The Rumpus Interview with Robert Glancy
Robert Glancy’s irreverent sense of humor takes center stage in his cutting and insightful sophomore novel, Please Do Not Disturb, a book many critics will surely take at face value as a critique of any and all African dictatorships from the last century. Though it certainly accomplishes that, and more, it is the unique intellect of Glancy, who was raised in Malawi before attending college in the UK, that lends Please Do Not Disturb its effortless, often surprising sensibility.
So I was anticipating sarcasm when Glancy and I began our interview via email, and I did not wait in vain. It soon showed its face, coyly, in a manner consistent with one of his characters—the charming and curious son of the owner of the Mirage Hotel, where the primary action of the novel takes place. And action is a fair term for it. A feeling of suspense dominates from the first pages, when a mysterious celebrity arrives at the hotel only a short time before a national holiday in the small nation of Bwalo. But the holiday, we soon learn, is only an excuse to honor its authoritarian ruler, whose spies, both willingly and unwillingly employed, lurk in every seam of Bwalo’s society. The hotel owner’s son, Charlie, becomes an unwitting witness to the events that ensue and even decides to play the role of amateur journalist, using a handheld recorder to capture the tumultuous events.
Glancy and I began our discussion with the question that was foremost in my mind.
The Rumpus: You were born in Zambia; raised in Malawi. Did you spend time in the Bwalo area of Zambia? I’ve never been there, but that is a part of Zambia, correct?
Robert Glancy: Like the good lapsed Catholic that I am, I’ll begin with a confession—I didn’t actually know Bwalo was a real place. But here is how I came across the word Bwalo. I didn’t want to use the name Malawi. Firstly, I didn’t want to offend any Malawians—many of the good people I reference are still there; and some of the bad folks, shockingly, are still in politics there—secondly, I wanted the freedom that fiction affords. So I needed a fictional name.
But because Bwalo is a slippery reflection of Malawi, I wanted to find a Malawian—Chichewa—word that literally meant Country or Land or Nation.
This was because Malawi was once called Nyasaland. The name originated from a funny miscommunication. The first colonists who arrived asked the people there, ‘What’s the lake called?’
The people replied simply, “It’s called Nyasa,” which is just the word for “lake.” So the colonists called it Lake Nyasa—which translates literally as “Lake Lake.” A small miscommunication that foretold the catastrophe of colonization. Therefore, I wanted to play on this, and call the country something literal, such as Country or Nation. That’s the sort of silly writer’s logic that propels me.
But the Chichewa word for Country didn’t sound quite right, so in the end I found the word Bwalo, which means a sort of clearing, like a piece of land that you clear and can use as a field or football pitch. I loved both the sound of the word and, more importantly, I liked the metaphor of it: in the sense that it allowed me, in some figurative way, to not be cluttered by reality, but instead to “clear the land” and create my own small imaginary nation.
Apologies to anyone who lives in the real Bwalo—I only hope none of the things that happen in my Bwalo happen in your Bwalo.
Rumpus: That’s interesting. Your Bwalo feels very real.
Glancy: Well, as I have confessed, I have never been to the real Bwalo or heard of it.
But my Bwalo is a very close cousin of Malawi—“The Warm Heart of Africa” —where I was raised. Anyone who lived there will see it immediately.
Rumpus: The dictator Tafumo is expertly drawn. Is he modeled on any particular person from history?
Glancy: Tafumo, the fictional dictator, is based on Banda, Malawi’s real dictator. Power corrupted Banda completely. Near the end of his seemingly endless rule he was madder than a bag of snakes. He didn’t let women wear short skirts, didn’t let men grow their hair. He once banned a song by the band Madness called “Cecelia” because that was the name of his first lady.
Banda banned TV and all media, bar the BBC World Service, which whispered in on the airwaves. When VHS players came in all VHS tapes had to be sent for approval to the censorship office. I still have a VHS of the A-Team with— “Approved!”—stamped on it.
So I borrowed a lot but, importantly, there is only so much people will believe. Writers use fiction to free themselves from the truth, but, in the case of this book, I used fiction to tame the truth, to frame it in a way that made the bizarre believable.
Banda’s reign was so rich in madness that it was a question of what to leave out—for the sake of believability—rather than what to put in. I read this fantastic quote in a Jon Ronson article about Ceausescu—”Romania was twenty million people living inside the imagination of a madman.”
That was the same for Banda. What I couldn’t know when I lived there—because I was too young and the media was so tightly controlled—was that it took a lot of terror to achieve that much peace.
