A pacey story which political neophytes will enjoy - Douglas Rogers on 'Two Weeks in November'
I also had to weave in the clandestine behind-the-scenes story that I had uncovered, with the well-known people and public events - while at the same time keeping the page-turning political-thriller element
(Published in the Sunday Times: 02/06/2019)
I started off writing a different book. The original story was going to be a comic travel memoir about a road trip I did in Mozambique in November 2017, travelling with three friends in a vintage Mercedes. When the "coup not coup" kicked off in Zimbabwe, we cut the trip short and raced back to be part of the action.
We were in Harare for the big march that led to Robert Mugabe stepping down days later. Back in the US, I pitched my story of four middle-aged men in mid-life crisis who go on a road trip in search of adventure and lost youth - and who find it when they get caught up in a real-life revolution.
But it was while researching the coup element of the story - how the military pulled it off, how the march was so well planned - that the book changed.
I found a story far more incredible, the kind that only happens to a writer once in a lifetime. I was back in Zimbabwe, trying to interview senior military officers about the military operation they had carried out. But the ZDF doesn't speak.
Then, something odd happened. I called a well-connected businessman I knew and asked him if he knew any officers who would talk to me. He said no, but that he knew someone who had "a story to tell". He gave me a first name and a cell number. The next night a different person told me that he knew someone who had a story to tell. He gave me a surname and a cell. My heart was racing: the numbers were the same!
I called. It was the number of a white man in Johannesburg and the story he told me about his involvement in the coup was so outrageous - a wild tale about spies, assassins, double agents, clandestine meetings in shady bars and parking lots in Harare and Joburg - that I thought he was bullshitting. Then he introduced me to members of his "Team" - and I realised he wasn't.
I did more than 100 hours of interviews with multiple characters from the "Team", but also with members of each of the warring political factions in Zanu-PF. Zimbabwe's politics doesn't interest me as much as the personalities involved. I wanted to tell a pacey, character-based Ian Fleming-style thriller that people with no interest or knowledge of Zimbabwean or African politics could enjoy.
I think I succeeded; most people say they finish it in a day or two.
The hard part was the deadline. Recall the book I set out to write changed half way; that left me with eight months to do it all. I also had to weave in the clandestine behind-the-scenes story that I had uncovered, with the well-known people and public events - while at the same time keeping the page-turning political-thriller element.
The human rights lawyer Gabriel Shumba, the CIO spy I call Kasper, and the white businessman I call Tom Ellis, who Kasper was sent to assassinate, often shake their heads and smile and say that the lives they were leading those days were like a spy movie. I'm grateful they shared their story with me, and proud they tell me that I got it right.
I interviewed several senior politicians from both factions within Zanu-PF, some of whom were removed in the coup, others who are now in power. With one exception they were charming, witty and whip smart. I said to one that Zimbabwe politics is like Game of Thrones. He shrugged and said, "Yes, pretty much."
Two Weeks in November is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, R260