Author Tade Thompson On The 'Frankenstein of Influences' That Helped Create His Buzzy Sci-fi Debut 'Rosewater'
Two years after he published his second novel, the talented author is seeing his complex Nigeria-set work get new life. He shares what it all means with editor Sam Pagan.
October 9, 2018
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
SP: Hi, this is Audible editor, Sam Pagan. And I’m very excited to be here today speaking with Tade Thompson, author of the sci-fi novel Rosewater, which just released on Audible. Thanks for joining me, Tade.
TT: Thanks, Sam. Glad to be here.
SP: So just jumping right in, you first published Rosewater in 2016 and in the last two years it’s just really blown up among critics and readers and listeners alike, leading to the rerelease. What was it like to see your work grow in this way?
TT: It was very rewarding, I would say. Well, I suppose when, when anybody writes anything, they think it’s the best thing they’ve ever written, I suppose.
TT: When I was writing it, I was, I know that. Okay. What I was thinking is, I’m going to put all my efforts into this and if nobody likes this, then it means that I cannot write. So I did that and that I sent it into the world. Then, you know, people started to like it so that felt very good. That felt very rewarding and it made me think, okay, good, then don’t quit just yet. You might have something.
SP: No pressure, no pressure.
SP: So Rosewater is an alien invasion story that’s set in a near-future Nigeria, but honestly that’s just barely scratching the surface of all the things going on in this novel. So I’d love to hear in your own words what the story is about.
TT: This book in particular is actually about Kaaro. It’s about his relationship to the alien, his relationship to the invasion and what happened and how it affects his life in particular, how it causes an arc from him being careless youth to a more considered older person. And it’s in my mind what I thought it would be, it’s a stealth character-driven story. So it’s a stealth character-driven story masquerading as a plot-driven story. I really wanted to explore the life of Kaaro. That’s what it is. Everything else grew around that. Of course. I also wanted to explore ideas of, well, what, uh, what does it mean to have privacy in your own mind? How would someone know your thoughts? What would happen to make that possible and what are the consequences of that?
And so, of course, extrapolating all of that is what led to the rest of the book. If you had such abilities, what would you do with them? Would you do if given those abilities as a child or as a young person? Would you be able to have the moral fortitude to decide I will do good and fight crime with my powers? Or would you use it for personal benefit? That sort of thing. I feel like if people had such abilities, unless you have a very good guiding person as a child, it’s more likely that you will veer towards abusing the power.
SP: Right. Well, that’s really interesting that you mentioned it as a character driven story because I found that the character of Kaaro is really what kind of centered me through this whole story where there’s so much going on. Could you talk a little bit more about your process of developing that character and whether we’ll see more of him and upcoming works?
TT: All right. Well, the second question first—you will see more of him.
TT: But not as much. I mean, he is going to feature, but he’s not going to be centered, let’s put it that way. In terms of how he was developed or how I developed him, is basically a lot of people that I once knew. The thief part of him is because of a criminal I once knew. someone I met when I was younger, who told me of his experiences of stealing, of being caught, his mother disowning him, him running away, almost dying when a mob decided to catch him. All of that was stuff that happened to him. And younger Kaaro mostly is this guy, because again, he told me that he didn’t need to steal, but he just did it to get luxuries. They weren’t rich, but they were kind of what I would say is working class so that he didn’t need to steal to survive, but he just did because he wanted luxuries. And that’s where Kaaro came from as an idea. I layered on other things as you know, as, as I went along thoughts about, okay, what does it mean to grow older if you had disability? Other people that I’ve known, one of my university lecturers. Bits and pieces of people here and there, but all of it was built around the core of that gentleman who was a thief serving time.
SP: Wow. That’s really interesting. You get that sense listening to the story that, that there’s a lot of thought that went into this character and, and, and again, it really kind of, the character really centered me throughout the whole novel. So that’s really interesting to hear. But in addition to a Kaaro’s psychic abilities, there’s so much going on in this novel. There’s a whole mystery. There’s an alien invasion. There are these Zombie-like reanimates. I can honestly say that I’ve never read or listened to a Scifi novel quite like this. So I just have to know what, what works influence you as a writer?
