Ben Rawlence: Read an Interview With the Author of RADIO CONGO

I love featuring and interview debut authors. There is something very magical about getting your first book published. I am very excited to introduce WD readers to author/reporter author Ben Rawlence.

Ben Rawlence is the author of RADIO CONGO: SIGNALS OF HOPE FROM AFRICA’S DEADLIEST WAR (2012, One World). Rawlence is a senior researcher on Africa for Human Rights Watch. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and the Huffington Post, and he has been a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s FromOurOwnCorrespondent. Ben studied Swahili and history at the University of London and received his master’s degree in international relations from the University of Chicago.

(Find a list of literary agents who represent memoirs.)

About the book: In this debut, Rawlence sets out to gather the news from this ghost town in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ignoring the advice of locals, reporters, and mercenaries, he travels by foot, motorbike, and canoe, taking his time and meeting the people who are rebuilding their homes with hope, faith, and nervous instinct. We meet characters such Benjamin, the kindly father of the most terrifying Mai Mai warlord; Leya, who happily gives up a good job in Zambia to return to her razed town; Colonel Ibrahim, a guerrilla turned army officer. Rawlence shares the real story of Congo during and after the war, and finds not just a lost city but the seeds of a peaceful future.The Economist called the book “intimate and entertaining.”




What is the book’s genre/category?

It’s a travel book in the old fashioned sense: the story of a journey and my reflections on a place.

Please describe what the story/book is about.

RADIO CONGO is the story of a 4 month journey through the war zones of Eastern Congo in which I talk to people about how they are surviving after (and in some cases still during) the fighting.

Where do you write from? 

I live in Wales in the UK but travel to Africa regularly for my work with Human Rights Watch

What led up to this book? 

I had a few articles published in newspapers and magazines since leaving university but when a short piece about Nigeria got accepted in the London Review of Books in 2007, I began to think that I could do something longer. I had dreamt about a trip to Congo for many years, and with a lull in the fighting in late 2007 I sezied my chance.

(How much money can you expect from selling your first book?)

What was the time frame for writing this book?  Tell us an interesting detail or two, if applicable.  For example, did you finish first draft after one week? Or did you pick it up after 20 years and finally rewrite it?

I wrote the first draft quite rapidly, and some of the chapters are more or less verbatim from my notebooks of the journey. Others I had to re-work and the draft took a year to properly polish as I was working full time simultaneously. Another year of polishing with an agent (and a month off from work) helped me get the manuscript ready for publishers.

How did you find your agent?

A senior colleague at work knew I was looking for one and put me in touch with a guy he knew. I wrote to him and he didn’t like but he passed the draft along to his colleague and she did. We hit it off and she totally understood what the project was about, so I signed up there and then.



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What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

How kind and diplomatic everyone was about their suggestions for changes. I kind of expected them to tear it to shreds but they didn’t everything was couched in terms of suggestions, not red lines. I also didn’t know my grammar was so bad. The copyeditor found loads of stuff.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

I’ve no idea; I just feel lucky. But if the book has any resonance I think it is because it comes from a deep personal commitment to reporting Africa honestly, getting close to people and putting yourself as much as possible in their shoes.

(Learn how to start your novel strong.)

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

I gave myself over wholly to the place and the journey; if I had thought more about the end product I would have paid more attention to recurring themes.

Did you have a platform in place?  On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership?

I had a career in human rights reporting in Africa, which is a platform of sorts. I’m doing lots of talks; the question makes me feel slightly inadequate, like I’m not doing enough.


There’s a facebook page: with further information about the characters, some music and maps and additional photos.

What’s next?

I’ve got book ideas stacked up like planes waiting to land. The first one is most likely another work of reportage about Somalia, inshallah.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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