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How the book came to be...

David Ball on one of his four exploring-mobiles. This one was a Honda 50: chosen because it could cross frontiers without papers; abandoned because it couldn't keep up. The wild camels in the background would have been a better choice.

When I first heard of the ill-fated Flatters expedition of the Sahara, I was both fascinated and horrified. It was a chilling story of betrayal and deceit, of massacre and poison, of starvation and cannibalism, of bravery and cowardice. It was a story of empire building at its most foolhardy, an 1880s French-led expedition through the unknown heart of the world’s greatest desert, in search of a route for a railroad. The mission was doomed before it began. Of the ninety-eight men who began the long nightmare, only twelve emerged alive, straggling half-dead into a French garrison after an epic desert march. The mission’s fate shocked the world and stopped French expansion in the area for more than twenty years.

   The French humiliation had come at the hand of the Tuareg, the Blue Men of the Sahara who lived in the Hoggar mountains. The Tuareg were the much-feared masters of the desert, overlords of the great caravan routes along which flowed streams of salt and gold and slaves.

   I wondered how these desert people with their swords and shields could have so humbled the great French nation and its heavily armed expedition. A shroud of mystery surrounded the Blue Men like their veils surrounded their faces. As I read more about the Tuareg I learned that no one could agree: they were noble or they were scoundrels; they were poets or they were thieves; they were romantics who would cut your throat for a penny; they were men of honor, or men devoid of it. Even into the late twentieth century, governments feared them and called them terrorists. No one seemed to know what made them tick.

   The first time I saw one of the Tuareg myself, in the deep desert of Algeria, the vision stopped me cold in my tracks. He was majestic, a king among men, his head nearly ten feet above the ground as he sat enthroned atop his camel. He carried an ornate silver sword in a leather scabbard. In his shadow I felt small and weak, and more than a little intimidated, and began to understand why the Blue Men had been held in such awe through the ages. His flowing blue robes covered him completely, save for a slit through which I could just see his eyes. Those eyes were like a window to another age. He seemed an anachronism, lost in time, a knight from the Middle Ages.

   I discovered that the Tuareg way of life was unique in the desert. Unlike the Arabs to the north, it was their women who were strong and their men who were veiled. Their society was matriarchal, their women independent and full of fire. Nobility passed through the mother’s line, not the father’s. They had their own written language. Their society was feudalistic, with lords and vassals and slaves. They shunned modern weapons of war, preferring the honor of individual combat with sword, dagger, and shield.

   I found the desert itself as surprising as its people. A lifetime of reading and watching B movies about the area had prepared me for desolation, for endless sand and sadness. Instead I found a world rich in beauty and color, and a serenity unlike any other on earth. For me, the Sahara was a magical, timeless place where the outside world rarely intruded. And it was the most famous of those intrusions, the Flatters expedition, that made me want to write about it.

   I started the novel in 1983, while living in Tunisia. I had completed 100 pages when I realized the story was bigger than I knew how to tell. What I had done wasn’t working, but I didn’t know why. I put the manuscript in a drawer and went back to work in the "real" world. A decade later I was making a business trip and decided to take the old manuscript along. I read it during a late-night flight, and at last thought I understood what had been missing. I had seen the book’s ending, but not its beginning. I had been trying to tell the story without really understanding who the characters were, or where they had come from. I had a story with drama but without life.

   I began to see the new tale through the eyes of a man caught squarely between the gun of France and the sword of the Tuareg, a man whose blood was of both worlds. He was Michel, called Moussa, the half-breed son of a Tuareg noblewoman and a French explorer. His cousin, Paul, a pure-blooded Frenchman, would take part in the Flatters mission itself. I liked them both immensely, and yet I set their lives on a collision course that would ultimately place them on opposite sides of the conflict.

   After that, the story came together in reverse for me, from end to beginning. I traced the men’s lives backward, to the years when they were growing up together in Paris, more as brothers than cousins. To my delight I found that the Paris of those years was a fabulous setting, at least as fascinating as the desert. France was coming apart from within as well as from without, torn by class divisions and hatred of the empire of Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Bonaparte. Outside the city walls, Prussian troops laid siege to Paris, while inside, the two boys were coping with the characters who would shape their lives: a zealot nun, a corrupt bishop, a mother so driven by her lust for money and power that she would betray her own family, a father destroyed in a tragic farce of war, another father destroyed as he tried to save his family.

   As these characters came to life, I found to my surprise that I was enjoying them even more than the story itself. And most of all, I think I enjoyed becoming a boy again, hunting rats in the catacombs beneath the city, or scheming to get even with the nun, or trying to rescue a man unjustly imprisoned, or finding some small way to strike out at the Prussian army strangling my city. I wanted to get back at the whole adult world, a world that seemed through the eyes of a young boy to have gone completely insane.

   The thrill continued as I followed boy to man, and encountered the wonderful characters who lived in the desert. Along the way there were ostrich hunts and sandstorms, night raids and the love of marvelous women. I worked alongside slaves who coaxed water from tunnels dug deep beneath the desert sands, and suffered a 600-mile journey on foot as fanatic men competed with a merciless desert to take my life. Living in such times with these people proved to be one of the most extraordinary experiences I had ever had. And to my further surprise, the Flatters expedition, which had originally been the core subject of the novel as I first envisioned it, became a much smaller part as the book matured.

   From the first, my goal was to tell a story that I hoped would entertain someone for a few hours. I hope that in some small measure I have succeeded.

   I have always read a great deal. My library is piled high with books, but I never knew anything about the metamorphosis of a book as it makes its way from mind to market. Writing this novel has given me some insight into a fascinating process, which continues to unfold. That any book gets written seems something of a miracle to me, given the distractions that any writer must face and the discipline required to fill an empty page. But somehow the miracle happens: one day there is a pile of paper, and the real work begins. With luck, you find an agent to believe in it as much as you do, and then a publisher. Then you meet with the editor, who is at once the book’s harshest critic yet its greatest champion, a person whose skills are so critical to the finished product. There is much to do: cover art, maps, jacket copy, interior art and layout, endless revisions, a sea of correspondence, copy edits, proofreading, telephone calls, title decisions, verification of the most minute details. As all of that is underway, publication schedules are planned and decisions made on how best to spread the word about one book among thousands competing for a spot on a bookseller’s shelf. After that come the printers and binders and shippers, the truckers and warehousers, and the people who stock the finished shelves.

   I watch in awe as so many scores of people work toward the ultimate goal of convincing a person in the age of television and the internet to pick up one book out of so many, to buy it and take it home or along on a journey, so that they might spend a few enjoyable hours living in another world.

   It is a remarkable thing, a book.