I Am My Safe Space Literatea 07: Leye Adenle

Literatea is an interview series which brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.

In this conversation about being imagination-rich and time-poor, the award-winning author Leye Adenle shares invaluable advice about writing with curiosity and courage, genre-bending, and finding the right and space to craft spellbinding stories.

Leye Adenle is a Nigerian-born crime thriller author known for his gripping and suspenseful stories that explore the darker side of human nature. He is the author of Easy Motion Tourist, When Trouble Sleeps, Unfinished Business, and The Beautiful Side of the Moon. His work has also appeared in Lagos Noir and Sunshine Noir. Easy Motion Tourist won the prestigious Prix Marianne in France in 2016. Adenle’s writing is characterised by its vivid descriptions of Nigerian society, which he portrays with a gritty realism that captures the complexity of life in a country that is often misunderstood by outsiders. His novels delve into issues such as corruption, inequality, and violence, while also exploring the humanity of his characters and the choices they make in the face of adversity.


RÉMY NGAMIJE: Let’s start with the most important question: what does one have to read in order to maintain a beard with full coverage?

LEYE ADENLE: It’s love, baby. You have got to love your beard. Wash it daily. Get a great barber for it and stay loyal to them. Massage essential oils into it. Stroke it and let the one you love stroke it too. It will be there for you through many thoughtful moments. Love the beard.

RN: Hahaha. Of course. But what does one have to READ to make it grow? I’m sure you have the inside scoop.

LA: I thought I had successfully sidestepped that question, but seeing as you wouldn’t let me off easy, here it is: read Leye Adenle. Read every book he’s written. Pre-order every book he’s having published, follow him on the social interwebs and read every single nugget he tweets. And when you’re not reading him, make sure you’re still reading him–I’ll leave it to you to figure that one out. You want a beard as awesome as fiction writer par excellence Leye’s beard? You just gotta read his work.

RN: You can always trust a Nigerian writer to promote themselves at every opportunity. Naija dey no carry last, eh? But I think this gives us a good point of starting our literary conversation.

Let’s talk about the promotion part first. You’re one of the writers I follow who is never shy about sharing your work. I know many writers who consider the job done as soon as something has been published. But, personally, I feel as though that is just the start of another journey for a story. With the publishing industry spending less and less time promoting certain works, it falls on the writer to publicise their own writing. Is this something that you agree with and what are your own experiences with promoting your own writing?

LA: I have two full time jobs; the writing and the job that pays for the writing. This means I am almost always time-poor, which shouldn’t necessarily be a problem for a writer with a good team behind them. However, the publisher who holds the rights to the first books in my crime series has not quite managed to get the publicity thing going. Self-promotion is something I was brought up and socialised to frown upon, so it’s been a learning journey for me. Hence the use of humour when promoting my books. Did I tell you how good people say they are? I have had excellent blurbs from James Ellroy and Lee Child, you know?

RN: Ha! No need to tell me, I have read all of the blurbs in question. 

Being time-poor seems to be an inevitability as a writer. Is this something you have become better at managing as your career has gone from strength to strength or is it “one of those things” that comes with writing?

LA: The thing is, when I manage to free up more time, say, by becoming a commercially successful writer making millions from my writing, the liberated time would probably be spent on more writing. Even when one is not writing, one is writing. Have you ever looked at the notes on a writer’s phone? There are libraries of ideas there.

I enjoy writing too much, I think, and it has been at the detriment of romantic relationships. I know, quite tragic, right? But here is another thing, I think some writers thrive on heartbreak. We wallow in self inflicted pain, romanticising agony, using highfalutin words, and unintentionally obfuscating with sweet-sounding phrases to tell the world where it hurts. I remember self-coaching myself out of yet another self-sabotaged relationship and speaking these words out to myself in a moment of breakthrough that would have made any life coach proud: “Take this pain, and make something beautiful out of it.” The beautiful thing I made out of it is a new manuscript in which a Nigerian pentecostal pastor in England blackmails the royal family. The protagonist is also Nigerian and he has just royally messed up his love life. A suspicious case of life imitating art.

RN: Interesting. Do you think that there has to be some price paid in order to produce meaningful art? At the 2022 Doek Literary Festival, Femi Kayode, the author of Lightseekers, highlighted the absence of sacrifice in young writers’ works. It seemed to him, and I agree, that there was this desire to produce and to be rewarded merely for the sake of production, even if that which was made possessed little value. For your writing, is that self-sabotage necessary?

LA: This is an interesting one. I cannot speak for other writers. I write for at least three purposes: the sheer joy of writing, which is the reward itself; to be read and appreciated by people who read and appreciate my writing; and to make a living from writing. Do I make sacrifices for my writing? It is a matter of perspective. I enjoy writing, just like some people enjoy womanising, or mountain climbing, or dirt road biking, or just spacing out on good herbs. The time I devote to writing is not a sacrifice but a conscious decision, maybe even a selfish one, to forgo other activities the time could have been spent on. The opportunity costs of my writing, as it were, are all the other things I would rather not be doing when I could be writing, so it really works out for me in the end. Maybe not for lovers and romantic interests, but writing is always the most rewarding way to spend my time.

