Back to the Beginning: How I Wrote My First Novel

Blog, On Writing, What I'm Thinking

When I began work on The Third Power in the late 1970s, Rhodesia was in its death throes, about to be reborn as Zimbabwe. I was writing fiction based on real events in southern Africa, and from one day to the next there was no knowing whether I would have to rewrite the previous day’s output, or whether real events and the novel’s trajectory were on the same track.  It was exhilarating.

Each morning I would go down to the Italian deli below my Toronto apartment to buy a bottle of fresh pear juice and a newspaper. Back then, newspapers were the only way to get up-to-date information on what was happening around the world. I would take the paper back to my apartment and sit down at the dining room table to see what had taken place the previous day. Sometimes we were aligned; other times, I needed to revise. The global forces at play in the region were complex and changeable.

Neighboring South Africa was deeply concerned about instability on its northern border. It had an interest in having Rhodesia retain its apartheid-like system, and in maintaining a relationship with Prime Minister Ian Smith, who was struggling to maintain the status quo.

The opposition — revolutionary forces headed by Robert Mugabe — wanted to overthrow the white regime. At the time, Mugabe was seen as a terrorist by some, and as a hero and freedom fighter by others.

In an effort to expand their sphere of influence, the Chinese offered training, financing, and weapons to the revolutionary forces. China’s influence in the area was terrifying to those in power in South Africa, where the advent of a communist country on their borders would have been a death knell for apartheid.

Much has changed since the novel was published in 1980. In South Africa, apartheid is gone. In Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, Ian Smith is long forgotten. The white population has largely been driven out of the country. Robert Mugabe — portrayed as a hero in the novel — has shown himself to be a despicable tyrant, as subject to corruption and the excesses of power as those he once opposed as corrupt and racist. He now presides over a bankrupt police state.

At one time, The Third Power told the most current story of what was happening in Rhodesia. In fact, for a brief period, it was used in several universities as a textbook. The New York Times called it “nothing less than a scenario for World War III, [in which] events conceivably could develop along the lines indicated.” Today, it remains a compelling read — but it is also a story frozen in time, preserving a particular moment in African and world history.

Photo: Christine Mahler/Flickr