From Killing Fields to the Drilling Fields: Born in war-torn Africa, Alexandra Fuller found her voice in Wyoming

JACKSON — Alexandra Fuller grew up an ocean away from this ski town, in war-torn Central Africa where she learned as a young girl how to load an Uzi, look out for venomous snakes in the ‘loo,’ and fall asleep to the sound of baboons. But it was here in this wealthy Wyoming tourist town, where her American husband convinced her to move, that she found her writing voice and went on to pen four bestselling books.

I meet with the 43-year-old author in her Jackson condominium, and she pours me a cup of red bush tea.

“It’s the best hangover cure,” she says, passing me the ruby-red drink, called rooibos by Africans. “Just add a teaspoon of honey.”

We don’t have hangovers, but the 43-year-old author of four best-selling books knows her way around one. The Wyoming transplant was raised in Central Africa by expat Brits, who drank with lunch, dinner, and sometimes breakfast. This soggy past helped inspire the title for her most recent book, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (Penguin, 2011).

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree book cover

Like all of Fuller’s books, Cocktail Hour is non-fiction. It tells the story of her mother, the flamboyant, alcoholic Nicola Fuller, who is “possessed” by Africa and prone to “funny moods, depressions, mental wobbliness.”

Fuller has built a career on telling the story of people’s lives in poetic and honest prose. After years of fumbling at fiction, she found her voice when she wrote the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Random House, 2001), which relays her story of growing up in Africa during a civil war with parents who had more passion than commonsense. Her follow-up books plumb the lives of a haunted Rhodesian war vet, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier (Penguin, 2004) and a Wyoming roughneck who falls to his death at age 25 from an oil rig, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant (Penguin, 2008).

Despite delicate good looks that could make her look fragile, Fuller does not shy away from gritty topics.

“That’s an addiction for sure,” says Fuller. “When you’re not comfortable, you are unbelievably present. I hear that mountain climbers feel that. I tried mountain-climbing once, and it was uncomfortable and scary and I was way out of my comfort zone. And yet you couldn’t think about, ‘Well god, I’m bored.’”

Baboon spiders and Uzis

Alexandra Fuller and her sister

Much of Fuller’s life has been uncomfortable. As a young girl, she braved scorpions and baboon spiders on her family’s hardscrabble farms. She slept with an FN semi-automatic machine gun under her bed during the civil war in Rhodesia (later named Zimbabwe). Three of her four siblings died in birth or childhood, including a sister Olivia who drowned in a scum-filled pond steps away from where Alexandra was playing. The family moved from one failed farm to the next through Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia.

By comparison, Fuller’s life in Jackson Hole is easy and extravagant.

“Look at this place,” she says, thrusting her arms to indicate the small first-floor of her condominium. There’s a modest living room that opens to a dining room, big enough to fit a table, and a galley-style kitchen. “It’s enormous! Fifty people should live here.”

The condo, painted a vivid red, is a change for Fuller, who is in the middle of a divorce from her husband Charlie Ross, a realtor for Sotheby’s. The couple had lived in neighboring Wilson in a showcase home fit for a Sotheby’s catalogue.

“I’m interested in reducing my footprint,” says Fuller.

The couple has three children: Sarah Ross, 18, Fuller Ross 15, and Cecily Ross, 6.

Fuller’s burning passion: world problems. In her colorful accent (a mix of upright British, lilting African patois, and flattened-out American), she grows fiery talking about damage she saw on the Pinedale Anticline by oil and gas drilling during her research for The Legend of Colton H. Bryant and for magazine articles for The New Yorker and National Geographic.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant cover

“[Industry spokespeople] tell us, ‘It’s all right,’” says Fuller. “’We can put this all back together.’ There’s no way you can put this all back together.” Her voice rises. “That is an out and out LIE. How can you bald-faced, honestly stand there and tell me that this is sustainable development? It’s not. This is gone. This is GONE.”

Fuller has even crossed the line, which many journalists won’t, when she joined protestors waving anti-drilling placards on the Jonah field, just south of the Pinedale Anticline in Sublette County. She also traveled to Cheyenne to testify before Wyoming state legislators about the need for better workplace safety. (The state has one of the worst workplace fatality records in the nation). Colton Bryant died after falling from an oil-rig platform that lacked safety railings. Fuller also contributed op-eds (Feb. 5, 2008, and Feb. 8, 2008) to this publication on the topic.

“I’m not sure [testifying] was a great use of my time,” Fuller says now. “With the work that I do, I’m not prepared to compromise. I’m not interested in compromise.”

