Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Today's Mystery Author Guest: Kwei Quartey
As promised yesterday, fellow mystery author Kwei Quartey is visiting my blog today, with answers to my interview questions. To read his bio and see his photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Also, Kwei is running a contest for a free autographed copy of the upcoming March release in his Inspector Darko Dawson mystery series, Murder at Cape Three Points. Kwei will select the winner tomorrow evening from among those who leave a comment today or tomorrow and will announce the name in a comment on this post.
In the book, at Cape Three Points on the beautiful Ghanaian coast, a canoe washes up at an oil rig site. The two bodies in the canoe—who turn out to be a prominent, wealthy, middle-aged married couple—have obviously been murdered; the way Mr. Smith-Aidoo has been gruesomely decapitated suggests the killer was trying to send a specific message—but what, and to whom, is a mystery. The Smith-Aidoos, pillars in their community, are mourned by everyone, but especially by their niece Sapphire, a successful pediatric surgeon in Ghana's capital, Accra. She is not happy that months have passed since the murder and the rural police have made no headway.
When the Ghanaian federal police finally agree to get involved, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson of the Accra police force is sent out to Cape Three Points to investigate. Pretty as the coast is, he is not happy to be sent away from his wife and two sons, the younger of whom is recovering from a heart operation. And the more he learns about the case, the more convoluted and dangerous it becomes. Three Points has long been inhabited by tribal villages of subsistence fishers, but real estate entrepreneurs and wealthy oil companies have been trying to bribe the tribes to move out. Dawson roots out a host of motives for murder, ranging from personal vendettas to corporate conspiracies.
Sounds like a very intriguing read to me! Below are Kwei's answers to my interview questions.
1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?
I started writing novellas when I was eight or nine years old. My parents had hundreds of books at home, fiction and nonfiction. I read voraciously, and I loved mysteries—both adult and children’s. I don’t know what made me want to write like those authors, but I did. Film actors tell how as they watched movies as kids, they thought to themselves, “I want to do that.” It was the same for me, but with books.
2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?
I keep writing the character, and like in real life, he or she begins to develop and grow on me. Sometimes they “do stuff” that surprises me. The suggestion I’ve heard of sitting down to make a detailed sketch of every character—age, appearance, likes, dislikes, marital status, etc.—seems wrong to me. The character is going to evolve in the novel in any case, so I don’t waste time trying to box him or her into some pre-defined state. If we met people and immediately tried to confine them to our first impressions, we would miss the opportunity of getting to know them. Don’t box your characters in.
3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
I have to write an outline because the editors want to see one. For instance, Soho Press editors are lining up their 2015 schedule right now, and they would like to see what I have for Darko Dawson #4 (I’m hoping to send them something in about 2 weeks.) There’s no “should” or “should not” about an outline, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s like standing at the top of a valley you’re about to explore. You don’t know the details of what’s in the valley yet, but it’s useful to see the lay of the land.
4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?
Character first, plot second. What makes your blood boil or puts a smile on your face? People and what they do. Same with a novel, mystery or otherwise. If plot was the more important, mystery writers could all just write a narrative synopsis showing the brilliant plot and publish that. Thirty pages and you’re done.
With Wife of the Gods, my first novel, readers never said, “Omg, what a plot!” No, they talked about the characters and why they behaved the way they did. What I love about book clubs, which are almost invariably 99 percent female, is that women love to discuss characters in the novel. I often hear readers give an insight into a character that never even occurred to me.
5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
Getting published—tough slogging. But I’m stubborn, and there’s something about me that makes me even more determined when someone tells me “no.” I don’t like no.
6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?
I wake at 5 AM to write, occasionally earlier. I am worthless late at night unless I’m on deadline. I’m still practicing medicine full time, but in 2014 it’s likely that I will cut back my practice to three 10-hour days. I can’t sustain the same “double career” that I have done heretofore because the writing demands on my time are greater and greater. It’s no longer just the novel-writing itself. It’s blogging, writing articles, travel, events, and so on.
7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?
1. Love writing for its own sake.
2. Have a crazy desire to create a story and a crazy desire for people to read it.
3. Remember that criticism is an opinion. I had a UK agent tell me years ago in the snootiest tones possible that, “Two places no one wants to read about: Africa and Afghanistan.” That was before the million bestselling No. 1 Ladies Detective series, set in Botswana, Africa, and the international mega-bestseller The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan. Look, the fact is, sometimes people just don’t know what they’re talking about, so be tough.
4. But don’t be a jerk either. There are really good people in the business, and they deserve respect.
5. Don’t say to people, “I have an idea for a novel,” and then regale them with the plot. Get cracking with writing it and stop sharing it. It’s no good in your head. It needs to be written. Don’t give your drafts to friends, family, lovers, spouses and the like to read and critique unless they’re editors or phenomenally successful authors. People think they know writing the same way they think they know medicine.
6. If you get stuck on a plot point, give it a night’s sleep. The solution may come to you during sleep. The subconscious needs time to work and not be bothered by the often overbearing conscious self.
8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.
I’m terrified of possums, but I like snakes.
9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?
Even as I promote Murder at Cape Three Points, I will be writing my 4th Darko novel, tentatively called Gold of my Fathers. I’d like to put out a couple of e-novellas as well, but I'm not sure if I will have time.
10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?
It would be great if you could sign up on my blog email list. I try not to overdo it and don’t send out blogs more than once every couple weeks or so. But since I’m going to Ghana in February and will be doing some exciting stuff like visiting a deep-sea oil rig, it might be fun to read about my exploits. I’m always getting into something with a little hint of danger. You can see the blogs I wrote about illegal gold mining in Ghana, the topic of the next novel.
Try reading the first two Darko novels, Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street, before Murder at Cape Three Points. Although not absolutely essential, it’s best to do it that way so you can establish the background. Please also check out my e-novella, Death at the Voyager Hotel. This is a very quick and easy read, perfect for a plane flight.
I am most available for book clubs, and I enjoy them. Along with my website, you can find me on Twitter.
11. Anything else?
I recently learned from fellow writer Mukoma wa Ngugi, a professor at Cornell, that he uses Wife of the Gods in the course he teaches on crime writing, along with Walter Mosley’s and Sara Paretsky’s novels. I was thrilled and humbled.
Thanks, Kwei! Now, who has a comment or question for Kwei Quartey? Good luck in the contest!