Next in our Spotlight series for Black History Month is Fiction alum Buki Papillon. Buki’s debut novel, An Ordinary Wonder, published last March to praise from the New York Times Book Review, among others. In this interview, Buki talks to us about the enthusiastic reactions to her novel, overcoming self-doubt, and her next novel.
BUKI PAPILLON – FICTION, JUNE ’07
Buki Papillon is the author of An Ordinary Wonder, described in Cosmopolitan as “tender and moving”. [Dialogue Books / Little, Brown UK. March 2021. Pegasus Books, US. September 2021]. Her work has appeared in Post Road Magazine and The Del Sol Review. She has received fellowships to The Key West Literary Seminars and Vermont Studio Center, was awarded an Archie D. And Bertha. H. Walker Foundation Scholarship by the Fine Arts Work Center, and is an alumna of the VONA Voices Workshops.
She was born in Nigeria, lived in the UK where she studied law at the University of Hull, and is now settled in Boston in the US, where she has learned to find inspiration in the long winters. She has in the past been a travel adviser, events host and chef. In her downtime she loves making jewelry and cooking up a storm. Her twitter is @bukipapillon.
What was the moment in your life when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I think I subconsciously knew I wanted to be a writer from the moment I understood that the books I inhaled daily from a very young age, and enjoyed so much, were written by actual real human people. That they didn’t just spring fully formed from some magical unknowable source. It was not so much a moment as a bone-deep and instinctual understanding that writing and books were what made life make sense and therefore what I needed to one day be doing.
Where do you tend to draw your inspiration from in your writing?
Inspiration tends to come from ideas that drop into my consciousness; sometimes a line from a story, a movie, a song, the news, or some visual art… anything really that stops me in my tracks and plants the tiniest of seeds in my imagination. I will quickly jot down the idea into one of my many notebooks (I am a serial notebook collector!) and then if the idea takes root, it will keep popping up and branching out, and I’ll keep adding to the original notebook entry until it becomes clear that this will become a story. I’ve woken up in the night to scribble stuff that made so much sense at the time and then ended up reading it in the morning, only to wonder what on earth I was on about. I feel a sense of loss at those times but believe that if it was meant to be a story I told, it would return to me.
Your debut novel, An Ordinary Wonder, has met with a lot of success since its publication. How does it feel to finally have it out there in the world and is there anything that has surprised you so far about its release?
Thank you so much for saying that! I am immensely grateful for everything that has happened for An Ordinary Wonder so far. It feels incredible because this book took many years and went through many incarnations to become its true self. I have been truly surprised and very touched by all the messages I keep getting from people saying reading it has made a difference in their lives. People are teaching it in writing programs! Just the warmth and love and enthusiasm have bowled me over!
What is something that gets in the way of your writing and how do you overcome it?
Self doubt is a big thing that gets in the way of my writing, and it will show up in all sorts of wily ways. The best method I have found for overcoming it is to trick that voice into silence by reminding myself that I can always start over, that I only need to see ahead a little at a time, and that no angels are going to suddenly fall down dead because I strung together words that are less than perfect. And also, I repeat this clichéd saying which nevertheless works – ‘every oak starts as an acorn.’
What did you find most valuable about the Lesley MFA experience?
What I valued most about the Lesley MFA experience was working with talented mentors who truly loved teaching writing, and who helped bring out my own strengths. Although my primary focus was Fiction, the Interdisciplinary Studies option to take elective classes in other genres like Writing for Young People, Writing for Stage and Screen, etc, was truly wonderful for sparking my creativity and expanding and strengthening my writing craft toolbox.
Who are you reading now or who is next on your ‘to read’ list?
I just finished reading A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie. I was delighted to get a proof copy which I thoroughly enjoyed as the story swept me away from here and now, to many captivating locations! I am very much looking forward to Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu when it comes out in March.
Are there any projects that you’re currently working on?
I’m always working on several projects at once – but more specifically right now I am working on a novel with an exciting premise that is partially set in Nigeria. It has a twisty predicament and characters that people will, I think, fall very much in love with.
Listen to Buki read an excerpt from her debut novel, An Ordinary Wonder: