Bookshelf: ‘Lonely Roads’ is your first novel. What triggered it?
William Ifeanyi Moore: Lonely Roads is actually my fourth novel, but the first three will never see the light of day. They were so bad. I literally cringe when I look at them now. But I guess it was needed for my 10,000 hours of training. A lot of people don’t know this, but I actually completed Lonely Roads when I was only 18 years. But I was still lacking in confidence as a writer, so I kept it locked up in my drawer till now. It was written as a reaction to an identity problem I encountered when I first moved to the United Kingdom. I realized that while Africans often think of each other in ethnic groups, Westerners for the most part considered us all the same. So I wanted to write a story that showed how the differences we impose on each other by social class, tribe, and family standing has affected us negatively. I couldn’t think of a better illustration than slavery, which largely involved blacks selling other blacks to whites. While we have come a long way from that, till today, tribal sentiments remain so strong that agitation for Biafra is still well and alive. The other division strong in Africa I tried to address is that of class. Till today, in Nigeria at least, elitism is still well and alive and continues to hinder social progress.
Bookshelf: Your central character, Afam, was an Osu. Can you explain why you decided to examine that subject-an old tradition in Igboland?
Moore: I might be wrong, but I feel like recently there has been an explosion in contemporary fiction. I really wanted to write something with historical information that highlights aspects of our culture now very popular today mainly because our youths needed to be taught about these things and what better way than through literature which is informative and entertaining at the same time. The idea of an outcast is something we can all relate to. Someone marked out and rejected by a collective. In the older days, it could be someone used to appease a deity or someone that has committed an abomination. Today, we still see people being ostracized from society for different reasons. For example, rape victims won’t even come forward to report rapists because our society treats these victims in a way that makes them feel singled-out. I used Onu and her son Afam as outcasts to reflect both the pain of loneliness when forced into isolation and as a metaphor for many voiceless Nigerians isolated by virtue of their social standing.
Bookshelf: Do you think these traditions still exist in Igboland?
Moore: For the most part, no. When I lived in the East, I had heard people refer to certain families as osus, but it wasn’t like the family in question were marked out or cast away. It is a bit difficult to maintain such traditions living in this era where money speaks and globalization is endemic. Personally, I am happy we have outgrown that aspect of our culture. I am not a fan of complete westernization as there are African ideas I believe are worth protecting, but with the osu culture, I think abandoning it is a step in the right direction.
Bookshelf: To what extent will you say some of the traditions you depicted in your novel have been eroded?
Moore: You know Lonely Roads takes place in 1807, this was pre-colonial times we are talking about; long before the influence of Christianity and western education. A lot of things have changed since then and one might even argue the rise of a national identity as opposed to a tribal one has gone a long way in facilitating these changes. Other rites mentioned in the book like traditional marriages are still very much alive even though it is now debatable which of the weddings Nigerians consider to be of more importance between the ‘white’ and traditional wedding. I also took out my artistic license to merge cultural practices in this story. Aboh didn’t have the culture of osu, but it was prevalent in neighbouring villages, and with the killing of twins too, that was more alive in the Efik speaking parts of today’s Nigeria. But I think, to create a more fluid cultural identity we have to start allowing such in fiction at least. I understand a lot of writers and intellectuals might have a problem with this, but I believe it is necessary for social cohesion.
Bookshelf: What do you hope to achieve with this novel?
Moore: I hope to draw the attention of readers to an aspect of slavery that isn’t often discussed, as well as other aspects of the book I have already mentioned. Most books and films about slavery set the narrative in foreign lands to depict what life was like for the slave abroad. There is hardly any focus on the people the slaves left behind and how it affected their lives. Every slave is someone’s child, some were supposed to get married, and some probably even had children. I also wanted to challenge the notion that Africa was a helpless victim of the trade by pointing out African complicity in these transactions. I always tell people it is called the Slave Trade and not the Slave Raid for a reason. I know that isn’t the sweetest of pills to swallow, but I am a firm believer in self-criticism and cannot think of any way to develop better awareness and self-knowledge than in examining our culture and taking responsibility of our own progress.