When people like the Pope or Margaret Thatcher visited Malawi the whole nation ground to a stop. As a boy I lined up and sang my heart out when the Pope and Thatcher came; it was exciting to have big people come to our little town. Everything—at least everything the dignitaries saw—was fixed: potholes filled, shops painted, everything made immaculate. Malawi became a stage in which Banda was the star and his people the actors.
Or maybe it was a nightmare for citizens cast in the dream of their dictator. For these perfectly orchestrated visits were studies in propaganda. And so as I grew older I came to appreciate that there were two Malawis—the utopia of my childhood and the dystopia of a dictatorship. The book is an attempt to marry those two contradictions.
It also made me appreciate that distraction is really an essential tool of dictatorships. Invite dignitaries, host huge celebrations and keep your people distracted from their own poverty. The documentary, When We Were Kings, charts Muhammad Ali’s fight against Foreman, but more fascinating than the Rumble in the Jungle is how Mobutu, Zaire’s dictator, exploited the event as a PR coup.
There is a story Norman Mailer recounts in the documentary: before the event, Mobutu rounded up many criminals, then randomly—that’s the key word—picked a hundred of them and, in front of the others, executed them. Which was Mobutu’s way of saying, “no connection, no family, no blood makes you bigger than me,” and that while the world is watching nothing will disrupt the perception of perfection.
Rumpus: Do other people from your life resemble any of the characters from this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the process of drawing from the nonfiction world to create a fictional narrative.
Glancy: I draw, steal, and borrow liberally from reality. I keep my characters as close to reality as possible because they are the lenses through which the reader sees and believes in the events.
There is endless debate about plot versus character but, for me, the fine balance between character and place is just as crucial. My first book—Terms & Conditions —was about a boring man in a boring office—“Hold on! I didn’t pitch that very well; it’s actually a really funny book, honestly!”
The point being that I knew I could convince people of a lawyer in an office. Everyone can relate. But in Please Do Not Disturb I knew my characters would have to work harder to make the place believable, to breathe life into Bwalo. When writing about an unusual location you really need to draw the characters so carefully. Character is the solid foundation on which you balance volatile twists and turns.
For this book I stole so blatantly from reality that I had to check with a few people if they were fine about me using the material. For instance, Charlie is a warped version of me, inspired by memory and a hilarious diary I found from when I was young, which reminded me how naïve I was.
My parents are Charlie’s parents. I did the writer’s trick of simplification: making Mum Scottish, too—she’s actually Irish; sorry Mum—but other than that tweak, it is the two of them plunked into this book with many of their words and sentiments.
Josef is an amalgam of a number of the corrupt cronies that orbited Banda.
Sean, the drunken Irish man, was a friend of my father’s, who is now sadly passed. Terrific guy but a bad drunk so more often than not his incredible potential was lost to debauchery, women, and whiskey.
Hope is based on my mother’s Malawian nursing friends, and my mother too. Hope is a good woman who has been blunted by reality; cynicism has polluted her innocence, yet at her core she still personifies her name.
Jack is a mix of the many mercenaries and ex-soldiers that drifted around Africa, many of whom drank with my dad at the local bar. So, yes, all the characters have roots in reality.
Rumpus: What made you decide to write this book? And what were the greatest challenges involved in its creation?
Glancy: As soon as I left Malawi I decided I wanted to write a book about Malawi.
When I left as a blond-haired boy, I assumed the world was like Malawi, that everyone had photographs of a dictator staring out from the walls of shops and offices, that everyone had a crocodile languishing in their school pond eyeing up all the sumptuous children strolling past.
So it was right at the point that I was dealing with the culture shock of leaving Malawi—‘The Warm Heart of Africa”—and landing in Edinburgh—“the Frozen Heart of Scotland!”—that I realized that where I’d been living was different to the rest of the world.
From that moment on, I started to try and capture the experience. It took a long time to finally cast the experience into words but I got there in the end. In terms of challenges:
Structure and point of view—those were the key challenges. I had interesting characters, exotic location, and I knew I had a strong plot and story. But how to tell it fresh and who was really telling it was the main issue. When you write about a place as wild and potentially unbelievable as Malawi, you need to really lean heavily on character to make it real for the reader.
This book began as a diary, then it was a film script, then a book in the first person, then third person. It’s been everything but a poem. It was twisted and turned, beaten and kneaded into every possible form before I found a good solution. Something was always wrong with omniscient perspective. I hated my own voice in it; it seemed to clutter the characters who I felt were rich and real enough in their own right, without me bumbling into the picture. So the day I decided to write all five characters from first person perspective—multiple first person—was a day of great happiness. I literally smiled all day. Oh, the tiny triumphs of writers! Ha!
