British-Nigerian novelist and editor, Ore Agbaje-Williams, wants her stories to connect with all kinds of readers: ‘I don’t want to prescribe my writing or books to one kind of reader. I hope that all kinds of readers will be able to read my books and enjoy them!’
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?
A lot of what I started out reading were books from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series— encouraged by my parents who would take my sister and I to the library weekly. Then in my early teens I read a lot of what is commonly called ‘women’s fiction’, and as we branched out into reading more complex texts at school, I started reading books that I discovered in the school library by myself, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, To Kill A Mockingbird, and then at university a personal favourite that was on our course reading list: Open City by Teju Cole.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
This is a great, but difficult(!) question. I would say the following, some based on title alone, other based on content: Becoming by Michelle Obama (for the title and also the idea that a lot that’s happened already, but there’s still more to come), We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (for the hilarity that is everyday life), Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (though I’m not as strange and awkward as the protagonist is, the strangeness and sometimes mundanity of life come through really well here), and maybe My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (though none of my friendships are competitive and somewhat unhealthy in the way this one is, I have always been surrounded, supported and loved by strong, sensational women).
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
It would probably be something I read in Malcom Gladwell’s incredible book Talking to Strangers, which at least in my reading of it almost suggested that how we interact with strangers—in this case the stranger was the perpetrator of a crime— could have changed the outcome of a horrific incident that changed a young woman’s life forever. I understood the general sentiment, but I think in the case of that crime I could not in any way reconcile the example with the concept.
In my early teens, I read a lot of what is commonly called ‘women’s fiction’, and as we branched out into reading more complex texts at school, I started reading books that I discovered in the school library.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
A few years ago, I read I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, which was the basis for the Martin Scorcese film, The Irishman. It changed my mind about two things: that I wasn’t a big non-fiction reader (the way Brandt writes is so readable and rich) and that most films do a good job of adapting books for screen. The Irishman was missing so much context that it made almost no sense to me!
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
It’s a mixture actually! With book one I wrote essentially the whole thing without editing it, which is why the ending is so different than when I first sent it to my agent, who gave me some great editorial notes before I sent it out on submission. It needed a lot of refining and answering of questions that would then make it make a lot more sense. With what I’m writing now, I’m definitely doing more editing as I go, as the concept and structure are a lot more complex.
You used to be a Commissioning Editor at Harper Collins. What makes a pitch good?
A number of things, really. First, whether or not the concept will sit in an existing and thriving area of the market. Secondly, what the USP is. And finally, how unique the voice is. All those things together will lay the foundation for a successful publication, but sometimes a pitch can be great but the actual book itself may not entirely deliver on what the pitch promised.
And what’s more important to you: the story or how it is written?
It’s 40:60 for me—on one hand, the story itself is important because that’s what we’ll write about on the back of the book and what we’ll use to pitch, publicize and market the book, but also for me personally the way a book is written is so, so important. How the story (no matter how common and frequently retold) unfolds can give the reader a whole new perspective on that concept. I think the very best writers can make the most banal ideas seem interesting because of how they think about and therefore write about these ideas, and those writers are hugely exciting to me.
What’s the most important contribution an editor makes to a piece?
An outside perspective, one that asks questions the author may not have considered. With that perspective also comes a genuine desire to sharpen and hone the author’s story so that it’s the strongest it can be.
I think the very best writers can make the most banal ideas seem interesting because of how they think about and therefore write about those ideas, and those writers are hugely exciting to me.
Your first novel, The Three of Us, will be published in spring next year. What should readers be expecting?
I would say they should be expecting what my publisher calls ‘a healthy dose of wealth and snobbery’, some familiar concepts for the Nigerian readers and generally what I hope is a truly enjoyable read. I would love for people to read it and find some kind of kinship with each character, because I truly believe there’s a little of them in all of us.
And which books would you say The Three of Us is in conversation with?
Though not a novel, I would say Betrayal, the play by Harold Pinter, Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, Assembly by Natasha Brown, The Dinner by Herman Koch with a little suspense thrown in that aligns (figuratively) with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s delicious novel My Sister, The Serial Killer and Leila Slimani’s Lullaby.
What motivated you to write (and publish) a novel? And in what ways is being a writer more difficult than being an editor, if at all?
I had always loved storytelling but didn’t really take it seriously until I had a story idea a while back and sent it to a friend who thought it was good. I worked on that—and a few other ideas—for a while and then ultimately found that I was writing with an editorial hat on, with the idea that if I wrote into a specific market or about a certain topic that my book would do better. But I didn’t enjoy the experience of writing those books at all. It was when I got the idea for The Three of Us and found my writing voice that I realized just how much I loved writing and what I wanted to do with it—bring people some entertainment and joy.
So, these days what motivates me to write is to enjoy myself and hope that others enjoy what I’ve written, too. I think the difficulty in being a writer that isn’t quite matched by being an editor is that when you’re an editor you find the gaps and ask the author to fill them. When you’re the writer you have to also find the gaps and then try to fill them whilst opening up the story to do so, and then put it back together again. It can be exhausting mentally, trying to jig and re-jig various elements of a story that you feel you know so well, but the outside perspective is so important and ultimately it does pay off!
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t think it was given to me, but I did read it somewhere, and it was that if you love something you’ve written too much you should delete it. At first, I thought that was ridiculous but came to realize that actually it was so true. If you’re holding on to it just because you like the way it reads or sounds and not because of the way it serves the story, you like it for the wrong reasons and it’s likely that it can be cut without any detriment to the wider story. Something else I read—that I do now agree with, but at the time I thought was ridiculous—is that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I could have sworn I’d had it a number of times, but I then discovered I just wasn’t writing at the right time or for the right amount of time. Now, I don’t write for more than two hours at the time without taking a long break, otherwise once I get into the third hour I start to struggle and think I have writers’ block, when actually all I need is a break.
I think the difficulty in being a writer that isn’t quite matched by being an editor is that when you’re an editor you find the gaps and ask the author to fill them..
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Mohsin Hamid, I think he writes beautifully.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Right now, Natasha Brown, Megan Nolan and NoViolet Bulawayo. They know to write stories that hypnotise and confront in the most exceptional way.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I seem to love reading non-fiction about the hidden things of the past that are now coming to light—or coming to light again in some cases. My current read, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain, is one that details the Sackler family’s dynasty and their devastating invention and misleading marketing of opioids that killed many in the US. Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses is another in that vein too. In terms of what I like writing about, it definitely seems to be the relationships between people and what happens when you put them in an enclosed space for a long period of time. People are pretty chaotic in general, and in those instances, I find them to be a lot of fun.
What are you currently working on?
A second novel! Not a sequel to The Three of Us, but set in the same neighbourhood— more on that soon…
These days what motivates me to write is to enjoy myself and hope that others enjoy what I’ve written too.
Question from Lennon Mhishi: Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write?
No—but mostly because I don’t want to prescribe my writing or books to one kind of reader. I hope that all kinds of readers will be able to read my books and enjoy them!
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What’s a book you wish you’d written?⎈
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