Friday, August 7, 2009

Kwei Quartey: The Doctor And The Detective

On Wednesday I reviewed Kwei Quartey's debut novel, WIFE OF THE GODS, as part of his blog tour with TLC Book Tours. Today he's here with me to answer some questions for us and help us to get to know him better. A native of Ghana, he was raised by an African-American mother and a Ghanaian father, both of whom were university lecturers. Today's he's a practicing physician in Pasadena, California. Somehow he manages to run a wound care clinic, lead a urgent care center, AND write books. How he found time to answer questions for me is beyond my comprehension, but here he is, Kwei Quartey!

Q: You grew up in an environment that was supportive of reading, and you were always surrounded by books. What did you read growing up? Would you say any of your childhood favorites influenced your style of writing? If yes, how so?

Kwei: I read everything from Kingsley Amis to Joyce Cary, Chinua Achebe, Doris Lessing, James Thurber, John Le Carré. But by far my favorites were mystery stories. I devoured Enid Blyton, the prolific British children’s writer who wrote several mystery series that are still popular in Europe, Agatha Christie, and of course the unforgettable Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This genre had a deep impact on my writing.
Q: Your “day job” is that of a physician in Pasadena, California. What originally led you into medicine? Then what turned you to writing? Was it always a goal or did you wake up one morning and think, “I have a great plot idea; I need to start writing?”

Kwei: I wanted to be a writer from the age of eight, long before wanting to become a doctor. As a kid, I wrote short stories and novelettes, stapling the pages together with brightly colored jackets. The books I was reading inspired me, and the process of story creation fascinated me. My interest in medicine took off around 12-years-old, and I became something of the “house doctor,” looking up any medical conditions that family or friends reported. During the time I was in medical school, I did no writing, but a year after I became an MD, I was feeling strangely unfulfilled, and I turned back to writing by first going to a creative writing course at UCLA-extension.
Q: Why fiction, specifically crime fiction? And do you see connections between your role as a physician and Darko Dawson’s role as a detective?

Kwei: In crime fiction, the story is propelled by a question: who did it, how and why? Or if you know (or guess) who did it, how will the culprit be caught? When I’ve read Agatha Christie, I’ve often guessed whodunit, but it’s never the way Poirot figured it out. Maybe I’ve always had a questioning mind and that’s why crime fiction attracts me. The other aspect is that I’m fascinated by people who hide what they really are and pretend to be what they’re not – murderers, for instance. There are many parallels between being a physician and being a detective. In fact a physician is a detective. When I go in to see a patient, I’m immediately looking for clues as to what ails him or her. For example, someone who seems to have a bug-eyed stare might have an overactive thyroid. I interview the patient just as Dawson interviews a witness. The diagnostic possibilities are the same as the list of suspects in a murder case, and making the final diagnosis is the denouement. Again, it’s a matter of questioning. Do I, as a doctor, have to be naturally skeptical the way Dawson might cast doubt on the testimony of a witness or suspect? Yes, but not usually in the sense of disbelieving the patient, it’s more by way of sorting through the symptoms and deciding what is really important and what is not, and believe me, just as Dawson may be led down the wrong path in a case, there are many red herrings to contend when trying to solve a mysterious illness.
Q: WIFE OF THE GODS is set in Ghana, where you were born and raised. But, your mother was African-American and you made fairly regular visits to the United States growing up. Can you talk about how that was growing up? The differences in culture that you observed, etc?

Kwei: I have to acknowledge that my three brothers and I were extraordinarily fortunate to be brought up in the circumstances we were. We lived in the academic, rarefied environment of the University of Ghana where we were exposed to intellectuals from all over the world. We were blessed with the privileges of paid trips to the UK and the United States. It was often a curious experience. Although the States was clearly economically advanced compared to Ghana, we also knew that our personal lives were significantly more pampered than that of many, including the couple of people we met who wondered if we lived in little mud huts, “like in the Tarzan movies.” What else was significant was the difference between the mindset of being black in a black African country and being black in America. In the latter case we felt there was an aspect of having to seek acceptance and permission, whereas in Ghana, a black person doesn’t need to impress anyone from the perspective of race. Ironically though, in Ghana our lives were significantly Americanized, the result of an American mother and our frequent travels to the States. So one might call my childhood culturally ambivalent, but it was also culturally rich.
Q: After your father’s death, you moved to the United States with your family. One of the factors that prompted this move was your arrest in Ghana for “sedition.” You were caught hanging anti-government posters. You obviously had some passion about what was going on in Ghana at the time. How old were you at this point? And how did you feel about leaving at that time?

