Editor & Author: Sarah Crichton and Ishmael Beah

Sarah Crichton

I published Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier in 2007. Ishmael was born in Sierra Leone, and A Long Way Gone tells the story of how he was swept up in a civil war when he was only twelve years old. Editing and publishing Ishmael has been one of the joys of my time at FSG, and his book remains a perennial favorite here and on the bestseller lists. A few weeks ago, Ishmael and I sat down to brunch near his home in Brooklyn, where he’s working on a new novel.

-Sarah Crichton, Publisher of Sarah Crichton Books

Crichton: So, Ishmael, it’s been a very hectic time for you since A Long Way Gone was published three years ago, but I gather you’re finally back writing again.

Ishmael Beah: Yes, for the first two years after the book came out, it was constant movement. I spent almost no time at all in New York. I was wondering why I had an apartment because I only came to it for one or two days, and then I was gone. I was talking to students at universities around the United States, traveling and speaking as a UNICEF ambassador and as an advocate for children affected by war and for the Network of Young People Affected by War, of which I am a founding member. I have also spoken on behalf of the Human Rights Watch children’s rights advisory committee, the UN office for Children and Armed Conflict . . . all with the aim of creating the political will needed to strengthen mechanisms and support to end the use of children in war and provide assistance to those children and youth affected by war.

Crichton: And the book was published in thirty-three territories, thirty-one languages—everything from Estonian to Korean, Hebrew to Hungarian—so I imagine you were busy visiting your foreign publishers, too.

Beah: Yes, I’ve traveled so much, I’ve almost lost count of how many days I’ve been gone, or all the places I’ve been. But I do know that I have hundreds of thousands of miles in frequent-flier programs.

Crichton:You’ll never have to buy a ticket again.

Beah: It’s true. So I have flown more than I thought I ever would in my life. And because of the constant movement I was unable to sit and write. But now I’m beginning to slow down. Now I’m trying to sit down more and carve out the time to write.

Crichton: That’s exciting for an editor and publisher to hear. Can I ask what you’re working on?

Beah: I can talk about it—but not in detail because it’s not really set in the way I want it yet. What I can say is that it’s fiction, and it’s mostly about post-conflict Sierra Leone. It’s about what has been happening there in the years since the media stopped paying attention to my country. When there’s conflict in a country, everyone gets interested in the place, but when the conflict ends, the media tends to feel there’s no longer a story to be told. But these times are really the most important times, because what happens during this post-conflict period can determine if the country goes back into conflict or not.

In the case of Sierra Leone, during the war a lot of things were lost. The traditional ways of living were tested, and in some cases failed. A lot of people no longer know how to carry on their lives anymore. The country’s very strange, based on what I saw as a child growing up there. Many people had become accustomed to a sheltered way of thinking about their lives, and now they have to change that. So Sierra Leone is now trying to find its identity. And no one knows exactly what that is.

I’m writing about these kinds of things, to shed light on what’s going on there.

Crichton: When did the conflicts stop in Sierra Leone?

Beah: The conflicts officially ended in 2002. So that’s many years ago. But of course since then problems have flared up here and there; and there are those who feel as if the conflict hasn’t ended because some of the political corruption that led to the conflict is still present. But the majority of the people are happy there’s no longer a war, even if things are difficult in a lot of ways. The country is definitely coming up.

Crichton: You’ve been back a lot?

Beah: Yes, I’ve been back many, many times. I actually spent last winter, the U.S. winter, there. (You know, I try to escape the winter when I can!) So I’ve been there quite a lot over the last few years.

These days, Sierra Leone is an interesting combination of Sierra Leoneans, expatriates, and foreigners. There’s a young woman there who used to live in Los Angeles and is in Freetown now, and who’s started a literary evening where people get together and read poetry and short stories, and musicians play, like an open mike. So last February, when I flew to Sierra Leone, I decided to surprise her and come to her evening and read something. It was really strange because it was the first time I had done a reading in Sierra Leone, and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. When I walked on the stage, everyone stood up and clapped (this is a room full of people). And I was really shocked; I didn’t think Sierra Leoneans knew my writing as much as it turns out they do. I read a poem called “Signals on Lion Mountain“—Sierra Leone means Lion Mountain. It is a poem that I had written before A Long Way Gone, and it is a really a succinct version of the book.