Do I expect my writing to be valued as parentally as I value it? No. Not everyone thinks your children are as good-looking or intelligent as you do.

Do I expect to be rewarded for the sheer effort of writing? Hell no.

Does it bother me when people do not like my writing? I have not met such a person.

RÉMY: Flex much? Touché, Leye. Touché.

Blackmailing the royal family, you say? Please tell me he gets the Kimberley and Kooh-i-Noor diamonds back.

LA: That’s another book. Watch this space.

RÉMY: Since you write for the sheer joy of it, was crime or thriller writing the genre of writing that first presented itself as the best vehicle for the joy? Or did you cycle through other genres and then wind up with crime writing?

LA: Great question. My very first attempt to write a novel was as a tween. Snake Island was never completed. At that time I thought it was near impossible to write an entire book. As the name might suggest, it was a thriller. The protagonist was a Nigerian secret agent not unlike James Bond and the island was where the final battle was to take place.

I think of myself more as a thriller writer. I have also written a splendidly beautiful sci-fi-fantasy-speculative fiction-magical realism-otherworldly novel that’s a thriller through and through called The Beautiful Side of the Moon. It’s a modern novel in which a black person saves the world. Sort of.

RN: I have read The Beautiful Side of the Moon. Very good book, stellar story. In writing it how did you go about deciding on the genre-crossing nature of the story? You identified yourself as a thriller writer, but the story has more elements in it than mere thriller. How did you settle on all of the book’s characteristics and was it easy to juggle all of them in your first fully-fledged novel? I ask because I have noticed how ambitious many debut novels are; perhaps there is a sense of naivete one needs in order to write their first novel.

LA: My first published novel is not the first complete manuscript I have produced. It is not even the second. It is, however, the first time I decided to get published. My point: I have had plenty of practice. And I am still writing daily. It is the only way I know to improve my craft.

When I write, I do not start with a target genre, nor do I allow myself to be trapped within the confines of one. I simply write. I let the characters come alive, I leave agency with them, and sit back and watch what they do. What they get up to. What stories they want to share. What they choose to hold back. So, if a character decides mid-sentence to levitate, I’ll be like, “OK. That’s what we’re doing now…”. I’ll leave it to the editor to figure out how a flying baby fits into a crime novel. Of course, I exaggerate, but you get the gist.

I love debuts. Some of the books I have enjoyed the most are debuts. It is almost like the novel has had the entire lifetime of the author to form, and when it comes out as their debut, it is the work of many many years. Ambitious is good. However, I see debuts another way. I like to see them as fearless, essential, compressed, loved, eager, daring, bold, unapologetic, and sincere. I would like a library full of debuts. Or a bookshop. That could be a thing. The Debut Factory.

RN: The Debut Factory sounds amazing. But a word of warning, comrade, don’t be giving out ideas for free like this. We never know who is reading.

Was The Beautiful Side of The Moon a book that needed a particular kind of courage in order to write? Its character is not conventional, neither is its plot and devolution. I guess I am asking if, as the third manuscript you wrote, whether you felt as though you had reached what Chimamanda Adichie and Marlon James call the “fuck you” moment where you write what you want as opposed to what you are expected to write.

LA: It was fun to write. Maybe that is what comes across as a fuck-you attitude to creating the work. I do not think I have ever written a “conventional’ story”. What’s that anyway?

RN: I think the conventionality of a story depends on where the writer is from and whatever stereotype is attached to writing from the region in question. In your case, I presume some references to harmattan winds would have been somewhat expected. But that’s a drag from Zukiswa Wanner, not me. So please, abeg, don’t come for me.

LA: Love and Harmattan. If I ever write a romance novel, that is what I would call it.

RN: Moving on to the Amaka trilogy, what is it about crime writing that particularly attracts you to that style of writing? I am hesitant to say “genre” because the books themselves have more than crime going on in them.

LA: I believe that one is first a writer, then is known for a genre. I use genre so as not to confuse the more studious reader with writing style. My style is “anyhow, by the way.” My genre is thriller. I love good thrillers, sci-fi stories, heist films, crime novels, and Nigerian elections. [RN: HAHA!] I think I’m a closet adrenaline junkie. I love the excitement of anticipation. Not knowing what is coming next. Rooting for the hero, or antihero. Interestingly, I do not like who-done-its. I always figure out who the killer is long before the writer intended. It is always the least likely suspect. So, thrillers.

