Monday, 22 August 2011
B is for BURTON COLE
Names are very important to me. I can’t write a character until I have his or her name. With BURTON I wanted something monosyllabic and hard sounding, hence COLE. It was also important that I find some connection with Africa. I immediately thought of the great African explorers – Livingstone, Stanley – but considered their names too obvious. Luckily, years before I had read the biography of a more obscure figure: Sir Richard Burton, amongst other things: a linguist, spy and discoverer of the source of the Nile.
One of the questions I get asked most often is whether Burton is based on me. Of course it’s impossible to distance yourself entirely from your creations but in essence there is no connection between us. He’s certainly not an autobiographical character. So where did he come from?
Good question. And I’m not entirely sure of the answer. Apart from the name, he’s very different in temperament and background to the character in the original, unpublishable Africa Reich. The person he is now simply emerged as I was planning and researching the new version. As a hero he’s also an amalgamation of my influences, so there’s a sprinkling of the heroes from Greek mythology, Japanese chanbara tales, the spaghetti western, John Buchan, Graham Greene and maybe a certain Dr Jones. This is not an exhaustive list.
As for everything else, writing is a combination of inspiration and logic. So although the idea of him liking mango juice, for instance, came on a whim, other things – such as the character being a mercenary – were the consequence of logical deduction. I didn’t want Burton to be a German soldier and if he was identifiably a British officer this would cause problems for the plot, so this presented me with an obvious choice... which in turn made me think where he was trained. I wanted him to be part of an elite fighting force, and again I wanted an African connection, but all of this had to be in the context of him being an outsider. It wasn’t long after this that I reached for a copy of Beau Geste (a famous novel about the French Foreign Legion). That he is a Major is a little reference/in-joke – which you may or may not get.
The quality I admire most about Burton is his single-mindedness. He’s not interested in the trivia that seems to overwhelm our lives. I certainly can’t imagine him indulging in small talk at a party (here there is definitely an autobiographical element!). All he wants to do is survive. Survive, get back to Madeleine and be a quince farmer. I can understand that...
B is also for BK44
In preparation for the conquest of Africa, the Nazis began to develop an assault rifle that could function in the humidity of the tropics. However, as the war turned against them, and it was clear they weren’t heading towards the equator, the designs for this rifle morphed into the StG44 (pictured). Later these were appropriated by one Comrade Kalashnikov. My fictitiously named weapon – die Bananen Kanone – draws on all these elements. The ‘B’ refers to the banana shaped magazine; the K is a nod to the AK47; and the 44 refers not only to the StG but also the year Congo is invaded in my alternative history.