I love seeing the different ideas people have for their books. Last year I featured Clar Ni Chonghaile’s book Rain Falls On Everyone and loved the gritty realism of Dublin. This time she takes us to the Central African Republic with Elodie, a naive psychologist who has grand ideas about what her impact can be in a place so unknown to her. It’s a tightyl strung, powerful book. Through the teenage character of Aristide we see the tragedies of civil war first-hand, while through the weathered eyes of PJ we see the disillusionment that comes with many years of aid work.The characters are really what brought this book alive for me.
There are also a lot of big issues that Clar is not afraid to address head on. The white saviour myth, the difficult questions about aid money and where and how it is spent. Through voicing opinions through her characters, she’s able to portray a tangled picture with no easy solution, even if she does ultimately offer us a slice of hope, trusting that some people’s good intentions can and do make a difference.
Clar reporting by the Ubangi River in Bangui, in Central African Republic, 2016
I wanted to find out how she drew her characters so deftly, how she managed to write her darker scenes and why this book is especially important to her. Read on to find out more.
You say in the acknowledgments that this book is especially important to you. Why is that?
My 16-year-old daughter was talking the other day about star signs and how bizarrely accurate they can be in terms of describing a person’s character. It’s all about your sun sign, your moon sign, and your rising sign and all three work together to reflect your unique personality. I feel that books too are born under a confluence of determining elements that combine to create something unique to that moment, and to you as the author in that moment. No Good Deed, my fourth novel, was born out of a very particular set of circumstances and that is why it is special to me.
I started writing it just before lockdown began here in the UK in 2020. After publishing my third novel, The Reckoning, in 2018, I’d pitched a few ideas to my publisher but nothing seemed to stick. I’d started a few stories but after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the muse would scurry off to hide in the Woods of Indecision and Doubt. I think part of the problem was that I was trying to write a book that would please others, or (shudder!) the market, but when I finally realised that I wanted to write a story set in Central African Republic, the words started to flow.
A street scene in Bangui, Central African Republic, 2016
I knew it was a risk – it’s hardly what we journalists call a sexy dateline! But I also knew that the story I wanted to write was set deep in the forests of that neglected country. And so I ploughed on, burying myself in my work to escape the terror of a world turned on its head where the very air we breathed seemed to be toxic. I eventually got an agent – my first – with this book but then she was unable to find a home for it despite her best efforts and some very encouraging words from publishing houses. And so I decided to take another leap of faith and self-publish. I would never have done so if my agent and her staff had not believed in the story, but I thought, why not?
There are other reasons too. My 11-year-old niece died suddenly in April 2022 when I was finishing the revisions requested by my agent ahead of a round of submissions. It is hard to convey how devastating her loss was to our family. None of us will ever be the same – and nor is the world. It is both a paler and darker place; a place where the ground no longer seems as solid as we once believed. The woman who finished writing No Good Deed was a completely different woman to the one who started writing about Aristide way back in 2020. I dedicated the book to Eimear and to a dear friend who died in 2020 after a short and sudden illness. It’s all as nothing in the face of such tragedy but it’s all I could do as a writer.
The characters in this book are fabulous. So nuanced and different. You write from the point of view of a young boy from Central Africa and a young white woman from the UK. How did you go about writing and researching these two such different characters?
I travelled to Central African Republic in 2016 on a reporting trip for The Guardian and I was deeply moved by the children and teenagers I met. What I learned during that trip informed the tale I tell in No Good Deed and I would like to pay tribute to all the people who told me their stories and shared their wisdom to help me understand what was going on.
A school Clar visited near Bossangoa in Central African Republic
I met child soldiers in a school in Bossangoa, young boys like Aristide who had fought in the bush; boys who, like him, had been given pieces of wood studded with nails and told to finish off the enemy; teenagers who had taken drugs to be able to do what they did and who lost part of their souls. I met quietly spoken girls who had been raped and kicked out by their families. The memory of one 12-year-old girl haunted me: as she told me how she was raped by a rebel fighter when she was just 10, her little feet swung back and forth. She was sitting on a wooden bench and was too small to reach the floor. She was the same age as my eldest daughter at the time. I did hours of interviews and all of that informed my portrait of Aristide and the other child soldiers.
I also lived for around ten years in Africa, covering civil wars in Ivory Coast and Liberia and then later moving to Kenya where I was privileged to travel to Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Ethiopia among other places. Along the way, I’ve met a fair few mercenaries and aid workers and I used this experience when writing No Good Deed. But ultimately, this is a work of fiction.