Funnily enough, I was just contacted two days ago because they’re trying to put together a program to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Sierra Leone’s independence, or something like that. They’re trying to add a literature component to the celebration and I just got a letter, saying, Hey, you are the top literary man from Sierra Leone [laughs]. I wanted to say, Hey, I’ve only written one book—it’s going to take a long time for me to write enough to become the top literary man!

Crichton: You’ve written fiction before, I know. And when you were an undergraduate at Oberlin College, you studied creative writing with a terrific novelist, Dan Chaon. I’m taking his novel with me on vacation.

Beah: His newest one? Await Your Reply?

Crichton: Yes. I started it and the first two pages scared the wits out of me; just a wild opener.

Beah: Stay with it. You’re going to like it.

Yes, I have written fiction before. Short. Twenty or forty pages. For me, it’s not a new territory. And although I’m writing fiction, I’m also writing about things that are real. These are events that are happening, but for the safety of the people I’m writing about, and for security issues, it seems best to fictionalize it. Whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction, I always write about things I feel deeply passionate about because that’s the only way I can really do it well. If I write about something that I’m not deeply engaged in, it just doesn’t work.

Recently I was giving a talk, and someone asked if I would ever write a romance novel. It was a funny question. But then I thought, well, okay, maybe. I come from a different culture and it could work to my advantage or disadvantage. What I consider romantic may not necessarily be what other people consider romantic. I’ve lived in this culture long enough to test some of the hypotheses of what romance is to me on a few people, and it hasn’t worked out quite that well [laughs].

For example, in the context of Sierra Leone, romance could mean a woman cooking for a man and sending a dish to the man’s house as a sign of showing that she cares and that she loves the man. Whereas in the West if you ask some women to cook for you, they may think otherwise—they may think you see them as belonging to the kitchen and that sort of thing.

Crichton: I know people often ask if you would ever write a sequel to A Long Way Gone, picking up where you left off. Have you considered writing about what happened when you got to the United States?

Beah: Yes. A lot of people have been, well, not upset but kind of disappointed that the book ended the way it did. They wanted more of an ending. They wanted me to tell them the rest of my story. And I’m interested in doing that; I can see that it could be important to tell people what it’s like for a young man from an African country to come to this country, to experience a culture that is so foreign to him.

But writing a memoir is emotionally exhausting. I feel like I’ve needed a little break, you know? I actually already have pieces of it written—bits, here and there. As I’ve traveled for A Long Way Gone, I’ve been collecting memories that didn’t make it into the book, especially about what it was like arriving here. Yes, I think I’ll definitely write it at some point. I think it’s important to paint a picture of what my view of American culture was when I arrived.

Crichton: Here we are, having brunch on a summer Sunday in Brooklyn, and your book is back on the bestseller list! I must say, I find it tremendously moving how the book keeps finding a larger and larger audience. So many high-school and college students read it.

Beah: Yes, more and more schools keep assigning it, and I keep meeting teachers who say, “This is the first time this kid has ever finished reading a book.” It is beyond my own comprehension. The book has a life of its own.

And it’s not just students who come to talk to me about it. I’ve had many people, so many, come up to me who experienced what I experienced—they were in similar situations, or lost their families, or were child soldiers in different parts of the world. I have hundreds of letters from people in prison, who see themselves in the book. I get letters from veterans, recent veterans back from Iraq. People come up to me and say, “When I read this book I understood my husband, or my cousin, or my brother who was fighting in Iraq more now than they would ever be able to tell me. Thank you for that.” That was never my intention, but there you have it.

It’s amazing. I encounter all of these things on my travels.

