When I was writing, “The Count of the Sahara, I encountered a problem common to writers of historical fiction. How much do you stick to the historical record, and how much lee-way do you have to make the characters feel human and interesting?I knew that wouldn’t be a problem with Count Byron de Prorok…. I’ve been obsessed with him since I first discovered him and had access to amazing research that smarter people had already done. I had him down cold.
Half of the story takes place in late 1925 during an archaeological expedition to the Sahara. This was documented in several books, as well as across the front pages of the New York Times so the facts were well known. De Prorok shared a strained relationship with an American graduate student named Alonzo Pond. I knew their relationship was rocky, but Pond always came across as professional, honest, and (maybe as a result) a little dull. As a writer I couldn’t get a handle on him.
Then I found the letter that opened it all up for me.
I was going through the expedition archives at the Logan Museum at Beloit College in Wisconsin, when I came across two letters. The first was from Pond to his boss. Basically it was a very dry report, and as usual Pond was all hepped up about some stone flint he’d found. He casually suggested it would make a great lecture tour, maybe he could make as much as a hundred dollars a lecture (big money for the 1920s). What he got back was a letter congratulating him on their find, but saying in essence, “don’t worry about the lecture tour, we’re sending you to Poland to dig in a swamp when you’re done there.” It was just another example of Pond’s bad luck.
Meanwhile, the Count was making nearly twice that much money, and his lectures were more show than hard science. It drove Pond crazy. That’s when it hit me: it was Amadeus in the Sahara.
If you remember Amadeus, the story of Wolfgang Mozart and the composer Salieri, it was a very one-sided rivalry:
• Mozart was young, Salieri was middle aged
• Mozart was brilliant, Salieri was very good, just not as naturally talented
• Mozart was undisciplined, drunk, rude and frivolous, Salieri did everything by the book
• Mozart was famous and beloved, Salieri worked in relative obscurity and it made him crazy.
That’s what was happening with Pond and de Prorok:
• De Prorok was a tall, handsome, charismatic speaker. Pond was 5’2, hairy and a decent speaker but not in Byron’s league
• De Prorok was a social butterfly, schmoozing and partying, while Pond was loyal to his employers, shy and never happier than when on a dig in the middle of nowhere
• De Prorok was a terrible scientist. He was sloppy, undisciplined, a pathological liar and had no credibility with his peers but was an amazing showman. Pond was very smart, incredibly disciplined and precise, and it made him crazy that he toiled in obscurity while the Count got rich and famous (at least for a while.)
Once I had that dynamic down, the conversations between them flowed naturally and I could make the facts tell a much more interesting tale. As a writer, if you have that one glimmer of insight, it can open the door to an entire world and make boring history a truly human story. I hope I’ve succeeded in doing everyone, especially poor Lonnie Pond, proud.
Wayne Turmel can be found at his own blog, http://wayneturmel.com