About a year ago I met a stray cat. It was breaking and entering on a daily basis, and like the resident cat, whenever I caught the little intruder in the act I hissed at it, and chased it away. Little by little I happened on the kitty cat again and again, invariably being chased by something. A dog, or a cat, or just a sound that had spooked it. I guess I had a flashback of that plascon ad where you see a black cat on an odyssey through sewers, sprayers, crossing grimy railway tracks and surviving dog-infested suburbia only to slink into a home and luxuriate against the smooth [plascon-painted] walls. So my heart went out to the little fella, and giving out cupful’s of Felix’s cat food at breakfast soon turned into bed & breakfast.
I christened the interloper Groucho, because of her shy nature when you reached out to stroke her. Groucho could be affectionate, as long as it was on her terms. Very soon, since I was alone at home, Groucho and I bonded. When she was AWOL I began to worry about her. Getting to my room and avoiding the mutts and Felix was a daily gauntlet run for Groucho. Unfortunately, it was the near escapes and drama with other animals that brought Groucho’s free board and lodging in my bedroom to an end. But having witnesses the poor yellow-eyed critters efforts at survival, I wasn’t going to give her up to the SPCA. I made a special appeal to my father [who has taken on an orphaned Springbok, a seagull, a sheep and a Blesbok] and fortunately the appeal succeeded. Groucho found a new home and lived happily ever after.
At about the same time Groucho’s survival was hanging in the balance, mine was too in a sense. In 2014 I’d lost several of my permanent gigs with publications like Finweek, Explore, Fitness, Afropolitan and other magazines. At the same time I’d started writing for Amazon, primarily on the Oscar trial. That was a gamble that paid off. For 200 straight days I sold books, but once I hit December interest flagged, and flagged rather precipitously. So I decided to take on a fulltime job at the university as a facilitator. After a few weeks that fell through; the university had over-estimated class sizes and so when excess facilitators had to be trimmed, I was one of the unfortunate [or as it turned out, fortunate] cutaways. I remember feeling very conflicted taking the facilitator job, getting the regimented curricula and having my freetime sliced and diced. Of course losing the job suddenly made me feel…well, extremely anxious.
It was around this time that I suggested to my California-based co-author that we write something for the American market. True Crime, but for an American audience. At the same time I had to decide where to re-commit my time. To the tried and tested industry of photojournalism [that I knew was contracting every hour], or to the slightly tried and mostly untested world of writing ebooks. It was kind’ve a big gamble and kind’ve a big deal. I won’t bore you with the details, but I put most of my eggs into amazon, investing only in the magazines I liked most – GQ and Country Life.
The Tide Turns
It didn’t take very long to see results in the Jodi Arias books. I’d say the Arias stuff outsold the Oscar stuff by at least 5:1, maybe two or three times that. In the end Lisa and I wrote 6 bestselling books, and we’re doing a 7th in the first quarter of 2016. Jodi’s sister Angela has just been arrested on battery charges, and the Jodi Arias trial lawyers have or are about to both release their versions of the world’s craziest court case.
It’s funny how the rollercoaster rolls. The Arias books saved my skin, and so I suggested to Lisa that we just keep doing what we were doing. Our next project was Amanda Knox. Amanda Knox turned out to be a whole new ballgame. Unlike Oscar and Jodi, Knox was ultimately acquitted, so the dynamics are very different. There’s also a lot going on behind the scenes that people aren’t aware of. Suffice it to say when I published Deceit all hell broke loose. When you have time, go and read some of the 60-odd reviews, and notice the level of vitriol and abuse levelled at yours truly.
