Abena Sankofa interview


A little introduction:

Hi, I'm Abena Sankofa, the author of Up North, and the daughter of two old-school, ivy-league-educated Jamaican parents who made my sister and I begin thinking too early. 😂 Everything became our library—eventually including some of Mum’s college anthropology books! Tallahasseean by birth, Jamaican by parentage, I’m a millennial, and a huge fan of classic jazz and reggae, historical fiction, vintage fashions, and comfort food.  And I look forward to travelling to places I’ve never been all around the world.

When did your love of books begin?

As early as I remember, my parents used to read picture books to my sister and me.  My Mum tells me that even before I could read, I would spend the time while listening to the stories, silently tracing the letters on the side of our storage boxes.  I've always loved calligraphy, and how the fonts we choose make us feel about the words they design.  Soon enough, my sister and I were helping our Mum select armfuls of books from our local library every Saturday, and then reading them off too fast during the week, so we'd have to do it all over again the following weekend.  And even in the last few years as ‘we four’ have been riding out the quarantine together, Mum has still sometimes read entire novels to us, and we gather and listen as if to an old-time radio drama.  I find it all just as entertaining as watching a film. 

When did you start to have the wish to become an author?

Around ages 8 and up, we started selecting our own novels as well, chiefest of which were the Redwall series.  I was around 11 when I decided I wanted to write my own adventures one day.  Those books were absolutely formative to my current writing style -- "Paint Pictures with words," as my late literary hero, Brain Jacques said.  That still brings me inspiration today.

How have you found the process for becoming an author?

An extreme emotional rollercoaster.  The first serious novel my sister and I tried to write together was a piece of Redwall fan fiction, of course.  And then, 100-200 pages in, we lost everything in an irreversible error.  The file wasn't backed up. And that wasn't the last time! But every time that's happened, I've found, the next thing we write is better, so it all comes to something good in the end.  Up North began tentatively, as a movie I'd love to watch, but I was cautious not to put down my ideas too fast and get the tone of the drafts wrong, so I built it up delicately, layer by layer. Then, it was at last...perfect.
Or so I thought....I took a year-and-half reading the manuscript (now a two-book series), aloud to my family, and spotted a whole lot of errors, which ended spurring a cascade of corrections that made it way better.  But the slow process of reading, re-writing, editing and re-editing was not my speed at all.  Over the next two years I edited it over seven times, including printing it and going over it with a pen – one of the most agonizing projects I've made myself endure.
More recently, the sagas I've been writing are fun in the beginning, then there's some element of tragedy in them that makes one fully confront the seriousness of life. One is set in Revolutionary-era Nigeria, for example. I realize that in writing historical novels, you feel the waves of history buffeting your main character and you actually begin to experience situations you’ve never been in, and empathize with people you’ve never met. It’s as if the research I do for stories I write, is educating me on life itself, if that makes sense.

What would you say to those wanting to become an author?

I would say, the most powerful realization I’ve made is, don't have a message.  That's probably the most astounding thing to say or hear during this time, when we're all told to have a profound message, something we can teach through our writing.  But I find it puts pressure on you, and saps the creativity out of your brain like nothing else.  I actually find the best of my works-in-progress came out of a completely innocent, fleeting thought of say, 'what would it be like to live in X era, as Y person, and get to dress up like this?'  Boom – a story! 
The audience will be on board from the beginning, because they sense the sincerity of your premise.  And then later, a 'theme' might emerge that might prompt people to ask, 'Is that the hidden message?' and then you can very wisely lean back in your overstuffed leather chair and say, 'Oh yes.  That was my message all along.'  But I think it's better when you come across it by serendipity, as I did: My thing was always, that I wanted an excuse to dress up all the time, and I was fascinated (and yet, deeply disappointed), to find out that there were past eras in which everyone did, and that somehow I had missed out on it. 
One of the initial inspirations for my novel, for instance, was actually the first few moments of the absolutely ancient ‘Smooth Criminal’ music video (before it gets scary), where the main character enters a supposed 1930’s bar.  Everyone pauses and peers at him, their guard up.  It’s that sense of entering a dangerous town, where you don’t know who to trust.  Also, the clothing styles thoroughly convinced me that fellows in fedoras were the bee's knees.  And also I wanted to tell a story about a girl like me, who gets to be the citizen-sleuth, like the ones that get invited along with Napoleon Solo in the 60's Man from Uncle series that I loved to watch.  She could be the heroine. But, at the same time, I liked the suspense of the Underground Railroad escapes I also heard about, from the mid-1800s.  So when would this story be set?!!
I settled on the ’30s. Maybe she would be from the South, part of the Great Migration.  But what would be the push-factor?  Then I needed to Wiki all about the Jim Crow Era, and what sparked people to leave. It was all very intense, and it shifted the story to a darker, more sinister tone immediately. I started this novel in 2011, and shaped the plot, ending in about 2016 – but now, looking back, I can see that people will interpret the darker elements as a current-affairs commentary, which quite frankly makes my knees knock together.  It wasn't supposed to have 'a point', but I guess it does now and there's no going back.  I hope it inspires people to remember more about a semi-forgotten chapter of history, nonetheless.

