Interview on the BBC World Service - Weekend
Interview on BBC Radio 4 - Front Row
How I made it (finally) into print – The Telegraph
This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, 16th February 2013.
Ever since the enthusiastic critical response to my 1982 masterpiece, What I Did On My Holiday, I knew I would be a writer. I kept coming up against a major stumbling block, however: the dreary mantra of write what you know.
The fact is, I didn’t know anything. Much like my sex life, my teens and twenties were dotted with clumsy, self-conscious first chapters of excruciating novels which started out with energy, if not originality, before petering out in a clichéd, embarrassing mess. The mistake I was making was fundamental, and one replicated in every creative writing class (not to mention by many well-known authors).
It’s not write what you know. It’s know what you write.
I only realised this when I returned to writing fiction in my mid-thirties. I had spent fifteen years as a journalist in print and TV. Latterly, I had been living and working in Africa, where I came to intimately know communities as diverse as the traditional highland Maasai and the gangland scene of urban Nairobi. I hadn’t attempted fiction for years. As Shakespeare so nearly said, I had put away all that childish crap.
It was a competition in this newspaper which changed everything. The Telegraph was looking for a ghost story, and I thought it would be fun to enter. Firstly, my journalistic training kicked in. What would make my story stand out? How could it be original, in both tone and setting?
To my delight, as the words appeared on the screen, I realised that years of writing one- and two-minute TV reports had lent my language a honed, punchy style. My instinct for soundbites meant my dialogue was concise and believable. And my scene-setting was powerfully visual.
After my short story was published, I was approached by one of the UK’s top literary agents. Did I have anything else she could look at?
As a matter of fact, I had long been contemplating a detective thriller set in the exciting, vibrant city where I now lived: Nairobi, Kenya. I drew upon my knowledge of the city for inspiration. My experiences reporting the violence after the disputed 2007 election provided a dramatic backdrop. And I invested my hero—a displaced Maasai warrior turned policeman—with the heritage I had learned about first-hand.
My TV experience again came to the fore, in planning the structure. Whereas my previous attempts at novels had lacked a real sense of direction, I found I now instinctively understood where the story should lead and the rhythm to which it should develop.
In the course of racing to complete the novel, I always had the reader in the forefront of my mind. My hypothetical reader knew nothing of the Nairobi underworld nor Maasai culture, so I undertook even more research into both, travelling once more into places both remote and dangerous. When I described the smell of tear gas, I knew what I was writing about, because I’d breathed it. When I described the taste of cow’s blood still pumping from a tribal sacrifice, I knew because I’d tasted it.
The finished novel—The Honey Guide—was snapped up by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK. In the US, a bidding war broke out between two of the biggest players. The rights have been sold in Germany, France and Italy, among others. I am now working on the sequel. When I try to account for the success of this book, I put it down to one thing.
I didn’t try to write what I knew. I went out, and made sure I knew about what I wrote.
The Wilderness Years - The Sunday Times
The Sunday Times (UK) asked me to write about my life in Africa. The piece was published on 17th February, 2013. For their online version with a slideshow, click here (paywalled).
In 2005, we’d never been more settled. My wife, Katya, and I had just bought our first house, in Mile End, east London, and for months we’d stayed up all night, ripping out the kitchen and installing a new one, plastering and painting. Nest-building, our friends joked: it would be kids next.
Yet we weren’t satisfied. Somehow it all seemed too sudden. We had just turned 30, we had the careers — Katya was a junior barrister and I was a producer for BBC News — and the mortgage. Having kids, we felt, was the point of no return. Surely we could have one more adventure before it was too late?
I don’t know what it was — a stretch of particularly grey weather, perhaps, or another Tube strike — but one day we’d had enough. Then Katya got a job offer from the United Nations in Arusha, Tanzania, prosecuting those accused of committing genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. The gruelling nature of the work meant there was demand for young, energetic lawyers. It was a big step, but we didn’t hesitate. Katya accepted, and I persuaded my bosses to give me a sabbatical. Of course I’ll be back, I told them. Little did I know that I’d fall in love with Africa, and that it would inspire my first novel.
Our vision of Africa was shaped by the British media (of which I freely admit I was part), which portrays the continent solely in terms of natural splendour and human suffering. So we were pleasantly surprised when we turned up in Arusha and found a city of jacaranda-lined avenues perched between the lush rainforest of Mount Meru and the wide, dry Maasai Steppe. What we hadn’t prepared for was cold weather. Although Arusha is just a few degrees south of the equator, the altitude means that when the sun disappears, the temperature plummets.
Our first home in Africa was a tin-roofed, breeze-block bungalow with a large garden bursting with flowers and fruit. We fell in love with the place at first sight, especially when we were told that the district was known as “Half London”. We took it as a sign. The name must refer to its desirable location, right? Wrong. Half London is a fairly common Swahili phrase for a place with a vibrant nightlife, as we learnt on our first night. Hardly had darkness fallen than the neighbouring bars struck up with amplified Congolese pop music. The house was as badly insulated against noise as it was against the cold. We had a choice: move out or learn to love Lingala.
