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Tolulope Popoola: I used myself and novel as experiment

Tolulope Popoola is an award winning author, publisher and writing coach. She used to be an accountant, until she rediscovered her love for writing in 2008, and left her job to forge a new career path. She wrote and published her first novel, Nothing Comes Close, a contemporary romance story set in London, Milton Keynes and Lagos in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of flash fiction stories, “Fertile Imagination” and “Looking for Something”. She has written extensively for magazines and publications, and has been featured in The Creative Penn, Brittle Paper, The Mantle, Flash Fiction Ghana, Sentinel Magazine, The Travelling Yeti, and many more.

She is the founder and CEO of Accomplish Press, a coaching, consulting and publishing company that provides services for writers and aspiring authors. Tolulope was second runner up at the Women in Publishing (UK) Awards in 2012, for the New Venture Award for “pioneering work on behalf of under-represented groups in society”. She was given a special Award of Excellence at the 2016 Nigerian Writers’ Awards, and was shortlisted for Diaspora Writer of the Year for the 2017 awards. She was recently named as one of the “100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers Under 40”. Her first novel Nothing Comes Close was named “one of the best books of 2012” by Africa Book Club. She spoke to OLAMIDE BABATUNDE in Lagos.

To be named one of the “100 most influential Nigerian Writers under 40 must be a fantastic place to be. What comes with this territory?

Thank you. It is always great to get recognised for your work. Sometimes, we feel like people don’t notice what we’re doing. So being featured on a list like this makes you think that your work is definitely noticed, and it is worthwhile. It’s also a great thing to be listed among people you admire in your industry.

Take us through how you left your daytime job as an accountant to fully embrace writing?

I left my career in Accounting in 2008. I had enjoyed studying Accounting, Economics and such subjects at university, because there was variety in the courses, the projects and assignments we were told to do. But, by the time I graduated and started working, all the fun was sucked out of it. I started hating the routine of doing the same thing over and over again. Every morning was a struggle to motivate myself to get up and get to work. I wasn’t fulfilled in my job, even though it paid well and the company was a great place to work. I knew I had creative talents that I wasn’t putting to good use and, the more I thought about it, the more I was filled with horror at the idea of working in accounting for the next forty years of my life.

Sometime in 2006, I discovered blogging. I came across a few Nigerian blogs when I was searching for some information online. I read one blog, clicked on another, and another, and I found that there was a wonderful community of Nigerian bloggers online. It looked interesting and I wanted to be part of it. I was also attracted to the idea of writing an online journal, so I started my own blog. I enjoyed the writing, commenting, meeting some like-minded people and even some strange people online. Before long, I started looking forward to coming home after a long day at work and unwinding by writing on my blog.

Blogging had rekindled my interest in writing stories. But it took a while for me to realise that I could actually make a career out of it. When I started receiving feedback from people who had read some of my short stories, I realised I really enjoyed writing, and I wanted to continue doing it for the rest of my life. It was rediscovering who I really was. I had to make financial sacrifices and let go of a regular income at the time, but I’m happy to be doing something I really enjoy.

 You moved back to Nigeria some time ago, how does publishing work back home?

Publishing in Nigeria is very fragmented. There are very few actual publishers, but lots of people who run printing presses. There is also no facility for Print-on-Demand at the moment, which I think is something we really need, to bring down the cost of publishing.

Accomplish Press is your outfit, why did you go into self-publishing and what hopes are there for Nigerian authors who have been denied publishing?

In 2011, I finished working on my second novel, Nothing Comes Close. It was a spin-off from the online series I had created and written with seven other bloggers. I tried to get it published traditionally, but I faced rejection from mainstream UK publishers. Many of them said the story was good, but they were not able to publish it because they classified my story as “ethnic fiction” and, therefore, it wasn’t “commercially viable”.

But I knew that the story had potential, especially since the series had been successful when my friends and I were writing it online every week. So I decided to do things my own way, and I founded Accomplish Press which is my publishing, consulting and coaching company. I decided to use myself and my novel as an experiment. If I could do it, then there was hope for many other stories like mine that would have been rejected by mainstream publishing. I published my novel successfully in 2012, and it got good reviews and got noticed by other Nigerian writers. Shortly after my novel was published, I was approached by some of my friends to help them with publishing their own works too. So that’s how I became a publisher for other writers.

Self-publishing does give hope to a new breed of authors, who are creative, but also willing to think like entrepreneurs. It is a viable option, but it is not a get-rich-quick scheme. I think many writers who can’t get published by traditional publishers should give self-publishing a go, but only if they are able to do the following: they are able to critically assess their work and make sure it is good enough for their readers, they are able to invest time and money into the process, they are patient enough to absorb the learning curve to really understand how the publishing business works, they are willing to research into the right service providers, and they are able to take full control over their marketing strategy. It’s not an easy way out compared with traditional publishing. It’s actually harder because, not only are you responsible for creating the book (product), you are also responsible for packaging it, distributing it, and selling it.

What is the way forward for African authors, especially Nigerian authors, to totally break free from Single Narrative?

What is the single narrative? I know of many writers who are creating stories in different genres, and breaking new ground with African fiction. It’s been slow, but I’m glad that there are no more narrow definitions of what it means to be an “African writer” or to write “African literature”. People are writing comedies, dramas, horror, romance, thrillers, sci-fi and so on. It’s awesome.

