Award-winning author, screenwriting specialist and writing tutor
Michéle first worked as a graphic artist and later as a production designer for films and TV commercials. She was a founder member of Free Film Makers, an anti-apartheid grouping of film-makers, directors and actors who created acclaimed independent documentaries and dramas.
From there she moved into documentary film chiefly as a researcher, before moving on to writing drama series and feature films.
She has also worked briefly as an egg peeler, waitress, columnist, pop-star, and historical film archivist.
Projects Michéle has originated, written or directed have been nominated for or won various awards, including an Oscar documentary and International Emmy nomination, a Mail & Guardian Short Films Prize, a Special Jury Award at Skip City International (Japan), a Banff World TV Award (Canada), a SAFTA (South African Film and Television Award), and the Andrew Murray – Desmond Tutu Prize.
Her work reflects her ongoing preoccupation with South Africa’s culture, politics and history through the medium of drama and story.
She lives in Cape Town with her husband, son and daughter.
What Hidden Lies, her first crime novel, and winner of the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award was released in South Africa in June 2013 (published by Penguin Books). Hour of Darkness , second in the series was published by Penguin Random House in 2015.
Before Their Time
In the last book in the crime trilogy, Detective Persy Jonas tries to lay her childhood ghosts to rest.
Detective Persy Jonas returns to the crime ridden township where she grew up in search of the mysterious ‘N. Splinters’, who she suspects is the mother who abandoned her as a child. Only to find herself investigating the woman for murder.
After her suspension is dropped, Jonas requests a posting back to Ocean View Station, in the crime ridden township where she grew up, and which still holds so many painful memories from her past. The station is notorious for being a dysfunctional mess, but Persy has an ulterior motive for wanting the posting. She has received intel that Fred Splinters, the dangerous fugitive from her last case, is living there with his mysterious wife ‘N’, a woman Persy suspects is her long lost mother.
Once at the station Persy finds the residents of Ocean View, and neighbouring Masiphumelele, living in terror of a vicious killer nicknamed ‘Jakkals’. Meanwhile, Persy’s bête noir, the psychologist Marge Labuschagne, is working as a counsellor in Ocean View, caught up in helping a traumatised woman escape an abusive partner.
The horrific and violent death of Siya, the young son of an anti-drug activist is blamed on Jakkals. But the station botches the investigation, and Persy becomes embroiled in an internecine war with the hated station commander. The community, furious at the police’s failure to find the boy’s killer, vow to hunt down Jakkals themselves. The subsequent mob killing of an innocent man sparks repercussions throughout the racially separate areas of Kommetjie, Ocean View, and Masiphumelele—tensions that serve to heighten and exacerbate the tensions between them, but also bring unexpected kindnesses and mutual understandings to the fore.
As the violence and chaos escalate, there is another murder, and this time Persy’s investigation points to the mysterious ‘N. Splinters’, as the killer.
As the townships are cut off with burning barricades , Marge and Persy’s narratives collide, and the twenty-year old mystery that first brought them together, now reunites them in a dangerous game of cat and mouse against a terrifying killer.
Hour of Darkness
Readers familiar with Michéle Rowe’s exhilarating plot twists and authentic South African characters will love her latest spine-chilling thriller.
It’s Earth Hour. People worldwide are switching off their lights to mark the global energy crisis. In an exclusive housing estate outside Cape Town, violent criminals wage terror under cover of darkness.
When a woman and her baby are abducted, Detective Persy Jonas is brought onto the case. That very hour, a young female patient of psychologist Marge Labuschagne disappears from the same estate. Despite their combative relationship, Persy and Marge join forces.
The investigation leads to a land claim by the descendants of slaves, and to unscrupulous developers with links to gangsters and corrupt politicians. But from the start, Persy’s personal life threatens to jeopardise the case. She’s stuck in a destructive relationship with the dangerously seductive Detective Ren Tucker, and the search for the missing women awakens painful memories of her own abandonment by the mother she can barely remember.
When a body is found, the hunt for a killer begins. Soon Persy is engulfed in a political firestorm so sinister that even her own police force cannot protect her, and she is faced with a terrible choice – her very own hour of darkness.
A page-turner from one of South Africa’s exciting new crime novelists.
What Hidden Lies
When Detective Persephone (Persy) Jonas is forced to work with retired criminal psychologist Dr Marge Labuschagne to solve the murder of a suspected sex offender, suspicion and distrust threaten to derail the investigation.
