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1. When did you decide you wanted to be an author?
No choice in the matter. My mother was maniacal about well-written thank you notes. A famous war novelist sealed my fate. He said writers aren't smart enough to be doctors or good-looking enough to be actors. So I settled for something a little less scary.
2. What author most influenced your writing style?
Novels are about so much more than style alone--for example, plot, story structure and characterization. But for me, the gold standard for style has been F. Scott Fitzgerald. No, I'm not Fitzgerald II, far from it. But I've learned from him while understanding that his style, or even a try at it, is hardly suitable for every book. When I wrote a novel about Washington corruption and satirized the D.C. social scene, I was just a little closer to Fitzgerald's style than when I was inside the head of the Congolese hero of Drone Child.
Two African novelists I admire, by the way, are Ishmael Beah, also a memoirist, and Chibundu Onuzo. Such wonderful storytellers! I lined up Dion Graham, the narrator of the just-released Drone Child audiobook, after I heard Dion perform Beah's brilliant first novel, The Radiance of Tomorrow.
3. Let's discuss your book Drone Child: A Novel of War, Family, and Survival. Why did you decide to set this in the Congo?
Ray Arco, the late Golden Globe judge, urged me to write a script about child soldiers in the former Belgian Congo, known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His reasoning was that George Clooney's wife, a prominent human rights attorney, might take an interest. Well, I haven't the slightest idea whether Amal Clooney saw the script. But Ray was on target in his choice of settings. The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world- this on top of all the bloodshed over minerals and other resources, not to mention tribal differences. I could instantly see the drama.
Right off the bat, I wondered if I could do a what-if about a Congolese genius who'd rise from nowhere to become a leading tech guy despite all the challenges he faced as a child soldier. Could my protagonist be both good *and* great--a moral man amid poverty and violence, not just a mega-success in the end? And maybe elevate his country along the way? I also envisioned his family as a role model. Strong families by themselves cannot end social problems, but often they can help their members cope with them. My hero owes his success not just to his parents but also his sister.
Drone Child does not try to predict the future of the Congo. Instead the idea is, "What if everything in the DRC eventually goes *right*." We're talking about the possible, not the inevitable. Still, I'd rather be an optimist about both my hero and his country.
I'm sickened by people writing off Africa and ignoring all the changes there in areas such as business and technology, especially the rise of cell phones. I wanted something different from modern variants of the racist Conrad. Even now, stereotypes abound. Higher expectations, please, despite all the horrible challenges ahead!
If the right Congolese read my work, maybe it can help them refine their own visions of a better future even though I'm hardly infallible. In real life, I was lucky to have a former Mandela Fellow, one of the DRC's leading civic activists, fact-check and critique my novel before publication. He and my other fact-checker-critiquer felt that I'd gone in the right direction, and in fact, they love Drone Child. They hope it will appear in French and Lingala.
4. How did the idea for the book start? A dream? An outline? An idea? A character?
Well, as soon as Ray proposed the movie project, I envisioned my genius hero. See the previous answer.
5. The protagonist, Lemba, is a 15-year-old child. How difficult was it to make such a young character realistic?
Much easier than it would have been without my fact-checkers (Junior Boweye and Jean Felix Mwema Ngandu). I had the basics right. Junior and Jean Felix felt I'd shown sufficient cultural sensitivity and that Lemba's story worked from a local perspective. But of course, I was abysmally ignorant of details like authentic names and correct geography. I'm still hardly the ultimate expert on the Congo. How could I be? I'm not Congolese. What I could do is this. I could envision Lemba and the other characters and the plot, then dig up the related facts and see if Junior and Jean Felix went along with the resulting scenes. Junior got the first crack at the material. Then Jean Felix, a complete stranger to Junior, vetted his vetting. I'm pleased to say they agreed on almost anything of importance. Jean Felix, by the way, is the former Mandela Fellow I mentioned--this is a prestigious U.S. State Department program.
