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  • You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more.
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Sefi Atta: Writing on the Cusp of Humor and Horror

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Sefi Atta, author of News from Home (Interlink Books), discusses writing, reading, and research.


What is your writing process like? 
My writing process begins before I start to write. I get to know my characters by daydreaming about them. When I begin to dream about them at night, I know they are fully formed. I usually have a vague idea of what they look like, but I must be clear about their voices in order to write. My first drafts of short stories take less than a week, then I revise for months afterward, even though my revisions are often minimal. I need time to revise and revise intermittently not continuously.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
It depends what the writer wants to achieve. I wanted News From Home to provide a perspective that was wide enough, so readers wouldn’t have a limited view of Nigeria. Also, a lot of news reports on Africa, here in the United States, appeal to the guilt and sympathy of readers. I didn’t want to write stories like that. Finally, I wrote on the cusp of humor and horror, which is how people live in Nigeria. They rely on humor to survive the difficulties they face. I hope readers will understand how extensive the Nigerian experience is.

What book made you want to become a writer?  
L’Etranger by Albert Camus. I read it when I was in boarding school in England and I read it in French, using a French-to-English dictionary. My French wasn’t very good, and even though I was Nigerian, I’d only ever studied books by English writers like Dickens and Shakespeare. I’d never studied Nigerian writers like Achebe and Soyinka. L’Etranger introduced me to a rhythm of writing that was suited to the world I came from. It was odd to have that experience as a foreign student in England and consequently the book had a huge impact on me.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
 I do a lot of research because my stories are based on reality. Research feeds my imagination. I run wild with it, but I’m terribly organized, perhaps because of my background as an accountant. I keep information in files, which I frequently revisit. It pains me to ignore most of my research to serve my stories. I researched the drug trade in Nigeria for my novel Swallow, only to find out I didn’t need any of it. It didn’t belong in the novel, which took a different turn because I couldn’t bear to write a formulaic novel. I was miserable, as I couldn’t share what I’d discovered in my research, but I later used some of it for “Last Trip,” a short story in News From Home. 

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? My title story “News From Home” takes place over several months. It is set in the United States and I use flashback to remind my narrator of the community she left in Nigeria, and to show why she quit nursing and ended up as a nanny.

"Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. You may read selections to sensible women, -- if young the better."
A. Bronson Alcott

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  • http://writerunboxed.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/alan-cleaver-300x201... 300w" sizes="(max-width: 500px) 100vw, 500px" />Flickr Creative Commons: Alan Cleaver It’s a funny thing about my career that I never even attended a writing seminar before I published a novel. That doesn’t mean I didn’t study the craft in other ways—reading mostly, then a practice novel—but I didn’t do conferences, or critique groups, let alone an MFA. I’ve often wondered if I missed something there. I mean, of course I know I did miss something. What I mean is something more in the vein of essential to my writing...
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  • Aside from tenses, verbs in English also come with moods, which describe its state of being. Some grammar software guides and equivalent books list three types of verb moods; others list four or more. For our purposes, we'll keep it down to four, combining some of the moods that some literature choose to treat separately.
  • Liu Xiaobo, poet and dissident, will be tried tomorrow morning in China (8 p.m. tonight Eastern Standard Time) for “inciting subversion of state power.” He was charged after helping to write Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms, and he faces up to fifteen years if convicted.Over on the main PEN website, you'll find a very easy to use form for emailing Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Cao Jianmin, the Procurator General, demanding Liu Xiaobo's release.So help us flood their inboxes. And stay tuned.

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Fast fact about writing

In China historians have found out a lot about the early Chinese dynasties from the written documents left behind. From the Shang Dynasty most of this writing has survived on bones or bronze implements. Markings on turtle shells (used as oracle bones) have been carbon-dated to around 1500 BC. Historians have found that the type of media used had an effect on what the writing was documenting and how it was used.