Engineer, editor and author of Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, Wole Talabi, believes the mechanics of storytelling at any length aren’t different. However, ‘the main difference between writing a short story and writing a novel is the time commitment needed to finish a novel and the number of story threads that need to be maintained and brought together to make a complete whole.’
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 read a bit of everything. I read my parents Encyclopaedias and the typical ‘classics’ of English literature. I read Enid Blyton and Ikebe Super. I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels and Frederick Forsyth’s political thrillers. I read a lot of short story anthologies. I read Homer and Isaac Asimov and Cyprian Ekwensi. I read a lot as a kid. I started early as a very eclectic reader, mostly because my parents had a lot of books around the house, and I also used to love picking random books from libraries (I was also the library prefect in secondary school) and reading them. These days though, I’m much more selective about what I read.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I’m not sure a book captures my present moment. A movie does though. At least the title—Everything Everywhere All At Once.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I mostly read fiction so it’s hard to disagree with anything in that since, well, it’s fiction. You either like it or dislike it but it is hard to agree or disagree with. However, last summer I read a non-fiction book. A biography titled Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance. While I don’t disagree with any specific facts in the book, I fundamentally disagreed with the author’s positioning and manner of reporting the facts which constantly claimed to be objective and unbiased but clearly came across as thinly veiled idolatry of Musk. It reminded me why I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction. At least with fiction, I know someone is trying to sell me on a story.
I started early as a very eclectic reader, mostly because my parents had a lot of books around the house, and I also used to love picking random books from libraries.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been quite pessimistic about humanity’s ability to respond practically to the global challenge of climate change given the way governments and corporations have fumbled. But this is a very-grounded, science-fictional account of a possible future where we make progress on political, economic and technological fronts, tending toward a better planet, made me change my mind. I am more optimistic now. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible, probable even.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
I truly believe it’s the combination that matters. A story about a plain subject written magnificently can still be powerful because even the mundane, elegantly examined, can move us. An engaging subject written poorly can lose all its power. The best stories have both an engaging subject and are written in a way that maximizes the inherent power of the subject.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I am not a fan of editing while writing the first draft. It is very easy to get caught in a loop of second-guessing yourself and getting stuck. I prefer to draft first. Get everything down on the page, quick and dirty—a muddy slurry of words that contains the gems of the story, then refine—revise and edit. Drafting and editing are two separate skills. Drafting is where you have fun, you let your imagination and creativity run free without overthinking anything, editing is where you become more deliberate and calculated about what matters in the story, what makes sense. I believe trying to do both at the same time reduces your ability to do either of them effectively.
Your first novel, Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, will be published later this year. What should readers be expecting?
Readers should expect a fast-paced supernatural thriller with heart. Expect a heist story that is also a love story that is also a story of self-discovery. Expect a modern-day story that reimagines Yoruba mythology and interweaves it with many other global myths, legends. Expect a story that spans centuries and crosses continents— from Lagos to London, Ethiopia to Singapore and many more. Expect a robbery at the British museum. Expect gods, monsters, demons, magicians, giants, all jostling for power and belief. Readers can expect a lot from this book, but I think most of all they can expect something fun and unexpected and maybe, if I’ve done my job right, something that is also a bit philosophical and emotive.
What was your process for writing Shigidi?
This story has been in my mind for a long time. Or perhaps its more accurate to say that the two main characters Shigidi and Nneoma have been in my mind for a long time. I started writing short stories featuring both characters in 2015/2016 but I always wanted to tell a bigger story. When I went back to London for the Caine Prize ceremony in 2018, all my ideas coalesced. I initially started writing the story as a novella and then decided I was going to expand it into a full novel. I did the bulk of writing between 2020 and 2021, during the pandemic. I had been thinking about the story for so long that I got down the first draft in a few months and then I spent another year editing and revising—getting feedback, adding new scenes, changing others, just overall making the story work better.
Expect a modern-day story that reimagines Yoruba mythology and interweaves it with many other global myths, legends.
And which books would you say Shigidi is in conversation with?
