Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Conversations with Writers – Talking to Yewande Omotoso

Yewande Omotoso’s novel Bom Boy is published by South Africa’s Modjaji Books (the awesome independent publisher that will be publishing Balthasar’s Gift later Yewande_03this year) and has been shortlisted for the inaugural pan-African Etisalat literary award. I just spent the last two days having a lovely chat with Yewande via email about writing.

Here’s what we said:

Yewande, your debut novel, Bom Boy, has just been short-listed for the pan-African Etisalat Prize. Congratulations! Could you tell us the premise of the novel and what inspired you to write it?

The story of Bom Boy is really the story of Leke. A young man growing up in Cape Town. He’s adopted and never knew his parents. Somehow he’s struggled to feel at home wherever he’s been and so his childhood has been one of a misfit. As he comes of age his adoptive father hands him a package. It turns out to be a bunch of letters from his biological father. Slowly Leke, pariah, outcast, borderline sociopath, works his way through the letters, through “his story” and his parents’ story, his heritage and tries to find the ground, he even tries for love.

Hard to say “what inspired” and point to something specific and concrete. The story morphed over many drafts. A professor of mine once said you write your first five drafts and then you finally realise what it is you’re trying to do. So the beginnings can be watery and dark. Bom Boy began as wanting to write about someone on the edge, someone even a little mentally unwell, but not so unwell as to be irrevocable.

Yes, I think it took me five drafts to work what I was writing too. So is Bom Boy your first novel, or is there a manuscript under the bed?

No! There are no manuscripts under the bed. There are several short stories, some that got published others rejected and many that have never been sent out. There are lots of poems. Bom Boy was my first attempt at something novel-length.Cover_BomBoy_Front_300 dpi(1)

What was the difference for you between writing short stories and poetry, and writing a novel? Could you talk a bit about the process of writing Bom Boy.

Poetry is often quite personal, autobiographic and linked to specific moments when I seek catharsis. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I use poetry as a kind of medicine for loss, heartache, coming to terms with various things. So it’s medicine first and then art which means my poems are often no good! Or if they’re a little good I’m too lazy to make them better.

Short stories I write continually, I use them as a practice. It’s a good way to hone the skill. Short stories are incredibly difficult though, because of their compact nature. I’ve gone through love-hate times with short stories. Currently I’m enjoying reading and writing them, enjoying the challenge and the lessons.

Writing ‘Bom Boy’ was an adventure. Writing a book is like a forest you can really get lost in. Because it’s so big (sometimes seemingly endless) it really tests your resolve, your temerity as well. And it’s scary the way an unfamiliar forest can be. There’s always a bit where you can’t see anything…I like the scale of it. Trying to wrestle with something quite unwieldly. Tame it but not too much or it loses its essence. It’s a great fight, I think.

I really love that image of writing a novel being like a forest. Do you have any specific writing routines or practices? Is coffee essential for example, or tons of tea?

Not really. When I wrote Bom Boy I would awake in the early mornings to write. 5am or so. Writing first thing in the day remains sacred but it’s not always possible. I’ve tried not to be a fussy writer. I’ve trained myself to just about write anywhere and at any time. On an empty stomach or stuffed, with munchies or without. I seldom begin writing at night but if I’ve started late in the day I can continue for many many hours. Certainly though there are conditions under which I seem more efficient. Morning. Silence. Warmth. Stability helps, the absence of turmoil, emotional and otherwise.

I also need to be reading when I’m working on something. And I have no formula for “what” but I do need to have something inspiring in my hands.

It’s so lovely to connect with you and hear how you go about your process. Writing can be lonely. Do you have support from other writers – a writers’ group or network?

Writing itself isn’t lonely I don’t think. Solitude is, for most writers I believe, a necessity in order to make the work. And solitude can be a very cherished thing. My loneliness is seldom linked to my life as a writer. It’s linked to other things and other aspects of life although I concede that it’s not always easy to tell these things apart.

Strangely, my writing is often an antidote to my experience of loneliness. As if writing itself is my true unflailing companion…but that’s another whole story!

