Category Archives: Interviews

Author Q&A: Kenechi Udogu

Standard

kenny udogu editKenechi Udogu is a Nigerian author living in the UK. Her novel, The Yam Po Club, chronicles her protagonist’s experiences as a new student in a federal secondary school in Nigeria, and derives mostly from Kenechi’s own memories of her alma mater, FGC Owerri.  Kenechi has published eight novels while working full-time as an architect. And it’s no wonder that she has been praised for her “world-building” abilities – combining the best of her literary and architecture skills. She takes time out of her undoubtedly busy schedule to talk about being trapped in a teenage mind, the sticky middle of plot, and her secret stash of chick-lit.

Your book, The Yam Po Club, seems to draw from your experiences in boarding school in Nigeria. Is Buchi modelled after you, and if so, in what specific ways?

I’ve been asked this a few times. Truth is, she is modelled a little bit on me, but also on a lot of different people I grew up with. In some way we all know a Buchi, a Funke and an Nnenna.

Why did you decide to focus on the boarding school experience – was it an important period in your life?

It was a huge part of my childhood as I attended boarding school for six years from the age of ten. Most children who pass through boarding school in Nigeria are pretty young and impressionable, so it is almost impossible not to have been greatly influenced by the (good and bad) experiences of those years.

The Yam Po Club is your only novel set in Nigeria. Was it a conscious decision to return home?

I guess it was. I’d always wanted to record my experiences from those early years and it seemed apt to do so now, before my memory starts to play tricks on me.

You mentioned Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers a few times in your book. Was it an inspiration for The Yam Po Club? And like Darrell Rivers’ story, will we be reading Buchi’s until SS 3?

I loved Enid Blyton stories as a kid. I just couldn’t get enough of them. So, yes, I guess the Malory Towers series were an inspiration for this book. Again, I’ve been asked about developing the book into a series but I’ll have to see if I can gather enough interesting memories to fill five more books.

Which of your main characters would you like to have as a ‘neighbour’?

Senior Jane was very (very!) loosely inspired by my neighbour from JS 1. She was a lovely girl and I’m glad I got her to help me out when I had no clue what to do.

The Yam Po Club coverWhat is the first thing you remember writing?

I can’t recall exactly what it was about but it was a series of sketches in the back of my primary school note book with a story tagged to it. I should have paid more attention but at that point I had no idea I’d still be writing stories decades in the future.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see your work?

I recently got a mention on a website stating “If you liked The Other Slipper, you will like…” I was overjoyed that someone thought my book was worthy of being acknowledged that way.

Write one bestseller or have a sustained career of good books?

If one bestseller translates to a sustained career of good books, I’d go for that option.

Best perk of being a writer.

Sharing my crazy ideas with the world.

Worst thing about being a writer.

The fear of being judged negatively. It’s sad to admit but, I like being liked.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

The most memorable review for me was an early one for The Other Slipper. The reviewer said he thought the story was “more interesting than the Cinderella story itself” I couldn’t stop smiling for days. The most painful review (probably not the worst, but it still haunts me to the day) was a “Meh…” for one of my other books. The rest of the review didn’t matter to me. That word was enough.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author.

I wish someone had told me how much marketing and promo was involved. Not that it would have deterred me, but it would have been good to understand how much time and energy goes into getting news about your book out there.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

I’m not sure if we can call this a skill, but I’d have to say patience. Patience in writing, editing, more editing and finally, waiting for your book to make an impact.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.

I’d like to say 4 but I’m probably a 3. I always gasp with shame when I read over my first drafts.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

An escape from the present. Whether it’s taking the reader to a past memory (The Yam Po Club) or to an alternative universe (The Altercation of Vira), or even to a warped reality (Aversion), I would love for my readers to forget the present and be submerged in the worlds I create.

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

Hmmm, not so much experiences, more the exclamations I use in real life. I use far too many.

You have published eight books, many of which have teenage protagonists. Are your books particularly targeted at young adults?

I keep getting told I’m trapped in the mind of a sixteen year old. I’m not sure whether to take this as a good or bad thing but it certainly gears my writing towards young adults.

Which one person has been most supportive of your writing?

Not one person, a group of people – my family. I wouldn’t be where I am without their unwavering support of my work.

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

I didn’t realise this was even a thing until I started receiving compliments on my “world-building” abilities. I’m so used to swapping from real life to out of this world scenarios that I didn’t realise it was a difficult thing to do.

What is your guilty reading?

Comedic chick lit. Everyone disses them but we all have a small collection we keep on the go.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Like a lot of writers, I struggle with the middle of my stories. I usually whiz through the start, and I’m fairly certain of the end, but everything in-between takes ages to get right. I also struggle with editing as I get attached to scenes and characters and don’t want to lose them.

And the most pleasurable?

Connecting the dots in a story. Pure joy!

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Drama for the sake of drama.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

This might sound cliché but the thrill of writing is enough motivation.