Not too long ago, I was on a plane to Aspen. A woman was sitting next to me, and I could tell that she had recognized me and was thinking about saying something to me. And finally she said, “You are Ishmael Beah, and I don’t mean to disturb you, but I just have to tell you something.” She told me she and her husband had read the book, and they had been so moved by it, that they adopted a boy from Sierra Leone.

As I said, the book has a life of its own.

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  • Lyn

    Thanks for the update on Ishmael Beah. My book group had read his book shortly after it was published. We met last week and were again talking about him, wondering where he was, what he was doing, how he was doing. I’m delighted to hear he’s writing another book and look forward to it’s publication.

  • I really enjoyed the book and ca not wait for the other one to come out, i’m staying tuned!

  • Brant

    I am glad to hear that Ishmael is writing another book. I will continue to follow him, and hope to hear more for my project on Child Soldiers.

  • liz

    Thank you for the update. I am glad that Ishmael is doing well, writing again, and possibly sharing more of his life with us.

  • Bassey

    I was one of the early readers of the book. As a fellow West African with Beah, I understand a lot of the emotions as expressed in his work. I would like to say that as traumatic as his experience has been, it is a blessing to the cause he represents that he emerged intact and is able to serve as an ambassador in that regard. It is good to hear a sequel to his book is in the works.

  • Sophia

    Always happy to hear from Ishmael. Continue to be the voice for everyone who can’t be heard. I will always support you.

  • Shirley

    your book A Long Way Gone has stayed in my mind and heart ever since I read it when it first came out. It impressed me greatly and I marveled that you were able to survive and were able to tell the heartbreaking story of child solders..
    I am so glad you are writing another book to help your story reach more people and keep this cause alive..

  • This book inspired me so much that I have no words…… It is a dream of mine to someday meet Ishmael Beah in person and share with him just how much his story has instilled in me faith, hope, understanding, compassion and love. I think he is an incredible human being and I look forward to reading more books written by him.

    • Camilla smith

      I was able to meet Ishmael beach and have a conversation with him. It was the greatest honor of my life. I cannot say how much I admire him. There is such an aura of dignity, and yet sadness about him, and kindness and gentleness. I look forward to reading more from him.

  • Ishmael Beah you are a Soul Jah of Compassion!

  • Gayle Garber

    This weekend I picked up Ismael’s book at a yardsale. I started it last night… I have 20 pages left.( I am at work-waiting for lunch)… While reading this book I could not imagine the horror and the trauma that these children have endured. I was thinking this book should be mandatory reading in all schools. We read the papers and see the soundbites on the news. but do not grasp or comprehend what is really happening. Ishmael’s book humanizes the children for what they are… children. Lookinig at his photo you see his good nature. I suspect that made a huge difference on how it helped him survive. Thank God for the people that assisted in his recovery and the people that continue to help others. I am sure has been a long ordeal! It is wonderful he is giving back to help those who are still embattled in the turmoils that steal lives.

    I also await his newest novel.

    Many kind regards,

  • I am African born in Mississippi, there in the south of the U.S.. Currently i am in Ghana attending the university here. Thank you so much for the work and for the blessing that you are to all of us. AFricans and others of the world by sharing your soul with us all to give us greater understanding into ourselves and each other. where we are in our beauty and our lack of accountability to one another.
    continued blessings,

  • Julia Watts

    I read A Long Way Gone when it first came out…as I read it (1/2 of it in a few hours) I had to put it down for a few days because of the way it affected me! I couldn’t sleep…it’s all I thought about! When I finished it (the other 1/2 in a few hours) I had to tell everyone about it! I thought it should be mandatory reading in schools! I bought the book for my daughter (who at the time was a sophmore at the University of Wisconsin Madison) & told her she just HAD to read this book! It wasn’t to long after that, that she called to tell me that Ishmeal Beah was going to speak at the University on Dec.8, 2008! I was SO excited at the possibility of seeing him & maybe meeting him! The day came for me to leave for Madison & there was a terrible blizzard…I was devastated (I was 2 hours away from Madison in Stevens Point)! My daugher went & texted me minute by minute about the evening! She did get her picture w/Ishmael…which she was thrilled about but I was sad that I missed such a great opportunity…if & when he goes on the road again to speak it would mean a lot to me to get his itinerary for any stops in Wisconsin, I would love to have him autograph my book! Sincerely…

  • linda

    I just finished listening to “A long way gone.” It is extraordinary. I hope it helps bring peace to our war-torn world someday and help save our children from such horrific experiences. I, too, would be interested in knowing about how you found your way to the US and your life here thereafter.

