For Tamar Myers, eating hippopotamus salad was a normal Sunday afternoon treat at boarding school in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Elephants and monkeys were another story. She'll be the first to tell you how unappetizing the exotic creatures were to her then-young taste buds.
"The monkey was bad because it had hair. They didn't skin them, they only shaved them," she says. "It was really disgusting."
Food was really a lesser worry, though. Myers, a daughter of missionaries who lived among a group of headhunters (best known for coming-of-age rites that sent boys off to kill humans for their skulls, which were later used as a sort of ceremonial flask), grew up in an environment where the crossfire of fierce-battling African tribes and encounters with deadly snakes, crocodiles and leopards were daily threats — not to mention the hot temperatures and religious fanatics. Some might call that upbringing hellish. Myers, though, considers it all a source of inspiration.
The author, now a resident of Charlotte, has penned fragments of her dramatic encounters in a series of highly autobiographical novels. The three-part series includes The Witch Doctor's Wife (2009), The Headhunter's Daughter (2011), and, The Boy Who Stole the Leopard's Spots, released earlier this month.
This series comes after the release of more than 30 books in two mystery series: A Pennsylvania-Dutch Mystery and Den of Antiquity. An avid writer in college, Myers — now 63 years old — became serious about wanting to publish a novel at the age of 22. But she wouldn't get her wish until much later in life. It took Myers 23 years of nonstop submitting of manuscripts before she finally got published at the age of 45.
"I gave myself a deadline and I said if I didn't get published by my 45th birthday, I was going to go and lie across the interstate at rush hour," Myers says. She laughs afterwards, so it can be assumed she's kidding (or not ... we writers do have a tough life).
Though her books proved to be a success based on multiple contracts and published material, Myers longed to release a series about her experiences in the Congo.
Some of the first books she wrote were based around this scenery, yet eventually they made their way into her closet along with other rejected manuscripts. "I would get letters that would say, 'Nobody wants to read this kind of stuff. Americans aren't interested in the rest of the world,'" says Myers.
Based on her publishers advice that once she got a following, the series would have a better chance of being released, Myers kept pumping out her books. "I kept writing and writing and finally I got so old and thought, 'My brain is going to give out.' So I just nagged them to the point that I got my wish."
The Boy Who Stole The Leopard's Spots is a suspenseful story that revolves around a cannibalistic murder, superstitions, religious intolerances, and a storm of challenges faced by folks (white and black) living in the made-up city of Belle Vue — based on the real city of Tshikapa, where Myers resided, before moving to the U.S. in 1964 after harsh rebellions threatened her family's lives.
Leading up to the move, Myers remembers a frightful event when her parents told her that if they were killed, she should hide in a storage compartment in the house and wait until things were quiet before trying to reach safety. Their instructions were explicit: Follow the river southward toward neighboring Angola.
Today, Myers admits to the rising fears that the region could evoke while also recounting the good things about living in that faraway land, including childhood adventures through the forest with her siblings and, of course, a bodyguard.
"I didn't fear the headhunters at all because I grew up with them," Myers says. "I played with their children and I spoke the language fluently. It was an idealistic place to grow up until you got old enough to understand the ugliness of life."
Myers will sign and discuss The Boy Who Stole the Leopard's Spots today (May 24, 7 p.m.) at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road. 704-525-9239. www.parkroadbooks.com.