Debut author CHRISTOPHER DATTA is no stranger to civil conflict or the still-extant scourge of slavery. Most recently the acting ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan where he helped end a war in April of 2012, he has spent a distinguished career moving from one strife-torn country to another, including Lebanon, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. A lifelong student of the American Civil War, his research for Touched with Fire is exacting and based in part on a true story.
Read the interview with Chris Datta below
I want to write books that matter and do more than tell a story, although I think that telling a good story is critically important. What could be more significant than exploring our spiritual lives and to look for purpose beyond unexamined living and consuming day to day? I want to ask questions and lead the reader on a journey so that by the end of the book he or she hopefully comes to a new understanding about life.
I read a great deal about new advances in theoretical physics. It is a fascinating field that increasingly shows us that the more we know, the more we come to see how little we really grasp about the mysteries of the Universe. There are things about the cosmos and our place in it that we may never fully understand; that are, in fact, beyond our ability as human beings to fully comprehend. In Demon Stone, I symbolically represent those mysteries through the supernatural.
The two geographic locations in the book are very distant from each other. How did Africa & Minnesota become part of the setting for The Demon Stone?
I lived for many years in Minnesota (I went to high school with Jessie Ventura!) and I loved camping in the isolated Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. The wilderness is both a thrilling and at the same time dangerous and even alien environment, which again serves as a metaphor in the story for life. There is an incident with a black bear in the book that is close to something that really happened to me. My career as an American diplomat took me to many places in Africa.
The original inspiration for the book occurred when I was traveling through rural Uganda. I came across a hut with a hand painted sign advertising the services of a local shaman. Intrigued, I stopped and met the old man, who offered to cast a curse on any enemies I wanted eliminated. That got me thinking about what it would be like to have that kind of power, and what the unintended consequences of using it might be. The record of the human use of unbridled power is not very good. In my travels through many war zones I have seen incredible beauty and sacrifice as well as the most horrible and brutal acts of cruelty.
Did you have to do a lot of research into different cultures and religions to write this book, and can we expect to delve into the differences between cultures throughout the book?
I have lived and worked for many years in several African countries. I also studied the belief in demons in Africa, and Agbadofrom my story is a demon well known in Sierra Leone. My son is an adopted war orphan from Sierra Leone who has been with me since he was 14 years old and he was a big help with some portions of the book. Religion and culture play a big role in the story.
How much of the book was inspired by your work overseas?
I saw the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, was in Sierra Leone at the end of the brutal civil war in that country, was the acting Ambassador to Liberia when the capitol was attacked by two rebel armies in a war that I helped to end and I was again the acting Ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan when war broke out between that nation and Sudan.
Again, I played a major role in helping to end that conflict. I have brought two African war criminals to justice and was active in a program to try to end the reign of terror led by Joseph Koney, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the most brutal and deadly terrorist groups in Africa. General Mosquito in my book is based on a real warlord in Sierra Leone. I actually played a role in bringing him to justice. I have had to deal first hand with the bane of child soldiers and modern slavery in Africa.
The Demon Stone seems to have everything from love & tragedy to religion and supernatural beasts. Can you expand a bit on your writing process, and how you were able to bring the characters together across vast distances and very different settings?
That’s complicated! Many of the characters in the story are based on real people I have known. General Mosquito, for instance. Gem and Hampton, the two dogs in the story, are dogs I have known and loved very much. Basically, I took experiences and people from my life in America and in Africa, put them in an environment of my creation, and let them weave the story together.
My books never turn out the way I think they will at the beginning of writing them. The characters at some point take over and they tell the story. Sometimes, in my experience, all a good writer has to do is listen carefully to what the people he creates are telling him. That certainly happened in Demon Stone. But that shouldn’t be surprising. If you are really on a spiritual journey in telling a story, and you do a good job of it, you should expect to wind up in unexpected places.
Who were the easiest and toughest characters to write and why?
