Where are you from?
Columbia, South Carolina
Who are your favorite writers?
In no particular order, and with the caveat that I read far too little: Robert Caro, Babara Tuchman, David Grann, J. Anthony Lukas, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Blaine Harden, Michael Chabon, Will Leitch, Deborah Scroggins, Katherine Boo, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, Randy Shilts. I should mention here that my absolute favorite writer is my father, an English professor and James Joyce scholar, whose latest book is entitled Cannibal Joyce.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
My inspiration for this book’s central idea—using a murder trial as a window into a distant society—was Tony Lukas’ Big Trouble. My greatest influence in terms of writing about Africa has been Blaine Harden’s journalism for the Washington Post, which can be found in a fantastic collection entitled: Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent. I also loved Deborah Scroggins’ Emma’s War.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
I spend far too much time thinking about baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. I also like to cook.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
I once asked my grandfather, to whom I dedicated this book and who is now a very active 92, what he thought the key to his longevity was. He said: “Avoiding accidents.”
What is your favorite quote?
Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to do it by not dying.” That one’s in my high school yearbook.
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
Q: How did you end up in Uganda?
A: I wanted to go someplace very different from New York. I settled on Africa, but I didn’t speak French or Portuguese, which eliminated half the continent. Southern Africa seemed a little too placid, except for Zimbabwe, which was inhospitable to journalists. Kenya was overdone, Nigeria chaotic and muggy, Liberia was at war. Uganda seemed livable but newsworthy. I really knew very little about the place before I went there, though. As it turned out, it was a good choice.
What inspired you to write your first book?
This book is my first. It started off as a little item that I read in a Ugandan newspaper in the summer of 2002, which led me to write an article about this murder case, which was published by the Institute of Current World Affairs, the foundation that sent me to Africa. After I finished that, I felt like there were still some loose strings to follow up on, and the story kept unwinding and unwinding, and now here it is seven years later. It was a very organic process. There was never a moment where I thought: “This is going to be a book.” At some point, I just realized that that was where things were headed, and decided not to fight it.
Where do you write?
I wrote the vast majority of this book in a tiny studio apartment overlooking Prospect Park in a West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Sometimes I would take a walk in the park when I got stuck, but I don’t have any special rituals when it comes to writing—it’s not a mystical process or anything for me. It’s just work. Nowadays I have an office in the second bedroom of the apartment my wife and I rent in a slightly nicer Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s an improvement, but I do miss the park.