On a more personal note, I want this novel to serve as an introduction to my writing for readers. Contrary to the belief that a writer only needs to put out one good novel and they will explode with success, it normally takes about four books to strike a chord, so every work has to be your best. I would want this to earn the affection of critics and readers alike, setting me up for future works.
Bookshelf: You write poetry as well as short stories. Do you have a favourite among the branches of the art?
Moore: I really enjoy short stories because you get that instant gratification from finishing it relatively quickly. And for me, poetry is more of a hobby and relaxes my mind. So I guess you can say it is therapy for me. But I have to say, nothing beats working on a novel. Even if they invented some kind of computer that could scan your brain and pull out the book you wanted to write, I would still rather go through the process of typing. It’s almost like having a baby, not that I know what being pregnant feels like. A lot of nerves come with writing a book because it’s like telling an 80,000 word joke and waiting for months while publishers put it together before you find out if it is good. Regardless though, it is torture I will entertain any day, any time. I think everyone should try to write at least one book in his or her lifetime, even if just for one’s self. But be careful, it is very addictive.
Bookshelf: How did you start writing?
Moore: I have always had a passion for stories as far back as I can remember. Even as a child, I would tell these outlandish Ninja stories to the help and ask her questions at the end to be sure she was listening. In school I would make up all sorts of stories and present them as movies. Needless to say, my friends always ended up upset when they realized they couldn’t purchase these films. I actually started attempting to write a novel after reading Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I was about 13 years at the time. Then I read the Harry Potter books and it tipped into an obsession. I hate to think about how many unfinished novels I have in school notebooks. By the time I was 15 years, I started reading Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series and a lot of Lee Child and James Patterson and my writing started taking a turn towards crime thrillers and the spy genre. By 16 years, I discovered the likes of James Carvel, Ian M, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. That was when I would say I really started to come into my element as a writer. And by 18 years, Lonely Roads was ready.
Bookshelf: How do you view the growth of literature in Nigeria?
Moore: There is this notion that we have a poor literary culture in Nigeria. It’s not uncommon to hear people say that Nigerians don’t read. I don’t think this is true. I think the problem is innovation and logistics-innovation in telling the Nigerian reader what to read. You walk into any shop in most countries and there is a wide range of books to choose from. In Nigeria, most shops are crowded with self-help books, religious books, relationship books, romance for young girls, and everything else. We lack shelves like the bestseller shelf, staff picks, and new arrivals. When it comes to media exposure as well, a lot of writers have to work very hard for publicity because the industry isn’t yet big enough to command attention. I often wonder if Chimamanda, Soyinka and Achebe didn’t get foreign recognition, would they be as successful as they are here in Nigeria? The second problem is that of logistics. You can publish in UK today, and the next day, your book is available nationwide. We aren’t quite there yet. But slowly, with the internet and superstar writers like Chimamanda, I think there is much room for improvement. I would like to see companies and the government take an interest in funding the literary culture and the industry behind it. We have the Etisalat Prize and others as such, but more can definitely be done.
Bookshelf: When you are not writing, what do you do?
Moore: I’m a full time nerd so as you might imagine, I hardly take any days off. When I’m not writing I read and watch videos I think can inspire me or educate me in some way. I also enjoy building things and my latest project which I just launched this month is a social writing community to bring Nigerian and African writers together, as well as readers. I think solidarity is something the culture needs. I like to travel a lot and contrary to popular belief, some writers are very sociable and I am one of them. I like being out and meeting people. I think of everyone I meet as a book and you never know where inspiration will come from. So, yes, be careful around writers, anything you do or say may be used in a story. I actually studied Pharmacy professionally, so sometimes I still dabble in the world of medicine to keep up.
Bookshelf: What are you working on at the moment?
Moore: My second book is actually a novella and I have already completed it. I am just letting Lonely Roads have its day to shine before I get on with the publication of the second. The second book is still based in pre-colonial Africa, but is written to have elements of fantasy and folklore. I think that traditional story-telling form in Africa must always be kept alive. And I like the challenge of experimenting with form and genres. I think a lot of writers these days are a bit scared about experimenting. I want to have a wide range of works to my name. I’m currently working on my third novel, and while I am more excited about it than anything else I have ever written, I will only say that it is absolutely nothing like the first two and it will show a side of my writing readers aren’t really used to. I can’t wait to finish and share it.