Chioma Nnani is the author of Forever There For You, a Christian Fiction novel. She describes herself as a blood-washed, feisty, passionate God-chaser, born to tell stories, and very creatively too. She says she often shoots from the hip – mainly because she's still trying to pass classes in ‘tact and diplomacy’.
She holds a Law (LLB) degree from the University of Kent, Canterbury (in England). Of her stories, Chioma confesses they are character-driven, and she will obsessively look up, build, mix and match psychological profiles to get exactly the personality that will best deliver her message and touch her characters. She is a people-watcher, and draws writing inspiration from those around her, and their reactions to events. Enjoy our interview...
What inspires you to write?
This is going to sound really clichéd but I’m inspired by God, events, and people. Sometimes, I’ll get up really early because I have to write, so I can’t sleep. This would normally be between 1 and 3am – that time when you’re sleeping, but you’re not really sleeping. When I look back at some stuff that readers claim constitute some of my best work, I find that they tend to be the ones I’ve written during such periods.
Again, sometimes I’ll be reading the Bible, or listening to a pastor, or even praying, and I’ll get an idea that could range from really simple to pretty outrageous. I’ll jot it down, knowing fully well I’ll return to it later.
Also, sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a conversation with someone, or even hear something in passing that strikes me. I’ll park it in my mind, to be revisited at night, or even days, weeks, or months later. With some statements I hear, I just know that they will form the basis of future material.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I’ve been told that I have the ability to get under a person’s skin, and into their heads, before putting down on paper exactly what they’re feeling. Personally, I’d describe my writing style as ‘partly seductive’ and ‘partly in-your-face’. Apart from these features, there are three others that characterise my writing, and are a funny mix of instinct and purpose. They are character-driven, Christ-centred, and Afro-centric. The stories I tell are for the most part, character-driven.
So, while a theme in my work might be ‘religion’, it’s more likely to be about how a character or more reacts to, or engages with the said theme. Themes are interesting, but I find the human elements that play out such themes, even more interesting – especially when they are complex and unique, or even twisted. Secondly, my stories tend to draw people’s attention to God, without actually bashing them over the head with a Bible. There’s a line between ‘subtle’ and ‘obvious’ that I tend to tread, and occasionally go over, one way or the other. The third is the Afro-centricity of my writing. Although my work does appeal to people of different races and ethnicities, key characters are usually of African origin.
I think this combination does ensure that my writing is as engaging as can be.
What are your current projects?
I carry out ghost-writing services, aimed at the Christian market. My clientele consists of pastors, ministers, and other Christians. So, at the moment, I’m working on different ghost-writing assignments – including a novel.
I’m also working on a trilogy which is part of a Christian series, aimed at teenagers. I say teenagers, but the age group being targeted is 11 – 16 year olds. Really obvious, but a lot has changed since I was within that age group. Then, I used to think I had problems. But I look around now, and the issues that individuals within that age range, have to contend with, are huge and scary. The issues being faced by in London are also present in Lagos, Accra, New York, and Amsterdam. They are the virtually the same issues, but they tend to be played out differently – because of cultural, educational, geographical, and other variables. So, while the issues aren’t generic, they are quite general. Again, it’s not just actual teenagers (those aged 13 – 19) facing these issues.
It is mortifying yet no longer unheard of, for an 11 year-old girl to be so worried about her (as yet undeveloped!) body that she is seriously considering cosmetic surgery, and going on all kinds of crazy diets. In the same way, it is disturbing yet no longer strange, for a 12 year-old boy to be worried about his first sexual experience, because he’s being teased. Some of the children/teenagers having to deal with these may have been raised in church.
While this does provide a decent background sometimes, generational differences cause some parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers to be labelled as ‘out of touch’ and ‘unrealistic’ by a generation that’s having to contend with things that weren’t an issue with the preceding generation. For instance, while pre-marital and underage sex have existed for longer than some of us care to admit, if you grew up in the 80s, chances are you weren’t visually assaulted with suggestive images and sexually-explicit text on a daily basis. You didn’t get ‘free’ marketing SMS to your own mobile phone, telling you that plastic surgery would ensure you didn’t get laughed at in the changing rooms – you didn’t even have a mobile phone. And you certainly didn’t say “I want to be a glamour model, celebrity, or WAG” when asked at the age of 10, what you wanted to do with your life.
