I’ve got another super special interview for you lovely folks today! We’re going to be sitting down with Chioma Nnani and discussing her book, her writing process, some camels, and everything in between!
Let’s start with a get to know you question: Tell us three things about you. Anything you want.
My name is Chioma Nnani. I am one of Africa’s most fearless storytellers. And I am slightly obsessed with the idea of riding a camel.
When did you start writing?
I was about eight or younger when I started writing. But I did it, partly as an escape, partly because it came naturally to me.
Okay, let’s talk about your book, Forever There For You: Tell us a bit about it!
I like to call it a cocktail of love, friendship, domestic violence, cultural clashes and sisterhood! It’s set in a number of different places – Nigeria, England, the United States and Paris. So, there’s a lot going on.
How did you reach the point of wanting to write a book?
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. Parents at the time, thought that anyone who did Performing Arts, Broadcasting, Media, or Music was just a waster.
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, 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 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. 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. 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 with the realization that I didn’t want to become a lawyer. 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.
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 debut 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.
So, she contacted me to sort of 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 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 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. They’d never had a writer before. So, I was like, “You know how people go on X-factor and are stunned to realize 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!
How did your experience with Martha affect you?
It helped me become more cautious. I don’t think I’m paranoid, but I’m definitely more cautious in my dealings with people. There are a lot of whacked out, unscrupulous people out there. I’m really open with my authors or even with anyone who comes to me for advice; I tell them not to sign anything they don’t like or understand. If they don’t understand something and the person they’re asking, gets offended, it’s a sign that they should walk away real quick because the person has something to hide. My career has progressed in leaps and bounds.
Okay, I can’t resist. You mentioned a camel earlier, and you need to elaborate a bit on that.
It started as a private joke between someone and I. He had travelled to the Middle East and I was like, “I want you to bring me back some crown jewels and a camel!” His reaction was, “Babe, I can get you jewelry, not necessarily crown jewels … let’s negotiate. But you’re so not getting a camel!” And I got play-offended and kept insisting, so he asked, “Why do you want a camel? What do you want to do with it? Where are you going to keep it? And what are you going to feed it?” And I’m like, “I don’t know; why are you asking me?” I’m still insisting, so now, “I want a camel” has become a thing. But seriously, it would be nice to ride a camel.
What has the process of putting your book out into the world been like? Have you been happy with how it’s gone?
It has been interesting. On a career front, it’s amazing. I’ve got two award wins so far, a number of nominations, was named “One of 100 Most Influential Creatives in 2016”, and I’ve been able to launch my own company and solidify my brand.
On a personal level, it’s also interesting. It’s a very definite way of finding out who wishes you well. But then, this kind of thing just opens you up to new possibilities, some of which you didn’t even realize existed before.
I’m very into meditation so, I try not to complain about stuff. I try to maintain an attitude and aura of gratitude, while visualizing and working on new ventures and results.
What does your company do?
We are a storytelling company. The “Author Services” department is where we take care of ghostwriting, editing, magazines, publishing and pretty much everything to do with a book from concept to physical or digital product. The “Office Angels” department was created to help entrepreneurs, business-owners and SMEs. We do their administrative and other tasks, so that they can focus on their real business. Then, there’s the “Learning & Teaching Unit” through which we offer online and offline courses and webinars. We also create bespoke courses and the “Learning & Teaching” platform is where our online shop is housed. And we have the “Services to Media” unit, where we deal with scriptwriting, pre-production, production, post-production of screen, stage and radio work. Like I said before, it’s a storytelling company: we create, package and market stories.
Where did you get your inspiration?
From a lot of places. Some of the characters in “Forever There For You” are based on real people that I know. For instance, Tony the horrifically abusive character was inspired by my immediate younger brother: violent, hateful, entitled, blames everyone for his woes, incredibly chauvinistic, but really a coward. Some of the things that Tony does in the book are what I think he might do, if he were able to convince any successful, high-flying woman to marry him. He has been arrested for assault (against a woman) once in Wales, that we know of, so the propensity is definitely there.
Another character called Stella is actually an exaggerated combination of two other people that I know. I mixed their best traits and their worst traits, upped the ante and voila, Stella came forth.
I’m also inspired by places. Sometimes, I visit a place and know I’ll write about it. At other times, it’s just a sentence or an ideology that I’ve heard, and stuff just takes off from there.
It’s been a while since your book was released. Why the wait for another?
