// you’re reading...

Interview

Rusty Young p2

Rusty Young’s writing career, starting with the non-fiction book Marching Powder, set largely in Bolivia, and on to his novel Colombiano about the half-century long Colombian civil war…

Rusty Young said he had wanted to be a writer since he was 15. He said writing was “a difficult craft to master; or even attempt to master”. Besides that, writers on average earned about $13,000 a year in Australia, he said.
He completed a Commerce-Law degree in Sydney. At 24, he was going to go into banking. But he decided to go backpacking around South America with his girlfriend, before starting an office job back in Sydney.
On his last day in La Paz, Bolivia, he heard about San Pedro prison, an unusual prison that backpackers were allowed to visit.
Here the inmates rented their cells and in the case of wealthy prisoners, like drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, they bought the cells. There were five sections of the prison, from poorest to wealthiest. People had pets and even had their families staying with them. Bolivia is the third biggest producer of cocaine in the world, and the prison is no exception. Some prisoners ran various businesses apart from drug labs and cocaine dealing. One enterprising inmate, a Tanzanian born Englishman, Thomas McFadden, conducted tours of the prison for backpackers. He’d been incarcerated for smuggling drugs. A customs official he’d bribed double crossed him and they found five kgs of cocaine in his suitcase. He was sentenced to 18-30 years at San Pedro prison in Bolivia.
Rusty Young and his girlfriend went on one of these tours and ended up staying the night in the prison, listening to Mr McFadden’s stories. Rusty returned home, but came back to the prison and stayed for four months, writing the story of the prison and the inmate. In return, he promised the prisoner to do all he could to get him out of the prison. The book, Marching Powder came out, and Rusty Young returned to Bolivia. He said he bribed a couple of judges to release Mr McFadden. In breach of his parole conditions, Mr McFadden and Rusty Young fled to Columbia. Rusty Young stayed on in Colombia teaching English. Later he worked for a construction contractor at a US military base after a lucky meeting with a contractor on a plane.
He wrote Marching Powder in Colombia, he said. While there he also became interested in the Colombian underbelly. He heard “stories of corruption, revenge, daring and death”. He started interviewing people about the Colombian civil war, and these stories went into his novel Colombiano.
He said that in 2000, the UN said Colombia was a disaster. He said the peace process was now “up in the air”, but that every soldier you got out of the jungle was a step forward. The Colombian government was trying to train FARC soldiers and paramilitaries to try to reintegrate them into the economy. In 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, saying it gave a boost to the “impossible dream” of ending Colombia’s 50-year civil war.

– continued next page
– copyright Simon Sandall