Now, certain issues are not as easy to sweep under the carpet – a 14year old who is ashamed of her body, because she has asymmetrical breasts, will be baffled especially if she’s ever come across Psalm 139:14. It’s not like her parents can lock her up in church in an alternate universe where there are only cute, Christian, well-mannered kids who don’t ask any questions.
These books won’t be as long as Forever There For You, which is about 360 pages in total. On one level, the series will consist of books which can be read on their own because of their individuality. On another level, the characters will find expression in each particular book, and the stories will flow into each other as organically as possible. The first trilogy should be out before the end of the second quarter of this year.
Tell us about Forever there for You and where one can buy a copy.
"When Nadine is confronted with the reality of her failing marriage, her first instinct is to work it out. She has had it drummed into her that marriage is 'for better, for worse'. Walking out is just not an option - her faith would condemn her and her culture would make her a pariah.
The combination of Nadine's background, education, social standing, friendships, faith, experiences and past relationships is meant to equip her to become a success. Failure is alien to her and love means forgiving at all cost.
As she tries to survive and make the most of the curves that life has thrown her, she discovers that 'success' is a subjective term, and that 'happily ever after' is something that you have to discover and define for yourself ..."
The book is available at all amazon websites (US, UK, EU), and also word2print.com, waterstones.com, and walahi.com
Do you see writing as an alternate career or will it remain part-time?
I was born to write. So, it’s definitely not a part-time venture. Yes, it took me a while to accept. But I can honestly say, right now, that if I woke up one day, and the ideas and stories were gone, I’d be beyond devastated.
Can you share a little about your writing routine? How does your career impact in your writing?
My writing routine is quite interesting. Most times, I already have a major plot, some sub-plots, and even some specific phrases. As time goes on, the entire story will take on more flesh. The fleshing out can be simple or complex. I think God does have a sense of humour, because sometimes I’m working on a piece and I’ll come across a loosely similar story in a newspaper. And I’ll do a bit of cutting and pasting in my head, mix up some variables, and voila!
Long story short, I wanted to be Corporate Law’s answer to Fiona Shackleton, with a hint of Gloria Allred. Fiona is this truly amazing UK-based Family lawyer, who’s known in legal circles as The Steel Magnolia. She represented Prince Charles in his divorce from Princess Diana, and went on to represent Paul McCartney in his divorce from Heather Mills. Gloria Allred is a pretty formidable American civil rights lawyer. She successfully represented Hunter Tylo (Dr Taylor Hayes of The Bold & The Beautiful) when Aaron Spelling fired her because she (Tylo) was pregnant. Allred also represented Melanie Brown (Scary Spice) in her paternity suit against Eddie Murphy. I wanted to be a nice blend of Shackleton and Allred. Obviously, I’m not doing that anymore.
But the dedication, and attention to detail that borders on OCD that characterise many a law student/law graduate/lawyer, are things that I bring to my writing. I will literally research till I am all researched-out. I do these because I need my audience/readership to be able to relate with the characters I create. There are so many literary efforts being released on a daily basis. I feel it’s an insult to a reader to spend time, money, and effort reading my work – only to come away from the experience, feeling annoyed because they think the characters are contrived, unrelatable, and unrealistic. I haven’t yet figured out if this obsession with details is something that was caused by my undertaking a Law degree, or if it was an already-existing condition that was just exacerbated by studying Law.
This is your first novel. Tell us what inspired it, and details about how you got published.
I’ve been asked by a number of readers and interviewers if Forever There For You was inspired by events in my own life. The novel isn’t autobiographical, but I did draw from some of my own characteristics (including flaws) to build a profile for the protagonist. Then, I did some mixing and matching with things I gleaned from people I know or have read about, and certain events. One of the themes (domestic violence) is very close to my heart, so writing a book with this as one of the themes was always going to happen. I’m of African origin – and just seeing Africans go through, justify, and even try to spiritualise the evil that is domestic violence, just added more fuel to my decision to write it.