My otherworldly short stories are always thrillers. My speculative fiction/sci-fi/fantasy/magical realism masterpiece The Beautiful Side of the Moon is a speculative fiction/sci-fi/fantasy/magical realism thriller par-excellence. You may tweet that. Back to the core of a writer. All writers are writers first. The first author did not think, “I know, I’ll write a steampunk coming of age odyssey.” The art form came first. Genres came after. I write great shi. Mic drop.

RN: “All writers are writers first.” I like that. I wonder, though, what that means in today’s world when art can be so derivative or when it can be created with artificial intelligence. In this rapidly changing world, what is to become of writers (if anything)?

LA: You know what? AI wrote my new author biography and I love it. It even picked up that I am a gender equality advocate. Who would have known? AI, that’s who. But seriously, ChatGPT has made research a million light years easier, even if I exaggerate. There is AI for copy editing, line editing…I think it and an AI exists for it or will exist for it. I asked ChatGPT to write an Afrobeats song and it produced a banger. I asked it to write a poem about someone and it did–about the person! My builder and his son came over for a barbeque and we talked about AI. I do this all the time, by the way–tell people about AI. I don’t want my people to be left behind. Anyway, we fired up the laptop and he asked ChatGPT to write a CV for him. He was as happy as he was excited by the result.

Music is not my industry (yet), but I can imagine the debates and concerns that followed autotune. Today, knowing that my favourite Afrobeats artists do not sound like they do on their hit tracks has not stopped anyone from enjoying the music. I am aware that there will be purists out there who refuse to listen to any autotune works but that is their loss.

Okay, so it’s not the same thing. But what can we compare AI to?

I have lived through events that have truly changed the world: the world wide web, mobile phones, internet porn, the Arab Spring, Afrobeats and Amapiano, the Kardashians, the pandemic, MRI vaccines, Brexit, the climate crises, and now the rise of AI. And guess what? Something is bound to come later that will offer exponentially greater opportunities and threats. I have chosen to embrace AI.

Am I concerned it will maKe me redundant? Nah. I’ve got talent; AI only has data.

RÉMY: Perhaps that’s the best way to look at it: that talent and originality will beat the algorithm each time. But I am not so sure, to be honest. Only time will tell, I guess.

During the course of this interview, you’ve travelled between countries–Brittle Paper even gave us your holiday pictures of you flexing on us in Ghana (literary dzaddy much?). I am curious to know, lastly, whether geography affects the things you think about and, therefore, the way you write. I find that time and place play particular roles in writers’ lives and I would like to know if this is the case for you. Right now, where are you? And what is that specific place making you think of?

LA: I’m currently in Oxford. It’s been raining since I arrived yesterday so I am now reconsidering my life choices. Spaces have good or bad writing energy. It helps if you sit to write and your vista is the Atlantic Ocean or the rich valleys of Aburi, but even when landlocked in a few concrete square miles, I still go searching for good writing spaces and I always find them.

The first draft of my first novel–Easy Motion Tourist–was written at the dining table of a house in Enfield. It was great writing energy, but only when I was at the table. Then I wrote most of the next book in the series–When Trouble Sleeps–in a salsa bar in Camden, surrounded by dancers and lovers and other assorted revellers and beautiful, live music. I was in a dark place when I wrote the third book in the series. Unfinished Business was so-named because of an unfinished business I have with someone and which I am determined to resolve to my satisfaction when the meal is frosty-cold. That book saw me turning inwards to seek a safe space with good writing energy.

I found the time and space after a long and painful hiatus from writing. It was not writer’s block–a writing myth if there’s one. I knew the story I wanted to write. I was eager to write it. I just could not. Writing, the very thing that gave me joy, had become the thing that caused me pain. Anguish. I tried to write. I visited all the trusted spaces, I repeated all the practised rituals, but anytime I tried to write, I was reminded of the thing and the outstanding retribution the universe owes me. They were dark days.

Amaka and the rest of the cast stood inline in my peripheral vision, waiting for me to get over it and get writing again, or get even and be done with it. No time or space offered me the good energy I needed to get work done.

Imagine how it felt, for the one thing that brings you joy to become the one thing that hurts you the most. At some point, during a coaching session, I received my breakthrough. I had been looking in the wrong places. I looked inside, instead, for a place within me where pain and joy could exist together. I found that good writing energy space in me through the answers I gave to three powerful questions gifted to me by a coach:

Them: “How do you know when you are at your best?”

Me: “When I’m writing.”

Them: “How do you know when you’re not at your best?”

Me: “When I’m not writing.”

Them: “When you are not at your best, how do you get back to your best?”

Me: “By writing.”

Turns out the answer had been there all the time. I was immobilised and bent out of shape by pain and frustration and anger and regret. I was my safe space all along.

I am my safe space.

I didn’t write through the pain; I used the pain.

So, to answer your question, yes, time and space play particular roles in this writer’s life. I am a different person everyday. As my empathy, the element from which all good writing comes, shifts and develops, so does my writing.

All spaces offer different writing energies: good or bad.

I am my own good writing energy space.