“I never expected to win the Quramo Writer’s Prize.” — Samuel Monye
Interviewer: Nzube Nlebedim
NN: In his review of your novel, Toni Kan describes your work as “a juvenile adventure written in blood.” What do you say of this profound statement?
SM: I think that was basically one of the biggest surprises for me; learning that Toni Kan was going to do a review of my book, and reading that statement, I don’t think three months go by when I don’t read it, being that it’s a big praise, one, and seeing the truth in it, because sometimes we write and we don’t really see the depth of what we write. But eventually when I read the full review he made, that particular line struck me, because in truth, Give us Each Day is actually a story of a young boy going through the kind of madness that most people would not expect to dream of going through, even in their own nightmares. So, I think it captures the entire theme of the book for me.
NN: You mentioned that writers don’t really understand the depth of their own works sometimes. Would you consider this a general statement for all writers, or would you say it’s specific to just a number of writers? How general is this? Because we experience this as writers. As you said, we write but we don’t really appreciate our input, our creativity. What do you think about this? Is it a general thing or is it specific to only a number of people?
SM: I think it applies to every creative, to everyone who is involved in creating art. This is because at one point in time when you’re creating a song or a book, novel or movie, there are aspects of the work you’ve created that you won’t even see until someone else points them out to you; but they came from you. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. I recently watched a short video on YouTube about The Avengers: Infinity Wars, and I noticed that people who had watched the movie over and over again were picking up themes and angles and aspects of the entire movie story line that even the Russo brothers had not noticed or planned to show. I know they were just creating a movie and worked with their own original theme which was the prevalent theme of the movie, but there were other subtle themes that they didn’t pick up on. So I think it’s normal to every author, every writer, every music producer. There are things you wouldn’t see. I think it just points to the fact that stories, the ideas and the creativity itself isn’t really from us. We are only vessels who steward these gifts given to us by God. We are the ones blessed with the opportunity to get it out on paper. But the other aspects of the creative work, of valuing it and seeing the other sides to it is open to both us and the general public who’d get to enjoy what we produce.
NN: Before 2018, did you expect to have your short story modified into a novel and published?
SM: That’s a yes and no answer. Before 2018, before the competition, I had imagined the short story in the form of a novel, and I didn’t expect to win, but when I won and was told about the possibility of publishing, yes, the idea of expanding it into a novel became more of a reality. I always feel there is more to most of the short stories I write. I don’t feel they should stop at short stories. But I’d never fully expected until I won the Quramo Writer’s Prize that Give us Each Day was going to be expanded into a novel.
NN: Was Give us Each Day your first work?
SM: No. It was my first published work, but I had written quite a number of stories, albeit a number of them were not complete in my head, but in terms of getting to the final page, yes. And in terms of a novel, Give us Each Day should be my third novel. I’ve written two other novels, unpublished yet. One should be published this year, and the other next year.
NN: What or who inspired Give us Each Day?
SM: Give us Each Day was inspired during my service year in Ibadan. I had encountered a young boy, a beggar who lived on the streets of Bodija, particularly the markets in Bodija. He told me that he had not seen his parents for about four or five years. I think that moment opened my eyes to the world of children who live on the streets, who beg and are exposed to a lot of societal vulnerables. When I went home, I started to pray about it, and afterwards, around that same period, the group I belong to in church and my CDS were also praying about the Syria crises. Along the way, the two concepts kind of fused together and I saw a story in it.
NN: What inspires you to write generally?
SM: I’m inspired by my love for stories. I don’t think I can hold a conversation with anyone without telling a story. There’s always a story I must tell, and I always look out for stories. I feel it’s a blessing for me to be the person who gets to formulate and create stories that entertain, inspire, amuse people or just work on their emotions. Just being that person that God uses to tell a different perspective to life works for me.
NN: How long have you been writing for?
SM: I have been writing stories since 2012.
NN: What did it take for you to write, as you didn’t study literature? Did it come off as difficult? I say this because most professional writers are those who have had courses in Literature, probably degrees in Creative Writing and all. What does it take you to write? Is it difficult since you didn’t study the craft formally?
SM: I don’t believe that most writers have to study Literature to be writers. For me, it was never hard. It’s always been a gift, and everyone in my family writes. I later learnt that there were certain terms and theoretical frameworks that most of the things I did as a writer fell under. But I never really learnt them. I just read novels and tried to imitate different styles, narrative and things I picked out from the authors whose works I read. It just came naturally to me. It wasn’t very difficult. I was the kind of student who read novels in my Economics class.
