Dr Anietie Isong has worked as a corporate writer for some of the biggest brands in the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. His first novel, Radio Sunrise, won the 2018 McKitterick Prize. The novel was previously shortlisted for the Kingston University Big Read, and longlisted for the 9mobile Prize for Literature. His individual short stories have won several prizes including the Commonwealth Short Story Award. His collection of short stories, Someone Like Me, published in 2020, won the first annual Headlight Review Chapbook Prize for Prose Fiction, administered by Kennesaw State University, Georgia. Isong has spoken at the Birmingham Literature Festival, Marlborough Literature Festival, Henley Literary Festival, among other literary festivals. He holds a PhD in New Media and Writing from De Montfort University Leicester, an MA in Communication from the University of Leicester, and a BA in Communication Arts from the University of Ibadan.
You can read a review of Anietie's novel, Radio Sunrise, on Everybody's Reviewing here.
In February 2021, Anietie gave a guest lecture and reading at the University of Leicester. Below, he is interviewed by first and second-year undergraduate Creative Writing students at the University of Leicester about writing, research, novels and his short story 'While We Were Sinners,' which you can read on the Mechanics Institute Review here.
Interview with University of Leicester Creative Writing students
Q: Which methods of characterisation methods work best in your opinion, or which one do you like best?
AI: I think I employ speech the most. I started writing for radio before focussing on fiction. Back then, when writing radio plays, I had to make my dialogues as convincing as possible. I couldn't describe scenes - except through the characters' words. I believe this background in radio has played a key role in my current writing style.
Q: Did writing about a familiar setting in the story 'While We Were Sinners' make the overall process easier, or did rooting it somewhat in your own experience make fictionalisation more difficult?
AI: Indeed, writing about a familiar setting made the process easy for me. Almost all my works are set in places I have lived or at least visited. I lived in Lagos which is why part of Radio Sunrise was set there. I envy authors who can write about places they have never visited. I like to observe people in their natural settings so I can write about them properly. In addition, my works are usually set in contemporary times that I have experienced. This is why I have never attempted to write historical fiction.
Q: How do you go about in creating characters? Do you draw inspiration from people you know?
AI: My inspiration is drawn from my surroundings. I like observing people. I watch out for many details - their walks, clothings, looks. The majority of the characters in Radio Sunrise were inspired by the people I had met at some point in Lagos or in the Niger Delta. Even my own parents inspired me! I grew up in a deeply conservative Christian home, that's why there's always a religious slant in most of my works.
Q: Do you know how a story will end from the very beginning or do you change your mind during your writing?
AI: To be honest, I don't. Most times, I start my stories not knowing how it will end. Even if I know the ending, there's always a possibility that it will be changed. Sometimes, when I start writing, I know the ending but not the beginning - this is the case with my forthcoming novel.
Q: You said that it is easier for you to write about Nigeria because you already know a lot about this country, but do you still have to do some research to enhance your work, or would it be possible for you to write without?
AI: For Radio Sunrise, yes, I still needed to do some research, but it wasn't much. In the novel, I focused on writing about the places and topics I knew - like journalism, the Niger Delta, Lagos. I worked in a radio station, so it was easy for me to write about Ifiok and the other characters on the book. Nigeria is such a vast country. I couldn't possibly write about the northern part of the country without doing a lot of research, since I have never lived there. For my forthcoming novel, I did quite a lot of research, and since the story is related to healthcare, I also spoke to a number of medical practitioners.
Q: How did you decide on the title of the short story ‘While We Were Sinners’?
AI: There is a verse in the Bible that my mother always recited: 'While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.' I simply took the title from there!
Q: If you were to continue the story 'While We Were Sinners,' do you have an idea of what might happen to Solomon?
AI: To be honest, I have not thought about this. Maybe Solomon could be sent to prison for a long time.
Q: How did you decide to write about Solomon and his questionable career choices? What was your inspiration?
AI: Many years ago, I read in the Birmingham Mail about a man in the city who fell on hard times, and how he turned to fraud to make ends meet. I began to imagine the man's background, and how he had found himself in the situation. That's how I decided to write the story of Solomon. Of course, not every penniless person would consider questionable career choices, but it's something I wanted to explore in the story.
Q: How does short story writing differ to novel writing, do you think?
AI: I love writing short stories. I wrote and published a number of short stories before deciding to write a novel. I think writing a novel requires much discipline because you are telling a longer story over a period of time. I prefer brevity. My novel is a slim volume. Most of my short stories are actually quite short. 'While We Were Sinners' is one of my longest stories.
Q: What motivates you to write? When you have off days and don't feel as motivated, or aren't happy with your work, how do you deal with this? What do you do to fight writer's block?
AI: I try not to force myself to write. There are times I could go months without writing a word of fiction because of a lack of motivation. But I don't let it bother me. When really motivated, I could write for hours every day.
Q:How easy do you find it to innovate? Do you always feel in touch with your imagination, or do you feel reality makes it difficult?
AI: I read/watch the news often so I can know what's going on around the world. While my fictions are usually based on my imagination, I try to blend it with reality.