Today, I am interviewing Pete KJ, author of the novel, Black Volta. This book, based in Ghana, with its well-developed characters and a rich story has impressed me so much that I could not help but interview Pete and ask him some pertinent questions.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
But first, feel free to check out my review of Black Volta.
1. Could you tell my readers a bit about yourself?
I’m an American who loves to explore the world. I began my explorations at around age three in the wooded ravine behind my childhood home in Seattle, in the USA’s beautiful Pacific Northwest. I also began a lifelong writing habit. Backyard expanded as I hiked all over the nearby Cascade Mountains as a youth, and headed onward to the Pyrenees, Alps, Himalayas, and Andes.
After dutifully completing university (BS and MS in chemical and bioengineering, respectively), I veered afield and spent two years working in Ghana as a high school chemistry teacher. This was a profound, life-altering experience that cemented my deep desire to always be out in the world.
I took my time traveling home, and when I finally sat in a cubicle as a chemical engineer, it was (eventually) in places like Puerto Rico and India—where I lived in Mumbai and worked for Reliance.
I left my cubicle in 2007 and never looked back. I moved on to raise two children, travel the world with them, and write about it—and also write novels. My base camp has been Colorado USA since 2009. Career brought me here in the 1990s, and its beauty pulled me back.
In addition to self-publishing Black Volta in 2019, I conventionally-published a hiking guide, Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range, which is the bestselling hiking guide in this region.
2. What made you base your novel on Ghana and not any other African country?
My need to write about Ghana goes to the core of why I began to seriously write fiction. As mentioned, I lived and worked in Ghana from 1989 through 1991. This was a game-changing experience that fundamentally altered my life. I went on to work as a corporate engineer for the next fifteen years in the USA, Puerto Rico, and India, but I kept going back to Ghana whenever I could, and remained deeply in love with and affected by it. I just couldn’t shake it.
My first novel, The Coins (2012), was of course about Ghana. I went on to write other novels of varying types, but by late 2016 I felt I had more I needed to say concerning Ghana. Thus I found myself boarding a plane to Accra to go on a writing trip.
I didn’t know what I was going to write about in terms of plot, at first. I knew I wanted to write about scarcity, both real and perceived. I also knew I needed to go and be in a place where real scarcity actually existed, or had existed in the past. So I went back to Ghana.
3. Liz’s mother is an incorrigible hoarder and always gives more importance to her family back in Ghana than to Liz. She is a controlling parent. Did you feel angry when you created the character of Mumma?
Yeah, I felt angry when I created Mumma, and I’m grateful for it. I think every novel needs a villain, and in this novel the villain is scarcity-patriarchy, embodied in Mumma.
Mumma is a product of her environment, but I took care to depict her as Mumma the individual and not make her a stand-in for her whole culture. I also chose to make her tribe (Brigaare) and her village (Kantugha) fictitious, unlike everything else in the book, which is about real people and real places. I did this because I am not qualified to speak on the internal intricacies of any particular one of Ghana’s dozens of tribes, and would feel wrong in pointing an accusatory finger at any specific named place or group.
Through Mumma I was able to access deep reserves of anger within myself over the impacts of scarcity-patriarchy on the world—stuff that really makes my blood boil.
4. Despite being an American, you wrote so authentically about the cultural clash that resulted when Liz married a white American. What did you do to help you achieve this?
This question speaks, I think, to the larger question of whether it’s possible for authors to pull off writing outside their cultures. Margaret Atwood has said that it is easier for a writer to change gender than culture, the latter being far more difficult if not impossible. However, from the beginning of my fiction career, I have felt compelled to try. So thank you for the compliment.
I think my long term experiences on the ground in Ghana, and the depth and breadth of relationships I’ve maintained over three decades in and out of Africa, have given me some degree of chops, and the confidence to take a crack at it.
Some cheekiness fed this effort. I knew it was going to be presumptuous of me—a white male author—to claim to write authentically from an African’s diasporic insider perspective, especially one of an African woman. But I said heck with it. If Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets to have white male Anglo characters in her novels, and write from within their perspectives as she does in Half of a Yellow Sun, then I get to have black female Africans in mine and do the same!
5. Who was more difficult to write – Liz or Carlos?
Strangely, Carlos. Being male helped me find common ground with him, and enabled me to easier draw on first-hand experiences with which I could infuse his life. But I constantly had to construct and reconstruct his inner turmoil within myself. Liz was easier because I felt I had a better understanding of her and her plight.
6. Does the novel contain any of your personal experiences?
As the fore-page disclaims, everything in the novel is either fictitious or used fictitiously. At the same time, everything evolved from real life experiences. I don’t see how it can be any other way, for me at least. As one well-known fiction writer said (I don’t recall who),
“I didn’t make anything up. I just wrote it down.”
