Fiction + History = “True” Insight
Patrice Lumumba, just released from prison, showing his injured wrists
What does it mean to have courage? Most of us might first think of those who put their lives on the line in defense of an ideal. Two of those who did this: Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammarskjold. If these names don’t ring a bell you are not alone. Yet these two were part of events that should be a part of our cultural literacy.
Luckily, James Bell has just published his 4th novel, Crisis in the Congo. In this deeply researched historical novel, Mr. Bell brings fiction into the service of truth while still telling a compelling story.
In the interview that follows, Mr. Bell tells why he decided to write the book and gives us insight into the creative process. Mr. Bell is courageous to me in a different way than most of us might think of when hearing this word. He has dared to try to give us words that both entertain and instruct. Not many have been able to do this well. He does.
Before I ask about your recent book I think it would be helpful if you give readers some background. Can you tell us first about where you grew up and a bit about your family.
I grew up in Virginia Beach Virginia. My father was a civil engineer and mother was an art and art appreciation teacher at a private school. With those genes, I decided early on to become an architect. I found out too late into architecture school that I was neither passionate enough or talented enough at it. Still I have a degree from UVA and highly recommend this as a terrific course of study to pursue — the practical and theoretical coming together in something that people truly experience — even if you never practice one day of it. It is a lousy vocation, terrific advocation. Not to mention, starting salaries in New York City were $8500/year, so it was never a realistic career option.
You attended a great secondary school and then went on to one of the top universities, Uva. Did you during this time have anyone who encouraged you to write?
No, everything I learned about writing came from my high school English teachers. I may date myself, but one of them chain smoked and occasionally wore a bat costume to class. But boy did she know how to teach writing. I never took an English class at UVA, but I’ve always been a big reader.
You have now written four novels, something very few in the world have ever done. What is a bit surprising is that your writing started relatively recently. Can you talk about the transition you have made from working for big firm to running your own shop and then deciding to write? Where did the urge come from?
Writing a novel was always one of those things I wanted to do when I had the time. But writing takes a lot of time that I didn’t have until now. I commuted from Charlottesville to New York from 1994–2011 and worked in the brand advisory business. Having decided not to pursue architecture, I figured that I wanted to be in ‘the business end of a creative field.’ I started at an advertising agency after a three-plus year hiatus when I traveled around the world. It kind of went from there. I always tell people that more happens by being prepared for indirection than by doing things in a straight line. I stopped commuting in 2011, set up my own shop in town, volunteer and lecture at UVA. In between paying gigs, I write.
After Uva you did some interesting things around the globe that figured you in your previous novel, Christchurch. Can you describe some of your travels and how you decided to write a novel that was at least in part based on this?
The first effort at writing started as an effort to transpose three years of letters I wrote to my future — and current wife — for the benefit of my kids. Upon completing architecture school and clueless about what to do, I bought a ticket to Australia and spent nearly three years working and travelling around South East Asia. Got to climb to the base camp of Mt. Everest, ride on a pickup truck in Papua New Guinea with a painted man wearing a penis gourd and bone through his nose and got chased by a Komodo Dragon in Indonesia. Chronicling these adventures in letters was the best preparation for remembering, retelling stories and creating new ones. Plus I had a lot of down time to read the great masters — Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Somerset Maugham — who brought exotic places to the page. The setting for my third book, ‘Christchurch’ comes directly from my two months of hitchhiking around New Zealand. Spectacular, still barely explored place.
I know these are very vague questions but I will ask them anyway. Why do you write and how hard is it for you? Do you set a rigid schedule or do you wait for the Muse?
Writing for me is relaxing and fun. As Neil Young said about writing his memoir, he enjoyed it because it was cheap to do and took up a lot of time. I’m very much an ‘amateur’ in the classic definition of the Latin root amo — ‘to love.’ I have a long way to go to get better at the craft of storytelling and character development. I usually can get the basic storyline down in a few months, then I spend the next ten months refining, rewriting, starting over, begging for inputs and worrying if it is any good. The life of any writer, good or bad, I suspect.
Crisis in the Congo is your first attempt at historical fiction. You describe in your preface how reading an article in foreign policy spurred your interest in this time period and this very volatile place. Was there some sort of spark that ignited that told you this is what you should write about? I am interested in why this particular bit of history intrigued you so much.
I’ve always been fascinated by Africa. I first went as a ten-year-old to Kenya and back for my honeymoon in 1986. The period and place I’m writing about — Congo 1960–1961 — was unbelievable. It was the height of the Cold War, African independence movements, the quest for pure uranium that was used in the first bombs dropped on Japan, civil wars and secessions, political assassinations, capped off by the death of the saintly UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in a 1961 airplane crash as he was trying to broker a truce. Interestingly or fortuitously, the UN just reopened the case. The Congo itself is a tragic place. It started as a private business venture of the King of Belgium and has gone downhill from there. They estimate over five million people have died there over the past twenty years — largest theatre for death anywhere since World War II. The country’s new formative independence period is the context for my novel.
