Please welcome my friend and fellow historical mystery author Annamaria Alfieri, whose fantastic new novel, STRANGE GODS (Minotaur Books, June 2014), is the first in a brand-new mystery series set in British East Africa during the early years of the 20th century.
“With the flair of Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, the cunning of Agatha Christie and Elspeth Huxley and the moral sensibility of our times, Alfieri permeates this tragic novel with a condemnation of imperialism, a palpable love of Africa, a shocking conclusion and a reminder that good does not always triumph.” –Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch
In early 20th century British East Africa, there are rules for the British and different ones for the Africans. Vera McIntosh, the daughter of Scottish missionaries, doesn’t feel she belongs to either group; having grown up in Africa, she is not interested in being the well-bred Scottish woman her mother would like her to be. More than anything she dreams of seeing again the handsome police officer she’s danced with. But more grisly circumstances bring Justin Tolliver to her family’s home.
The body of Vera’s uncle, Dr. Josiah Pennyman, is found with a tribesman’s spear in his back. Tolliver, an idealistic Assistant District Superintendent of Police, is assigned to the case. He first focuses on Gichinga Mbura, a Kikuyu medicine man who has been known to hatefully condemn Pennyman because Pennyman’s cures are increasingly preferred over his. But the spear belonged to the Maasai tribe, not Kikuyu, and it’s doubtful Mbura would have used it to kill his enemy. Tolliver’s superior wants him to arrest the medicine man and be done with it, but Tolliver pleads that he have the chance to prove the man’s guilt. With the help of Kwai Libazo, a tribal lieutenant, Tolliver discovers that others had reasons to hate Pennyman as well, and the list of suspects grows.
And now, with no further ado — on with the questions!
What inspired you to set your new series in Africa?
The irresistibility of Africa itself. I read Out of Africa as an adolescent who had never traveled farther from my New Jersey home than the coast of Maine. That book gave me a nostalgic longing for a place I experienced only in my dreams and had no prospects of ever visiting. I have been there now, twice, and each encounter made me more infatuated. Now, every description I read of its majesty, every photo I see increases the strength of my attachment. This had been going on for years. Then, a couple of years ago, a dear friend and traveling companion dropped the BIG HINT. We were chatting about what I would write after I finished Blood Tango. “Why don’t you write about that Africa that you are so in love with?” he asked. In a nanosecond, my imagination zoomed to the African wilderness that so infatuated me. But not to the Serengeti where my friend and I had walked together. To British East Africa in the early Twentieth Century—the time and place where my Africa fascination first took root, thanks to Isak Dinesen’s brilliant words. Researching Strange Gods allowed me to spend lots of time there vicariously. It’s all irresistible to me.
Your previous novels were stand-alone. Do you find it harder or easier to write a series – and why?
I imagined it would be easier because staying one place would mean I would not have to start researching the time and place from scratch with each book. In a sense that turned out to be true, but I find I am addicted to research. Since each book deals with a different aspect of culture and a new location, I still have to do a lot of research. With each one I learn more. I hope this will make the stories richer as I go along.
But it’s also more difficult in one way. There were techniques needed to write a series that I had never had to learn. In writing Strange Gods, I was aware that the characters would have to be complex enough for me to stay with them through several stories—to say nothing of how appealing they needed to be to readers. While drafting the second book, I had to figure out with how much of the backstory I need to or should reference in the new story. I want the books to read as complete in and of themselves. I want people to be able to start with the later books and read the earlier ones as prequels. It’s pretty tricky.
I very much admire the English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who writes plays that mesh with one another in the most intricate and mind boggling ways. His cycle The Norman Conquest is three plays that take place simultaneously in the garden, the living room and the dining room of a country house. Each is complete and satisfying in itself, but the characters when exiting the action of one play are entering the action of another. When I saw the whole cycle, I thought a person would have to have at least three brains to create such an intricate (and hilarious, by the way) story. Now that I am about to start drafting the third in my series, I wish I could borrow Sir Alan’s brainpower to keep it all straight and get it all right.
What is the most important piece of writing advice you have for aspiring authors?
Put your tushie in a chair and your fingers on the keyboard and write. Do NOT worry that what you are producing is drivel. Write. And then edit and make it better. And then edit and make it better. And then… Repeat. Repeat.
Never give up on yourself. If you are a real writer you will not give up. In fact, real writers always say the same thing. You could not stop us by holding a gun to our heads.
These days, I think the opportunities of self-publishing are a great boon to those frustrated by the vagaries of breaking into traditional publication. But these opportunities also come with the temptation to go public before your work is really ready. You may be working on a diamond in the rough, but it needs to sparkle before people will really see what you can do. Good enough is NOT good enough. Never settle for less than your very best.
Your new novel, STRANGE GODS, takes place in British East Africa during the early 20th century, a time and place where people lived by very different rules. What did you find most difficult about setting a novel in this particular time and place?
I love the setting so much that I think I could have wallowed in waxing poetic about it. I had to stick with expressing my emotions as part of my characters’ reactions to the beauty around them. And do it without slowing down the story.
What did you enjoy most about exploring the British East African world while researching and writing STRANGE GODS?
This is the other side of that infatuation coin. With this series, I spend my imaginary time in a gorgeous place that grows my soul. That energizes me.
Do you have a favorite scene from STRANGE GODS? If so (and if you can tell us about it without revealing any spoilers!), what makes that scene stand out for you?
Yikes! This is a tough question. I don’t think I have a favorite, per se. It would be like saying which is your favorite of your fingers. I want to keep them all, and I like it that they work together so well. When I do readings, I read the first part of Chapter 2—the discovery of the body. I have done that a few times already and what I like about the scene is that it reveals the central murder mystery and also lets the reader glimpse the geopolitical facts of life in that place and time, both from the point of view of the tribes people and of the European settlers. The relationship of the characters also comes into it. And the loveliness of the setting shines in the background.
Reading over this, I find it sounds a bit braggadocios. I don’t mean it that way. The act of writing puts me in a kind of state of altered consciousness, so I did not intentionally put all that into the scene when I was working on it. I see all this with another part of my brain after reading it aloud a few times in libraries and bookstores. But I can hardly describe where it all came from. It’s just there. This is a weird feeling.
Can you give us a hint about the next adventure in this compelling and unusual new series?
The administration of the protectorate of British East Africa moved its policemen around because some parts of the territory were more fraught with tropical diseases than others. I am going to move my characters around too. In book 2 (The Idol of Mombasa is my working title), they go to Mombasa, a port on the coast, which has been an Arab trading center for a millennium. The Brits are in charge there, but only by leave of the Sultan of Zanzibar who has hegemony over a ten-mile strip of the coast. The background subject is slavery which is against British law, but allowed by Muslim Shari-a’ law, followed by the majority of Mombasa’s population. And thereby hangs my tale.
How can readers find out about your upcoming signings, readings, and other appearances?
And now, the speed round:
Cappucino or Espresso?
Cappuccino except after a meal. Then it’s espresso macchiato—with a touch of foamed milk.
A night at home or a night on the town?
A 60-40 split in favor of nights at home would be ideal for me.
Comedy or drama?
Forced to choose, I would say comedy. But I would only choose if you force me.
Cookies, fruit, or ice cream?
Ice Cream. But even better gelato!
Thank you so much, Annamaria, for joining us today! It’s always wonderful to have you here on the blog.
If you’re looking for a great new mystery series, STRANGE GODS should top your list. (I’m posting my review on Thursday, and I’ve ranked this one “Highly Recommended.”)