Anne: Our interview today is with Jeanette Windle, author of Congo Dawn, the book I reviewed yesterday. (Click HERE to see the review.) As usual, my first question has to be "What inspired this book?"
Jeanette: Growing up in the world's largest rainforest, the Amazon, I was captivated by missionary biographies from
its second-largest African counterpart, the Congo. Among them the story of Dr. Helen Roseveare, who helped establish several mission hospitals and medical training centers in the Ituri rainforest despite violence and unrest of impending Congolese independence. She herself was held captive for five months during the 1964 Simba rebellion. The largest of those centers, Nyankunde, was in turned razed in 2002 during the continuing conflict that has taken more than five million Congolese lives in the last decade. Today's fighting is greatly aggravated by the value and pursuit of conflict minerals in that zone. As always, it has been the mission pilots, medical personnel both expatriate and Congolese, and other followers of Yesu, Jesus Christ, who have been first back into the conflict zones well ahead of United Nations, embassy, local law enforcement or any other humanitarian and corporate interests. Their courage in shining bright the light of Yesu's love in one of the planet's darkest corners gave voice to this story.
For the story's actual suspense thread, I've had personal opportunity to witness what a multinational corporation is capable of in dark corners of the Third World when no one is watching (an experience in itself too unbelievable to write up as fiction). In Africa as elsewhere, both the protective and striking arm of such corporations has historically been hired foreign mercenaries. But today's private military corporations are vastly different, possessing more fire power than the average country. What struck me was the lack of any accountability to outside oversight beyond some paid-off local warlord. So what happens when a multinational corporation with unlimited funds hires on a private military company with unbridled power in a Congolese rainforest where the ultimate 'conflict mineral' is up for grabs? Coming up with one very plausible possibility birthed Congo Dawn.
On a deeper spiritual level, Congo Dawn addresses the age-old question of how a world filled with such darkness, injustice and pain can possibly be the creation of a God of love. How can followers of Yesu [Jesus] in the bleakness of an Ituri rainforest conflict zone or any other dark corner of this planet take seriously a Scriptural mandate to rejoice in their suffering [James 1:2; I Peter 4:13]? What value beyond our own comprehension might human suffering possibly hold that a loving Creator God permits it to continue?
Anne: Wow, Jeanette, that is so heartrending. I have such a hard time understanding the ugly side of human nature and equally hard time comprehending the courage and perseverance of Christians in circumstances like these. God bless you for your courage in writing about this topic.
On a lighter note, if Congo Dawn were to be made into a movie, knowing how sometimes screenwriters delete a lot, what part would you have the urge to commit mayhem if they deleted it?
Jeanette: Definitely the scene where protagonist Robin Duncan confronts Miriam, the American born Congolese doctor's wife, as to the paradox between a loving Creator God and a world filled with human suffering. It is the spiritual core of the book and the chapter on which I've received the most reader feedback. But it is also only too likely the chapter a typical screenwriter might try to gut, thereby reducing the story to a simple action plot.
Anne: True--especially if that screenwriter were not Christian. What do you find the hardest of the whole procedure: writing, editing, selling to a publisher, marketing, or ??
Jeanette: How about all of the above! In truth, writing and marketing are for most authors the most difficult, but for very different reasons. Getting the story itself down on paper (or computer screen) is a hair-tearing, heart-yanking, exhausting outpouring of spiritual, emotional, and creative energy. It is eminently worthwhile, but the hardest work I will ever do. Once the story is birthed, I personally enjoy the editing process, going back and working through each scene, polishing it up, cutting, adding, tweaking until I am sure every sentence says exactly what I want to convey, is both enjoyable and eminently satisfying.
But then comes that awful word, "marketing." I am a typical writer in that I’d rather stay holed up in my cave (figuratively) writing my next book than mess with marketing and publicity. That publishers want their authors out there in the public arena is the constant juggling act between publishers and authors. My current publisher, Tyndale House, has an excellent marketing and publicity team that takes much of the angst out of the marketing process, but it is still a time-consuming, intimidating process.
Of course, the very best aspect of writing is receiving that positive feedback from readers who are loving the story and characters you've spent so many countless hours creating. Even more so, who've been touched spiritually by the message of the book.
