Sunday, November 24, 2013

Forgedaboudit!: How I Came To Write Pirates

It’s ten o’clock at night. Unseen in the viridescent shadows, half a dozen Masai askaris and two Rottweiler are patrolling the grounds of Bobby Cellini’s Malindi home. The two-storey rococo mansion is lit up by coloured spotlights that cast ferny shadows across its rustic ochre walls. Palm fronds nudge up against the terra-cotta roof tiles, rustling in a warm Swahili breeze that blows up from the coast.

Seated at a long glass dining table in a outdoor gazebo by his swimming pool, the seventy year-old American patriarch is holding court with his daughter Daniela Cellini, her artist friend Alexandra, nephew Jody Baker, and me. We’ve just eaten an exquisite meal of Wahoo steaks brushed with rosemary branches dipped in olive oil and tied together with a clove of garlic in between. Now comes dessert. “Greg, when was the last time you had Key lime pie?” asks Bobby, as a slice is placed in front of me.

“Way too long,” I sigh pushing my fork through its firm meringue mantle, soft creamy centre and crispy biscuit crust. After tasting a morsel I gasp. “Damn, that’s the best Key lime pie I’ve ever tasted.”

Bobby smiles at me, nods, then shuts his eyes. I want to ask him about incorporating my gorilla safaris into junkets for his casino clients but the opportunity has passed. Jody, who suggested I pitch the idea, senses my disappointment, leans in closer and says, “Forgedaboudit.”

I first met Jody Baker in the highlands of Rwanda one chilly September morning in 2009. He and his wife Renata, who was seven-and-a-half months pregnant and about to trek mountain gorillas, were standing outside the headquarters of Volcanoes national park, observing the chaos created by half a dozen inflexible park rangers trying to organise four dozen foreigners. 

Among the high-paying mzungus eager to start trekking, three stood out: a middle-aged man and his two teenage boys. Outfitted to the teeth in elaborate and expensive khaki safari gear - two hiking poles each, knee-high black gators, and mosquito-net hats - my clients were impossible to miss.

As Jody recalls, “They wore pith helmets equipped with solar panels to power their attached forehead fans. I made eye contact with their mzungu guide, another sideline observer. He had a look I recognised: one who is well Africanized, knows the ropes, and can afford to pull some strings. He had already made his moves, like me he was just waiting for the confusion to die down.”


I have only ever met a handful of kindred spirits in my life. Each time we instantly hit it off, shared a mutual acceptance of each other that transcended all other aspects our lives, except maybe a common appreciation of cannabis. That’s how it was with Jody and me. Within minutes of our meeting we were lamenting the dearth of a decent smoke in East Africa, and both somehow knew we’d end up being life-long friends.

Three days later I ran into him again in a hotel lobby near Kigali airport. He and his very expectant wife were about to fly to home to Miami to prepare for their baby’s birth. My clients had just departed, and I was planning to drive back to Kampala the next day. After exchanging emails, we promised we'd stay in touch.

In the year that followed each of our lives got seriously revised. Jody became a father for the first time. “My little boy is awesome,” he said in a Facebook chat with me, “the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Childbirth is nasty but amazing!”

I met Sandra Richardson, the love of my life. “An amazing woman,” I told Jody, “We’re putting all we got into this relationship.”

Sandra moved into my apartment in Kampala and, after reading the manuscript I’d been working on for three years, pointed out several worthwhile ways it could be polished up. Her suggestions vastly improved the story arc and made the characters much more believable. I realised I’d met my muse, and over the next few months, with her help, struggled to complete my debut novel, Gorillaland. At the end of August 2010, on the strength of the first ten chapters, Martin Hay of Cutting Edge Press called me from London with the offer of a publishing deal. "Bo yakka!"

In the euphoria that followed, I wrote to Jody. “When are you back in East Africa? When can we get this groove on? Sandra and I need a break from Uganga! The Swahili Coast has all that spicy, salty, seductive, smiling, fruit-fried, frangipani, sweet mimosa, underwater turquoise style going on...”

“Great timing, younger brother!” he wrote back. “I sold a property and am supposed to be in Malindi in October. I am making arrangements now. I'll probably stay there a week or so. You're very welcome!”

