Author of A Particular Kind of Black Man, Tope Folarin, believes creative writing is more than just having an active imagination: ‘One must learn and become fluent in the craft of writing before giving one’s imagination free rein.’
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?
Reading was profoundly important to me as a child because, to be frank, I didn’t really have anything else. My father did not allow my siblings and me to watch much television, and the radio was off limits. Also, on the weekends my father would often drop us off at the library before going to work, and he’d pick us up after he was done. So I spent a great deal of time around books. The books that had the greatest impact on me as a child were The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Earthsea Cycle series by Ursula K. Leguin, The Wrinkle In Time Quintet by Madeline L’Engle, and the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card. These books transformed my relationship with the written word, altered the way I thought about the world and my place in it, and—looking back—inspired me to embark on my own journey as a writer.
What about those books inspired you to become a writer?
As a child I was struck by how immersive these books were. They felt real to me; they were not mere stories. I always marveled at the fact that the authors of these books possessed the skill and power to whisk me away to some other dimension, and the more I read the more I desired the ability to do this for others as well.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
The first chapter book I ever read was The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop. I can no longer remember the plot, but I do remember—I’ll always remember—the way I felt as I was reading it. Some state beyond elation. I searched for similar books and eventually found the classics I mentioned before. So I’d probably hand this book to a child to start them down the path of a lifelong literary addiction.
Reading was profoundly important to me as a child because, to be frank, I didn’t really have anything else.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I won’t even try. Even if I disagree with certain aspects of the text, it has endured for a reason. And if the thing is riddled with errors—moral or otherwise—then let us learn from them.
What three books would you recommend to your younger writing self?
I would say that I’m still influenced by three books I read at the beginning of my writing journey: The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Tranströmer, Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg and Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Patrice Somé.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
Unfortunately, I’ve been reading less during the pandemic because the rhythms of my life have been disrupted. Before the pandemic, I was able to apportion a few hours of my day to my day job, a few more to my family, and a final few to my personal intellectual pursuits. No longer. Now everything bleeds into everything else. I’m trying my best to reclaim my time.
And what about your writing?
I’m still writing! Not as quickly as before the pandemic, perhaps, but writing consistently nonetheless. I have an idea I’m excited about and it brings me back to my laptop each night.
What’s a recent book/text you disagreed with, and why?
I read a lot of novels, and it’s difficult to disagree with a novel (though it’s not so hard to dislike one). I recently read a piece in the periodical, n+1, about the current state of American literary criticism; it has inspired much discussion online, and I found myself nodding my head at various points, and shaking my head at others. I tend to love long pieces but my biggest disagreement with this particular piece is its length. I think the problem with American literary criticism can be boiled down to one sentence: the same five critics write about the same five writers over and over again.
I think the problem with American literary criticism can be boiled down to one sentence: the same five critics write about the same five writers over and over again.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
I recently read Fairview, the play by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and it prompted me to reconsider a notion I’ve held for a long time about the futility of confrontational theater. I’ve seen a great many plays in my life, and I’ve often found myself rolling my eyes a bit when the audience is asked to engage in some way. Don’t get me wrong—I love it when art breaks the fourth wall. I guess I’ve just had a few bizarre experiences. I’ve never seen Drury’s play, but the text convinced me that the audience can—and, depending on the makeup of the audience, should—play an essential role in constructing the meaning and intentions of a play.
What’s a common misconception about creative writing?
That it’s merely an act of dreaming something up and rendering it on the page. One must learn and become fluent in the craft of writing before giving one’s imagination free rein.
One must learn and become fluent in the craft of writing before giving one’s imagination free rein.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I try to write as freely as possible in the beginning, which means no editing, though who am I kidding? I’m always polishing a sentence here and there. That said, my objective when I start a piece is to get as many words on the page as possible. The words become grains of sand; after I’ve finished the draft I can begin to shape a castle from them.
What was your process for writing ‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’?
I began by writing from my life, and then I noticed that my protagonist had ambitions of his own. And then I noticed that the book itself had ambitions, that it wished to express certain ideas about the way books should be structured and the manner in which books should communicate with readers. I was fearful at first because I know how the market works, what the market expects from someone like me. But then I got out of the way.
The book cover for ‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’ is stunning. Can you tell us how it came about/why you chose it?
I love visual art—it’s one of my obsessions. I’m constantly looking at paintings online and each weekend I visit the museum. I’ve also started to collect art in my own timid way. I have a friend from grad school who owns a gallery in South Africa, and occasionally I’ll ask her who she’s excited about. Around the time I was finishing my book she sent me a few images from her latest catalogue and I found that I was taken with the work of Admire Kamudzengerere—an artist I’d never heard of before. I started searching for his art all over the web and came across the image that now adorns the cover of my book. The moment I saw the piece I recognized it. I sent it to my publisher and asked if they’d consider using it for my cover. They agreed.
What’s something you wish more people knew about writing a novel?
I wish that people knew writing a novel is generally a meandering, maddening process. I’ve heard of novelists who plan each chapter in advance and know before they begin precisely how their novel will end, but for many of us writing a novel is like walking in the dark with a dying flashlight. You can see the path ahead of you, but not quite. You keep moving forward because you have faith the path is there, that it will lead you where you need to go.
I try to write as freely as possible in the beginning, which means no editing, though who am I kidding? I’m always polishing a sentence here and there.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I started my writing journey I found myself at a poetry workshop and the facilitator asked us to introduce ourselves. I said my name and mentioned I was an aspiring writer. She turned to me with fury and compassion in her eyes and said I should always call myself a writer. No adjectives needed. She changed my life.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I can honestly say that I’ve encountered the writers who have inspired me at precisely the right moment in my life. I first read James Baldwin as a sophomore in college when I was ready to confront how Christianity and race had shaped my thinking. I first read Tomas Tranströmer in 2009 when I was besotted with poetic imagery. The following year, I read Deborah Eisenberg’s work for the first time, at exactly the moment I was trying to figure out how to integrate my poetic impulses into prose. They came to me when I needed them.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
At the moment I’m obsessed with writing about reality. How our reality came to be, who benefits from the status quo, and how we might refashion our reality.
I can honestly say that I’ve encountered the writers who have inspired me at precisely the right moment in my life.
What can we expect you to write about next?
A novel about a character who manages to alter his reality!
Question from Eloghosa Osunde: Whose work would you say yours is friends with?
Fascinating question. I can’t help but think of the writers I constantly read when I’m composing my own work—Tranströmer, Eisenberg, Edward P. Jones, Edith Pearlman, Helon Habila, Alice Munro, Bessie Head, Denis Johnson, Franz Kafka, Alex La Guma, Viginia Woolf, Aminatta Forna…you see, I could go on and on.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
Say you find yourself in a writer’s house. You peruse their bookshelf and discover your book there. You are overcome with happiness and pride. Who is this writer? And why?⎈
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