Anne: Exactly. Why do you choose to make writing your career?
Jeanette: I write because I am a story teller. We serve a wildly creative God who painted the skies and flowers, put music in the birds' songs and rivers, created universes of places and peoples. And just as God gave artists and musicians the ability to create with color and sound, so a story-teller's ability to create worlds and characters and drama of their own imagining is a small reflection of God’s own creative powers, one of the ways we were made in His image. God created me to be a story teller, and I simply can't not do so.
What I love about writing fiction is the tapestry it offers to weave together countless scattered threads—historical, political, social, spiritual—and the very real people involved, to create out of a vastly complicated situation a single focused story and spiritual theme. While the books I write are fiction, the peoples and places and issues they bring to life are only all too true, and I love the feedback I get from readers who say they now understand the news and international issues after having read one of my books.
Anne: Yes--fun and challenging both at once. I have two children's books out, and I love the expressions on the kids' faces and the comments they make when I read it to them.
Now, how do you do your research?
Jeanette: As with each of my books, an enormous amount of research went into Congo Dawn even before writing the first page. Just to start with, I read at least 20,000 pages of history, current events, political/social/economic background on the Congo region as well as collateral subjects such as conflict minerals, private military companies, the inside-out of multinational corporations.
For every place I write about, I also keep a Google Alert set for daily news digests. I follow blogs and travelogues of 'boots on the ground' whose lives and professions mirror the characters I am writing about. And of course on-site travel and extensive input from contacts on the ground who are real-life counterparts of my characters: Special Ops, private security, humanitarian aid, African regional journalists. Additional research tools like Google alerts, local news and blogs, security and embassy info coming out of the Congo kept me daily updated during the writing process.
But far more valuable were my many boots on the ground from Congolese to third generation expatriate jungle pilots and medical personnel, Special Ops, missionaries and adult missionary kids who have spent their lives in the Ituri rainforest zone, native Swahili speakers, including African Christian writers and publishers. And of course each part of the story was run back past these same on-the-ground readers for approval before ever making it into print.
Anne: Thanks for that, Jeanette. I'll bet most folks didn't have a clue how much work goes into just the research alone. They don't realize accuracy plays such an important part until something they know personally is messed up on!
So, is any part of Congo Dawn autobiographical?
Jeanette: The story itself is completely fictional, as are all characters and the Ituri rainforest mission hospital of Taraja (Hope). But the setting, background facts, and basic story premise are not only taken from true life in every detail, but have been replicated in endless variation across Africa and other continents where injustice and oppression prevail over the years.
One surprise in researching the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri rainforest region was just how closely it did resemble my own life experience growing up in the guerrilla zones of the Amazon, to the point where I had to beg my on-the-ground sources, "Give me something unique to the Ituri so I'm not just rewriting my own story." Not just a similar equatorial jungle landscape with much the same plant and animal life, foods, riverbank villages. But the same history of European colonial conquest, corrupt, oppressive aristocracies, equally unjust and violent rebel insurgencies. The juxtaposition of vast natural resources reaped by powerful international corporations with an impoverished, often starving indigenous population. The same issues of conflict minerals (and drugs) fueling guerrilla insurgencies. The same mix of an imposed nominal Christianity with animistic native religions.
On a more positive note, the same jungle mission communities so familiar to my own childhood offering the only available medical care, education, and the love of Jesus Christ in the midst of difficult and dangerous circumstances. And as in all my books, the emotional and spiritual issues with which main characters wrestle are birthed from my own spiritual journey.
Anne: This book is so fascinating, but would you like to tell us about your next book?
Jeanette: After seven consecutive international intrigue titles, I am actually buried currently in a project that is very much outside that box, more The DaVinci Code meets Michael Crichton's Timeline than anything I've written to date. It is a story that has been bubbling for years, and I am excited about where it is going. But I hope I won't be leaving you in too much suspense if I reserve the details until I am much further along.
Anne: I guess that would be all right, as long as you promise to come back and visit us again! Thanks for being here today, and may God continue to bless your writing.
Readers, if you will go to the book review, you can find links there to where you may buy Congo Dawn. And, if you will click on Jeanette Windle's name, you will find her incredible website.