TT: Oh God, everything. I read everything. I think that that’s part of why it looks like it seems itself as some kind of Frankenstein. It’s a Frankenstein of influences. So old, old, 1950s science fiction films, Shakespeare, The Andromeda Strain, that film from the seventies. I read a lot of classics. I read a lot of detective novels, lots of Chandler, lots of Mickey Spillane. Lots of biographies of very strange people. Da Vinci, people like that because there are very strange details in their life stories that make for good writing. And I wanted to do that. Comic books, Jack Kirby’s work. Alan Moore. There’s just so much…bits of Sherlock Holmes.s Bits and pieces of, you know, Mark Twain. Everything because there’s nothing that I don’t read. I mean I read Barbara Cartland for goodness sake, you know. Barbara Cartland the romance writer. So I pretty much read anything. I read anything and that’s probably how it came out the way it is.
SP: I love that.
TT: So kind of mix all of that up and put my background under it and it comes out as Rosewater.
SP: That’s great. I was saying I love that phrase, a Frankenstein of influences. I may have to steal that. You really do get the sense that you’ve had this whole Pantheon of influences while listening to it. So thanks for explaining. One other genre that I picked up in this, which you’ve also done some writing in, is horror. I really feel like horror is kind of having a moment right now, in books and film and television. And I definitely got that sense while listening to Rosewater. What do you like about writing in that particular genre?
TT: So I think that this goes back to, I guess the moment that I thought I could write novels. I remember the very moment. I had just finished reading a Stephen King book. It was called, I think it was Dead Zone. When I finished reading the Dead Zone, I then told myself, well, hang on, I could write this. Not that I have the skill, but I could work towards being able to write something like this because this is the kind of idea that I like, written in a way that I enjoyed reading. That I found effortless to read. So the idea is not the problem, it’s just getting the scale of how to write something that is effortless to read. I read a lot from that point on. I read a lot of Stephen King, a lot of Thomas Ligotti, a lot of Clive Barker.
I read the entire Books of Blood [series]. I read all of that. And what I realized is horror itself did not attract me per se, as a genre. When I’m writing anything, I don’t actually think of a genre. I just start to write something I need to. I let it go wherever it wants to go. And sometimes it turns out to be horror. And yes, I have written horror books and I will write more horror books. And there’s a particular point in Rosewater I’d probably say just think about the meat Temple, which hearkens to my horror roots and there’s another incident in there which I don’t want to spoil for people who might be listening who might not have listened to it. But if you think about science fiction, particularly in film and, and you think about one of the most striking science fiction films, it is Alien. And Alien is a horror film that happens to be in space.
Alien is a monster film. And the main feeling throughout… the tightening of dread that occurs throughout the film—I’m talking about the first film now— is one of horror. One of, hang on, what the hell is going on here? I am afraid here. Right? And that is the primary thing I took away from it and I was under-age when I watched it. But I could not imagine anything more scary than that. It affected me in such a primal way. And I’ve always tried to get that feeling back. If I’m trying to write something that I think should be scary, to be able to evoke that feeling in a reader is something that I look forward to being able to do. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to do it, but it’s something I’m going to aspire to. Let’s put it that way.
SP: Right. I mean, I think that’s interesting. There really is a trend right now towards blurring the lines between genres with great results. We’re reading and listening to a lot of really interesting books that kind of meld multiple genres these days. And I think we can all sympathize with watching a frightening movie too young and that affecting us for the rest of our lives. I wanted to dig a little bit more into the idea of genre fiction kind of as a vehicle for exploring themes in the real world. As many astute listeners and readers have noted there are allusions to neocolonialism in Rosewateramong other themes. Can you touch on some of the themes you were hoping to tackle in the book?
TT: So I did not set out to tackle any themes at all. I have to say that from the get-go. There was never any idea that, okay, this is going to be a book, but it’s going to be a message woven through it. That was never the situation. However, you can’t make art without your beliefs getting into the art. Otherwise you’d be censoring yourself. So the idea is that if you’re producing any kind of art you don’t believe are going to bleed into it. And when it comes to things like colonialism and neocolonialism, I have a rage. Anybody whose ancestors have had to go through that, we’ll have that rage. And there is no way that that rage isn’t going to bleed into my work. I think that I was on the second draft before I realized that pretty much the entire novel could be seen as a metaphor for neocolonialism. That all of it could be.
