Before I start this interview, I want to say something. When I read through the responses (I always do this) Chioma Nnani gave to my questions, I was shocked. Usually when you ask someone about their writing career, you get a standard response, but Chioma’s story is very different. I can’t believe how bad the justice system is in Nigeria, and what tragedy this author went through in life, and then to rise above all that, that is truly inspiring. But I’ll leave the word to Chioma Nnani now – my questions are in italics, the author’s responses in regular font.
Have you been writing for a long time?
Yes, I’ve been writing since I was maybe eight years old. Growing up, one of my favourite books was “Naughty Amelia Jane” by Enid Blyton. And I remember trying to write what I thought would be the perfect continuation. The titular character, Amelia Jane, was a truly mean doll that derived pleasure from torturing the other toys, with whom it/she lived in the nursery. And I figured that it would be really nice if she could have a character transplant of sorts, but I didn’t get past the first chapter because there was literally nowhere to go. She was nice and kept her promises to stop being mischievous. She was just blergh! So, there was no conflict, resolution or real interaction between her and the other toys (laughing)
What inspired you to start a writing career?
Oh, wow! Writing is something I’ve done from childhood; it wasn’t like I was trying to try out a career path for the future. To be honest, at the time, I never even considered that writing was a possible career … I grew up in an era and a culture where you were strongly advised to consider Medicine, Law or Engineering. In fact, there was nothing else to aspire to. A career in Performing Arts, Broadcasting, Media, Music … it just wasn’t … parents at the time, thought that anyone who did those, was just a waster. People had to send friends or older people to beg their parents to allow them get into those careers; it was as bad as saying, “Hey, I want to be a drug dealer” or something like that, to your parents.
I studied Law, because I genuinely believed that was what I wanted to do with my life. My father was killed when I was 16; I was coming home from a hair salon, where I’d gone to do my hair in preparation for a wedding we had to attend the following day. Two men followed me home (I didn’t know they were following me). One of them shot my father (I’m not sure how many times because I went into shock and lost the ability to count after the third shot), the other stabbed and cut him in the stomach with a dagger at least thrice, and they left a bullet in my mother’s leg. It was a very surreal situation … it was obvious that they weren’t robbers, because they didn’t take any piece of property. They didn’t even go into the house. My father left a Will, which was a really strange thing at the time for an African man to do. My father’s relations were horrid (they still are). They tried to forcefully take my father’s property; they were rotten to my mother; they went around and told everyone that my mother killed my father … it was a very interesting time and my father’s lawyer wasn’t very effective. My mother had to report him to one of the most feared judges (Justice Elizabeth Membere) at the time, in the state where we lived, who brought the lawyer back in line. I had literally just left high school and I started to wonder what life would have been like if my father didn’t leave a Will. In Nigeria, when a man dies, it is believed that his wife ‘must have killed him’, even if he dies in an accident or after a protracted illness. And the poor widow is subjected to all kinds of craziness and some rituals, in order to ‘prove’ that she didn’t kill her husband. But when a woman dies, even if it’s as a result of obvious domestic violence, nobody says anything. They ‘leave it to god’. It’s absolutely insane. My mother is educated and had access to a decent judge, who was a bit of a feminist. Stuff was tough financially and in other ways, but it could have been a lot worse. And it is a lot worse for women who aren’t educated, don’t have money or connections, or whose minds are so taken over by grief that they are unable to even think. I wanted to do something to help them; in my head, being a lawyer was the way to go.
I eventually went to England to study for an LLB. I did a mini-pupillage at a Family Law chambers when I was in my first year at the University of Kent (in Canterbury), and that turned me off becoming a barrister. Some of the cases were really harrowing; there was this divorced couple that had been fighting since 1983! I did that placement in 2006 … I didn’t understand that level of hatred and bitterness. I decided I was going to become a solicitor instead, focus on Corporate Law and do some volunteering in the area of family-related stuff. I am a very passionate advocate against domestic violence, so I figured I’d be OK with that. I woke up on the morning of a final paper (I had only two exams to write in my final year), with the realisation that I didn’t want to become a lawyer; Corporate, Family, whatever. I already had a place in Law School in the city of Oxford, where I’d attended Abacus College … and I’d been looking forward to returning to the city for the Law School year. This was also the time when the recession really hit England, so it was a real nightmare for everyone. I couldn’t have yakked my way into a law job, if I tried; law firms were either downsizing or shutting down completely. It wasn’t funny at all …
I have always felt like I had an idea of what I wanted to do, even if it didn’t always work out the way I projected – so, this was new territory for me. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life; I knew what I didn’t want to do, but that wasn’t really any consolation.
