Tony at work in the African bush (he doesn't always sit out in the sun in the middle of a swamp)
“I had a farm in Africa...”
Six words. That’s all. Yet they manage to encompass a continent, a time, a yearning, a love and the very peculiar literary genre that is, well, for want of a better word, Africa.
I don’t really know what it is about Africa that captures the imagination and the heart of so many travellers and, as part of that mass enslavement, writers from outside of this diverse, riven, beautiful, tragic, magnificent, struggling continent. But it does.
Perhaps it’s the wildlife, or maybe the scenery. It could be the people, whose capacity to enjoy life and to welcome in strangers is matched only by their history of warfare and oppression and rebellion. In these respects the peoples of Africa are no different from those of anywhere else in the world, yet it seems that all too often all we hear about Africa is trouble, not triumph.
I never set out to write books about Africa.
For as long as I can remember, though, from when my mother convinced me to put down my toy fighter planes and read about the fictitious exploits of Captain James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth I knew that all I wanted to do when I grew up was write a book.
Easier said than done.
Anyone who has ever tried to write a book has probably come to the same conclusion that I did when I first set out to write a novel; the two biggest impediments to finishing are time and place.
By time, I mean having the time to actually sit down, in amidst a normal working day, or in between cleaning and cooking and looking after the kids to pen 120,000 words or more. It’s not easy.
Place is a different, more complex problem. It’s nice to have but hard to find a quiet place where you can hide away and think and daydream, (all part of the creative process), and then get down to the work of actually tapping the keys or putting pen to paper.
But place goes to something else, something as equally essential and hard to find as somewhere to work. It goes to finding somewhere or something to write about, a place that will inspire the writer to write and the reader to read. That’s not easy, either.
It can be tempting for the first time writer to look to successful authors for inspiration. Your ‘place’ could be a fantastically successful time, space, genre, location or premise that already has a ready-made audience.
Imagine how successful a crime novel involving teenage witches, a millionaire vampire with a predilection for bondage and discipline, and a lost girl in a Scandinavian country would sell?
Not at all.
There’s no use trying to copy someone else. By the time a new fad has been discovered by publishers, be it kinky sex or crime in cold climates, it’s been tapped out almost before the rival publishers have jumped on the band wagon.
However, certain genres and even certain places have stood the test of time in writing. There has always been and always will be the hard-bitten private eye; the borderline alcoholic detective will never be retired; sex will always sell off the charts when it manages to break out of the brown paper wrapper and onto the mainstream shelves; and sci-fi and fantasy will always be keeping it real.
Tony at a rhino breeding ranch in Zimbabwe. Conservation is a key element in his novels.
And then there’s Africa.
Again, I don’t really know why, but readers around the world and, thankfully, on the continent itself, will always want to read about Africa.
I didn’t start writing novels in Africa because I wanted to be the new Wilbur Smith. Far from it.
In fact, I didn’t read my first Wilber Smith book until after my first novel, Far Horizon, was published in 2004. By that time I’d already got into the habit, (a fitting word given that I see my attachment to Africa as an addiction rather than a love affair), of spending six months of each year travelling in Africa and the other six in my native Australia.
Spending half the year on the road in Africa in the days before eBooks, kindles and iPads meant carrying a plastic storage box full of novels to read on my travels. When we’d read everything in the box my wife and I would resort to trading our books with fellow travellers and one thing was certain – we could always find a Wilbur book.
I hadn’t even thought much about Africa before my first trip in 1995. My wife, Nicola, and I went to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana on a self-drive safari that was supposed to be a once in a lifetime trip. It turned out to be anything but.
The only book I had read about Africa prior to that trip was Hold My Hand I’m Dying by the late, (great), John Gordon-Davis, who remains one of my favourite authors of all time. His novel of the bush war in Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe), was in parts romantic, funny, tragic, inspiring and despairing, but it could have been set on the moon for all that its setting meant to me before 1995.
However, when I drove through Zimbabwe in 1995, through West Nicholson and Gwanda to Bulawayo those words that John had written came flooding back to me. I could see myself as one of those characters, cruising through the parched khakis of the landscape, sipping cold Zambezi’s, encountering wildlife, revelling in the joy of life and keeping an eye out for danger around every corner.
I left a successful job in Australia after that first trip, with the intention of rolling the dice and having a shot at living my dream, by writing a novel. I failed.
I wrote a novel set in the Australian outback and it was a load of rubbish. What did I know of the outback? I’d never even been there. It never saw the light of day.