Some of these people are paid to sabotage, undermine and discredit folks like me, and when you’re paid to go after someone, by gum, there’s your incentive. The Knox books weren’t as popular as the Arias books, but both sides, the Justice guys and the Pro Knoxers are extremely committed to taking each other out. Lisa actually had to call one particular hairdresser from Seattle that got out of hand, and we also tracked her down and sent her a cease and desist letter from an attorney. It’s amazing how foul-mouthed and confident people are in their anonymity, but once you speak to them in person, they suddenly grow not only manners, but a conscience. Needless to say we haven’t heard from the hairdresser since, although dozens of fake avatars are doing the rounds, and we often get troll reviews from obvious fakers. This can be heartbreaking at times, because I am making a living out of writing, and someone comes along with their indignation and venom, and their dishonesty can sometimes cost us sales. Maybe it’s a pair of shoes, or a tank of petrol, but it does cost us, and it does add up.
Making Money Out of Tragedy
I get the accusation that I’m some kind of vulture making money out of tragedy. My answer to that is twofold. Firstly, what job do you do? I bet I can make a few allegations about selling out, or working in a job you hate. The point is, you can either work for someone else, bring to fruition someone elses ideas. All my work is my own ideas. I decide what I’m going to do, when, and how I’m going to do it. If money was the object I doubt I would be writing, and if it was to make money out of writing, in the Arias case for example, it would make a lot more sense to demonise Jodi and valorise Travis. We’re trying to be more authentic than that. We’re trying to have our stories actual mean something to people. Guess what, some people hate that. Some people want to hear Jodi evil Travis good and that’s a five star book for them. We’re not here, Lisa and I, to make money out of tragedy, but meaning. Do we want to get paid for our efforts? For the days and nights spent extracting blood from stone, you better fucking believe it. Although we love our work, it’s still work, and only fools would work for free. The making money out of tragedy argument is a non sequitur, sorry.
Secondly, I enjoy my work. I’ve written fiction and care the most about my BLOODLINE series; so far True Crime is more popular than the fiction. My first choice would be to write fiction, but I have bills to pay. I care about justice, and I care about the stories [and the people in them] I’m writing about. I’m very invested in it, because I care about the truth and the law. It’s like accusing a man for marrying someone for her looks, or a woman marrying a man for his money. Maybe you do, but maybe you like them too. Maybe I’m making money writing books about criminals, but I love my work. Can you say the same? When you get up in the morning do you get up, clap your hands and you can’t wait to get your hands dirty? I love my work so much I’m almost addicted to it.
Long story short, while last year this time I was cashing in my cards and taking up a job, by losing that gig I ended up redoubling my efforts. Guess what. Right now I’m earning more than five times what that job would have paid. I’ve also moved beyond writing about crime to writing about mountains, and movies. These gambles have also paid off handsomely. At the time of writing the numbers are at all-time records, even the R/$ is better than ever for me [since I get paid in foreign currency].
With so much success it’s been tough to call a timeout at the end of a book, or the end of a day. And so, often I haven’t. The results has been a few scary hours and days with severe chest pains, the result of excessive sitting and zero exercise [and often a very poor diet exacerbated by chronic sleep deprivation]. There’ve been a few days where I’ve felt moments away from a heart attack.
And so I’ve recommitted to getting a proper balance in time away from the keyboard, outside, doing half Ironmans, climbing mountains and the like. One of the highlights of 2015 was doing a Park Run in Durban in 24:12 [a new PB], doing a 70.3 the very next day, and the day after that climbing Mount Aux Sources alone in the Drakensberg, camping on top [alone] and climbing down.
Travel this year has been amazing, especially the trip to Namibia through the flowering abundance of Namaqualand. This year was the first time I’ve ever seen the flowers on the West Coast during Springtime. It was like an endless Garden of Eden. It literally felt like a beautiful garden in ways that the Garden Route simply doesn’t.
Namibia was an incredible adventure too; from digging out the Mercedes with my flip flop in the middle of the night, to seeing an Aardvark in nature for the first time. The Fish River Canyon at sunset and that whole wilderness, with its haunted car wrecks and Gemsbok playing sentinel, brought home the power of Keith Alexander, and the importance of following one’s bliss.
