Interview: Lerina Erasmus, author of Die Mannheim-Sage

29 May 2017

Interview: Lerina Erasmus, author of Die Mannheim-Sage

Photography: Robert Hamblin

Many South Africans grew up in the 80s with the theme song from Die Mannheim-Sage as the soundtrack to their evenings, and Deborah von Albein, Kit Malloy and Karel Mannheim as household names. This periodic drama plays out against the backdrop of the era of the Gold Rush in the Witwatersrand around 1886 and covers two wars, a power struggle, treason, intrigue and misunderstandings.

The author of Die Mannheim-Sage trilogy is herself no stranger to the small screen. She is an actress in her own right and worked for a number of major regional theatre companies in South Africa. She self-published the series in the 1980s and it is currently being republished by Human & Rousseau, with the first instalment Die Fortuinsoekers now in book stores. The other two instalments of the series will be published in July and November this year.

We asked Lerina some questions regarding the book and the series, which you can watch on Showmax.

The main character, Deborah von Albein, is a strong, independent woman. Was this intentional?

The moment after she was born, her father held her and said: “I’m holding my heir in my arms. Her name is to be Deborah for she will be a leader among people.”

That for me was the key to the future Deborah that ruled her mines.

Ma-Fytjie, Deborah’s keeper, is a character that many readers come to love quickly. We heard through the grapevine that she is based on someone from your childhood. Do you want to share that story with the readers?

I had a dear old lady that ruled my childhood days. She was strict but very wise. Her name was Ma Martina Prinsloo. My husband asked her permission to marry me. She refused. She said he was a wild man from overseas who ate strange things.

Did you know from the start that it was going to be a three-part series?

No, it just happened – maybe due to the rich history of Johannesburg.

Two men fall in love with Deborah. Do Karl Mannheim and Kit Malloy have anything in common (in terms of their personalities) and what is the biggest difference between these men – except for their appearance?

The wealthy Karl Mannheim has an unstable background. At first, he was indulged by his mother, Juta Mannheim. After her demise, his aunts and grandma take over.

His father Kurt Mannheim (a harsh person) tried to make Karl into a man. He was sent to the strictest but best schools in England. Karl defied most of them and was expelled. He is an artist and poet and very highly strung. He is a dreamer. Karl is besotted with Deborah, who, in his mind, resembles his mother Juta.

Irishman Kit Malloy grew up poor but in a loving family. He had a very normal childhood. When his father died, he was forced to join the army at the age of 14. He is a gambler at heart – and often almost loses everything. Even his life when he gambles with his fate. By nature he is a kind man, and he has a soft spot for women. But Kit Malloy is also a dangerous man to cross.

Deborah, the big love of his life, remains out of his reach for too long.

Did you do a lot of research for the story? And where did you get most of your ideas for the stories and characters?

The history of Johannesburg became the main theme. The colourful characters I came across while doing research surprised me every time. That was my inspiration for the characters in my book. The actors in the radio series greatly helped me to refine those characters.

The quote on the back of the book reads as follows: “Man is an astonishing being, to experience and process so many conflicting emotions at the same time. On the one hand he just purposefully planned a man’s death. It satisfies him. Betrayal is betrayal.”  Can we say that betrayal is the main theme of Die Fortuinsoekers? Or are there other themes that play a bigger role?

There are definitely more themes. But betrayal is probably the strongest leitmotif.

What would you highlight as the biggest differences between the series of books and the television series?

The books are unabridged and are far richer in human relationships that are interwoven with love and hatred, lust and greed – all that was present in the texture of the new young Johannesburg with its maverick history.

I think it is a very watchable series.

What was your reaction when you heard the books were being turned into a television series and what was the overwhelming emotion when you saw the end result?

I was over the moon! Later on I realised, however, that I would have to adapt my writing style from radio scripts to far more economical TV scripts. It was a battle that lasted at least two weeks, but one morning around four o’clock I had my breakthrough and from there on I enjoyed the medium of television tremendously.

I think it is a very watchable series.

Why do you think the books and the resultant television series is so popular (even decades after it was written and first televised)? What, in your mind, attracts readers and viewers to the story and characters?

The history of Johannesburg is fascinating. I also think the characters take the viewers/readers on a journey with them as the saga unfolds.

You are also an actress. If you could choose one of the characters from the series to portray, who would it be?

Maybe Gladys Smith, the bargirl in the Jolly Mermaid.

What can readers expect from the other two books in the series?

Die Goudkewers (available 31 July) deals with the discovery of the cyanide process that saved the city, the Jameson uprising and the second South African War.

The final book in the trilogy (Die Goudbaronne, available 6 November) deals with younger versions of the characters. For instance, a young Kurt Mannheim and Victoria Malloy and their involvement in the First World War.

Your latest book – Die Leliemoordenaar – was published at the end of last year and was very well received. Do you think that book has the potential to be turned into a screenplay?

It will be a far easier project to undertake and lower in cost. So let us pray!

What are you currently working on?

A book called Sondes van die Vaders, a psychological thriller.

Watch all 15 episodes of Die Mannheim-Sage from 1986 on Showmax »

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