Afia Atakora's debut novel, Conjure Women, is released today. In this Author Spotlight, she shares her process for writing the book and the best piece of advice she got along the way.
Name (byline): Afia Atakora
Literary agent (if one): Amelia Atlas of ICM Partners
Book title: Conjure Women
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Expected release date: April 7, 2020
Genre/category: Literary Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book (1-2 sentence pitch): Tightly braiding the years just before and after the Civil War, Conjure Women centers on Rue, who has inherited her mother’s role of healer and midwife in an isolated town of recently freed slaves. In Slaverytime, Rue contends with the legacy of her mother’s mystical powers and her own fraught childhood friendship with the master’s daughter, while in Freedomtime, the birth of a black-eyed child and the onset of a mysterious epidemic incite a violent suspicion against Rue’s abilities that will unearth her most closely guarded secret.
What prompted you to write this book?
There is this perception that the “slave novel” has already been written once and once is enough. I understand. It's a harrowing, painful topic, one that feels like it's all about brutality. I was determined to approach it differently—to fully examine the hurt, both physical and psychological, yes, but also to infuse the telling with magic and joy and mystery, to create soulful characters whose lives are irrevocably shaped by, but not solely defined by, the experience of slavery.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process? (Explain.)
Conjure Women took over four years from conception to pub day. I wrote the first draft in less than nine months. The idea seemed to come faster than I could type. Afterward it was a matter of wrangling this wild, passionate thing into something that felt refined. It was important too to get distance, to revisit it beside different eyes or from a different angle. In that time the idea, the heart of the book, never changed, instead it became clearer, even closer to the vision I’d started with.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? (Explain.)
After the final draft was in, my amazing editor Kate Medina gave me the important advice that it was time to change hats from being a “writer” to being an “author.” This meant learning to talk about the book, discovering the ways that earlier readers were engaging with it, and understanding how to be the best advocate for the work that I had created.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? (Explain.)
Most surprising for me was discovering all the ways I could tell the story. A lot of the editing process was moving around scenes or whole chapters and every time I did that the narrative felt like a completely different experience. For all that it was art it became like a math problem: What is the best order of operations? How do I make x + y = z?
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope Conjure Women leaves people thinking. It raises a lot of moral questions, not just about how we look at U.S. history but how we reckon with the ghosts of our own personal history. It’s a book largely about relationships—between races and within a community, mothers and daughters, romances and friendships—so I think it will spark each reader in a different way.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Writer friends are everything! We all know that the act of novel writing is solitary, and sometimes lonesome work, but when you crawl out of your cave it’s so important to have friends there waiting who get it, who are ready to read and cheer you on, and who will send you right back into the cave when you need it.
Support this debut author by ordering a copy of Conjure Womenby Afia Atakora today.
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