The toughest character to write was Morgan. She is one of the main antagonists of the book, but I didn’t want her to be a caricature and there was a real risk of her being a two dimensional archetype instead of a real flesh and blood person. On some level, for an antagonist to work well in a story, the reader needs to identify or on some level sympathize with that person. Morgan does terrible things, but terrible things have happened to her. I hope that comes across in the story. The easiest character to write was Hampton. He’s a dog, a very loveable, dopey and fearless dog. I enjoyed writing about him.
People often talk about feeling like they’re being followed, especially if they have to walk through a secluded area by themselves. What gave you the idea to play on people’s fear of being stalked for this book?
All the time I spent in the isolated Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. I love it, but there is nothing that will give you the heebie-jeebies faster than being alone in the middle of the deep forest in the middle of the night. I suspect thousands of years of human evolution dealing with the risks of being secluded in the dark in a wilderness just naturally puts the fear in us. We somehow intuitively feel the threat of being hunted.
Demons are part of many religions and cultures myths. Was there a particular reason you decided to write about demons?
We create demons, and we have always created demons. They symbolically represent the forces in life that we fear. A spiritual journey, which I hope readers of Demon Stone find the book to be, needs to confront those demons and the dark side of our natures.
Symbolism plays a large part in The Demon Stone. The Demon within can sometimes be as scary as a supernatural being seems. Do you think that talking about human behavior through the use of symbolism makes talking about tragedies like murder easier or harder?
The most frightening sections of Demon Stone are not encounters with the demon, but the real and terrifying things people do to each other, sections of the book based on real events. The demon Agbado is a symbol of that dark nature that haunts us, that leads some of us to rationalize the most horrible of acts andrepresents the loss of empathy that permits people to commit such unspeakable crimes as genocide, which I have personally witnessed.
To me, the most terrifying story in the book is the tale of the child soldier Muctar. This story is based on a real child. The demon within is the real monster of the book. But yes, I felt the use of symbolism made talking about these horrors easier, just as Halloween or The Day of the Dead in Mexico make dealing with monsters and death easier for us to confront.
This is a two part question: The cover of The Demon Stone is very unique and doesn’t focus on any particular character, rather an object. Who did you choose to do the cover art and why? How hard was it to settle on the cover, or was it love at first sight?
The mask on the cover of Demon Stone is from my personal collection. I bought it in Rwanda when I was there helping to reopen our embassy directly following the genocide in that country. It was always in the back of my mind to use it as the cover for this book (and yes, I started this book that long ago). Finding that mask in Rwanda at that particular moment, and the way it looked, just made it seem right to me for this book.
This type of mask is actually from the Congo, and is used in coming of age ceremonies for young men. A good friend of mine, Don Hurlbert, is a photographer for the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and he took the photo. Mallory Rock designed the cover. She is a terrific graphic designer I know and I use her for all the covers on my books.
Civil conflict and slavery were both a focus in your working life. Do you find that your writing reflects this in The Demon Stone?
Absolutely. It is a major part of what this book is about, and not just in The Demon Stone. I also have published Touched with Fire, a novel set in the American Civil War inspired by the true story of a slave woman who escapes by posing as a man. She later joins the Union army disguised as a man so she can fight her way South to free her husband.
That story is turning into a trilogy, and book two, Fire and Dust, will be out in November. It also extensively addresses the issue of slavery in America before and during the Civil War, but is told exclusively from the Confederate side of the war. Book three will be set in the Reconstruction period of American history and the characters from the first two books will meet.
Survivors’ guilt can be devastating to many people who work in war torn countries and come back home to a peaceful life. Having worked overseas, and in war torn countries, do you have any advice for others. Would you say writing The Demon Stone has been a cathartic experience for you?
I have been in some very tough situations involving life and death issues for sometimes thousands of people, as well as having been under fire myself. Sometimes I saved people, sometimes I couldn’t. I have had to deal with instances of PTSD. It was never easy, and there were times I had to step away from Demon Stone because it was getting too deep into places I was not, at the time, ready to go to for the sake of my own well being. What helps?
Giving yourself permission to take the time to heal and being able to confront the demons with good friends are both important. Know and accept that you are not Superman, and don’t expect yourself to be. That’s not healthy. In the end, writing Demon Stone was cathartic, but there were times it was right for me to keep away from it until I was ready.