Billy Kahora was one of five shortlisters for the 2012 Caine Prize, and the managing editor of Kenyan literary journal, Kwani?. He is the author of a non-fiction book titled, The True Story of David Munyakei, and is currently working on a novel, The Applications, and a non-fiction narrative on Juba, South Sudan as part of the Pilgrimages project established by the Chinua Achebe Centre. The Kenyan writer tells us here about his fascination with bad behaviour, being mentored by Binyavanga Wainana, and his stint as a quantity surveyor.
Which of your major characters would you prefer to be trapped on a desert island with?
Humphrey Karoki, the patriarch in my work in progress.
What is the first thing you remember writing?
A pretentious rant that pretended to be a story with cardboard characters that failed to flex my puny intellectual muscle.
Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?
I once saw my non-fiction book, The True Story of David Munyakei, with a Kenyan Minister.
Sell a million copies or win the Nobel?
A million copies.
Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?
A sustained career
Worst thing about being a writer?
People think they can get away with not paying you because you are getting free PR or marketing.
Best thing about being a writer?
Nobody gets very surprised at your strange behaviour.
Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.
Best- My work smells of Nairobi; Worst – I’m obsessed with bad behaviour.
One thing you wish you’d known starting out as a writer?
To respect time and utilise it well.
Besides good writing, what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?
Having a bullshit-detector to determine what’s important and what’s not.
Rate yourself on a scale of one to 10 for spelling and punctuation.
Spelling -4; punctuation -2.
What do you think your writing owes your readers?
It should respect their intelligence.
“The heart empties as the belly fills” – Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
“There is always dirt, you just have to go find it.” – Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?
What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Feast of Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa.
What would your 20 year old self say if he saw the writer you’ve become?
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?
What’s the most memorable reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?
This feels like my life.
What’s your guilty reading?
What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?
Sustaining writing for more than two or three weeks.
And the most pleasurable?
The new thoughts that come every other day
what are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?
Laziness. Not rewriting (I am critical of that in my own work writing too),
What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?
Anna Karenina – Tolstoy takes two key aspects of humanity, love and death, and does a pretty good job of writing about them.
The Caine Prize – how can it be improved?
By bringing more local writers to the events and having a conversation with them.
How did you decide the story you would enter for the Caine Prize competition?
It was the only eligible story I had.
How would you have spent the £10, 000 prize money, had you won it?
Buy some writing time… dropped other jobs to write.
If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?
Aspects of pre-colonial life, to disprove the false perceptions that it was all peaceful, loving and respectful.
Tell us a secret.
I trained as a quantity surveyor
Read Billy’s Caine Prize shortlisted story, Urban Zoning