These also added to and formed the foundation of some of the mini-stories in the novel, and I’ve found that many readers come away from it, wondering just how much of it, is real. Real in the sense of “Did any of this actually happen to her?” Even my mother, when she finished reading it, called me and asked “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
The publishing process was loooooong! It took a year and a half. And I ended up re-writing the manuscript seven times. I’d tried traditional publishers, and literary agents. But they just sent out their standard-form emails and letters, which all translate as “We can’t be bothered with you. Go away!” So I started to look into self-publishing. I picked up a newspaper (Testify) and saw the contact details of a publisher (Word2Print). I don’t remember the exact words in the ad, but they were enough to make me call. It turned out that I actually knew the publisher in person, but because I’d initially met him through a work situation, he had been waiting for me to pick up the phone and give him a call. I’d actually been under the weather for a while, so hadn’t been to work, hence my inability to recognise his number! I tidied up the manuscript, sent it to him, and the process began.
One of the things that Word2Print does (and I’m not sure how many self-publishing firms do this) is engage previewers. The previewers are of different ages, nationalities, religions, educational standards, and social strata. They were very helpful because their feedback helped me appropriately hone, expand, and tweak the manuscript. It was a lengthy process that saw me slogging away on my birthday, because that was the week I needed to have the manuscript ready for the editor. But it was well worth it. When I saw an actual copy (by then, some people had already ordered and received their own copies), I was so stunned. I think I actually said “Oh my God, it looks like a real book!”
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
There are a number of things I find challenging. One of them is “how much is too much?” I want to portray scenarios as realistically as possible. And when it’s sensitive matter like violence, sexual assault, or even love, I constantly need to find and draw the line between “People go through this in real life. You need to do this justice” and “Is this absolutely necessary? You’re getting into smut territory now!” People typically say I’m not afraid to say it like it is. That comes across in my writing. But I do not want to be known as a writer who inserts a scene, just to titillate her readership, or even to distract from the suspicion that her material isn’t very good.
The second thing I find challenging, is language. This is on two levels. The first is to do with the Afro-centricity of my writing. In Forever There For You, there are some words written in the Igbo language, which an average Brit or New Yorker, just doesn’t understand. There are also some words and phrases that an average Nigerian or Ghanaian who was born and bred in Lagos or Kumasi, wouldn’t understand. Some of the previewers were so distracted by the fact that they didn’t understand those phrases (which they knew were crucial) that they suggested removing them. I refused, and opted for a glossary at the end of book. I haven’t seen a glossary in a novel, in years. But I figured it was better to be a bit unconventional (in putting a glossary) than remove certain words, or just leave readers hanging.
The second level of language that I find challenging, is in having to check myself and gauge what’s feasible and where. The English I know is British English – I was taught by Ghanaian teachers for the first decade of my life, the spellings I learned were British, and my university degree is from a UK university. However, most of the films and television shows I watched (especially when I was younger) were American. So, I inevitably picked up some words and phrases, and stored them. That might not seem like an issue – but it is so easy to make a mistake. For instance, while a Brit would use ‘bloke’ to refer to ‘man’, an American is not likely to do so. They’d say ‘dude’. If you’re writing about a person who has never been to America but lives in Brighton, chances are that a British reader would relate better if their speech was relatable.
Another challenge is just letting certain things be. One of the reasons I re-wrote the book a total of seven times, was because I have an excellent spirit or am a perfectionist with the tendency to aggravate – depending on who you’re listening to. When I got the first proof, I basically re-wrote an entire paragraph, because I couldn’t let it go. When I got the first copy of my book, I leafed through it quickly in the presence of my publisher. He just shook his head and said, “You’re still looking for flaws? As far as is humanly possible, there aren’t any. You need to let this go. It is out. People have already ordered.”
When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I started writing at the age of 8, but I didn’t consider myself a writer till much much later. Like I said before, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I never considered writing as a possible career path. In my head, it just wasn’t what serious people did! I actually wrote the first manuscript for Forever There For You in my first year at university. But I didn’t take it (and other things I’d written) seriously. Someone faked a friendship with me, just so they could steal my writing – I’m talking book manuscripts, stage productions, TV series scripts, and a movie script.
