Congratulations again on your win. Can you put into words how you felt on announcement night when you heard THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE had won?
Thank you. I had fought sleepless nights from the shortlist announcement, wondering what ifs. On the night itself, I tried hard to fight the nerves. As Felicity started to speak, my heart was pounding so hard, it nearly drowned out her voice. My mother placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Relax. Breathe.” I let out a breath and then Felicity announced the title of my book. I felt my legs wobble, and then the tears came.
Writing is often solitary. Many times, the journey is riddled with self-doubt, frustration and moments of joyous awe when you finally get a chapter right. For me, slaving away for months, writing in a Character’s voice that was a delicious challenge without knowing what would become of her was scary. I was taking a stylistic risk with Adunni’s voice. I knew that it could easily go either way- loved or loathed. And so to hear a top agent say she loved my book… there are no words. I couldn’t quite believe it. I literally pinched myself when she was speaking because I was so sure I was dreaming.
There’s a wonderful photo of you and Felicity hugging…
I think I was sobbing into her shoulder! I cannot quite put into words what I was feeling. A blend of awe, amazement, thrill, humility, joy, gratitude, brought on by everyone’s reaction. Felicity’s grip around me, which was so sure, so reassuring…was unwavering, solid. In that moment, I felt as though I had known her all my life(even though we had only just met). It’s a weird but beautiful feeling- one I would never forget.
Were you aware of the reaction in the room, with half the guests moved to tears?
I wasn’t, not at all. Everything was such a blur of happiness, but I could feel everyone’s joy, it was so real, so genuine. It wasn’t until I got on twitter and began to read reactions that I went… wow.
Tell us about THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE…
A story of triumphs, tragedies and friendship, the novel is about Adunni, a semi-illiterate 14-year-old girl who must overcome many hurdles including the death of her co-wife and becoming a housemaid to achieve her dream of going to school.
Your main character, Adunni, in THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE stole all our hearts from the get go. Can you say explain what a “louding voice” is and why Adunni wants one so deeply?
Louding in this context refers to so many things. Adunni is witty and sharp-mouthed and refuses to be shut down by some of the people she comes across. Her greatest desire is for her voice (through her fight for education equality and justice) to be heard continually and in places far beyond her imagination, outliving her. She wants to have an outstanding legacy.
Adunni’s dream is to become so well-educated she can ‘enter inside a room and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking.’ Why is the transformative power of education so important to you?
All children, particularly those born into low-income households need to be empowered to fulfil their destinies. While a child’s life can be transformed in many ways- education is a sure path out of illiteracy, poverty, destructive superstition and so many other limitations. Education allows a child become unstoppable if allowed to reach their maximum potential. Education gives freedom and builds solid futures. There is a saying that when you educate a girl, you educate a nation.
Adunni is forced into slavery as a housemaid to a rich couple in Lagos. Can you talk about you felt as a child growing up with young women working in your own household and how your feelings changed?
As a young child, I observed that many housemaids were as young as I was and that most were uneducated. Some were treated unfairly. As I grew older and had my own children, I would think about these young girls. I would look at my young daughters, knowing that these maids did not ask to be born into the life they’ve had, and it would tug at my heart. I wondered, what was their story? How did they become housemaids? What did they want out of life? Who would tell their story? And while I couldn’t do much about it as a child, but as an adult, I could use my gift of writing to tell a story that will hopefully inspire change.
Readers were full of praise not just for Adunni’s voice but also your craft in making them feel they’ve actually been to the settings in the book. Any writing tips on sense of place?
- Open each scene with a clear, specific description of where your character is and let your character discover things in the only way they can. Immerse yourself into the character such that you as the author ceases to exist.
- Avoid clichés- and use fresh similes and metaphors to describe a setting.
- Do your research but don’t let your research be so obvious the novel begins to read like a textbook.
- Use atmosphere to convey emotion: There’s a reason why many books have thunder booming in the sky in a scary scene!
- Use all five senses- of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing to draw your reader into the world you are trying to create.
You finished revising your first draft just in time for the Bath Novel Award 2018 deadline. How long did each draft take and what’s your writing routine?
The first draft took about six months of practically nonstop writing. I started towards the end of May in 2017 and wrote The End a few days to Christmas in 2017.
