By Garth Johnstone
What do you do when you live in the Midlands and have a great story buzzing around in your head? You tell it, and place the Midlands right at the heart of the action.
Well, that’s the logical route taken by 26-year-old Mpophomeni author Thembelani Mkhize in his novel Inside Man, which was published recently by Howick-based publisher Hally Park.
The basic plot had been swirling around in Mkhize’s head for a few years and, when he was introduced by an acquaintance to the team from Hally Park, things all happened “rather fast”. They loved the plot and story, suggested some edits and very quickly Mkhize’s long-held dream to publish the book was realised.
The author is well known to The Meander Chronicle, having contributed to this title with a number of articles about his home town in recent years.
This is his second book, after Morning: Memoirs of a College Dropout, which he self-published a few years ago through Amazon.
Mkhize explained over an interview at Seasons Cafe near Howick that after school, in 2012, he studied business management at Damelin in PMB and in Durban, but just couldn’t settle down or settle in. “I was passing, but I wasn’t feeling the vibe. It just didn’t feel right.”
After dropping out in 2014, he spent a few months thinking about his next move, after which he started to write. “I liked writing at school and felt there was some talent somewhere in there. But I was really bad, my writing was confused, there was no structure, just bad. I wanted to write but didn’t know how.”
A bad break-up was the impetus he needed to get going again and he eventually enrolled at Varsity College, where he studied English and Psychology. At the end of his second year, he got his first-ever distinction for an essay he wrote in which he referenced Morning: Memoirs of a College Dropout, and the writing bug truly bit.
He wasn’t the finished article by a long shot but he had improved and the distinction filled him with confidence. But this brought with it a conundrum, Mkhize wanted to get started on writing and life experience right away. He decided to leave college and try his hand at writing and the business world.
“I had basically written Inside Man already. It needed some work but the story was there and I needed to finish it, it was a burning desire. But it did prove difficult to get published. Being rejected by a few publishers was tough, but I guess part of the process.”
But let’s get to the book. Mkhize is clearly very excited about Inside Man and the chief character he has created. He envisions the story continuing to become a series of books. He can’t stop smiling when telling me about the book’s chief character and his plans for the future.
So what’s it all about?
In a nutshell, a young police detective starts work at Howick and is thrust right into a double homicide investigation. Then there’s another murder. Her partner, the brilliant but eccentric Detective Mangi Zulu, seeing no other way to solve the crimes, offers to go undercover, placing his life in danger.
Zulu is a tough copy, possibly a bit sexist, a bit of a rogue, but he loves to take on and beat criminals. He also has a soft side as seen in moments of vulnerability concerning his family.
It’s up to the young Detective Sbongile, a determined and committed cop, to follow the trail of the killers and try to keep him alive.
While the grammar and editing are occasionally a bit loose, the strength in this book is all in the storytelling. Mkhize tells a riveting good story, that moves at a hectic pace, at times you almost want to restrain him so you can take a breath. The chief characters have strong personalities.
The plot is complex, woven together with lots of threads and interesting side characters. He renames some of the locations but all of the action can be recognised as taking place in the Midlands. Those who like a quick read will be glad to note that you could definitely tear through this one in a weekend.
On a personal note, as someone who knows him well, it was exciting for me to read the book and pick up little aspects of Mkhize’s own character sneaking in here and there.
Other than the writing, Mkhize is also an entrepreneur, and together with a partner runs the BlackPage branding and graphic design business. Formed about a year-and-a-half ago, they provide a host of printing and branding solutions, with clients based in Howick and Mpophomeni, and also Johannesburg, where his business partner lives.
Mkhize says the idea for Blackpage was of a blank canvas, like a universe without stars which needed to be filled in. “The clients come with a blank canvas and we are here to fill in the stars.”
He is a proud advocate for Mpophomeni, where like-minded young entrepreneurs encourage youngsters to follow their passions, start their own businesses and excel in the arts.
I asked him if it was important to him that the book and all the action were placed in the Midlands.
“With me being from the Midlands, why wouldn’t it be the perfect place to start this story off, and see how it grows and how I grow with it? I want it to be a series of books and see no reason why the story (where it’s based) can’t go around the world, to America for example.”
I asked him whether he is a glass half full, or glass half empty kind of person and he responded. “If there’s a half glass of water, I’d advise you to drink the water.”
Bright spark moment
He says 3am is his “bright spark” moment, when his brain is most active and the creative concepts begin to flow.
I asked, if he had his last R100 in his pocket, what he would do with it and Mkhize replied, “I’d go to the shop, by some cool drink, sweets and vetkoek and take it home to share with my little brother. Then we’d just chill together.”
The budding author’s biggest ambition is that one day one of his books will be made into a movie.
Contact the publisher: firstname.lastname@example.org
More on Mkhize’s blog