I was surprised, but I’m quite opinionated so I was surprised that it was there because I didn’t intend for it to be there. But when I noticed it was there, I wasn’t that surprised. It was more like, yes, these are parts of my beliefs that are in the work. Aliens, when we think them, are people who are technologically advanced and somehow arriving on our shores from places that we can’t generally imagine most of the time. And that was what it’s like. If you think about being on an African coast in the 1600s and a ship arrives and you’ve been kicking around with a canoe and all of a sudden you see a ship like a tea clipper turns up with sails and everything. People just turn up and then they even have guns. And you may have primitive guns of your own, but you know, we’re talking about an Enfield here. We’re talking about, you know, guns that made the British empire and we’re talking about red coats. You know, pretty much the most feared army in the world. So imagine seeing them. That is what alien contact must feel like, if there were any aliens. If a flying saucer arrives that is the same kind of fear. That, okay, what the hell is this and where can I hide? If we fight them and our bullets just bounce off the flying saucers or they have force fields, then we’re done because that’s the extent of our weaponry.
So to my mind, those are the kind of parallels that can be drawn from the book to reality. To the thing that I believe, and to how such things need to be dealt with. Because again, when it comes to the colonialism of the mind, when people begin to think that, okay, things from other cultures are better than your own culture, the only way to fight that kind of thing is to be aware of it. Once you’re aware of it, then you are then able to say, okay, fine, look, this is an interesting culture. I can take what I want from it or I can leave it and just live our own way. It’s a dialectic. It’s something that will continue to happen and it needs to continue to be explored.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find it in my work. The other thing as well was one of the things I was trying to explore was the nature of thinking. So I think prior to writing this anytime I’d see anything like telepathy in a book, people’s thoughts would just roll out like a tape, you know, like a video. Like okay, I can read your mind and therefore everything will be there in order so I can find the information I want. But that’s actually not how people think. And that’s not how people file away information. So you even if you had the ability to read someone’s mind, he doesn’t mean you will know what they’re thinking. Oh, you’ll be able to just drag out information because there’s some stuff, for example, that you know, that you’re not thinking of right now that you don’t even remember that you know it, for example. And if you don’t even remember that you know it, it’s not going to be on the surface of your thoughts. So if a telepath was trying to find that information out, they’re not going to see it. Unless something could be done to trigger the memory in you so that it comes to the surface. It’s something about the nature of thought. I wasn’t satisfied with how the nature of thought was being depicted in science fiction, so I wanted a bit more complexity around “this is how to read someone’s mind,” if you would ever be able to read someone’s mind.
SP: Right. That’s really interesting and very true. Most people’s thoughts are not very linear. I’m including mine.
TT: I can imagine someone trying to get into my head. It would be a complete mess.
SP: Right. So getting into the setting a little bit. The story is set in Nigeria. I’ve read that you, yourself have your Yoruba parents. Can you talk, can you talk a little bit about your decision to set the novel there?
TT: Well, for me that was it. Well, it was a no-brainer. Now, from what I can see from having read in the science fiction genre a lot, the invasion of North America and the invasion of the United Kingdom has been done to death, right? If you look at the works that are available and lots of them will occur in that, in that kind of world. So my question obviously is, okay, well what if I’m going to write the narrative like this? What can I bring that’s new? And of course you have to, if you’re writing something, even when you’re right, especially when you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you have to root it in something that seems honest. Now it might be made up, it might be something from your imagination, but it must be honest.
And the honesty of it is you have to be writing about a place you believe. Even if you’re writing about Narnia, you, the writer first have to believe and then write it. If you don’t believe what you’re writing, the reader is not going to believe it because the reader is not stupid. They can tell when you’re just winging it or when you’re just kind of coasting. But if you believe what you’re writing… the reason that I said Narnia a few seconds ago is because when writing Narnia was written from a perspective of I know this place exists, not that I am making up this place called Narnia, but no, I know this place existed. So when you read the books, you believe that as well. Similar thing where if you read Harry Potter, the reader can tell if the writer is being honest about the place they’re writing about.
