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Q: So, the question was how much of Detective Inspector Darko Dawson is me, or how much of me is in Darko. To clear something up from the very start, I don’t smoke marijuana, nor do I drink alcohol. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that I did try marijuana twice when I was in med school, and yes, I did inhale, and on both occasions I found it unpleasant. So that was the end of my involvement with weed, or “wee,” as it’s called in Ghana.
K: Why does Darko smoke wee?
Q: Apart from his liking it? I’m not sure that there’s a deeper reason than that. When the character was being created out of the primordial soup, so to speak, that was one of the foibles he took on. It could have been in my subconscious from childhood when I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes. As you probably know, Holmes had a morphine and cocaine addiction. However there was no way Darko would be a major “druggie” like that, and there was no way he would be an alcoholic either. I would detest that. Besides, the boozing detective has been done to death. It’s old and cliched.
K: Does Darko continue the marijuana habit in the second novel, CHILDREN OF THE STREET?
Q: Without giving too much away, let’s say he wrestles with it, and this time the smoking gets him into a bit of a pickle.
K: Okay, so marijuana is definitely something you don’t have in common with Darko. So let’s get to what you do have in common.
Q: He’s also a lot taller than I am, I might add. I don’t like being short (laughs). One area where Darko and I are in sync is we both have empathy for those who are suffering or deprived, along with a certain impatience with authority and protocol. If you show us two people pitted against each other, one rich and powerful, the other poor and disenfranchised, I will tend to be biased in favor of the poor guy. You’ll see this in Darko in CHILDREN OF THE STREET. At one point, his boss refuses to give Darko some backup to help solve the murder of a prostitute because most of the force has been put on the case of a murdered bank executive. “Who do you think is more important?” the boss asks Darko. “An internationally known bank director or this nameless prostitute?” Darko’s reply is, “Bank executive or prostitute, dead is dead, sir.” That’s the best line in the book, so far as I’m concerned.
K: The empathy for the suffering and deprived – does that come from your being a doctor?
Q: Maybe, but remember, some doctors have no empathy whatsoever. No, I’ve had that trait since I was a kid.
K: And the impatience with authority and protocol?
Q: I’m not sure what that’s about, but I’ll tell you I almost went bonkers as a teenager when I was in a British style boarding school where protocol and regimentation were everything, and likewise I would fare very poorly in the military where you can’t question rules and authority, no matter how senseless they are.
K: Say something about your father. You dedicated your first novel to him.
Q: My late father, K.A.B. Jones-Quartey, died a painful death from pancreatic cancer. He taught me – just by example, I think – how to write. I don’t mean putting sentences together. I’m talking about the dedication and doggedness one needs in order to write. Dad was a writer himself – among many other things – but of nonfiction. I always remember the sound of him pecking away at the typewriter keys very late at night. I admired that tenacity very much.
K: Do you write late into the night yourself?
Q: Only if I’m on deadline. Otherwise I’m not much of a nocturnal beast when it comes to writing. My creative brain works much better early in the morning.
K: When you start a new novel, do you power straight through to the end, or do you go back and forth to get it right before moving on?
Q: Power through, generally. Unless something comes up in the story that so radically alters it that I really have to go back to make the rest of the novel work.
K: Do you work from an outline?
Q: I didn’t before, but after WIFE OF THE GODS came out, my publishers asked me to show them a synopsis for the next novel as well as the first 30 pages or so. At the time, I had some of the pages but I sure didn’t have the synopsis. I worked on it for about a week, sweating bullets as I approached the end of the synopsis and still didn’t know who the murderer was. But that came to me like a flash, and then I got the job done. So CHILDREN OF THE STREET, which I like to call “COTS,” came to be written with the help of an outline. I must say it enabled me to write much faster.
K: Did it closely follow the outline?
Q: Only loosely, but deviation from the blueprint made it richer.
K: How long did it take you to finish the first draft?
Q: Three and a half months.
K: How long did WIFE OF THE GODS take?
Q: Depends where you start counting. If you start from the very inception, the very first time the kernel of the idea entered my mind, then it’s about ten years. If you count from when I completely reformatted the story at the urging of my agent and editor, then I would say two years.
