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Interview: March 27, 2009

March 27, 2009

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, bestselling author Kyle Mills talks about what inspired him to set his 10th and latest novel, LORDS OF CORRUPTION, in war-torn Africa and sheds light on the extreme disparity between the continent's economic conditions with that of the U.S. He also explains his knack for penning books with very timely subjects, discusses what led him to pursue writing instead of following in his father's footsteps in law enforcement, and reveals how he would attempt to fix Africa's numerous problems if given the opportunity. Your new novel, LORDS OF CORRUPTION, is set in a war-torn region of Africa where a dictator is waging a genocidal campaign against a rebel tribe with the passive-aggressive assistance of an enigmatic charity. The idea for the book apparently had been percolating for a couple of years. How did it begin, and what jump-started you to complete the project?
Kyle Mills: I originally went to Africa about six years ago to scout for interesting locations --- not so much to research a book about the continent.
I was there for a month and at the end of that time, my wife had to drag me kicking and screaming onto the plane home. It was such a complicated and fascinating place that I wanted to stay and try to make sense of what I’d seen.
I thought the feeling would fade, but I just couldn’t get Africa out of my mind. The next fall I went back, this time for the entire winter. It still wasn’t enough time to fully grasp the place (that would take 10 lifetimes), but it was long enough to know that I wanted to try to write about it.
BRC: Once again, your timing is exquisite. Your previous novel, DARKNESS FALLS, concerned an attack on oil reserves and was published just as oil prices were reaching $100 a barrel. Now LORDS OF CORRUPTION has been released just as there is renewed interest in Sudan, an African nation with an abysmal human rights record. And the television program “24”hasits plot this year centered on the tumult within an African nation and how it comes to affect the United States. Given that your novels are written well ahead of their ultimate publication, what is the secret behind your timing? Do you have a crystal ball? Are you just smart? Or lucky? Or a combination of all three?
KM: I love thriller novels that feel real and current. The downside is that timing can be tricky. I finished a book about an al Qaeda rocket attack on U.S. targets a week before 9/11. It took me months to rewrite the book so it wouldn’t seem like I was trying to capitalize on that tragedy.
I think my success with prediction stems from the fact that I obsess about the world’s problems and use writing as an excuse to figure out how to fix them. DARKNESS FALLS is a perfect example of that. I wanted to know what would happen to the U.S. if our oil supply was suddenly cut off. The nonfiction books I’d read on the subject didn’t seem credible, so I decided to work through it myself. In the end, it turned out to be a lot more frightening a scenario than I expected.
My interest in Africa is similar. Because the world is becoming so interconnected, the continent’s problems have increasing potential to affect the rest of us. That made me want to understand what was going on over there and what could be done about it.
BRC: I understand that you spend your winters in Cape Town, South Africa. How did you happen to begin this practice? Have you traveled extensively throughout other parts of Africa?
KM: I needed a base in Africa for my research and a friend of mine once said “Cape Town is the only place in the world you can surf, rock climb, mountain bike, and go out to a really good restaurant all in one day.” It turned out to be that and much more.
We didn’t go this year and I feel surprisingly homesick for the place. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just move there permanently, but Jackson Hole isn’t a bad place to hang your hat either.
I have traveled around a fair amount. I like to just rent a car and point it in a direction that looks interesting, which means I’ve spent a lot of time lost in places like KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and Namibia. It’s amazing what you can see and learn when you’re lost.
BRC: Did the book begin as a result of your travels? Or did you begin going to Africa for book research and decide to make your residency more permanent (or at least longer) than you had originally planned?
KM: I originally went there for research and became convinced that Africa was the ideal environment for crime. In much of the continent, there’s no one watching the store at all. And some of the governments are so corrupt, they would be happy to cooperate as long as they got a cut. It’s a far cry from the U.S. or Europe where organized criminals are always having to look over their shoulders.
BRC: There is much to love in LORDS OF CORRUPTION. The story has a real-world feel to it; the characters are flawed but, at least as far as some of them are concerned, sympathetic; and the narrative contains some incredible twists and turns, particularly near the end. I wasn’t sure while I was reading it which characters, if any, would make it to the end of the book. Did you have the novel pretty well mapped out by the time you began writing it? Or did you surprise yourself when you saw who was left, and who was not, at the end of the book?
KM: I tend to be an obsessive outliner, so I have things pretty well mapped out when I start. The thing with writing a book about Africa is that you feel incredible temptation to just kill everyone.
Death is so much more tangible there than in the West. Our attitude almost seems to be that if we don’t live forever, it’s some failure of the medical establishment. 
In Africa, death is everywhere. In many towns in Lesotho, the only permanent building is the funeral home. And if you go on a long driving trip in Africa, you’re almost certain to come upon at least one traffic accident where you have to weave through the bodies still lying in the road --- one of the downsides to putting 20 people in a van with brakes designed for six.
BRC: One of the other elements of the book that I enjoyed was a very subtle one. Josh Hagarty, the primary protagonist of the novel, is from a humble, almost Appalachian background who takes a job with an African-involved charity very reluctantly, and in large part on the promise that his younger sister’s college tuition will be covered. While Hagarty considers his own background to be somewhat impoverished, it is almost regal compared to what he finds in war-torn Africa. Even his own somewhat primitive lodgings in Africa are first-cabin compared to what he finds in some villages. Were you surprised by the level of poverty you discovered in your travels of Africa?
KM: I was very surprised. Not so much by the poor areas I visited --- I expected conditions to be pretty horrifying there --- but by the depth of the poverty in places that are touted as doing well.
That’s why I gave my character Josh a really disadvantaged background. He thinks he understands poverty and he’s actually been the recipient of charity in his life. But that still isn’t enough to prepare him for the reality of Africa.
BRC: Were you surprised by the disparity between rich and poor? Was the level of poverty, and the differences between the privileged and disadvantaged, more or less dramatic than what one would encounter in the United States?
KM: Wealth disparity is pretty much nonexistent in the U.S. when compared with Africa.
On paper, Bill Gates has a lot more money than the average American. But what does that really mean? The average American has a comfortable house, a car that runs, and enough food to make obesity a serious health threat. Is Gates’s life really that much better because he has a house so big he’s never been in half the rooms? Because he has a garage full of Ferraris that he doesn’t have time to drive? Because he can buy whole grocery stores full of food that he can’t eat?
Now consider the difference between a rich African and an average African. The rich African would have the same things as the average American. By contrast, the average African would be dealing with disease, malnutrition, a lack of access to education, violence, etc. The poorest person in America likely has a lifestyle that the average African would envy.
BRC: LORDS OF CORRUPTION takes place primarily in an unnamed emerging African nation. Is the country in your novel based on an existing African nation, or drawn from elements of several different African countries? Which one(s)?
KM: I purposely didn’t name it because I wanted to be free to use elements from many different countries. I borrowed mostly from Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and 1970s Uganda.
BRC: If you were given unlimited resources --- not just money, but manpower as well, and the opportunity to be a benevolent dictator for as long as it would take to get the job done --- what problem would you fix first in Africa? And in which nation?
KM: Someone once asked me this question, and after careful consideration I said I’d quit.
One of the main things plaguing Africa is that there isn’t just one problem. You can tackle AIDS, but you still have malaria and cholera. You can take on government corruption, but you still have tribal animosity. Everything is connected, and fixing any one thing is like fixing a single link in a weak chain and then using it to dangle over a pit of crocodiles.
But I don’t want to cop out on the question. I suppose I’d go after government corruption first. Good governance can have an enormous positive effect on a country. Botswana is proof of this.
As far as which country, I guess I’d pick Zimbabwe because it would be easiest. All you’d have to do is reverse all of Mugabe’s policies and you’d be well on the road to putting it back the way it was.
BRC: You have described yourself elsewhere as a “crook at heart?” What is your concept of the ideal caper?

