This interview was with Randy Stephens, fellow alumni of the American Cooperative School in Monrovia, Liberia.
Congratulations on writing the book. How did it come about?
Thanks! Besides writing a book at all, my dream was to one day write a book about Monrovia. I toyed with the idea for years, and was a bit afraid to actually do it because there’s so much I wanted to do with it. After my first book was sold, I talked to my editor about various books I might take on next. I mentioned a book set in Liberia and she was intrigued. All I had was a setting, though. I still had to come up with a story. I found that inspiration by reading about Liberian folklore, especially the idea that a person could have magical connection to an animal; I was really intrigued by the idea of a kid with a connection to a black mamba.
When did you live in Liberia, and why were you there?
My family lived there from 1982-1984 when my father was stationed at the U.S. Embassy. Even though we’d moved a lot and lived abroad before, living in a place like West Africa was new to all of us.
What is your first memory upon your arrival?
The first day is just a blur of culture shock. I tried to re-create some of it in Mamba Point — just how different everything was. How crowded the streets were and the marketplaces out in front of the buildings, the shanties visible from our apartment building. At the same time, we were suddenly in the lap of luxury, with a gorgeous apartment, swimming pool and tennis courts always available, not to mention servants. Added to that was a pretty innocent Catholic grade-school kid suddenly at a high school party and everything that entails. So there was a lot to get used to quickly.
What grades were you in at ACS [The American Cooperative School in Monrovia]? What was your time there like.
I was in ninth and tenth grade. A lot of it was typical high school stuff — trying to fit in and do well in school, mixed in with a little trouble but nothing serious. I don’t think I really appreciated until later what a special school it was, with kids from all over the world. I describe that to people now and they’re pretty impressed. ACS was also a really good school. Mrs. Pereña and Mr. Tichy were way tougher than most high school teachers. I was used to do well in school but high school humbled me a little bit. Of course I would have done better if I hadn’t been trying to read Stephen King books during class. Anyway, I appreciate now that ACS was a special school and also a challenging one. I included scenes at ACS in drafts of the book, featuring real teachers, but they didn’t make the final book. I think it was the best editorial decision, but I’m sorry that sun devils won’t be able to see their old school in the pages.
How would you describe your Liberian experience?
Man, that’s a tough one to answer in a few sentences. I wrote a whole book about it and still only got about two percent of it. But the main thing is that at the time I thought it was hard, even though our family had it easy, but now I look back at it as a really valuable and important time in my life and even lots of fun. I mean, sure, I missed ET and Return of the Jedi in the theaters, but how many American kids have seen a pygmy hippo or argued with an African taxi driver or been to Sophie’s for ice cream? I didn’t appreciate what a good experience it was, but of course I was a kid and I wasn’t there to learn, I was just busy being a teenager.
Were you able to draw from your own experiences while writing the book?
I remembered this big idea I had on the way to Monrovia that I could try to be a new person. Nobody there knew I wasn’t cool and popular, so I could act like I’d always been and they’d believe it. That didn’t last ten minutes, but I thought it would be a good starting point for the book because it’s a theme almost any kid can relate to. The hero lives in the same apartment building our family lived in at first — Ocean View — and pretty much everything he does is similar to my first two months there. But of course Linus meets a snake and has an adventure that’s nothing like what happened to me.
What is the target audience for your book?
Well, kids aged 9-13 are the ideal readers, but of course I hope it’ll appeal to all ages. The age level did mean I had to take a pretty soft touch with the harsher realities of Monrovia. I do describe the coup of 1980 because that’s part of the story, but don’t allude to any of what happened in the 90s and 2000s except in the book notes at the end. In the end I’m glad it’s a positive book about Liberia; there are already so many negative books about Africa.
What do you hope readers take away after reading your book?
I don’t really think about teaching kids a lesson when I write. I work more on forging a connection, giving them believable and likable heroes they’ll come to care about. That being said, I do hope they’ll get sense of what it’s like to live in a developing country. Most children’s books set in foreign countries books tend to take a tourist’s view: here are landmarks, here’s what these strange people eat, here’s what they wear, and here’s a traditional celebration. I wanted to go deeper than that. Here’s people not that different from you, when you get to know them.
Any chance for a sequel?
No, I definitely feel like the book ended where it was supposed to end.