That’s a great question. It’s probably most in conversation with Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe; Anansi Boys and American Gods both by Neil Gaiman; David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa; and The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross.
Prior to this book, you have worked on short stories. What makes writing short stories different from writing a novel?
For me, the mechanics of storytelling at any length aren’t different. Get idea. Write first draft. Revise and edit. Publish. However, the main difference between writing a short story and writing a novel is the time commitment needed to finish a novel and the number of story threads that need to be maintained and brought together to make a complete whole. Each scene or chapter in a novel is its own story with its own mini arc that feeds into the larger story, and I try to write them that way.
I think an editor’s primary job is to make the story the best possible version of itself that it can be. To read the story, engage with it, ask the author questions about it, understand what the author is trying to achieve with it and then help them do it better. To get the effect that they want it to have on readers. Sometimes it is something small like removing certain words or lines from a story. Sometimes its larger, like asking them to consider changing the point of view or characterization to make the story more powerful. I don’t believe in editorial rules. Each story needs its own approach, and a good editor should be able to adapt to each story.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
There have been a lot but the one I remember most is when I did a reading of one of my stories An Arc Of Electric Skin that made everyone, including the host of the reading, cry. It was such a big emotional reaction and reminded me of the power of stories to move us.
I don’t believe in editorial rules. Each story needs its own approach, and a good editor should be able to adapt to each story.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Tade Thompson once told me that ‘Struggling with something is often an indication that you are learning,’ when I sent him a draft of a story I was struggling with. This has been very meaningful to me because I like to try new things in my writing and they don’t always work and I often struggle with them, trying different ways to make something work, but I keep his advice in mind and keep trying anyway.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
There are a lot of authors whose work excites me, but to avoid rambling, I’ll limit myself to three African authors with work coming out soon that I am excited about.
First, Pemi Aguda, who I’ve known for more than a decade and whose writing is consistently brilliant, unsettling, weird and very Nigerian. She has a master architects’ skill at constructing stories. I’ve watched her style take shape over the years (I call it Nigerian Gothic) and I am excited to see her novel The Suicide Mothers as well as her first short fiction collection Ghostroots next year.
Second, I love Lauren Beukes’ writing (Zoo City is probably my favorite work of south African speculative fiction) and I am super excited about her upcoming science fiction novel Bridge which features multiple universes.
Third, Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ’s Dazzling, which I have been excited about for a while. A story of sisters, spirits, and leopards, this one should be a banger.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I am fascinated by the human brain and how it works. I often write about consciousness and sentience—what they mean and how they could change with technology. My two most recent short stories A Dream Of Electric Mothers in the Africa Risen anthology and Performance Review, written for Google Research, are both about the workings of the brain, but they approach it from different ways. The first, considers an artificial intelligence made up of the recorded minds of the deceased and the second considers what companies might do to alter the minds of their employees to improve productivity. Actually, the specific exploration of digitally recorded minds in the first story is a steady feature in my fiction as I have written four stories about this in the last few years.
What are you currently working on?
Quite a lot. Right now, I’m finishing up details for Shigidi. I’m writing a new dark fantasy short story set in East Africa during World War II. I’m editing a new anthology of stories set in the Sauútiverse, a fictional secondary world based on a blend of African cultural worldviews and inspirations (that should be out around the end of this year). I am also working on a new collection of short fiction. And finally, I’m working on the draft of a second novel which will be a science fiction story that takes place in Nigeria and South Africa. It’s going to be an interesting 24 months.
I’m working on the draft of a second novel which will be a science fiction story that takes place in Nigeria and South Africa.
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?
Yes. Absolutely. Shigidi is my first novel and I was initially concerned that I didn’t quite know how to write a long form story. I’d written short stories and novellas before but nothing over twenty-five thousand words. Thankfully I had spoken to other authors who encouraged me, I’d studied the techniques, found that the mechanics were the same and I read Stephen King’s On Writing, which gave many practical tips. So, in the end I trusted myself and jumped into the writing and just didn’t stop until the book was done.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
Compared to the first draft of your novel, is the second draft usually longer or shorter? And why?⎈
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