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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Kwei Quartey

I loved Kwei's first novel so much, I e-mailed him some questions which he graciously agreed to answer. If you read Wife of the Gods yourself, you'll be looking forward to the second Darko novel as much as I am.

Q: I think all strong novels start from three places - character, setting, and narrative. What is your starting point? What's most important to you of the three?

A: I had to think about that for a moment, and then I realized that the starting point for me as a crime novelist is setting, but even more importantly, what murder(s) in that setting? Where the murder occurs has a lot to do with the plotting, which will inform the narrative. Then the characters form and I keep building on them until they feel real to me within the setting and in the murder's context.

Q: Essentially you've written a locked room mystery - not in a literal sense, but because of where you placed the body there were few ways to approach it logistically. Are you a devotee of classic old style puzzle mysteries at all?

A: Interesting. I never even thought of it that way. But yes, I love the locked room mysteries. The acknowledged master is John Dickson Carr, but Sir Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie did it as well, and all these three writers I read when I was a kid. It seems "locked rooms" are harder to write in this modern era, not the least of which because we don't have those marvelous drawing rooms much any more - at least we don't call them that - and the contrived nature of the locked room is sometimes hard to sell in our techno age.

Q: I of course loved the setting, which is not one that's been covered by mystery writers. Did you grow up in Ghana, or spend time there?

A: Grew up in Ghana until I was about 18, then moved to the States with my mother, who is African American and was married to a Ghanaian. After my father died of pancreatic cancer, my mother decided to return to her hometown, New York City, where her own mother lived. However, in order to write about modern Ghana, I had to, and will continue to have to, frequently visit because of the rapidity with which changes are taking place in Ghana, particularly in the private sector.

Q: I DO think modern mysteries are about the "aftermath" of crime - and that's what you seem to be quite good at detailing, the sketching in of the way the victim's family is affected by her death, for example. The last revelation leaves an aftermath for Detective Darko. Will he be dealing with that in future books (if it's not giving anything away)?

A: I agree with you, and the murder's aftermath and how it affects those close to the victim is of particular interest to me. You'll see that again in the upcoming Children of the Street, release date July 12, 2011. I believe Darko will indeed be dealing with the revelation to which you refer, but I haven't yet decided exactly how.

Q: I loved Detective Darko. He's a character that should really have long legs - I think a long series will suit his strengths. How did you come up with him? I liked that he had some very human, yet understandable flaws - his anger, for example.

A: Much of him is pure invention while other parts subtly take elements from people I know, although it's not easy for me to concretely define which elements and from whom precisely. I don't have him completely figured out, which paradoxically I think is good. I like to puzzle over him sometimes, you know - what's he going to do now, or how will he react to this situation? He shares some features with me - his interest in the deprived and downtrodden, for instance. He's liable to be irritated by unnecessary rules, and his taking shortcuts around them can and does get him in trouble. I have neither his temper nor his tall stature - I wish I had the latter - but like him, I do tend to get depressed when I perceive I've failed at something.

Q: The other books I have read set in Africa, while I have liked them (Michael Stanley, Alexander McCall-Smith) were by white authors. Do you feel you are bringing a slightly different viewpoint to the table as far as that goes?

A: That's a perceptive question that I think other interviewers don't bring up, consciously or unconsciously, and I appreciate your perspicacity. If you read and study at least one of your examples in comparison to my books, I think you will perceive differences in narrative that speak to my being a black man with a black African father and African-American mother, rather than a white man who grew up and/or spent time in Africa. Having said that, everything is still relative. For example, some Ghanaian critics of Wife of the Gods caustically commented to the effect that I was probably one of those privileged "American" kids in Ghana who lived in an upscale neighborhood and wasn't fully "Ghanaian" - similar to the expression in African American circles in the US that a person is "not black enough."

Q: That said, I actually see some similarities between Michael Stanley's Detective Kubu and your Detective Darko - they both have a strong home life, for example. Not all contemporary mystery fiction characters have this attribute. Was this something that was important to you in your portrayal of Darko as a person?

