When writing gets technical
I don’t think any writer starts off with the intention of writing a complex book. In fact, smart authors will do their utmost to write a simple book. Like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I didn’t even want to write this book. Initially. I was tinkering with a short story, and it ran away with me. By the time I started organizing things, I discovered that the book was intricate as hell. One does not want that to show. The principle is “write hard, read easy.” A reader must not even think about technicalities. My slogan is, “the prose mustn’t be easy to understand. It must be impossible to misunderstand.” Let me just demonstrate how tricky things can get. Forgive me for mentioning Solzhenitsyn in my humble company, but my book is, time and tense-wise, similar to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
The entire story is told by my protagonist, an 18-year-old Maasai boy, to a white toy heron who sits in his small woodcarving workshop, which is part of the prison in which he is not only incarcerated, but also on death row. How did this situation come about? It’s a long story. I’m not kidding. Now as Koyati tells his story, he uses the past tense (As a small cattle herder I had to go out after the herd at five in the mornings), but also the present (Miss Heron, my secret weapon is Tung oil–it shows up the wood’s beautiful grain.) There are also recent events (Last night the Brute gave me two punches in the stomach). I must keep Koyati’s POV (point of view) in view (haha) every moment.
But then, towards the end of the book, Koyati runs out of true past tense, because the events he tells to Miss Heron, the plastic heron with a voice recorder under her wing, catches up to the present moment. Aha, I thought. Now I can tell the story blow-by-blow in the present tense. Man, will this create immediacy and action and drama! Not so fast, dumbass. It’s still past tense. Miss Heron (his voice recorder) is still sitting on the top shelf in his tiny woodcarving workshop (which is nothing but a paint storage closet).
Isidora (his young but brilliant lawyer) still comes by every Friday to download his narration to her laptop, looking for anything she can use in her hopeless effort to save him from the gallows. So, even though we’re now dealing with current events, they are still narrated in the past tense, because Koyati has to wait until the next work day before he can tell Miss Heron about them: Yesterday in court Judge Zaidi swore he would rid the United Republic of Tanzania from a scourge like me.
This is how crazy it got sometimes: Koyati is working on a sculpture in his prison workshop (strict present tense: I am sanding the prodigal son) while at the same time telling how he worked on another carving project in the past: (Elder Nuru laughed at the way I attacked the stick with my pocket knife). At the same time he will mention the almost-present-tense of his current circumstances (Sparrow says they might bring back the death penalty), or recent past, (Shomari grabbed me by the shirt this morning and warned me not to try anything.)
Continuity was a nightmare. Koyati loves wood more than he loves people. He can identify tens of species of carving wood by appearance, weight, sound, smell, and taste. If he sits down in a chair he first examines the arm rests to see from what type of wood it is made. For that reason I decided to tell the readers the species of wood he used for every single project he carved. There is no such thing as ‘I carved a fearsome lion.’ There is ‘I took my best bubinga blank and carved a fearsome red lion.’ (Koyati’s constant struggle to find good carving wood is a theme in the book.) So I needed to remember after couple of hundred pages which wood Koyati used to carve a tiny lion as part of his Maasai rosary.
Eventually I had to create a database for Koyati’s various carvings and sculptures and the wood varieties he used for each. There is one more modality: the little baboon story. While Koyati carves and chisels and sands in his little workshop, he hums and sings his own made-up story about how the High God created a small, furry baboon right in the beginning, in the garden. Little Baboon’s story is given in a formal font, deeply indented as a block quote. Almost like a Bible story. He follows Yesu Kristo from his birth to that awful moment when Little Baboon falls down in a swoon at the foot of the cross and tries to bury his little head in the bloody mud. The block quoted text is a full story in its own right. That is how crazy it got, and part of the reason why the book took me eight years to complete.
But the final test of this book has nothing to do with how hard it was to write, and everything with how easy it is to read.