That said as a writer I spend chunks of my time alone. Solitude is seldom a problem for me. And there are usually enough people I know that when I want to see someone I can. Being an architect as well and currently getting a small practice off the ground means I actually have quite a balanced life at the moment.

In terms of my need for relationships with other writers it is imperative for me. Firstly I seem to have a terrible weakness for writers. I fall in love with them – men and women alike – and I seek their company and advice. I have a kind of childish (misguided?) notion that “writers are the best”! On a more serious note, though, in terms of producing work, if I’ve made any progress I attest a lot of it to a few treasured relationships with writers some of whom are in my own family.

You mentioned that you are an architect. Do you see any similarities in designing buildings and building novels?

I am commonly asked that. I think there are similarities or at least I choose to see some. To construct is a verb I think that applies to both activities. Also the way a building design exists in my head first and then all the work to make it real. Same with a story. Same with a lot of creative acts. Same in the sense that I believe the strongest designs have some core idea or intent behind them. With a lot of great stories there’s usually some key underlying answer to the question “what’s the point”? And again that notion that you, the maker, doesn’t always know “the point” at inception but part of bringing the creation to maturity is your discovery of it. In architecture we use tracing paper, drawing over and over and slowly the image changing, becoming more itself, same with writing draft after draft after draft.

Tell us about your path to publication … how did you find Modjaji, or how did they find you? 

I started nearing the end of my Creative Writing masters. I finished the manuscript and submitted it to UCT. Then I started thinking of “sending it out”. A friend mentioned Modjaji. I looked them up. Sent a precis of my novel, then a chapter and finally the whole thing. Colleen wrote back some months later, she liked it and wanted to publish it. I was a bit dumbfounded. We met and I liked her, I also admired her work as a publisher and the important role she plays in SA publishing. That’s how it started.

So from a Creative Writing degree, to a publication deal to short-listing for a major literary award! How does that feel? How important do you think it is that there is now an African literary award?

In terms of your question: It feels exciting and immensely encouraging. Wanting to write can seem like a very hair-brained notion. When things like this happen I feel a mixture of luck, suprise and relief. And while it doesn’t happen all the time, it’s the same feeling I get when a stranger greets me and says they read the book, even better if they say they liked it or it resonated with them. These are all experiences, however rare or fleeting, that have a touch of magic to them.

It is incredibly important that there is now an African literary award, for several reasons. One is the quality of this award. It is not just a pot of money; if you study carefully the mechanics of the award it goes beyond merely rewarding a writer, it is designed to ensure the expansion of African literature, designed to ensure that the writing and reading of African fiction thrives, in this way it develops a community as opposed to just an individual. Two, it is an African award whose home is in Africa. Three, while I don’t think “to win an award” is a good reason to start writing, I do think this award adds a certain profile to the job of writing, encourages young people to get interested in telling stories and this can only be a good thing for Africa and the world.

Yewande blogs here and Bom Boy can be purchased here or here.



A Cast of Characters

For inspiration in fiction, we don’t have to look much further than real life. This weekend, my family and I moved house and to help us do so, we hired a firm of movers. I am growing to love and appreciate German efficiency in more ways than I can enumerate. They moved us door-to-door in a sleek and streamlined seven hours, while taking extreme care over both our precious and our less precious belongings.

During those seven hours, my main job was to stand at the front door to direct them to the relevant room, occasionally running up behind them to ensure that they put each piece of furniture in the right place. All this standing around gave me time to observe the different personalities at play. These were:

Boss guy: short, efficient, slightly ratty or terrier-like, with a belly that indicated how much he liked his beer and some two-day old growth. He took great care of his team, telling us when it was time to get them coffee or other drinks and when they required lunch. Didn’t get involved with the banter during the smoke-breaks. Clearly in control, but lifted just as many heavy objects as the others.  A hands-on manager, whom everyone seemed to respect.

