I can’t recall the first time I picked up the Anna Hibiscus series. Our first two books must have been bought by my great friend Diana or I picked them up at TBC at the Junction Mall in Nairobi. I always look out for African writers for the little ones to increase their view of the continent and the children in it.
It was therefore a great pleasure to meet Atinuke, author of the Anna Hibiscus series a week ago through the Alternative Learning Centre (ALC). ALC is a home centered teaching space started by two amazing mums and which is the perfect fit for my last born right now. It was particularly intriguing and purely coincidental that Anna Hibiscus has been my Wed morning choice in the reading class I take on Wednesday mornings.
Here are a few questions – mostly from the few children around on the process of writing for Atinuke.
Q: Where do you get ideas to write and how long does it take to write a story?
A: My ideas come when I am asleep or at some inconvenient time so I often have to get up, sit at my desk and write them down. Some ideas are straight and flow, some do not. Writing a book can take many months to figure out. It can take only days, other times it can be between one and 6 months. Once I am happy with my story, I have to take it to my publisher who takes my ideas from emails to books. Then there’s the process of editing which may entail re-writing the story all over again, or just changing a few things in the story.
Sometimes the editors tell you to change all the characters, the whole story sequence, basically the whole book so that takes a whole lot of time. (This part is told in Atinuke’s storytelling voice).
Q: Where do you get your character names from? How did you name the twins double and trouble?
A: It varies. It can be people who are unheard of, some I know but we change them a bit. The twins names’ are borrowed – when we were growing up, my sister and I were the original double and trouble according to my father.
Q: How long have you been writing?
Professionally, since 1999 but I have always been telling African stories for as long as I can remember.
Q: Where do your story ideas come from? Like the orange seller is a common feature in your books.
A: Growing up I wanted to be an orange seller (audience laughs) but my father was like – NO way, Go to school. In that story – Anna Hibiscus I wanted to explore what would have happened if I had the chance to sell oranges. Why would my father not want to do that because at the time I felt he was just being a spoil sport.
Q: You have a different illustrator for each of your book series – Lauren Tobia for the Anna Hibiscus Series, Warwick Johnson Cardell for No. 1 car spotter. What’s the relationship between writer and illustrator? Do you have a say in the way the pictures come out?
A: If you are self publishing its different, but if someone else is publishing your stories its different. For instance once I write my book I send it to the publisher and they own the rights to my books. Someone can ask me to do something with my books but I usually say no, because I have sold my rights to my publisher.
In my contract however, I insisted I wanted to have a say in the illustrations. For example in this book, I love the illustrations and the illustrator is from Ghana even thought she’s grown up in England. When the pictures first came out there were all these pussy cats all around the market rubbing up on everyone’s feet. The editors loved the idea of the cats but I said we have to lose the cats and it was a big battle. My experience in Nigerian markets is people don’t have huge cats sitting on their laps and rubbing up on their legs and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be have a say in the way life is represented here.
Usually the images will be sent to me and I will look at them, have someone follow as well and look out for any things we want pulled out and send them back. Once they are in color however, we can’t change anything if it had not been spotted before as its very expensive to make any changes at the point.
Q: Do you get to meet them?
A: Very rarely. Most of the time they are chosen by my illustrator.
Q: Where are your books mostly sold?
A: Mostly the UK and the US. In Africa, most of my readers are in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.
Q: Which of your books surprised you most over its success?
A: I am generally surprised by the success of any of my books. In the US, the No.1 Car spotter is perhaps my most well read book. I once did an event in an impoverished area in Lutten (Netherlands) which also has lots of religious background. One of the Fathers stood up after a reading to say “thank you” for writing this particular book as he had grown up like this boy and he is finally proud to tell his children about his own background. These are the stories that make me proud as a writer.
You can read Atinuke’s post on the link below on her experience at the Storymoja Hay Festival, which she attended the year in which we had the dreaded Westgate siege in Nairobi. http://atinuke-author.weebly.com/home/storymoja-hay-festival-westgate-nairobi-2013