  • Jeanette Miles

    Thank you for publishing Ishmael Beah’s book, and I’m glad that he is writing fiction now. I’m a teacher in South Carolina, and I’ve introduced high school students to his work since the book’s first year. I’m showing students video clips of Ishmael talking about why he wrote his book because I know they will be inspired to write about their experiences, too. Maybe they will see that there’s life after gangs and violence here.

    I hope Ishmael continues to write for a long time.

  • Lily

    It seems Ishmael has reached into the hearts of many mothers and I am sure all of them would be proud to call him “Son.”

    As for the way he chose to end, A Long Way Gone-well-it is HIS story and I believe he told it very well.

    Of course, I am looking forward to hearing about his “second life.”

  • Jessica T.

    I teach developmental writing at a community college. My students are not mature readers, but love to learn new things and talk about important issue. I am using Ishmael’s book this semester for the first time. I feel that it is at non-challenging reading level, but of high interest. I look forward to the students’ responses to Ishamel’s account of a traumatic time in his life and a nation’s history.

  • Lori S.

    Mother of 4 boys…born and raised in the midwest of the USA…I had NO idea!! My simple life has been so profoundly touched by Ishmael’s story. It is an incredible history lesson, geography lesson, and best of all life lesson. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    I cherish the freedom we have here in the US. It is fascinating how freedom was so quickly stripped from Ishmael in Seirra Leone. May God continue to bless us with freedom and protect our great country…and let us never take anything for granted.

  • Paula Powell

    I returned from Africa 8 months ago after living and working along-side people for 4 years. I lived in Johannesburg but traveled and worked alongside people in the 10 Southern African countries.

    Ishmael, you put to words your story of children and people I met living through and surviving war torn countries. I have photographs of people torchered and murdered in Zimbabwe and the wars go on. Please continue to tell your story so that your strength may give hope to others.

    I’m back now in the US and am still having a hard transition, thinking about how much we have and what more we could do to help others live. God bless you for your work

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  • Steven Andrus

    I finished reading “A Long Way Gone” a few days ago. I can’t get it out of my head. I lived in West Africa and am always interested in African books. This is by far the most impacting book I’ve ever read. I’ve told several friends this is a must read. I look forward to “part two” of Beah’s story.

  • jeann e

    This book is my bookclub reading for November 2011. I just finished it and feel like I want to know more about Ishmael, from when he arrived to the US till know and all his thoughts that come with that adventure. He seems to be doing great now and i’m glad for that. Here in America we can only imagine what it would be like to be recruited at age 12 into something so horrible! thank god for the wonderful people who saw the real Ishmael and helped to safety!! thanks for the read Ishmael…continue your success and we look forward to reading your next book!

  • J

    After just finished reading this book, I’m curious as to what happened to his brother Junior, and his aunt and cousins, who later adopted him? Was Junior ever found? Did his extended family survive the Freetown killings? So happy to see Ishmael was rehabilitated and is prospering after the unspeakable tragedy he went through.

  • EyeontheGuy

    I was so surprised that the book ended the way it did that I thought several pages must have disappeared from the end of my copy! What I want to know is: Did Ishmael really leave for NYC from Conakry or did he have to go somewhere else? How did he get a plane ticket? How long did he have to stay there until he could leave? Where did he stay? And what happened to Mohamed? Did Mohamed feel like Ishmael was deserting them? Are Mohamed and Ishmael’s relatives still in Sierra Leone?

    • Donna Centz

      Yes I felt the same way. Just finished the book. Going to buy his next book.