Published by Weekly Trust Newspaper of Saturday, 27 December 2014 05:00
Written by Nathaniel Bivan
Hannah Onoguwe is the author of Cupid’s Catapult, one of the ten titles published under the newly introduced Nigerian Writers Series, an imprint of Association of Nigerian Authors. In this interview, she talks about this work and her flair for romance stories.
Bookshelf: Is Cupid’s Catapult your first published work?
Hannah Onoguwe: Yes, it’s my first published book, which is a collection of short stories I wrote over a number of years. I have a couple of full-length manuscripts which are yet to be published.
What inspired the story?
Life, love, everyday happenings to me and other people. I love reading romance, so I guess it would follow that when I began writing seriously, that was the genre I flew with. Happy endings give me a lift, and I enjoy that feel-good effect of reading a good romance.
How did you come about the title?
I wanted something that would encapsulate the common theme of the collection and convey to someone glancing at the cover for the first time, even without reading the blurb, what the book is about. Cupid is recognized as the Roman god of love, and something of a matchmaker. I thought about how to put an African spin on his legendary bow and arrow and came up with our local catapult.
How did you develop your characters?
Some of the characters are pure imagination. On the other hand, some are random bits of people I know, met or heard of put into a blender.
When you write, what do you aim to achieve?
My writing is for a number of purposes. I want to connect with the reader and I want to do it so intimately that he or she is taken into the world I create, even if for a short time. I want to make him or her think about the issues I write about—new or old. But with all that, I also want to entertain.
How challenging was it putting the work together?
I wrote some of these stories years ago. One, if I can recall correctly, as far back as nine years ago. Over the years, I’ve written and still write other pieces which are not romantic in nature, but when I wanted to put together and submit a collection of these stories, it wasn’t difficult at all. I just reached into the archives and voila! I think I was a bit surprised at how many of these I had written over the years. But in terms of actually writing each one, some stories seemed to practically walk from my pen onto paper, others from my fingertips to the screen. Writing others, however, was like trying to wring out water from a rock—I would start a story, and then abandon it for weeks because I was stuck. Even though I knew how I wanted it to end, the journey to that end was often rough.
Apart from the novel, you have written poems and short stories before now. Which of the two stirs your creative prowess the most?
For now I would say the short story. It can be less of an ordeal to write a short story because you know the end is going to come sooner rather than later—even when you’re not there yet. I mean, a full-length novel is going to take your blood, sweat, and sometimes, tears. But the short story, not as much, granted, you put in the work, but just not for as long, and that’s a pretty heady feeling which — for me — can inspire creativity.
What books or authors have influenced your writing the most?
The Pacesetters books were exciting back in the day, as was Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I also enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Another influence was Beverly Cleary and more recently, Cyprian Ekwensi, Joyce Landorf, Nora Roberts, Francine Rivers, Buchi Emecheta, and Paulo Coehlo. These writers have a way of drawing you in with unforgettable characters and plots, many of them doing it with such simple words. James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel has also been a tremendous help.
How did you start writing?
My writing was borne out of my love for reading. There was that burning desire to create something I would also enjoy reading. But it also started when my third grade teacher made us engage in creative writing, and even then, I could sense a freedom in doing it. Years later, my friends and I would write stories in exercise books which we would circulate amongst ourselves. We would encourage each other to add to the stories, or more accurately, demand it so we weren’t left hanging! There is that satisfaction in stringing words together, forming characters that say things I’ve put in their mouths, that perform actions I’ve concocted, from describing these people, places and things—and bringing some sort of order and purpose to the whole mix.
Were you ever discouraged?
Yes, yes, yes! Discouragement comes in many forms. There is the long hours spent writing without reward—which isn’t so bad in itself when it’s for your eyes only. But when you start submitting your work to journals and for contests and the like, and it seems all you’re getting are rejection letters, no matter how politely they are worded, you start to wonder if you should keep going. And then there’s discouragement from people. I think some people get a kick out of making you miserable, you know? They consider it their civic duty to kill dreams and keep your feet firmly tethered to reality. I once had a colleague, when he heard me call myself a writer, scoffed and said: “You—a writer? What have you written? What book have you written?” Apart from feeling deflated, I also felt like smacking him.
If you are to select five books to accompany you on a month’s holiday, which would you pick?
Books that have been sitting on my shelf unread, like Helon Habila’s Measuring Time and Molara Wood’s Indigo. I would also take favourites like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss. The last of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, would go into my suitcase too, because it’s about time I finished it and laid the whole matter to rest.
What have you got up your sleeves right now as regards writing?
I’ve got a number of ideas for short stories, but I need a strong dose of discipline to start penning them. And no, they aren’t romantic stories. Presently, though, I have begun a short story in a style which is a departure for me, and it’ll be interesting to see where it takes me. I have a plot for a full-length manuscript as well, which I hope to start soon.