It wasn’t like I sat down and went, “Right, I’m going to wait X number of years before I publish another one.” It was partly organic, partly deliberate. I started researching for my second full-length novel and I was very eager to ensure that it was nothing like “Forever There For You”. I felt like if it’s the same thing, what’s the point – especially as it’s not a sequel. The results of the research were a bit worrying, because they were things that completely upturned the world view I had at the time, so I felt like I needed to learn more and grow, not just as a person, but also as a creative, so that I would do justice to the story if I was going to go through with going in that direction. Plus a shift in my world view took a bit of getting used to. You know how you believe something and base your entire life around it, only to have the courage to research and find out, “Hey! What I thought was, isn’t so at all.” That can knock you for six!
In the mean time, I took advantage of certain opportunities that opened themselves up to me, or that I had the courage to go after – I am based in Nigeria, but I present a radio show at a London-based radio station; I founded my own company (The Fearless Storyteller House Emporium Ltd) through which we offer a variety of storytelling services; I got serious about blogging in 2015 and my blogazine (Memo From A Fearless Storyteller) won the 2016 BEFFTA (Black Entertainment Film Fashion Television & Arts) award for “Blog of the Year” and I have had the pleasure of working with some of the dopest, most talented people in a couple of industries. So, it has been worth it because even in these, I’ve grown. And even if it’s not like one can ever say they know enough, I’m now more comfortable with writing another full-length novel.
And speaking of another book, what are you plans for future writing? Anything in the works?
Oh, there’s a lot! I’m releasing a collection of short stories in January (2017), a trilogy aimed at teenagers in the summer of 2017, and a collaborative autobiography of sorts is slated for a September 2017 release. We (The Fearless Storyteller House Emporium Ltd) released two clients’ books: “Murder At Midnight” and “Ifechidere”, in November 2016 and hope to release another two in January. My company is also working on screen productions, so yeah there’s a fair bit of writing going on.
Because I’m curious, is your book a reflection of what you enjoy reading? What are your favourite books?
Erm, yes and no. Yes, because if I don’t connect with something in some way, why would I write about it? No, because there are some things I absolutely loathe that I write about because it has to be done. One of the themes in “Forever There For You” is domestic abuse … and I remember feeling so uncomfortable with the research. I have a mind that paints pictures when I hear or read words, so I had these awful images in my head; it was not fun to do. There’s a case that shocked England when it happened, that I made reference to – a woman named Kiranjit Ahluwalia was brought from Punjab to England, via an arranged marriage to a man who turned out to be really violent. One day, when he was asleep, she poured gasoline or something on his feet and burned him. He died. Her case changed British legal history because at first, the judge ruled that her defense of self-defense wasn’t valid because she wasn’t in immediate danger. However, for some weird reason, the catalogue and intensity of abuse Kiranjit had suffered, weren’t heard by the judge or jury – so, she went to prison. This organization, Southall Black Sisters, heard about her and felt she had been unjustly treated, that there had been a miscarriage of justice. So, they got involved and helped her tell the full story. They got a lot of publicity and celebrity support, and the case went back to court. The charge of murder was downgraded to manslaughter and because she had already served time, they let her go. She did a book, then there’s a film on it called ‘Provoked’ with Aishwarya Rai-Buchnan playing Kiranjit. That case literally changed the meaning of ‘provocation’ in a legal context in British law … when I studied it in my first year (Criminal Law was a compulsory module in first year), I had no idea that years later, I’d be writing a book and recalling that. It does pay to listen in class!
Some of the scenes in “Forever There For You” were very difficult for me to write. I remember when I completed the fifth draft – that was the one that was going to the editor – I was at a library and I just covered my face and cried and cried and cried, when I was done. I felt like I had given everything and I had nothing left. The library was like 10 minutes walk from my house … and when I got home, I was exhausted. I just lay on the rug and slept, because I couldn’t even climb into bed. I had no idea when I started writing, that it’d take that kind of toll on me. But I did the research and put in the work, because it had to be done. And having the kind of result that it’s birthed – not even about the awards or recognition or career trajectory – but the impact it’s had on people … a woman contacted me after reading it and was like, “I just read your book and I’m going to file for divorce right now”. It turned out she had been living in limbo for 17 years, her husband was a violent man who abused her terribly, they were separated but she hadn’t had the nerve to file for divorce because she was afraid of judgment from the church (which is something that the protagonist in “Forever There For You”, Nadine had to deal with).
