Behind-the-scenes with 2019 Adult Fiction Mentee Samuel Kóláwolé

Samuel Kóláwolé was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria and his work has appeared in AGNI, Gulf Coast, Washington Square Review, and Consequence amongst other literary journals. He has been honored with numerous awards, fellowships, and scholarships for his writing with the most recent being the 2019 Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship at Columbus State University's Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. Samuel studied at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and holds a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing with distinction from Rhodes University, South Africa, and an MFA in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, USA. His debut novel The Road to Salt Sea is forthcoming from Amistad/Harper Collins (2021).

On a Monday afternoon we zoom-chatted, laughed, asked him some timed questions (in 60-seconds!), and spoke at length about writing, reading, the roots of storytelling in culture, the tension of waiting, and the inspiration for his debut novel The Road to Salt Sea. He also introduced me to novelists such as Ayi Kwei Armah, J. M. Coetzee, Shirley Jackson, and more.  Samuel is humble, funny, and insightful. A warm and imaginative creator.

-Liza Bevams


It is such a pleasure to catch up with you and to meet you face to face. Congratulations on completing the Editor-Writer Mentorship program!


Thank you.


You also recently sold your debut novel. What was that process like?


It was kind of crazy [laughs] you know? It was this very long process, the writing. The submission process wasn’t too long but it felt long. We went out on submission in November (2019) and we didn't hear from most of them until January or so.  For some reason, I thought it was gonna happen within two or three weeks [laughs]. And also the idea of you know, of waiting…waiting is really hard. It's not really the duration, but the sense that someone is reading your manuscript somewhere in New York City [laughs] and you know, that person might say no and throw away years of hard work. So that kind of tension. But when I eventually got the offer and sold the book I was very relieved. So, it was good.

Before I sold the book I was worried about selling the book. Now I'm worried about revisions and trying to make it perfect for publication.  And then when the book comes out I’ll probably start worrying about whether people will like my book [laughs]. But you know sometimes you have to stop worrying and take a leap of faith. So yeah, I’m glad I'm done with this phase.


What's the next phase for the book?


Um, revisions. I have the first draft due in October. So I'm trying to…before I write, I tend to spend like one or two months thinking about what I want to do. So I’m just brooding and thinking about it. So that's what I'm doing right now. Thinking…before I get into the meat of things.


Where did the inspiration for the story come from?


Oh, wow. It was in 2013, I was with a group of artists and writers from different parts of Nigeria, and we were involved with this project called the Invisible Borders Project. The idea of Invisible Borders Project is that nations are really borderless, so there's nothing…borders are just political constructs. So we did a road trip across five countries in West Africa and we would stop in the country for two weeks to do readings and performances and art exhibitions and move to the next country. And it was one of the most revealing experiences of my life. We started from Nigeria and we moved to Benin Republic, Togo, then Ghana. In Ghana, I met a bunch of guys, like about five of them. We just met casually and then they started talking about how they tried to travel across the Sahara to Europe and how they went back after suffering a great deal in Libya. And I was like, oh my god oh my god. I got really interested in that story. And then I started thinking about it. It was all over the place at the time, you know, stories of people leaving their homes in Nigeria, traveling across the Sahara Desert, and then crossing the Mediterranean Sea. But up until then, I had not really met anybody who had a personal story to tell. So that personal story sort of triggered something in me. 

I didn't take on that project for a while. It stayed with me for a while. I didn't start writing it until two years ago. It took me a while to kind of think about it and really see what I wanted to do with that novel; why I wanted to really write that novel. And, well, along the line, I decided to leave home myself. I traveled legally to the US three years ago just after Trump came into office. That got me thinking even more about immigration, what makes people leave their homes, what home means. So then I decided to write a novel about it. [Laughs]. Hopefully, people will enjoy it.


It sounds like an incredible story. What were some of your first forays into storytelling?


I’m from the Yoruba ethnic group in Southwestern Nigeria. We have a tradition of storytelling. In the Yoruba tradition, before you pass an important message you have to either start with a proverb or a story. Storytelling is an integral part of our culture. My grandmother used to tell me stories when I was young.  My mother told me stories about the military regime. I first started telling stories when I was in charge of my high school drama group and I had to come up with something every month for the actors. I remember really enjoying it.


So did you know early on that you wanted to be a writer?


I wanted to be so many things when I was growing up. I wanted to be an FBI agent. I wanted to be an actor, an astronaut, a boxer, a preacher, even a surgeon. But when I was a teenager, I slipped into this kind of very strange depression. I would just go into my room, lock myself up for three days without coming out. I wouldn’t want to see anybody. That happened for a while and the people around me got worried. Fortunately for me, I was in a room full of books. So I turned to books. I read lots of books [laughs]. After a while, I tried writing to see if I could work my way out of my depression. To my surprise, it worked. The more I wrote, the better I felt. I’ve not looked back since then. So yeah, that was how I actually started…that’s what really got me started [laughs].


Are there any books you return to over and over again?


Oh, wow, okay. There are authors that I return to again and again. There are about five of them. Five or six.  Shirley Jackson, who wrote The Lottery. She’s a wonderful short story writer and she writes very weird dark stuff, so I go to Shirley Jackson again and again. Ben Okri, a Nigerian author. His (1991) Booker Prize-winning novel, called The Famished Road is the best book [laughs] I think I’ve ever read. That book changed me. Then there is an author called J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee wrote Disgrace, he wrote the Life and Times of Michael K, and wrote Waiting for the Barbarians…yeah…J. M. Coetzee is also a favorite of mine.  There’s another American author, Steven Millhauser, who’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author but I love him for his short stories. 

And then, who else? There's the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka - the Nigerian Nobel Laureate.  Yeah, those are the people that I go back to again and again.

**Want to know more? Watch his 60-second questions video here. You can find Samuel on all the socials: InstagramTwitter, and Facebook.**


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