We’re sailing 17 miles off the Kenyan Coast aboard Albatross, Jody’s 33 foot Black Fin Express, fishing over a canyon in the Malindi-Watamu bank with a spread of nine lines trailing from her stern. The sun is pegging and all around us fish are jumping: wahoo, swordfish, tuna.

Suddenly a line screams off its reel. “You’ve got a strike!” snaps Jody, handing me the rod. I struggle to take control, grappling with the method and muscle required. All the while I’m being hurled instructions from above and behind: “Feed the line!” “Let the pole do the work!” “Don’t let your line touch the boat!” “You can’t take a break now!” Eventually I get the hang of it and am rocking and reeling like a pro, dragging a monster up from the deep.

It feels like I’ve been fighting for hours, though it can only have been 20 minutes, and I want to give up for the ache in my left arm, but I know I have to see this through to completion. Finally I spot him, shimmering below the ocean surface, a sizeable tuna fish, still fighting hard. I put all my strength into reeling it in those last five meters. When the fish is at last close enough, the boatman leans over the edge and hooks it with a gaffer.

Boo yakka!” I shout, staggering back from the gunwale in sheer delight, breathless, bone-tired, and dripping in sweat from the fight. The boatman hauls my yellowfin aboard and immediately bleeds it with a long knife.

With its vivid silver and black markings, a turquoise stripe down its side, and bright yellow fins and finlets, it’s a beautiful creature to behold - weighing at least 25 kilogrammes. And despite my role in its brutal demise, nothing can contain my excitement at seeing this yellowfin at my feet. “You can’t be a Tuna Murdra without getting blood on the decks, mon!” laughs Jody. 

“Who’s the daddy?” asks Jody, triumphantly reeling in another mighty yellowfin, our fifth of the day. He’s an experienced angler and it shows; it takes him less than 10 minutes to bring in his tunny.

“Incredible,” I laugh, shaking my head. “So many fish!”

“You can thank the Somali pirates for that,” he says over his shoulder. “Since they started attacking ships around the Horn of Africa, tuna stocks on the Kenyan coast have shot up.”

BOOM! I did not realise it at the time, but right then a lure was dropped for my second novel. Another year would pass before I finally got a strike, figured out a suitable plot, but that was the moment the story began to develop, emerge from the deep.

“It doesn’t really say anything,except flat bottomed boats at posh universities!” said my agent Maggie Phillips. She was reacting to my title, Puntland. “If you are writing about Somali pirates – always in the news, apparently unstoppable – then you need to flag this up in the title. Baddies like this are fascinating, people want to read about them, so give them a chance to realise what your book is about!”

World events were influencing my storyline: the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, the alliance of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, and the crack down by the maritime community on Somali pirates. Adding to that, I had visited Kidepo Valley in northern Uganda and found the ideal setting for the opening chapters.

The strike came during one of Kampala’s regular power cuts. Sandra and I were sitting under a starflower tree, discussing the plot, what motivates Somali pirates, and batting around real current affairs, when she came up with a plot twist that I knew would grab every reader by the short and curlies. "Bo Yakka!"

With a worthy plot, in-depth storyline, and cast of intriguing characters, I wrote a detailed outline, chapter-by-chapter - the synopsis for Pirates, sent it off to Maggie and Martin, and thereafter secured my second publishing contract, with a deadline to complete the manuscript by April 2012.

Johnny Oceans, Pirates’s enigmatic hero, is a maverick Italian-American from South Florida with a background in dope smuggling. In 1998 while working on the Kenyan coast in the family’s gaming business he was abducted by pirates. Eventually he settled in Somalia, converted to Islam, changed his name to Mehmet Abdul Rachman, and married a beautiful Darod woman. But nothing is what it seems.

The novel’s indomitable heroine is a chain-smoking, skinny-jeans wearing, forty-something Somali woman who happens to be the hero’s wife. Inspired by the women of the Arab Spring, Khadija Abdul Rachman urges her fellow Somalians, through Twitter and Facebook, to put aside their clannish ways and stand up against the rising tide of Islamic jihad in Somalia.