Kwei: I was angry at the time – as the cliché goes, “sick and tired and not gonna take it any more.” I had just begun pre-med, but university classes were being repeatedly interrupted because of forced closure of the university by the military regime that did not appreciate the student protests going on at the time. I was somewhat naïve in thinking I could make a difference as an individual, and I did it without thinking through the possible consequences. It certainly got me a photo on the front page of the daily papers! I was pretty disgusted and considerably traumatized by the time we were leaving Ghana, and I was looking forward to a change. This is what happens when countries lack good governance and quality of life – people begin to leave. It can be a tragedy for a developing country to lose the brainpower it needs most. Very fortunately, Ghana’s economic and democratic future is at the moment looking very bright.
Q: But then you returned to Ghana in 2008. What prompted your visit at that time and what were your reactions to the Ghana you encountered?

Kwei: It was in the main to research several aspects of the book, e.g. police work, geography, and the subject of the indentured servitude of the women in the novel called trokosi, loosely translated as “wives of the gods.” I was stunned by the transformation of the place. Tall buildings were going up everywhere in the capital, Accra, and everyone was using cell phones, even in the remotest of villages (there’s a reference to that in the book). I went to glittering shopping malls and supermarkets the likes of which had not existed when I was growing up. Of course, some things had not changed: still too many unemployed young people, still inadequate water and drainage systems in the rural areas, and so on.

Q: So you have an intimate knowledge of your setting for WIFE OF THE GODS, but what kind of research did you find yourself pursuing to depict a police detective?

Kwei: Thanks to the Internet, I could look into Ghana’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in great detail. I was fortunate to have contact with ex-classmates who were now in “high places” and were able to set me up for a meeting with the Assistant Commissioner of Police of CID, Kenneth Yeboah (second from the very top), who generously gave me about an hour of his time, during which I found out that my blithe assumption that the police department had no crime scene unit was embarrassingly wrong. I really wanted to shadow a detective from CID, but ACP Yeboah was a little leery of that. I’ll persuade him the next time around (after I send a signed copy of the book to him.)
Q: Magic/witchcraft plays an important role in WIFE OF THE GODS. Did you have any personal experiences with this element of the Ghanaian culture?

Kwei: While in Ghana, we always heard stories about witchcraft supposedly causing things “to happen.” The most amusing one was the time there was a reputed wave of witchcraft streaming through Accra and making men impotent. One of my brothers told me a story about a talented soccer player who broke a leg while playing a match, just as he was about to make a potential goal kick. His team lost. It was such a freak accident in an otherwise very healthy young guy that he went back to his hometown to consult a traditional healer, who told him that witchcraft had brought about this misfortune. The soccer player asserted from then on that the witch had “been on the soccer field” at the time of the match. Certainly in my family, though, these kinds of notions were dismissed fairly quickly. I was rigorously scientific in my thinking and gave such stories no credence. I’m much more interested in them now than I was then.
Q: So let’s talk a little about your writing process. Do you outline or do you do a lot of cutting and changing at the end?

Kwei: Generally no outlines on paper – just in my head - until maybe somewhere around the middle. But my outline is always entitled “list of events, i.e. details that I think of that need to go into the book at some point. I rewrite frequently along the way, editing some stuff, dumping other material. If something comes up that affects an earlier part of the book, I fix the earlier part as soon as I can. One thing I don’t do that I’ve seen written as a suggestion, is to carry 3 x 5 cards around and jot down ideas about plot, characters, etc. that come to me. It seems to me that if the idea is that good, it should stick in my head.
Q: How about characters? Do you get to know them at all before you start writing or do they tend to develop more AS you write? Are there any real people who served as models for the characters in WIFE OF THE GODS?

Kwei: Characters definitely develop as I write. In this novel, this was especially true of the protagonist, Inspector Darko Dawson. When I was in a creative writing class long ago, we went through an exercise in which we had to describe our characters’ appearance, likes and dislikes, lifestyle, occupation his or her feelings, etc., but I didn’t find it a particularly useful exercise in developing a character. When you meet someone, features of that person never all come out at once, they get released little by little (and thereby sometimes end relationships!) and I think it’s the same with my characters. There are one or two real people who were models for the characters in the novel to some degree, although there were no exact copies.