Why your fascination with the fantasy genre?

I’ve always loved the idea of the mystical, the unknown, and the inexplicable. I was a big fan of fairy tales and epic fantasy stories when I was growing up, so when I started expanding my writing field, it made sense to lean towards magical beings and objects.

E-books: have they done more good or harm for literature?

It’s still early days in the e-books phase but I think they are a good thing. I’m reading more books on my tablets because they are easily accessible and, if I’m being honest, more attractively priced.

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?

The Grimm fairytales, not the modern (Disney-eque) interpretations. The original stories were much darker and told tales that bore deeper meaning.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Nothing. I believe everything has its place and time. If it happened/existed in the past, that’s where it’s meant to stay.

What’s next?

The second book in my paranormal series -The Mentalist – is due out soon. It’s called Sentient and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone.

The Yam Po Club is available to Nigerian readers on Okadabooks.com. You can also catch up with Kenechi on her blog

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Author Q&A – Tolulope Popoola

Standard

Tolulope4Tolulope Popoola is a Nigerian writer and blogger living in the UK. A few years ago, she decided to re-explore her love for literature by launching an online fiction series with a few other writers. The series, In My Dreams It Was Simpler, took off and became hugely popular among Nigeria’s online readers. In 2008, Tolu decided to quit her accounting job and focus on her literary career. She has since written short stories, flash fiction, and articles for several print and online magazines. Nothing Comes Close, her debut novel – and a spin-off of her online fiction series – was released in November 2012. Tolu talks here about losing her way in the number crunch, the epiphany that changed her life, and years spent conquering her fear of the blank page.

Tell us a bit about your background and how it has informed your writing.

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria into a family where reading and academic pursuits were positively encouraged. As a child, I was a real bookworm; the introvert who preferred burying my head in books to going out and partying. After secondary school, I went to university to study Accounting and Finance courses, where I lost my way. Five years and a light bulb moment later, I realised that my true love was for reading and writing.

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

I would love having Lola, my novel’s heroine, with me; she and I would get along great.

What’s the first thing you remember writing?

I remember writing a story that I made up back in Primary 2, complete with little illustrations of the characters.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

I had a “wow” moment when an elderly English lady told me she wanted to meet the characters in my book.

Best perk of being a writer?

Not having to commute to work.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Feeling guilty if I haven’t written something for a while.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

Not technically a review, but my best compliment came when my dad called me to tell me that he absolutely enjoyed reading my book. I try not to take notice of bad reviews.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

That I’d need bucket loads of patience. Writing and publishing a good book takes time.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

Listening and observing. Having an active imagination also helps.

tolulope1What do you think your writing owes your readers?

To entertain, inform and make them pause for thought.

What word or phrase, if any, do you overuse in your writing?

“Actually”

What is your favourite quote from literature?

“Don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”― Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

The places I’ve lived: mostly Lagos and London

What would your twenty year old self say if she were to meet the writer you’ve become?

“Oh good! You finally discovered what you should have been doing all along.”

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

My husband

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

A comment on my blog. The reader said: “I so enjoyed it, and sort of lost myself in it. Had to wake up when it was finished.”

What is your guilty reading?

BellaNaija, especially the wedding section.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Conquering the fear of the blank page. And then finishing what I started.

And the most pleasurable?

Having a lightbulb moment and the frenzied rush to get it written there and then.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Terrible spelling and bad grammar

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

I write to challenge and entertain myself, to produce something that no other person can.

Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?

I think every writer tries to portray their own reality, whether they write about historical or modern Africa. I don’t think it’s fair to place the burden of depicting a whole continent on one person’s shoulders.

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?

I don’t know if I can recommend just one book to everyone, people have such different tastes. But one book that touched me was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It reminded me of how far we’ve come as human beings, and how far we still need to go.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Nothing really comes to my mind at the moment.

What’s next?

I’m working on my next book and a collection of flash fiction.

Read more about Tolu’s life and writing on her blog

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Author Q&A – Victor Ehikhamenor

Standard

victor-3

Victor Ehikhamenor is a Nigerian writer, journalist, poet and visual artist. His poetry collection, Sordid Rituals, was published in 2002, while his latest effort, Excuse Me, was released in December 2012. Excuse Me is a collection of satirical non-fiction pieces that began as a weekly column of the same title, while he was Creative Director at Nigerian daily newspaper, Next. Victor also tries his hand at fiction and has published several short stories; his art has also been exhibited in major exhibitions across the world. Victor welcomes us to the new year with views and anecdotes about misquoting the Bible, steering clear of Islam, and the art of letter writing.

Tell us a bit about your background and how it has informed your writing.

I grew up in a city-like village, where we had pretty much everything, including no-nonsense uncles and aunties, and prayerful grandmothers and grandfathers. At age ten, I started writing letters for old village folks who didn’t have Western education – which meant I had to translate Esan to English. I guess that can be said to be the beginning of my writing life. 

