Nigeria has become a new hotbed for young gunslingers in the world of the literati. It seems this year, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has emerged it reigning literary Rock Star. Her debut novel “I Do Not Come To You By Chance”, chronicles the story of a bright and promising young man named Kingsley as he seeks the help of his mafia like fraudster uncle Boniface a.K.a Cash Daddy in order to rescue his family from poverty.
The book is humorous and yet tenderly written, in a very original and unapologetic voice that brings all its characters to life in a grand way. The cadence in which the story is told creates visual slideshows in the head of the reader literally transporting you into every scene.
“I Do Not Come To You By Chance” has earned Nwaubani several accolades and literary awards including the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Africa Region. She was a finalist for the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, a semi-finalist in the VCU Cabell First Book prize and most recently won the Betty Trask award (some of its past winners include Diana Evans and Zadie Smith). Awards and accolades aside, the psychology graduate from the University of Ibadan and former editor of Elan (The Fashion Magazine of Next Newspaper’s Sunday Edition) still remains very unassuming and unpretentious. She maintains that this novel is the product of a team that includes her editors, agent and publishers
For Adaobi, writing this novel was something she wanted to do like every other task and dream in her life and she did it. We had a chat with her to savour in her journey so far.
In your own words, tell us what the book is about
My book is about a young man called Kingsley who seeks the assistance of his 419 kingpin uncle called cash daddy to help his family out of poverty.
Everyone comes up to me and says do you know about this 419er, he is exactly like Cash Daddy. But the original 419ers were pretty much like him.
You took just a month to write your first draft. Is it a story you already had in your head, how did it come to you?
The novel came before the story. I decided it was finally time to write a novel. I had known since 2001 that I was going to do something more seriously with my writing talent but I was looking for the right time. So at the end of 2006 I said this is the time, I’m ready to write my novel now. I studied psychology and I have always been fascinated with personality and why people do the things that they do and I wanted to write a story about something that had to do with personality and personality change. So the 419 thing came in handy. It wasn’t something I planned to write about all my life. I find out that every time I write stuff even short stories, I always start of with some kind of psychological thing. I look for real things happening to give it life. That’s how the novel came up.
The novel was published abroad first. The dialogue was distinctly Nigerian; it was a very fast read and had a flow to it. Did you ever fear that non-Nigerians reading it would not understand or get lost from time to time?
I didn’t realise that I had done that until Ikhidie who has become one of the top reviewers pointed it out. Then he described it as being bold and damned. I don’t think I was aware that people wouldn’t understand and also I didn’t really care. Then my agent who was the first point of contact read it and didn’t have that problem. And I had editors who didn’t have that problem. I guess if they had pointed it out, I would have been aware.
You said you had to do a lot of research in order to find your agent. Tell me more about that experience?
I actually started to do the research before I even started writing this novel. So I found out about agents but there was still a lot that I didn’t know. When I finished writing my book, I approached Nigerian publishers Cassava Republic. So while they were reading, that was when I decided to search online for an agent. By the time Cassava Republic called me in May, I had already signed a contract with my agent. At some point, I did think I could do without an agent but I realised there is so much else involved. You are the writer, you are the creative person and its better to have someone else deal with all the contracts and all the other drama.
Take us through the process of establishing authenticity with regards to an agent as well as the other processes involves.
First of all, your agent makes money off you. You have a Beyonce or Rihanna, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes that do a lot more of the work and make money off you. It’s the same with an author. Your name is on the book, you are the one on television doing all the publicity but there is an agent that makes money for and off you. The agent makes fifteen percent of anything that you earn, and the advances of my book. So it is his responsibility to make sure that my book is in top form. The better my book does, the more money he can make. Because he is earning 15 percent from you, he is not asking for any money in advance. He looks at all my work to make sure its good.
Certain agents like certain kinds of work. So you can start searching online. There are some agents that won’t take certain kinds of work, no matter how great the book is. Essentially, not every agent represents every kind of book. You can start by looking out for agents who represent the kinds of books that you write like.
Most people are always under the impression that it takes a very long time to write a book. How were you able to complete your novel in a month?
I was like a lot of people who thought you could take five years to write a book but then I thought to myself again, why would i have to take that long to write a book? It also had to do with the kind of story I was writing. I didn’t have to do so much research because I was writing about things and places I was familiar with. I was writing in my voice. I can do the whole creative technical writing thing because I am Nigerian and we are thought to write that way. I went away from that and I just flowed with my personality. I talk fast and so I just wrote the way I talked really. I also had a vague idea because I sketched every scene. I knew what I wanted each chapter to do so I had it all sketched out roughly and then I worked with that. I think it was a decision I made in advance that I didn’t want to sweat and toil to write the book. When I signed on with my agent, we still did a lot of work with the editors, but the draft that got me the contract was the one that I started in January and finished in February. Even though there was a lot of editing afterwards, I still got a contract based on my first draft which means it is possible for anyone to do it in that amount of time. I think the more people hear that people have written a book in that amount of time, the more they realise that you can do it. It’s just that we have been hearing for so long that it takes 20 years to write a book.
How important was it for you to write in that distinctive Nigerian dialogue.