Now, I know Nigeria. I know Nigeria, I know Nigerians. And I knew that. Okay, I could set it in Nigeria. I could make the imaginary city of Rosewater itself, but I could set it in Nigeria and that would be a place that I could believe in. And the reactions to the alien could be reactions that I believe in rather than the programs responses which I’ve been, which reading literature has made me have. You know, the idea that okay, here are the aliens. Here they are in their space ships, they’ve arrived, horror, horror, horror, shock, run, run, run. They destroyed a couple of landmarks, Big Ben gets destroyed, the White House gets destroyed, blah, blah, blah. Oh no, what are we going to do? And then let’s get the F-14s out and blah, blah, blah, that doesn’t work and find a way to kill them somehow. Right? Then yeah, everything.
Everything’s done. Let’s go back to the status quo. That’s not what I wanted to do. First of all, do away with spaceships or anything like that because thinking it from my perspective, this is what I thought. It takes lots of to travel in between stars and for you to decide to do that, you have to have a really, really strong reason because the energy expenditure of invading the earth is not minor. Interstellar travel costs energy, it costs lives as in because people would die on the way there, but you know, you’d need a generation ship wherever these people are coming from because we know they’re not coming from the moon and then not coming from Mars. So they’re going to be coming from outside the solar system. This will not be an easy undertaking.
They have to have a strong reason and it’s not going to be about Helen of Troy. I don’t care how good looking Helen of Troy, what they’re not going to come from another galaxy. The fight because of Helen of Troy, right? So they had to be a reason that I found plausible and they have to be a method of getting here, but I would find plausible and I didn’t know at the time I was thinking of this, I wasn’t interested in this space just because I thought, no, they’re not going to do that. You know? So that’s why I thought of it in that sense. And that’s how I can move with that. Okay. I will use an imaginary city in Nigeria. One of the strong reasons, and nobody actually asked me this before, what we, as in why did I use any imaginary city. The problem is my is very political. If you, if you write a book about Nigeria, I lot of Nigerians can rise up against you if you put the wrong kind of factions in the negative light in some kind of negative light, so you’d have to please a lot of different factions to be able to set such a story in a particular city and a named known city in Nigeria. So to have is to avoid all of that that I actually sets in an imaginary city.
SP: That’s really interesting. I wanted to touch a little bit on the narration and the actual listening experience of this novel. The narrator, Bayo Gbadamosi is actually a new narrator for us, which is always very exciting. And he’s actually listed as speaking Yoruba. I wonder, have you heard his performance yet? And what do you think is important about adapting this story to the audio format?
TT: All right. I haven’t heard it yet. I heard a sample when we were in the selection process. They sent me the sample and I said, yes, this is the guy. I said, definitely this is the guy. He’s basically sounds like Kaaro sounds in my head. So he is definitely the right person to be doing the reading. So hehe sounds like this he’s educated, but you can still hear the accent underneath, underneath his English, you can hear that he’s not a native English speaker the way he performed it. And his voice had this timber, this pleasing sound that almost lulls you. I hope readers or listeners didn’t fall asleep because I found it slightly hypnotic. I’m serious.
SP: That’s great. Yeah. It sounds like a really good pairing and then. And I listened to it and I thought his performance was spectacular, so I’m glad to hear that it’s author approved.
SP: Going a little bit deeper into the authenticity of a character’s voice and particularly accents. I think it’s such an important part of the listening experience. Are there any other performances, either audio books, podcasts, or any other kind of spoken word performance that has given you that strong of a reaction?
TT: There’s a recording of Fear and loathing in Las Vegaswhich was narrated by, I think it’s Ron Mclarty, I’m not sure. But for me that is always the voice in which I will hear anything from Hunter S. Thompson since I heard that particular performance, for example. I think he just gets it. He gets the story and he embodied it completely. It was great. I think I must have listened to it about three or four times, you know, whenever I went on a road trip. That really stands out in my mind.