Would you recommend digital books or paperbacks for Nigerian readers?

Both. The form is not more important than the content. I read paperbacks and I love them. I love the physical feel, smell and weight of a book. But I also read a lot on my Kindle. I love it for the ease and speed of buying books. I love the fact that I can adjust the text, and it is very convenient to carry around, plus I don’t need a huge bookshelf to store all my ebooks. They are in the cloud, so even if I lose my device, I can get my books back. I think everyone should embrace both, there are advantages of reading in any format.

How do you perceive the emergence of more female award-winning authors in the Nigerian literary scene?

It is excellent and it makes me happy. We have had the pioneers like Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta, showing us that it is possible to have women excelling in literature. We have icons like Chimamanda Adichie winning awards for her writing, and contributing to social commentary. We have authors like Chika Unigwe, KiruTaye, Lola Shoneyin, Sefi Attah, Yejide Kilanko, and so many others writing different genres. I love that. We need more females doing big things in the literary scene. We need more female writers, more female publishers, more female bookstore owners, more female champions of reading and writing for the younger ones, more female role models, more female sponsors of Creative Arts. Nobody should feel there is a barrier to achieving anything because they are one gender or the other. I have a daughter who loves writing, and I’m glad that she has more role models now than I had when I was her age.

Let’s talk about your series “Memoirs of a Lagos Wedding Planner” making waves online. I thought you were a wedding planner to do that. Please, throw more light on how you were able to come up with that series and your first novel?

I’m not a wedding planner. I don’t think I have that kind of energy. I wrote a couple of flash fiction stories based on some of the gist I heard about weddings in Lagos. Then, one day I asked my friend who is a wedding planner to read them and give me feedback. She loved the stories, and gave me a few more ideas. I went back to the drawing board and wrote more stories. When they were done, I sent them to the editor of Brittle Paper, and she was happy to publish them on the website.

My novel Nothing Comes Close grew out of another online series I created and co-wrote with seven other bloggers, back in 2010. My character was Lola, and I really enjoyed telling her story. As the storylines in the series were developing, Lola and Wole (the other protagonist) were getting closer and their relationship was deepening. Unfortunately, the series came to an end before our readers got to see if they overcame the new challenges that were thrown at them. I felt the story had potential, so I had the idea to take their story out of the series, and continue writing it separately.

Then the 100-day writing challenge, do you have that every year? What amazing things have come from that because I know a lot will come from the exercise?

The 100-Day Novel Writing Challenge started last year, so this is the second year we are running it. We had fun last year, and two of the writers who took part in the challenge have completed and published their novels. I am very proud of them for achieving that. This year, we have more people participating, and I’m excited and expecting more people to finish writing their stories, and go on to publish them.

Your debut was in 2012, Nothing Comes Close. What should we expect from Accomplish Press soonest?

Since the novel, I’ve written and published two collections of flash fiction, and two non-fiction books on writing and self-publishing. I’ve also expanded the services I offer to writers and aspiring authors. I run Creative Writing Courses, Self-Publishing Courses, and a Creative Writing Club for Kids. I also do One-to-One Coaching and offer Consulting services. That said, during the 100-Day Writing Challenge, my goal is to finish working on the first draft of my next novel, which will be a sequel to Nothing Comes Close, so there are lots of exciting things in the pipeline!

This brings to the fore your workshop for kids, how is that coming up?

The Creative Writing Club for Kids is my tutoring project, where I teach and coach children aged between six and twelve years old, on aspects of Creative Writing. The goal is to get the children to think creatively, explore their imaginations, practice writing different stories (fiction or non-fiction) and gain confidence in areas of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. We’re in the process of expanding the club to Lagos mainland, so that I can teach children who can’t physically attend the classes in Lagos Island because of the distance. I’m also teaching a Writing Workshop for Children during the Easter holidays, in conjunction with a primary school.

Any literary event or festival you always look forward to?

I’ve been hearing about the Ake Festival in Abeokuta for a while now, but I haven’t been able to attend due to timing and logistics. I really hope I can attend it this year (fingers crossed).

There are various genres of literature, but only a few is explored in this part of the world. As an African romance fiction author, what is your take on this?

Things are changing now. I have come across many writers who are writing stories that are in genres that are not “traditionally” African literature. I know people writing African sci-fi, African horror, African fantasy, African romance, and African thrillers. One only has to search for them. I believe with the traditional gatekeepers having less control over the types of books we read, and the stories that are published, we will see more and more writers bravely writing what appeals to them and their readers, not the publishers.

What typical discourse would you like to encounter in African Narratives?

I want to read stories that add a positive perspective to the image of Africa and Africans. For a long time, I’ve felt that too many Africans write for a Western audience and in doing so, they don’t portray Africa in a good light. We have had years (and even decades) where stories of political wars, poverty, evil dictators, rape, abuse, AIDS, corruption and so on were the main narrative that Africa has been given in literature. I want to change that, and thankfully that negative narrative is slowly changing.

I want to read and publish more stories of everyday Africans doing normal things, having dreams, pursuing careers, falling in love, having families, dealing with heartbreaks, and so on. I want to read about strong characters that I can identify with, and imagine meeting in real life.

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