Nathan kept me in thrall for thousands of pages, through the many drafts of this long novel. Am I pleased with how I rendered him? Yes, of course, or he would not be in print. I only turn in a manuscript after I’ve made it exactly what I want it to be. If I ever worried that he was overdrawn, I don’t any more, since the book came out and I began getting letters from women asking, “How did you know my ex-husband?”
Nathan is single-minded, but I respect his complexity. Sometimes people do contain their own opposites, particularly his combination of ferocity and cowardice. He is charismatic and revolting; brilliant and tedious. Unhinged characters are fascinating to create. When people ask if I “did him justice,” I have no idea what they mean, because obviously I don’t owe him anything. He’s a character, invented by me, to serve my plot. I count on readers to know what literary fiction is, and to understand the relationship between character and theme. Nathan Price does not represent the missionary profession (or men), any more than Dr. Jekyll represents all physicians or King Lear represents all old men with daughters. Charles Dickens especially excelled at the wicked male character, but we don’t assume he therefore hated men. I created Nathan Price as a symbolic figure suggesting many things about how Western nations have approached Africa with a history of arrogance and misunderstanding.
Did I do justice to his faith? I would call his faith “deeply misguided Christianity, combined with mental illness,” and yes, I think I pegged it. But many other spiritual traditions are also represented here. I have no antagonism toward generous-hearted Christianity, or missionaries, and I took some care to show that. My favorite character is Brother Fowles, a Christian who does beautiful things with the notion of mission. At one point in the novel he says, “There are Christians, and there are Christians.” Nathan Price and the Jesus-like Fowles are utterly different men who use the same name for opposite brands of faith and works. They even have a Bible-quote showdown. This duality is a real-life phenomenon I find fascinating. To my mind, religion is never well served by people who attempt to reduce it to a sound bite.