Gaines: I hadn’t read the other books in the Bruce Medway series, but this one knocked me out from the first page. Is your usual writing style to jump right into the action?
It was something I learnt from the shortcomings of the first novel. Get the reader into the story as quickly as possible. There are difficulties when writing about a culture and locale as alien as West Africa in that the reader has to be brought up to speed on a lot of ancillary stuff, as well as the usual story, character and setting. In the first novel I lingered a little over the African scenario in the beginning but in The Big Killing I succeeded in getting everything up and running in the first ten pages, which is absolutely vital for this kind of fiction. The advantage of writing a book with a setting in the UK or USA is that you can make a lot of assumptions about what the readers know and just drive them straight into the story. Elmore Leonard is the master of this sort of opening.
In this novel, life in West Africa is casually brutal. Although you wrote it in 1996, are you surprised that it is even more relevant in 2003?
In fact I wrote this book in 1993/4, the rest is publisher’s lead-time. I was hoping that there would have been significant changes in West Africa by now and I even indicated this in a discussion between Bruce Medway and a character called Charlie in the first novel. There was multi-party democracy coming in, there was more economic activity and there were fewer tribal problems. Africa has a way of defying prediction. Democracy foundered, economies crashed and there’s still plenty of tribal unrest. Unlike developed countries these places are really balancing on a knife-edge and it takes very little to destabilise them. There is no flexibility in their economies, the army can decide that they’ve had enough of a leader and one tribe can decide that another needs to be taught a lesson. It can all go to hell in a week. And I mean hell, because when Africa goes wrong it doesn’t just go into recession - people get killed, the poverty-stricken become utterly destitute, money flies out of the country and all those hidden agendas suddenly come to the surface.
What was your inspiration for the Bruce Medway character as the protagonist for this series of action/mysteries? Is he your alter ego, or perhaps one of many?
Bruce is not my alter ego. You might be glad to hear that. My intentions for Bruce when I first started were to make him a more accessible hero but he just refused to comply. One of the reasons he gets into so much trouble is that he has fluctuating levels of morality, which is caused by his fascination with bad guys. I realised early on that I needed a balancing influence and this was why Bagado became vital to the books. He is the moral voice in Bruce’s head. I quite often start out with clear ideas for characters but once I throw them into the action their flaws become evident and they develop as they see fit and not always as I want them to.
For all his current financial problems, Medway seems comfortable in his exotic environment. Why does he choose to live in such a chaotic part of the world?
Africa grows on you. At first you cannot believe you can live like this. But then, without you realising it, there’s a double action - Africa breaks you down and your mentality changes. The first thing to go out of the window is time. Once time has become truly meaningless and, more important, you have accepted it then life can become immensely comfortable. The worst thing you can do in Africa is fight against it. All you will do is wear yourself out. Once you have discarded your Westernised template for existence all the stress is removed. Added to that you have someone to cook for you and someone to drive, carry and fetch and suddenly you find you can get down to the real business of being human. Unfortunately people with this sort of time on their hands can find it difficult and so drink and other vices can become a problem. However, once the change has been effected the idea of going back to a London life is horrific. All that rushing around, the endless bombardment from the phone, the traffic, the weather…
When I began this book, I knew nothing of the shocking abuses so common in West Africa, other than exploitation because of the diamond mines. How do you determine which particular issues to use in a plot?
The one issue that instigates all the others – drugs, diamond smuggling, kidnapping, toxic waste dumping, pharmaceutical dumping, 419 scams, human trafficking etc – is corruption. I don’t happen to think that Africa is more corrupt than the developed world; it is just more visible and pervasive. So the developed world hides their massive corruption behind acceptable fronts such as WorldCom, Enron and Elf Oil to name a few that cropped up recently. In Africa businessmen and government officials collude in ripping off their countries in spectacular style but it doesn’t stop there. The culture goes all the way down so that anybody in a position of power whether they’re a running a shipping port, supervising loading, signing off a fumigation certificate, running the gate that lets you in and out of the port, the issuer of port passes, the guy on the door that lets you in to see the issuer of port passes…all of these people will expect to be paid off in some way and they in their turn pay off the people who put them in those positions. If you’re not careful this corruption can leak into your own way of doing things. I remember a traveller in Africa who was getting cheap tickets using an out of date student card and a judiciously placed ten-dollar bill. When he went back to his native New Zealand and had to buy a train ticket the woman in the ticket office pointed out that his student card was out of date. Without thinking he slipped her ten dollars. She was horrified. Whatever the issue I’m writing about the same thing – corruption.
As a reader, should I trust Medway to guide me through the harsh realities he navigates daily, the Africa the tourists never see? Even though his judgment is frequently blurred by alcohol?
One of the best compliments I was ever paid about these books was by a guy who turned up at the launch of A Small Death in Lisbon. He told me that he worked in West Africa with a team of sales people who went from country to country, encountering the usual problems. Occasionally they used to get together and compare difficulties and when they came across a particularly intractable problem they would all look at each other and one would say: ‘What would Bruce Medway do now?’ When a character has become real enough to provide virtual reliability I think you can trust him. Sometimes the drink helps clarify his mind other times it plunges him deeper into trouble from which he must think creatively to extricate himself.
