I met Petina Gappah at a Scribner lunch in New York City during the March prepub tour for her historical novel Out of Darkness, Shining Light, due out in September. It’s easy to see how she charmed Scribner publisher Nan Graham when they met at the Frankfurt Book Fair three years ago. Executive editor Kathryn Belden tells me that after that initial meeting, Graham called Gappah “vivacious, sparkly, intelligent.” Belden adds, “Nan was so impressed with her that when Eric [Simonoff, of William Morris Endeavor agency] submitted the manuscript to me, I paid close attention.”
Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer and Cambridge-educated international trade lawyer who says she has always been fascinated with African explorers and the quest for the source of the Nile. And, she adds, David Livingstone was an important figure in Zimbabwe’s history—a 19th-century British explorer, doctor, and missionary. Out of Darkness is based on the true story of the nine-month expedition to carry his body across Central Africa in 1873 so that he could be buried in England.
“There’s a lot of material,” Gappah says, “but I wanted to look at this from the point of view of Livingstone’s companions: the bearers and the cooks and the others—69 of them—who were essential to the mission to return Livingstone’s body to England. He is an iconic figure of Victorian times, the first commoner in Victorian England to be accorded the honor of a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.”
At the lunch, Gappah revealed some intriguing tidbits: “Before they dried the body out to preserve it”—Gappah calls it Livingstone jerky—“they removed the entrails and buried them, which is why we say that Livingstone’s heart remains in Africa.”
Out of Darkness is the first book of Gappah’s that Simonoff has represented. “Petina is a remarkable mixture of intelligence and warmth,” he says. “She’s been in my life for 10 years, but I’ve only been her agent for a couple of them.” He says that he recommended her to colleagues in the U.K. (at Janklow & Nesbit and WME), adding that when those agents left their agencies, Gappah said to Simonoff, “Why don’t you just be my agent?”
Gappah finished the manuscript in February 2018, and Simonoff sent it out a month later. A frenzied eight-way auction followed.
“Everyone was wonderful,” Gappah says. “I wish I could have published with all of them.” But she cites her strong connection with Graham, from that Frankfurt meeting, as her biggest motivator in choosing Scribner—plus, she loves Stephen King (whom Graham edits).
“It was a heated auction,” Belden says, “and we really wanted to win.” She notes that Scribner paid “well into six figures” for North American rights, and the contract was signed on Aug. 30, 2018.
“I like books that have a larger message relating to society but still tell their story, and Petina’s beautiful language heightened the appeal,” Belden says. “The artfulness of her prose made the book easy to fall in love with.”
The majesty of Gappah’s prose is evident from the very first paragraph of the book: “This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.... We reached Bagamoyo, that place of sorrow, whose very name means to lay to rest the burden of your heart.”
Belden says that Livingstone “opened up the continent, and while he was paternalistic and colonialism followed, Petina saw the nuances of his character.”
And just for the record, that ubiquitous story of David Stanley greeting Livingstone in Africa with “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” is likely fabricated. Gappah says that the page in Stanley's journal where he meets Livingstone is missing.
Outside Darkness, Gappah says, should have been her first book. She’s been mulling over the idea since 1999. “I had the original on floppy disc,” she adds. “Imagine. My 15-year-old son has never seen a floppy disc!”
Gappah goes on to say that this is “a work of fiction rooted in reality—I made up what I couldn’t verify.” Originally, she had 15 voices, but says she couldn’t keep track of them all and culled them down to three, the most significant being that of missionary Jacob Wainwright, whom, as Simonoff says, “you start out hating and then get attached to.”
Gappah says that she always wanted to write, but since she was the first person in her family to go to college, her father wanted her to study medicine, law, or accounting. “I like to talk and I like to argue,” Gappah says, “so I chose law.” She worked as an international trade lawyer in Geneva from 1998 to 2015, when she went to Berlin as a fellow in an artist-in-residence program.
Simonoff expects Outside Darkness to reintroduce Gappah in a big way. She has published a collection, An Elegy for Easterly, which won the U.K.’s Guardian First Book Award, and a novel, The Book of Memory, both published in the U.S. by FSG. And Scribner has contracted North American rights for her second collection, Rotten Row, which published in the U.K. in 2016.
Belden comments that “our confidence is obvious in that we are bringing her from Africa twice to promote Out of Darkness.” There is a five-city U.S. tour scheduled for September. Out of Darkness comes out in the U.K. in January 2020 with Faber & Faber, and rights have been sold in seven other territories.
As I’m writing this, Gappah is unavailable. She’s somewhere on a container ship in the Atlantic, “to get away from the noise, to switch off,” Simonoff tells me. “She’s reading, writing, deciding where she might settle—London, Paris, Berlin.”
It all sounds good to me, but even better is the last thing she said when we spoke: “Come to Zimbabwe! In September, there is an elephant count!”
Correction: An earlier version indicated that Livingstone was the first commoner to be buried at Westminster Abbey. In fact, he was the first to receive the honor of a state funeral at Westminster. An earlier version also referred to a missing page in Livingstone's journal. The page is missing from Stanley's journal.