Nigerian novelist and author of I Do Not Come to You by Chance, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, decided to write her first novel before knowing what to write about: ‘The story wasn’t burning in my heart or bursting to be let loose on the page. It didn’t feel like there was this one story that I had to tell. But I have always been fascinated by why people do the things they do. While trying to come up with ideas for my novel, I decided on a story that explored that.’
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?
My upbringing was a unique combination of sophisticated and rustic. For example, my siblings and I owned a variety of musical instruments, including accordions and bugles; at the same time, our parents took us to the farm and taught us how to plant and harvest cassava and egusi, and to process garri and akamu. This same unique combination reflected in the books I read, the majority of which were purchased by my parents. They bought us all the Western classics by authors like William Shakespeare and Emily Brontë. They also bought us all the African classics written by authors like Chinua Achebe and Flora Nwapa, plus story books from across the African continent—the kinds of stories where naughty children were punished by evil spirits, and clever men outwitted ferocious elephants by sticking their hands into the animal’s rectum and extracting its internal organs during a dance, and where every child was orphaned or deprived. Looking back, many of those African stories were filled with all sorts of supernatural horror that would be considered unfit for children in many parts of the world today! I read so many of these African stories that I began wishing that my parents were also poor and could not afford school fees. In fact, I didn’t encounter Enid Blyton and such until after I left home to attend boarding school.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
The Book of Daniel.
‘Follow your heart’ is not just unwise counsel; it is a recipe for anarchy. Imagine a world where each of us followed our heart to wherever it led us, without caring for the people around us or the laws of the land.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
It would have to be one of those dangerous pieces of advice that people dish out all over the place. A particularly popular one is: Follow your heart. What if the person’s heart is leading them into a dungeon of doom? What if the person’s heart is filled with foolishness? ‘Follow your heart’ is not just unwise counsel; it is a recipe for anarchy. Imagine a world where each of us followed our heart to wherever it led us, without caring for the people around us or the laws of the land.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
Everyone can tell a story, but the skillful use of words is what I usually find captivating when reading a piece. The imagery. The alliteration. The emotion. The quotable quotes. Think Shakespeare. Think the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The skillful placing of word against word is what builds the masterpiece and turns a story into a memorable work of art. I often tell people how fascinated I was with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. But while I have absolutely no recollection of the plot, I still remember how struck I was by her use of words. Her writing was pure art.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I spit out everything onto the page, from beginning to end, and then go back and edit. I’m one of those people who like to tick off things on my to-do list; so, it helps me psychologically to get to the end first, and then settle down to revise.
Your debut novel, I Do Not Come To You By Chance, won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa). What was your process for writing the novel?
People often marvel at how much research must have gone into writing I Do Not Come to You by Chance. The truth is that I was simply narrating events and characters that I had casually observed over the years. The writing process required little research.
I often tell people how fascinated I was with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. But while I have absolutely no recollection of the plot, I still remember how struck I was by her use of words. Her writing was pure art.
The novel explores some relevant topics including unemployment and the world of Nigerian email scams. Why was it important that you wrote on these issues?
My novel came before the story: I decided to write a novel before I knew what to write about. The story wasn’t burning in my heart or bursting to be let loose on the page or anything like that. It didn’t feel like there was this one story—or issues—that I had to tell. But I have always been fascinated by why people do the things they do. While trying to come up with ideas for my novel, I decided on a story that explored that. Many of the popular scammers were people with similar ‘good’ backgrounds and education as me. I decided to write a story that explored how they transitioned from all that to the world of 419 internet scams. It would have been impossible to do the story justice without including issues like unemployment.
What’s the most interesting feedback you received about this book?
I have received messages from some scamming victims around the world, who told me that reading my book made it easier for them to heal and to forgive their scammers.
Your second book, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, was inspired by interviews with young women who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. In what ways is writing a second novel different from writing a debut novel?
When writing my first novel, I hoped that it would be read around the world. When writing my second novel, I knew that it would be read around the world.
I have always been fascinated by why people do the things they do. While trying to come up with ideas for my novel, I decided on a story that explored that.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing and publishing a book?
Publishing a book makes many people automatically assume that you must be more intelligent than most people. Ha!
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year, and why?
I’ve read some good books but I am now trying to recall their titles. Some come to mind, and I remember that it was last year that I read them, not this year. So, maybe I’ll just tell you the most recent book I enjoyed, even if it may not be the best of them all: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. It is a quick read with a captivating story. It’s also a great combination of humour and wit, with an unusual but intelligent structure. I picked it up because the cover said the author was behind the Fargo TV series, which I’d found incredibly gripping when I watched it some years ago⎈
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