As Medway makes his way through one intrigue after another, menace lurks around every corner, not to mention violence. How does Medway survive these constant assaults?
Humour, the fact that he happens to have a very thick skull and that quite frequently he is sufficiently inebriated to be able to relax into the assault which is always better for you than tensing against it.
You have assembled quite a cast of characters -- pornographers, assassins, fanatics and gunrunners. Have you based these characters on actual persons or a combination of persons you have met?
The only person who actually exists as a real person and whom I have not altered in anyway is BB. All the other characters come from my imagination. Using real people in stories is always difficult because they will rarely meet the demands of your plot. It is far better to invent a character than suffer the difficulty manipulating a story to suit a real person. It is also interesting to note that BB is really like that (people who know him howl) but to me he seems more of a caricature than a real person. Whereas Sean Malahide, the Yeats-spouting gunrunner, might appear to be a caricature but one of the actions of Africa on expatriates is that you quite often feel the need to define yourself. It’s something to do with being an only white man in a world of Africans, you find yourself clinging to your identity. So an Irishman becomes doubly Irish. Sean Malahide would never spout Yeats in a pub in Dublin. They’d laugh him out of the joint. But in Africa…
There seems no end to the atrocities in West Africa, particularly those described in The Big Killing. In your view, what is the most immediate threat to the people of that region?
One of the things I admire about Africans is that they are very tough people. By going there you realise what an absurdly comfortable existence we lead in the developed world. We are completely soft. Africans can take a tremendous amount of hardship. What they can’t take is war. Africa is run by the culture of the Big Man, which is based on the fundamental idea of the village chief. The Big Man is wealthy, powerful, feared and respected. He can do anything. There are good big men such as Julius Nyerere and Jerry Rawlings but there are also bad big men like Idi Amin and Charles Taylor. The first two promoted peace, unity and anti-corruption and the latter created divisions, war, destruction and large-scale death.
Regarding Africa, is there a particular issue that you are most passionate about?
AIDS and malaria. The first is killing millions of people between the ages of 16 and 60 and the second is killing millions of children from babies to 12 year olds. The demographics are already extremely serious. AIDS is killing a lot of the educated people and leaving many children orphaned. I met a Dutch woman, whose brother (a great ballet dancer) died of AIDS, and she now runs a hospice in the bush Zambia. She built this place because people were being put out of their villages into the bush to die and she felt that they should at least have the dignity of dying whilst being cared for even on a basic level. When she first started a few years ago the death rate was around fifty a day, now it has reached over 400 per day. That is one small place in a region of Zambia. The scale of the disaster is almost unimaginable.
While I found it difficult to accept the desperate human conditions in your book, I felt your affection for the Dark Continent. What are some of your thoughts about Africa and her people?
I admire their toughness, their capacity for friendship and their joy in life. Obviously, there are all sorts in Africa but I was surprised by how many extraordinarily decent people there are. Bagado is one - a man whose attitudes might be considered old-fashioned in the West. You leave Africa but the people stay with you and there’s a quality about the land, too, perhaps something to do with it being the origin of humankind, which gets into your blood. You never shake free of that feeling of wanting to go back. Even with knowing all the hardships and horrors there is still that immense draw. Alexander McCall Smith writes very well about this and judging by the popularity of his books it is something for which Westerners have a great deal of nostalgia.
The subtle sense of humor that carries Medway from one harrowing situation to another is his saving grace. How does he manage this humor in the face of constant danger?
Being British. The British use humour in every possible situation and sometimes not the right one but it gets them through. We’re talking about the spirit of the Blitz. The stuff that got John McCarthy through years of being a hostage in the Middle East. It’s about not taking yourself too seriously, keeping the dire realities at bay and, to use the British expression, always taking the piss. That means you constantly undermine people who have power over you by laughing at them and you show your affection for others by teasing them about their absurdities. When things are looking very ugly, Bruce can find humour in something, even if it’s the windscreen wipers going mad in the torrential rain.
Medway has to know that his assignments are questionable, at best, particularly the job for Fat Paul. Does Bruce’s alcohol-soaked hubris actually work to his advantage?
I’ve always maintained that boredom is an extremely dangerous state. Think how children run you ragged when they’re bored and apply that to adults. Bruce is bored. There is nothing worse than hanging around doing nothing in Africa. BB is actually teaching him a lesson and possibly the most difficult one for a Westerner to learn – how to wait. Or as BB calls it ‘pay-scharn’, his way of saying ‘patience’. This whole horrendous series of events is caused by Bruce’s inability to be patient and his need to occupy his mind. I don’t think you can say that anything in this story works to Bruce’s advantage. I think he should consider himself very lucky to have got away with his life. Perhaps if he eased back on the booze he would see more clearly that these bad guys that he’s so fascinated by rarely see him as just another person. What they see is an opportunity.
