What was the first piece you ever wrote and have you had it framed and mounted yet?
Creative writing-wise I had never written any which you would consider a masterpiece that merits the treatment you’re suggesting. My academic background is in the sciences, but I have always loved to read. And I dreamt that someday I shall write a novel. That “someday” I had thought would be after I was done with ordinary life, when I retire from work.
In college I wrote a couple of short stories, which my friends thought were good. That was the extent of my creative writing experience up until I wrote the first volume of DESTA. Like I said, I was heavily into the sciences. I didn’t have time for a lot of English courses.
When did you realize you were a writer? Was this realization preceded by much personal Sturm und Drang or did it just come to you over morning coffee?
I always thought I had a writer’s streak in me, because I loved words; their sound, magic and power. I often took extra care when I wrote letters, essays for my university courses and work-related projects.
The first bona fide test came when I committed to write my nutrition/health books. I had no idea how they would turn out. They came out more than just okay. People loved them. They moved through a built-in distribution network that includes many countries outside of the United States. That experience gave me confidence. Still, synthesizing facts is different from creative writing, where you produce something out of nothing. All I had to do was give it a try. Although writing the first volume was hard –at least the first ten chapters or so of it—the experience was thrilling!
Desta…his name means “happiness” in Amharic, right? It also sounds like “destiny.” Where can we go with that one?
My father used to say that our proper names are given by God. Yes, the literal meaning of Desta is “happiness or joy”. The subtle meaning or association with “destiny” couldn’t have been more apt. Desta’s pursuit of a modern education as well as his search for King Solomon’s second Coin of Magic and Fortune, didn’t happen by either whim or coercion. On the contrary, he was in fact meant to do these things. He was destined; chosen thousands of years before he was born. So the connection between his real name and “destiny” is one of the hundreds, if not thousands, things what people call “coincidence”. Desta will tell you that there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything that happens to us happens by design.
What did you do…where were you in your life before you started on Desta? How did the idea for the character come to you?
I was working on my first novel, where this young research scientist was trying to save a woman he loved from a rare type of breast cancer. I had already written nine chapters of this book when I realized that to make the story sound and feel authentic, I myself needed the experience that would come only from actually working in a cancer research lab. So I called Stanford and talked to the head of the Cancer Biology lab. After I explained to him what I was trying to do, he said he would be happy to have me there 2-3 hours a week for however long I needed to be there. Then a couple of days later the same man called back and told me that for insurance reasons the university wouldn’t permit me to be on their premises.
Later I called UC Davis ( The University of California at Davis) and I had the same reply. Now I was stuck. I was trying to figure out the dilemma I was in when out of the blue I got an email from this guy in Australia about an online six-week short story writing class. One of the requirements of the class was that we write an 8- to 10-page narrative at the end.
Amazingly, for me, this ten-page tale turned out to be the genesis not only of the four-hundred fifty-four-page novel, “Desta and King Solomon’s Coin of Magic and Fortune”, but for the rest of the series as well.
Who has reacted most enthusiastically to your work and what is your take on it?
Just about everyone who has read the books has reacted enthusiastically. Like Harry Potter or the Book Thief, Desta is for all ages. The young people have fun finding their own stories in the Desta character—their dreams and aspirations, trials and tribulations of being a kid and dealing with the adults in their families.
The older readers enjoy being transported to their own childhood and reliving those precious years.
Beyond these indirect personal experiences, people also learn so much about the culture, land and history of Ethiopia. These experiences help to expand both their knowledge and perspective on things.
Which writers were most inspiring to you?
My favorites were those who wrote classics: Joyce, Conrad, the Bronte’s sisters, Franz Kafka, Camus, Dostoevsky, and others.
Desta seems like he is not of this world at times. How do your readers see him?
Some have referred to him as a spiritual being with angelic qualities in him, someone from another place and time who is here to do lasting and far-reaching things. They find his drive, tenacity, kindness and generosity of spirit inspiring and empowering.
The way he behaves and relates with people and to his surroundings as well as the kinds of things he does and says are not something you would expect from a boy of his age and background. He knows a lot more–and is wise and mature beyond his years.