They finally showed their hand long after I’d graduated. It was a traumatic experience, during which I frantically called a friend in Abuja (Nigeria), with whom I go waaaay back and basically said “You need to help me.” He was able to retrieve my material, and also secured a promise in writing from the other party that they would never use any of my material that they had had previous access to. I must have lost a pound during that ordeal, because I kept having nightmares about seeing my work being published under the name of the other party, and having no way to prove they belonged to me (my computer had crashed). My boss at the time then said to me “I know your heart is set on becoming a lawyer. But if someone has gone to this trouble to steal your writing from you, and even jetted off to Nigeria, maybe God is trying to tell you something.”
I think things took off from there. I called up a couple of my friends who ran an artiste management company at the time. They used to showcase their artistes with open-evening type events. But they had never had a writer on their books before, so they weren’t sure what to do with me. I told them; “Look, you’re my friends and you always tell me I can write. I want to see if people without any personal attachment to me, can say the same thing. A lot of people go on the X-Factor because their friends and family lie to them. If people whom I’ve never met before, tell me at your event that I’m even half-way decent, I will do this. I will keep writing. If not, I’ll know. Either way, I need to know.” They booked me into one of their events, and no-one said I was horrible. So, here I am today. That event was in 2010.
What books have most influenced your life most?
The Bible has influenced my life; that goes without saying.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I don’t have a favourite author as such. That’s almost like asking a parent which child is their favourite. I go through phases, where an author may be ‘hot’ to me. But I enjoy reading stuff by Chimamanda Adichie, Cecilia Ahern, Tilly Bagshawe, Louise Bagshawe, Francine Rivers, John Grisham (obviously), Barbara Taylor Bradford, author of A Woman of Substance, James Patterson, and have recently discovered JD Robb. From time to time, I do read stuff by Martina Cole – very graphic.
If you had to choose, which writer would you say writes in about the same line or genre as your book? You know, like if you like this book, then you'll also like mine?
I have had people draw comparisons with Chimamanda Adichie, which is confusing for me. That prospect would be terrifying, if I actually ever took the time to think about it, partly because I think she’s in a class of her own. I don’t really know how we’re similar apart from the facts that we’re both Igbo women with ‘Chi’ as the first three alphabets of our names, and we write stuff that can be termed Afro-centric. But if people like Afro-centric, then my writing would probably appeal to them. I’ve also had some readers say my writing reminds them of Francine Rivers. Again, another frightening prospect – which is why I don’t think about it too much. I think she’s in a different league; although I can sorta see why there might be a comparison.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? What books are you reading now?
Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to check out new authors, but a couple of blogs have caught my attention. One of them is by a lady whose twitter handle is @TigerFireRose. At the moment, I’m greedily working my way through JD Robb’s “In Death” series.
What are the ways your book is being promoted?
Mostly through social media, and word of mouth. We’re also trying to get physical copies into bookshops – it’s a bit more complicated than I first thought.
Who are your publishers. What do you think of the Nigerian publishing industry?
My publisher is actually Word2Print, and they have two offices – one in London, and the other in Lagos (Nigeria). I think the Nigerian publishing industry is growing. And like every growing child, there are issues. But I don’t think these are issues that a spirit of excellence cannot eradicate.
What comments do you have about the reading culture in Nigeria?
Oh dear. This is a source of personal sadness to me. I love to read, and that is such an understatement. Just give me a good book, and I’ll forget that I haven’t eaten. However, not everyone has that mind-set, or even the discipline to develop that. So, I keep hearing that “Nigerians don’t read”. It makes me very sad. Hearing graduates of some Nigerian universities try to communicate, is quite the experience. The mother of a friend of mine has to keep firing her personal assistants because the girls just can’t read, and aren’t interested in learning. Yet, they are very interested in the profile of the organisation, and the fact that foreign travel could be part of the job description. And their CVs announce them as graduates of English Language, or a similar discipline.
I think one of the things that can (and should actually) be done is ‘catch them young’. It’s better to imbibe a reading culture when an individual is still young. This will serve them better in the long run than focusing on what rapper is dating what actress, or which TV star is driving what car. This way, they’re much less likely to blame some non-existent white man for all their problems in the future, when the truth is actually that their refusal to imbibe a reading culture will limit them and may actually bar them from certain opportunities and privileges.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Enjoy the book and tell everyone you know, to get copies? Seriously though, thank you so much for taking the time to buy, borrow and read Forever There For You. And I’m hoping you’ll enjoy my next offering.