Andrew Brown is an unusual man. An anti-apartheid activist, he was given a three-year jail sentence for his activities in support of the African National Congress. He argued the sentence down to community service, studied law, and became an advocate and occasional acting judge in the same High Court where he’d appeared as a defendant. Not content with that as a contribution to the community, he is also a police reservist with the rank of sergeant, which led to STEET BLUES, a book based on his experiences. STREET BLUES was short listed for the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction.
Somewhere between all these activities (and bringing up a family), Andrew finds the time to travel and write taut political thrillers that lay bare the issues of Africa through gripping characters. In 2005, COLDSLEEP LULLABY was published and went on to win the Sunday Times Literary Award, South Africa’s premier award for fiction. It was followed in 2009 by REFUGE, which was short listed for the Commonwealth Literary Prize: Africa.
This year saw the publication of DEVIL’S HARVEST, and I’d put money on prize nominations going its way also. Set mainly in South Sudan, it follows a professor of botany on an academic quest into the midst of the war-torn country while the big players try to hide the evidence of an assassination gone wrong.
I asked Andrew about writing and DEVIL’S HARVEST.
In DEVIL’S HARVEST the tension builds up gradually, but there is a John Le Carré-like sense of impending menace throughout that builds up to the climax. Did you design the book this way or was it the story that dictated the structure?
I set out to write a story in which the development of the central character was matched by a growing tension in the plot, but it took a while to get the right balance between characterization, a sense of place, and the development of the plot. For me, the first two aspects are as important as the last, but it is easy for one to overwhelm the other. In the first drafts, the build-up of tension was slower and I spent more time dwelling on Gabriel’s character (and gradual development). It made the book lugubrious at times—good editors are certainly critical to the process of writing!
You needed Gabriel to be from a country that might well meddle in the affairs of other nations, so the UK was a reasonable choice. But at the same time, by making him a rather conservative British academic, did you want to maximize the cultural divide between his country and South Sudan and between him and Alek?
One of the themes in the book is the new form of colonization that we see sweeping across Africa: her resources are being plundered at an accelerating rate by foreign states and multinationals. So at one level, the use of a British national with designs on South Sudan’s botanical resources is an echo back to Sudan’s former colonial master. But as you suggest, at another level, I wanted to accentuate the divide between a rather cloistered but regulated society of Bristol and the unfettered but rather scary place that is South Sudan.
Alek is a powerful but enigmatic character, isolated yet determined. Is she based on a real person or people?
I was struck by people’s honesty in their interactions when travelling in South Sudan: there was almost a sense that time was too short, the situation too dire, for people to play emotional games—perhaps euphemism, innuendo and suggestion (by which the Western world often conducts itself) are luxuries that cannot be afforded in a war-torn country. At first, this direct form of interaction comes across as rude and aggressive and it takes a while to realize that people are simply being straightforward. Once you get over your sensibilities, it is actually refreshing and attractive. It is that ambivalence that I have tried to capture in Alek and her interactions with Gabriel. It takes him a long while to understand her and it is only really right at the end that he realizes how much he has been affected by her.
The British military people come across as corrupt and almost bumbling. It takes the MI6 agent to grab control and prevent a disaster, but even the mild-mannered professor easily outwits him. Is it this level of person that draws powerful governments into this type of debacle?
I think we are looking at a new kind of warfare, one in which the combatant is more likely to be a computer specialist controlling drones and guided missiles than an actual soldier on the ground. My depiction of the British military is aimed at capturing this absence of direct accountability for events that play out hundreds of miles away. My senior military officer is afflicted by a bowel condition that would be disastrous on any actual fighting front, but does nothing to deter him from sending guided missiles into foreign countries with impunity. So for me, they are not so much bumbling as (seemingly) untouchable.
The book has a strong sense of place, not only of the hardship and suffering of the aftermath of war—if the war really is over—but also of the culture and daily lives of the people. You’ve clearly spent time in South Sudan. What drew you there in the first place, and can you tell us something of its impact on you?
Sudan first caught my attention when they held the referendum to ascertain whether there should be secession and the establishment of a new country—South Sudan. The idea of redefining failed colonial borders was intriguing and exciting to me. I was in South Sudan a few months after it seceded and became the world’s youngest nation. There was euphoria on the streets and I had the same sense of hope and unity that prevailed in South Africa in 1994. Unfortunately, on each successive visit, I have noted increasing tensions within the army and government, until the latest outbreak of fighting.
South Sudan—and its people—took hold of me in an unexpectedly deep and permanent way. It is perhaps the hardest place on earth to travel in right now: conditions are extreme, there is almost no infrastructure, there are militias and young men with bandanas and AK47s everywhere. It has every reason to be a hateful place. And yet I feel an ache of sadness when I leave, and I yearn to return whenever I can. There is something extraordinary about the resilience of good people who have experienced decades of bad things.
I thought that the premise about Gabriel’s botanical investigation was a clever way to get the story moving, but I see you’ve done a lot of research on this. Was there more to it?
Originally the botanical and global warming side of the book was going to be more pronounced. Its original title was “The Botanist”, then changed to “Leaving Juba” (which reflected my personal distress at leaving the country) and then became “Devil’s Harvest” (as a more accessible title for the market). The research was fascinating and I spent some time at Bristol University in the Botany Department with a PhD student who is researching the very topic that interests Gabriel in the book.
Can you give us a hint about your next project?
I am toying (somewhat nervously) with a story that focuses on the anti-gay laws in Uganda. My agent and publishers are keen for another crime fiction story, but I don’t think that I’m ready to leave the traumas of our continent quite yet!
Michael has lived in Kenya, Australia and the US, and now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Find out more at www.detectivekubu.com, www.facebook.com/MichaelStanleyBooks and Twitter (@detectivekubu).