Interview by Chiara Bullen
How long had the idea for Stella been brewing in your mind?
The novel took seven years from concept to print. The idea of writing a children’s book, as it was originally conceived, had a gestation period of about twelve minutes. I was bored on a dusty, hot drive out to the Serengeti. Nobody in the car wanted to talk to me, books were unavailable, and a rebellion in my insides dispelled sleep. I began writing as a distraction. If I just focused on my imagination, I figured, the physical discomforts would get pushed to the back of my brain. So I got out paper and pen and invented a precocious human creature that might have existed in one of the parallel universes of the hills we’d hiked.
What draws you to the verse-novel/prose style? Is it a style you always knew you’d write in?
Sonnets came from boredom with blogging, which came from boredom with journaling, which came from adolescent loneliness. At least, those were the active ingredients. A longer explanatory post is forthcoming.
In short, I shifted my writing style because I wanted to give gifts: I tried to connect with new friends by writing up little odes to evenings out with them. The sonnet seemed playful, as a year or so prior I’d read The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. Rhyming was fun. Fourteen lines felt self-contained and cutesy, so I wouldn’t fall into maudlin ramblings. A nice evening out with new potential friends led to a reflective emailed thank you poem with a shout-out to each person.
I didn’t get much of a positive response. That was fair, because my first fifty or so sonnets were pretty bad.
Let’s also not assume I ever thought I would write a novel. I’m still not fully convinced I have. But I did write something intricate, and relevant, and timely. With dope rhymes. And a playlist. Once Stella existed in the world I didn’t feel complete until I figured out where she and Abu ended up.
What has been the most challenging part about the writing process so far?
My editor, Katherine Knotts of Red Press, is exceptional. Without her, the book would not exist. She is also the most challenging part of the writing process. She herself is not challenging. Her eye, however, is keen, and she doesn’t get duped by fun wordplay at the expense of clarity moving the story forward. She took a cleaver to the fat I left on the first draft. I think there were 1,174 comments in the document.
Editing a verse-novel is flat-out harder than editing a prose novel. You can’t just add sections. Or even words. You can’t switch word order. You can’t add certain words in certain places, even if they are the precise right words in the precise right places. Because every change in a sonnet affects its overall structure. I’ve fourteen lines, each ten syllables, every one in iambic meter, with a three-quatrain alternating rhyme scheme and a rhyming resolving couplet. Without that, it’s not a sonnet. It’s a free-verse-novel. And I can’t handle that much freedom.
I had to edit within this uncompromising structure. Such small things as noting which character was speaking in a group had consequences on the rest of the words I could use to fill out that line, and the linked rhymes, and thus the entire verse. Eight hundred and two times, by final count.
Its rigidity also provides its thrill. Getting each verse authentically tight feels electric. Partly, I think, because it feels so impossible at the outset. But every tiny step in the doing brings it closer to possibility, until it’s sitting there on the digipage before my eyes. That wonder never got old.
What writers do you look to for inspiration?
The Golden Gate will always be the inspiration that birthed this, in a weird tryst with Revenge of the Baby-sat (Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson) and anything Seussian that’s ever been read to me.
More contemporarily, I read science fiction as quickly as I eat cinnamon toast crunch. I cherish the thought put into answering the question, what would humanity be like in a world where we changed these laws of the universe? That’s what good science fiction is: a tweaking of the basic parameters in life, played out as dramatic brain food. What if belief itself exerted physical power? Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee. What if climate change had an intergalactic analog? The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi. What if consciousness was shared across bodies? Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. What if two places and peoples coexisted in the same physical space, separated only by their deliberate blindness to each another? The City & The City, China Miéville. That’s a sample of the last few months.
Beyond these what-if concepts I get from sci-fi, I’ve been trying to pick up inspiration from extraordinary sentences. I was blown away by Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The textures she painted in my mind were even richer in hue and detail than their vocabulary. White Noise by Don DeLillo had the same effect on me, almost tiring out my highlighting hand. Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys is also in the runnings here, with the periodic parsimonious description so accurate as to make it feel criminal to add words.
If you listen to the playlist you’ll clearly see inspiration from Lupe Fiasco and the wider hip-hop canon. I’ve limited what’s above to recent fiction.
What’s been the highlight of your writing career?
I started crying when the first test reader – formerly a fancy-pants reporter – texted me he finished the novel, it was incredible, and it didn’t confuse the living daylights out of him. I didn’t see that coming.
Rewriting Stella brewed in my head for so long that I had no idea how a different human head would receive it. That was when it first became real to me that this might make it into print.