EC Osondu was awarded the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing. His debut collection of short stories, Voice of America, was published in the US last November, and in the UK in January. It has just been published in Nigeria.
I put ten questions to him.
Do you write fiction every day? Do you set word-count or page-count targets for yourself?
EC.O: No and No. I do read every day. And I read a bit of fiction daily as a firm believer in my dictum that a daily dose of fiction is good bulwark against the assault of reality.
How long does it take you, on the average, to write a short story? Do you work on several stories at the same time, or always have to finish one before starting another?
EC.O: It varies. I have a story that I have been working on over the past three years. I have written the first draft of a story over one week. I write the way I read. I like to have lots of writing irons in the fire same way I usually read two or three books at a time.
Your next book is going to be a novel. Is your approach to writing the novel different from your approach to the stories? What are the significant differences?
EC.O: I think one is a marathon while the other is a short dash. I think diffidence is a requirement for the novel but not necessarily for the short story. The novel just will not go away. It requires a whole lot more energy.I am reminded of the expression-the elephant in the room-the novel just kind of looms and you have to worry it and worry about it for the most part.
What have you learnt about the writing life in the time since publication, that you didn’t know pre-publication?
EC.O: Sourcing for blurbs/endorsements for your book is a hard and energy sapping process and you have to do the sourcing yourself.
What’s the least enjoyable thing about being a published writer?
EC.O: You know, I am not one to complain and whine. I think it is a blessing to write and get your work published and out there and have people buy and read your book and love or hate it. Think of the number of immensely talented people who have not been blessed in this way. I’ll much rather focus on this than the unpleasantness etc. If there is a downside at all it’ll have to be the fact that-Writing is a very private affair. Publishing and becoming published is a very public affair.
What writerly advice/quote/quip has influenced you the most?
EC.O: To be honest, as far as those go, I neither live by them nor do they guide me as such. Dorothy Parker’s quip comes to mind. I don’t know if you recall the one about an editor asking her why she hadn’t sent in a story and her response – I have been fucking busy and vice versa – I guess they are amusing and are meant to be you know, help us laugh at ourselves and not take the writing life too seriously. I admire Hemingway’s expressed wish to be an honest man and a good writer or words to that effect but did he even heed that or live by those words himself?
Which of the characters in Voice of America would you most want to go on holiday with?
EC.O: You don’t want to know.
Do you think a sense of humor is absolutely indispensable to the writing life? Or can writers get by without very much of it?
EC.O: Humour is indispensable in life. We need it to survive both in the writing life and other lives as well.
Who are your favorite story writers – Nigerian and non-Nigerian?
EC.O: I’ll have to say Isaac Bashevis Singer. The answer of course keeps changing. But I have enjoyed his stories since college and I still do.
“Janjaweed Wife” somehow stands out from the rest of the collection, in terms of its setting (Darfur). What inspired that story, and why did you choose to include it in a book preoccupied with what the blurb of VOA calls “the frayed bonds between [America and Nigeria]”?
EC.O: The first story “Waiting” is not set in any particular country. But to the specifics of your question. The story was inspired by my interaction with some Sudanese refugee kids when I was in Grad school in Syracuse NY. Only eighteen stories made the final cut but I had at least two dozen stories. And thanks for your really interesting questions, Tolu.
E.C. Osondu will be reading from his collection of stories, Voice of America, in Lagos and Port Harcourt as follows:
Friday July 22nd: Abule Book Club, The Life House, 33 Sinari Daranijo Victoria Island, Lagos, 6pm
Saturday July 23rd: Patabah Bookshop, Shoprite Mall, Surulere, Lagos, 3pm
Sunday July 24th: Rainbow Book Club, Le Meridien Hotel, Ogeyi Place, Port Harcourt, 4pm
Saturday July 30th: Terra Kulture, Tiamiyu Savage St., Victoria Island, Lagos, 3pm