Weston Kogi, a police officer in a supermarket in London, returns to his home in West Africa for his aunt’s funeral. After catching up with his family, his ex-girlfriend Nana, and an old schoolmate over good food and plenty of beer, it seems like a bit of harmless hyperbole to tell people he works as a homicide detective. But when he his kidnapped by separate rebel factions to investigate the murder of a local hero, Papa Busi, Weston soon finds out that solving the crime may tip the country into civil war. A noir novel set in the blazing sunlight of the tropics, Making Wolf is an outrageous, frightening, violent, and sometimes surreal homecoming experience of a lifetime.
Tade Thompson is one of the arresting new voices coming from the UK SFF scene today. I first met Tade at the Nine Worlds convention held in London Heathrow in 2013. We were on the same panel and long after the panel ended, I found myself thinking of the straightforward, cutting truth that this writer was saying. People say that there are pivotal moments in our lives and meeting Tade Thompson and getting to know his thoughts and his views on complex subjects such as cultural appropriation and writing as a minority in the SFF field was one of those moments for me.
Tade’s work is raw, visceral and packs quite a wallop.
Making Wolf is Tade’s first published novel. None of his characters are spared and we see a writer intent on revealing his characters in the fullness of their humanity.
The passion behind the work shines through–a clear portent of the kind of writer Tade Thompson is well on the way to becoming.
First, I’d like to congratulate you on the publication of Making Wolf. One thing I found fascinating about this novel was what I would call resonance. I recognize the narrative of the one who returns home from away and who feels the need to create a certain impression. The way Church seizes the opportunity with your main character is also another recognizable thing. Would you be willing to talk about the choices you made in the writing of this novel? What issues did you struggle with and how did you overcome them?
Thank you, Rochita. It was a long road. It’s not exactly an established genre, so one has to thank Rosarium for taking that chance.
I made a deliberate choice to write the book in the noir tradition. I read a lot of Chandler and Spillane when I was young. I knew this wasn’t going to be an “African” novel as I had no interest in what is now called “The Single Story”. I wasn’t going to shy away from anything, but I was not going to conform either. Making Wolf is also a kind of memoir, You would be surprised at how many of the more surreal events actually happened.
I struggled with honesty. If you’ve read the book you’ll see that some of the scenes are…difficult, for want of a better word. I had to fight myself to put them down and to leave them there after the revisions. I also struggled with writing noir in bright sunshine, and trying to manage the collision between what is essentially an American art form and Yoruba culture. I’d like to think I managed to pull it off without coming across as neo-colonialist.
Making Wolf is a visceral novel and I wondered ( if it’s not giving away anything) if you could tell us if there was a scene that stood out for you in particular as the one that shines for you the most? What is it about the scene that makes it so?
It’s not easy to talk about this, as my favourite scenes are in the last part of the book and would definitely give things away. I can say, though, that what I like about it is the nature of the reveal. I think it subverts certain gender expectations, especially in West Africa.
What I find attractive about your work is how there’s an edge of rawness to it–it’s not raw in the sense of the work is unpolished, but it’s raw in the sense that I can practically touch the emotions on the page. In your own choice of reading matter, what are the key elements that you look for? Why?
I’m glad it comes across like that. I have no time to read or write pap. While I am interested in plot, I read for the emotions, for the humanity. I can’t stand stories or books where the writer moves characters around like chess pieces. I want to know how they feel, I want to explore their true feelings, the things they are ashamed of. That’s what rings true to me.
In my own pleasure reading I need that visceral quality, like Cormac McCarthy or Dambudzo Marechera, people who do not hold back. You don’t need to be told; you read their work and you know they just slit a vein and spilled blood on the page.
Added to the above, I wanted to ask if you have go to writers and how the works of these writers resonate or touch your own work?
I read way too much to be able to narrow this down. I hope the books and writers I enjoy just serve as spiritual influence, and that my work doesn’t come across as pastiche.
That said, on holiday I will almost always take something by David Foster Wallace.
The reason I enjoy Wallace is his ability to examine a moment, an emotion, a something in infinite and recursive detail. You just get the feeling that by the time he’s finished describing something, there is nothing left to describe. He was a maximalist, which is not how I like to write, but still.
I think I should also mention Achebe. In Things Fall Apart he included a scene where Okonkwo sought a discreet sexual liaison. I read this at age 12 and was amazed that a writer could include that kind of detail. My mental image of a writer was one who could say those things that others shy away from.
As you can imagine, I’m also a fan of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, for similar reasons. “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.” That’s my writing philosophy in a nutshell. I write what I want and I give no excuses or justifications.
I’m interested in the process you took Making Wolf through. You talked about the combination of an american art form and yoruba culture. Would you share a bit of what your process looks like? Is it different for every novel/story you write?
My process has evolved over time. Generally, I don’t plot the first draft. I have a few characters and a situation into which I throw them. I write whatever the fuck I want to, whenever the fuck I want. I try to write everyday, but I forgive myself if that doesn’t happen. I just keep writing until I run out of story. That gives me some raw material to work with. I take this raw material and break it down into component scenes. I take each character and think about the story from their point of view. This is risky, because sometimes I realise the story needs to be from a different point of view and I have to write the whole narrative again. I start to think of themes and motivations. All of this moulds subsequent drafts.
Making Wolf went through about sixteen iterations, seventeen if you count one change that Bill Campbell suggested that improved the whole outcome and made sense.
I initially thought I was writing general fiction based on my memories of Nigeria, but then I realised it was a crime story. Then I asked myself, ‘hey, wouldn’t it be great to write a noir novel, but instead of dark Los Angeles streets, in bright tropical sunlight?’.
