‘Romcomoisseur’ and novelist, Bolu Babalola’s favourite love stories, ‘are the ones that are quieter—friendship based, and the ones that build on connection and involve self-growth, and community.’
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?
When I was very young, from single digits to about twelve, I loved Road Dahl’s books. Funny, sharp, moralistic, fun, with the children as heroes. I was very drawn to his sense of humour. Roald Dahl never pandered to kids.
I also loved the A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket—strange because I am not drawn to darkness, but again, the wit was so sharp and storytelling so engaging. Tween and teenage years, the humour stayed but the subject matter began to focus—romance, romcoms. Jane Austen—my blueprint. Then Julia Quinn. Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison. I also used to steal Mills & Boon novels from my mother’s shelf.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I’m writing my own story right now. It isn’t already written—I find that constricting. The genre would be romcom, but also Künstlerroman—a neo-adult.
This would be the part of the story where the artist is coming into her own, her voice. The romcom part is self-explanatory. Sparky, warm, hopeful. Love centred.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
Where to begin? 90 per cent of opinions on Twitter.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I almost think this is too binary, but I read things that add nuance and deepen my understanding of subjects and make me question what I thought I knew.
I recently read You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi—it explores an unconventional love story that though I may not choose for myself, I found myself utterly seduced by, broadening my conception of love and romance.
I read things that add nuance and deepen my understanding of subjects and make me question what I thought I knew.
What’s the greatest love story you’ve ever read?
The Bible. Not even necessarily religiously, but philosophically, literarily, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.’ Whew!!! The whole world. Only son. Two contrasting concepts brought together. A love that sacrifices love for freedom.
But my favourite love stories are the ones that are quieter—friendship based, and the ones that build on connection and involve self-growth, and community. I love Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Writing is an ongoing process. All the above. Edit as I write. Mould as I write. Edit after? I don’t know. Where does writing end and editing begin?
But my favourite love stories are the ones that are quieter—friendship based, and the ones that build on connection and involve self-growth, and community.
What was your process for writing your anthology, Love in Colour?
A loose list of stories I wanted to work from. I quickly glanced at what I could pull from, the women I could build, the romances I could construct, the worlds I could create whilst paying homage to the cultural roots, and then I dove in. I gave myself freedom. If it didn’t work, I would scrap it and start it again. I would work and rework. I discarded some stories that didn’t suit the short story form, and then did on-the-go research.
I saw a picture of a bust of Nefertiti on Twitter close to my deadline and thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to write about Nefertiti?’ And so I wrote about Nefertiti. And towards the end, I got tired and said I wanted to write three original stories and let my voice run a little wild, and so I did just that. The story ‘Orin’ is the best example of that. That was like a freestyle. Started with the first line and flowed out of me in an hour and a half.
What’s the most interesting feedback you received about this book?
I wrote these stories for women, centring women, particularly women of colour, African women, but it has been so warming to see how many men message me to say that they bought the book for their sister/partner and really loved it, that it spoke to them, helped them reconceptualize their ideas of romance, of love, and what it could be.
I think romance and love have been seen as weak subject matters because they are perceived as femme, and it was interesting and encouraging to see that my work cut through that propaganda.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a book?
A lot of the writing happens in your head. You have to live life, build the world, let the structure and story and characters marinate and build. The crucial part is of course writing it, but you also have to read, watch, experience, let the world interact with your work and add meat to the bone, sun to the seed.
I think romance and love has been seen as a weak subject matter because it is seen as femme, and it was interesting and encouraging to see that my work cut through that propaganda.
You have a novel Honey and Spice coming out this year. In what ways is writing a novel different from writing an anthology?
I started writing H&S (Honey and Spice) four years ago, before Love in Colour was a twinkle in my eye. It’s gone through three to four revisions. To be honest, they’re not much different. I pour myself into my work in the same way. In an anthology, it is crucial.
How do I expect people to believe in the worlds I build if I don’t? The only difference is how long I am immersed in the world. With H&S it took over my life, because I was in this world for a sustained period of time. H&S is my first baby.
What should the readers expect from Honey and Spice?
Romance, R&B smiles, hope, community, joy, a Yoruba man who deserves rights, Black love, African love, diasporic reverence.
You describe yourself as a ‘romcomoisseur’. Why have romance and love played such a major role in your writing?
Because I love it! Lol, what a space for joy and hope and self-introspection, and human folly and vulnerability.
So much of the human existence is encapsulated in it, it can say so much about society and community too.
How do I expect people to believe in the worlds I build if I don’t?
What’s one unique challenge you’ve faced as a black woman author writing about romance?
I really can’t call anything a challenge. I do what I do. People can say what they want. I will continue to do what I do.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not really writing advice, but Mama Morrison (Toni) once said ‘it’s not possible to hold onto crisis. You have to have love. And you have to have magic. That’s also life.’
It’s little pockets of love and magic that I am trying to create. Toni Morrison also said to write what you want to read. I love the stories I tell wholeheartedly.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why)?
So many! I recently read Tia Williams’ Seven Days in June and it was so smart and so funny and so romantic, and I love being impressed by both craft and content and story—as a writer it’s all I can ask for.
What are you currently working on?
Book 3 😊
I do what I do. People can say what they want. I will continue to do what I do.
Question from Kai Mora: Who is the person in your life that has inspired you the most?
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
As a storyteller, do you often find yourself to be a vessel for the story trying to be told?⎈
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