Getting back to Lemba, I got into his head partly through his tech side. I myself was an Extra Class amateur radio operator as a teenager, and I've written about ebooks and other technology going back to the 1980s. It also helped that the two fact-checkers and I cared about democracy and human rights. We could *connect*. I could also identify somewhat with Lemba at the emotional level. I'm of European Jewish descent, and we lost distant relatives in the Holocaust. Books, movies and TV programs brought home the full impact of Nazism and World War II. I'd have nightmares of helmeted Nazis breaking into our house, and in elementary school I wrote a short story about a concentration camp. Was my trauma as horrific as Lemba's? Hardly! But it helped me understand the lasting legacy of the Belgian racists who ruled and stole from the Congo while killing millions. Needless to say, you can't write a novel about the DRC without getting into race to some extent. Still, Drone Child is not an exploration of Lemba's Blackness or Africanness, something I'd be unqualified to write. Instead, his personal story highlights such interrelated topics as war, tech, family, and morality in the context of a conflict between the fictitious Congolese Purification Army and the central government.
That still leaves open the issue of the tone and level of the writing. As a narrator, Lemba avoids dialect except for slight hints of it in dialogue. My theory is that Congolese don't hear *each other* speaking in dialect, because the language is what they're used to--whether it be French or Lingala or anything else. Heavy dialect would be condescending. Luckily, Junior and Jean Felix felt that the dialogue worked.
In a related vein, it helped that I was writing in the voice of Lemba a quarter of a century after his days as a teenage soldier. I couldn't have expressed myself like a young Lemba. The much-older one in the book has gone to a university and can write as a well-educated man tutored by a literature lover. He is far more introspective and perceptive than a teenage narrator would have been.
While your question is about a realistic character, let's also remember the complexities of getting the ever-changing Congolese *politics* right--given all the political and tribal factions. My solution was to set the novel somewhat in the future and invent places and tribes and events, with my fact-checkers helping me keep everything plausible. I didn't try to do a Tom Clancy in regard to exact military hardware and strategy. Instead I focused on people and relationships.
6. What was the most difficult part of the writing and publishing process for you? What was the most rewarding?
I enjoy writing most of all, as well as seeing a *finished* book, but nothing can happen without research--a chance to learn. Both writing and research have their challenges. I'm a big rewriter.
As for publishing--well, part of that is marketing. And by far it's the biggest pain in the rear. Problem #1 is persuading people to read my book or even go to https://dronechild.com.
I'm not even semi-famous or related to a celebrity, nor am I a member of an academic or literary clique. And frankly, many whites won't give a squat about a dark-skinned African protagonist, while Black people may distrust me because they're unaware of all the helpful feedback I received from my wonderful Congolese fact-checkers/critiquers. I just hope that people everywhere will keep an open mind. That will make my marketing a *lot* easier and ideally send them to a good page-turner in the process.
Reviews in places like Kirkus Reviews and the ALA's Booklist have given Drone Child a thumbs-up, and I love the thoughtful write-up I received from the Online Book Club, but I'll still be up the creek if people aren't curious enough to check out my book. On the Drone Child site, I have reproduced a sample https://dronechild.com/burning to acquaint people with Lemba and his sister, Josiane. I welcome reader questions and feedback. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Needless to say, the shocking beginning of the book may put off some readers. But it was the most honest way to start out. In our guts we need to *know* why Lemba and his sister are fleeing to the capital city of Kinshasa.
7. There are a lot of important themes here—child soldiers, sex slavery, etc. Why was it important to you to include these topics?
I care about human rights, and I was not just writing a travelogue. For the past five years or so, I have helped co-judge an annual journalism competition related to human rights.
Despite my portrayal of Congolese horrors, both real and imagined, I've tried to put them in perspective. In Chapter Two, I ask readers to "refrain from dismissing the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as simply murderers and victims. Killing each other—is that all you think we’ve done, other than die of Ebola? We also are a country of dreamers, artists, musicians, and other creators, and you can start with my precious family."
8. What's next for you?
National security secret.
I like to end with fun questions.
9. What's your favorite season and why?
Seasons, plural--fall and spring. Lots of good brisk walking days. Who knows--maybe in time my favorite will be winter if global warming continues.
10. If you could pick any career or profession, regardless of talent, what would it be?
I have trouble imagining myself as anything but a writer. But let's pretend. I want to be a super-talented and effective ruler of the world--but only long enough to pave the way for eternal democracy and prosperity and unlimited happiness for almost everyone. I'm afraid I can't do much for Putin.
11. What's your favorite ice cream topping?
Chocolate! And my favorite dessert is German Chocolate Ice Box--ladyfingers, chocolate and *lots* of whipped cream topped by cherries. Alas, I'm too much of a health fanatic these days to partake.
12. Do you believe in soulmates?
Fervently. In fact, I have one within a few yards of me. "Good answer," my girlfriend says.