Detective Persephone ‘Persy’ Jonas and gangster Sean Dollery grew up together in the coloured township of Ocean View, a ghetto on the Cape Town coast infamous for poaching, dog fights and drugs; their childhood friendship a refuge from their troubled families.
But since Persy’s been assigned to the local police station, she’s made it her mission to break Sean’s criminal stranglehold on the neighbourhood. Sean, betrayed and vengeful – plans to fight back with everything he’s got.
Near the Ocean View township lies the wealthy village of Noordhoek, whose mainly white residents staunchly defend their privileged access to the famous Chapman’s Peak and beautiful Long Beach. A South African ‘Happy Valley’, pastoral calm is Noordhoek’s image, but not far below the surface lie numerous intrigues and entanglements. Dr Marge Labuschagne, a retired criminal psychologist, is one of the ensnared residents. When the cantankerous and reclusive Marge discovers a man’s body trapped between the rocks she immediately recognises him as an ex-patient, Andrew Sherwood. Persy is sent out on the case – her first murder case. The women distrust each other at first sight. Marge thinks the androgynous coloured girl is no more than window dressing for the new South African Police Services; Persy thinks Marge is an unrepentant white racist. Yet they have more in common than they think, bound in ways they cannot imagine…
Startlingly vivid with immensely engaging characters, What Hidden Lies by Michèle Rowe is an intelligent and complex novel from an exciting new voice in crime fiction.
TITLE: What Hidden Lies
AUTHOR: Michèle Rowe
ISBN / EAN:9780143530893
RECOMMENDED RETAIL PRICE: R195
FORMAT: Trade Paperback
SIZE: 234mm x 153mm
PUBLISHED DATE: June 2013
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books South Africa
TITLE: What Hidden Lies
AUTHOR: Michèle Rowe
e.BOOK ISBN / EAN: 9780143531012
PUBLISHED DATE: June 2013
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books South Africa
A fast and furious mystery you won’t be able to put down
Great plotting and insight into her characters make for a fast and furious read. The only pity is that you will be heartbroken when you finish it.
Jennifer Crocker – Cape Times
SA novel a thrill to the very last word
Rowe has an uncanny knack to twist her plots and characters to form an intricate web of suspense and intrigue. She uses her portrayal of very real South African characters and their stories to masterfully depict infinitely different perspectives of life and crime on the Cape Flats.
Marti Will – Netwerk24.com
The judges described Michéle’s story as “Fluid and descriptive writing with an attractive setting.”
Michéle was unable to attend the awards ceremony on the 22nd of July 2011, but for her acceptance speech she recorded a brief video which was played on the night. View the acceptance video here.
How did you get into writing for film and television in the first place?
I just sort of fell into it really. I came from an art background so I began by working in the art department. At that time the tv commercials industry was very open, there was no unionization or standardization of skills, so you would just give your friends work on set if something came up. Cynthia Schumacher, the painter, who had worked with Vivienne Westwood and was a very talented and highly regarded costumier at that time, brought me on board as a dresser on a tv series, and that was my entree into the film world.
I had always been fascinated by film, and had spent a good many years in London living in art house cinemas devouring all the films that we never got to see in South Africa. South Africa under apartheid was a cultural desert, and being exposed to film and art and music and literature like that- well to punish the metaphor, was rather as if I’d been dying of thirst and only found out when I came across an oasis of palm trees and cool fresh water. I could not get enough of watching film. I was especially fascinated by early expressionist films of Fritz Lang and Murnau, and the painterly quality of the Italian films from the 60’s and 70’s, Bertolucci, Visconti.
But then I became interested in the actual structure of the films, the dramatic narrative. I had always enjoyed writing, and I became really gripped by the experimental story telling of 70’s German filmmakers like Wenders and Fassbinder, and the American new wave directors like Ray and Mike Nichols and Altman. I think because I realised how complete that creative experience could be: that a director could also write his own film, create his own idiosyncratic visions.
Later I developed a passion for campy sci fi drive in movies from the 60’s with early SFX, and would go to these all night marathons of Roger Corman films at these filthy fleapits. I think they thought he was a porn director. I was inspired by the whole low budget approach. It sort of gave me hope that I could also make a good film on a shoestring.
I also devoured melodrama, films with strong women antagonists, especially Douglas Sirk’s movies, and I’m fascinated by psychosexual suspense, so I’m a great fan of film noir, and most especially of Hitchcock. I think all those films have had an abiding influence on the way I write and the subject matter that interests me.
What would you say the highlights of your career have been?