Your novel centers around one main character, Richard Penderel, and his interactions with all the major players in the politics and economics surrounding the Congo. If you had to describe him to readers in a few sentences what would you say?
Classic American idealist, war hero, a la Greene’s ‘Quiet American’ protagonist Alden Pyle, who joins the CIA following the Korean War. He gets into the middle of the action, falls in love and becomes disillusioned with the realities of his responsibilities and evil in the world. I can’t tell you the ending.
You mention in your introduction that one your uncles served as a solder in WWII and Korea and clearly “Dickey”, as he is called, has some of the same background. In this case you elide some historical truth into a fictional character. How hard is this to do?
My uncle Stag was a decorated tail gunner, knighted by the King of England and awarded medals by President Truman. After his military career, he joined a multi-national mining company in the late 1960s based in South Africa. There was never any conversation about what exactly he did for them.
On the other hand you also describe a number of ‘real’ people in the book and you give us insights into what they said and did. How hard is it to try to enter the mind of a historical person? How is this different than taking things from either your own life (as you have in your previous books) and suing them to create a fictional character? I guess what I am asking in the last two questions is how much you difference do you find between creating a fictional character from using a historical character in fiction and is one more challenging to do than the other? Now that have done such a wonderful job on a historical novel do you think this is direction you are going to follow?
It’s tricky and I’m still trying to figure out the balance between a work of fiction set within real events with real people and a honest historical narrative. The first draft was all facts based on the numerous historical accounts of the times and the people involved. Most of the Africans in this story were real people depicted as best as I could divine from research. But it was flat. I inserted several fictitious characters, including the main protagonists to shape the story across the human and physical landscape. It’s more art than science, so I hope I got it mostly right. And I’ll learn something for the next effort. It’s all about getting better at the craft.
Until I read an early version of the book, I was a part of what I would call the 99% (or more) who knew virtually nothing about the vents that take place in your book. I came way sadder and wiser as I think anyone reading it will do. Could you give a bit of an overview of the events?
The Belgians were terrible colonists. There were fewer than 20 college graduates out of a population of eight million Congolese in 1960. The Belgians controlled everything, including the military and they tamped down any political dissent or formation of political parties, until five months before national elections. Congo is a continental-sized country, forbidding and geographically untameable, crisscrossed by a mythic and largely unnavigable river. The Belgians granted Congo independence, but didn’t set up the structure for governance or prepare the population for self-rule. Within a week of independence, two provinces had seceded and the elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba had irritated the west by publicly courting the Soviet Union. He was overthrown in a military coup three months later and was assassinated three months after that in January 1961. There is a mountain of evidence — but no conclusive proof — that the Belgians and white mercenaries were directly involved in Lumumba’s death. It is less clear about the CIA’s involvement, though much is posited. In September that year, Dag Hammarskjold’s plane was shot down in present day Zambia trying to mediate a reconciliation between the secessionist province of Katanga and the national government. And this occurred a full three years before Joseph Mobutu took control, renamed it Zaire, and began a 30-year reign of corruption and kleptocracy.
One of the questions I have is how you decided to present the historical events. It is virtually impossible to be objective about what happened to the Congo due to the politics of major players in the region and in Europe, Russia and the US. Was it difficult for you to present the events in a way that is both open to interpretation but also informative enough for readers to form judgments about who helped and who hurt the situation in the Congo?
As a piece of fiction that is rooted in true events, it’s hard to get that equilibrium right. Many accounts paint the US as the bad guy; the cat’s paw that controlled the action. It was more nuanced than that, though the Cold War and supply of uranium were very real strategic priorities for the US. One of the more interesting facets of this story is the physical size of the Congo — larger than France and Germany put together with no infrastructure or shared culture to glue the country together. It was all disparate, isolated tribes — and still is today. The Belgians made a mess of what was already an ungovernable mess. I tried to get the tension right, based on what my background research turned up. The Congolese were the victims and still are.
The wreckage of Dag Hammarskjold’s plane
Do you think this book could be used in a class that covers this historical period? I find in some cases historical fiction lets us understand the people and events in a more compelling way than history. For example, the seminal book that is often used to depict the negative effects of colonialism is Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. It gets read far more than any history but still teaches readers.