Second boss guy: Taller, more interestingly bearded. Main role to stand inside the truck and hand furniture or boxes to the team. Left early to take his wife to a concert and happily engaged in idle chit-chat with me. Liked his roll-ups and engaged in banter with:

Stern guy: One of the heavy lifters, very tall and bulky. Had a comment about everything, all delivered deadpan. At first, quite intimidating because of his size and running commentary, but when I realised what a good sense of humour he had, I started to enjoy his company. When it time to lift the really heavy stuff he called on:

Baby: Medium, balding, baby-faced with blue eyes. Number one heavy lifter of the team. He and stern guy did complicated things with ropes and got some large pieces of furniture up two flights of stairs without touching or scratching the walls. Baby sang out of tune constantly, chatted to himself and didn’t always understand instructions, but was gently put right by one of the others.

Goth guy: Also large, with complicated facial hair and head shaved on both sides. Of all the team, his personality emerged the least.

Jolly guy: Full of commentary like stern guy, but always with a smile. Was happy when he got to deliver to the ground floor and particularly enjoyed carrying a toy castle. ‘I carried that castle all by myself,’ he told anyone who would listen. Was equally happy to carry heavy stuff. The smile didn’t leave his face for seven hours.

Old guy: I had the feeling he was perhaps the former manager, because he got to drive the second truck and was treated respectfully by everyone. Second boss guy made sure he gave him the lighter stuff to carry.

Cool guy: his main job was to dismantle and reassemble furniture, and he helped me estimate if certain pieces would fit into the smaller rooms. Not a smiler. Hair stayed rigidly gelled in one place all day. When he wasn’t taking furniture apart and putting it together, he hefted along with the others. Didn’t join in the banter during the smoke breaks and kept himself slightly apart from the gang.

With all these fabulous characters in place, all a writer needs is a murder, a love triangle or the surprising arrival of a space-craft.


Awakening the Inner Cave-Dweller

We’re down to one car here at Fun Central. My 12-year-old Renault Scenic died unceremoniously a few weeks ago and we decided not to replace it, because we are good Germans and like to think about the environment. This does put some pressure on me and Germany’s Top Husband, though, in terms of negotiating who gets the car when. I was fondly imagining I’d go grocery shopping this morning until he pointed out that he had a suit day in Heidelberg and the car was his. Off  he went, leaving me staring into the empty fridge wondering what the hell I was going to have for breakfast.

Turns out, it was a peach. Not a peach that was lingering in the fruit-bowl, but a peach that I had to hunt down by foot and then drag home, skin and eat.

There is something intensely satisfying about bringing your food home on foot. Here’s what I managed to scavenge by going into the Burg’s thousand-year-old town centre and walking around the shops there, instead of driving to the supermarket outside town:

1. Butcher: Thuringer sausages, both plain and spicy; marinated lamb chops (got the fourth free just by chatting to the lovely lady – that wouldn’t have happened at the supermarket); free-range eggs.

2. Greengrocer: a butternut (never to be found in a German supermarket), peaches, apples, grapes, cucumber, red peppers, a tin of marinated giant beans, a lettuce.

3. Schlecker: muesli, cleaning cloths, bin bags, snacks for the kids.

4. Bakery: Brezeln, both plain and cheesy, and a free chat about Germany’s chances for Saturday.

Then I dragged the whole lot home and pounced on my peach.

I have become a fan of the caveman lifestyle idea. Those of you who have been with me a long time know that diets have come and gone. There was Shangri-La, there was low-carb and long, long ago in the mists of time, there was Weight-Watchers.

But the caveman diet, I’m telling you, is the way forward. It has various names and proponents (paleolithic, caveman, primal blueprint), but the basic idea is the same: eat the way our ancestors ate, move the way they moved, and rest the way they rested, thus becoming fitter, leaner and healthier. It makes a lot of sense to me. Without wanting to repeat what the experts say, I point you to the best blog I’ve found on the caveman lifestyle: Mark’s Daily Apple. Check out his About section for tons of useful background information.

I’ve been acting the cave-dweller for the month of June. I’ve lost kilograms and centimetres, which is always pleasing. I am also happier, better rested and far less grumpy. And right now, I’m off to the pool in my mammoth-skin bikini for some caveman-like romping.

