An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Taiye Selasi,
By Diane Slocum
Renowned surgeon, failed husband and father Kweku Sai stumbles out of his home in Ghana one morning and dies. Years earlier, he had walked out of his family home in America and never returned. His estranged wife and now grown children have each dealt with his abandonment in their own private way and it has taken a toll on their lives. They have all drifted apart as well. They are intelligent and gifted but suffer an emptiness that seems to demand resolution. Now, they must all return to Ghana to bid their father farewell.
"The story came to me sort of all at once. I was doing a yoga retreat in Sweden." |
AUTHORLINK: Where did you get the idea for the story? What was the first aspect that came to you? A character? The opening scene?
SELASI: The story came to me sort of all at once. I was doing a yoga retreat in Sweden and I was in the shower and the entire novel, all six characters, the entire plot was just sort of manifest there. I think it's because I had waited for a long time for them to come. I had quit my job and this yoga retreat and meditation retreat was the first time I was still enough and silent enough for them to be heard. That's how it happened. You ask what was the first aspect that came to me and it wasn't just one, it was the entire family. I left the retreat because they didn't allow laptops. I went to Copenhagen with a friend and I wrote the first pages which are published pretty much unchanged.
AUTHORLINK: How did you work on the characters' background and family tree in Ghana and Nigeria? What was your research?
SELASI: My research was 30 years in my family that pretty much did the trick. In terms of keeping track of everything, I created an Excel spreadsheet which had every year since Kweku was born until he died and then what was happening in the lives of every character every year. Just creating that helped me keep track of what was happening year by year.
AUTHORLINK: How did you decide on the format with Kweku's death beginning on the first page and slowly shown in short segments? How did you develop the storyline for each character? Did you know before you started writing how each would unfold?
"I'm not one who sort of decides how it's going to happen before it happens. I play it like I hear it . . ." |
SELASI: I really didn't decide. I'm not one who sort of decides how it's going to happen before it happens. I play it like I hear it, if that makes sense. I told the story the way it told itself to me. I knew the plot. I knew what was happening and when. I created the spreadsheet to keep track of the years and I let it flow.
AUTHORLINK: Much of the characters' suffering is only made worse when they don't share their problems with their family. Do you think people who read this might want to be more open when they see how damaging this can be?
SELASI: I love that question. I hope that people who read the novel will want to be more open. I keep being told here on the road that I'm very open. I have to say, it makes me laugh. I always think are you not? It's so disastrous when you're not. Yes, I would hope that would be one of the impacts that the novel might have on its readers — encouraging them toward this kind of loving communication.
AUTHORLINK: Many of your lines have a poetic rhythm that could easily be set in verse. Do you write poetry?
SELASI: I think about it a lot. I started writing poetry when I was very young — five-six years old, right up through the end of secondary school. I recently read something that Francine du Plessix Gray said in an interview for the Paris Review. Poetry was her first love and gateway into fiction. Still now she judges fiction by the extent that it most approximates the condition of poetry. I'm with her. I agree with that. I as a reader and as a writer love the fiction that most approximates that condition. Not that it's necessarily poetic, but that has that feeling which she calls a tonal texture, a musicality. I hope my writing has that. It's what I read so I hope it's what I'm writing.
AUTHORLINK: This is your first published novel. Have you written others before this?
SELASI: Never. Never. It's my first novel.
AUTHORLINK: How did you feel when your book sold by virtue of about 100 pages and an outline?
"I got really scared. I had this protracted writers block immediately thereafter . . ."|
SELASI: It was part I. So that sort of stands alone. How did I feel? Terrified. I got really scared. I had this protracted writers block immediately thereafter because I was really afraid of letting everyone down, being a disappointment. It took me some time to shake off that fear, but I did. It was quite simply the love of language and the realization that this is something I'd love to do for all of my life. It actually hurt not to be doing it because of fear. That got me over that hump.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
SELASI: Another novel. I'm actually writing two screen plays at the moment with an Italian co-writer. I live in Rome. I'd written three screenplays before I wrote the novel so I'm thinking just a quick dip back into the film business and then I'll be writing my second novel.
|About Taiye Selasi:|
She was born in London and raised in Massachusetts. She graduated from Yale with a B.A. in American Studies and holds an M. Phil. in international studies from Oxford. Penguin press has already purchased her second novel. Her first published fiction was a short story, "The Sex Lives of African Girls" in Granta, issue 115.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.