On his website, Taona D. Chiveneko is described as “the most antisocial author in Africa.” Perhaps because of this aversion to attention and publicity, the details of Chiveneko’s life are shrouded in mystery. He is reported to be a citizen of Zimbabwe who was born either between the Zambezi and the Limpopo rivers, or along the road running from Mutare to Hwange. He is equally evasive when it comes to questions of his age.
In 2013, Chiveneko published his debut novel, The Hangman’s Replacement: Sprout of Disruption. Told through the shifting perspectives of characters whose lives have been affected by a nation’s efforts to recruit a new executioner, The Hangman’s Replacement was the recipient of a silver medal in the adult horror category at the 2014 Reader’s Favorite Awards.
The reclusive Chiveneko is currently putting the finishing touches on book two in the series, The Hangman’s Replacement: Vultureman. To learn more about Chiveneko and his writing, visit www.hangmanreplacement.com.
You’ve gone to great lengths to remain anonymous. Why?
I have chosen to remain anonymous for two reasons:
a) Sometimes anonymity is the best friend of candour. The subject matter in my stories deals with sensitive political and social issues on the African continent. In order to express myself candidly about such subject matter (in places where freedom of expression is more restrained and often hazardous), anonymity is a sanctuary.
b) Though I want to build the largest possible readership, I have never had the personal desire to be famous. My stories are their own personalities: extroverted and decidedly strange. I regard myself as the agent or publicist working for their successful exposure. I am happy to remain in the background no matter how successful my stories become.
Does writing come easy to you? If so, has it always?
Writing has always come easy to me. I once enjoyed a period of extended free time (also known as unemployment), when I could easily write for ten hours a day. I can sustain this level of productivity for months with just a day of rest each week. My problem is having too many ideas rather than too few. I fight to discipline the proliferating storylines that cascade from my imagination at a faster pace than I can write them.
But like many authors, I have responsibilities that keep me busy (also known as a day job). I have not had the opportunity to do much writing recently. However, I am working to carve out some time to regain momentum on the sequel to The Hangman’s Replacement: Sprout of Disruption. The sequel is subtitled “Vultureman.”
Who are your biggest creative influences?
As a child, I was a voracious reader of fiction. I read the Hardy Boys novels as well as dozens of books by British children’s author, Enid Blyton. As an adult I drifted towards non-fiction. Therefore, the few fiction books I did read can be characterized more as popular “stories” than “literature.”
As an adult, I have enjoyed Mario Puzo’s Godfather and The Sicilian. I have also read and enjoyed a number of John Grisham’s novels. However, my favourite novel is Dracula. This novel defined the classic horror genre. Count Dracula was a fiend to contend with. Dr. Van Helsing and his comrades were worthy adversaries.
And though I did not grow up with the Harry Potter books, I still loved them as an adult. I admire J.K. Rowling’s vivid imagination. It was the peculiarity of her creativity that helped me realize that it is okay to explore the further reaches of my vivid imagination. The Harry Potter books are my favourite series.
What made you decide to write The Hangman’s Replacement?
The idea came to me when my wife and I were vacationing in Stresa, Italy in 2011. A combination of factors came together to instigate the story. These included the beautiful surroundings, the mental relaxation of being on vacation, and the fortuitous introduction of the premise.
On our first day I read an online news article that gripped my imagination. The story was about Zimbabwe’s efforts to hire a new hangman after the last one retired in 2004 (yes, the death penalty is still carried out by hanging, though the country has not executed many people in the last decade).
The previous hangman had left the job because he claimed he was being tortured by “ngozi,” the spirit of a murdered person that returns to torment the killer and their lineage. Then it struck me: how does a government hire an executioner? What human resources officer would be tasked with collecting resumes? How would a shortlist be created? How would the interviews go? Motivated by these questions, I took out my laptop and wrote for the good part of four hours.
That evening, my wife and I sat by the window of our room on the top floor of our B&B. I read her the first fifteen pages. There was a lightning storm flashing over the islands of the nearby lake. This added to the mood of the reading. From her attentiveness, I could tell that my wife loved it. She asked some insightful questions and gave me great feedback, which I adopted.
I wrote thirty to fifty pages over that weekend. Fortunately, my wife also had exams she was studying for, so we worked side-by-side. I continued writing until the book was done about nine months later.
What was the most difficult or challenging aspects of writing The Hangman’s Replacement, and how did you overcome these challenges?
My greatest challenge was that The Hangman’s Replacement was an ambitious effort for a debut novel. There were so many characters and multiple storylines. Skillfully weaving them in a manner that kept readers’ attention was always going to be a challenge. I sent the first draft of the manuscript to a number of friends for their feedback. They were split down the middle about my approach.
Some of my friends felt that the focus of the story should have remained on Abel Muranda, the aspiring hangman who is the central character. Others liked the interweaving stories connecting multiple characters who were involved in, or affected by the recruitment effort. I decided to go with the latter format. This was the only way I could properly tell my story over subsequent books without introducing the cast of characters. I believe that the impact of seemingly disparate and superfluous information will be greater once the threads started coming together across the 7–8 book series.
In a story of political and social commentary such as The Hangman’s Replacement, what role does humor play?
Humour can play a tremendous role in the effective delivery of stories with political and social commentary. It can draw readers who are averse to “politics” by delivering the story in a relatable and easily digestible format. Second, humour offers some relief from the heavy aspects of a story and can help readers invest more in the characters. It is like the walk around the park after working at a desk all day. When you return to the desk you are more focused on your important task precisely because you took the break.
As such, humour can make a point more impactful. I believe this is the strength of popular satirical “fake news” phenomenon. Comedians like Jon Stewart take serious subject matter and deliver critiques through hyperbolic means that are accessible to all. That’s why many people follow and trust such show hosts more than the regular news channels.
Do you read reviews of your own work?
I do read reviews of my own work. When I first released The Hangman’s Replacement, the motivation was to see what readers thought, what they liked, and where they may have been confused. After 50+ reviews the general distribution of opinions stabilized. The focus changed. I had proof of concept. I knew what I would do differently going forward. I also knew what feedback to disregard as I had identified my core audience.
As a writer, I want to be responsive to readers who are predisposed to the story I want to tell, and in the voice in which I want to tell it. As I once said to someone who raised a similar question, trying to cater to every reader will only create a Franken-story that is the average of different readers’ likes and dislikes. Consequently, it will be mediocre at best. I am no longer affected by negative reviews, as I now want to focus on the core audience that loved my story, while discovering others who will similarly enjoy it.
If you could change one thing about the world or society, what would it be?
I would harness genetic engineering techniques to remove humanity’s propensity for, and tolerance of atrocity. The moment any person raised a hand to butcher or brutalize others, the adrenaline rush would cause them a splitting migraine. If they somehow managed to overcome that sensation and implemented their savage intentions, they would later suffer from the world’s worst hangover. The association of violence with alcoholic debauchery would hopefully produce a more peaceful world.
What did you have for lunch today?
What would you like to do, but simply haven’t found the time for yet?
I would love to become a full-time author. I have so many stories crowding my head. There are so many characters rioting in my skull; screaming to be released onto the written page. If only there was more time to transform my creative wards into a form that others could interact with them…