I started the second draft in January 2018. I was in my hotel room in Lagos when I got the email that I had been longlisted. After dancing around my hotel room while trying to explain to my mother what being longlisted for the Bath Novel Award meant; I found a corner in the hotel’s restaurant and worked over the next few days to try and tidy up the MS before submitting it on 28th May 2018.
With a full-time job, a family, my MA, and everything else that comes with life, having a routine that sticks is a struggle.
Once I get a story idea, I record it anywhere I find, usually on my phone, and in shorthand and send it to my husband and to myself. He’s become a master at ignoring many of them.
I don’t start working on an idea unless I am terribly excited about it. The next thing I do is to outline. An outline could take me many months. I outline just enough to get me to the point where I think I am ready to start. I try to define characters, voice, point of view, conflict, setting etc… and then a few paragraphs to frame each chapter. During my outline phase, I do a lot of reading. I read many books that are in a similar vein to what I am trying to achieve.
Once I feel like I can no longer resist the urge, I start to write. And when I do, it is often relentless. I write every moment I can: On the train in to the office, at work during lunch, Saturday mornings before the girls are awake, at night when they are asleep. I write on my phone, text chapters to myself when my laptop is not with me. Once I am immersed in my novel, I stay there. I am a loyal, dedicated mother to my book babies. It isn’t until I type The End- and I always, always, type “The END” because it is important for me to celebrate that achievement- before I start re-writing and editing.
You tweeted: “Been writing for 7 years. And on the 7th year, This happened. Don’t give up on your dreams.” Can you say more about your writing journey during those seven years?
I started writing serialised fiction on my former blog while editing my church magazine for many years. I had previously self-published Christian fiction to good reviews, but I had a dream of having a literary agent, of having the support of a solid, traditional publisher, of seeing my books on bookshelves and sharing my stories with the world.
I was terrified of writing commercial literary fiction because I felt I had to write a certain way and have a certain story. I also did not want to face rejections from agents. And so, I just focused on honing my craft, until I joined the MA course. I think being accepted on the MA course, and hearing other talented writers talk about how they enjoyed my stories made me gave me the confidence boost I needed to start writing my first literary novel. But, initial drafts to The Girl With The Louding Voice met with a handful of (inevitable) agent rejections- some of which made me cry (a lot!). I bookmarked a page with a list of now successful writers who had been rejected many times (JK Rowling, Kathryn Stockett etc) and each time I felt discouraged, I would visit the page and remind myself that a rejection was not personal or eternal.
What led you to enter and what was in your mind when you pressed send?
My supervisor, Julia Bell had asked me to consider writing competitions during one of our workshop sessions, and I recall searching for, and finding details on the Bath Novel Award. I put in a daily reminder in my calendar for January 2018. And for three or so months after that, my alarm would ring, and I would promptly hit delete and push it far out of my mind because I was riddled with self-doubt, discouragement and fear. Plus, I was in the process of trying to reconstruct a query letter that would attract an agent.
I finally yielded to the nudge, and sent my manuscript in a few hours before the deadline. I whispered a prayer and hit send and then made a conscious effort to forget about it because I was so sure I would hear nothing back.
As the prize went on, did you have any sense THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE could go on to win?
None whatsoever. It came as a complete and utter shock because there are 1,200 other writers vying for the same prize! Isn’t that enough to squash any confidence any writer might have? I feel extremely blessed to have won.
“This is a book that looks at women’s roles, not from a soap box, but from the ground beside them. It is poignant but never saccharine, it is painful but never exploits that pain. It is beautiful because it is ultimately a song of kindnesses. The winning book is a book of many voices, heard and unheard. But ultimately it is about one girl and her ambition to find and own her voice, I am therefore delighted to announce that the winner of the Bath Novel Award 2018 is THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE by Abi Darè.”
You’ve been studying evenings after work to complete MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University of London. What’s been the most valuable part of the course?
The feedback in workshop sessions, the friendships formed after the course and learning from astoundingly talented and dedicated tutors.
Everyone has been supportive. My tutors and workshop group all gave great feedback and kind criticisms to excerpts I shared in class. Julia Bell (my supervisor) gave me invaluable advice that led to my cutting out and re-writing the last 15k or so words of the book which was painful at first, but which made the book so much better.
Adunni’s voice came to you a week before your first MA supervision appointment. What did Adunni say to you?
“This morning, Papa call me inside the parlour.”
Following encouraging feedback from your supervisor to that first submission, you wrote furiously until the first draft was complete. Can you remember what your supervisor said?