It’s difficult to say. I have written many scripts, some of which have even managed to win awards, but the industry can be very constraining. I would say that writing my first film, which was a low budget campy supernatural psycho sexual thriller, in which I played the lead, this sort of inhibited librarian who falls under the spell of a demonic book lender was actually, in retrospect a highlight for me. It was at the time when underground post punk film makers like Jim Jarmusch were making films. We shot it on Super 8. It was a pretty unwatchable effort but because I had no idea of what I was doing and I was just playing around with the form, doodling almost, there was complete freedom in that. And I also did the art direction so I could control the way it looked, which was terribly important to me. One seldom gets that freedom in the standard film industry unfortunately. The industry has a tendency to pigeonhole you, you are either a screenwriter or a production designer or a producer or whatever. It can be hugely frustrating.
Another highlight was the time I spent working on drama with Free Film Makers. We developed low budget dramas, with great actors like Arthur Molepo and Patrick Shai and the late Ramalao Makhene, and again, we had this tremendous freedom to make whatever we wanted. My advice to people who want to begin writing movies, is to find a great independent producer who shares your tastes and try and make the films yourselves.
What keeps you at it?
Well I have to pay the rent! But besides that necessity, I love film and I love story and every new project is a challenge, and I thrive on challenges. Every time it’s like starting all over again with the same questions. ‘What is my story about? Who is my protagonist? What am I trying to say?’ I never tire of that. It’s enormously invigorating. It’s a way of life, who I am. I could not imagine a life without story telling in one form or another.
Is it possible to earn a living writing for film or television in South Africa?
Certainly. But if you really want to make a good living you should own the means of production. I think being a writer/producer is the way to go, or being in a partnership with a creative producer who believes in you and wants to make the same kinds of films. That way you keep some creative control. On your own, it can be tough. I have been very fortunate to have worked with great producers. They shield their writers from a lot of the rubbish, and they push for you, but they are also pragmatic about the money and professional relationships. Writers tend to be a bit touchy and volatile. That’s a generalization maybe, but it’s been my experience. I think the creative person always feels under threat by the so called ‘real’ world, where people have real jobs and retirement annuities and medical aids, and often what we do is alchemical, unmeasurable in real terms. Most people do not appreciate the sweat and blood that goes into creative work, so artists tend to feel rather undervalued, and therefore a bit prickly.
What qualifications are necessary? What skills would be helpful?
I think qualifications are the least important part of it, quite honestly. I think you need passion and you need perseverance, and you need courage and integrity. All of these things will make you a good writer and a great human being. No pressure! No, seriously, if you are one of the fortunate whose parents can afford to send you to UCLA or put you through a film and media studies degree, that’s great. But it will not make you a good writer or guarantee you success. Successful screenwriters come from all walks of life. It’s a craft first and foremost.
In fact if someone asked me what the best qualification for a screenwriter would be, I’d have to say an architect, or an engineer, or maybe even a builder or cabinetmaker. Because screenwriting, like all writing, is structure structure, structure. And that is something anyone can learn. Of course you need to be fascinated with human beings and their behaviour, and have a love of film. But qualifications don’t count for much in the end. A good basic course to can get you started and then its up to you. Discipline and determination will do the rest.
So how does one get into writing for film or television?
I think there are many ways to penetrate the industry. As a writer it is difficult to come in clean. Its easier if you get into the industry and learn the ropes, even starting off as an unpaid gopher or someone’s apprentice. Then get involved in the scriptwriting side if you can, even if its only making tea for the writers. Involve yourself with editors and sit in on the cutting process as well. It really teaches you a tremendous amount. The film industry is very hierarchical and people will not take you seriously unless you have put in the hours.
Also like most creative industries, it is relationship based. People like to be convivial and there is an open exchange of ideas, so being able to connect to people is key. But having said that, there are people who write their first screenplay and it immediately opens doors for them. What I would recommend is that you always have a piece of solid sample work available to show, should the opportunity arise. A full screenplay is best, very impressive, but most people would rather just read a treatment anyway.
What are the real opportunities for scriptwriters in South Africa?
Where there is tremendous opportunity, I believe, is in the terrain of our many untold narratives. We are bursting with stories, stories no one has been able to tell for centuries. It’s the greatest opportunity we have as writers in this country. A massive untapped resource. But we have to be realistic. I think it’s an industry severely constrained by forces largely out of its control. There is not enough independent funding or state support for development. That goes for the arts generally. But there is a real drive among committed filmmakers to try and grow the industry. There are individuals who display tremendous fortitude and determination, sometimes for years, who have such love for film that they never give up. As a result of their efforts, we are seeing more and more interesting films being made.