To do this I had to boil down the essentials of the noir form and see what would translate. The flawed hero, the femme fatale, the disconnection, the conspiracies and confusion, the environment as character. Then I funneled my own memories of Nigeria through that.
Kids, don’t try this at home. Everybody writes in their own way, and I have no idea to what extent I succeeded.
We’ve talked before about narratives and the resistance towards narratives that are different. We’ve also talked about the false perception in terms of equality when it comes to representation. Would you like to talk about the complexities you face as a writer who straddles two cultures? What do you see as being the biggest challenge for you as a writer and how do you position yourself and make your stand?
Heh. I don’t just straddle cultures. I straddle genres. Because life isn’t difficult enough 🙂
From my African side I face the pressure to be Authentic ™. I got flack for a recent interview because I used the F word, because this is apparently “unAfrican” (which is ironic, given the content of that interview). From my British side I face the pressure to write something “recognisable”. A close friend told me to “write a story with names I can recognise and pronounce”. I would have an identity crisis if I gave a fuck what people thought of me. But I don’t, and that affords me the freedom to write what I enjoy.
There is no equality in publishing. Anybody who writes should know this by now and not be under any illusions. That is not to say the industry is full of prejudice. There are allies everywhere, both covert and overt.
The biggest challenge for me as a writer is marketing. The kind of editorial feedback I get with my rejections is sometimes baffling. “You’re a good writer, but I don’t know how to market this”. “Write something set in London”. “Can’t you write about dragons? What the fuck is an “egbere”? “I thought you said this was fantasy? Where are the elves? Why is it set in Dahomey?”. “stick to one genre.”
I find all of this perplexing, to say the least. The people in charge of what gets published, the gatekeepers, treat the reader like some daft, brain-damaged unfortunate to whom they must both pander and force-feed pureed shit. I just choose to write the best book possible. If it finds readers, great. If it doesn’t, maybe the next one will. I think readers are smart. I choose to believe readers are smart. If I write the right narrative, they’ll want it. I’ll keep working.
What would really be nice is to have more gatekeepers who straddle cultures. They would probably understand what minority writers are trying to do and perhaps provide that opportunity or gentle nudge. Otherwise, we have to continue with brute-force, hard-work attacks on the bastions. It’s fun, really.
Aside from writing, you’re also an artist. You did the cover for Aliette de Bodard’s story giveaway and you’ve done a good number of various pieces. Do your art and your writing inform each other? In what ways?
I’d say I dabble in art. I have a hobby that is occassionally useful. I just really enjoy anything to do with visual art. I like the smell of oils or the feel of pencil lead. I sometimes pass my fingers over an impasto to feel the texture. I like having India Ink stains on my fingers. I love all of it.
I think in images. My writing is usually a transcription of images in my head and I tend to storyboard difficult scenes.
My first narratives as a child were illustrated. My primary school teacher in Wimbledon would draw a line across the middle of a blank sheet and tell us all to write stories on the bottom half, and draw on the top half.
I’ve never really separated the visual and literary since. I’m a big fan of comics and any kind of sequential art. I love the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. I love Persepolis, Asterios Polyp and Jack Kirby’s work.
Strangely, I wrote a novella with Nick Wood a few years ago which features African superheroes as a homage to the ones I enjoyed as a child. I also plan to work on my own graphic story which may or may not be in comic form.
We’ve also talked about absence of fear in the work and in your interview at the Booksmugglers, you talked about how you don’t worry about alienating your audience. We’ve had a lot of conversations around the subject of diversity–diverse work, diverse characters, diverse writers–and you’ve also spoken about the need for editors who are able to recognize different kinds of narratives.
I’ve also given this much thought–how to create a space where diversity thrives and is nurtured. What do you see as being our biggest obstacles in creating such a space? How can we create change that goes deeper than cosmetics?
I should point out that I don’t WANT to alienate my audience. I just don’t worry about it. Diversity is a loaded word. I prefer to talk about the fiction of minorities. We suffer from identifying ourselves the way the dominant storytellers do, by which I mean we have a tendency to homogenise ourselves. Yes, to some extent our problems are similar, but on the other hand, we often think one solution fits all, and it doesn’t.
We are going to need true creativity, not just knee jerk reactionism. We have to create a space fluid enough to contain and propagate narratives from myriad cultures and subcultures. We will need to teach the audience. Readers have been fed the same recursive thing for so long that they’ve fallen asleep. We have to wake them up by writing prose and poetry that crackles with energy, rather than copying or whitewashing. You don’t wake people up with a lullaby. And, of course, you cannot wake anybody up if you yourself are asleep.
Reeducation is required for three main targets: writers, gatekeepers, readers.
One of the main obstacles is the faux competitiveness I see among some writers. We need to understand that if one does well, all do well. One good book just makes the audience hungry for more good books. Any librarian or bookseller can tell you that.
I know you have a memoir in the works as well as another novel in the works. Would you like to lift the curtain a bit and give us a sneak peek?
Okay, my memoir is called Knock Knock Jokes, the first chapter of which was published in the Bahamut Journal this summer. It’s a hazy recollection of my childhood in Nigeria. I like the memoir form because it does not require the extensive fact-checking that autobiography does. It’s subjective, a genre unto itself, and while it’s not fictionalised it’s distorted (to protect other people) and editorialized. It’s a DVD commentary on my own childhood. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it when I finish. It’s indulgent as hell.It features floods, violence and giant robots. Okay, only one flood, yes, there is violence and the memory of TV giant robots.
The novel I’m working on now is urban fantasy, tentatively called Labours . The elevator pitch would be The Warriors (1979 movie) meets the Twelve Labours of Hercules. I’m trying to dial the batshit up to eleven.
Tade Thompson can be found online at: http://tadethompson.wordpress.com
Follow him on twitter: @tadethompson