An interview with the author of That Reminds Me, our fiction highlight of the year - Derek is one of those artists who bring the world to life...
How has your year been – you’ve had the book come out to great success but how has it been for you?
In spite of everything it’s been good. There’s been a lot of support for the book – there wasn’t a huge marketing push in the circumstance but the cumulative effect of the interactions online was really good. Winning the Desmond Elliott Prize was amazing, and gave it a big push. I really appreciated ther diversity of the readers – I had people reaching out to me from so many different backgrounds. When I wrote the book I had a particular kind of reader in my head, but a lot of people who reached out to me were sixty year old white men, saying they read and loved the book – it wasn’t what I expected! But it has been nice.
What were they picking up on, what had spoken to them?
Just the story and the way it was written, it spoke to older readers into literary fiction I think. And the thing about those kind of readers was they read around a book a lot, they’ll read interviews with the author and talk about it all in the context of the book as well.
How have you found lockdown, and how are you at the moment?
The first lockdown was tough, when they shut my work office. We thought it’d be over in couple of weeks, then it got to April and I realised we’re not going back to the office till next year. That was tough, just adapting to Zoom meetings all the time, having to put a brave face on things. To pretend that during a global pandemic you are still chipper!
When the second lockdown came it wasn’t as much of a blow because we were all expecting it and felt a bit used to it. The first one was tough, being at home not having much to do. One thing that used to help me cope with my mental health was being able to get up and go on a train to somewhere. To watch people at the South Bank, get some ideas and write wherever I was. Not being able to do that any more was quite depressing.
Have you started to write in a different way now you can’t get out and about?
No not at all, I’ve only been able to write one thing during this whole period. Luckily that came in a burst of inspiration over a couple of weeks but after that I couldn’t write – I had to turn down a lot of writing opportunities, it wasn’t working for me.
Is there anything else that’s surprised you about the reception of the book?
I’m interested in any review or interview I’ve done where any person has picked up on aspects that aren’t about mental health. I packed so much into the book that there’s much more to talk about than just that. Or when someone picks up on something in the book that I included for my own amusement.
Theres a lot of life in your pages, it’s not just about one issue, it’s complicated…
Yeah people were saying that related to parts about social belonging and family too. I think the most draining conversation is when an interviewer expects you to be a scholar in literary criticism, and asks you to critique your book as you’re talking to them. I’m just like, ‘look, man, I just wrote this!’ I’m not a scholar, let them do that part. I’m an intuitive writer I don’t sit down and plan my metaphors, it just happens.
Are you a sensitive writer would you say?
Yeah I would hope so. I work with emotions and that’s the driving force when I’m writing. The emotions that I want to convey are the most important to me.A lot of people say they want to reach out to [That Reminds Me’s central character] K and help him with his problem – that’s always nice it makes it feel like I’ve done an alright job.
What do you make of the country as a whole this year, the reactions?
The way in which I personally and other people interact with our government has been strange. Everyone is aware we’re in a pandemic and the virus is spreading. People are dying. We know our government have handled this terribly. But we’re still looking to them to tell us what to do – we know what to do. We know we should be isolating, wearing our masks all the time, not going out. When the government do something wrong in the messaging people are absolutely fuming – ‘tell me what to do, tell me what do!’ – I always felt that was bizarre. I felt people should know what to do – but apparently not. I don’t really get into politics but I think next year I’ll start getting involved more.
2021 – any grand plans?
It’s just about getting back to normal, no grand plans. What I wrote I’ll edit as a poetry collection and try to get that out and see what happens.
Who have been your heroes of the year?
Not individual people, just movements who have been pushing for change. There’s an organisation called Feminist Co. that were doing a lot of organising on the ground in Nigeria against the Nigerian police that were beating up and killing a lot of people. Then the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.
In terms of following up That Reminds Me – do you have any niggling areas in it that you want to explore more?
Well I read it again and thought there’s so many things I need to change and luckily my editor let me edit it again for the paperback! And add a few things in. Not a lot of people get to do that. But you never will be completely satisfied.
But beyond that I have no interest in writing anything that doesn’t explore mental health. The poetry collection I wrote looks at the mental health of young immigrant women who came over in the early 80s. I do feel like that generation are closed off, they don’t like to talk much their experiences. Often they don’t have the language to articulate their experiences. They might call it a deep sadness but it could be more than that. I try to explore that in the collection.
That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu
A raw and revelatory coming of age story about K, a young man discovering his identity in inner-city London.www.waterstones.com
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