Interview With Author David Hallock Sanders

Please introduce yourself and your book.

My name is David Hallock Sanders, and I’m the author of the novel Busara Road. The novel focuses on the experience of Mark Morgan, an 11-year-old American boy who is the only child of a Quaker missionary. He gets uprooted from his life in the U.S. after his mother dies, and his father transports him to the Kwetu Quaker Mission high in the equatorial rainforest of western Kenya. He arrives in Africa in 1966, just after Kenyan independence, and the novel is his tale of discovery as he comes of age in a troubled nation that’s coming of age itself.

What is the real-life story behind your book?

The novel draws inspiration from my own childhood living in Kenya as the son of Quaker missionaries. It is definitely not my own story, however. For one thing, Mark is a bit older than I was when I lived in Africa. And for another, he gets into a whole lot more trouble than I did! But what I share with Mark is the childhood experience of falling in love with a wonder-filled place and its people, confronting potential dangers with a childlike innocence, and being changed in profound ways by the experience.

What inspires your creativity?

What inspires me is pretty straightforward – the desire to tell a good story in an effective way. When I try too hard to “craft” a story I can lose my way, but when I ask myself, “What is the story I want to tell?” I can often find my way back. I am also inspired by the physical sensations associated with a particular place and time. For example, my novel rises out of deep and powerful memories of living in Kenya as a child – the people, the landscape, the food, the sights and sounds, the tastes and smells. Although the novel and the story it tells are not based on my experience, they were certainly inspired by it.

How do you deal with creative block?

I find the idea of creative block mysterious. Sometimes I feel like my blockage is just a manifestation of lethargy. In those situations I try to tell myself, “I don’t care if you don’t want to write, just write!” It’s a bit like exercise that way. Just do it. But other times I find I really have nothing, and there’s always the fear that whatever was once there will never come back. At those times I try to be forgiving of myself, and rather than beat myself up I try to be kind to myself and go for a walk or work in the garden or read a book or do something else to re-juice.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Probably thinking you’re done when you’re not. And not getting enough feedback from others. Or getting too much feedback and taking it too seriously. Or not taking the time needed to tighten your prose, and structure, and characters, and action, and thematic development, and all of the other myriad facets that make up a good book. Not fulfilling the promise and arc of the story you’re telling. Trying too hard – to shock, or please, or soothe, or ridicule, or proselytize, or moralize, or make your characters bow to your own will. I resist the idea that stories and characters are alive and will reveal themselves to you, but there’s enough truth to the idea that it’s a mistake to ignore or too tightly control the revelations your characters are trying to share.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

Titles often emerge from the writing itself, but it’s also good not to stay rigidly attached to a working title. Get some feedback from folks on a few options. In general I’d say stay short, unless there is a compelling reason to go long. For book titles, mock-up a cover with the title text to see how it looks and feels – not just on the front cover, but on the spine as well. For your cover design, invest in a professional designer. Despite the saying, people DO judge your book by its cover, and that cover needs to work for you on multiple thematic levels, in multiple applications, and at multiple sizes. Play around with it.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

They hurt! Of course we want people to love and admire our work. But readers’ tastes, and desires, and interests are going to be all over the map, so not everyone is going to like your work, no matter how good it is. I do try to understand what is being said with criticism, and to evaluate whether it is justified or not. I’m in a very good writer’s group, and the members can be quite blunt about what’s not working, and I really value that. It gives me an opportunity to assess whether I agree or not, and to wrestle with how I can address legitimate shortcomings. A bad review that appears after a book or story is already published feels less useful. I feel that I’m not the intended audience for that, so I try to put it aside and move on.

How has your creation process improved over time?

I wish I could say with confidence that it has improved! After all of these years of writing it still feels like such a messy, fragile thing. Probably the most helpful growth in my process is the realization that almost everything starts out crappy, so I should just accept that my early draft stuff is going to be full of crap. The most important thing is to get that crap down on paper or into my computer. Then I at least have something I can work with or, in many cases, decide to just trash. I used to try to revise at the same time that I was generating new stuff, but that can lead into frustrating closed loops that are hard to escape. Now I try to separate the two processes and be more aware of whether I’m in rough-vomit mode or careful-edit mode.

What were the best, worst, and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book?

Probably both the best and most surprising experience was having a character who was initially quite minor assert himself and emerge as one of the most significant characters in the book. Being surprised by what a character does or says is such a gift. It’s like, where did that come from?! The worst moments are probably those times, all too frequent, of re-reading some recently drafted section and hearing that inner voice say, “That just sucks! Give up, you fraud!” I will say things to myself I would never say to another person. A close runner-up, in the worst-moment competition, are those times when I simply have nothing. No ideas. No juice. Zero. It’s not just a block, it’s a void. I have enough experience, however, to trust that these times will eventually pass, and generally I find that if I just start writing something, something more will come.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I think I tend towards neither. Or maybe both, I’m not sure. I guess I think of it differently. I tend to ask first, what is the story I’m trying to tell? Then I try to bring my best effort to the writing, which is the personal satisfaction part, and to telling the story in a way that best conveys that particular story, which is the serve-the-reader part.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

Hmmm… That’s tough to answer. Emotions and creativity seem so tightly linked, yet I’ve certainly experienced each without the other. Maybe emotions deepen creativity, and creativity gives shape to emotions?

Do you have any creativity tricks?

Walking helps. Ideas seem to emerge when I’m in motion, so I’m always carrying a little pocket notebook and pen. Ideas also seem to come to me in the bath or shower, or when I’m slipping into or out of sleep – perhaps it has to do with relaxation – so I keep little notebooks and pens by the bed and bathtub. I don’t tend to find prompts or writing exercises particularly useful. I think I find overall that the discipline of writing is more challenging for me than inspiration.

What are your plans for future books?

I have notes and ideas for a sequel to my first novel, in which I bring the main character back to Africa half-a-century later and explore how he and Kenya have changed. I have also written a screenplay based on my novel, which has been shortlisted in screenplay competitions but has not gone anywhere beyond that. Maybe a screenplay based on the two novels together will have more scope and success? We’ll see. I have had a modest but respectable number of short stories published over the years, and I would like to finish a few more and publish a story collection. I also have several additional books in mind, both fiction and nonfiction, that are in various stages of completion or chaos. At my pace, however, I may have to live past 100 to complete them all.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.

I don’t think I’m a very quirky person. I guess being Quaker is a kind of quirk, but it’s the world I grew up in, so it doesn’t feel quirky to me. I’ve run my own communications consulting business for 30 years, but that’s professional longevity, not quirkiness. I recently walked across Scotland with my wife, which was glorious, but that too doesn’t seem particularly quirky. When I was young I performed a lot of improvisational theater in San Francisco and I would juggle and perform mime and play the cello as a street artist. I also used to juggle at Renaissance Pleasure Faires, and I juggled at Harvard’s 350th anniversary celebration, for which I was also the publicity coordinator. But that all seems long ago. Today I mostly write, work, garden, cook, and hang out with family and friends over food. Decidedly not quirky.



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