In the end, the gorgeous garden and breathtaking mountain views won out. That first year felt like a blissful release from the drudgery of life in London. The sparkling sunshine made up for the all-day power cuts.
We raised chickens, grew our own vegetables, had close encounters with extraordinary wildlife and came to know the Tanzanian people. We stayed in a Maasai village and took part in traditional ceremonies; we watched the great migration, climbed mountains, learnt Swahili and how to scuba-dive. We never wanted to leave.
As the end of our year approached, I was offered a job as Kenya bureau chief for an international broadcaster, based in Nairobi. In theory, Nairobi is four hours from Arusha by road, and I planned to commute home at weekends. This worked well for a while... until our first child, Felix, was born. Because Arusha lacked a proper hospital, we had the baby in Nairobi. On our return home, our Tanzanian friends presented us with the traditional gift of a live goat: our celebration supper. Typical lily-livered Brits, we could not bring ourselves to do it, so we named the goat Philip, and he joined our chickens, tortoises, cat and dog as a member of the extended family.
Commuting across an international border has its challenges, and that’s before you add the potholes, clapped-out lorries and lunatic bus drivers. Eventually, we decided to reunite the family in Nairobi. True to form, though, we failed to settle down. We couldn’t buy our own home — prices in the Kenyan capital are absurdly high — and, as tenants, every place we moved to turned out to have its problems. We were evicted from the first one, a duplex flat near the city centre, when I tried to organise a residents’ meeting to protest a 20% rent hike. Our next house, a colonial-era bungalow in the suburbs, was great — except that the mains water didn’t work, at all. The landlord also illegally kept our deposit when we left, which is common in Kenya, as protection for tenants is limited.
Finally, we thought we’d struck gold when we found a bungalow on a plot surrounded by trees — only to hear the sound of chainsaws soon after moving in, as the neighbourhood was ripped apart to squeeze in lucrative mini mansions.
Sadly, this is the property story of Nairobi. The booming Kenyan economy — it has achieved 4% GDP growth in recent years — means a bigger middle class and pressure on the property market. The results? Green spaces gobbled up by developers. Zero enforcement of planning and zoning. Utilities unable to cope with the expansion. Streets crumbling and gridlocked.
It’s rare to hear a good word about Nairobi — the city has a reputation for chaos and lawlessness. Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t a conspiracy to keep people away: what megacity in the developing world doesn’t have its share of slums and social unrest? In any case, Nairobi is also a vibrant, dynamic city, home to entrepreneurs, artists and a thriving cultural scene. Alongside glitzy new shopping malls and skyscrapers, you will find swathes of green forest, deep shady ravines and a stunning national park, replete with lions, giraffes and rhinos, reaching right into the city.
What’s more, you need only hop in the car to experience the real, deep, wild Africa. Often we rouse the kids at dawn and bundle them straight from bed into the back of our venerable Land Rover for a “pyjama safari”. Nothing beats a camp breakfast in the wilderness.
(Pic: Francesco Guidicini)
Since Felix was born, in 2007, he’s been joined by Cleo, three, and Max, two. When they’re old enough, there are a number of excellent schools to choose from in Nairobi — schools that seem to revel in being “more British than the British”, with tuck shops, hall monitors and cricket pavilions.
That sort of colonial nostalgia is here for those who want it. The polo-playing, country-club set of British expats tend to congregate around the suburb of Karen, named after a former resident, Karen Blixen, which still seems to exist in a sort of Out of Africa time warp. We prefer to mix with Kenyans and the wide diversity of other nationalities working for multinationals, NGOs or embassies. After all, we didn’t leave Britain to try to re-create it in miniature.
Our most recent move will, we hope, be our last for a while. After looking at dozens of properties, we finally found a beautiful house on a former coffee farm. The owner, a wealthy Kenyan, plans to retire here, so is not interested in redeveloping the plot. And what a relief: the garden, of mature trees and rolling lawns, covers about three acres and plays host to eagles, ibises and monkeys. Our cat delights in bringing us the occasional snake, which I cautiously release into the nearby forest. But there is thankfully no sign, so far, of the fearless visitors who frequented a former house: plump yellow tarantulas.
The only cloud on the horizon is next month’s general election. In 2007, the disputed poll prompted horrific violence — a scenario that provided the backdrop for my novel, The Honey Guide, a detective series set in Kenya. While we feel perfectly secure in our part of the city, it is heartbreaking to see the Kenyan people suffer because of the shameless grubbing for power of their politicians. If all goes well, though, the country’s new constitution has the potential to lead it to an even brighter future, which we look forward to being part of. It may even inspire a sequel.