By BRUCE DENNILL
Nelson Mandela buried his Makarov semiautomatic pistol on Liliesleaf Farm in 1962, shortly before his betrayal by the CIA and capture by the South African Police. To this day the gun has never been found. This tantalising and historically documented fact is the catalyst for Amandla, which is set against the backdrop of the country’s violent history, vivid landscape, and the rise of apartheid.
Amandla is told from the points of view of memorable characters whose lives are inextricably entangled through three generations of Mandela’s and the De Beers’ families. Their fictional forebears fight at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, and again in the Boer War. Both families face the horrors of segregated genocide in black and white concentration camps, as well as enduring destitution as manual labourers on farms and in mines.
Alix Jans was born in South Africa and raised during the struggle against apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s 27 years of imprisonment. He was among the thousands of supporters who gathered to greet Mandela in Cape Town on the day of his release from prison in 1990. He has practiced law in the United States since the early 1990s and lives with his wife and family in St Paul, Minnesota.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
The idea for Amandla came from reading a 2006 BBC report of an interview of Nelson Mandela walking the grounds of Liliesleaf, when he asked the curator, “Did you ever find the gun I buried here in 1962?” Once I had the idea of Mandela’s buried gun that has never been found, the broad outline began to form. It would have to include Mandela, and that meant it would have to include the story of apartheid.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
Once I had the theme, I immediately knew the story of apartheid couldn’t be told without telling part of the story of the Afrikaner people heading out from the Cape in their wagons into the unknown interior of the country, where they encountered the Zulu and Xhosa and other people groups – a story much like the early American settlers, all from Europe, who headed west into the vast interior where they encountered the various indigenous American peoples. So I relied on the historical narrative to guide my plot, inserting fictional characters to make the story accessible and, hopefully, both compelling and entertaining.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
Very extensive and detailed research. In fact, the first drafts were filled with footnotes – it read more like a PhD dissertation than a historical novel. And I compiled an extensive bibliography. I painfully documented all my research, given that it was a historical novel dealing with events South Africans are generally familiar with. Eventually, I moved the footnotes to endnotes so that the research did not clutter up the text. And finally, I was persuaded to drop the endnotes and the bibliography, not least because multiple authors of historical fiction, like Ken Follett and Hilary Mantel, do not document their research.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
I needed to plot the general storyline, because I had to be selective about what I included from the sweep of SA history from the times of early colonial settlement up to the end-point of the novel, sometime before the death of Nelson Mandela. I elected to end the novel during the World Football Cup in 2010.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
My main writing distraction was my primary daytime job – I was, and remain, a full-time employee in a demanding position. Writing the novel was a part-time effort, which is why it took 13 years to complete! Aside from my job, I also had two young daughters during this period, which was very fulfilling, but still a distraction.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
Nothing really weird – it was always easy to avoid my self-imposed writing deadlines by telling myself that my job and my young family were more deserving of my time.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of wordcount or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
I never really establish daily targets. The historical context and need for research and reading often consumed whatever daily time I had available. Consequently, I would often go for many days or weeks without writing anything other than notes about research findings and how it might enhance the storyline. I did not want to include anything that did not advance the storyline.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
I don’t really have any fresh ideas regarding marketing or format, but I decided to do print, digital and audiobook, which I regard as very important to literally give voice to the narrative. My final thought is to share the motivation I drew from a quote by Toni Morrison: “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s exactly what I did and I hope others will find it accessible and want to read it too.