She adds: “I think doing what a writer is supposed to be doing, which is bearing witness and writing about it, is the better way to go.”

‘Mum’ tossed out the math

Fuller was groomed from a young age to write. She couldn’t attend school in 1970s in Rhodesia because of the ongoing war. Landmines lay in wait. Children were killed. So her mother sent away for correspondence lessons.

“Mum was just so bored with the mathematics package,” Fuller says. “She threw that out. I never learned how to count. But we spent hours on the storytelling lessons.”

In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller writes:

In the cool evenings, Mum sat with tea on her lap, eyes half closed, ‘Story of the Week,’ she would demand. And I would tell her, ‘This week I rode through the river on my horse with one eye.’

‘Hm,’ Mum would smile. ‘Splashed is better than rode, don’t you think?’”

“It wasn’t like I even had a choice,” to be a writer, says Fuller.

Toward the end of the war, Fuller’s parents sent her to a Rhodesian boarding school. While there, the black rebels won the civil war. Overnight, Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe and black leaders took office. At 11-years-old, Fuller had to face the full force of her family’s racism. Her father had taken up arms with white soldiers. Her family had chanted white Colonial songs, called blacks derogatory names, and believed Rhodesia was better off under white rule. In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she describes her discomfort when black students pour into her white boarding school. Spotting a well-dressed black boy wiping his mouth with a linen napkin, she writes, “I turn to my neighbor and hiss, ‘I hope I don’t get that napkin when it comes back from the laundry.’”

Alexander Fuller at Chirundu Market

Today, Fuller, who has shed her racist past, describes the confusion: “When we were in the war, I knew there was the enemy and there was us, and I didn’t really know what I believed.”

Fuller left Africa to study English literature at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. It was on a visit home to Zambia when Fuller met Charlie Ross, an American river guide leading whitewater trips on the Zambezi River.

On their first date, an elephant charged them, crocodiles nearly capsized their canoe, a snake slithered out of the brush, and lions roared near their campsite.  They married 11 months later.

The couple moved to Jackson Hole, which Ross knew from childhood summers, after living in Zambia for several years and giving birth there to their daughter Sarah.

“I remember feeling heart-broken,” says Fuller. “I had thought we would live in Africa forever. Africa? You have to really love it love it love it. Charlie loved it, but he wasn’t prepared to die for it. That’s kind of how much you have to love it.”

In Jackson, Fuller gave birth to their son Fuller. Ross continued river guiding and learned the ropes of real estate. Fuller took part-time jobs in a restaurant (“the world’s worst waitress”), with a conservation group, and as a river guide.

She struggled to adjust. “I missed Africa — uhh,” she sighs, “with a physical ache.”

Gradually, she learned to love the Tetons, taking up cross-country skiing (not downhill, which she can’t fathom, “destroying a mountain so you can slide down on two pieces of wood?”) and riding a new Arabian horse named Sunday.

“My love for Wyoming has grown the longer I’ve been here. It wasn’t love at first sight, which you think it would be given how gorgeous it is.”

One million words

She also wrote. And wrote. Between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. before the kids awoke and during their “brutal, forced” naps in the afternoon. She wrote eight or nine novels in about six years. She sold none.

“My agent finally fired me,” she says. “He said ‘You can write, but I don’t think you have a story to tell.’”

“I was getting close,” to giving up, she says. “You get to the post office and it’s your billionth rejection. All that feeling when you open those envelopes. Oh god.”

Fuller’s husband gave her prescient advice before going on a trip to climb Mexican volcanoes — “being preferable to living with a suicidal wife,” jokes Fuller. He left her a note to open if he died.

“He got to the bottom of the driveway, and I ripped it open,” says Fuller. “Such a boring letter about the mortgage, et cetera, but at the bottom he said, ‘You need to tell the truth,’ in your writing.”

Alexandra Fuller

She wrote her memoir in a flurry. “I thought it was never going to get published, so I thought, ‘Screw it.’ I just wrote.”

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was scooped up by Ann Godoff, a top editor at Random House (now with Penguin), who has worked with Caleb Carr (The Alienist) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth).

“I think you have to write about a million words to clean out the pipes,” Fuller says now. “I think we are afraid of our own voices and very self-censoring, and we write as if the book is going to publish and be read by people. Once we realize we’re never going to get published and we just write; that’s our voice.”

Fuller was surprised by her memoir’s success. The New York Times chose it as a “Notable Book.” The Los Angeles Times called Fuller “one of the ten best writers of the last decade.”

“People kept telling me what a big deal it was. I thought, ‘Is that what I’m supposed to be feeling?’ I’m a Zambian farm girl!”