You took the road not taken…preparing for a career in the sciences and ending up a writer of some very imaginative fiction. Isn’t that a lot like Desta? I mean when you shift your direction in life 180 degrees it’s got to do something deep and significant to you and to your life. Got any thoughts on this?
You pursue your true calling. Sometimes you don’t know what that is until later in life or you knew it from early on but opted to pursue a career that you thought would be more rewarding financially or whatever your other reasons maybe. Like I had mentioned before, I unequivocally now know that writing as a career was my destiny. This discovery is indeed deep and significant. I’m a lot happier and enjoy my work immensely.
Yes, there is a parallel between Desta and me in our choices. He knew his true calling at a very young age. I realized or rather acknowledged mine later in life. We both were transformed by our choices—he from a life in the country as a shepherd to a modern school student who is also on a grand quest to find a 3,000-year-old missing magical coin—and me from a student of facts and theories to a storyteller.
We at booksandmocha.com thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Mr. Ambau!
By Tadias Staff
Published: Wednesday, September 1, 2010
New York (TADIAS) – After graduating from Yale and working at a cancer research lab at Stanford and as a chemist at SRI and Raychem, Getty Ambau went to graduate school to receive a master’s degree in business. He went on to develop his own venture in the health and nutrition industry. Although he formally started writing his first book of fiction, Desta, three years ago, he worked on a different novel idea prior to that for many years. A course in short story writing inspired him to complete and get Desta published.
Below is our recent conversation with the author.
Tadias: You have written a couple books and several articles on health and nutrition. Is Desta your foray into novel writing?
Yes, I have written books and articles on health because my academic background was partly in the sciences, but I have always felt my inner calling was in writing novels. Yes, I guess, you can say Desta is my entry into the novel-writing profession because I really do enjoy writing.
Tadias: Please tell us a bit more about the book. What prompted you to write it?
The book is about a seven-year-old boy named Desta who dreams of climbing one of the mountains that circle his home to touch the sky and run his fingers through the clouds and his middle-aged father, Abraham, who yearns to find his long lost father and a missing, ancient family gold coin. But this story is also about love, relationships, greed and jealousy and losses and redemption. There is magical aspect to the setting and mystery and adventure to the story.
A few years ago, I took a short story-writing class online. Although what I wrote for this class had little connection to the novel, it served as an impetus to it in that somehow this opportunity set me on the track to engage in what I had long wanted to do.
Tadias: You paint an incredible imagery of Ethiopia’s magical landscape. Is that drawn from your childhood recollection?
Yes, much of the vivid description you find in the novel comes from what I saw and observed as a boy. The Ethiopian landscape has a soul or spirit within it which pulls and holds you every time you gaze at it. I remember whenever I had an opportunity to be on a mountaintop, I would perch on a rock and stare to the distant hazy, terrain for a long time, wondering who lived in there or how far out the earth extended.
Tadias: Where in Ethiopia were you born?
I was born in north western Ethiopia, in Gojjam Kilil. I first left Ethiopia in the seventies to come and study for one year in high school in United States. I went back home at the end of the year, but returned to the states a year later to go to college.
Tadias: What’s your most vivid memory of growing up there?
Geographically, the beautiful, jagged mountains that undulate like ocean waves to the distant horizons and the carpet of wild flowers that adorned them in the spring season; culturally, the holiday festivals—the colorful clothes people wore, their glees and smiles at these events; and spiritually, the doggedly religious, and even fatalistic, community of people I grew up in.
Tadias: When was the last time you visited the country?
The last time I visited Ethiopia was in 2005. I stayed barely a week and didn’t get to see much outside Addis. Before that in 2003, I went with my son and had stayed for 3 weeks and had a wonderful time. We travelled east to Dire Dawa and Harar, south to Awassa and Araba Minch and north-west to Bahar Dar and other towns. I had never been in the southern part of Ethiopia before and we enormously enjoyed driving though the Rift Valley, seeing the acacia covered, park-like places, past grazing cattle and clusters of villages. Awassa was serene and relaxing but the scenery outside of Arba Minch was amazing and enchanting.
