“When did you start writing?”
A Heart to Mend had been published, reviews were trickling in and the interviews quickly followed with their questions.
The easy answer is that I started writing as a child but what I think is more important is when I started reading. Without that, I might not be a writer today, much less an author. I could stop writing today, in fact I did stop writing at some periods in my life, but I doubt I could stop reading.
Yes, I am a writer and author today but first, I was a reader.
I started reading on my own quite early, I cannot pinpoint the exact time now. But my mother was a school teacher, and drilled us on our reading once we could speak clearly. That was when I was too young for formal after school-lessons that were common in my city in those days. We would come back, have lunch and then be forced to get into bed for an afternoon nap. I must have been in grade two or three at that time, so maybe seven years or so. I wasn’t in the mood for siesta most times, but though I did sleep, what was more likely was that I smuggled a book with me.
I have to confess that for me there’s just something about books and the written word as a means to take me outside myself while still remaining very personal. The writer takes me to a new place, either physically or emotionally and plumbs my depths. I was a quiet child and even when surrounded by my siblings and other people, I would often find myself lost in my own thoughts. I loved daydreaming and the books I read were like the epitome of this fantasizing. It’s like an imagination that came true because it’s been written down. It became so easy to travel to distant, sometimes imaginary lands, meet new people, and experience new cultures.
And so in this way, books became my ticket to escape. The best part about books was that I got to allow my imagination free rein and put the pictures to those words myself. I should explain that I don’t remember my parents buying a lot of fiction for us back then, except you count the books required for school, including the primary readers and story books including ‘Eze goes to school’ and the rest. However, I seemed to manufacture a steady supply from my classmates. It started with the Ladybird fairytales, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and all the other princesses. I also read the Brothers Grimm and some other fable compilations.
There were also the mysterious cartons my parents had scattered across the house. They were from the time before we children came on the scene, and they started off life taped off or simply out of bounds. With time, the cardboard wore down or cockroaches ate through them and in some cases, my parents wanted to take something out. However it happened, the contents of the boxes became accessible. In them were music books, DRUM magazines, some old women’s glossies, my father’s esoteric books and some novels including James Hadley Chase and Nick Carter. I got through all of them before I entered secondary school. Yeah, I’ve always been precocious for my age, at least when it came to reading.
But let me rewind a bit. After the fables and fairytales, I segued in to the real people, or rather fictional real people. I read Enid Blyton’s creations, the Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Towers, as well as the Nancy Drew and Tom Swift series. I was a tomboyish type and those adventures appealed to me. I began to write then. I wrote of children’s adventures. I wrote of two girls climbing trees in fruit orchards. I was inspired by what I read, but I also remembered Christmas holidays spent in the cool shade of the almond tree in an uncle’s spacious property in Asaba. Many an adventure was crafted in the nooks and crannies, the flower beds, the palm trees, plenteous fruit trees and lovely old fashioned houses in that “Yard”.
By the time I was nine and maybe in primary four, school became more tasking and my mother more demanding of better grades. I was going to take the common entrance in primary five and had to get ready. So I stopped writing and reading became my main escape again. Then, I had graduated to the Pacesetters and African Writers Series. I was reading my required reading for school as well the reading for my older sister and all the people in the house who were older than I was. My sister loved reading too and so I scarfed up all the books she brought home too. It was around this time I happened on romantic fiction through Jane Eyre.
Ahhh Jane Eyre… Charlotte Bronte was an amazing storyteller I tell you. Not only was the plot in the story as tight as a drum, the romance was so sweet. What an emotional rollercoaster. The build-up of their love was soft and touching, there were twists to keep you turning the page. Jane loved Rochester and he loved her too but the gap between them made a happy ever after unattainable. Then there was the issue of the mad woman in the attic. I ended up reading these books several times in the following years. This was my ‘aha’ moment with reading. I knew I would never stop.
As the years rolled by, more and more books passed through my hands. I can honestly say that I read half the books that were available in my primary and secondary schools in the early and late-nineties. But of all the thousands of books I read, the ones that continued to stand out were those that contained love stories. I think you can guess where this is going, right? I began reading Mills and Boon in my first year in secondary school. By JS3, I was flipping through each in as little as two hours sometimes. While a lot were boring, there were the magical few that met what I was looking for. Those authors that reached right into my ribcage and squeezed. Some squeezed hard enough to make my eyes leak tears.
I cannot remember a fraction of those M&Bs now, but it would be highly remiss of me if I did not mention the following authors who specialized in romantic fiction, if not category romance. They include Bertha M. Clay, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Elechi Amadi, Sidney Sheldon, Buchi Emecheta, Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz, Helen Ovbiagele and Barbara Delinsky among others too numerous to mention. The Nigerian authors may not have as wide a body of work as the others but the Bride Price, Evbu my Love and The Concubine are books I will never forget. They educated me; shaped me, entertained me, and they pierced my heart. Beautifully written, and crafted masterfully, books by these authors had me sobbing at different stages.
I had another ‘aha’ moment. I wanted to write these sorts of books. It became sealed when I read the inspirational romance penned by Francine Rivers. The first was Redeeming Love. I won’t try to describe this book to you. You just have to experience it yourself. I began writing again after that, just before the millennium. And I was writing romance. A Heart to Mend began life from a novella I wrote back then. I wouldn’t compare it to any I have listed but I’m also not ashamed of it. I hope to write more novels and know that they will be better than A Heart to Mend. I also hope that others will one day list my novels when talking about books they’ve read.
So yes, there is something amazing about writing and being able to hold a book you’ve authored. But what fewer writers talk about is reading that book and being captivated by your own story. We rarely talk about being lost in the pages of a good book, of reading throughout the night and having to prop open our eyes with toothpicks the next day, of spending minutes crying or simply thinking after reading a scene in a novel. This is what makes reading so indispensable to me, they can be simply for enjoyment, but they also have the ability to change a life, an opinion, a belief, a worldview. So while I write to be authored, I mostly write to be read and to read.