Biking with the FT: Deon Meyer

You won’t see many large wild beasts in the country lanes near Surrey, but Deon Meyer isn’t taking any chances. I’m riding pillion on his motorbike, as the bestselling South African author cautiously steers around the narrow roads near Guildford. In the past, his adventures across the Karoo desert on his bike have taken him uncomfortably close to a bull elephant, warthogs and buffalo. By comparison, our most threatening moment has been a close encounter with white van man.

Meyer is in Britain to talk about his latest novel, 7 Days. However, the novelist, who writes in Afrikaans, is struggling with separation anxiety from his beloved motorcycle. So today he has taken time off to go for a gentle trip, hiring a BMW GS 1200, such as those used by Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor in their TV travels. I ride too, although my Triumph Bonneville is strictly more retro than touring machine, so we’ve decided that I should take the back seat. A lifelong biker, Meyer has used the time on his travels through the African bush to dream up the characters and plot twists that have helped his suspense novels mop up a stack of awards.

Parked up for a cigarette break, Meyer, 54, tells me that biking has always been an inspiration. “I’ve ridden tens of thousands of miles through the wilds of Africa. It’s like being in the shower, one of the few places where I can escape from the real world, switch off and let my mind wander. There’s time to think, to work on ideas and storylines that could otherwise take weeks to develop. In my book Blood Safari, all the ideas were created while travelling to places on a motorcycle. Heart of the Hunter has a motorbike as one of the main characters.”

The South African bush is notoriously unforgiving but, so far, Meyer has escaped unscathed. He has flirted with death on several occasions – once going head to head with a bull elephant while riding his dirt bike at 90mph. “I was flying around a corner and it was there, crossing the track in front of me with a herd. I had no time to stop, so I opened the throttle and aimed for a gap in front of his trunk. I passed by so close that all I can remember thinking was how incredibly long an elephant’s eyelashes are and inhaling that musky smell. The elephant kept on walking as if nothing had happened.”

Our ride in the home counties isn’t quite so action-packed, although Meyer has experienced something unusual for him: rain. Luckily for me, by sheltering on the rear seat behind his frame I’m protected from the worst of the downpour. “It’s amazing how many new cars you have on the road,” he remarks. “In South Africa, most of the vehicles are falling apart. They’re just as dangerous as a wild animal if you meet them at the wrong moment.”

Meyer’s page-turning novels are based around a central character, Benny Griessel. A disenchanted, alcoholic detective, there are shades of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus about the troubled policeman. Griessel examines the facts of each case with forensic detail, working in a post-apartheid South Africa. “When I was growing up in the country, apartheid didn’t really affect us too much because we were so remote. My brother and I were more interested in disappearing into the bush for adventures, which led me on to riding motorbikes.”

Deon Meyer and Jeremy Taylor on the road: 'I don’t get enough time to ride'

Meyer, who lives near Cape Town, was born in the South African wine city of Paarl. He wrote his first, 60-page book when he was 14, he tells me. He went on to study literature and history at Potchefstroom University and the University of the Free State, followed by a Masters in creative writing at Stellenbosch University. The book he wrote there, Devil’s Peak, went on to win several awards, providing Meyer with just enough funds to buy his first proper motorcycle. He went on to work in journalism and public relations, but wrote fiction in his spare time. “I wrote in Afrikaans because it was my own language. I never considered writing in English.”

As we pull over to shelter from the rain, Meyer lights another cigarette and says the biggest moment in his career was finding a publisher. “I never thought in terms of being published internationally. I just loved writing books and the thought that a few people might want to read them. I started writing in my home language but the market for unknown Afrikaans authors was so small my family would have died of hunger.

Dead Before Dying was my second novel and after it was released, a retired publisher called me up and took me out to lunch. He asked me if he could send it to a South African agent in London for consideration. I was totally overwhelmed because Hodder then took the book [in 1999] and I had my first deal. I was working in advertising and it was an incredible moment. Even today, when I see my books on the shelves I have to pinch myself.”

13 Hours, first published in English in 2010, is the book Meyer believes pushed him firmly into the international spotlight – and looks set to gain an even wider audience. Along with Devil’s Peak and 7 Days it is shortly to be made into a trilogy of films, starring Sean Bean as Griessel. Shooting, mainly on location in South Africa, is scheduled to begin this autumn.

Meyer has given up his day job and writes seven days a week, starting work at 5am so that he can finish by noon. “When I did have a normal job, I used to start writing at 4am because it was the only way I could fit it into my day. The problem with writing is that once you start, it doesn’t matter whether it is Saturday or Sunday, you just can’t stop a good storyline. I was working on the plane flying here.

“It has been a gradual process, building up my profile, because foreign markets have not been interested in South African fiction. We have had to struggle much more to build an audience overseas because it is not a sexy location for crime novels. The problem for me now is that I am doing so many promotional tours that I don’t get enough time to ride any more.”

When we return to Guildford, Meyer seems genuinely reluctant to hand over the keys to his bike. Perhaps that’s because with his books now published in 25 languages around the world, it could be a long time before he has the chance to pull on a helmet again.

‘7 Days’ by Deon Meyer is published on September 13 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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