Ghost of Girlfriend’s Past
It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. In 2015 I briefly but unexpectedly reconnected with someone I’d known earlier. Someone I respected a lot. Not only was this completely unexpected but also very special. I guess all I can really say about it is the world can suddenly open up, and suddenly it becomes something like a haven filled with red carpets and possibility. Oh the places we’ll go! What can one say about beauty mixed with intelligence? About brawn? About steely determination? What’s not to love? But all good things must come to an end, and then one can’t help second-guessing not only oneself but also the other person. Am I little more than an ego boost to you, or am I loved for who I am? It’s easy when you love someone to give, to pay someone the gift of attention, to go into overdraft, but sometimes it feels it can be all about them too – about a selfish need all in aid of someone else’s inflation, for someone else to feel good about themselves. Is that what it is? If so it’s not love. It’s just ego masturbation. Whatever it is it’s powerful stuff. Imagine if you could bottle it and sell it. On the label it would say: THE SLAYER OF DREAMS.
End of Year
The year has ended on a good note. For the first time one of my books has reached #1 on Amazon. I've reconnected with friends far and wide, I've reconnected with family too. I've also reconnected with my own values, especially the percolating desires for fitness and living a full life. It seems to me between 2005 and 2015 I've gone through a broad slump. There were interruptions, but things in general seem to be ticking wildly upwards again. At last!
Groucho also brought the van der Leek family together. I can’t remember much of last Christmas or New Year’s, but this Christmas was the first time since I can remember where the whole family was together and there weren’t any issues. Groucho had something to do with that. Candice adopted her, which meant whenever I went to see how she was, I also saw Candice and she saw me. I guess we both saw each other as human beings capable of giving a rats ass about some poor critter, and…I guess there was some mutual redemption in that.
A few days ago I met the guy who introduced me to the whole concept of publishing direct to Amazon. He's picked up a nice job at DSTV and is moving house and home to Johannesburg. We had a really good lunch, but halfway he confided something. He said, what I have achieved, being a full time successful author is a dream I've achieved that's still eluding him. For all his success he said he wished he was in my shoes. I guess it's great to be in my shoes. I've worked helluva hard but it's paid off, and hopefully will continue to pay off.
Other highlights this year included interviewing Lewis Pugh for GQ and signing on Roland Schoeman to do his biography. There were a few lowlights, some of which involved Grey College and some of the greybeards there, but all in all it’s been a very successful year. Sitting in trial with Lisa was a highlight, but there were many besides. We’ve even been offered movie contracts for our books. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to our success, whether it is was reading a book or simply showing an interest in our work. Thanks especially to Liz Phillips and Lisa Wilson, you both know why.
Towards 2016 we’re developing a big expensive SHAKEDOWN website where readers and fans and those interested in the latest case can throw their toys. I’m doing the 70.3 in Durban in June, and planning on shaving an hour or two off my previous time. I’ll be doing more books about mountains and movies and health, but there’s still one apiece in queue ito Oscar, Jodi and Knox. We’ll probably also cover Cosby and Durst this year. I'm hoping to live a healthier and more balanced live in terms of fitness and nutrition.
I hope to get some airtime this year, perhaps it’ll be Mauritius and or California. Maybe it will be closer to home, Madagascar or Mozambique.
I'm counting on the next 5 years as being just as good as this one, in spite of a very challenging context ITO world and local economics, anxiety and what not. I'm counting on me to deliver, and thus far I have.
I’ve taken risks and paid off, and I hope in 2016 you will too. Sometimes rescuing an invasive irritating cat can work miracles in your life, down the line – YOU JUST DON’T KNOW. But when you listen to that little voice, not the voice telling you not to do something, the voice that wants you to jump recklessly into living, and giving. Try it! Follow your bliss, whatever that means to you. Be brave and I hope you find that experience of life just as I have, and find it again and again and again.