PW: What (or who) are the "parasites" to which you refer in Desert Burial?
BL: Those parasites I see as strongman guys—they have guns, and you don't. To flesh out the book's near-future setting, I took three trends and let them all continue past the point where something has to give. Those three trends are disarmament of the world powers; instability in Africa; and thirdly, bad guys learning to use relief efforts for their own purposes. That is a problem that's getting some discussion in national security and relief communities.
PW: The book suggests a cynical take on foreign intervention in African affairs, even (or especially) humanitarian missions. Is this the case?
BL: That cynicism is part of the dramatic awfulness the book sets out to capture. I can think of three things that led me to write this particular book rather than something else. One would be my experience with foreign investment, which can be a big, dramatic free-for-all. The foreign firms will sometimes draw in their home governments, which means different agencies or ministries come to town, each with its own agenda. In certain moods, I can think that if war is just diplomacy by other means, foreign investment's just war by other means. Another inspiration for the book is more individual: an aid worker I met in a Balkan war refugee camp who showed a notable lack of clinical detachment. Now, the Author's Note is true: Lila is not that worker, but she's got the same unforgettable look in her eyes, of overwhelming responsibility. Thirdly, I was very interested by a World Bank memo that came to be known as the "Under-Polluted Countries Memo." It was undeniably true and logical, but as it came across in the press, it wound up sounding like Swift's "A Modest Proposal." The idea was, if more waste means more income, maybe the poor would be better off with it. Now, it's easy to take that idea and run with it, spinning it out into some ghastly paradox of dumping waste on people for their own good, so it naturally became a cause célèbre. If there's a feeling of cynicism in the book, it's partly the feeling that relief is a hard job.
PW: Are there alternative methods of nuclear waste disposal, other than the scenario you describe in Desert Burial?
BL: I couldn't include all the possible things you could do with nuclear waste. I don't think we're encouraged to think too hard about it. But you can dump it and isolate it in different ways, you could turn it into metal oxide and put it back into the industrial cycle as a resource. Just the tension between the different things you could do with nuclear waste produced part of the story that impels this book. Because if you make a mistake, you're basically living with it for 20,000 years, and you have to consider that with metal oxide, for example, you're injecting the waste back into industry, where you have to make cost-benefit judgments about how much it's worth to keep it safe, and that can be problematic.
PW: Your fictitious country of Mali offers a cross-section of African faiths—Muslim, Christian, tribal traditionalist—which have evidently coexisted for long periods without strife. What changed that balance?
BL: The real Mali is a pretty vigorous democracy, but the fictional Mali rides those near-future trends to dystopia. What I see underlying the premise of this book is the kind of instability that would cause migration and mix foreign elements into a country that is already 90% Muslim. You're already seeing some problems along the Muslim-Christian fault line of Africa, which runs from Nigeria through the Central African Republic and over to Sudan. That kind of problem has the potential of turning little wars into big wars. I have heard explanations of the problems that stress the role of colonialism, but I like the idea that law and order is missing, and if you took a particular country in Africa and made sure there was rule of law, transparency, control of corruption, it would become a model for the rest of the continent. Those things are emerging slowly. Mali is one example, Uganda's maybe another. But it takes time, and there's plenty of backsliding.
PW: Had you ever attempted any sort of fiction writing before Desert Burial?
BL: No. I wrote purely for bureaucratic purposes, which is pretty heartfelt writing, since you're trying to get people 5,000 or 10,000 miles away to listen to you, or you're trying to avoid being sandbagged if you're removed from the locus of office politics, and so on.