I’m a bit of an expert on the world of chocolate. I used to teach a course on the politics and economics of cocoa and chocolate. ~ Michael Niemann
Michael Niemann writes international thrillers. Illegal Holdings is his third Vermeulen novel. The others are Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade. During his academic career his work focused on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region.
SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?
MN: I grew up in Germany and at that time, almost every boy read the adventure books of Karl May, a 19th century German writer. They were all set in the American West and I remember reading as many as I could get my hands on. The first one I read had an Apache chief Winnetou as the hero. I still remember the dramatic scenery, although I found out much later that May had never visited the United States until very late in his life.
SR: What’s your new book about? What inspired you to write it?
MN: Illegal Holdings is about access to land in Mozambique, a poor country in southern Africa. It dives into the machinations of powerful international donors and the resistance of ordinary people against it. My protagonist Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator for the United Nations ends up in the middle of this and has to choose a side. I was inspired by my personal experience in the country and my distrust of the increasing power wielded by large philanthropic organizations in poor countries.
SR: Due to oppressive taxation you have to move into a tiny house. What are the ten books you aren’t giving up?
MN: Actually, my wife and I moved to a very small house three years ago, and not because of taxes, but because we wanted to. So I’ve had to pare down my book collection to a minimum. Although I have more than ten books, here are the top ten that made the cut. You’ll notice few fiction books on the list. That’s because I’m an avid user of my local library and because these days I can have as many ebooks as I want on my devices.
- The Production of Space – Henri Lefebvre
- Security, Territory, Population – Michel Foucault
- Critique of Everyday Life – Henri Lefebvre
- The Constant Gardner – John Le Carré
- The Long Twentieth Century – Giovanni Arrighi
- Citizen and Subject – Mahmood Mamdani
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
- Werke – Heinrich Heine
- Vengeance – Lee Child, editor (because one of my stories is in it)
- Jim Knopf und Lukas, der Lokomotivführer – Michael Ende (one of my favorite books as a child)
SR: Do you listen to music when you’re writing? How does music/art influence you creatively? MN: Yes, I do. For my first Vermeulen thriller I listen to The Clash a lot because it was his favorite band. Funny, really, that I chose that band. I was never much of a punk fan, but grew to like the band and it helped me get to know my character better. He’s mellowed since, but the occasional Clash song will still show up in later novels. My musical tastes are wide-ranging. For this novel, I listened a lot to Mabulu, a Mozambican marrabenta band. Music creates a cocoon of sound in which my imagination can thrive, at least that’s what I tell myself.
SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?
MN: Is all of the above an option? Let me focus on character names. Since my novels are set in far away places and involve many local folks, I do have to research first and last names. So I do spend a fair amount of time finding out what are common last names, common first names in the country. Once I have a set of names, I play with different combinations of first and last names until I find a combination that sounds good to me. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. In some circumstances, certain names are tied to specific ethnic groups. So I have to be careful not to combine the wrong names.
SR: Is your protagonist more likely to go insane or end up in prison?
MN: Prison, definitely! One of his drawbacks is his stubbornness. Once he’s figured out what’s what, he doesn’t let go. Although he hasn’t been in prison yet, the nature of his work and the locations where he does it will eventually land him in prison. Not every country has a Bill of Rights. It’s only a question of time.
SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?
MN: I like to cook and bake. For example, I bake all the bread we eat at home. I make a damn good flourless chocolate cake and some tasty biscotti. Cooking is a creative process almost like writing. The choice of ingredients, the pairing of different food items. Having said that, I don’t consider myself a “foodie.” I don’t follow the latest trends. I have a repertoire and add to that when inspired.
SR: What strategies do you use to keep your books fresh? Particularly if you write a series character, how do you keep them consistent without retelling the same content book to book?
MN: Because Valentin Vermeulen works for the United Nations, I get to send him anywhere in the world. That’s probably the first ingredient to keep the books fresh. One of the challenges is to keep introducing him in fresh ways. So far it hasn’t been a problem because he’s only appeared in three novels (I’m working on the fourth). There are many tricks to get background into the story without becoming stale. In Illegal Holdings, for example, his first appearance is told from the POV of a different character.
SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?
MN: I have a book release event at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland OR on March 1 at 7 pm. I’ll be at While Away Books and Espresso in Roseburg, OR on March 17 at noon and at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, OR that day at 3 pm. Readers can also listen to an interview with me on Literary Ashland