Novelist, Efua Traoré, has found that children can be the most challenging audience: ‘Children are not very patient and they are brutally honest. You have to keep them engaged from page one.’
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?
I devoured books as a kid and luckily for me, we had a fantastic public library in our then still small town of Ekpoma. Like most kids in Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, I grew up with the usual books that were available like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and many more. After that, I moved straight to the adult section in my library. Here, I read a lot of classic literature like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle and books by Georg Elliot, the Brontë sisters, Daniel Defoe and many more.
I read everything I could get my hands on back then but I think the books that stayed with me in a very special kind of way were a set of books called Tales From, which comprised folk tales and legends from around the world. I have always been fascinated by mythologies and traditional tales, which we of course have in abundance in Nigeria. I also enjoyed watching the Nigerian TV show Tales by Moonlight because of this. I was a huge fan of any stories set around myths and I missed seeing our own intriguing Nigerian tales in books.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Okay, this question just had me doing a re-cap and compartmentalisation of my entire life, which was a little weird. But I think I would say I’m currently at a stage of (somewhat belated) self-discovery. Since I discovered my passion for writing some years back, I have noticed I do a lot of self-reflection. Not only while writing my books but also while writing articles or doing Q&As like this one.
I have found out that writing is not only about sharing your thoughts and ideas with your readers. You also share little bits of your soul with them, bits that you didn’t know existed and which you stumble over while writing. So, to come back to the question, I would say any books or texts on self-discovery would fit this stage of my life.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
Someone wrote something along the lines of children’s books obviously just being for children. I don’t agree with that. I think every adult should read one children’s book per month. Seriously! Or well, at least once in a while. Being around children, listening to them, reading children’s books helps adults touch back with forgotten parts of themselves. Parts of you that ground you. There is a particular openheartedness, fervour and optimism that kids still have, and this is often reflected in children’s books.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
This question had me thinking because it makes the idea of changing one’s mind appear unusual or spectacular. I often worry that people tend to get too categorical nowadays, with mindsets fixed in stone. Maybe we need a new norm: to allow something or someone open and change our minds every day.
I have found out that writing is not only about sharing your thoughts and ideas with your readers. You also share little bits of your soul with them, bits that you didn’t know existed and which you stumble over while writing.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Definitely edit as I write. When I sit down to write, I always start by re-reading the previous chapter or section before writing the next. This helps me get back into the novel vibe. And since I am the itchy-finger or as we like to say, oversabi type of person, who cannot leave things the way they are, I always end up doing a bit of editing before I continue. But since I have deadlines, I often do try to limit my urge to edit along the way because if not I would never finish my drafts.
Early last year you released your debut novel, Children of the Quicksands—which won the Times/Chicken House Prize for Children’s Fiction. What was your process for writing this novel?
I initially wrote Children of the Quicksands for my daughters in German because that is their first language. It was quite an interesting writing process because I started reading the story to them when I was just a few chapters in. Every evening at bedtime, I would read them a chapter. They absolutely loved the story and kept asking for more until we caught up with my writing. I had to write faster than ever to keep up. It was wonderful to get direct feedback from them. I could see if a scene was working well in their questions and reactions (laughing, worried, confused, scared). This was very helpful in the editing process. My children were literally my very first editors!
When we finished, it was as if we’d gone on an exciting adventure together. It felt very special and I knew I had to share the story. So, I translated the manuscript into English, which would have been my initial choice for writing a book set in Nigeria. And then I sent it in for the Times/Chicken House competition in the United Kingdom, which I eventually won
And what’s one thing about the reception to the novel that surprised you?
In Children of the Quicksands, I thought it would be the plot and the tie-in of Yoruba mythology that would be most interesting for readers. And I did get a lot of positive feedback on that. But I was also surprised at the fascination with my descriptions of village life in Nigeria including customs and traditions;, simple things I grew up seeing and just included naturally into my story. And I got this feedback from Nigerians as well, people who spent their entire life in Lagos and who had never been to a more rural Nigerian setting.
Your second novel, The House of Shells, is already available in the UK and coming to Nigeria in October. It is a magic-fantasy tale drawing from Yoruba mythology. What inspired this story?
Some years back, I discovered a huge, enchanting mansion at the back of a private estate in Lekki. It looked like it fell right out of a magical realm and into Lagos, bringing its tall pillars, colossal statues and lavish crumbling charm along with it. To my surprise it was abandoned and I couldn’t imagine why such a beautiful place, built with such intricate detail and love would be left to fall to ruins. I was absolutely enthralled by this sad beauty. This place combined with the swamp forest vegetation and ocean backdrop of Lekki, immediately had my mind going off on its own, as it often does, in search of the story behind the house.
This house, combined with my fascination with the Yoruba myth around the abiku, those mischievous spirit children, led to the story of The House of Shells.
In what ways is writing a second novel different from writing a debut novel?
For my second novel, I had a clear deadline. This meant I couldn’t do as much of the dreaming and dwelling that I did in the past before starting to write. Also, I was plagued by the well-known author condition of second book syndrome with symptoms of self-doubt, fear of not meeting up to expectations etc. But luckily, once in a while, a sensible voice called through the haze to remind me that if I did it once, I could do it again.