KM: Big and complicated. 
I once wrote a book about stealing a semi-truck full of cash and traveling from Las Vegas to the Federal Reserve in San Francisco. I spent days driving between the two cities --- scouting possible gas stops and air strips, cataloging law enforcement presence, timing how long it took to get from one blind curve to another. I even had my wife pose in front of the Fed’s loading dock so I could surreptitiously take pictures of their security.
How much more fun can you have than that?
BRC: You were employed in a number of different jobs before you began to devote your attentions to writing. Was there any particular reason that you did not follow your father into a career with the FBI, or another law enforcement agency?
KM: I actually went so far as to start the initial application process at the FBI. 
After some serious soul searching, though, I decided it would be a mistake to follow through. I am, above all things, a freedom junkie. I’m not terribly enamored with authority, hate bureaucracy, and am easily distracted by this shiny object or that. Not necessarily qualities that make a good FBI agent.
BRC: If you weren’t writing, what do you think you would be doing for a living?
KM: The economic downturn has made me give this some thought recently, and I haven’t come to any conclusions. There was an ad in the local paper today for a bicycle mechanic. That wouldn’t be a bad gig…
BRC: Are there any authors in particular who have influenced you?
KM: Lots. Stephen King, Tom Clancy, George Orwell and Frederick Forsyth, to name a few.
BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you could recommend to our readers?
KM: Not surprisingly, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject of Africa. 
I reread Rian Malan’s MY TRAITOR'S HEART recently and it’s still one of my favorite books. I’d also recommend William Easterly’s THE WHITE MAN'S BURDENfor an interesting (if fairly technical) take on African aid efforts. And try George Packer’s THE VILLAGE OF WAITING for a well-written account of an aid worker trying to come to terms with what he finds in Togo.
BRC: What are you working on now?
KM: I’m finishing the first draft of a novel about a doctor trying to find a cure for his terminally ill daughter. Just as he’s forced to admit that he’s going to fail, he discovers that a cure may already exist --- but that it’s being kept from the public by a group that no one know exists.
BRC: Have you had any temptations since the publication of DARKNESS FALLS to bring Mark Beamon back?
KM: I’m always looking for a good story for Mark. I miss him if I don’t write about him every couple of years. The problem is that I left him in kind of a strange place at the end of DARKNESS FALLS: a world with very little oil. I’m still working through the complications of that.

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