Femi Kayode grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. He studied Clinical Psychology at the University of Ibadan and has worked in advertising over the last two decades. He was a Packard Fellow in Film and Media at the University of Southern California and a Gates-Packard Fellow in International Health at the University of Washington, Seattle. His writing credits include several award-winning works for the stage and screen.
In 2017 he was awarded the UEA Literary Festival Scholarship, which helped to fund his MA in Creative Writing Crime Fiction. Whilst studying at UEA, his debut novel Lightseekers won the Little, Brown/UEA Crime Fiction Award. He lives in Namibia with his family.
Hi Femi. Lightseekers was a remarkable success and won the Little Brown Award for Crime Fiction. Can you tell us about your experience writing your first novel, and what’s next for this series of books based on the investigations of Dr Philip K. Talwo?
The jury is out regarding the remarkable success of Lightseekers! With less than five months to publication date, I am on pins and needles, wondering if the reading public will see what the Award committee saw back in 2018. Since then, I have lost a bit of my innocence and frankly, a lot of my preconceived notions and assumptions about writing and the business of publishing.
For one, I wrote Lightseekers as my thesis for the MA in Creative Writing Crime Fiction at UEA. It was a teleguided process of sorts, with tutors and classmates giving notes, and deadlines attached to the academic calendars. It was wonderful to be honest, because I honestly did not feel I was writing this book that I even dreamt would be published. It was school, an academic programme that demanded attention, timeliness and whose key requirement was creativity. So, to be honest, I didn’t feel this urgent pressure that many debut authors say they feel. I just wanted to graduate with good grades and prove to my long-suffering family that I am not a quitter. When you are the parent of teenagers who are looking at you with the eyes of ‘walk the talk’, I think it was important that I stuck to it.
The actual writing (when I finally got to doing it!) was fun and I really enjoyed the process. The problem was finding the time — I am the Managing Creative Director of a very busy advertising agency — and this meant I was writing in bursts, usually during the weekends and as close to the academic deadlines as I could push it. I like pressure, I guess. I always say my past experience as a storyliner for soap operas really helped. I tell my fellow writers that if they ever get the opportunity to be part of the Writers Room on a TV show, they should grab it. The energy, urgency and relentless pressure are great practice.
What excited me the most about writing Lightseekers was the fact that this was mine. My baby. My ideas. My story. Film and TV (and indeed, advertising) are extremely collaborative processes, and with several creative egos clashing, the end product can be extremely different from how the creator or writer envisioned it. With writing a novel, I felt a huge sense of liberation. This was my journey. Mine. And with every validation from my classmates and tutor, I felt more empowered. It was a heady feeling, this sense of independence and power over my creative journey. In fact, I loved that feeling so much that my only regret was not starting this novel writing process much earlier in my career. I think it would have affected how I approach some of my creative decisions as an advertising person, or even a screenwriter. In fact, I think it would have changed a lot in the way I lived. Not that I have that many regrets but I truly think the creative freedom I had while writing Lightseekers enriched my lived experience in the real world and I would like to think I am a better person, not just a better writer.
I think the journey to publication of Lightseekers has also enriched me and restored my faith in humanity on many levels. The awards committee of the Little, Brown/UEA Award for Crime Fiction were extremely supportive. They were my first insight into the convoluted world of publishing and they gave their time and efforts to guide me. I am forever indebted to them, not just for the award but for their commitment to my career. In fact, they were the first people who made me see the possibility of a career as a novelist. With that said, I think I must have one of the fastest sale in a while – thanks to my awesome agent. The Italian rights were picked up within 24 hours of it being sent out. But I also have one of the longest lead times to publication! I have the most amazing editors in the UK and US, and I promise you, that was when I realised I may have had too much fun while writing Lightseekers.
The editing process was when the real writing started. I cried, raged, fought… constantly marvelling at my past naivety. Almost 130k words became trimmed to just over 90k, detailed editorial notes guided the structure, and several discussions gave greater nuance to the characters. In the past, I couldn’t bear to read over my first draft. I felt it was done, and I wanted to move on to the next story, or book. Now, after the editing process, I can’t stop reading Lightseekers over and over. It is so much better and I am really proud of it and the journey that got me here.
In terms of the next steps, well, I am working on Book 2 in the series now, and because I am doing my PhD at Bath Spa University, the writing process is very much like when I was writing Lightseekers. You can guess I like school, right? But seriously, I think I need the structure and guidance of school to force me to write according to a schedule. Additionally, I am not having the pressure most debut authors have with their sophomore because I have the most amazing tutors and guides. So, in book 2, Philip Taiwo is going to be investigating why the wife of the pastor of a megachurch in Nigeria suddenly disappeared, and there are suspicions of foul play with all fingers pointing to the husband. It starts out as a domestic noir but quickly evolves into much larger themes of religion, patriarchy, and the interrelationships of church, finance and politics. I can’t give too much away now, but I am having enormous fun writing it.
We are proud to know that proceeds from our ticket sales have helped support you in your education at UEA. What’s been your biggest takeaway from your time at UEA?