As I mentioned earlier, I went on a writing trip to Ghana in 2016. During this trip I wrote a very rough draft of Black Volta. Also, for the first time I did NOT go back to my old hometown of Navrongo, nor did I visit any of my longtime friends.
I knew it would be dangerous for my fiction to do this, because I’d be too close to it, and also we’d be hanging out every day and I might not get my work done. So I went to other areas of the country instead, places in which I hadn’t spent much time before. There, I walked the streets, sat in bars, and waited for people to come tell me what the story was. And they did.
7. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve long kept a journal, but after I lived in Ghana from 1989 to 1991, I began to feel the urge to write for an audience wider than myself. Of course, being a corporate engineer, I was always “too busy.”
After I walked away from my career in 2007, the phrase “writing will save me” kept popping up in my mind—the ‘saving’ being in a spiritual-fulfillment sense, not a material one. Then, in 2008, I took my nine-year-old son on a long-planned, home-schooled, thirteen-month trip around the world. For fun we decided to keep a blog, and I got absolutely hooked on the writing! I found myself rising each morning at 3:00 or 4:00: happy, energized, needing to write, my head buzzing with ideas. I’d find a place in the quiet and peace of the early morning while my son slept, and I’d get to work. The result is our travelogue, The Year We Roamed: a Father-and-Son Trip Around the World.
After our voyage ended in 2009, I wanted more than anything to recapture this joy and energy I felt in writing, and continue it. So I kept writing. Black Volta is my fifth work of fiction and my eighth book overall.
8. Which authors inspire you the most?
There are many, but Margaret Drabble has long occupied a special place on my list of profound influences. Also Vikram Seth, with his A Suitable Boy.
9. What struggles did you face as an indie author?
There are struggles and benefits. The struggle, of course, is in reaching readers. Things have gotten much better for an indie author this past decade in terms of publishing and advertising platforms available, but it came from such a bleak starting point that the challenge is ever daunting.
That said, it is difficult to reach readers via conventional publishing as well! I’m thrilled that my hiking guide is now in its second printing, and has earned out its royalty advance. I don’t know what the industry-wide stats are, but the fact that the book has earned out its royalty advance makes it an exception, not the rule.
Between the two, I much prefer being an indie author. I need to have control over my work. For a short time, I had Black Volta under contract with a conventional publisher. Trouble began immediately when they requested me to change the title to River of My Return.
“Okay,” I said.
Then we moved into 2019, and they began jerking me around with editor changes and schedule delays. The book was rescheduled to come out in 2021, maybe. By then it would have been a period piece, not a work of current fiction! Ghana is changing rapidly and I needed to get the book out, not to mention move on with my life. I said, “No way” and bought the rights back.
Being an indie author, you get to put your all into your work, make it be exactly what you want it to be, and then click, “Publish” and move ON.
10. One advice you would like to give to an aspiring author?
Come up with some characters. Write scenes and stories about them, every day, by hand in a notebook; about 1,000 words a day which takes about 45 minutes per day.
Do this without fail, every day for sixty days, powering forward and not reading back except to type the words up on your laptop in the evenings (another 45 minutes; feel free to add-subtract-delete (add is best); feel free to have a glass of wine during).
Let an arc develop, but don’t worry if one doesn’t—you might see it later.
Don’t worry about how bad the writing is; just keep on going.
After sixty days you’ll have 60,000 words or more on a laptop. It’s garbage, but it’s 60,000 words: pliable clay that can now be worked and sculpted into a novel (The Catcher in the Rye is not a lot more, 73,404 words).
Read your work start-to-finish, then put it into a drawer for one to six months or more, then pull it out and get back on it.
11. What are your future writing projects?
I intend to keep writing novels until I die, though I’m not sure how frequently because I can’t crank them out for their own sake. I must spend time living, in order to gather material, and I need to write about what I really care about, which for me takes time to figure out.
I’ve had a bit of a rough go following Black Volta; currently I have significant starts on two different things, but I haven’t hit “critical mass” on either one (the point after which I cannot stop until completion).
I’m not sure if Ghana will become a major player in my fiction again. We’ll see. Longer term, I have visions of an ambitious project of historical fiction, set mostly in the American state of Oklahoma.
12. What is your preferred font to write in?
My own ink-penned handwriting, in a composition notebook. This is my Rev. 0. Soon after that I transfer it to computer, where I am currently partial to Adobe Garamond.
13. What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?
There’s a wonderful unknown novel called Beyond the Horizon, by Amma Darko. After I read it long ago I wanted to track her down in Tamale, Ghana, and congratulate her. Along similar lines, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 novel Nervous Conditions does some heavy lifting, and was honored in 2018 by the BBC as one of the Top 100 books That Changed The world.
14. As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Maybe the coqui frog of Puerto Rico? They chirp loudly, but not all the time.
Get the book on Amazon.
Author’s website – https://www.petekj.com/WP2/