Raising the right questions (Kyle Mills talks about writing, life, and Lords of Corruption)
Kyle Mills, New York Times bestselling author of Darkness Falls, completely had me at hello with the compelling prologue to his latest novel, Lords of Corruption.
After four hours of rutted dirt, military roadblocks, and fetid mud bogs, the landscape around Dan Ordman had completely transformed. The jagged, grass-covered hills that made up his world had been replaced by dense jungle rolling into a reddening horizon. Although he’d lived in Africa for almost a year, this was the first time he’d seen the rain forest, smelled the damp rot, listened to the birds and monkeys just out of sight. There was something about it that made him nervous. Probably just the fact that, until now, he’d never been more than twenty miles from the comfortable expatriate community that he’d wrapped himself in. Or maybe it was something more primordial.
“It’s going to get dark on us.”
Understatement of the year. (Click here to read the whole prologue, and read it with your shoes on because you'll want to head for the nearest bookstore.) When our sketchy but likable protagonist, Josh Hagarty, signs on to manage a farming project in third-world Africa, the charity he works for turns out to be less than benevolent. Lords of Corruption takes us on a terrible journey to the dark continent and deep into the even murkier territory of corporate greed, political grasping, insidious underbelly-dwelling, and unchecked balls-out thuggery. Think The Firm meets Feed the Children. With machetes. And prepare to be open-minded. As the adventure unwinds, important questions are raised, and there are no easy answers.
Hooked and inhaling Lords of Corruption, I had a few questions of my own, and Kyle kindly agreed to stop by for a chat.
Welcome, Kyle, and thanks for being here. Before we cut to the chase, how are you? Is it good to be Kyle Mills right now?
As much as I like to complain, yeah, it is good. I get paid to travel the globe learning about things that fascinate me. I’m sure there are better jobs in the world, but it’s hard to think of one off the top of my head.
I read that you were working in a bank and tried your hand making furniture before your first novel, Rising Phoenix, was published in hardcover by Harper Collins twelve years ago. How did that first book deal happen?
At first, my experience was pretty typical. I wrote a book and it was rejected by virtually every self-respecting agent in New York. But persistence counts in this business and I finally got someone interested.
After that, things went really fast. Within two weeks I had a contract and six months later, I had a best seller on the shelves. It was kind of a whirlwind—great in some ways but a little strange in others. I remember feeling a bit befuddled when I started my next book. I didn’t really feel like a writer. I felt like a banker posing as a writer.
Publishing-wise, has it been a pretty smooth ride since then or have there been a few educational bumps in the road?
In many ways, my career has been one disaster after another. For a while, it was almost certain that when I signed with a publisher, the editor who acquired me would leave within a few weeks. Or the entire management team would be replaced with people who’d never heard of me. And then there was my now infamous submission of a manuscript about al Qaeda attacking the U.S. a week before 9/11.
It’s a testament to the loyalty of my readers that I even have a career.
Between Rising Phoenix and your latest, Lords of Corruption, you evolved a lot as an artist. Were you being mentored or do you think your writing has muscled up with the act of writing?
Part of it is just practice. Counting drafts, I’ve probably written five million words over my career. Most, though, is just confidence. I’m willing to go out on a limb artistically now, whereas earlier in my career it was just too scary.
I’m free to explore just about anything I want and to define my genre any way I want. That makes it possible to create more unique and thoughtful books than I could have in my twenties. Maturity. Maybe that’s it. There has to be something good about getting older, right?
The main character in Lords of Corruption is a bit of a scoundrel, and moral ambiguity is something you do well. (As a writer, I mean!) What’s the key to making a morally shady character a sympathetic protagonist the reader can relate to and genuinely like?
I think that the readers have to see themselves in the character. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many Mother Teresas in the world.
To me, moral ambiguity goes hand in hand with character motivation. Everybody is afraid at one time or another, everybody does subtle “what’s in it for me” calculations, and everybody has the potential for good and evil. The question that interests me is where and why people draw their lines and how those lines can evolve.
My sister spent three years in Gabon with the Peace Corps back in the mid ‘80s, and she’s struggled ever since with some of the issues you raise in Lords of Corruption. Bottom line it for us: Is American aid doing more harm than good in Africa?
Like everything in Africa, it’s complicated.
Certainly the aid industry has been successful in alleviating short-term suffering through providing food for famine victims, medical care for the sick, etc.
On the other hand, the grandiose plans of transforming Africa socially and economically have been completely ineffective at best and disastrous at worst. There needs to be a reassessment of our goals based not on theory, but the reality on the ground. Aid strategists seem to believe that there is nothing they can’t achieve with sufficient funds. Of course, both their own experience and the entire span of human history shows this belief to be false. How can you seriously say you’re going to eradicate poverty in Gabon when you can’t eradicate it in the U.S.?
Thanks for your time, Kyle. Last question before we send you back to the salt mine: What are you reading?
I just finished William Easterly’s terrific book, The White Man’s Burden. He’s a guy who spent years with the World Bank and has the presence of mind to admit that he doesn’t know how to fix Africa’s problems. But while he doesn’t have the answers, he seems to be one of the few people asking the right questions.