Location: A Portal into the World of Inspiration
Opening a book is like calling a Phoenix from its ashes. A beginning, a new world to discover, complete with a middle devoted to adventure and then the end, a final farewell to a world with places and people burning brighter than reality. Ever since I can remember, this is the siren song I responded too. As a child, my father would bring home towering heaps of mainframe paper, all bound together at perforated edges like a giant book. The mystery language of computers printed on the back and a tantalizing front page blank and ready for the scrawl of a childish hand. I made my first “novels” in this way, even setting up pretend book stands in my room, a fake Barnes & Nobel where my parents dutifully shopped. Playing outside, in the pine forest behind our house on humid Memphis days, I was never myself but some character in an alien world where anything could happen. Reality never touched me in those magical times.
Already in love with books, my love for Africa preceded even these early days. Even my parents do not remember when the obsession began. Before I was even eight I had already watched a movie that would change my life – I Dreamed of Africa. At fifteen, with a little cash and access to my mom’s Amazon account, I discovered the movie’s predecessor, a book by Kuki Gallmann which tells a story of a woman who defied the odds and did what she loved. Locations are just unwritten novels, each place on the earth recording the history of the people who move like ants over the landscape and then disappear, each tale precious and separate under the sun but a mystery contained only in place – that final shaper of what we are and will be. The love of all things Africa and the obsession with reading had captured my soul. But it was incomplete. I wanted to be like those that I so envied. I wanted an even closer vantage point into this world of god-like beings – authors.
I had many failed writing attempts as a teen caused by a short attention span and no idea where to start – the idea of a novel simple until a blank page stared back at me. Patience wasn’t my thing. What place didit have in my magical kingdom? Translating imagination onto paper is not nearly as easy as it was in the days of mainframe printouts and pine forests.
But the urge nagged and from time to time returned with a fever soon destroyed by panic. Writing is a process of love/hate. Frustration. How to translate grand feelings onto paper, especially if those feelings are of any length? My ideas only stirred ocassionally, a smoldering flame that soon died. I just didn’t know how to accomplish it. Africa rescued me.
After graduating college, I only ever submitted one graduate school application (Johns Hopkins) with the vague idea of a Masters in Writing. I got a job as a technical writer and figured that grad school and pursuing creative writing was really a waste of time, but on the spur of a moment and the prodding of parents, sent in an application anyway. I was accepted. And so, it seemed, chosen to poke at that flame bird again.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) spoke to my soul, visions of undiscovered places, impenetrable forests, and dark caves never fully explored kept speaking to my soul. I wanted to write about that place with all its ghosts and haunted rainforests, its turbulent history. The geography instills respect and fear, many places undiscovered, never seen by a living human. The people, each with their own tragedy in this place of feral beauty, also began to call to me, and it seemed as though their story was not told. Around the setting, a seedling of an idea sprang. A woman, similar to myself, an outsider discovering a place she loves and the disillusionment when imagination and magic is killed before the pedestal of harsh reality. She must deal with her awakening, the conflict between loving a place and hating what it does. Enter Sudan, another discovery, all from a long ago Michael Palin show depicting the Nile Valley Express. More travel manuals, more books on complicated politics and histories of assassination, religious warfare, starvation, colonialism. Stories of fear in yet another place made beautiful by the landscape that is that blank page upon which we collectively write a terrible history. These stories need to be told, these places exposed not romantically, but with a glint of steel in their beckoning hands. A place you love and hate. Like writing.
From there, the characters called to me, these alien people who don’t belong in the world to which (like me) they are placed. Hours of research, the landscape guiding the creation. Sometimes these places spoke to me and the Phoenix bursts into flames. Other times I become frustrated, not writing for months, feeling that old despair: This project is far too grand. How do I ever tackle it?
I want to just get on a plane, see these places. I can’t. Sudan is in warfare (South Sudan having recently and justifiably succeeded). Congo is not as dangerous, but not a place you just hop on a plane to go either. And so, I let the research guide the pen first, and once the place is alive in me, my characters take over and I am typing quickly, shocked by the events unfurling, never expecting or planning what I will write. At other times, I wrestle to discover their secrets, barely getting anything written and throwing it all away the next day.
I do come down to earth, to reality, more now than as a child. But often, I’m consumed with my own Phoenix wanting to be born, her stimulus Africa which has so many stories that she has always longed to tell. Congo, Sudan, Kenya. They are calling: Charlotte, Charlie, Eli. My characters discover my world for me.