And to avoid proclamations about Malawi or Africa in general—the world is already stuffed with plenty of those—I wanted it all to be tightly woven into the point of view of very different characters. There is not one Malawi—there are millions of Malawis, all seen from the point of view of different people. That’s what I wanted to reflect.
I was conscious of two things. Of Chinua Achebe saying, “We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometimes see what the owner of the house has ignored. But they must visit with respect.” The second was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s cautionary lecture about “The Danger of a Single Story.”
And I felt, for me, that I resolved the potential pitfall of the “Single Story Trap” by splitting the story into five complimentary and, at times, conflicting narratives.
Some authors are critical of first person as it is too tight—you can’t spread your wings and float over everything, filling in plot holes—but for this book it made sense. It was the key to everything; it gave my characters what I call “Reality Blindness,” which is rather like “Snow Blindness” but less cold. It means you only know what the character knows.
The structure of five voices may not be to everyone’s liking, but I wanted it to have an interesting narrative construction. And I had lots of fun splicing and overlapping the characters, gently echoing and warping the same events from different angles.
It’s a book rich in dramatic irony; in the end, by gluing together the fragments of all the characters, the full picture is revealed only to the reader.
Rumpus: I understand you studied history in college. Were you always interested in that subject, or did you develop an interest later in life? Bwalo feels so vivid, and I wonder if your academic background played a part in that.
Glancy: I’m a history geek, always have been. My degree was in African Colonial History and American Civil Rights. Both informed this book hugely. I studied the Boer War, Mfecane migrations, and colonization. That clash between my innocent, childish view of Malawi and my more academic understanding of Malawi infused this book. In simple terms the book can be cracked into two perspectives: Charlie’s sweet naivety and Hope’s blunt reality.
However, as with all research, you only need to do it in order to be confident enough to then abandon it. Readers should never smell the sweat and tears of your research. Martin Amis has this terrific line about how, “No reader should be asked to witness an author’s private grappling with his thesaurus.”
It applies equally to research. Some writers can’t resist showing the sweat and tears. I hope I didn’t do that. But along the way I found fascinating stories. In particular, the story of how the Ngoni and Tumbuka tribes dealt so differently with colonisation. I simplified it, and academics I am sure will hate the simplification, but that’s fiction: it’s a simplified version of life with all the dull bits cut out.
Rumpus: Do you plan on writing in the future about New Zealand, the country where you currently live? I did a very brief tour of the South Island in 2005, and it was a thrilling trip.
Glancy: Yes. One of the books I am presently working on is based here. I’ve been here fourteen years, same amount of time as I lived in Africa, so I feel almost ready for it. I have yet to write a book about a place I am living in, so that might be interesting.
New Zealand is fascinating. It is a country which on the surface reflects a sort of utopia but which, like all nations, has conflict below, fault lines—both geological and political, about who owns what.
In the last fourteen years New Zealand has gone through complicated changes. I teach a creative writing class and students are prone to look back at the past or forward to speculative futures. Which is as it should be. But, also, I say—look closer, look around you, what’s happened right here, right now is fascinating. I’m actually in the South Island now, at Mount Hutt, doing a little research and relaxation. Not sure if you travelled here on your adventures but it’s incredible. In terms of beauty we really are spoiled in New Zealand. It’s a stunning part of the world.
Rumpus: Proverbs play a prominent role in Please Do Not Disturb. Were they fun to write about? Were any adapted from proverbs you heard in your life?
Glancy: I call myself a ‘Confused Celt’—Irish mother, Scottish father, but born in Africa. Both Celts and Africans have great sayings, so I love a good proverb or riddle. The ones in the book are real or versions of real ones polished or edited for effect. My favorite is the one about the fox and chicken: “The cockroach can only rule the hen if he persuades the fox to be his bodyguard.” It hints at how evil requires enablers, both direct ones and indirect people to hold the structure of, in this case a dictatorship, together.
I’m a quote-monkey. I collect them in a book that is now an enormous splurging thousand-page beast.
Rumpus: That is an ambitious project! I also keep a file of notable quotations. Any recent highlights? I see you already have a few good ones committed to memory. The fox proverb is a great one.
Glancy: One of my favourites, and I’m paraphrasing, so this is only rough, but Margaret Atwood was asked about how much of one of her books was based on her life and she replied, “there has to be some blood in the cookie dough to bring the Gingerbread Man to life.”