Somewhat dejected I went back to work, as a freelance journalist and public relations consultant, writing press releases and annual reports to pay the bills and fund my next trip to Africa. After that first trip, in 1995, my wife and I resolved to go back every year.
In 1998, three years, on, Nicola left her job and we decided to buy an old Land Rover and have our first big trip around Africa. We gave ourselves five months to do the southern part of the continent, if not in style then in depth.
Tony on the Sabie River, South Africa, near where he lives for the majority of his time in Africa these days. With visitors like this it's impossible not to be inspired when writing
In Pretoriuskop Camp in the Kruger National Park I took out the new laptop computer I had bought myself and decided to give it another go. I would not write about my home country, Australia, but rather this new place I was discovering. Africa.
Fortunately, when I returned from that trip I received a publishing deal for my first novel, Far Horizon, which was set on a fictitious tour around southern Africa that mirrored our own trip in the Land Rover. I had, at last, found my place.
There are two good things for an author about writing novels set in Africa.
Firstly, there is a market. Outside of Africa people who have visited often become addicted, as I became addicted, and when they’re back in their home countries they want to relive some of those experiences and revisit some of the places they love through fiction. Also, people who live in the countries that are most often written about also seem to like to read about them.
In some non-African countries there is a type of ‘cultural cringe’ where people want to read about locations and countries overseas; they see their home base as somewhat boring. I’ve found, however, that many South Africans, Zimbabweans and others love reading about their homelands, even if the subject matter can be quite confronting.
The second good thing about being an author writing about Africa is that there is no excuse for writer’s block.
When people ask me where I get my stories from I have a very simple answer. Everywhere. I only have to pick up a newspaper in some African country, turn on the radio, or sit down to a fire side chat with a fellow camper or safari guide and I’ll have a hundred ideas for a new novel or the next chapter.
The biggest challenge I face when writing about Africa is that things that happen in real life almost beggar belief when I write them into a novel.
I wrote a novel, ‘Ivory’, about modern day pirates hijacking a ship packed with luxury cars and when I thought this was too over the top, until I learned that real life pirates off the coast of Somalia had captured a ship full of battle tanks meant for the Kenyan Army! I met the manager of a gold mine in South Africa who had three times as many illegal miners working underground as he did legal employees – bizarre and unbelievable, but it became the premise for ‘The Prey’.
Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s sad when something I’ve written about, from a fictitious point of view, subsequently comes true. The recent saga of the killing of Cecil the lion on the outskirts of Hwange National Park brought this home for me. In my novel ‘Safari’ one of the villains was a big game hunter who was an American dentist – the same nationality and profession of the man who shot Cecil.
Tony at Etosha Pan in Namibia, one of the locations in his next novel, An Empty Coast.
A writer needs inspiration and I have no shortage of that in the diverse countries and peoples of Africa.
Inspiration, to me, is a double-edged word. I need inspiration in the form of subject matter for my stories and my characters, but as a writer and a reader I also want to be inspired.
The more I travel in 21st century Africa the more I realise that this continent is not all about majestic wildlife, awe-inspiring scenery and blood red sunsets. Africa is a continent beset with problems that often seem to dwarf those faced by people in other parts of the world.
Crime, corruption, political misrule, poaching, health issues and other human tragedies must inevitably find their way into the fabric of the pot boiler thrillers that I write, because these are, sadly, part of life in most of the countries I visit. To ignore the bad and write only about the good would be dishonest.
However, if there is one thing I have learned in 20 years of travelling in Africa, to staggeringly beautiful but tragically scarred countries such as Zimbabwe and Rwanda; to Namibia and Mozambique which were also once riven by civil war; and to South Africa which struggles to live up to the lofty ideals set by the finest leader of our time, Nelson Mandela, it is that good can triumph over evil.
I have seen and met people who have suffered the most appalling privations and horrors but they have emerged from these and, in many cases, started their lives anew. Sometimes they need to go to a new country to find a new beginning and sometimes they fight to make their home a better place.
I think the reason people read and write about Africa is that because here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, we have more than just equal measures of beauty and problems. All places have both of those, though usually more of one than the other, but in Africa I see something else.
Tony Park is the author of 11 novels set in Africa. His 12th book, An Empty Coast, is set in Namibia. Read more about Tony at www.tonypark.net
(Note this article was originally scheduled for inclusion in the Safaritalk magazine but I have not been able to get to magazine ready for publishing. Matt)