Sarah Ladipo Manyika has sold millions of copies of her books. Her debut novel, In Dependence, is an international bestseller and was in 2019 reissued to celebrate 10 successful years since it was first published.
Her second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, was shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize and the California Book Prize. It has been translated into several languages, including Italian, French, German, and Dutch.
Manyika also writes non-fiction and has profiled a number of notable movers and changers, including Toni Morrison, Michelle Obama, and Pastor Evan Mawarire. Her essay On Meeting Toni Morrison was selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays of 2018 and shortlisted for the 2018 Brittle Paper Awards.
Manyika was raised in Nigeria and has lived in Kenya, France, Zimbabwe, and England. She is now based in San Francisco.
Fungai Tichawangana spoke to her about the meaning of success and the lessons she has learned on her journey as a writer.
A lot of first-time writers think that getting published is the turning point in their journeys, but this is not true for many authors. What differentiates those who move forward after that first book and those who don’t?
I do think that some writers only wish to write one story (or they think do) while others have many stories they want to write. There are also many writers who tell the same story over and over again in different books as well as those whose storytelling spans a number of genres beyond the written form. And no matter what one might intend as a writer, life has its own way of dealing with the best-made plans.
Two years ago, you celebrated the 10th anniversary of your first novel, In Dependence. Looking back, to the time it was published, what were the main things that pushed you to get that novel out?
Toni Morrison once said that if there’s a story you want to read but cannot find then you must write it; this is what drives my fiction. No matter how hard the writing, the passion I had for the story, and the love for my characters kept me going. It was also the reason why, even after receiving numerous rejections, I kept on looking for a publisher until I found one.
Had you made the decision then that you wanted to be a committed writer? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
I knew from an early age that I loved hearing stories, eavesdropping on stories, and telling stories, but the commitment to telling my stories through writing came much later. I recommit myself to writing each time I face a blank page.
I notice you do a lot of promo work and touring for your literary work. In Dependence has sold over 3 million copies. These are numbers that many writers only ever dream of. How much of this sort of success do you think can be attributed to the strength of the work vs good promotion, networking, etc?
I will leave the question of the strength of my work to its readers. However, one of the reasons why my first novel has sold so many copies is because it was deemed to be a good educational book—historical fiction and a love story that travels across time and place—and as such has been selected on a number of school and university syllabi.
I never set out to write a book that would be taught and nor was it something I expected or dreamt of. Promoting one’s book helps to get the word out, but in my experience, it’s rarely a guarantee of “success” no matter how one defines that term. What I do feel strongly about, however, is acknowledging the shoulders upon which we stand as writers and promoting not just our own work but that of others.
Writers today are asked to be marketers too and yet many of us are such introverts, preferring to write and not speak. How does one strike that balance?
It is a tricky balance and, as you say, many of us are introverts and so to inhabit the role of an extrovert can be anxiety-producing and draining of energy and productivity. Yet, in this day and age, some marketing of our own work is necessary.
As with most things that I find difficult but know to be necessary (at least up to a point) I find that three things help – practice, focusing on learning from my mistakes rather than the mistakes themselves and keeping the marketing to a healthy minimum.
What are you aware of now, eleven years later, that would have changed your approach if you had known it as you were setting out in 2008?
I doubt whether a younger me would have listened to anything that an older me would have tried telling her. It’s one thing to know something with one’s head and another to know it through life’s experiences.
But eleven years later I’m trying to give myself permission to be more playful in my work, I’m trying to see my mistakes as an opportunity to learn rather than reason to feel badly about myself. And in terms of what I’ve learned about the writing process itself, here’s something I wrote in which I share what I have learned and continue to learn: What Virginia Woolf Forgot to Say.