I shared the first 3k words with my very first supervisor- and he sat up as soon as I entered his office. I was expecting him to say anything but, “Abi this is great. This is publishable. Think you can you sustain this voice for the rest of the book?”
To which I went, “Er…I don’t know!”
Your mother, Dr Teju Somorin, flew in from Nigeria to support you at the announcement. Can you say a bit about her, her reaction to your win and how she has supported your writing dreams?
She was thrilled! She’d been a bit drowsy and tired because she arrived in the UK that morning, but the moment I was announced as winner; she started to dance and sing praises to God as she got on the phone with family and friends in Nigeria to tell them I had won- it was such a cute sight.
My mother is one of a kind. She is incredibly brilliant: she retired as the first female group director of the Federal Inland Revenue Service in Nigeria. She is the first female professor of taxation in Nigeria, and a prolific writer, with over 130 publications on taxation to her credit. She is relentless in her pursuit of education and constantly advocates for me to do more, to be more. She has been outstandingly supportive of my writing and is one of my best friends (although we don’t share the same views on many things).
What does your mother think of your book?
She’s obsessed with academic work and so I cannot remember the last time my mother read a novel. She thought I sent her the wrong excerpt. She was like, “Why is it in this kind of English? Did you make a mistake?”
Then she gave me a hug and said, “Well, it must be special to have been shortlisted. Congratulations.”
I don’t think she will be reading the full novel anytime soon.
Any plans for the £2,500 prize money?
None yet. I bought an electronic toothbrush for my mother. So many people have been supportive of my writing: My wonderful husband and children, my older brother, my pastor and friends- so many people to thank. I think we shall have a celebratory dinner when I can get them all in the same location!
You’ve had a lot of interest from literary agents. How was that for you?
Surreal. How did I go from a writer grappling with how to construct the perfect query letter, to one having multiple offers? How do you wrap your head around the fact that people, agents- who I thought were fearsome people- loved my book? I must say that I met the loveliest, most supportive agents in the process.
At first, it was hard to know who to choose, but meeting Felicity and discussing the book with her over drinks after the winning announcement sealed the deal for me. She’s simply amazing.
She had always been an agent I admired but thought I would never get a chance to meet or even query- and so to hear her express interest in the book, and then when we eventually sat together to discuss it, everything just felt right.
Any tips for future winners about how to handle agent interest?
Take it easy, enjoy the moment. Try and meet with everyone that shows interest and above all, don’t rush your decision.
What’s your favourite thing Felicity has said?
Everything she said! But I loved that she thought it was, “A contemporary story with old bones,” and that “Adunni is a character that literally sings to you as the reader.”
How was it meeting your fellow shortlistees ?
Amazing. Everyone is so talented and friendly- we will keep in touch, which is also wonderful. I felt and still feel completely humbled to have won amongst such talent.
All our winning books have stayed in our readers’ hearts long afterwards. Which books and writers do that for you?
A few books had made me wonder what the character is doing now; if they are okay; if I will ever meet them in real life- even though I know they are completely fictitious.
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- Room by Emma Donoghue
- The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
- The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Husseini
- Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult and Still Alice by Lisa Genova
I could go on and on!
Can you sum up what winning has meant to you?
The Bath Novel Award is special for many reasons and of all the awards running in the UK, I think this stands out for its excellence, as well as the wonderful support the writers get during and after each award. For me, winning such a prestigious literary award means that dreams can come true, that prayers get answered, that consistent hard work yields result, and that amazing people exist: people who love books and writers and want the best for them.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose
Abimbole (Abi) Darè was born in Lagos, Nigeria and has lived in the UK for the last 18 years. She has a Law degree from the University of Wolverhampton and an MSc in Project Management from Glasgow Caledonian University. Keen to improve her writing, Abi applied for the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University of London where The Girl with The Louding Voice formed part of her thesis and was also selected as a finalist in The Literary Consultancy Pen Factor competition in 2018. Abi lives with her husband and children in Essex and works for a leading academic publisher in London. After winning The Bath Novel Award 2018 she accepted representation with judge Felicity Blunt of Curtis Brown Literary Agency.
UPDATE / WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: Following a five way auction, Abi Darè’s winning manuscript was acquired by Hodder & Stoughton imprint Sceptre. The Girl With the Louding Voice will be published as their lead début fiction title in 2020.