I’d like to introduce Simon J. Townley on the blog today. His new book about ancient Africa, The Fire Within, is available in paperback and ebook now just in time for Christmas giving. Simon studied literature at the University of York in England and worked as a journalist for various newspapers and press agencies. He has also run pubs, worked in construction, toiled in an Australian sheepskin tannery and sold drinks on a French beach. Learn more about him at www.simontownley.com and at Amazon.
Welcome, Simon. You’ve had a number of adventures. What did you like best about running a pub?
Free beer. No, seriously, the free beer was terrific. There was often also free food involved too.
Recently, you’ve written a series of novels set 40,000 years ago in Africa. Tell us a bit about them.
The books all come under the series title: “A Tribal Song – Tales of the Koriba.”. The Koriba is a tribe of ancient people living in east Africa, roughly in the region of Kenya, at around 43,000 BC. I deliberately chose this time and place after reading a fascinating book called ‘The Dawn of Human Culture’ by Richard G. Klein. In the book, Klein sets out his basic theory that human consciousness went through a huge change at around this time, resulting in what we now think of as fully modern humans. It’s about the time that there is a revolution in human societies with radical new technologies but also the first art, evidence of symbolic thinking and possibly the first truly complex languages. So it’s a fascinating time.
I also chose it because it seems to have parallels with our own times when so much is changing so fast all around us. One of the things that attracted me to write novels set in this time was the ability to strip away so much that is complex in our worlds and look at both human nature and societies. So, in the same way that all science-fiction is really about our own times, I’m writing prehistoric fiction to ‘say something’ about our world now. This is most obvious in the first book, ‘The Dry Lands’. In the book, the Koriba and several other tribes have been living in the same place for many generations, as long as anyone can remember. But they are the victims of climate change: the rains have failed over many years, and they have become surrounded by a desert they can’t cross. The chief of the tribe decides they have to do something, and orders the young men, the hunters and warriors of the tribe to get out there and find a way across.
The book is basically asking the question: what is the best way to deal with a problem such as climate change? Is it better to fight other ‘tribes’ for control of dwindling resources in order to protect our own tribe? Should we drive others off our land and become territorial? Or is it better to share ideas, information and technology, to help each other and co-operate? The book is an attempt to throw those questions into sharp relief.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that the hero of the book, Temfe, is all for sharing and co-operation and new ideas, while the antagonist is a war-monger who wants to kill the other tribes, protect the homeland, and stick to the old ways.
What was the hardest part of writing about such ancient characters?
Knowing how they think – which we can’t get close to. I didn’t want to create an unreadable book with characters you can’t understand, so I let most of this go, and they are characters with relatively modern outlooks and ways of thinking.
Their lives would also have been dominated by things which are interesting, certainly, but also humdrum. I didn’t want to write too many scenes where people are hunting, making flints, skinning animals. Those things happen, but always around the wider story.
It’s also hard to write about this time because you have to strip the language down. You can’t have metaphors, for example, that they could never use or understand. You can’t say, for example, “she was letting off steam,” because they didn’t have control of steam. You can’t say “a sea of troubles” because this tribe doesn’t yet know that the sea exists. You can’t say a flint blade was “razor sharp” because they didn’t have razors. At least, I imposed this limitation on myself deliberately, as an artistic choice.
I also felt, initially at least, that I should use hours and minutes, since they would have had no ability to delineate time in this way. I stuck to this in the first two books, but I’m easing up in the third. It is possible to imagine that prehistoric people could have had words for different parts of the day and different time periods, even if they would have been inevitably imprecise.
Like in my book Peyote Fire, your protagonist in In the Rattle of the Shaman’s Bones, must learn the ways of the shaman. Briefly, how does he do that?
In a variety of ways. He learns them from the shaman of the tribe, because he is taken on as an apprentice seer. When ‘something happens’ to the shaman (I’m trying to avoid spoilers) he is forced to learn them from an old woman in the tribe, mother of the shaman. He is introduced to shamanic trances and visions in the first book, through the use of shamanic ‘medicines’ and potions – or what we might now call drugs. In later books, these are dispensed with and he learns to enter shamanic vision-worlds solely through the use of the drums and rattles. Much of the information on shamanic visions came from two more fascinating books – “The Way of the Shaman” and “Cave and Cosmos” both by Michael Harner. The books are essential reading, I would say, for anyone interested in this subject. The first book in particular is not an academic treatise or description. It’s more of a ‘how to’ book, explaining what shamans do in these visions, and how to do it yourself. You can even get drum tracks produced by Michael Harner which replicate shamanic drumming.
What is it like for Temfe when he “crosses into the vision world”?
Strange. Because he is physically still lying on the floor of a cave, and could snap out of it at any moment. Everything that happens takes place in his mind. Does that mean it’s all delusion? That’s an interesting question and one that goes to the heart of something, although I’m not quite certain what. I blur this: if you’re a complete rationalist, you can see it as his imagination, and the story holds together. If you are willing to see that there is something or other going on with this whole shamanic business, then the vision-worlds contribute to the development of the story. It was a tricky business, with the second book, creating a story line that walked that tight-rope.
But to answer your question, the vision worlds that Temfe encounters are essentially the same as those is described in Michael Harner’s books. There is an underworld where the shaman can flow through rock, with strange creatures, vivid colours etc. And there is an upperworld, above our own, through which the shaman can fly, up through many different layers. There is also a ‘world tree’ which is common to many mythologies.
What do you want people to know about ancient human beings?
That they were essentially the same as us. I chose to write about the first fully modern humans. They were as intelligent as us. They didn’t have our education systems or knowledge. They couldn’t stand on the shoulders of as many giants. But they faced similar challenges, had similar emotions. And they may have been more advanced than us in some ways. There are benefits to being close to nature, for example.
Thanks for being with us today!
Thanks for inviting me and good luck with the launch of Peyote Fire. It sounds fascinating. The first two books in the Koriba series are coming out in print, by the way. The ebooks have been out for a while, but ‘The Dry Lands’ is already out in paperback. ‘In the Rattle of the Shaman’s Bones’ is coming soon.