Why satirical nonfiction?

Villagers are very satirical and cynical, I probably picked it from there. It’s also a style I feel comfortable using; it is my anaesthesia for telling painful truths.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see your work?

Honestly, anywhere I see my work, anytime I see my work and anybody I see my work with, I am grateful.

Best perk of being a writer?

When a total stranger bursts out laughing before going, “You are that guy…”

Worst thing about being a writer?

When people think you have the solution to every single problem that is wrong with your country or continent.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

None.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

If reading is considered a skill, it is a number one essential. Then, a writer must learn to observe things and situations from a weird angle and file them away as material.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

Clarity of message and a pinch of humour, life is too serious to be taken seriously all the time.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

One of them is by Pablo Neruda – “While I’m writing, I’m far away; and when I come back, I’ve gone.”

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

Village life: like from a river, I draw a lot from my childhood memories there even when I am painting. Those memories and invaluable and inexhaustible, I keep going back for more.

Which one writer has had the most influence on your writing?

E.C Osondu. Not just through his writings, but his constant nuggets of advise, they are like a carpenter’s varnish. And he knows my work more than anybody, and I respect his views because he doesn’t mince his spare words.

If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian literary work published within the last ten years which book would it go to?

Too many to name, and a prize is not for more than one writing/writer at a time.

victorYou are an artist as well as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. If you could keep only one of these creative forms, what would it be?

Visual art. The time I use in writing and editing before publishing one short story is enough for me to paint works for  two major exhibitions. But then again, I would probably keep all like I have done over the years.

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

It was from my elder brother who reads everything I write. In one of my columns, I quoted a popular saying and credited it to the Bible. “Where is that in the Bible?”, he queried in a phone conversation.

What is your guilty reading?

Hmmm…for a writer every reading is necessary o. But I read fashion and business magazines a lot.

What’s the most challenging part of your writing process?

Entering a story. It is so important that I can actually abandon a great idea without an interesting entry point.  That first paragraph is what I call the PIN or Password of a story or article. If you enter the right story wrongly, it clams up.

And the most pleasurable?

When I find an interesting narrative structure to tell a story.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other writers’ work?

When a character can not be properly accounted for in the end. It’s like a warden counting his prisoners in the evening and totally ignoring the fact that one is missing.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

It is an enjoyable exercise whenever I have something to say, and also the hope that it might effect a small change somewhere, somehow.

Many of your essays in Excuse Me are criticisms – of governments, society, and even modern life – is there any subject you would be reluctant to satirise?

Islam. The result is usually devastating and those that criticise it know their actions would cause unavoidable mayhem but still go ahead and poke the bees’ nest.

Foreign literary prizes: have they done more good or harm for African writing?

I can point to so much good they have done and not one harm. Prizes are good for the winners, those who think otherwise have their reasons too.  But remember that if a dog jumps up to pluck a bone from the hands of a hunter and was unsuccessful, be sure that dog is going to say “I wasn’t hungry anyway!”

Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?

This can also be said of America, Asia or any other continent for that matter. I believe most writers write mainly from their experiences, so the issue of fairness in depicting  Africa in that sense becomes relative. To prescribe to a writer is to sensor a writer.

What other nonfiction books would you recommend to the Nigerian reader? And why?

One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainana – because it is one well written creative non-fiction which is different from ordinary non-fiction. There is a difference.

If you could bring something back from past traditional life, which is so idealised in your writing, what would it be?

My father and the art of physical letter writing.

What’s next?

A novel.

Listen to Victor’s interview and reading on BBC

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Author Q&A: Nnedi Okorafor

Standard

nnedi1Nnedi Okorafor is an American author of Nigerian origin, who is widely acclaimed for her contributions to the fantasy and science fiction genres. Often compared with JK Rowling, Nnedi consistently churns out spectacular titles such as Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker, Who Fears Death and Akata Witch among others; and has been a recipient of several awards including the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Despite having enough new fantastical adventures to put to paper, Nnedi takes out time to chat with us about being border-line dyslexic as a child, having Whoopi Goldberg in her new book, and how she considers many classics to be thoroughly unpleasant.

Which of your child characters is most closely modeled after your own young self? And in what way?

I’d have to say Sunny from Akata Witch. She’s an excellent athlete (I played semi-pro tennis from the ages of 9-19, and won a lot of medals in track and field), she loves ballet (I love ballet and used to dance it when I was kid). When she’s forced to fight, she’ll fight and WIN or at least bring someone down with her if she loses. And she lives between multiple cultural worlds.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

Creatively? That’s easy because I didn’t start writing creatively until I was twenty years old; I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, U-C. It was short story called “The House of Deformities”. The story was based on an actual event in my life that happened in the 80s and it was set in Nigeria.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

I don’t wish to write anything but what I write. I can thoroughly enjoy other people’s work without wanting to take it as my own.