NN: This brings us to a different angle. We know that most writers are amalgams, blends of different authors they’ve read in the past. Writers tend to inculcate the ideas and ideologies of other writers they’ve read in the past. And they put it all in and create their own works. So, writers are basically people who follow the literary precedent laid way before their actual writing. What do you say about this? Do you feel writers should be copy cats about creating niches? Is it possible for writers to be able to create their own unique style away from a precedent, or is copycatting allowed in literature?
SM: I don’t believe in copycatting. I have met writers who’d copy an established author outright down to story structure. And yes, they make some sales on Amazon and what not. It adds some money in their pockets every month. But it doesn’t really speak well of the authenticity of their craft. There’s one thing I’ve come to understand about life: we build on the foundation of the people before us. And one of the things I’m learning about writing is that each person has a unique and authentic view or perspective that they can bring to the writing sphere. But there are laid down foundations and basics that you’d find in every story. I took a class around the same time I entered the Quramo contest in 2017. I was fortunate to be there. The teacher was a man who had edited for over twenty-five years. There are different genres of writing that come out. You can create a particular genre of writing, but you’d always find that there are laid down, basics, foundations, conventions in some genres that must be present. So, you are not necessarily copying them. It’s more like learning how the master works, using the framework of the pioneers who have gone before us to build something credible, so much so that when you bring it out, it’s actually something great.
NN: You came out tops in the Quramo Writer’s Prize with your short story clinching the first prize. We can then say that you’re one of the many beneficiaries of indigenous literary platforms in Nigeria. What’s your opinion on literary contests and competitions? We know of the positives, but would you subscribe to the opinion that competitions stifle the writer’s ability to write from their heart? Would you say that contests tune the creative writer to impress and not to express as they are meant to do?
SM: No, I don’t think competitions work against creativity, although it depends on who is entering a competition. There are people who I wouldn’t call writers. Let me be very careful how I phrase this. I know people who enter competitions because they want to win monetary prizes and get the fame that comes with winning. Would I say that is wrong? No, it is a beautiful thing. But there is an understanding with which I enter competitions. When I entered for the Quramo writer’s prize, I didn’t expect to win. For many of the competitions I enter now, I don’t even expect to win. A lot of the ones I enter are judged by reputable writers and people who have made certain leaps and bound in the literary sphere. So, for me, to get them to read my story and then appreciate it is a big deal. Let’s say I enter for a prize like the Caine Prize for African writing, and I don’t get to be among the long listed. I get a mail informing me that I didn’t make it to the top list but that my story made it to the top 100 or top 50. For me, that’s a validation because it’s something that I want as I don’t have a lot of physical mentors. Yes, I want the money because I want to believe there’s value for my craft. The fact that I won an award also positions me better to help other writers. I can’t tell you how many times I have been added to WhatsApp groups or invited to speak at conferences to speak with writers both here in Anambra and in Lagos. It’s wonderful because you get to share your knowledge. So, what I’m basically trying to say is that how you take on competitions is dependent on your mindset. If you come at it like a get-paid Ponzi scheme, there won’t be a lot of creativity. I think competitions, especially themed ones or those with word count limitations, are a challenge for me. What these competitions do for me is make me think and write outside the box. When I do that and submit, whether I win the prize or not, I always look out for what the judges say, especially when I know that they are well-known, good at their craft and they are people I respect. Getting their opinion is as priceless as the winning money. And if I then win the money along the way, praise God!
NN: What genre of literature appeals most to you? From poetry, drama and of course, prose.
SM: Hmm. That’s a difficult question. I write more of prose, and I also write poetry. But if you ask me to choose between the two, it’d definitely be prose. Poetry comes for me spontaneously. I don’t think I can sit and say I want to write poetry. There’s something about Sunday nights. Usually, that’s when I have less work to do. Most of the poems I write, I write them on Sunday nights. Then my head is freer and I’m in the mood. But the one that appeals to me any day, any time; the one I can write effortlessly, is prose. I can forget my food and read a novel.
NN: Do you believe in writers’ block? If NO, why? If YES, how do you overcome it to finish a story or a piece?
