Obviously, I read a lot of books about the political, social, and natural history of Africa and the Congo. Some were famous and well-written, but most were obscure. I found some self-published memoirs written by missionaries to the Congo in the 50’s and 60’s, which were gems, giving me details of missionary life and attitudes from the era. I also read daily from the King James Bible, to help internalize the rhythm of the Price family’s speech, their spiritual frame of reference, and countless plot ideas. Likewise, I daily perused an ancient, enormous, two-volume Kikongo-French dictionary, compiled early in the century (by a missionary). I hoped to grasp the music and subtlety of this amazing African language, with its infinite capacity for being misunderstood and mistranslated.
A big challenge, also, was to capture the language of U.S. teenagers in the late 1950’s. Teenage slang is notoriously ephemeral; if I’d just guessed, it would have sounded inauthentic. I purchased thirty pounds of Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post magazines from 1958-1961, from a used book store, and sank into those pages until the attitudes of the era began to acquire for me a certain ring: “Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?” Thus Rachel Price was born.
I also needed to know things about Africa that must be learned first-hand. I made research trips into Western and Central Africa (as near as I could get to Mobutu’s Zaire) to experience the sounds, smells, textures, tastes, and domestic trivia that I couldn’t really get from reading. I stayed with local residents, walked through village markets to bargain and bring home the ingredients of a meal, and often asked questions that many Africans surely found amusing and too personal. A University student in Cotonou suffered my curiosity for days on end, giving me his frank views on religion, history, and family life that would permanently alter my universe. I also spent time in museums studying exhibits on African religion and material culture. I lost myself in the amazing Okapi diorama in the American Museum of Natural History. And I spent one unforgettable afternoon in the Reptile House of the San Diego Zoo, watching a green mamba.
If this laundry list of observations seems excessive or odd, I can only say that this is what it means to be a novelist. You have to be madly in love with the details.