The Adventure Inside: Josh Weil on Storycrafting in Tanzania

Editor's Note: Josh Weil, a National Book Award "Five Under Thirty-Five" author, has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Columbia University, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Esquire, One Story, and Agni. His most recent novel is The Great Glass SeaFor Signature's That Summer series, in which authors share personal stories on the summers that shaped them, Weil looks back to his teenage days in Tanzania, surrounded by adventure but none so absorbing as the stories he begins to craft in his head. 

It would have been a heck of a summer, anyway: the year that I would turn 18, those few months separating high school and college, the fact that, for the short span between the life I’d known at home and the new one I’d soon make for myself, I’d live with my father and step-mother in a little village in the middle of Tanzania. It should have been enough. From the moment our dad picked my brother and me up in Dar Es Salaam, it was the kind of adventure that could have swept aside all else.  We walked at dusk down to a shoreline called The Thieves Coast, found ourselves staring down men who watch us with slit-eyed glares that let us know the reason for the name.  We ate ugali and grilled fish in little dives, drove out of the city in a dusty 4x4, spent the night on sketchy sheets in a truck stop hole-in-the-wall motel, rose at dawn, passed through a little-used game park gone wild with the hour, arrived after two days in the dusty village of Uyole where my father was working for the year. Village boys gathered to watch us. Girls walking with five-gallon drums balanced on their heads, paused. All around, the hills rose, the sky opened. And yet none of that swept me up the way, that summer, a different adventure would -- one contained entirely in my head.

Over that summer I wrote a novel. It was my second (I’d written a six-hundred page western my senior year of high school) but it was the first that taught me what power the act of writing would hold over me for the rest of my life; it was the first time I experienced what it would mean to be a writer.

Each day, I would wake, wander out into the back yard -- a dirt-walled patch of brittle-grass -- and hunch over my notepad, scribbling as fast as if inspired by the rabbit printed on the cover, working with a penknife-sharped pencil, filling page after page of paper so thin I nearly ripped through as I wrote. Around me, village life went on, electricity went out, dark came. I wrote by lamplight, listening to what I was sure must be the chortling of hyenas. You’d think I would have been writing something set in Africa, but I was writing a thriller that took place in Boston.

It had all sorts of action -- a newspaper magnate trying to drum up sales by sponsoring an underworld contest for the most sensational crime, a clutch of criminals competing for the prize, characters ranging from a mobster who’d grown up on the streets of the newly capitalist Russia to a seriously-psychotic serial killer who planned to crucify priests (I named him after my best friend, Dan) -- and, of course, it was total crap. But the fact that I couldn't pull myself away from it, not even for the far greater wonders of the world waiting right there around me, told me something far more valuable than the actual book: it showed me how far gone I was. This writing thing was something I’d have to do no matter what else life threw at me.

That summer, life threw a lot -- from groaning hippos to the steaming scents of village markets -- but nothing more powerful than what I saw my writing could do. Each day, my brother sat with me, listened to what I’d written, and I would see on his face as much intensity and thrill as anything in Africa had wrought. He’d talk with me about the plot and, together, we’d find as much adventure in the world of our minds as in the long walks we took afield. To see him so caught up in what I’d created, to feel the bond between us built by the moments we’d made together: whereas till then I’d known writing was something I had to do for myself, after that I knew it was something I wanted to share with others.

That was twenty years ago. This summer, a day after I turn 38, my first novel (though sixth attempt) will be published. It bears little resemblance to the one I wrote in Africa, but it’s creation wasn't so different: I wrote the bulk of it in one mad burst over a single summer, too. Sure, that was at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire instead of in a village in East Africa, but the drive was the same, the need familiar, the immersion in the fictional world something I’d long ago come to love. Just as, this summer, reading in bookstores across the country, I know I’ll recognize the joy that comes from sharing it with others, feel that same connection -- if just for an hour --with a few faces in the crowd, the way I did with my brother that summer that I first set off down this long path.

If you are moved by your own summer memories, submit your story to Paste’s That Summer writing contest.