What do you consider to be your greatest literary achievement till date?

To me, everything is connected. I don’t see one piece as greater than the others. The small things that lead to and inspire the big things. And the big things lead back to the small things.

Many, if not all, of your books belong in fantasy genre. Why the fascination with the metaphysical?

Actually, I write both science fiction and fantasy. Zahrah the WindseekerThe Shadow Speaker and Who Fears Death are blends of fantasy and science fiction. That said, the mystical and the magic in my work come from the way I naturally see the world. I see the world as a magical place. My stories are a reflection of my own way of seeing. From the very first story I wrote, it has always been this way. I’ve written memoir pieces (including a full yet to be published book) and even in those works, there are magical elements.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Win the Nobel. But you have to sell a lot of books to even be noticed and then considered, so these two things are connected.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

The latter. But I’d like to see my sustained career become “the classic”. Even now, for me, it’s not about just one book. Each book adds to the greater picture I’m trying to present.

zahrahHave you written, or do you plan to write, a book not targeted at children and young adults?

I already have and that book is my most known novel, Who Fears Death. I started out writing adult stories and novels. The YA novels just happened to be the ones that sold first. I’m a YA and adult writer.

Best perk of being a writer?

Having a place to pour it all out (positive or negative) and then being able to create something with it. Really, it’s the same perk that all artists get. Also, having your work be more known to fans than your own face is cool.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.

Spelling- 1. I am a terrible speller and I’ve always been that way. Words become nonsense when I look at them for too long. My kindergarten teachers thought I might be border-line dyslexic. But like when I’m typing, if I shut my eyes and don’t focus too hard, I have no problem.

Punctuation- 5. I’ve never had a problem with punctuation. Punctuation equals clarity; I like being clear.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

There is no such thing for me. Reading isn’t an ego thing. If I haven’t read it, I’ll say I haven’t read it. No one’s read it all. And a lot of so-called classics are thoroughly unpleasant reads and thus best skipped.

What is your guilty reading?

The Disney Fairy chapter books. I was reading them before I was contracted to write one. They’re fun! They are like reading cartoons and I love cartoons.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

If a story is boring. I cannot stand boring stories.

If you could bring something from your writing to life what would it be?

The capture station in Who Fears Death that pulls condensation from the sky to creature pure drinking water without giving off any pollution. It’s portable and cheap, too. It’s perfect for nations suffering from a lack of clean drinking water. I’d also like to have my own wasp artist.

What’s next?

Plenty. My compilation of short stories, titled Kabu Kabu, will be released in 2013. It’ll be published by Prime Books. This will include several brand new short stories and a brand new novella that I wrote with New York Times Bestselling author Alan Dean Foster. It’ll also include a brief forward written by Whoopi GoldbergKabu Kabu is an adult book.

In the young adult arena, my novel Akata Witch will be published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic next year (under a new title: What Sunny Saw in the Flames). I’ve also just completed the first draft of the sequel to Akata Witch, titled Breaking Kola. This was will be published by Penguin Books and will be released in 2013

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Author Q&A Series: Chibundu Onuzo

Standard

chibundu2Chibundu 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?

Free books.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Some people think you sit at home all day doing nothing.

chibundu 2Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

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?

Onto.

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.

What’s next?

A second book that I’m working on.

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

 

 

Author Q&A Series: Noo Saro-Wiwa

Standard

Noo Saro-Wiwa is a travel writer and daughter of the late Nigerian writer and political activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Noo attended King’s College London and Columbia University, New York, and has written for travel publications like Lonely Planet. Her first book, Looking for Transwonderland – which chronicles her travel in Nigeria after a life spent outside its shores – was published by Granta earlier this year and has amassed brilliant reviews. Demonstrating the humour and ease of expression that set her work apart, Noo tells us about spying on fellow bus passengers’ text messages, her fascination with the social etiquette of ancient hominids, and about Transwonderland being chosen as Book of The Week by BBC Radio 4.

Which of the characters in Looking for Transwonderland would you like to be accompanied by on another country tour?

The travel writer Maurice Archibong, or my aunt’s daughter Mabel. They were both excellent company and full of curiosity.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

A story about a magic bicycle when I was 10 years old. I had just received my first thesaurus and thought I was being clever in using big words like ‘phenomenon’ and ‘dilapidated’.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

Being selected as BBC Radio 4 – Book of the Week was a nice achievement.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Well, the Nobel is worth $1 million dollars before tax. And winning it would boost my sales. So you get money AND prestige AND a sales boost. But if the prize money were small I’d rather sell a million copies – one million readers is as good an endorsement as any literary award.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

A sustained career of good books. If you write one classic, the rest of your life will feel like a horrible anti-climax.

Best perk of being a writer?

