Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Finding Gorillaland

Subject: GORILLALAND ...   surely that's not the title?
Dear Greg
I am responding to your email to Ed.   Ed passed it on to me because he is away in California for a few weeks.   He also passed it on because I happen to be from Dar es Salaam, have been to most countries in Africa (also lived in Botswana) and have been looking for a BIG AFRICAN NOVEL for a long time.   And of course I remember you from the Douglas days ... It's still hard to accept that he isn't with us any more.
I'm very intrigued by the synopsis you attached, and would very much like to read more.   Would you like to send it, and I will read and react as quickly as possible?
Many years ago I travelled through what was then called Zaire - quite an alarming experience!   We drove in from Central African Republic, then down to Buto (Buta?) where the local army Adjutant made us give him and his serjeant a lift to Kisangani, to find out why they hadn't been paid for 3 months ...    The roads were unbelievably bad.   I saw no gorillas - but the biggest bats you can imagine, and the smallest pygmies!   Then on into Uganda, which seemed almost sane and sensible after Zaire, even under Idi Amin.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Best wishes
Maggie Phillips
Managing Director
Ed Victor Ltd

It's five years (almost to the day) since I received that email from Maggie Phillips at Ed Victor Ltd.  To get the attention of one of the top literary agents in the world (Douglas Adams, Ranulph Fiennes, Jack Higgins, Nigella Lawson) was something in itself. Living up to her expectations was altogether something else. You be the judge as to whether I've written the "BIG AFRICAN NOVEL." Because, at long last, Gorillaland has landed!

Quest for a Plot
Ever since I was a child I wanted to be an author. My aspiration grew out of reading books by Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Graham Greene, about far away, exotic places. This fascinated me, mostly because I too was living in a far away, exotic place. 
Growing up in Africa and Asia bestowed me with experiences I was certain would make me a good writer. Yet it was those experiences that ultimately stunted my work, as I was convinced that retelling them would be enough to captivate readers. It was not. There’s no substitute for a good plot.
My quest continued until one day, I was accompanying some brainiacs through the jungles of central Africa, among whom was cognitive dissident John Perry BarlowAs we crawled on our hands and knees through the thick foliage JPB asked the question, "How do you get into the mind of a Congolese rebel warlord?" At that moment the story's antagonist was born.
But it was only after I spent some time in Walikale, in the Congo River Basin, that the novel’s central intrigue begin to emerge in my mind. Trekking through the jungle, crossing rivers and swamps, and fighting off swarms of insects in the windless heat, everyone quickly became drained and irritableWhat would happen if we were all suddenly ambushed and kidnapped by a rebel warlord? How long could we cope with held hostage in such a harsh environment? 

My return from Walikale coincided with the start of a six-month, paid sabbatical, during which I was expected to write my novel. However, it was not until the last month that the story finally came together. Gorillaland was to be a jungle odyssey, full of unsavory characters - not just rebels, but also foreign and local operators - like the ones I had met or heard about in my travels, all tangled up in the heart of the Congo, which would itself be one of the characters.
Fact would also blend with fiction, though I feared some of the actual incidents I knew about could prove too strange for fiction. One terrible event, the abduction and subsequent massacre of tourists at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, was vital to my research. First-hand accounts by the survivors would help me add authenticity to a situation I had thankfully never experienced myself. 
The name Gorillaland is somewhat deceiving. I fully intended for the story to include gorillas, those sentient monks of the forest with whom I'd been communing for so long. I was certain such charismatic creatures would be the easiest thing in the world to write about, but perfection in nature can be quite humdrum. Nonetheless I had all the characters I needed to get started. All I had to do now was write the book.

“All God's angels come to us disguised.”
After receiving such an encouraging email from Maggie, I expected to complete the manuscript in just a few months. Sadly though, at the start of 2007 my marriage of seventeen years began to unravel, and by the summer it had ended. I struggled on with my writing, while shifting from one friend's sofa to another one's floor, but work on my manuscript was piecemeal. Gorillaland was getting nowhere fast, and something had to give.  
Seeking a fresh start, I resigned my job, uprooted from London - my adopted home of over twenty years - and moved to Kampala. It would take a couple more years to get back on track, but at the start of the new decade I was living with Kigongo, the most wonderful woman in the world. 

Although we had no regular income we were a happy family, Kigongo, our puppy Amadeaus, and me. But the bills were mounting, and it was high time I got back to the one prospect I still had: Gorillaland. I bought a desk on the Gaba Road and began writing again in earnest.
Kigongo turned out to be my muse. She had a real knack for story-boarding, and helped me concentrate on what was most dynamic about the story, suggesting some characters that needed eliminating, as they were superfluous to the plot, while helping me strengthen others
All through the summer, we worked on tidying up the first seven chapters, following a revised, more elegant story arc than any of my previous drafts. I sent the results to my friend Martin Hay in London, who had just launched a new publishing company Cutting Edge Press, and anxiously awaited his reply. 

Dusk descends on the shores of Lake Victoria and my Australian clients, Margot, John and William have just arrived to start a three-week safari across East Africa. We're sitting down to dinner with Kigongo at the beautiful Jahaza Grill, surrounded by wild primates and rare birds, and my phone rings. I answer. “It’s actually quite good,” says Martin, "I'm prepared to send you a publishing deal." This is the call I've been waiting for all my life. 
From then on I worked ten hours a day, often by candlelight during Kampala's regular power cuts, and four months latereven before I signed their contract, CEP had the finished manuscript in their hands. It would take another year of content and copy edits, typesetting, and formatting, before the book was finally ready for publication. Still, in the fullness of time Gorillaland has landed. Enjoy the odyssey! I certainly enjoyed writing it.

Gorillaland by Greg Cummings - now available to buy here.