Want to join me?


Muse – Litopia’s New E-zine

Readers and writers alert! Or as my borrowed countryfolk would say, Achtung! Litopia – the very lovely, friendly, creative writers’ colony where I hang out – has just published the first edition of its online literary magazine Muse. It’s sharp, it’s sexy and you want to read it.

Here’s a link to the pdf. Here’s another link, if that doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back soon with an actual post. With content. That is, words written in order, by me, with a point to them. And that’s a promise!


Dani Noir

One of the joys of blogging is being able to connect with writers all over the world, right here from The Dorf, Germany. One writer whom I “met” early in my blogging days was New Yorker Nova Ren Suma, who blogs at Distraction No. 99. Nova has inspired me and many others with her dedication to writing. She is a writer with every core of her being; she lives and breathes it. (Occasionally, she breaks from writing to eat cake, which is another reason to love her.)

Having ghosted a series of tween and YA novels, Nova decided to try her hand at writing for younger readers. It was clearly the right decision: her debut Dani Noir was published by Simon and Schuster’s Aladdin imprint in October this year. Within a month, it was on Amazon’s list of Top 10 Books for 2009: Middle Readers.

I’ve read Dani Noir and I loved it. It’s witty, pacey and delightful. If you are looking for a present for a girl this Christmas in the nine to 14-year-old range, Dani Noir might be just the thing. Be warned though: you might have to start renting Rita Hayworth movies!

Here’s a link to the Dani Noir site, and to my recent interview with Nova, published today on Buzzine.


Seeking a Character Flaw

I’m back at my novel, after having had a break, and I am deeply into a plotting exercise that I have to complete before I start the second draft. I’ve been trying to get inside the skin of my main protagonist, Lindiwe Dlamini, for over a year now. I know her fairly well, but it’s an ongoing process of discovery. Let me tell you a little about Lindiwe:

She’s in her late fifties, and, having started her career as a teacher, now heads up a Swiss-funded AIDS organisation. Lindiwe’s husband Andile was a community organiser who died in police detention in the Eighties. He was the love of her life and she has never – despite taking part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – had any closure on how he died or who was responsible. Her oldest son Peter died of AIDS in his mid-twenties. Her second child, Bongani, manages a small business and is happily married with two children. Her daughter, Mbali, is a fashion journalist in Joburg and shows no signs of settling down, though she has a handsome boyfriend who spoils her. Neither child approves of their mother’s work in AIDS: they think she has worked too hard all her life and that she should retire and enjoy her grandchildren.

However Lindiwe is committed to doing her best for her community. Shaped by apartheid and their religious beliefs, it’s how she and Andile tried to live their lives. Turning away now would be a betrayal of their shared goals. So she keeps working, helping those less fortunate than herself. During the course of the story, a series of events will challenge Lindiwe’s belief in community, and she will have to decide whether to choose a small group of individuals over the collective.

Here’s my problem: isn’t Lindiwe a bit too perfect? I’ve said before that I have a tendency to write lead characters who are too damn nice. As chief protagonist, Lindiwe needs to be relatively likeable, otherwise we might lose sympathy with her. I do feel though that she needs a flaw – apart from her sugar vice – that makes her a little more complex and nuanced.

You have more emotional distance from Lindiwe than I have. Please, suggest a flaw. She needs one.


Breaking the Drought

I haven’t been here lately. Since my confession two Fridays ago, I have written Not One Word. Not a word of novel, not a word of blog. One dead tortoise. Then I read this on Helen’s blog – Forty Things Surprise – and thought, “I want to do this too!” Thanks, Helen, for the inspiration.

1. My uncle once: got charged by a rhino and had to take refuge in a tree.

2. Never in my life: have I been to Monte Carlo in a sports car.

3. When I was five: I was impatiently waiting to learn to read.

4. High school was: painful but oddly wonderful.

5. I will never forget: the exquisite agony of unrequited love.

6. Once I met: Pete Burns.

7. There’s this girl I know: who used to be a little kid and now is a consultant in charge of a hospital.

8. Once, at a bar: someone quoted William Blake to me, so I had to marry him.

9. By noon, I’m usually: looking forward to lunch.

10. Last night: I stayed up ridiculously late fantasy shopping at this vintage clothes website for the prom dress I believe I need.