K: Do you think knowing your main characters the second time around augmented the speed at which you wrote?
Q: Undoubtedly. I feel I understand Darko way more than before. I was very comfortable writing him the second time.
K: Some reviewers found his flashes of violent anger very objectionable.
Q: Right, which is fine, because that gives room for him to grow, doesn’t it? If I start out with him being Mr. Goody-two-shoes, it doesn’t give me much to work with. There are a couple things I dread as a writer. The first is that readers might skip pages because they find the story boring and want to get to a part where something actually happens, and my second fear is that my hero is so dull that he’s eclipsed by villains who are more interesting. Dullness is a nightmare characteristic for a hero. I once read a mystery by one of the most well-known and veteran mystery writers in the world whose character has been used for more than one TV series, and I came away from the book feeling the hero was so uninteresting. I didn’t want to meet the man. I want people to want to meet Darko. But he’s being disliked by some is okay. What I would say, though, is give him a chance. Don’t drop him. His story is just beginning.
K: Darko has an eye for attractive women. A lot of people want to know if he’ll cheat on his wife Christine in the second novel.
Q: And you think I’m going to tell?
K: No, but I thought I’d give it a try. It’s interesting that you gave Darko an untroubled married life – at least so far. A lot of detectives in fiction are single, divorced or have marital troubles.
Q: Yes, I suppose I could have gone one way or the other. Raymond Chandler reportedly said, “A really good detective never gets married.” I’m not sure about that. Seems a little arbitrary.
K: When you’re writing, do you find that the story taking you places you hadn’t even thought of in the planning stages?
Q: Oh, absolutely. That’s what makes it so thrilling. Things pop out of the blue. Sometimes I’m so excited about what’s going to happen next that I can barely pull myself away from my laptop.
K: You wake up early to write and then you go to work?
Q: Actually I wake up early, get to work about six-fifteen in the morning – I avoid traffic that way – and then I write at my workplace until eight when my shift starts.
K: That means you have to switch gears completely from a fictional world to a real one?
Q: Yes, and sometimes it’s tough to do.
K: If you were to not completely come out of that fictional world, might you end up paying less attention to your patients?
Q: Theoretically you might think so, but it has never happened. The on-off switch in my brain is pretty clear-cut. It’s like people who know several languages. They can switch on whichever language they’re going to speak and switch off the others.
K: When you get an idea for the story or the characters, do you jot it down?
Q: What for? If you have to jot down an idea for your plot, it must mean the idea is forgettable, and if it’s forgettable, you probably don’t want it in the story.
K: Sometimes it’s suggested that writers carry around three by five cards so they can write a plot idea down when it occurs to them.
Q: Throw the cards away is my suggestion. You need to train your mind not to depend on 3 x 5 cards.
K: What about making out a profile of your characters before you start writing about them – when and where they were born, what they like to eat, what their weaknesses are, and so on?
Q: It’s sometimes recommended in writing classes. In real life, though, when you meet someone new, you don’t know everything about him or her beforehand, do you? You discover stuff as you go along, which is in part what makes the experience more interesting. It’s a similar situation for me when I write. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know everything about my characters before I’ve written about them.
K: What do you think about the role of the subconscious in writing?
Q: It’s key. A writer should be in touch with your subconscious both when awake and while asleep, including through your dreams, because that’s where the ideas come from. Most, if not all, authors have had the experience of having difficulty with the plot the night before but waking up in the morning with the solution.
K: Do you have any advice for writers who are struggling to get published?
Q: I can’t pretend that it’s easy at the moment, considering how badly publishing has suffered at the hands of the economy, but it’s very, very important to not give up in your quest.
K: Do you think CHILDREN OF THE STREET is a better book than WIFE OF THE GODS?
Q: Yes, but the final judgement lies with the readers.
K: Do you read the reviews of your work?
Q: I do – admittedly somewhat with my heart in my mouth. But it’s important to read reviews and critiques because they provide feedback, and many of them have been very helpful to me, whether negative or positive. But I know you’re going to like COTS.
K: Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. Quartey.
Q: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for coming.