SM: Do I believe in writers’ block? YES. Do I give it so much significance as many writers do? NO. Why I say this is because I believe writers’ block is a natural enemy that anyone who does any form of creativity would have to face. There is a way it is spoken about in the literary sphere now: oh, you’d hit writers’ block, Oh, it’s going to come out somewhere like ojuju and catch you. I read a book once, War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield explained writers’ block as a form of resistance. The minute you get an idea or become engaged in a particular activity that is going to be of benefit to you and makes use of creativity, something of the same magnitude, but opposite in value rises up naturally to stop you. That is what he calls resistance, but in writing, we call it writers’ block. So, what he prescribes there is the idea that whenever you’re going to write a short story, with the energy and the passion that comes with the idea, there is a somewhat alternate, opposite energy that is determined to stop you from doing it. It’s an energy that makes you feel that what you’re going to do will be a waste of time. Oh, you don’t have the time, You’re not a good writer, etc. Your only job, your day to day job is to beat resistance until you complete your project. So, if you ask me how I deal with resistance, I’d start by saying that there are legitimate reasons why you can’t do what you’re meant to do. But you know it is resistance when there’s a nagging feeling of procrastination. What I do is this: if I have a project I’m doing, I make it a point of duty to write, even if it is fifty words, daily, rather than allow this thing called writers’ block to eat away on my creativity, and then I find out that two months, three, six months down the line, I haven’t written a book or completed a story. Even if I finish writing and I feel it’s bad, the idea is that I defeated the idea of writers’ block which is to stop me from writing. So, War of Art is a book I recommend, and indeed I recommend all his books for anyone going into creative writing.
And there are days I don’t feel like writing a thing, even a week. Then, I take a chill pill and relax. I don’t do a thing because I know that’s mental or physical fatigue. There are days when it works. But when all that is done and I have to face the business of writing, it is a fight. Steven Pressfield says that on the battlefield, there is a dragon and there is a knight. Behind the dragon is a pot of gold. You’re the knight, and resistance is the dragon, and we must slay the dragon every day.
NN: Do you have any advice for writers, especially beginners? What advice can you give to those who want to start writing or want to improve their craft?
SM: I’d start by saying you should read a lot and read wide. Why? You’d learn more by reading a lot of writers. You’d pick up a lot of things that would improve your writing far beyond what you’d ever learn by reading a book on how to write. Go for a lot of trainings where you can take advantage of the freebies around you. Work with goals. It would help you. You come into a year or into a quarter and you tell yourself you want to write these numbers of short stories or books in one year. Work with goals and stick to them. This brings me to the third advice: talent is not enough, skill is not enough. The only thing that would keep you on top and make your writing stand out is character, the discipline to put down that thing in your head, structure it, polish it and bring it out. Your talent might bring you into the room, but your character is what would keep you there.
NN: Tell us something about Samuel Monye. The person and the author.
SM: You need a book for that one. I’m Samuel Monye — cartoon lover, animation lover, game lover, food lover. I’m also into ministry. I’m not a pastor yet, but I’m very active in ministry. My life ehn, e get as e be. I’m a graduate of Environmental Management from the Nnamdi Azikiwe University. I’m also a social media manager and analyst. I’m currently studying to get an online degree in Digital Marketing. By the grace of God, next year, let’s expect the effects of the COVID-19 reduce, I hope to get my Masters in Creative Writing. I think that’s basically me in a nutshell. I love music — Coldplay, Jonas Brothers, Jon Bellion, Jesus Culture, Bethel. I love good music and it occupies a lot of my time. If you ask me to sing, I might break your glasses, but I know my heavenly father loves my voice. I also love football. Manchester United for life! That’s me.
NN: Asides his book and work, is Samuel Monye in love with anyone, with anything?
SM: I’m in love with cartoons. Leave the love of anybody first. I love my father and mother.
NN: As writers, do you think we are truly meant to be products or mirrors, as many say, of our society? Do you feel as writers we should be excused of certain things or from participating or addressing certain issues in our society?
SM: We are mirrors, yes, but we can also be excused. I don’t believe in making complex the art of writing into being one that we must identify something wrong on society that needs to be dealt with. Sometimes, it’s just for the purpose of telling a very good story. And yes, there can be themes and underlying subplots and what not, but if you would want to write, write to entertain people, write to teach people. I believe if you want to write, you write from your heart; write stories that matter to you, stories that interest you. Maybe a PhD holder in Creative Writing might dispute this. But the truth is that what you do from your heart would always resonate with every other person because they feel a deep connection to it. And those could be societal themes, and they could just be love or just fun for itself.
NN: What work would you classify as African? What work would you call African Literature?
SM: I think what we would call African is literature or works that not only encompasses our pain as Africans but portrays our culture, our personality and our future in a way that the Western world does not really understand. Nobody can tell your story better than you. So, if we are going to talk about works that are African, we not only tell of works that speak of the bad sides, of what it means to be African and living in the African continent, but show the brighter, futuristic sides, the beauty of our culture, our diversity and the strength and persistence in every black skin.