Attending literary festivals in various cities and making new friends along the way.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Having to write. It’s a painful process.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I don’t google myself, so I’m oblivious to non-newspaper reviews. The best reviews have focused on the nuances of my observations and travel. The one poor newspaper critique was from someone who fixated on my identity as a diasporan while ignoring all other aspects of the book.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

If you think writing the manuscript is hard work, wait until you start promoting the damn thing.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

Self-discipline.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.

4.99: I have worked as a copy editor on several newspapers and magazines. And yes, I have checked this document thoroughly!

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

Clarity, honesty and engagement.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

JM Coetzee describes a character in Youth as “waiting for destiny to arrive”. It’s a brilliant way of summarising the act of having ambitions but not being very proactive.

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

Being a travel writer means my experiences are my writing.

If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian literary work published within the last 10 years which book would it go to?

There are many Nigerian novels I haven’t read yet, so I’m not qualified to answer.

What would your 20-year-old self say if she were to meet the writer you’ve become?

“The prose isn’t flowery enough! And there’s too much historical context!”

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

This email: “All I was left with when the book came to its close was the thought ‘I can’t wait to read her next’, you know, the same feeling one has after a bloody excellent meal.”

What is your guilty reading?

Other people’s text messages on the bus. And Hello! magazine.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

I write non-fiction, so I don’t have a creative process. But trying to weave background facts into the narrative can be tricky.

And the most pleasurable?

Finding a nice turn of phrase gives me the biggest high.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Style of prose is very important to me, and I’ll give up on a book if the writing is inelegant, pretentious or dull. I don’t care how interesting the subject matter is.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

I feel it’s what I do best and I have something to offer. Plus it’s an occupation that doesn’t require formal qualifications – I hate exams.

Tell us your writing process – from conception to first draft.

I take an interest in a country. I then travel around the country and talk to people, constantly scribbling notes or recording things on my Dictaphone. Every evening I type up my notes and transcribe my recordings, no matter how tired I am. Then I email them to myself. I also write a diary as it’s a good way of chronicling my feelings (emotions can be surprisingly easy to forget over time). Once I fly back home, I transform my observations into prose. My writing is most prolific after midnight.

Why travel writing?

It combines my two loves: travel and literature. I love reading books that transport me to another place and teach me things about it, so I want to do the same for others.

What were the high and low points of your tour of Nigeria?

The high points were the dog show at Ibadan, the Durbah in Kano, and eating plantain and goat non-stop. The low points were seeing young kids having to work for a living, as well as visiting Port Harcourt Zoo (the conditions were so bad I was too embarrassed to write about it).

Foreign literary prizes: have they done more good or harm to African writing?

They’re a force for good. They ensure that a certain level of quality is maintained, otherwise  standards might fall (you only have to compare our newspapers of today with papers 40 years ago to see how easily writing standards can drop).
Foreign prizes also lend prestige and financial support to a profession that’s not lucrative. This is important in places like Nigeria where financial hardship causes many youngsters to overlook literature as a vocation.

Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?

I think African writers portray Africa fairly and in a rich variety. If people don’t like the realism they should criticise the politicians and criminals who create that reality. There’s no point shooting the messenger. Writers should worry about accuracy rather than positivity. Good literature must come from an honest place; it’s not a form of propaganda. Besides, most foreign perceptions of our continent aren’t actually based on novels – they’re based on television news.

What other books on travel would you recommend? And why?

Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France is highly subjective and biased, but the prose is flawless, funny, and her observations on Argentinian society were very prescient. I also like Bombay by Suketu Mehta. I haven’t finished reading it (it’s a huge book), but it encompasses politics, gangsters, Bollywood, business and more. It sets the standard for single-city travelogues.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Ancient hominids. I’d love to know if they could sing or dance, and whether they had any etiquette.

What’s next?

I’m still undecided, but possibly a book on my travels around South Africa.

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Author Q&A Series: Billy Kahora

Standard

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.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

“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?

Bad behaviour

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?

Binyavanga Wainana.

What’s the most memorable reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

This feels like my life.

What’s your guilty reading?

Crime fiction.

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

What’s next?

A novel.

Read Billy’s Caine Prize shortlisted story, Urban Zoning

Read others in the author Q&A Series

Author Q&A Series: Unoma Azuah

Standard

Unoma Azuah is one of the important voices in Nigerian Literature, having earned acclaim through her work on poetry with Sentinel Quarterly Online Magazine as well as on her essays and research on sexuality issues in Nigeria. Unoma, who holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, has published a collection of short stories, Length of Light (2008), and two novels –  Sky-High Flames (2004) and Edible Bones (2011). Unoma talks to us about a childhood spent questioning God about her father, her guilty fix of children’s fiction, and having her words ‘taken to the bank’.