Speaking of alcohol, drunkenness and assorted drugs seem to be a way of life for the various investors who exploit the natural resources of the country. Does the perception of bumbling drunkenness aid them in pulling off their schemes?
For a lot of these people, drinking has just become a way of passing the time. Even in his severely drunken state Sean Malahide comes across as a very dangerous individual to even think of getting involved with. Even as he’s stumbling about, dropping off to sleep on his feet, jerking awake, he’s revealing that he knows a great deal about what’s going on. Another thing Africa teaches you is to listen to people and, once you’ve been there some time, judgement. It would have paid Ron and Bruce to have listened to Sean very carefully but, of course, Ron knows it all and that is just about the most dangerous state of mind for an African adventure. As BB says in the first African story: ‘Don’t worry, the Africans will teach you everything.’ So the drunkenness of a lot of the characters is not a front, it’s just their current state but it doesn’t mean they should be ignored.
What is it about Africa that is so seductive to expatriates?
For business people it’s the total freedom to make money without necessarily obeying any rules. It is the ultimate capitalist game because it really can be a free market. Let’s say you need a fumigation certificate for a cargo of agricultural products to leave the country. What do you do? Option one - go to the fumigator, get him to turn up at the port with all his equipment (once your ship is fully loaded and waiting and possibly incurring demurrage) and get him to do his job which can take anything up to half a day. Option two – don’t bother with any of that stuff which doesn’t work anyway and pay the guy who signs the fumigation certificate a bribe. For other mortals Africa has that draw that I described in my answer to question 11.
In my review of The Big Killing, I compare you to writer Robert Stone, which I hope you take as a compliment. Do you see why I made the connection?
To be honest Robert Stone was not a writer I’d even heard of before the beginning of this year. He is definitely an American phenomenon. An executive at Harcourt said that the major book buyers were comparing my work to Robert Stone’s so while I was over there I bought a couple - Outerbridge Reach and The Hall of Mirrors. The connections I can see are that he is fascinated by the reaction of characters in extreme situations, he is not afraid of taking on issues, he is unpredictable because he is prepared to let his characters off the leash and he gives you news on all sorts of different levels. He is writing a different type of fiction, which means he has the privilege of time so he can develop his characters more deeply and describe things to the reader in a more leisurely way. In the genre fiction I write I constantly have the reader jabbing me in the kidneys telling me to get on with the goddamn story. The pressure of plot is always on my shoulders. And, by the way, I think Robert Stone is an excellent writer so I take it as a massive compliment.
Are you writing more in the Medway series and, if so, will the next books be equally as action-packed?
There are two more in the series already written – Blood is Dirt and A Darkening Stain. Both of these are action packed and tending towards the dark side but always lightened by Bruce’s humour and Bagado’s moral certitude. I would like to write more some day because I really enjoyed these books and, of course, I love Africa.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Has the journey been difficult, including getting published?
From the moment I wrote a love poem (or rather a sexual yearning poem) at the age of 14 and silenced my English class when I read it out I have wanted to be a writer. Getting there is a different matter. I had, and still have, little self-belief. This works to my advantage because I am never satisfied with what I have done and I always strive to do different things rather than stick to successful formulae. It is also a very precarious profession, not just because you never know whether the money is ever going to happen but because it’s one of the few jobs where you can be very good and still get absolutely nowhere. Operating under those heartbreaking conditions can demand extreme mental fortitude. It meant that I was reluctant to commit myself and I didn’t start seriously until I was 34 years old. I have a very supportive and highly critical wife who ensured that when my first book went out it was publishable so I did not suffer years of rejection. I had no connections in the industry so I just approached a handful of agents who, in a state of high ennui, asked me to send in the first three chapters. They were all back to me by the end of the week asking to see the full MS. So I got an agent quickly and I was rejected by only one UK publisher before HarperCollins bought me. It was then a long, hard, poorly paid slog to get anywhere within the publishing house. To get marketing muscle you have to have internal recognition first. That only came when I won the prize for A Small Death in Lisbon. Since then it’s been easier on the money side but harder and harder work on the writing side. Promotional work now cuts into writing time but my standards have got higher which means I don’t get out much. There you have the writer’s life – wild hope to brutal reality.
Do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to aspiring writers?
Finding your way into the writing game is a difficult thing. Where do I start? You might think you want to be the new William Faulkner but you don’t arrive there day one. I had written some travel stories about Africa, which a friend of mine read. He was coincidentally writing some crime novels and said I should develop my African setting in that direction. I hadn’t read much crime. As a kid I read thrillers. I started on Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard and had my epiphany. I loved noir and I had the perfect modern setting for it. There were some striking similarities between 1940s California and 1990s West Africa. So my words of wisdom are don’t turn your nose up at anything. Get in any which way you can but get in by being inspired by writing not by money. They rarely go together.
Click here for
Luan Gaines' second interview with The Big Killing author Robert Wilson
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with
Robert Wilson via email for curledup.com. Click here to read her review of The Big Killing.