A: In fact, Raymond Chandler said a really good detective never gets married, so I guess Darko is pretty much doomed to failure. But seriously, I think this aspect is quite important to me on a number of levels. I like the "refuge" Darko's family life provides not only for him, but for the readers and me the writer, and I mean refuge from the grisly, gritty world of crime that Darko goes out to confront. In Children of the Street in particular, there are raw, graphic scenes that are hard to take. I don't want Darko to leave those scenes only to return to an empty, somber home, or even worse, a strife-ridden household. If you have downer material relentlessly slogging at you without respite, it can get grim and exhausting. I don't think I need to depress my readers. Another aspect I enjoy is the tension between Darko's faithfulness to his wife Christine and the ever-present temptation of at least one drop-dead gorgeous woman he will encounter in every case he tackles (that's a promise). Finally, his fatherhood may have something complicated to do with my own psyche as a non-father. I'm not sure I want to dig any deeper than that right now, if you see what I mean.

Q: In shaping your first book, what are some of the lessons you learned as a writer? Are these skills that you'll be taking forward as you continue writing your books?

A: When I submitted my first draft to my agent-to-be Marly Rusoff, she pointed out that I'd laid the groundwork for so many story threads - for example, the heart disease of his son Hosiah and his rocky relationship with his mother-in-law, but that I hadn't followed through with them to the end, even though they had potential for some good stuff. As I went back through the manuscript to build those storylines, I found I had one or two superfluous and expendable characters. It's not the number of characters that increase the complexity of the story, it's the quality of the characters and the world they bring with them. So each character should be a person of interest, not just a useless appendage. As I tried to rewrite the novel by inserting and removing material, I realized I was only making it tougher for myself. I threw the entire first draft out and started fresh at page 1, which was pretty daunting, but it had to be done. So one of the lessons is: only as many characters as you minimally need.

Funnily enough, I discovered something else after the publication of Wife of the Gods. My agent and publisher Random House caught me somewhat by surprise when they one day asked me for the synopsis for the second book. Uh, synopsis? Oh, yeah, that. Sure, no problem, I can have that for you in a week or so. I almost killed myself trying to come up with it in a week. I finished it at 3AM on the day I was to submit it. Unlike the way I'd written the first novel, I found that writing from a synopsis made production of the book faster. I finished the Children of the Street first draft in three-and-a-half months, which, compared to Wife of the Gods, is blistering speed. So this is the way I intend to do all my subsequent novels. By the way, many writers do not write from a synopsis.

Q: There's some heartbreaking material in this book. I always wonder if that kind of thing is hard to write, especially the injustice that occurs in the prison. That was hard to simply read about. Was that very difficult for you to write?

A: Painful is a better word. Some of these events developed in the story without my realizing they were going to happen. This is when the story is writing itself. So at that point, my fingers are flying over the keyboard trying to keep up with the unfolding tale. The scene is flowing, but so are my tears. When I get tearful as I'm writing a scene, I tend to over-write it, and I usually have to come back later to moderate it when I'm less emotional.

Regarding the prison episode in Wife of the Gods, it arose from two components - one real, one fictional. In the excellent British TV crime series Prime Suspect, an imprisoned young man comes to the same tragic end as the wrongly accused teen in my story. That scene deeply affected me when I was watching the series. The other component was my own experience as a young student in Ghana during the then military regime when I was imprisoned for political activism.

Q: Do you have literary or mystery influences? Who are they?
A: Everything I read as a boy: Sir Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr, John Creasy, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton (a children's mystery writer), Kingsley Amis, Doris Lessing, and Chinua Achebe. Note how a good number in that list are mystery writers. As a boy growing up in Ghana, an ex-British colony, much of what I read was penned by British authors. I was writing at 8 or 9-years-old, so the influences were established early.

Q: Finally, what's next for Darko? What will he be dealing with in his next adventure?

A: In Children of the Street, the next Darko Dawson novel, he's challenged by murder in the environment of a serious and real problem that exists in Ghana's modern-day capital, Accra as well as other urban areas: homeless children who live on the streets. They come from local communities or rural areas, and it's not a world for the faint-hearted. The kids have to be tough, and they are, but is one of them a murderer? There are other questions: what will happen to Hosiah with his congenital heart disease, is Darko still wrestling with his addiction to marijuana, and how is he managing with his contentious mother-in-law?

Tentatively planned for the third novel (I'm trying to think ahead, like JK Rowling) is crime in Ghana's brand new world of oil exploration and discovery. As long as I can physically and mentally write, I'll keep doing so.

Thank you, Kwei!

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