Tadias: Are any of the characters in your novel based on people you knew in Ethiopia? Or are they just a creation of your imagination?
Most writers borrow from their life experiences and I certainly won’t be the exception. The setting is a real place but the characters and the story, as told, are fiction.
Tadias: The book is also full of spiritual symbolisms and superstitions. For example, in the first chapter, you highlight the folk belief that an owl sound foretells death. In one scene, the family is sitting around the house waiting for the return of their missing father. “It was at that moment, the too-familiar but unexpected call of an owl from the sycamore sent shivers down the mother’s spine,” you write. “But there is nobody sick in the family the mother said to herself, knowing that the doomsayer usually makes that awful call when someone is about to die.” How have these cultural beliefs changed or influenced you or your writing?
One of the reasons I had wanted to write the novel was to show or share some of these wonderful cultural nuances or “superstitions”, as you call them, with people who may have little familiarity with Ethiopia. I think instinctually, animals know a lot more than we humans do. For example, there are many documented cases that show dogs behaving in a certain way right before an earthquake. In Ethiopian folklore, at least the part I come from, owls are perceived to have abilities to predict or announce the incidence of death. As a kid, at night I used to listen to an owl sometimes hooting in a plaintive, human-like tone. The adults often interpreted this sound as a sign that someone was about to die in the area. So I used that personal observation to indicate those cultural beliefs in the passage you excerpted from Desta. Throughout the book, I enjoyed including these tidbits to show some of our cultural rituals or beliefs.
Tadias: Of course, the father’s fortune is connected to the mystery of the lost coin from the family’s ancient treasure-box. What does the coin represent?
Without giving away too much (in the interest of my future readers), the 2,800-year old Solomonic coin contains a great amount of life-enhancing information. In Desta’s family, it also represents spiritual and financial wealth as well as provide magical power to the individual who possesses it.
Tadias: In what ways have your professional background in natural and social sciences informed your writing?
I am a very visual person. This quality of mine was probably enhanced by the many science courses I took because I often saw atoms, molecules and cells in my mind instead of just names on paper. In writing, I have to see everything in my head first before I can sit down to write it. So I guess, I can give credit to my science background including my studies in economics in helping my ability to see objects in my head instead of just with my eyes.
Tadias: The book cover is very intriguing and we read that you were actively involved in designing it. Can you tell our readers a little bit about it?
To start with, I had wanted the main character, Desta, to be on it. I also wanted the landscape and the sunset, which are important to the story to be an integral part of the scene. Although I am not an artist, I’ve good conceptual skills and can sketch or draw what I want. Even though the landscape and the sunset were very easy to put together, asking or instructing someone to draw the boy the way I had perceived him to be was a completely different matter. After many different attempts and going through so many artists, I found Phil Howe of Phil Howe Studios, who could skillfully and realistically compose and interpret the ideas I gave him. I am happy with the way it eventually came out.
Tadias: What do you hope that American readers will discover about Ethiopia while reading your novel?
This epic novel encompasses so many aspects of human life. There are births, weddings, funerals, and the people in the story face problems, have family feuds, hardships as well as dreams. These are universal events or issues found in all societies but how the Ethiopians deal with them is unique, dictated by their culture and tradition and this, I think, will be very interesting for Americans as well as to readers from other countries.
Tadias: How has the book been received by the Ethiopian community?
The Ethiopian community has been wonderful. Not only they want this book for themselves and their children but also as a gift to their American friends. They have been greatly supportive and encouraging and I appreciate them very much.
Tadias: Where can people buy it?
In few weeks it will be available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, but in the meantime, people can buy the book at: www.gettyambau.com, as well as from bookstores.
Tadias: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
If I said anything more, I would be giving away a lot of the magic and mystery in the novel. I would rather let people read the book and discover them for themselves. Thank you for the opportunity you have given to share Desta’s story.
Tadias: Thank you Getty and good luck.
– See more at: http://www.tadias.com/index.php?s=getty+ambau#sthash.nAV1lCSj.dpuf