I mentioned doing a collaborative autobiography of sorts. It’s not the sort of thing I would ordinarily do. I’m also a ghost-writer, so doing other people’s autobiographies isn’t a big deal. On my blogazine, I’ve told people’s very personal stories. But for me personally … I’m very private in a lot of ways. There is information in the public domain about bits of my private life, but it tends to be stuff that I’m probably OK with letting out or stuff that isn’t that much of a big deal to me. But an autobiography is different and I almost refused. Yet, this is a joint story that does have to be told, so it’s getting done (laughing).
My reading taste is a bit eclectic. The authors whose work I love? Chimamanda Adichie, Cecelia Ahern, J.D Robb, Martina Cole, Lynda La Plante, and John Grisham. Then, there’s Jeffrey Archer; there’s just something about his writing … and a part of me was like, “I want to be like that when I grow up! Without the going to prison part, of course”. I like stuff that makes me think. When I first came across Martina Cole’s work, it was very jarring and graphic … it’s very East End London and I was like, “What the …?” The language was a bit “Whoa!” and the vibe was something else; I think that’s she draws you in. There’s this soap opera that’s really popular in England, called EastEnders … and there’s this character (Peggy Mitchell) they’ve killed off now, but she was really formidable. What was really funny was that she’s not very tall, but she is a force of nature. And she owned the only pub on the square (she lost it a couple of times; long story) … when she was fed up with someone, Peggy would always be, “Ge(t) ou(t) of my pub! I’m East London proper!” in a very authoritative, gritty, East London way that nobody could ignore. In some parts of London, people don’t tend to pronounce the ‘t’ at the end of a lot of words. I find it unnerving, but that’s the vibe that Martina Cole’s writing can visit on a person! Then, there’s J.D Robb; that’s actually a pen-name for an author called Nora Roberts … J.D Robb is the name she used to write a series called “In Death” about this police officer based in New York. I was hooked from the start, so I’ve read every book in the series. Cecilia Ahern is the coolest; I bawled my eyes out from like page 30 of “P. S. I Love You” till the end … it was pretty embarrassing. I think that’s why I didn’t watch the movie when it came out; I think I was like, “I’ve read the book and it was pretty sad. I am not doing that to myself, again!”
What do you like to do when you’re not writing stories?
Sleeping! I know that sounds hella-boring, but feel like I’m permanently on the go, when I am awake. I used to watch movies for leisure, but that’s really difficult to do when you’re a producer. You just keep seeing all the stuff on screen or stage that could have been done better, then you start making notes and that totally defeats the aim of having fun. Same with television; when I am able to watch TV, I’m looking at stuff like Criminal Minds, The Practice, Suits, Empire or How To Get Away With Murder. I don’t think those count as leisure. Reading a lazy book, sometimes yeah. I like decadent food when I can afford it, but with my Postgraduate Certificate in Food Law, it’s almost impossible not to think of the effect that certain foods will have on the body, skin and hair.
Travel is a bit tricky, because I travel a lot for work. The weird thing is I don’t actually like travelling. I am happy to be in a new place – especially if it offers relaxation or inspiration – but it’s the process of getting there, that’s the problem. It doesn’t matter whether I have to travel by bus, car or plane – I’m not feeling it. Sometimes, the scenery is OK, but I’m generally like, “Let’s just get it over with and get to where we need to be.” Sleep is the only thing that really gets me to relax, because I get to shut down completely.
Any last thoughts to share with the readers?
Anything is possible! And “Forever There For You” is now available as a paperback, in Kindle format and iBook format from pretty much every major online bookstore. The paperback is the one that was released some years ago; the eBook and iBook formats releases are very recent.
Where can people reach you?
My website is chiomannani.com and my blogazine, fearlessstoryteller.com is where you can read a lot of stuff that’s going with me, my writing, my authors or my company. My company website is chiomannani.com/company and that’s where you can find really specific information about what the different departments of the company, do. I am on social media (of course!) on Facebook – it’s Chi-Chi Nnani, which is my profile. However, there are three Facebook pages (not profiles); one is the “Forever There For You” page; another is in my actual name (Chioma Nnani) and the third is “Fearless Storyteller” so that’s for my company. I’m also on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram as Chioma Nnani. And I am on Pinterest as Chi-Chi Nnani. They can also email me – firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you so much 🙂