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

It would be Ofunne, in my novel Sky-high Flames. We’d have a wonderful time talking about the short-sightedness of her parents and about her obnoxious mother-in-law.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

I remember scribbling a poem of some sorts called, “Questions for God,” at the age of six or seven. My mother couldn’t give me a
straight face answer as to where my father was.  He had died in a car accident with some fellow soldiers.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

It was surreal. The most recent I remember is being in Makurdi, Benue state for a reading. I had run of cash and had to dash into the nearest First Bank.  I was in queue when I saw a man waltz by with a copy of Edible Bones. I found myself snickering. I had no idea why.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Both wouldn’t be a bad idea. LOL!!!

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

I’d like to have a sustained career of good books.

Best perk of being a writer?

Being treated like a star sometimes.

Worst thing about being a writer?

The isolation can be gruelling sometimes. Sometimes, it feels like a labour pang. For example, in some cases when I am supposed to be on a routine job or it can happen in the middle of my lectures, characters keep jeering at me to bring them alive.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I remember Ikhide’s review of Sky-high Flames. He came short of saying that the novel with all its technical and structural flaws is repulsive.  However, I love Tade Ipadeola’s review of Edible Bones. I think he was most insightful and objective with the review.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

Nothing really because it is something I enjoy doing. It’s been fulfilling so far.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

Hard work, patience and tenacity.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling and punctuation.

I think I am pretty good in both, but I’d give myself 4/5 in punctuation.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

Telling them stories that resonate with their reality as human beings, entertaining them and being honest in the telling

What word or phrase, if any, do you overuse in your writing?

LOL!!! I love the word “Breeze” and I know I over-use it.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

I actually have two favourite quotes from literature and they are both from C.S Lewis.

The first one goes: “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

And the second: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

My secondary school experience which I mostly used in Sky-high Flames.

If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian novel which book would it go to?

Nigeria has so many literary talents that it would be difficult to just pin point only one book. Several Nigerian novels come to mind, not just one.

What would your 20 year old self say if she were to meet the writer you’ve become?

Wow! It was worth it after all! Didn’t know we could make it this far.

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

My mother, Constance Azuah, nee Nsugbe and of course my secondary school teacher, Dr. Joe Ike Ogugua of the College of Education Ehamufu. He really pushed, nurtured and lifted me. I owe him my literary career. There is also Leslye Maria Huff who was my guardian during my university years in the US.

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

It was during one of the regular workshops in my MFA in Fiction classes. One of my classmates was so moved by my short story, “Season of Scorch,” that he said under his breath, “Classic!”

What is your guilty reading?

Sometimes I catch myself reading my childhood favourite stories like Achebe’s Chike and the River, and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Squeezing out time between my regular job and social life to create a conducive space to write. Often I stay up late at night to write. During the day sometimes, I am sleepy because I didn’t get enough sleep.

And the most pleasurable?

Seeing the book on bookshelves or in people’s hands.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Pacing. I also prefer being shown rather than being told.

How do you motivate yourself after a manuscript rejection?

Keep at it till I get it right.

Tell us your literary process – from conception to first draft.

I carry stories in my head for months, sometimes years. Then I make an outline and create a plot. I follow this plot from chapter to chapter till the book is done. Then I step back and read through again. There may be areas where I may need to flesh out or thin out depending on what is needed.

Foreign literary prizes: have they done more good or harm for African writing?

I am not sure I have an opinion about that. In general terms though, prizes can be affirming for writers.

Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?

Some contemporary African writers do not depict Africa fairly in their writing but different strokes for different folks. They may have ulterior motives to achieve something or to make a statement. Either way, honesty beats propaganda at the end of the day.

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?

There are two books I have in mind: Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta then Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’d recommend the first because it captures the irony that is wrapped around some of our cultural expectations. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I admire because it expertly mines the human mind and delves into the recesses of the protagonist’s psyche. The author’s skill and message in that novel is extra-ordinary.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Nothing that comes to mind at the moment.

What’s next?

I am starting work on some sort of memoir/faction about the first 40 years of my life.  It’s been such a challenging journey and I hope I can capture its essence well enough.

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Female, Nigerian and haunted by Biafra – Is this seat taken?

Standard

I consider telling Chinelo Okparanta that she writes like Chimamanda Adichie, but I refrain, a sixth sense perhaps warning me that this is sensitive territory. I compromise by asking if critics have compared her to any other writer. And it is this question, the last of the interview, that seems to wake her up (our Skype interview is taking place at 6am her time) and reveals the assertiveness that I’ve sensed lurking beneath her calm, soft-spoken persona. “I have been compared to Chimamanda,” she begins; “she’s female, she’s Igbo, she writes important topics. It has been flattering to be compared to her.”

But this association has borne mixed blessings for Chinelo who, like Chimamanda, has found the political history of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War to be the inspiration for a novel she is working on. In a refreshing burst of outrage – one gets the sense that Chinelo doesn’t often let emotions loose  – she explains why this similarity can also be frustrating. “People read your story and say Chimamanda has already written about it. Like when I did the theme of homosexuality in “America” (her story published in Granta Magazine in February 2012) someone pointed out that Chimamanda has done it.”