I think every adult should read one children’s book per month. Seriously! Or well, at least once in a while. Being around children, listening to them, reading children’s books helps adults touch back with forgotten parts of themselves.
Your two published novels have been magic-fantasy stories for children. Why children specifically?
Like I mentioned earlier, as a kid I missed seeing our Nigerian stories in books. 20 years later, when I was looking for books for my kids, I was shocked that the situation had hardly changed. Where were the magical bushbaby tales, the boarding school—lady koi-koi—series, the mami-wata mysteries or the fun contemporary Nigerian stories for kids? I was extremely disappointed.
In the vulnerable phase of childhood, kids are building their consciousness and self-image, their confidence in themselves. What self-image will children have if their stories are never being told? We have an abundance of Nigerian authors, writing great literature for adults, many of them are highly acclaimed within Nigeria and world–wide. But, unfortunately, the same doesn’t apply for children. Our little ones, who would need Nigerian stories the most, are still reading (only) Famous Five and Secret Seven. That’s why I decided to write Children of the Quicksands for my daughters. I wasn’t willing to see my kids face the same one-sided choice of books in their library.
And why fantasy stories?
Well, what I have written so far is more of magic realism than fantasy. I guess I have always loved that in Nigeria, the supernatural is a normal part of everyday life. Magic charms, people changing into cats at night, spirit children and other inexplicable concepts drift around modern structures and beliefs like old whispery spirits refusing to go away. I love that. There is so much food for imagination.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a children’s book?
Writing a book for children is not as easy as one might think. Children are not very patient and they are brutally honest. You have to keep them engaged from page one. If you want to be a successful children’s book author you have to be able to create highly intriguing characters, a gripping and action driven plot and lots of high stakes.
In 2018, you were the Africa winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for your story, ‘True Happiness’. What inspired this story?
I don’t think I can place the exact moment the inspiration came. I just remember I sat down to write the story of a 13-year-old boy with a lot of anger in him, a boy trying to do the right thing but fighting a hopeless battle. I edited it a lot of times, switching between having almost the whole story in Pidgin and having it completely in English. Finally, I settled for a mix somewhere in between.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your books/stories?
One of my most touching moments was watching a video of a British-Nigerian 10-year-old holding my book and saying she was proud that she was Yoruba like my main character, Simi. That really had me sobbing. To be able to move a child (especially a Nigerian child) with my story and make them bond with my characters, identify with them, see themselves in them is mind-blowing. Through social media so many people have shared the most wonderful posts and videos and even fan-art with me, each time convincing me that I’m doing something important.
You’re Nigerian-German, but you spent most of your childhood growing up in Nigeria. How has your multicultural background and experiences influenced your writing?
I think my multicultural background has given me two separate perspectives that split me into two separate entities as a writer. I am either Nigerian or German when writing. When writing a story set in Nigeria, I am a Nigerian writing in English. When the story that creeps its way into my mind is set in Europe, then I suddenly find myself writing in German and my Nigerian side is forgotten. Maybe I need to write a story of a German family moving to Nigeria or the other way round to bring about a touchpoint or blending of both sides of me. I think I might actually try that!
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
One of the best pieces of advice I received was given to me in my early stages of writing. At the time, my academic background in market research and data analysis had me constantly worrying about factual accuracy and authenticity in my writing. I would often find myself doubting and dissecting every idea I had, and researching instead of just writing. Mind you, I wasn’t writing historical fiction.
The advice was: ‘It is your story, you hold the strings in your hands.’ I think that image of me, holding the strings loosened something in me and gave me the freedom I had not allowed myself. This advice also has more meaning hidden within. It is also about believing in yourself and in what you are writing. At the end of the day, fiction writing is not about convincing others about something, it’s about creating a world you believe in.
In Children of the Quicksands, I thought it would be the plot and the tie-in of Yoruba mythology that would be most interesting for readers. And I did get a lot of positive feedback on that. But I was also surprised at the fascination with my descriptions of village life in Nigeria including customs and traditions; simple things I grew up seeing and just included naturally into my story.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
I’m super-excited about any authors of Nigerian or African origin who write stories set in Africa for children and young adults. Authors like Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch series), Tola Okogwu (Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun), Atinuke (Too small Tola series) and Sabine Adeyinka (Jummy at the River School).
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I love any stories that suggests the possibility of the supernatural;, stories that question the reality in which we live, that search for hidden truths in old myths or ask that question, ‘what if?’ It can be full-blown magic realism like Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi but it can just be a vague sense of the supernatural pervading a book, giving it that wonderfully mystical vibe like The Deep Blue Between by Ayesha Haruna Attah or The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.
What are you currently working on?
A young adult mystery set in Abeokuta.
As a kid I missed seeing our Nigerian stories in books. 20 years later, when I was looking for books for my kids, I was shocked that the situation had hardly changed.
Question from Chinelo Okparanta: When you set out to write your latest book, did you have any concerns, worries, fears? If so, how do you push past them?
I have found out that my concerns and fears are often in some way related to self-doubt, so I constantly try to work on myself and believing in my work. The concerns have become less in the process.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
As a writer of adult fiction, have you ever considered writing for children or young adults? If not, why not?⎈
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