An interview with Irenosen Okojie


We’re excited that Irenoson Okojie will be running an online course with Spread the Word this Spring. On Shaping short fiction – from ideas to finished pieces, participants will be guided to create new ideas, and finish them off. A talented and acclaimed author, she knows a thing or two about the craft of writing and getting things done.

Ireneson’s debut novel Butterfly Fish has been very successful, winning a prestigious Betty Trask Award in 2016. It was also shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award, and was a selected novel for WHSmith travel stores around the UK. Speak Gigantular, her first short-story collection was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.

We caught up with her to find out more.


You are of Nigerian-British heritage. How does your background influence your writing?

Absolutely it does, whether overtly or not. The complexity and duality of that is really fascinating to unpack. In my first novel, I wrote about Nigeria, the Benin kingdom and the UK. In some ways, I felt a sense of cultural loss having grown up in the UK, a real longing to connect to a specific part of my history. Having spent the early part of my childhood in Nigeria where storytelling is a big part of the culture (even the way people communicate is so expressive, really, two Nigerians arguing on the streets of Lagos is like watching a play) There is vibrancy, multiple layers and often a sense of urgency. It makes sense in some ways that the writing is reflective of that. In Nigeria, there’s a strong tradition of oral storytelling, surreal, mind bending tales often with life lessons at the heart. All of this is in my writing DNA. We carry these elements in the blood, I feel. My short stories are very much about living in the UK, the city, the strangeness of it behind the fast pace, the odd ways people at the cusp of some sort of personal change cope. There’s plenty of material to draw from. I’m always curious about how these identities influence my writing, the ways they manifest which can also surprise me.

What are the challenges of writing a novel compared to short stories?

A novel allows you to be quite expansive. It gives you room to play. You live with these characters for a long time which has pros and cons. Good in that you see the quality of your writing improve over time, when you compare what you wrote at the beginning to say a year or so down the line. It’s about craft, it’s about putting in the hours. There’s no getting away from that. What’s brilliant is you have to be in that writing space to get the rewards, you have to go under, when you do, the writing gets to a point where it’s elevated, where the standard suddenly starts to live up to the idea you envisioned at the start. When the characters take on a life of their own and feel multi dimensional and you’re just a vessel to tell their stories, that’s a lovely feeling. The challenges for me where momentum and structure with three different time lines. I’d have dips, that’s dangerous because you don’t want that to show in the work. Whenever that happened, I’d switch to a different timeline. It meant I was still writing, regaining energy and enthusiasm to push through. I love writing short stories. I feel like the form really allows you to do interesting things. You’re creating compact worlds that need to be able to hold a reader’s attention so you don’t have the space a novel gives you yet somehow it still has an elasticity about it. You’re writing different ideas out of your system, once you get a few published, that gives you more confidence going forward. Every now and again someone will declare ‘ the novel form is dead’ or ‘short stories are impossible.’ Ignore all of that. Be curious, be enthusiastic and explore whatever you want to write about, whatever ideas that linger in whatever feels like the right form for it. Being instinctive is a part of the magic and pleasure of writing.

The workshop is all about shaping finished pieces of writing. Are you someone who has lots of ideas and half finished pieces of work, or are you quite disciplined about seeing the process through?

I’m disciplined but I have to be. The reality of writing means having a structure you stick to in terms of how often you write, meeting deadlines, having space for re writes etcetera. For a long time, I was writing just for myself, not for anyone else’s eyes. I really loved that period looking back because of the freedom of it. There were lots of ideas, there still are! I keep an ideas notebook so they have somewhere to live.

What advice do you have for people struggling to finish work?

If you get stuck know that this is perfectly normal. Most writers do at some point. Allow yourself a little break, do other things that stimulate you: it could be a walk, a trip to the museum, taking in an exhibition. Something that feeds you creatively, then come back to that piece of work. You have to return to it though in order to push through. Don’t talk yourself out of it. This is where having a structure/routine can really make a difference. Find a way to take the pressure off yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, that’s what other drafts are for. I always come back to being curious about life, about art, about the human spirit. And when you see it as a space for investigation, you let yourself go.

For more information and to sign up to Irenosen’s course, Shaping short fiction – from ideas to finished pieces, head here


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