I don’t think too much about it. I think that would have just slowed me down. I was just writing about people around me. I guess living and growing up in Nigeria, had an advantage because I was writing about people I grew up around. I wasn’t taking a microscope to Nigeria of 1940 to know how my grand mother lived. I was writing about contemporary times.
With the scarcity of publishing houses in Nigeria compared to some other countries, most Nigerians seem to resort to self publishing. What are your thoughts on self publishing?
I think there would have been more Nigerians published internationally if we didn’t have this self publishing epidemic. There would have been more literary stars. You have people like Ogochukwu Promise who has written seven books all self published. People like Wale Okediran, his seventh book won the Wole Soyinka prize which my book was a finalist. I haven’t even read any of the books but out of the seven, you just think to yourself, amongst all of them, there must be one with an idea that is worth something. I think it is just slowing us down. More of us need to be on the international scene. Yes you can be published here as well, but think of going beyond the borders.
There is also that stigma attached to self- publishing, that a story was not good enough?
It’s like that in the West. If you are self published, the assumption is that you have got a lot of rejections and then you self publish. But here people are self publishing without even trying to get an agent or publisher beyond Nigeria. So they think it’s the way to do it. If they knew, they would try and then they could self publish after they were turned down by 200 publishers, then it makes sense. Not when it’s your first choice. So you are writing a book and thinking of self publishing immediately, I think there is a problem. Some people don’t know that there is a way to get round this thing that gets you more attention, publicity, fame and wealth, rather than using your money to publish your book and then selling it from the boot of your car.
I find it very uncomfortable. I was telling my publicist Chude that please when you are writing about me, can you stop calling me “award winning writer”.
For Nigerians, that seems to be the new thing. I believe there are still other ways to be successful. Even before I won my Commonwealth prize, I received letters from different parts of the world from people I have never met saying, “I am teaching your book in a course this semester”. Or some people saying “we would like you to help with publicity for anti- 419 stuff”. That kind of response is really big. So even if I didn’t with the Commonwealth prize, there is the satisfaction that someone from a part of the world I have never been to thinks a student will learn something from my book. It is always fantastic to win a prize, but it is not the end. There is a lot more about being successful as a writer than winning a prize. There are other kinds of books that are really good, very successful and can’t win prizes.
Let’s delve into the omni-present question of the second book. Do you feel any pressure or irritation when it comes to the question of the second book?
My whole life is not about my writing. I say it all the time that I have dreams of being an entrepreneur. I always say that I would like to own my own publishing house. I would like to do things with education in this country, plus own little schools in rural areas. There are so many things I want to do. So writing is not my 24/7 existence. It just happens to be something I can do. I have no professional training in it. If I had done a PhD in writing, maybe I would have been panicking about the second book. So my life is beyond that, I have a job. I have to deliver every week and every day. Maybe that is why the question of the second book thing doesn’t bother me.
I want to talk about finding your voice because the book feels very organic. It is simple and humorous. It feels like the reader can see and hear each character. The fact that you didn’t do creative writing professionally, did that make it easier for you, as you might not have been over thinking the story.
I think it did actually help me but I am not saying that having creative writing training wouldn’t have made me better, but it just helped me be myself. Again, I always read a lot so I think the kind of writers I loved and read kind of sipped into me. So in a way, my style became a combination of all those things. P.G Woodhouse is one of my favourite writers of all time, he writes a lot of humorous stuff and his metaphors and similes are very rear. So I think the kind of writers you read also affect your writing. I am glad that I was able to do this without having to do a creative writers course.
Did that ever make you feel insecure or inadequate compared to any other writer?
Not at all. I suppose it helps that I have done a lot of work in my life that I was never trained for. I worked as the editor of Elan which was something I had not done before. The same with a lot of other jobs. I always say I had a lot of help with my book. From my agent to my publishers, they were able to identify that the raw material was there and the idea was good and we worked on it from there. Once you have the right help and support, you are ok. I also read a lot online
So what kind of responses have you gotten from people so far?
A lot of people have questions about the end of the book or they ask what happened to this or that character. I tell them “the way the book ended for you is the way the book ended for me”.
If people read the book, they might be inclined to insult Cash Daddy, as he has a fleet of cars with his name imprinted on the license plate, expensive clothes, shoes and lives in a huge mansion. This is also very indicative of the culture that we live in.
On a personal note, what is your own take on this ostentatious display of wealth?
As they say problems have different stages. I will not quarrel with anyone that got their money honestly. Where I have a problem is when you know someone is an armed robber, he is showing off all his money and he still happens to be the special guest at your event. He is still the chief speaker, and he is still the role model, that is where I have an issue. Let’s deal with where they get their money from before teaching them how to spend it. As I said, problems come in different stages.
How do your parents feel about the book?
Well they live in Umuahia so they haven’t really felt the vibes. My Dad is still an Igbo man at heart so until the book is in Umuahia and there is a big launch, I don’t think they will be satisfied so I guess they are still waiting for that. But they are very pleased and happy that the book has done well.
“I Do Not Come To You By Chance” is published by Cassava Republic (Nigeria)
You can also purchase the international paperback version online via Amazon