Enter the reluctant protagonist, safari guide Derek Strangely who crosses over from my first novel Gorillaland. After a perilous journey into Puntland, he comes up against Khadija’s mercurial brother Maxamid, a Somali pirate who dislikes foreigners. Meanwhile, behind the scenes Ali al-Rubaysh, a veteran jihadist now commander in al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula, plots a terror attack on America more devastating than 9/11.

In a barren province of a troubled desert land deemed a failed state, Pirates pits pirate against jihadist. While the outside world believes the situation as hopeless, brave men and women strive to solve the Gordian knot that is the Horn of Africa.

“How goes Johnny O?” asked Jody. “You inspired? I'm headed to Kenya around the 20th for about a month, Diani - Malindi. Chillin'. Hugs.”

“Been writing like a whirling dervish,” I replied. “Long hours, and I’m not paying much attention to anything else. When you heading down this way? My folks would love to do a trade - their place in Cabo in exchange for your place in Malindi.”

“I just spent $18,000 on the place in Malindi, paint, pool, everything - I'll get pictures soon. They are welcome to my house anytime. Trade or no trade ;) Fuhgetaboutid…”

Jody kept me on point, suggesting weapons and equipment Johnny Oceans might use. By way of our regular conversations, he also gave me the correct vernacular for my hero. I wrote the majority of the manuscript in San Jose del Cabo, Baja, Mexico. Working in a desert environment with waves constantly pounding the shore was a boon to the story (and considerably safer than visiting Somalia). And the support of my parents, in particular my mother, provided me with all the encouragement I needed to get the job done in time.

Meanwhile my muse was back in Uganda, trying to make ends meet on $100 a week. It’s only now, after living through comparably lean times that I understand how much she suffered to ensure there was a home waiting for me back in Africa. I love you Kigongo.

It’s December 2012, eight months past my deadline. I’m on a leaky ship, struggling to put the finishing touches on my manuscript before I sink. World events are getting ahead of me. Kenya has invaded Somalia, al-Shabaab is in retreat, Egypt is in turmoil, the Arab Spring has turned cold, and piracy has been effectively vanquished from the Horn of Africa.

Penniless, shackled to my writing desk in a remote, dusty neighbourhood of Kampala, I have nothing to distract me from the task at hand. I’m working day and night. And no matter how bare the cupboard, at least once a day Sandra puts a square meal in front of me.

Two final hurdles remain: a convincing climax and Johnny Oceans backstory. I’ve modelled him on a living person and wonder how best I can reconcile that in a work of fiction. I voice my concerns to Jody.

Greg Cummings: “I haven't yet figured on where Oceans is from. At the moment I'm using his actual back story, with a twist. But I think I will change that. Don't need them getting pissed with me…”

Jody Baker: “Not to worry, they'd call me ;)”

Greg Cummings: “If you say so…”

Jody Baker: “In Godfather II, when Hyman Roth (Meyer Lansky) is discussing the split up of Havana, he gives the casino to the ‘Levini brothers, Eddie and Dino’. Watch that part of the movie where he is talking to Michael Corleone on the rooftop of a Havana hotel…” 

Subsequently Jody sent a chapter to his uncle in Malindi.

Jody Baker: “I don't think Uncle Bobby is happy about what I forwarded him but you know what… all that shit is already on the internet and the rest is fiction.”

Greg Cummings: “Should I worry?”

Jody Baker: “No - it's a work of fiction, artistic license and all that... It's funny, a black comedy. Good publicity.”

The trouble with writing action adventure stories that are set in the present day is that the latitudes keep moving. At some point the author must decide what makes a gripping yarn and disregard the rest, but a well-told story that cuts closer to the facts is undoubtedly more riveting. Writing Pirates on three continents in as many years was almost as much a roller coaster ride as the story itself. I believe it’s an audacious tale. Inspired by the oceans, I hope it will appeal to as wide an audience.

See for yourself. Read the book. Enjoy the adventure! It's at least as good as Uncle Bobby's Key lime pie.


"I owe you a debt of gratitude, older brother."
"Nah, younger brah, you owe me nothing. But if this book's a bestseller I want a '58 Cadillac ragtop...Capisce?"

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