Q: In WIFE OF THE GODS, a young medical student is killed. Was this event a figment of your imagination or was there an actual event that prompted you to write this story?

Kwei: It’s a figment, but there’s some background, though. One evening years ago when I was in Paris for a few days, I came across a TV documentary in which a rural detective was trying to solve a murder in a small village in Ivory Coast (West Africa). The detective used superstition scare tactics to try and get people to talk. It was raw reality TV that gave me a jolt. I decided then and there that I was going to write a murder mystery set in Ghana, Ivory Coast’s neighbor to the east, where I had grown up. In the early versions of the book, it was not a medical student who was murdered, but I later made that choice because it fitted in better with aspects of the story.
Q: There is quite a difference in the large city of Accra and the small town of Ketanu, and in the short span of WOTG’s plot, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of change taking place. Do you feel that this chasm of difference will start to fade as the young people grow up or are those older traditions going to remain pretty steadfast?

Kwei: Change takes place on at least two levels everywhere in the world: physical change, i.e. buildings, development, and so on (see under China); and change in attitude and thinking. The speed of change of both of these relative to each other depends on so many different factors – natural resources, education, whether it’s a very conservative society in the first place, etc. However, one thing is certain: change is going to happen. Change isn’t always synonymous with progress, unfortunately, but there are very few places on earth where change does not occur. An example in the book was a scene in which someone was using his cell phone in a village that didn’t yet have running water, and at the moment in Africa, it’s ironic that cell phones are used for purposes that are quite advanced compared to what most people use cell phones for in the States. In parts of Africa, for example, small loans are made to farmers via cell phone, nurses in remote areas send MMS texts of skin diseases they are seeing in rural areas to a receiving doctor at a city medical center, and so on.
So problems with inadequate infrastructure on the one hand (impassable roads,etc.) has been solved with technology that is being used in progressive ways on the other.
Q: Some authors will say, “There are elements of myself in every character I create,” while other authors will say, “I write fiction, all my characters are products of my imagination.” Do any or all of your characters contain elements of you? Are there other actual people who influenced the characters of WIFE OF THE GODS as you developed them?

Kwei: My characters are indeed products of my imagination, but I don’t see how it’s possible to imagine something or someone completely devoid of one’s life experiences both now and in the past. You might completely make up a character, but someone you met, knew, or interacted with is very likely coloring your creation. In my story, there are one or two characters based directly on someone I knew/know, and there are others whom I know are a combination, but I can’t always tell the exact components. It’s like taking a mouthful of food with several ingredients that are hard to identify individually.
Q: What’s next? Will you continue to write? Crime fiction? Darko Dawson?

Kwei: I’m a very happy person when I’m writing, so yes, it’s not something I would drop as long as I’m mentally and physically able. Crime fiction is what I love, and Darko Dawson and I have some getting to know each other to do. He’s still an enigma to me in some regards, so I’m looking forward to exploring him more.

So we'll be looking forward to what Kwei finds on his explorations with Darko. Many thanks to Kwei for taking the time to hang out with us and share a little about himself. If you're wondering about his memoir, don't panic. He did share one with me. It'll be coming up in the series in the near future.

Kwei is continuing his blog tour with TLC Book Tours. You can check out the remainder of his schedule here. You can also learn more about Kwei and WIFE OF THE GODS at his website.


Corey Wilde August 7, 2009 at 8:24 AM  

Interesting man. I hesitate to ask but I hate not knowing how to pronounce an author's name. Help?

Jen August 7, 2009 at 8:31 AM  

I think he gets that question rather frequently, Corey, because he has the pronunciation on his website: "Kway Quart-ay." It's Ghanaian.

le0pard13 August 7, 2009 at 9:37 AM  

Great interview, Jen. I saw he was recently at the Mystery Book Store for a book signing. Now, I'm sorry I missed it. Thank you.

p.s., that's also one of best book titles I've seen in awhile.

Literary Feline August 9, 2009 at 2:55 AM  

What a thorough and interesting interview. Thank you to both Jen and the author.


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