Lessons from Lesley Lokko

Last night I attended the launch of Lesley Lokko’s latest novel In Love and War at Love Books in Melville, Johannesburg, and was lucky enough to spend a little time chatting with her about her process and what inspires her novels.

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She’s written nine books, and publishes a book a year. She’s Ghanian and Scottish, and spends her time living between South Africa, Ghana, and Scotland. She’s also an architect and an author, she gave up architecture after she studied it, to become a full-time writer but has now taken on the position of associate professor of architecture at The University of Johannesburg, although she does promise that she will still be writing.

So she seems to pivot between these great loves of her life, architecture and writing, as well as not having one permanent home, but three. Which I find fascinating, because in my own life I struggle with being a bit hybrid, part of being a writer, I suppose, is about being comfortable with the uncomfortable, and letting your own narrative take the twists and turns it needs and being okay with that.

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Lesley’s advice for writers

  • Treat it like a job.” She says that her biggest lesson early on was that if she didn’t treat it seriously, no one else would. So when she’s writing she gets up, puts her make-up on and prepares to work the entire day. “I’m too vain otherwise, and the potential to work in my pjs all day is huge, so I make sure I don’t, it’s like mental preparation like any other job,” she says with a laugh.
  • “Just do it.” This was her advice about getting that first manuscript out. “It doesn’t need to be perfect – in fact my first manuscript looked nothing at all like the novel it became. It’s hard work, and you battle a lot of demons but keep going, you can make it better in the second or fiftieth draft but you can’t get there until you’ve done it.”
  • “Commit to the process.” When Lesley is working on a novel and needs to focus, she has been known to go incommunicado for three months at a time, and hauling herself off to the desert to write. While she knows that this isn’t possible for everyone, the lesson is the same – minimise as many distractions as you can, it may mean sacrificing the TV, getting up an hour earlier or going to bed an hour later, but do what you need to do, to get it done.
  • “Let go of critics.” Lesley says that she tries as much as she can to write what she knows, but there are still times when things go wrong. “I’ve gotten emails saying “you don’t take the number 42 bus to go there,” etc but you just have to keep going, try your best, but don’t let it stop you from doing what you love.
  • “Let yourself grow.” “Your first book may not be your best one, and that’s a good thing – it is much nicer to think that your best work is in front of you and not behind you.” Many people, including Kate Rogan owner of Love Books, has said that Lesley Lokko gets better with each book, which is a great place to be in as a writer. At the same time, there will always be one or more of you books that don’t do as well as the others. The trick is to just keep moving forward. Lesley says that the hardest book she ever wrote was Bitter Chocolate it took her two years to write, but after that it got easier.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening, and I left feeling quite inspired. Even more so when I later found out that her latest book, had an ominous beginning – she lost her entire manuscript in a computer virus and had to start again from scratch, which just makes me think, if Lesley can do that and still finish her book … so can we (remember to back up though people, it’s not fun losing your work!)

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