By Tyler Calder
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s premiere collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, will make you remember what it’s like to read something that’s bigger than yourself. In a year in which reality has felt impossible to escape, this collection of 12 short stories will force you to dance through realism, magical realism, and the fantastic, and stretch the bounds of what you knew to be possible. While far from uplifting, watching Lesley guide these stories through difficult topics like mother-child relationships and female friendships is nothing short of surreal in itself – that’s how we knew we needed to sit down with her for a frank discussion on reading, writing, process, and self-care.
Work + Life
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you become an author and did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
I did not always know this was what I wanted to do, though I have always loved books. I actually thought I’d go to law school (though, in hindsight, I would have hated practicing law).
After I decided I wanted to become an author, there were many years, over a decade, of learning how to write better. That involved schooling, but also a good amount of self-directed learning. Part of getting good at this was acknowledging just how much better I could be and working to close that gap.
For those who haven’t yet read it, why was it important to you to write What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky?
I wanted to write a book that paid homage to all of my literary interests. I read widely across all genres – realistic fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a reflection of the varied works that have captivated me, all filtered though a particular Nigerian experience.
Were you surprised to learn anything about yourself while writing?
Yes, I didn’t realize just how undisciplined I am! I’ve always been a hard worker, but writing requires discipline as well as hard work, as I came to discover. I also discovered that though I’m pessimistic, there’s a streak of hopefulness buried somewhere deep inside.
What did the process of sitting down and writing it look like for you? What advice would you give other aspiring female authors?
The stories came together over a few years and I settled on a process that worked for me. After an idea for a story comes to me, I typically sit on it for some time, whether it’s weeks or months. During that time the story just sort of… brews, and I think about the characters and the plot and work out the kinks in my head. When I’m ready, I write the first draft in one go since I’ve been turning it over in my head for a while. I then edit that draft, tweaking here and there, until it’s done.
My advice to aspiring female authors who might struggle with just what to write about would be to write fearlessly and lean into whatever makes you uncomfortable. If you’re struggling with the quality of your writing, take a break and read, read, read until your eyes crust over. Read books in genres other than what you’re writing.
Read “bad” books, read complicated, difficult books. Read everything. If you’re struggling with process, understand that there is no “right” process to writing, as long as it gets done.
What does self-care mean to you at this moment in your life?
I recently taught myself how to sew, so when I’m feeling overwhelmed, whether it’s the news or by attention to my work, I go and sew a jumpsuit. I find every aspect of this relaxing, from cutting patterns to pinning to the sewing itself. In the past I had a crocheting phase and a beading phase. Something about creating with my hands is soothing and satisfying.
How do you maintain balance when grappling with heavy themes day in and day out?
I tend to work in really intense bursts, so there’s a bit of recovery time between different projects. During that breathing room I tend to read a lot, a mix of work that’s heavy and light. But while in the midst of one of those intense working periods, it’s all or nothing. I step back only when I’m done.
Any self-care advice for writers, authors, and creatives?
Find a creative outlet that is completely untethered from the one you’re pursuing as a career. You need a creative space to retreat to that has no pressure.
Lede photos by Emily Baxter. What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is available now. Subscribe to Season of Stories for installments on the story sent straight to your inbox, starting Tuesday, November 21st. For more interviews with women we admire, go here.