in conversation with her for the launch of her second novel, DEATH CUP at Love Books in Johannesburg. We had a lot of fun and what struck me about Irna besides her great sense of humour and her intriguing plots, is that she really understands the business aspect of bringing out a book – particularly the importance of promotion (in fact, she could teach us all a few things!). She is such a consummate professional, it is always a pleasure interviewing her.
Tell us something interesting about you.
I started writing after I turned 50 when somebody asked me what it was I still wanted to do with my life and I realised that I’d always dreamt of writing full time but never had the energy or enough guts to do it. I currently live with my longterm partner, a very old dog and a new, young cat on the slopes of Signal Hill in Tamboerskloof in Cape Town. Blood Stone is my third crime novel. The first one, Dead in the Water, was published in 2016.
Did you study creative writing?
No, I have an Honours degree in Afrikaans and Dutch literature and I was in a literary lab in my final pregraduate year. Then I did an Honours in Journalism and started working for a newspaper. When I started writing in my fifties I did a lot of short courses, the best one in 2018 at the Breytenbach Centre in Wellington where ex-journalist, author and dramatist Rachelle Greeff faciilitates an annual course. This was in Afrikaans. I also did, amongst others, an online masterclass facilitated by James Patterson, which was really interesting.
Tell us what the book is about…
Detective Storm van der Merwe’s mom is pushed under a train at Paddington Station in London which causes mayhem as Storm (the protagonist in all my books) has to rush to her hospital bed, even though she’s in the middle of a murder investigation: leading South African fashion designer Beebee Bukelwa Babu was found dead in a luxury Hermanus hotel.
Drumming up a team to investigate Beebee’s death is proving difficult in a town crippled by protest action and in the grip of a menacing prophet firing up crowds to hysteria.
Storm soon realises that her mom was a deliberate target. And she is one too.
What inspired you to write this book?
A story an Uber driver told me one evening of how diamonds are hidden in fruit to smuggle them down to the Cape in fruit trucks – that was the spark for the story. The Uber driver worked in security on the diamond mines and seemed to know what he was talking about.
Whom do you think this book will appeal to?
Maybe it’s better if I say my role models are Deon Meyer, Jane Harper, Belinda Bauer and locally in English I really enjoyed Margie Orford and now Nechama Brodie (yep. My faves too).
In Afrikaans the list gets much longer to include Rudie van Rensburg, Karin Brynard and Deborah Steinmair. Not that I’ve read everything there is to offer locally.
(image: Taken during Twitter book launch with Mike Nicol just before lockdown)
Tell us about your journey to getting published. Was it champagne all the way or have you had some ugly crying on the bathroom floor moments?
It was quite a trip. Originally I set out, thinking I would know what to do, having read Stephen King’s On Writing and Elizabeth George’s for me seminal book, Write Away and several others including How to write a damn good mystery by James N Frey. But I ended up struggling for years, sending off my manuscript to publishers and getting some interest and guidance from them without making much progress till finally somebody mentioned something that made the penny drop.
From there there still were manuscript developers involved and massive rewrites but slowly slowly I progressed, discarding the first manuscript completely. It took all in all more than seven years for the first novel to get published and somehow I think there is no short-cut. I am still learning more with every book, and remain eternally optimistic that I would find readers who would enjoy it. I’ve learned that during the process there are many ups and downs. But if you stay behind your computer long enough, some sort of magic sometimes comes knocking on your door. I live for those moments.
If you’ve been longlisted/shortlisted/won any awards/had your book optioned for TV/film/achieved bestseller status tell us about it [this is your moment to BRAG].
Both my first two books (Dead in the Water and Death Cup) have been optioned for a TV series by Mfundi Vundla, one of our biggest producers. I am very excited about that (WOW!! That’s amazing).
Talk us through your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter? How does it all come together for you?
I have a vague plan and lots of research about the lead theme when I start. It’s a kind of a skeleton for the story, normally with quite a clear beginning and a couple of pointers for what would happen along the way. I then do fairly careful notes before the start of each chapter.
On really good days I can write 3000 words but those are few and far between and normally very exhausting. Mainly I do about 1200-1500 words a day, sometimes quite a lot less. The important thing for me is to write every day. When I can’t do it because of some of life’s necessary interruptions it is a very hard slog to get back into the manuscript.
After the first draft I then can do a lot of rewriting or polishing but normally it entails quite a lot of extra writing, even sometimes introducing new characters.
(image: Irna Van Zyl – Photographer Joanne Olivier)
What’s next for you?
In lockdown I have finished the first draft of my next novel that does not feature Storm van der Merwe but currently I am not happy with it at all. It’s been a very difficult process to get it to this point and I think I need a lot of uninterrupted hours to see if it could become a book.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The old saying of 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration really is true. It’s hard work but I really love it. Just focus on the creativity and enjoy it.
My current favourites are Jane Harper and Belinda Bauer but I’ve also recently read The Stories you Tell by the American Kristen Lepionka with a very interesting female private investigator. I’ve just started Michiel Heyns’s A poor Season for Whales, which I am loving. And can really recommend Deborah Steinmair’s As jy van moord droom, for those who read Afrikaans. It’s a domestic noir and really well written.
How are you keeping sane during the #coronalockdown? Have you managed to write/read during the lockdown?
It was very difficult in the beginning to find our rhythm being attached to social media and news for a couple of days. Now I leave my phone in another room and make a to-do-list every morning. If I can tick two things on my list I feel I’ve achieved a lot.
Where can the fans get your book?
It will be for sale in hopefully the near future again at all major bookstores and the independents like The Book Lounge in Cape Town, Graffiti in Pretoria and also Love Books in Johannesburg. There is an audiobook in Afrikaans, available on Audible and Audiophile and an ebook in both English and Afrikaans on Amazon, Takealot and other ebook platforms.
Thank you so much for taking part in #FridayReads! Irna’s books make the perfect Mother’s Day Gift. I suggest you buy all three. Your mother is worth it 😉.