Tell us about your book/books:

In Up North, my main character Phyllis Joiner, starts out as a teenage cabaret singer apprenticing her father in Lowcountry Louisiana, and dreaming of one day seeing the glamorous North.  But when her uncle has been apprehended for an alleged crime, her wish may be about to be granted, but in a most distressing manner.   Driven from their home in Louisiana after a death threat, the Joiner family seeks to escape the clutches of the ruthless landowner Smith Owens, and his gang of bounty-hunters, in a bid for survival in the North.  
But once her family gets to Illinois, they learn the hard way that the past is never left behind.  Phyllis tries to start life afresh—her romantic heart soon falls for a handsome young fairground officer, and she begins to explore the jazzy, after-hours nightlife.  However, no amount of “fitting in” can disguise the nightclub singer from the men who know her on sight: The Joiners’ nemesis Smith Owens, and his posse have trailed them.
Now caught in his swiftly tightening net, Phyllis discovers the real reason for their relentless pursuit—a rumored family treasure worth millions. And not having it in their possession when he arrives, will be no protection.
Pushed to her limit, Phyllis decides to turn the tables on her stalkers, in a reckless gambit her policeman beau terms, “Mouse chases Cat.”  However, she soon finds herself holding a tiger by the tail—for Smith Owens has allied himself with the most powerful syndicate in Chicago. …And time is running out before they reach her family. But to avert disaster, she must seek the help of a Hyde Park lawyer who is none other than the nephew of the man hunting her down.
I am currently on my querying journey, seeking representation.
In my novel’s sequel, ‘Up North: the Chicago Chronicles’ (already finished, but on ice until Book One gets published): Driven by the knowledge that her family inheritance now hangs in the balance, Phyllis and Charlie take flight to Michigan, where a perilous 3 days of hide-and-seek with an assassin, only strengthens their bonds of love. But will their tenuous friendship with ace lawyer Willard Lancaster last when he finds himself in the crosshairs of the Syndicate?  And what will happen when daring Phyllis Joiner, who doesn’t know the meaning of ‘giving up’, forges ahead into a trap that may spell the end of the one she holds most dear? Stay tuned!

What do you love about the writing/reading community?

What do I love about the writing and reading community…that they’re there, to begin with.  I just find it so comforting that people still read, you know?  And the sharing of tips & encouragement on Twitter is just fantastic! You can read the tweets of someone who’s going through just what you are—maybe querying as well, and one can empathize, relax and think, “it’s not just me.”  It’s wonderful!

If you could say anything to your readers what would it be?

I would say, my fondest wish is that it feels like a movie when you read my story.  For that reason, I hyperlink the titles of songs in my online excerpts, so you can enjoy classic jazz-era while reading.

Where can people connect with you?

Well, first of all on Twitter, where my handle is @abena_sankofa – it’s a good place to stay up-to-date with my querying journey, with the occasional loony GIF, or thoughtful word -- but more background material is on my site, UpNorthaNovel.com, with my own writer's blog, upnorthanovel.com/blog!  Happy reading! 😊


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