I get a bit tetchy when people declare that certain experiences are off-limits to certain writers because of colour or race or class or whatever barriers the powers-that-be erect to divert us from understanding the true, universal problems facing humanity. That’s not to say that I don’t recognise the merits of the vigorous and entirely justified debate in publishing about the need for diversity and authentic voices. I couldn’t agree more. We do need more storytellers from all corners of the world, we need more stories, we need to hear more voices, all the voices. This has long been my passion: it was because I wanted to hear other stories that I left Ireland and became a journalist all those years ago.
But I do not believe it needs to be a zero sum game, and I will always defend a fiction writer’s right to let their imagination roam free, spanning continents, experiences and lives, opening doors and smashing down the barriers that seek to diminish our shared humanity. Because in the end, we all love, laugh, cry and mourn. Everything else is detail.
There are some very dark scenes in your book. Why did you decide to include them and how difficult were they to write?
All of my books deal with violence because violence is as human as love. I’ve written about the genocide in Rwanda and the cruelty of Dublin drug gangs in Rain Falls on Everyone, war in Somalia in Fractured and the inhumane cruelty of the World Wars in The Reckoning. I try to be authentic in my writing and that means not shying away from the reality of the places I describe. I suppose it’s part of my training as a journalist. I don’t think we should look away from difficult things. Readers expect you to be faithful to the worlds you choose to inhabit in your fiction. But I do try to ensure that none of the violence is gratuitous. The scenes I describe in No Good Deed are based on events described to me in the interviews I carried out while in Central African Republic or in research reports from human rights groups in the region. My books are rooted in the real world and I do feel strongly that I need to be true to that world. This is also part of my efforts to make my characters authentic.
One thing I found very interesting in your book is how you look at the issue of white agencies in African countries. It’s a really complex issue which you manage to handle very delicately through the variety of perspectives in your book. Why did you want to bring these ideas to the forefront?
This comes back to building an authentic universe for your characters. I wasn’t on any sort of moral crusade. I just wanted to reflect what I, having spent so much time living as an expat in Africa, heard at various points from different people, including aid workers and others. It seemed right that Thierry, my mercenary, would be sceptical of do-gooders, to use a flippant phrase. It seemed right and true that Elodie would believe that she could make a difference, and it seemed right that PJ – secretly my favourite character – would sway woozily somewhere in the middle and take his own set of pot-shots at Darren and the world of globe-trotting war reporters. I’ve met versions of all those characters and heard versions of all those views down the years in bars and at dinner tables in Abidjan, Monrovia, Nairobi and Mogadishu. It goes with the territory and so into the book it all went.
An aerial view of the Central African Republic
Is there a debate to be had about the most effective way of delivering aid in conflict situations? Certainly. Are there faults in the current system and in the attitudes of those who run it? Definitely. But my aim was not to preach or provide an answer. I just wanted to reflect the real debates I heard in the world I was privileged to live in for nearly ten years.
What was your route to publication and what tips or advice would you give to other writers?
My first three novels were published by Legend Press after I submitted the manuscript for Fractured back in 2014. I did not have an agent but they were happy to take unagented submissions so that was brilliant. After The Reckoning was published, I decided to try to get an agent, which I did with No Good Deed but she could not find a publisher and so I decided to go it alone.
The process of self-publishing has been a real eye-opener. It’s not so much the technical aspects of formatting your book and getting a cover. There are clever people who, for a fee, will do that for you, thank goodness! But marketing the book is the real challenge, particularly if you write literary fiction as I do. I am still glad that I published No Good Deed, and the feedback from readers has been lovely but the thing I have learned is that it is very difficult to get the book in front of people without an organisation behind you. Or maybe I am just very bad at marketing! I was brought up in a working-class household in the west of Ireland and blowing your own trumpet was definitely frowned upon. That is why I am so grateful to you, Sarah, for having taken the time to read the book and allowing me to feature on your wonderful blog. Thank you so much.
Elodie Harptree comes to war-torn Central African Republic on a mission: she will do good, help former child soldiers and prove that she is not afraid to live and love. Irish doctor PJ Wilcox dismisses her as a naïve tourist but he can’t help feeling protective towards the new arrival. One day, Elodie meets 14-year-old Aristide Yambissi, who was forced to fight with a militia after his village was attacked, and she resolves to save him from the streets and from his demons. But her blind inexperience and her relationship with a French mercenary with dubious connections will endanger them all, raising the question of whether anyone can ever save anyone else.
Irish author Clár Ní Chonghaile grew up in An Spidéal, County Galway before leaving after college to join Reuters in London as a trainee journalist. Clár has been a reporter and editor for over 30 years, living and working in Spain, France, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Kenya.
She now lives in St Albans, UK with her husband David, daughters Lucy and Rachel, and golden retriever Simba. Her previous works include Fractured (2016), Rain Falls on Everyone (2017) and The Reckoning (2018).