Author of Tomorrow I Become A Woman, Aiwanose Odafen, left an accounting background to fully pursue writing: ‘I’ve often chosen the uncommon option, paths that my family has largely disagreed with. I have a first class degree in Accounting, I’m a chartered accountant and hold an MBA from Oxford, but I decided to become a writer, no one understands it, I’m not sure I fully do either.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, we didn’t travel a lot and so books were my pathway to knowledge of the far and beyond. I was a very curious child and I wanted to know what was out there, and my parents fed my curiosity.
My father and I used to have ‘bookshopping’ days when we’d go to bookshops and pick out all sorts of books, particularly fiction, for me to read. He also got me a lot of books on random topics like political biographies and the history of banking and the Medici family. To be honest I read a lot of books I had no business reading at that age. I also read a lot of Jane Austen, Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Elliot. For Nigerian authors, I read a very good number of the classics — Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder’s Eze Goes to School, Eddie Iroh’s Without A Silver Spoon, Kola Onadpie’s Sugar Girl etc.—but I particularly enjoyed works by Chinua Achebe (Arrow of God), Buchi Emecheta (The Joys of Motherhood remains an obsession of mine), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus), Ola Rotimi (Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again) and Anezi Okoro: humour has always been important to me in writing and I absolutely appreciated the hilarity of One Week One Trouble. Hopefully, one day, I’ll write a book as lighthearted from beginning to end.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I’d say not a book but a poem — The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. I first came across this poem as a student in secondary school and I remember being so struck by it, and ever so often, I return to it for assurance.
In the third stanza it says:
‘In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.’
That has literally been my life for the last couple of years, I’ve often chosen the uncommon option, paths that my family has largely disagreed with. I have a first class degree in Accounting, I’m a chartered accountant and hold an MBA from Oxford, but I decided to become a writer; no one understands it, I’m not sure I fully do either.
Several times I’ve told myself, ‘You can always go back’ or ‘You’re still qualified to do that if this doesn’t pan out’ very much like Robert Frost said, ‘Oh, I kept the first for another day.’ But very much like he pointed out, one path leads to another, and I often wonder if I’ll ever return.
I’ve always made decisions based on what felt right, just like when I chose to go to the Social Science (Arts) class in senior secondary school and take subjects like Literature and Government; and when I had to insist to school authorities that I still be allowed to take Further Mathematics and remain on the Olympiad team because I loved maths just as much, even though the Vice Principal thought I was better suited for the Science class. If I hadn’t chosen to take Literature back then and become influenced by my wonderful teachers like Ms. Henrietta Ngumezi, I probably would have never become a writer.
So like Frost said, I live every day thinking,
‘I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
He never says if the ending sigh is positive or not, and to be quite honest, I can’t blame him. But I always believe that mine will be, positive that is, because at the end of the day, it’s better to live it than to wonder what if.
And if you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
There was a point in my life when I was obsessed with Jane Austen, so I’d probably rewrite Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. I know there have already been so many rewrites already but maybe I can put a unique spin to it, perhaps that would be my beginning to end hilarious book. If not that, then Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because why not?
Humour has always been important to me in writing and I absolutely appreciated the hilarity of Anezi Okoro’s One Week One Trouble. Hopefully, one day, I’ll write a book as lighthearted from beginning to end.
What’s the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
A tough question because I’m currently working on a manuscript and so I tend to immerse myself deeply in the sort of fiction I admire, in whatever genre I’m working on, and it’s pretty hard to disagree with what you like. But I still read articles and the most recent text I disagreed with would be the initial draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that would overturn abortion rights in the United States. If passed, the consequences would extend far beyond the borders of the US and, in fact, would negatively impact the work of others that are still working to get abortion rights enshrined in the law for women in their countries.
America is a flawed democracy but we cannot deny that for many, it is seen as a beacon. Women have a right to determine what happens with their bodies, and a right to legal and safe abortions. I mean we’ve seen the positive impact this has had on maternal mortality figures (I used to work in public health, particularly vaccines and family planning financing), as well as the economic consequences. It is quite frankly an inanity that this is happening in the year of our Lord 2022.
And what’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
Whew. Another tough question. Conversations tend to change my mind not books. Just listening to someone or people explain or go over an idea in detail or disagreeing in a civilized manner and going back and forth with data supporting their ideology does the trick for me; maybe it’s because I read more fiction than nonfiction but even when I do, I generally have to listen to or have conversations to be convinced. That said, my dad recently gifted me Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia. I’m not done with it yet (because I’m in the middle of a manuscript) so I can’t give a final verdict, but it does seem to have some important points on living a better life that I should probably adopt.
Early on in your career, you worked in the more ‘corporate’ (as opposed to the creative) sector. What’s a common misconception about becoming a writer/novelist?
That writing is easy or not serious work. I’ve had several people make faces when they asked, ‘What do you do now?’ and I replied with, ‘I’m a writer.’ Over the years, I’ve come to develop even deeper respect for writers and their work because I know just how difficult it was to write at times and the number of things I had to research on just to complete, in some cases, a sentence. It is a lot of hard work to write, and writers should always be well compensated for their work.
Which three figures (authors and/or non-authors) greatly influenced your decision to publish a book?
Buchi Emecheta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and my mum.
I have a first class degree in Accounting, I’m a chartered accountant and hold an MBA from Oxford, but I decided to become a writer, no one understands it, I’m not sure I fully do either
What’s your writing process? Do you edit as you write or write a draft first, then edit?
