The Interview – Gareth Crocker: Joburg man’s tales of America

2013-08-04 14:00

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Charles Cilliers interviews Gareth Crocker on how to sell a million books about a man and his dog, and why, when it comes to a good story, nothing beats raw emotion.

When we meet, Gareth Crocker still has a bruise on his forehead from getting kicked in the head during his soccer game over the weekend.

He grins. “I’m slightly concussed.”

Concussion or not, he’s great fun to interview, rattling off his story like a seasoned pro, though he’s only been a published author since 2008, with his big breakthrough coming in 2011.

Since then, his success has been incredible. Finding Jack, set during the Vietnam War, sold more than a million copies in its different formats worldwide.

When you listen to him speak, though, Crocker couldn’t be more the quintessential, down-to-earth South African guy.

“So how the hell did you get on to a Vietnamese war story?” I ask him.

“Well, I hate war. I’m not a fan of war. But I was in Washington, DC, a few years ago and I had some time off so went to see the touristy bits.

I was standing in front of the Vietnam memorial wall, which carries the names of the 60?000 US soldiers who died.

When you’re there, you can feel the weight of it. And there are always mourners of some kind.

“So I was taking in the emotion of the place for a few minutes and there was this elderly guy, dressed to the nines, very sombre-looking.

I could tell he must have been in the war. And after a while, he reached into his jacket, pulled out a dog harness and placed it against the wall.

Being a former journalist, my leg started to bounce and I just knew, I’ve got to ask this oke.

After a respectable pause of about 30 seconds, I went over and respectfully asked him what his connection was to the war, and what the dog harness is about.

“He told me he was one of the dog handlers in the war.

The dogs played a huge role in saving lives.

They would pick up booby traps.

The mines in the trees were linked by a trigger wire that could kill a whole platoon and these dogs were fantastic.

But at the end of the war, because it was costing so much to transport everyone home, the government declared the dogs ‘surplus military equipment’.

There were probably about 2?500 left and they were all left behind.

The Vietnamese eat dogs. Some of these dog handlers had to be forced at gunpoint to leave their dogs behind.

To this day, there are websites where guys will write stories about it.

“So I wrote a book about a soldier who refuses to abandon his dog. Here you have this heroic, Sylvester Stallone-type character who hikes out of Vietnam with his Labrador. They hike through Laos into Thailand, which is US-friendly, with the idea to smuggle the dog home. It’s set up for a film, it really is: this guy, all alone, the army gone, in enemy territory.”

There have indeed been developments for a film.

The most recent was when Gillian Gorfil, who produced Blood Diamond, formally optioned Finding Jack and Gareth’s third book, Never Let Go, about a father who is offered a near-impossible way to be reunited with his murdered daughter.

Each chapter of this book reads like a scene from a film already.

But it was Crocker’s second book, Journey From Darkness, that changed the trajectory of his international career.

“I wrote that with my dad. He sat down with me one day and said he’s got this really cool story. And I was like, ‘Ag, dad’. But he told me and I absolutely loved it. At the time, he had cancer. I think the book kind of helped with his mental frame and it became pretty special. So when the book was done, I took it to my publishers in New York. They read it, came back to me and said, ‘We really liked it. It’s fantastic. But we want to change everything’.

“But I just couldn’t. I said thank you very much and though we still have a really cool relationship, I walked away. They wanted to turn it into a big love story, an elephant whisperer sort of thing. I came back to South Africa, and later met a few ladies from Penguin and signed a local four-book deal with them. I didn’t even have a chance to think about it.”

Never Let Go, set in Los Angeles, is quite a departure from Finding Jack, but it shares a commitment to the raw emotion of Crocker’s other titles.

I expected it to be more of a straight crime-fiction novel, instead of the weird crime-science fiction mashup that it is.

At this, Gareth laughs. “I wanted the cover to be more of a Danielle Steel father-daughter relationship sort of thing. So Never Let Go is a bit of a victim of its cover – and I’ve broken the cardinal rule: Don’t Kill Kids. So a lot of people are like, ‘Ooh, dead child?.?.?.?no, no’. But the people who read it keep on saying the book surprises them, which is nice. I’m so tired of the same crime-fiction stuff, which is so derivative a lot of the time.”

And his next book?

“Yes, well, people think I’m this guy who writes these animal stories. And who can blame them? The first one was a dog, then there’s the elephant, and the fourth one’s?.?.?.?a lion!

The ridiculous thing is I don’t see myself that way at all. The fact that there are these animals in the stories is almost a coincidence. So in the next one, a guy, who loses his wife to cancer, starts helping his sister at an animal shelter in Detroit.

They find a back room in one of these run-down places and it’s filled with exotic animals. Among them is a dead white lioness, with all the cubs, but one, dead.

“So in this horrible, freezing winter they rescue this little white lion.

“Eventually, the sister takes the cub home and the lion starts opening up the world for her autistic daughter. And that sets it up for the question of the book, which is how far would you go if you had nothing left to lose? It’s about what this guy goes through to try to free this lion.”

Crocker says he may very occasionally be criticised for sentimentality. “But that’s fine,” he says. “I want to move people.”

Finding Jack: R135 on

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