The success, however, didn’t make writing easier.

Fuller threw out several manuscripts before landing on Scribbling the Cat, a harrowing account of tagging along with a born-again white Rhodesian war vet, who retraces his bloody trail through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Before The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, she wrote an entire book about the oil patch from the perspective of a multi-generation Pinedale cowboy. Her editor told her it was “the biggest bunch of rubbish.” She finally decided on Bryant’s story after clipping obituaries about oil workers and reading a 2007 article by Ray Ring in High Country News on the inordinate number of deaths in the industry. Bryant was one of the roughnecks featured. Still, she didn’t get the book right until she left out herself as a narrator-journalist.

“I’ve never written a book that I’ve just sat down and gone, ‘Oh this is the book I’m going to work on, this will come easy,’” says Fuller. “It’s been, ‘Oh I’m going to do this project, I’m definitely writing this book,’ and then realizing, ‘No, this is not the book the universe has put in front of you to write. Look over there.’”

When she gets it right, her prose can stop readers mid-page. “The little Mazda’s headlights picked up wave after wave of sagebrush as far as the imagination could stretch, the swell of blue-green replenishing itself, always more where the last mile came from,” she writes about Wyoming’s vast plains in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant.

Writer Terry Tempest Williams, the author of Refuge and a Wilson resident, says of her good friend “Bo” (Fuller was called “Bobo” as a child, and good friends call her “Bo.”): “Why do I love Alexandra Fuller on the page and in the world? Because she is fearless. Because she has a native intelligence honed from red dirt and war and the dangerous truths that come from both. …Because she does not lie. Because she changes my life each time we talk over a cup of tea.”

Not a ‘cupcake mom’

Fuller says she is not working on a new book yet. She just finished an article on the Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for National Geographic, and she’s now jet-setting to promote the paperback edition of Cocktail Hour. She’s in Europe now and will travel next to South Africa, where her books sell well. The U.S. paperback version comes out in June.

Her days are busy with her children — though she insists she is not a “cupcake mom.”

Alexandra Fuller

Every day, she squeezes in 25 minutes of silent meditation and a long walk.

“What is sacrosanct is I’ve got to get out every day for a couple of hours for a walk. I get a lot of my meditating done then.”

While she doesn’t know her next book topic, it probably won’t be “comfortable.”

She craves – like her mountain-climbing and backcountry skiing neighbors do – being in that edge-of-discomfort place where “the internal chatter is shut off.”

“I feel that way about being on an assignment. Your internal chatter gets soothed and quiet, and you’re just thinking, ‘Life is so vibrant. Life is so vibrant.’”

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Previously in the WyoFile Writer’s Series: Capturing The Cowboy Heart: Cheyenne writer tests romance market, finds her niche

Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.

Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband and two children. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor...

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  1. Kudos to Fuller for recognizing Ring’s tale about Colton Bryant, that it could be fleshed out from an impressive magazine article into an impressive book.

  2. We can only hope Bo Fuller chooses to stay in Wyoming… women authors who gain their deserved reputations writing about Wyoming from Wyoming, have shown a sad tendency to leave Wyoming … Gretel Ehrlich , Annie Proulx, Carol Bell to name a few of the more recent.

    Our landscape here is somewhat intellectually and culturally depraved. Wyoming needs the illumination provided by astute authors. Especially those of the nonfiction genre.

  3. Alexandra Fuller is too modest about the change she encouraged upon Wyoming decision-makers when she says “I’m not sure [testifying] was a great use of my time”. Her testimony (to the legislature) and her book, ‘The Legend of Colton H. Bryant’, helped result in seven new full-time workplace safety inspectors ( Admittedly an incremental gain, but in a macho state like Wyoming, actually a pretty big deal. Thanks WyoFile (and Susan Gray Gose) for shining a light on her writing, life, and accomplishments.

  4. Anyone who has not read The Legend of Colton Bryant has missed a wonderful portrait of Wyoming-its people and the life we live here. The first time I read it, I was totally consumed by the characters in the book; the second time, I was blown away by the beautiful descriptions of south west Wyoming’s landscapes.

  5. Thank you for your excellent profile of the very brave Alexandra Fuller. Her drive to write, overcoming numerous rejections before her celebrated success, and her insistence on brutal honesty, even if it meant presenting her own family in an unflattering light, are truly impressive. If there were a just war somewhere, I’d want Alexandra Fuller on my side. Thank you also for crediting High Country News journalist Ray Ring for his thorough reporting on oil field worker safety in Wyoming and for his elegantly written story that first brought the sad case of Colton Bryant to public attention and inspired Ms. Fuller’s subsequent book.