Chibundu Onuzo is the author of The Spider King’s Daughter. The novel, published in 2012, is her debut, and the first instalment of a two-book deal signed with British publishers, Faber and Faber. Born in Nigeria, Chibundu moved to the UK some years ago, and has recently completed a history degree in King’s College, London. She started writing The Spider King’s daughter at age 17, and was the youngest writer to be signed by her publishers . The now 21 year old author tells of (false?) recollections of life as an infant, her review-specific amnesia, and how an author’s death might be a good thing for a book.
Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?
Aunty Precious. She’d cook and I’d signal for ships.
What’s your earliest memory?
A pram race between my brother and my aunt. My cousin was in one pram and I was in the other. No-one in my family believes I remember this.
Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?
I saw a copy at Pataba book shop in Yaba which was very exciting because I didn’t know it was on sale anywhere in Nigeria.
Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?
Nobel because then it’d help me sell a million copies. Two birds with one stone.
Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?
You can have both. Classics are usually not counted as such until you’re dead or at least well into the twilight of your career. Moby Dick is an excellent example. So you might have what you think is only a sustained career of good books but posterity may judge one or more as classics.
Best perk of being a writer?
Worst thing about being a writer?
Some people think you sit at home all day doing nothing.
I suffer from amnesia when it comes to these things.
One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?
Publishing takes forever.
Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?
Good writing is actually not essential to success, at least not in pecuniary terms.
Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.
3.5: I’m quite bad with words like of and off, unto and onto, to and too, see and sea. Homophone is the First Aid term for words like these.
What do you think your writing owes your readers?
I don’t want my fiction to dull them.
What word or phrase, if any, do you overuse in your writing?
What is your favourite quote from literature?
Those that know their God shall be strong and do exploits.
What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing
None. My life is pretty sedate and in my fiction, I am attracted to drama. I blame my Lagos upbringing.
If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian novel published within the last ten years what book would it go to?
Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta. It’s not the only notable novel by a Nigerian author in the last ten years but, in my opinion, it’s the most overlooked.
Write a paragraph describing yourself in the third person.
I charge for descriptions. That’s how I make a living.
What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?
My father, my mother and my sister. The first two are one via marriage and the last came from their union so you can take them all as the same person.
What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?
‘I didn’t know hawkers had ambitions.’ I quote verbatim.
What is your guilty reading?
I read the Hunger Games trilogy. Every single book. Entirely guilt free but I have been judged.
What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?
It depends. Sometimes I find writing a completely new scene very challenging. Sometimes it flows.
And the most pleasurable?
Reading over a scene I like.
What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?
When there is plot but no finesse.
How do you motivate yourself after a manuscript rejection?
I’ve been quite fortunate in my manuscript to rejection ratio. I’ve only had two. The first one was when I was fifteen for a collection of short stories. I kept the slip of paper for posterity (which I have now lost.) I stopped writing for a bit and then started again. The young prove elastic to failure. The second was from an agency in London for a first draft of my novel. I didn’t really have to motivate myself to do anything. I was waiting to hear back from my current agent, who incidentally replied with an acceptance exactly a week later.
Tell us your literary process – from conception to first draft.
I don’t plan in the early stages. I start writing and then as the story comes to me, I jot directions the plot can move in. But usually, the story goes another way from what I envisioned at the start so plotting, in my case, is often pointless but makes me feel productive.
What is your ultimate motivation for writing?
Motivation is such a tricky thing to separate. Is my motivation for writing different from my motivation for wanting to be published? All I know is I like writing and it’s easier for me to work at it than to work at learning how to build bridges.
Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?
I don’t know what a fair depiction of an African country would be. I don’t even know what a fair depiction of Lagos would be. Lekki or Mushin? V.I or Yaba? Everyone wants to see their own particular experience of a place portrayed. Hence we have the middle class fights back movement in African literature, challenging recurring perceptions of the continent that have arisen from a certain style of media coverage. I’m not overly concerned either way. Write what you like.
What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?
The Bible. You have the gospels which are like eating bread, easily digestible. Then you have Numbers which is like cauliflower. Man shall not live on bread alone.
If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?
My maternal grandfather who died before I was born. We just missed each other. I’ve read some of his letters and I think we were alike in many ways.
A second book that I’m working on.