Comradery. That’s the first thing. There was an enormous support network of fellow writers that I think every writer needs. I know there is a school of thought that creative writing schools are counterproductive and that you can’t teach writing. I actually disagree. A great pedagogy that focuses on feedback (which is an art form in itself!), guidance and fuelling motivation is priceless. The syllabus of a creative writing programme is only as good as two critical elements: the tutors and the students. I was blessed with both at UEA.
Access is another thing. The program at UEA gives unprecedented access to the industry (at least in the UK) – from agents to editors to publicists and more. I am not sure I would have ever had access to those resources from my base in Namibia, without going through the crime fiction program.
You recently interviewed Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite for the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival. What can you tell us about the crime writing scene in your home country of Nigeria and the phenomenon that is Nigerian Noir?
I can’t call my interaction with Oyinkan an ‘interview’ per se. She was just the most amazing human to engage with and I just felt right at home with her and I think we were just talking and talking to the extent that the director had to send out a warning that we were 90 minutes in, already! It also helped that I really loved My Sister, the Serial Killer and a lot of Oyinkan’s insights into process aligns with mine.
With that said, I must confess that I don’t know much about the ‘phenomenon’ of Nigerian Noir. Of course, I love that more contemporary writers are coming out of the country, with a dynamic voice, that is true to the times, diversity and experiences in the country, but I am not sure we are at the ‘phenomenal’ level yet. At least compared to say, the Nordic Noir for instance. Rather, let’s say the ‘rising’ phenomenon. So, what do I think is driving it? Representation for one; having Africans represented within the context of contemporary literature, using tropes that are becoming recognizable within western cultures/stories is a huge force for growth. I also think that globalization is key. As you know, there are Nigerians everywhere, along with other Africans. I think the more we are interacting with the world, the more the world wants to interact with us. Even if it’s just to understand our psyche, and complexities. Especially in Europe, I have experienced a genuine need to understand, and perhaps in the process, appreciate what makes Nigerians tick, and I think the contemporary crime novel gives an enormous insight into this like no film or poem or news article can.
Finally, I think the publishing industry is finally appreciating the fact that the African market is huge, and the talent is at stratospheric levels! The diversity of voice, style and approach is astounding and the world is interested in that. The publishers are seeing this, and as smart business people, they are taking more chances with Nigerian and African writers, and putting unprecedented marketing behind the titles from these authors. I think we’ve not even scratched the surface of what is possible in this ‘Nigerian noir’ genre and indeed, the continent.
What are you currently reading? Do you have any literary recommendations as we all embark upon the ‘new normal’?
I used to believe that while writing, I should not read other people’s work, so I am not influenced. So, in the past, when I am working on a screenplay, I would read a lot of novels, and when I am working on prose, I would watch a lot of movies. Recently, I had to read My Sister, the Serial Killer for the interview with Oyinkan, despite working on my book two, and the experience was quite enriching.
Upon reflection, I realised that writing and editing Lightseekers has made me more confident in myself, so the idea of being ‘influenced’ by other people’s work is no longer as prevalent as it used to be in my mind. So, I am now on a strict read a book a week regimen, but I am trying to read genres outside mine.
I just re-read Blessings by Anna Quindlen, who I absolutely adore. The way she merges character and plot is sublime. Last night, I started Alice Hoffman’s Blue Diary which has been on my bookshelf for years. For now, especially during this ‘new normal’ I think smaller books help me to feel like I am starting and finishing something within a shorter time-frame. So, I think it will be like this for a while; books below 350 pages that I can finish across a weekend, at most.
My son is finishing high school this year, and we have made a pact to read as many Nigerian novels as possible during his time at home, so I am also stocking up on a wide range of titles by Nigerian authors. I have cheated of course and have read through Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, which is just fascinating. As for recommendations, you can’t go wrong with Leye Adenle’s books. I love Easy Motion Tourist. Try it. Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a tour de force that deserves every accolade it has received.
Perhaps no novel talks to the new normal as much as Ta Nehitsi Coates The Water Dancer and I don’t mean Covid-19, but the more insidious virus of race and race relations. It helps that it’s also one of my favourite titles for a book after Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s, Half of a Yellow Sun. I love great titles. I know they say it’s not a big deal because the marketing people in publishing will fix all that, but you just know when the writer came up with a title. I have just ordered Caste: The Origins of our Discontents and I can’t wait. Philip Taiwo’s reason for leaving the US is very much tied to race and I know I will learn a lot from reading Isabel Wilkerson’s new book.
And when all this is over; the pandemic, the US elections (the drama!) the writing (for a while), the research, school work and I just need to be, I will go back and re-read two of my all-time favourite books: A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. Yeah. Even in my downtime, I am a sucker for punishment and emotional torture.
And as my bed time reading, I am reading some of the poems of Jericho Brown in The Tradition (I don’t have the whole book yet), one poem a week. Over and over. Not more. They are like little treats I give myself, and I don’t want the experience to finish too quickly. That brother is beyond talented and the accessibility of his poems, and the stories and pictures they paint truly inspire me as a storyteller. Hmm… I think I should take a poetry class.
Thank you Femi. It’s been great to hear from you!
Femi’s debut novel Lightseekers will be published in February 2021 and you can pre-order now at Waterstones.
You can see Femi in conversation with Oyinkan Braithwaite at this years Noirwich Crime Writing Festival. All events are online and available for free.
Register your attendance by visiting www.noirwich.co.uk