Tiny does not exist. Not really. She’s a thief in Sangui City in Kenya, pulling off massive heists for the crime gang the Goondas. Her biggest job yet? To track down her mother’s killer and finally get revenge.
From the streets of Kenya, to the mansions on the coast and the forests of Congo, Natalie Anderson’s debut City of Saints and Thieves takes the reader on a high-stakes ride full of adventure and suspense. Tiny is a small and fierce thief whose origin are steeped in metaphor. Her tough as nails attitude is juxtaposed with her tender concern for her sister Kiki’s well being. Throughout the story, Tiny never backs down or loses hope, even in the face of almost certain death, and her rules for survival keep both her and the reader grounded in her mission.
No character in a revenge epic is ever alone, and Tiny is surrounded by an incredible range of personalities, each with their own intrigue to add to the story.
“I started playing with the idea of a Robin Hood type character – if Robin Hood were a young African refugee. Her back-story came from there. My job for about three years was to travel around Africa and interview refugees about what had happened to them in their home countries to make them flee. Why would a girl end up a thief, alone? What would have made her so tough?”
Part of the way to answer the question lie in creating the perfect setting for Tiny to thrive in. Sangui City, or Blood City, was gritty and dangerous in the slums, where Tiny and the Goondas do most of their work. On the periphery of the city was the Greyhill Mansion, the home of Tiny’s number one suspect. Mr. Greyhill dealt heavily with corrupt mines and trading, and took Tiny’s mother in as a maid. Throughout the story, he is Tiny’s number one suspect and biggest target. She trains relentlessly under the Goondas and their leader, Mr. Omoko, eventually working her way up to being able to break into the Greyhill mansion, expose his secrets, and finally get justice for her mother.
“The cast of characters needed to be just big enough for a good suspect pool. I think making those characters so dangerous also added some heightened tension. when you’re writing a mystery you need to have a cast of suspects who all have some plausible motive why they would have done the deed, and then the story is a matter of process of elimination. Keeping that in mind really helped me plot.”
There were many other villains in the story besides for Mr. Greyhill: the militia in Congo, the Goondas, and Mr. Omoko also vied for power.
“I think a villain is only as good as what makes them bad. A good villain has to be somewhat sympathetic like that – there needs to be some reason or starting point for why they do what they do, because it makes you think, if something like that happened to me, would I end up being a “bad guy” too? When I’m thinking about villains, I try to come up with a good back story for them, even if it doesn’t come out directly in the book. Greyhill was an interesting character to write, too, because he’s so morally ambiguous. He goes to great pains to justify why he has to work with militias and go along with a corrupt system, which I think makes him one of the most true-to-life villains. So many bad things that happen in the world are caused not by evil people, but by people who allow themselves to turn a blind eye and say “that’s just how it is, I have to play by these (messed-up) rules.”
But characters are just words on a page without something to bring them to life. The inspiration for City of Saints and Thieves, and Tiny herself, came from an old job of Anderson’s in Kenya.
“I started writing City when I was on a work trip to Kenya after being away for several years,” said Anderson, who used to live in Kenya. “The sights and smells and sounds were just so vivid and overwhelming that I couldn’t help but jot down notes for a story.”
Anderson’s notes ranged from the Kenyan skyline, the scents of street foods, and the incredible interviews with the people she met.
“I’d heard some intense, harrowing stories and knew I wanted to weave in parts of what I’d heard. I interviewed so many people Tina’s age, though, who really had never been told why their families fled. It wasn’t something families always talked about.”
The stories of the refugee families wasn’t what Anderson was seeing in mainstream media. In today’s political climate, hearing stories like Tiny’s felt increasingly important.
“These sorts of stories are crucial, and always have been, but I am really pleased to see that they’re actually getting a bit more attention these days due to movements like We Need Diverse Books and blogs like this one. And while I am obviously writing outside of my own community, I do think that these stories can and should be told first by the people who lived them. There are some amazing refugee memoirs and stories out there. Sandra Uwiringiyimana’s book How Dare the Sun Rise is coming out in March, and after hearing her speak on several occasions, I know it’s going to be amazing.”