11. If only I had: a ticket to Cape Town to go and give my friend a kiss on her birthday.

12. Next time I go to church: will be in September for the service celebrating Daisy’s starting school.

13. What worries me most: is that the novel I am writing will be underwhelming.

14. When I turn my head left I see: a picture window with the darkness of Germany beyond.

15. When I turn my head right I see: a white wall.

16. You know I’m lying when: I come over all glib.

17. What I miss most about the Eighties is: random snogging.

18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be: Puck.

19. By this time next year: I will be facing an awfully big adventure.

20. A better name for me would be: …. actually, I like the one I have.

21. I have a hard time understanding: oppression.

22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll: try to get my head around Maths.

23. You know I like you if: I make myself available.

24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be: Toni.

25. Take my advice, never: think diplomacy is better than honesty – you only end up hurting yourself.

26. My ideal breakfast is: cooked by someone else.

27. A song I love but do not have is: Suzanne by Leonard Cohen.

28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you: visit my brother’s fabulous indigenous plant nursery and spend some time talking to the tree man. If you are a single and available female who likes veeerrry laid-back men, please ask him on a date.

29. Why won’t people: do unto others as they would be done to?

30. If you spend a night at my house: expect very friendly children who will crawl into bed with you and request stories. Also, good food and lots of wine.

31. I’d stop my wedding for: Colin Firth, the Darcy years.

32. The world could do without: patriarchy.

33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than: lick the belly of a worm.

34. My favourite blonde(s) is/are: sleeping upstairs.

35. Paper clips are more useful than: styrofoam cups.

36. If I do anything well it’s: dream.

37. And by the way: I had Thai beef salad for supper.


From the Frontline

… of suburbia, here is my life today:

Having a slight hangover, after cooking dinner for five girlfriends last night. We ate guacamole, a butternut and feta gratin, green salad with asparagus, carrot and walnut muffins with marscapone orange cream. We drank some bottles of rose, my favourite summer drink.

Sniffling somewhat, from the hayfever that prevents me from enjoying early summer with my whole heart.

Worrying about how Chapter Six has gone all spongy in the middle and how I am going to give it its edge back.

Reading other writer’s blogs for tips and finding this from Scott of Poetic Chaos:

When I get stuck while I’m writing, it’s usually because I realize there’s a problem with one of the characters. I’m not ‘getting it’ where they’re concerned. One of the ways I try to work around that is free writing. I’ll just open a new window and start writing for ten or fifteen minutes. Sometimes, it turns into a two way conversation between the character and I. Other times, it’ll be a journal entry, or just free association.

If I really get stuck, I play around with scenes that I’ve already written, and try writing them from the ‘stuck’ character’s perspective. It lets me into their head a little more, and gets me in tune with the character.

And I think a lot of voice is like that. It’s about tuning in. Sometimes, you’ve just got the frequency off a little bit – if you jiggle the knob, you’re going to get that clear crystal picture.

Enjoying the sensation of worked-out muscles in the gluteus maximus from my run yesterday and aerobics class with the Tommy the Teletubby on Monday.

Wondering if I will ever lose the five kilograms I joined the gym five months ago to lose, and considering my friend G’s tip to go and have my thyroid tested, but fearing that my thyroid will be fine and that the way forward will be a sparrow’s diet.

Puzzling about how I have got myself into hosting a sleepover for four girls between the ages of six and eight this weekend, and steeling myself to be firm with the one invitee who knows no boundaries. The solution may be to tranquilise with DVDs and popcorn.

Dreaming of leaving for Berlin next Thursday for six whole days of aloneness and writing.

Missing my husband.

Feeling inspired by this piece of wisdom, collected at Pippa’s Porch this morning:

The easiest thing to be in the world is you. The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be. Don’t let them put you in that position.

What’s happening in your world today?