I believe a combination of fiction and non-fiction can be useful in helping readers better understand history. Most good fiction is grounded in real events. ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ — while fictitious — tell us a lot about the Russian and French revolutions. Combining good fiction with history is an effective and engaging way to educate audiences about periods that otherwise would not be as well known or talked about. A novel is generally more entertaining than a simple retelling of true events from a thick textbook. Still it is not a stand-in for history. There is a lot of good, if obscure scholarship on this era — and even more on the disastrous later rule of Joseph Mobutu starting in 1965. But it requires digging — which I’ve happily done for my readers.
As a follow up, I will ask a delicate question. As a white writer from the US, can you still be trusted to give an adequate overview of the events depicted?
Probably because I am white and have white guilt. I remark in the book through the protagonist that the Congo was fully four years ahead of the US in legislating full voting rights to its citizens. The legacy of Belgium’s colonialism there was despicable and racist, even beyond the attitudes of the day.
Aside from the pleasure of reading an incredibly compelling story what do want your readers to come away with after reading this novel? Did you think much about this when you were writing?
This first and foremost is a story, based on a fascinating series of events that still shape our world today. The story takes place in a different time with different attitudes with larger-than-life people, living in a truly revolutionary period. We are seeing it repeat today in the Middle East — same issues: tribalism, the fight for natural resources, immature politics, and money. Does history repeat itself … or just go on making the same mistakes?
Another big question. Some say all art is political. Do you agree?
Politics is fundamentally about motivating and transforming people to do things — differently and better. So is art.
Do you think this book would make a good film? Have you talked to anyone about this?
I have talked to a few friends on the west coast who are in the movie biz. Maybe ‘Argo’ meets ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘A Most Wanted Man’? It would be a fun movie.
Are you already at work on something new and if so any hints about what it is about?
A former colleague sent me a scholarly biography on Charles Bedaux, a mysterious and wealthy immigrant from France who started the largest scientific management consulting business in the US, became close friends with British royalty, later became a spy and Nazi collaborator and died during World War II mysteriously. It’s a great story that is so American at it’s roots. I think it could be adapted into a terrific novel. Also writing short stores — they’re far harder.
If you had to give aspiring writers, or any age, advice about how to be so productive and how to expand their skills and horizons what would it be?
Keep at it. Think of writing anything from a novel to a blog post as a finite project that has a beginning, middle and end. And be prepared to spend a lot of time at it. No good story is that easy to tell.
Anything else you want to add?
Please buy my book. Immodestly, it’s a terrific story that I hope I’ve done justice to.
George Santayana’s famous words about those who forget history being doomed to repeat it is fine as a short if not sweet meme, but it leaves out something even more important. Those who have never even known the history of a time and place are doomed to not understand the culture, the context, and the facts. They will not repeat anything but they will not understand how things have come to be the way they are and how things might be changed.
In the case of most who live in the US (and in any other parts of the world), we have never learned much about an entire continent — Africa. In US classrooms we are taught about the slave trade but not enough about the history behind it. We don’t know much about the geography, the tribes, the cultural richness and the effects of Colonialism. We are in effect illiterates for all intents and purposes.
The one book that does get taught at some forward looking schools, Things Fall Apart , helps give a bit of history on how one place has become unglued as the traditions of a tribe and its leaders fall apart under the new Colonial rule. But the time and place of this novel are now so distant it does not include any information of the way the major players in world in the 20th Century took control of many places in Africa as a part of the Cold War.
Crisis in the Congo is not just a wonderful novel with characters that seem real enough to be real and real people who also are , to quote E.M. Forster describing successful characters in novels, “rounded instead of flat” , Crisis in the Congo gives life to people who tried to bring democracy to a country controlled by those Whites on the outside from Belgium, Russia, the UK, and the US. The country was a part of what was called “the game” back then but for those who died trying to win life and freedom it was anything but a game. Even the head of the UN lost his life in his efforts to bring peace and reform. Unfortunately, The players in “the game” had more at stake (economically and politically) than peace.
What I have written are the abstractions that work around the borders of Mr. Bell’s story. Instead of rehearsing these tired abstractions. Crisis in the Congo gives us what a poet once called the most important thing about writing: A Local Habitation and A Name.
I found myself reading the book, knowing as in any tragedy that things would not end well, but wanting to see how the individual characters fared before they became more than just collateral or targeted damage. The tragedy that Crisis in the Congo forces us to look through the terrible beauty of the words depicts “the horror, the horror” that is far more real, in both senses of the word, than the one Conrad evokes.
Mr. Bell’s novel should be read by many people not just as entertaining fiction, but as way of telling if not the truth, then at least a way of entering in to events that engages our intellect and outrage.
I would like to thank Mr. Bell for sharing his words crafting words that matter. I hope that many will decide to let his story change the way we view the Congo.