It is this determination to avoid a copycat label, she says, that has kept her from reading Half of a Yellow Sun, arguably one of the most important pieces of contemporary literature to have emerged from Nigeria. “The way I see it,” Chinelo concludes, “there can be more than one great Nigerian writer. It’s unfair that when you’re African and female they tend to lump you together. Why box us up? American authors can have multiples of themselves, and no one would say someone’s already done that. It’s not a good thing to be limited because there’s only room for one of your type.”

But the similarity with Adichie goes beyond style, or themes, or merely penning recollections of a stillborn nation. It is most apparent in their preoccupation with ‘home’. Like the exiled Okonkwo hankering after Umofia in Things Fall Apart – the one book that most inspired Chinelo as a child –  the national character and problems of Nigeria are never very far from the tips of these authors’ pens despite the fact that both have spent a significant portion of their lives beyond its shores.

Chinelo, who was born in Port Harcourt, admits to never feeling a sense of belonging in America, the country to which her family moved when she was aged ten, despite having lived there for the last two decades. This yearning for home is evident in her writing: “In my stories you’ll always be led back to Nigeria”. Particularly Port Harcourt, the city of her, perhaps romanticised, childhood memories.

Her first return, in her twenties, was the fulfillment of the wistful longing she had borne since she was a ten-year old skeptically beholding the new order of Boston. That excitement that would be expected of any other child had eluded her then, and has failed to materialise in the ensuing years. “I can vividly remember wanting so much to go back and wondering how far away from home we were, and that if I had to walk back, how long it would take me.”

But her eventual return was not devoid of a particular poignancy; with her American accent and her winter-tempered complexion, she stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. She explains this as the dilemma of the diasporan: “In a sense, it was exactly like I had expected, being in a place where you feel you belong. But of course I didn’t, because people immediately look at you and know that you’re not local; it’s sad to know that even where I should fit in, I don’t. Some of us walk around just never knowing where to belong.”

Again like Okonkwo’s Umuofia, overtaken by the albino men and their iron horses, Port Harcourt had transformed in Chinelo’s eyes, it’s population seeming to have increased exponentially. “The place I remember isn’t what’s there now. Memory has a way of idealising things.” And although she maintains a stoic upbeatness – “It is beautiful in a different way.” – her writing belies the claim that this long awaited homecoming was one of fulfilled expectations.

The frequent power cuts, the oil pollution, the public officials needing to be bribed, and the chaos and poverty of Nigeria bleed onto the pages of her stories, and have indeed provided for her their own unique inspirations. She has been particularly devoted to pointing out the subject of “NEPA taking the light away,” sinceaccompanyinga sick aunt to a hospital only for the facility to be plunged into darkness. “It’s not good that people can potentially die in hospitals where suddenly the equipment stop working. I am not interested in politics but I am political in the sense that I will always write about issues that concern me as my way of demonstrating my concerns.”

But it isn’t only the dysfunction that Chinelo manages to chronicle, the identity and values of Nigeria reflect widely. Copiusly employing unexpounded-on Nigerian terms, with some stories like “Runs Girl” and “Story Story” entitled in Pidgin English, Chinelo doesnt worry that this might throw of foreign readers unfamiliar with the local patois,  “Those who will get it will get it, those who want to get it will too. The world is a global village; there are opportunities  to  find things out.”

Some of Chinelo’s characters appear to mirror her personality – a hybrid of ingenious and ingenuous: In “Runs Girl”, a story that juxtaposes oil wealth with national poverty, and religious piety with the inbred superstition of Nigerians, Ada decides to try going out with a “mugu” when burdened with responsibility for a sick mother and dwindling resources. When her debut experience gets out of control, she returns home to her bedridden mother with a tear-streaked but heavily made up face, and with a purse bulging with petro-dollars – payment for the liaison with her client. When I point out that perhaps not many people would go home to their sick mothers in this manner, Chinelo says “She isn’t someone that is worldly wise; and if I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t have the clarity of mind not to do the same.” While Nnenna of “America”, Chinelo says, “knows, like I do, what it is to live with a sort of love that is forbidden, condemned.”

For this school teacher and writer with an MFA in Fiction, examining emotional truth – “not how we’ve been sabotaged, but how we sabotage ourselves” – is the most important consideration in writing. During our interview, she tells truths of her own: being a mother is her greatest ambition;  despite being a writer, she isn’t herself an avid reader; she has a lot of anxiety where public life and public speaking are concerned, and this is the worst thing about being a writer for her; she will always pursue writing in conjunction with teaching because she fears the stereotype of the “starving artist”; she struggles to dredge up a single happy memory of her childhood. And she goes on to describe herself as a solitary homebody whose only extravagance is a daily ice cream treat, and a Macbook that reads back her work in its “little robotic voice”.

