WORK/LIFE: Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okafor

Nnedi Okorafor is a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo and has degrees in rhetoric, journalism and English. She writes African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults. Her books novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and Le Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award) and Lagoon (finalist for Best Novel in the British Science Fiction Association award for Best Novel and a Red Tentacle Award for Best Novel). She is currently working with Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu (Pumzi) on a feature film, Camel Racer, with Triggerfish Animation Studios.

What does “writing” mean?

Removing ideas/narratives/thoughts from my mind and putting/structuring those things in a way others can understand them.

Which book changed your life?

The Talisman by Stephen King and Famished Road by Ben Okri.

Your favourite fictional character?

Omar on the show The Wire.

What are you working on at the moment?

Multiple novels, film projects and a comic book series.

Describe your workspace.

Spacious, isolated, sunny, close to the refrigerator, cushioned and technologically advanced.

The most important instrument you use?

My brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The early morning.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I wait.

How do you relax?

By working out, drinking tea, using mint oil on my skin, hanging out with my daughter.

Who and what has influenced your work?

This question is too broad. Like the title of the Douglas Adams novel – Life, the Universe and Everything.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t waste your time talking about it; do it.

Your favourite ritual?

Working out 6 days a week.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Taking a break because of eye strain.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I accept myself as I am, flaws and all. So this is not a way I think of myself.

What are you afraid of?

Spiders, wind farm wind mills (yes, it’s totally irrational), tornados.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Cultivate your love of writing, as a practice and an art above all things.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

There are many things I am proud of. I don’t think hierarchically, so I don’t put things above things. The “tiniest” thing could be the reason the “biggest” thing exists. Everything is connected.

Okorafor will be participating in the upcoming Open Book Festival in Cape Town, which runs from the 7 – 11 September 2016. Find out about her appearances here.

WORK/LIFE: Thabiso Mahlape

Thabiso Mahlape is the publisher of BlackBird Books, an imprint from Jacana showcasing black voices that launched in August 2015.

What does the role of publisher entail?

Other than lots and lots of frustration?

In what ways has your work changed now that you run your own imprint?

I now have to think about operations on a global level as opposed to just worrying about getting the books out. It has challenged me immensely but I have also grown a lot, both personally and in my work. I also think more carefully about what I publish as this now impacts my brand first. What I enjoy most is the new license it has given me over my work, to experiment and take risks (up to a point) as I wish.

Continue reading “WORK/LIFE: Thabiso Mahlape”

WORK/LIFE: Ekow Duker

A former oil field engineer turned corporate strategist and banker, the Ghana-born, Joburg-based Ekow Duker is the author of two novels: White Wahalla and Dying in New York.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing for me is that piece of the puzzle that makes all the other pieces fall into place and make sense

Which book changed your life?

It’s got to be Dying in New York. Now I get invited to events I only read about before and strangers come up to me and shake my hand. Well, one person did.

What are you working on at the moment?

A novel exploring how a gay man stumbles into a heterosexual marriage.

Ekow Duker StudyDescribe your workspace.

The jangle of wind chimes to temper the violent spitting of the fireplace, R&B in the air and a Sleeping Woman on the wall.

The most important instrument you use?

I think my iMac. I can pull up reference material easily and not have it clutter the screen.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The earlier in the day the better. From 12 noon, my productivity ratchets downwards at an exponential rate.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

Like now? I stand at the bottom of the stairs and shout at the words that refuse to show their face, “Don’t make me come in there and get you!” Of course they don’t listen.

How do you rela

I read something really good and wish I’d written that.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Somerset Maugham. He wrote clearly and without embellishment, yet could describe the deepest and most fragile human emotions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

An executive in financial services said to me when I was hesitating to take on a new job, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Then you realise it’s not actually that bad.

Your favourite ritual?

Writing two pages a day

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

When the words won’t come down the stairs. Or when they do and they’re all dishevelled and in disarray and I send them back again because it’s got to be right.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Having blind faith in Arsène Wenger’s management of Arsenal Football Club.

What are you afraid of?

Being trapped in a room with a flapping bird.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Most people ignore my advice and I don’t expect aspiring writers to be any different. Listen a lot, read a lot and be curious about the people around you. Then find a rich aunt and convince her to buy you a publishing company.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

I used to be an oil field engineer, running diagnostic surveys on newly drilled wells. At the end of the job I’d fly away in a helicopter and watch as the rig receded into the distance and got smaller and smaller. I felt like the Lone Ranger at the end of the movie and just before the credits start to roll.

Dying in New York is published by Picador Africa.

WORK/LIFE: Adam Stower

Adam Stower studied Illustration at the Norwich School of Art and Narrative Illustration at the University of Brighton. Ever since then, he’s been illustrating professionally, collaborating with authors such as Timothy Knapman on books, or writing his own.

Which book changed your life?

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkein. Although it’s not so much that the book itself changed my life, but more the experience of reading it. It was read to me by my mother as a bedtime story when I was a little boy. When I am making picture books and writing for children, that memory is a touchstone for me. It reminds me of how precious, important and wonderful the experience of sharing a story can be. It’s a memory I return to often when I write for children. It helps me see my stories from the child’s point-of-view.

What are you working on at the moment?

My latest book picture book, Grumbug!, has just been published so I am busy promoting that. Next, I am about to begin work writing and illustrating the first chapter book of my own for older readers. As a picture book maker, I am used to only having 700 words at my disposal to tell my story, so I am excited by the prospect of what I can do with a few thousand. The details are under wraps just now, but watch this space.

