Friday, November 19, 2010

Sefi Atta: Writing on the Cusp of Humor and Horror

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Sefi Atta, author of News from Home (Interlink Books), discusses writing, reading, and research.

What is your writing process like? 
My writing process begins before I start to write. I get to know my characters by daydreaming about them. When I begin to dream about them at night, I know they are fully formed. I usually have a vague idea of what they look like, but I must be clear about their voices in order to write. My first drafts of short stories take less than a week, then I revise for months afterward, even though my revisions are often minimal. I need time to revise and revise intermittently not continuously.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
It depends what the writer wants to achieve. I wanted News From Home to provide a perspective that was wide enough, so readers wouldn’t have a limited view of Nigeria. Also, a lot of news reports on Africa, here in the United States, appeal to the guilt and sympathy of readers. I didn’t want to write stories like that. Finally, I wrote on the cusp of humor and horror, which is how people live in Nigeria. They rely on humor to survive the difficulties they face. I hope readers will understand how extensive the Nigerian experience is.

What book made you want to become a writer?  
L’Etranger by Albert Camus. I read it when I was in boarding school in England and I read it in French, using a French-to-English dictionary. My French wasn’t very good, and even though I was Nigerian, I’d only ever studied books by English writers like Dickens and Shakespeare. I’d never studied Nigerian writers like Achebe and Soyinka. L’Etranger introduced me to a rhythm of writing that was suited to the world I came from. It was odd to have that experience as a foreign student in England and consequently the book had a huge impact on me.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
 I do a lot of research because my stories are based on reality. Research feeds my imagination. I run wild with it, but I’m terribly organized, perhaps because of my background as an accountant. I keep information in files, which I frequently revisit. It pains me to ignore most of my research to serve my stories. I researched the drug trade in Nigeria for my novel Swallow, only to find out I didn’t need any of it. It didn’t belong in the novel, which took a different turn because I couldn’t bear to write a formulaic novel. I was miserable, as I couldn’t share what I’d discovered in my research, but I later used some of it for “Last Trip,” a short story in News From Home. 

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? My title story “News From Home” takes place over several months. It is set in the United States and I use flashback to remind my narrator of the community she left in Nigeria, and to show why she quit nursing and ended up as a nanny.