Chinelo attributes her start in writing to growing up in Boston as an introverted child: “I was always shy growing up; I had difficulty expressing myself, it might have come naturally that I could express things in writing.” Her future in writing was effectively charted when, as a child, she won a prize for  an essay on abuse. “It seemed I could write so i continued that way,” she says. She, however, moved on to write fiction because it afforded her the opportunity to shrug off her own somewhat shuttered background and acquire other adventures.

Responding to the charge by some critics that modern African writers do not do justice to the continent by portraying Africa as being decades behind what it really is, Chinelo asserts that “Writing will do what writing will. The portrayal of Africa is not something I think authors need to be preoccupied with. It doesn’t mean that just because it doesn’t appear in writing, Africa is not modern.” To Chinelo, the greater crimes that authors commit are a lack of emotional truth and overly-decorative language.

With a short story collection and a novel set to be released soon, Chinelo’s greatest anxiety is the kind of reception she will receive from Nigeria when her books hit the shelves. “I keep being scared that my Nigerian readers won’t receive me well.”

I doubt that she need fear as since first getting published, a critic has praised her thus: “a perfect crafter of sentences. I could read her grocery list and still be satisfied”.In addition, Chinelo is mentored by none other than the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marilynne Robinson, though she still manages to exhibit the humility of an ingenue who has somehow crashed a writers’ membership club. With a two-book deal made with none other than international publisher, Granta Books, I have the feeling that Chinelo Okparanta is poised to take her place in the pantheon of Nigerian writers who’ve made their mark abroad – as well as at home.

First published in The Sun Nigeria, 9 June, 2012

Author Q&A Series: Diana Evans

Standard

Diana Evans is of Nigerian-British descent; born in London, she spent some of her childhood in Lagos. She started out as a dancer in a Brighton dance troupe before embarking on a writing career. She has since written for publications like Marie Claire, The Independent, and the Guardian. Her debut novel, 26a, received a Betty Trask award, her second book, The Wonder, was published in 2009. Both of her novels derive quite a bit from her own background. She tells us here about wrestling the wild beast of plot, reincarnating Amy Winehouse and the moment that keeps recurring in her writing.

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

Georgia Hunter from 26a. We understand each other.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

A story about a man being pulled into the world beneath the Thames carrying a suitcase. There was a picture to match.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

In a bookshop in Manhattan.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

Books can only be written by the authors that wrote them, otherwise they just wouldn’t exist. There are many books I love, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – I could go on.

Shakespeare or Dickens?

Dickens mainly but King Lear has a special place in my heart.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

A life coach I recently stumbled across at a party told me I should aim for a Nobel Prize, but there’s something unhealthy and misdirected about wishing for awards. They’re incidental to the work. So I guess a million.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

The latter. I want to be writing books, decent ones .

Best perk of being a writer?

You live freely and creatively. You get to exercise an enormous godly power while sitting at a desk.

Worst thing about being a writer?

You are your own worst enemy, and it is isolating.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I remember the bad ones even more vaguely than the good.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

Just because you’ve written a book it doesn’t mean you know how to write a book.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

Absolute dogged determination and the ability to focus through anything.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling and punctuation.

Five.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

Readers complete the writing by reading it. The imaginative world you have offered they colour with their own subjective and beautiful palettes.

What word or phrase, if any, do you overuse in your writing?

‘Moment’.

What would your 20 year old self say if he were to meet the writer you’ve become?

Don’t forget what you’re about.

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

My partner, and still is.

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

A woman at a reading began to cry when we spoke afterwards because 26a had reminded her so much of her sister who suffered from depression.

What is your guilty reading?

Sometimes I read about celebrities on Yahoo! That’s about it.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Pulling everything together into a coherent structure and plot. That is the hardest thing. It feels like wrestling with a wild beast.

And the most pleasurable?

Playing with language. Finding new, unusual, shiny ways of saying things.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Overwriting.  I used to do it a lot but less now. When you’re starting out you think it’s not ok to be plain and simple but it is.

How do you motivate yourself after a manuscript rejection?

This has not yet happened. I imagine I would listen to lots of music and do lots of yoga and swimming and running and go back to my desk.

Tell us your literary process – from conception to first draft.

It’s slightly chaotic. I do character work, writing out the character’s life-changing moments, having them talk to me, interviewing them. I map out the main events in the story horizontally across a page and write them as scenes as best I can. At some point, hopefully, there is a kind of BANG, when I can finally see the whole thing. I revise and rewrite in accordance with the bang. Then I leave it for a while.

Literary talent: how much of it is talent and how much is painstaking determination?

I would say forty percent of it is talent and the rest is effort. Talent without a good work ethic is useless.

Do you think Africa is being unfairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should preoccupy writers?

It is too much of a burden on a writer to say that they should represent a continent in any which way. Writers should write what they observe and experience, what they feel, regardless.

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die?

Just one? Probably Anna Karenina.  And Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Amy Winehouse making a third album but in good health.

What’s next?

A new novel, then another, and then I think a hiatus.

Read others in the Author Q&A Series