Describe your workspace.

Cluttered. I am slowly becoming hemmed in by piles of books. The shelves filled up long ago. I crave more space, but I think deep down I find the clutter comforting. I love being surrounded by gorgeous books and bits and pieces I have collected. I find it inspiring. I share my space with two other illustrators. We have a room in a large ugly building, which is filled with a wonderful collection of people doing all sorts of things from ceramicists to bakers, fashion designers to carpenters. It’s an interesting building to be a part of. My window looks out over Brighton, and when the conditions are right, I watch the thick sea mist roll in and slowly engulf the city. It is very beautiful.

The key ingredients for a great picture book?

I think the most important element to a picture book is the main character(s). It is so important that the reader connects with your characters from the outset, as it is through the characters that you will tell your story. I often have more than one main character as I enjoy exploring the relationship between them. I like my books to be greater than the sum of their parts if at all possible. For example, in my book Silly Doggy!, Lily finds a bear in her back garden but she thinks it is a dog – something she has always wanted. There is no mention of a bear anywhere in the text. The reader can see it’s a bear, but Lily is oblivious. I like using pantomime like this in my books. It empowers the reader to know something the character, and seemingly the narrator, does not. It is in this tension between the words and the pictures where the humour and drama resides.

In Troll and the Oliver, again it is the relationship between Troll and Oliver that is at the heart of the book. The traditional pecking order is turned on it’s head. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Oliver is very much in control of their situation and the reader’s sympathy swings to the Troll…

If you can manage to get originality, longevity and a twist in there too, then you’re onto a winner.

Oh, and don’t forget a punchy cover. These days it needs to work at the size of a postage stamp, as many customers buy their books online.

The most important instrument you use?

A sketchbook. Not an instrument as such, but it is where all my ideas begin. It is also where I draw purely for the pleasure of it, from my imagination and also from life. I am rarely without one. I even have a sketchbook that can be used underwater. I can’t wait to try that one out while snorkling this summer.

What’s your most productive time of day?

It depends on what I am doing. If I am painting, or inking up a bunch of illustrations for a large fiction job, then I am most productive late at night. This is largely because the phone stops ringing and the email stops pinging. I plug myself into an audio book and I can work right through till dawn.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I try to do something else. I’ll take a walk, go for a swim, or sit and sketch at a café. It’s like trying to remember something that is on the tip of your tongue. As soon as you stop trying to remember it, it will pop into your mind.

How do you relax?

I do what most people do – exercise, see friends, go to the pub, watch a movie. When I have time I like to walk on the South Downs or swim in the sea, but that is a rare treat. I tend to keep very busy hours. Often, I will just play the guitar (badly) or doodle in my sketchbook.

Who and what has influenced your work?

My mum worked as a librarian for most of her career. She instilled in me a love of books. My grandfathers were both accomplished artists too so I grew up in very inspiring and supportive surroundings. The illustrators who inspire me are too many to mention them all. They span from the likes of Heinrich Kley, Ronald Searle, Arthur Rackham and Heath Robinson, to illustrators of today like Chris Riddell, Quentin Blake, Shaun Tan and Oliver Jeffers. And that’s just illustration. I love fine art too – John Singer Sargent and David Hockney spring to mind. And I have to mention animation – The Illusionist, The Incredibles or any early Walt Disney movie. Inspirational material is abundant. It can even become overwhelming looking at all the talent out there through websites like Pinterest.

What were your favourite books when you were a child?

I liked strange stories like In the Night Kitchen by Sendak, or Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake. I was a huge fan of Tintin books too, and Asterix & Obelix – I grew up in Switzerland and my dad would bring home the latest book from the airport each time he returned from a business trip. My brother and I would fight as to who’d get to read them first. My brother won, mostly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

When I was a first year student at the Norwich School of Art, a third year student looked me square in the eye and said very earnestly: “While you’re here, learn to draw” It seems so obvious, but it can be easy to go through college without taking full advantage of your situation. I worked hard at it and I still practice every day. It is the fundamental foundation of all my work.

Your favourite ritual?

I don’t really have rituals, unless you can count aimless procrastination as one?

What’s the hardest thing about illustrating/making a children’s picture book?

The most difficult thing for me is choosing what to leave out. There is never enough space in a picture book format to include everything you want to. You can’t afford to be precious. You often need to cut out scenes that you are very fond of for the sake of the whole. This distilation process is the only way to end up with the purest and most efficient narrative, but you have to make sacrifices along the way. That can be tough.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Easy. My bad eyesight.

What are you afraid of?

Bad things happening to people I love.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a career that involves creating kids’ books/illustrating?

The harsh part of my advice is to be honest with yourself from the outset. Are you good enough? It is a competitive and difficult industry. You need passion, tenacity and a thick skin to make a go of it. But, if you are ready for it, then go for it! It is a wonderful way to spend your time and it is hugely rewarding. Find your own voice, be true to yourself, and most importantly for illustrators…learn to draw.  It is easy to let technology take the strain with the digital equipment available today, but computers are just another tool. If you base all your work on a strong ability to draw, then that will shine through no matter what your medium. Good luck!

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

(Cheesy answer alert.) Being a dad to my daughter Mary. But from a work point of view I would have to say having had books of my own published. I never lose sight of what an honour, thrill and pleasure it is to have your own work published. Long may it continue.

Grumbug! is published by Templar.