This week we talk to the South African thriller author Peter Vollmer and find out a bit more about the heir to one of South Africa’s greatest thriller writers and friend to Ian Fleming, Geoffrey Jenkins.
1. When did you start writing thrillers and what drew you to the genre?
From about ten, I became a prolific reader, starting with Enid Blyton, W.E.Johns (Biggles) and then Wilbur Smith. Apartheid South Africa was very puritan based on strict moral rules. Wilbur Smith’s ‘When the Lions Feed” together with books from Harold Robbins and others were banned. As you can imagine, in my teens these copies were treasured! I was particularly taken with Wilbur Smith in my early twenties when I wrote my first novel; it was about early Rhodesia, the Shangani Patrol and the Anglo-Boer War. It was an attempt to emulate Wilbur Smith but with my story, which I banged out on a typewriter. I never attempted to publish and the manuscript was mislaid. I still know the story. After that, there were other demands in my life needing my attention and I did not return to writing.
2. What made you start writing again?
I was a part-owner in a rather successful transport company, with a virtual locked-in contract providing 75% of the turnover that assured a reasonable profit and employed over a hundred people. A few bad business decisions and the demands of BBBEE, labour unions and general labour unrest brought the company to its knees. With my life experiences taken into account, there was no better opportunity to start writing again. The genre of the next novel I wrote was science-fiction, titled ‘Andromeda’s Gift’. It has never been published and has since been split into two books. Hopefully, I’ll publish it one day.
3. Can you tell us a bit about how you developed the idea for Diamonds Are But Stone?
I was in Namibia during the Angolan Bush War and did a great deal of flying in my own and other aircraft befriending many other pilots, some of whom who were involved in clandestine flight operations to South-eastern Angola supplying war material to Unita. The rebel group was led by Savimbi, which was at war with the MPLA, who were Communist-backed, while Unita was backed by the South Africans and Ronald Reagan’s US government. Savimbi’s wealth originated from the north-east of the country, from the alluvial diamond mines.
Suffice it to say, diamonds were channelled to South Africa and Burkino Faso. This wealth was used to finance the war, with all who could get involved out to make a quick buck or more. At the time, the rape of Angola seemed to have no bounds. Although South Africa detested the Communists, the war presented an opportunity to many, some in the military, to do exceedingly well out of the spoils of war.
4. Several of your novels are set around the time of Apartheid in South Africa; why is this an important thread in your books?
In the early ’80s many white South African began to question the wisdom of the apartheid philosophy and years later the resounding ‘Yes’ vote to demolish apartheid had a profound effect on the lives of all in South Africa. That it could get better for Blacks was without question, but for Whites, none yet knew. What was to come figured high in our lives. The benefits the Whites enjoyed were incredible compared to others. Irrespective of your degree of education, immediate employment was virtually ensured, salaries were excellent and you could change your job on a whim with another job waiting. Now, for Whites, the position is reversed. Transformation is the watchword. In the job market, merit has no role, we are governed by what is termed BBBEE, Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment and sports teams must represent a fair composition of colour, and daily our parliament is reduced to a rendition of a Boswell Circus show. We have all become victims.
5. Your new novel is Left for Dead, which is set in Namibia, where you were born. Is this your most personal novel to date?
I grew up in Windhoek, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund in Namibia. I’m of German descent and my upbringing and some of my schooling was in German. In fact, just about everything in my life at the time was tied to traditional German culture, I, for years, speaking predominantly German, it our home language. On the occasional weekend or during school holidays I would accompany the fishing trawlers to sea and would help with the harvesting of the fish.
On other occasions, we would drive north along the coast to beyond the Ugab River, this the southern border to the Skeleton Coast, on motorcycles and beach-buggies or drive east, deep into the Namib Desert for two or three days. Also, my family-owned farms where we spent time during school holidays. Later, as a pilot, I flew all over Namibia, (then still South West Africa)and even to the remote and desolate north and northwest regions. During the winter, my friends and I would hunt on the fringes of the desert using aircraft to get to our destinations.
Yes, in a sense ‘Left for Dead’ gets pretty close to my life, but nobody ever attempted to shoot me in the back! Stabbed yes, but that was only in South Africa but after the fall of apartheid.
Peter is the grandson of German colonists who settled in the German colony of South-West Africa in the late 19th century. After living and studying in Namibia, France and England, Peter returned to his native South Africa. His education started in English schools with my father and mother only speaking English at home. He was involved in assisting then Rhodesia when it declared UDI and assisted in breaking the embargo set by the United Nations. He is fluent in German, English and Afrikaans. Peter has family who own a farm on the fringe of the Namib Desert and the Kakaoveld.