James Fouché: Exploring The Criminal Mind

By: Paul Pregnolato
Posted: 12 July 2012
Category: Features
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Crime writers and the crime genre are perennial favourites at the Cape Town Book Fair and this year was no exception. Up-and-coming author James Fouché shared his thoughts on the complexities involved in both delving into the criminal mind and drafting the moral and psychological pen sketch of an antihero while writing a crime noir thriller.

James Fouche: Exploring The Criminal Mind"People" - according to James Fouché, author of crime thriller Jack Hanger - "tend to think that crime writers are a crazy bunch and, in their defence, they are right!" At this point in his talk at this year's Cape Town Book Fair he promptly (and some would say justifiably) "shot dead" one of the Cape Town International Convention Centre's sound technicians. While this got a good laugh from the audience, he continued by saying that crime writing is not just about crime "but that [crime writers] also like to mix it up and see where it originates". To him, crime writers - in order to understand crime - need to understand the criminal fully and, as a result, will usually conduct an in-depth study of the psychology of a criminal: "that is one of the key factors for us". He also said that crime writers need to find a "point of inception" where a character's morals have warped "and it is there that we generally find our characters".

This warping of moral values is one of the themes of Jack Hanger, a revenge-thriller set within Cape Town's drug-trafficking underworld. The hero (or rather, antihero) - a former drug dealer himself - is "a very normal guy who has gotten so fed up with the way things are that he takes certain 'measures' to try and fix it". For the author, writing about a "good cop doing good work" was simply not possible in South Africa "especially if you see what Bheki Cele has been doing!"

James also noted that a new trend in crime writing was for authors to set their books in South Africa: "In the past, you'd read about a McDonalds being robbed in California and [readers would think] that is fantastic because it is happening in America, thinking that there is only this one country, 'America'. What has happened now is that people have resorted to telling stories taking place in our own back yard. [We have] become accustomed to the idea of reading something [we] can relate to; characters [we] can relate to."

When asked how he differentiates between "sensational" and "real-life" crime when writing, James Fouché said that he tries to "keep it as real as possible but somewhere along the line it is still fiction". As far as sensational crime, such as that portrayed on TV series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is concerned, he says that "stuff just isn't done like that. They don't just see a piece of glass and hypothesise based on a single fingerprint found on that piece of glass!"

One pertinent question was whether or not South African crime writers find themselves trapped by constantly having to racialise crime. His response was that "we do live in a country where, sadly, there are still racial issues" but "we should move on". He elaborated by saying that none of the characters in his next book, King Of Sorrow - due out in 2013 - were racially distinguishable: "The lead character could be any possible colour."

James Fouche: Exploring The Criminal MindAs far as the emotions he experienced when writing about a criminal were concerned, James Fouché said that it often depended on the type of character he was writing about. "The character in Jack Hanger, for example, is very, very intense. He has been called "the guy with the dragon tattoo", an allusion to Lisbeth Salander , the darkly dramatic and (occasionally) ultra-violent antiheroine of Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millennium series. As it is, James took almost seven years to write Jack Hanger and admitted that he often took fairly lengthy breaks from writing, "as the character sucked me in a couple of times and I had to distance myself from him". When it came to fleshing out characters, he said that "when I sit down, I have to become this character [...] I have to be this person [...] [and] I need to be able to understand everything, to be able to know where this person comes from [and] to know his background". For this author, "living the character" is a top priority when writing.

Another incisive question was whether - when he started writing - he thought of an idea and filled it out or simply took a real-life example and turned it into fiction. He replied that "I've actually done both! I've had ideas that were so unique to me that I formed an entire fictional story around it. I've also had an entire story with nothing unique about it; I would then bring in something unique". However, the one thing he stressed that he had to have in the writing process was "a beginning and an end", failing which "I'd wind up writing a thousand pages filled with weak characters". To him, the discipline of an author was "concision and brevity".

Finally, when he was asked how easy (or difficult) it is to transform crime from an abstract notion into something with definition and boundaries, he commented that in many crime novels the characters are very superficial. "I try to add a little bit of human drama to give the character depth and explain why [he is] the way [he is] and to bring the reader into his mind," he said. "Any journalists who are worth their salt have to go into some really dodgy areas for a story. It is pretty much the same for authors but it gets a little more emotional for us as we join the character a bit but at the end of the day I still do the research, I capture it in the story and I want to tell the story. When the story is done it is on to the next story".

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Tags: #books, #ctbf

Key Facts: Jack Hanger
Author: James Fouché
ISBN/EAN: 9781616670689
Edition: First
Year: 2010
Format: Softcover
Pages: 216
Dimensions: 140x211x11cm (LxWxH)
Genre/Keywords: crime, drugs, revenge, police, South Africa, thriller

On The Internet
James Fouché: Official Site | Facebook | LinkedIn | Twitter
Jack Hanger: Official Site | Facebook | Twitter
King Of Sorrow: Official Site

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