Toni Kan in conversation with Tope Folarin – “I have never written in the nude before.”
Toni Kan: So, how did you become a writer? When did you know it was something you wanted to do?
Tope Folarin: So, before I started working at Google which was my first job out of grad school I read a lot in grad school, a lot of fiction, a lot of theatre, was looking at a lot of art and I knew that I wanted to, at some point in my life, write, but I also knew that I would take some time to learn.
TK: What did you study?
TF: So, undergraduate, I did a Bachelor’s in political science and then graduate school at Oxford. I did a Master’s in something called comparative social policy; It’s like a public policy degree and the second was in African Studies. And then after that, I got my first job at Google. And when I was at Google, I read a lot but I was also so busy that I just didn’t have the time to do as much writing as I would have hoped. And so after a time at Google, at the beginning of my second year, I got a bonus and I thought, okay, now is my opportunity to go somewhere and write.
I went to the US. I went to DC just because I wanted to be in a place with lots of free museums and a good theatre scene so I could continue to immerse myself in art as I was developing. The financial crisis happened around that time, it was 2008. So, from 2008 to 2010, I didn’t work basically. And I was very, very upset and sad about it. But at two months into this period, I decided that I would structure my time, so I spent about four hours a day reading, four hours a day writing then I would do four hours of either going to MIT, or watching movies or something. And every day I did this, and I have to say, by the time I got a job, I was a much better artist and a much better thinker than I was at the beginning of that process. TK: So how does somebody leave Google to go and write?
TF: You know, that’s what my dad said. He said, what’s wrong with you? I had to do it. I had to write I mean, and I was eager to be part of the conversation, when I left Google. This is right after, Diaman Gerstu, had published a book that was doing really well. I think Half of a Yellow Sun had just come out. So, I knew there was this emerging conversation. There were a number of African American writers as well, who were producing interesting work, and I was desperate to be a part of the conversation because I had things to say.
And so I thought, well, I’ll just leave. And you know, like most people who start out, I was a bit naive about how long it would take to develop. And so I thought, you know, I’ll just sit down at my desk for like two months, I’ll write the incredible, perfect novel, then top the New York Times bestseller, I’ll win all the awards, and then I’ll go relax somewhere.
And of course, I spent a year really just learning how to write and and I think I’m still learning how to write so I needed to dedicate myself. I didn’t become a good writer until I said, I’m going to give everything I have to this You know. TK: A play, a short story or a novel. How do you start? Is it an idea? Is it a word ? Is it a conversation you overhear? What sparks up your process?
TF: That’s such a great question because it’s something I think about all the time. I think, for me a lot of times there are two things; one is an image. So, if I have an image that won’t let go, that is in my head, and I can’t get rid of it. And I think, okay, there’s something here. And sometimes it’s an idea and this is a more amorphous thing, but I’ll think, you know, like, for example, recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about reality and the way that we think about reality and the way reality is constructed and so I’m thinking and I’m reading a lot about it and so I know there’s something there that’s gonna happen.
So, I know, and that’s the thing about writing as well. Like you need to find something that really retains you, that grabs you and won’t let you go.
TK: So you said an idea or an image, what do you mean by an image?
TF: So, a great example for me is ‘Miracle’, right? Like, I just kept on seeing this prophet. Bigger, right. And so I thought, well, what is happening here? And I need to write towards that, you know, in a way.
TK: So, the story about the kids selling icecream with their dad, that’s a novel. So, how did that happen? What was the first idea, The abiding image or idea for that?
TF: For the novel?
TK: For the novel, it was, I think it was both. I think it was an idea. Like I wanted to talk about how people construct their identities. And I think that it’s something that we’re all thinking about right now. I think for a couple reasons. One, the Internet has enabled us to kind of think beyond our local area in terms of thinking about who we are, and I think, at least in the States, people are obsessed with DNA tests. And there are all kinds of people who are discovering that, you know, they thought they were Italian and in fact, they’re British or whatever and or black people who thought they were mostly back and they find out that they’re actually like 60 or 70% white.
So, they have to change their definition of self. So, I think that for both of these reasons, people are thinking a lot more about identity than they did. And I wanted to write a book about how somebody comes to construct their identity.
TK: So, after the image and idea concretizes, right? How do you write? Do you sit down every morning? Do you go into seclusion, do you do it at night, morning, in the nude? Someone says he writes in the nude
TF: *Laughs. I haven’t done that but maybe that’s what i need to try. For me, it’s the same process all the time I go to work, I come back, and then I hang out with my wife and my daughter and then once my wife goes to sleep very early, usually about like 8.30 or so and then I put my daughter to sleep and then I try to watch the most ridiculous reality TV I can just to like clear my head.
So, I’ll watch love and hip hop or something just to clear my head out. And then generally from like, 9pm to 1am, I will write. The best thing for me is like having a word count in my life. Okay, today I’m gonna knock out 500 words or 2,000. Yes. Because otherwise I’ll just sit there and look at it. But if I know I have to get thousand words before I can go to sleep, then I’ll just kind of do it and it might not be the best thing ever.
TK: So, is it like a daily thing?
TF: Yes, it was until three months ago, I have to be honest. Up until I started touring for the book. I did it every single day.
TF: Yes. So its like exercise for me. so for example if you jog and if you don’t jog you start feeling guilty and you say I should just go jog, I will feel better at the end and once you get into the habit it becomes something you have to do and for me the writing became the same thing.
TK: So, what’s your day job?
TF: I work for an organization called LISC; Local Initiative Support Corporation. It’s the largest community development org in the US and we provide funding for affordable housing for hospitals, schools and all kinds of things and they are working in all parts of the country. I work there as the vice president and LISC is headquatered in New York city but I live in Washington so I spend a lot of my time in New York but i also travel around the country as well.
TK: Did you grow up in England, or in the US?
TF: I grew up in the US but I won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and so I was there for two years.