I was working wherever I could, while I got myself together. There was this person (whom I will call Martha) that I met, through a classmate, in the summer after I completed my first year. Martha figured out I could write and struck up a friendship with me. Then, she went to the New York Film Academy to study Producing and Directing, and I didn’t hear from her again till she was at the end of her course there. I was in my final year, by this time. When I met Martha, I’d been writing what has now turned into my début novel. So, when Martha contacted me in my final year, she asked how the writing was going and if she could see the manuscript. I can’t believe how naive I was; I emailed it to her. Long story short, Martha returned to Nigeria from New York, to become the Tyler Perry of the Nigerian entertainment industry … with my material. By this time, I had shared more material – television pilot script, movie script, stage production scripts – with Martha, who attempted to pass them off as her work and produce them without telling me. But she kept running into serious financial difficulties. Martha had even attended one school with the daughter of the late President Y’aradua of Nigeria, struck up a pseudo-friendship with the girl, hoping to get some money from there … even went as far as pretending to be a good bridesmaid when the said daughter of the former president was getting married. But nothing happened.
So, she contacted me to sorta confess what she had been trying to do. Then, she demanded that I sign over the rights of all my work to her. For nothing. She called me names, said my family was nothing and we had nobody to fight for us. I called up a friend I went to primary school with, who was really furious when he heard that I was getting abuse from someone who was already trying to shaft me. I don’t know what he did, but I received an undertaking from her, promising not to use any of my material because she had deleted them from her system. My boss, at the time (cos I had told her what was happening, as I would get really shaky whenever I got a nasty email from Martha) said, “I know you studied Law, but if someone was willing and able to fake a five-year friendship with you, so that they could run off to another continent with your material, maybe that’s a sign that your writing is more important than you’ve assumed.” The thing was that I had tried, while I was in university, to get published … and I must have got a thousand rejection emails and letters from publishers and literary agents.
But I decided to try again. So, I contacted two of my friends – Carmen Rose and Keely Zara Augustus – who used to run a company called “Formidable Fusion”. They would put on open evenings for some of the creatives on their books … but they weren’t sure what to do with me, because they tended to have the musically inclined on their roll. So, it was instrumentalists, singers, singer-songwriters … but they’d never had a writer before. So, I was like, “You know how people go on Xfactor and are stunned to realise that they can’t sing, because their friends and family have been lying to them? I need to be sure that I’m not like that.” They put on this event, in which they gave me a slot and I had two pieces of my work read out.
The reaction I received from the audience at the rehearsed reading, where only five people knew me personally, was encouraging enough for me to try again. I found my publisher, Word2Print, maybe two weeks later. 18 months and seven re-writes later, Forever There For You was released!
Is this book a stand-alone, or part of a series?
You know, I keep getting asked that. “Forever There For You” is a stand-alone piece of fiction. I feel like that story has been told; it’s done and dusted. It doesn’t need a re-visitation, although I would consider doing so for the screen … so, if the right combination happened, that’s something I would be happy to explore. But as a book, it’s done. However, I can reveal that I am working on a series aimed at teenagers and the first trilogy is due out in the summer! And I will be releasing a collection of short (fiction) stories at some point in the first quarter of 2017.
Why did you choose this genre?
It wasn’t so much the genre as the story … and even then, I think the story chose me to tell it. “Forever There For You” is a cocktail of love, friendship, sisterhood, religion, cultural clashes and domestic violence. I am passionate about issues of domestic violence against women, so this was a very organic thing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Do you! Read, write, read some more, write some more. Be open to help – whether it’s extra classes, tutoring, mentoring, marketing advice, editing help. Write the book that you want to read!
About the Book
Title: Forever There For You
Author: Chioma Nnani
When NADINE is confronted with the reality of her failing marriage, her first instinct is to work it out. She has had it drummed into her that marriage is ‘for better, for worse’. Walking out is just not an option – her faith would condemn her and her culture would make her a pariah.
The combination of Nadine’s background, education, social standing, friendships, faith, experiences and past relationships is meant to equip her to become a success. Failure is alien to her and love means forgiving at all cost.
As she tries to survive and make the most of the curves that life has thrown her, she discovers that ’success’ is a subjective term, and ‘happily ever after’ is something that you have to discover and define for yourself …
Chioma Nnani is an award-winning author, who also contributes to business, lifestyle and literary publications. One of Africa’s most fearless storytellers, she is a 2016 CREATIVE AFRICAN Awards finalist in the category of “Best Fiction Writer”, and a DIVAS OF COLOUR 2016 finalist. Chioma has also been nominated twice for a UK BEFFTA (Black Entertainment Film Fashion Television and Arts) Award in the “Best Author” category. A talented ghost-writer who is known for “being able to get into your head and under your skin, before writing down exactly how you’re feeling”, Chioma has been named “One of 100 Most Influential Creatives in 2016” by London-based C.Hub Magazine.
She holds a Law (LLB) from the University of Kent and a Postgraduate Certificate in Food Law (De Montfort University, Leicester). She is the founder of THE FEARLESS STORYTELLER HOUSE EMPORIUM LTD (a premium storytelling outfit based in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria, where she lives), typically contributes to lifestyle and literary publications, and runs the “Memo From A Fearless Storyteller” blogazine at www.fearlessstoryteller.com for which she won the 2016 BEFFTA (Black Entertainment Film Fashion Television and Arts) Award.
Amazon (Kindle): United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Australia and India. It is also available on Smashwords, Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Okadabooks, and major online stores. Okadabooks is mainly for buyers in Africa.