She’s a genius!
And for all those writers who are despairing, always remember what Hemingway said—“The first draft of everything is shit.”
Also, the presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Yosemite Sam, I mean… um… Donald Trump, was so rich in quotes. Watching Hillary Clinton trying to drive some sense into her clown opponent was a fascinating spectacle. She said at one point, it was really such a simple sentence, but she said it in a state of such despair, almost pleading—”Words matter!”
Words matter. They do. I love that.
Rumpus: Do you consider this book a satire?
Glancy: Now that is a really interesting question. You left the best ‘til last! I thought about this yesterday when I read a review of Please Do Not Disturb. Personally, I don’t think it’s a satire but I see people categorize it as such. You can write the book but you have no control of how it’s read. I love satire and I am very happy for it to be in that category. However, satire to me always suggests an extension of reality, a story stretching the bounds of possibility in order to say something more about reality.
In that one technical sense, for me this is not a satire. Because as I have shown in earlier answers all of Bwalo and its characters and events are rooted in reality. However… genre is in the eye of the reader. When I gave an early draft of this book to Malawian friends they said it was too tame, and that I had not included enough fantastical stories about Malawi. But then when I gave it to people who had not lived in Africa, a few of them said, “This is great satire; the stories are so crazy; how did you come up with them?”
As a writer you rarely want to admit that most of your fiction is peeled right out of life but, as most of my answers show, my principal inspiration is reality.
In the end I realized there is always a limit to what people will believe—reality is stranger than fiction—so I left out the really bonkers stuff.
Satire in its very strictest sense is rather hard to do now; reality is outrunning fiction. You only have to glance at the horrifying farce-circus that is the American election to realize how hard it is to capture or surpass any of this in fictional or satirical form.
I think writers are in a strange position at the moment where they have to really work hard to make fiction more entertaining than reality. Right now the news is often more fascinating than most novels. And I believe this goes some way to explaining why we are in such a golden age of creative nonfiction.
Quote monkey alert! I saw this great quote on Facebook yesterday that said: “We used to laugh at comedians and listen to politicians; now we listen to comedians and laugh at politicians.” Very true. Which makes the job of the writer a particularly fascinating one.
Rumpus: I’ve got to ask. Can you share one of the really “bonkers” stories with us? Something that didn’t make it into the book? I can’t think of a better way to wrap up this fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for your thoughts.
Glancy: There are so many to choose from. Banda was so bonkers he makes Trump seem sane. Some of these stories are hearsay but this one is real and personal to my mum.
Banda’s accountant—his Money Man!—was sick. My mum was the nurse on duty taking care of him. There was a special phone in the hospital that was only used as a hotline to the palace. Bit like the Batphone but far more terrifying. One night Mum left the accountant’s side to take a call on the special Banda phone. On the line was Banda’s right hand man who asked how the accountant was doing, and pressed the point that the accountant was a vital part of Banda’s government. Mum, who’d just checked the accountant’s vitals, was scared and very nervous about talking to such a powerful man. But she answered honestly that the accountant was fine and stable. Banda’s right hand man thanked my mother and also assured her that her help in this important matter had been noted. At which point, my mother, much relieved, put down the phone and returned to the accountant to discover he had just died. For weeks Mum lived in terror thinking she was going to somehow be blamed or accused of lying about the state of the accountant’s health and then we’d all be kicked out of the country.
Banda was a terrible mix of farce and cruelty. We’re talking about a man who refused to go anywhere without a hundred singing women hollering and shaking their hips in his honor.
It was also common knowledge that all the telephone operators listen in to all our calls. If something rude was said about Banda they simply cut you off. Spontaneous censorship—real-time censorship!
There’s more… Banda expelled Paul Theroux from Malawi because he grew convinced that Paul was plotting to assassinate him! Banda then banned all Theroux’s books. Some parents used to swap contraband copies of Paul Theroux books hidden in brown paper bags. Books secreted in brown bags! No wonder I became a writer. Theroux wrote a superb story about being kicked out of Malawi called “The Killing of Hastings Banda.”
It’s hard to verify some of the wilder stories. But one rumor ran that near the end of his reign Banda kept flying in choirs from Europe to sing just for him. An audience of one. Even though apparently by then he was stone deaf.
That level of unmitigated power is not just terrifying; there is also something sad about it. That deaf old man listening to an angelic, jetlagged choir, yet hearing not a single note, tapping away to the beat of his own senility.
Author photograph © Jody Lidstone.