I never begin a book or story until I have a general idea what it’s like from beginning to end because I think in sequences. If I don’t know the end, no matter how vague, I won’t be motivated to push through the beginning.
So I usually open a blank Google Doc and write out a numbered sketchy outline that tells the story from beginning to end. Then I fill out the outline with any notes or research I’ve gathered up until that point, then I start writing. I fill out the outline even more for a chapter before I start working on that chapter then I write. Once I have a first draft, I send it out to my trusted readers which include my close friends and my agent, I wait for their responses no matter how long it takes; it gives me time away from the work to clear my eyes and head.
Once they get back to me, I go over the work again, coupling their feedback with whatever new insights I gained during my ‘break’ then I either work on the document itself or if I feel the changes are major, open a blank document that’s meant to be the next draft version and start slashing through the existing work with corrections. I approach editing as a consultant paid to review a document or as a reader considering whether a book is worth buying so I tend to be really nonforgiving of myself.
What was your process for writing your novel, Tomorrow I Become a Woman?
I always joke that the process was a bit insane because it kind of was. When I started, I’d never written a novel before or even planned to write one but I knew I had a story I wanted to tell. And so I wrote a draft outline and spent the next two and a half years adding to the outline, researching endlessly and writing a first draft while working full time. It’s loosely based on women I know, but I wanted it to be as far reaching as possible. Whenever I got lost, I picked up a copy of Americanah to redirect my thoughts (I’ve probably read it at least five times by now). When I was done with the first draft, I sent it to my friends to read, edited it, then googled, ‘how to get published.’
- How many words was your first draft?
One hundred and sixty thousand (160,000) words. Insane, I know!
- How long did it take for you to write it?
Two and a half years.
- And to find a publisher?
Another two years of edits and finding an agent that absolutely loves and champions my work.
- How many words was the final draft?
One hundred and five thousand (105,000) words.
- Which chapter did you complete first?
The first. I’m very much a numbers person at my core and tend to think and write sequentially. I really admire those that can write the last chapter and come back to start the first or middle chapter; they are true creatives.
- And last?
The very last chapter.
- Which chapter was the easiest to write?
The first because most of it was lighthearted and stuff I was relatively familiar with.
- And the hardest?
I don’t want to say the exact chapter so I don’t give it away for those who haven’t read it or haven’t gotten to that chapter yet, but it’s the chapter where a main character dies. I really wanted the writing to be as authentic as possible and for this I had to put myself in the protagonist’s shoes to feel her pain and translate it to words and I ended up crying a lot and taking breaks in between.
- First thing that came to mind when you saw the book cover?
‘Wow. It’s really happening!’
- Your editors in one word:
- How many words was your first draft?
At what point did you realize your novel was complete?
When I rewrote a draft in the space of three weeks in January 2020 and thought to myself, ‘I would buy this book.’ That was the version that got me my agent and my book deal.
I’ve had several people make faces when they asked, ‘What do you do now?’ and I replied with, ‘I’m a writer.’
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It was during Chimamanda’s Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop and she was speaking to us about writing and I think someone asked a question. To paraphrase, Chimamanda said something along the lines of ‘put aside your agenda and just tell a story.’ At that point I was stuck on another draft of Tomorrow I Become A Woman and I had no idea what direction to go with it, and that advice changed everything. I realized then that I was so focused on my agenda/the message I was trying to pass that I forgot to tell a story. I got back home and edited the draft the following month within three weeks.
Now, every time I sit at my desk to write, I ask myself, what is the story here? Would you enjoy this as a casual reader? I narrate a draft to myself then I start writing.
I know this wasn’t asked, but the second most meaningful came when I sent the first ten chapters of a very rough draft of my novel to my friend, Diligence, when I just started writing and she read it and said, you need to describe more. Is the wall pink? Tell us!
What’s the wildest (or most transformative) goal you’ve ever given yourself as a reader and/or writer?
To complete a project in a genre on the literal opposite spectrum of my current work. I can’t say right now because it hasn’t happened yet.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Definitely Toni Morrison. She writes so beautifully, it’s such a shame that I discovered her work as an adult. I often imagine how much better my writing could have been had I discovered her earlier.
Now, every time I sit at my desk to write, I ask myself, what is the story here? Would you enjoy this as a casual reader?
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
There are so many depressing events taking place at the same time in the world right now, both home and abroad, and sometimes it all feels very overwhelming, and so I’ve often retreated to one of my happy places, which is reading a lot of YA fiction; it reminds me of simpler times.
What can we expect you to write about next?
The follow up to Tomorrow I Become A Woman; I already have a working title and a draft. I’m eager to explore the lives of the daughters of the three main characters. I’m very keen on the subject of trauma and a significant portion of the lives we live is determined by the actions of others and how we react to their actions, consciously or subconsciously. I cannot wait for readers to get to know Ego, Zina and Eriife better, and perhaps see themselves in these terrific women.
Question from Eloghosa Osunde: Whose work would you say yours is friends with?
Buchi Emecheta. She’s a major reason I decided to write Tomorrow I Become A Woman. The Joys of Motherhood radicalised a teenage me, and I remember thinking to myself that if I managed to do the same for another girl/woman, then I would have accomplished a great feat.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
When you’re not a writer, who or what are you?⎈
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