SP: That’s great. I feel like that’s always the mark of a great performance, is if you’re willing to listen to it again.
TT: Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely.
SP: So getting back to the novel, Rosewater was the winner of the 2017 Nommo award, which is Africa’s first award for speculative fiction. And you’ve been nominated this year again for your novella [The Survival of Molly Southbourne]. What does that kind of recognition mean to you?
TT: For me it’s very important. You know, they’re always asking us a question like, who are you writing for? Who is your ideal reader? That sort of thing. I think that to know that after, people in the society in the African speculative fiction, listen to it, read it, and voted against the other quite worthy books and came up with, with my book… It’s very, it’s very validating for several reasons. One is that, you know, if you remember what I said about honesty, a lot of them know what it’s like to live in Africa and I’ve set the book in Africa so they can tell if it’s fake. If I’ve tried to bluff anything over or if this is the details in there that they could recognize, especially since the temptation when you have a futuristic narrative is to smooth over the rough edges and try to make things either very horrible or utopian, and I didn’t really do that at all.
I just made the story into whatever I wanted it to be. So the fact that they could find it authentic for me, that is, that is really rewarding. I wasn’t actually, I wasn’t too concerned about how say people in America, people in the UK how they thought the world was, because again, it’s a world that they’re not familiar with. Most of them are not familiar with, so they probably wouldn’t be able to tell if a detail is authentic or not, but it was very important to me that, okay, people who live in Africa, or are from Africa to it and instead it’s authentic and it’s a life that I had actually lived in myself. It’s also brought them to me because it’s the very first one, so there’s always going to be that conversation. Okay. Well, they in the history of the awards, you know, they always go back to, okay, well this was the first time it was done and these were the first winners and so on. So anytime anybody needs to write an academic article about it, they will have to reference my book.
TT: You know, which is, which is the tiny bit of history. But you know, I’m not complaining.
SP: Yeah. That’s got to be a surreal experience.
TT: Well, yes and again, I’m part of the society myself. One of the things that when we were trying to set up the award, for example, it was so hard to decide on the definition of an African for example. It took ages. The conversation to decide on what it meant to be an African alone I think was 300 messages.
TT: It would seem like a simple thing, but when you start asking the questions it gets a lot more complicated, you know? So I’m kind of proud that we came to a definition that we could work with. We worked all the way through it, we did the voting and everything. We came with the name of it because the Nommo itself they’re spirits that are both male and female. They’re like gender will bi-gendered mermaids. So they’re both male and female and their water spirits, the Nommo. That’s what the Nommo itself means.
TT: It’s something I’ll be really proud of.
SP: Oh, that’s great. And that kind of brings me into my last question, which is, there’ve been so many stories lately, particularly I feel in the realm of genre fiction that have been set in non-Western locations and that have non-Western influences, which is really exciting for us to see because honestly that hasn’t always been the case. Can you talk a little bit more about what it’s been like to be part of that evolution?
TT: Alright. So part of it depends on the world you inhabit. Now. These stories have always been, they’ve always been there, they’ve been going on for quite a while. And what you’ll find is that when you belong to a group that is marginalized, you will seek out these things. And to me, it isn’t new because again, I’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in marginalized fiction, so to speak. What’s new, I think, is that large portions of the reading public are now more interested, right? Which means there is a market for them. Which means that they can then be publicized and bigger publishers can get interested in them. And matter of fact, in small press, this had already been happening. What I’m trying to say is that to me it’s not actually new right now. How I feel about the prominence is possibly ambivalence, you know? I’m happy because again, it means that a lot of people will get a lot more stories out there. A lot of the writers will do well. They’ll do better than they used to do. Stories in all kinds of genres will become a lot more interesting because you’re going to get an injection of unfamiliar but interesting aspects that you hadn’t been before.
SP: Right. It’s more about the elevation of these necessary works.
TT: Yes. So I like all of that to me and I’m saying, well, what took you guys so long? You know, part of me is like, well, yes, of course they’d been there, all this time. Why are you just noticing, you know, but it’s good. It’s good because it means that people will get to read all kinds of work. And that is also good for the next generation of the kids who are reading it because they will then realize that, hang on, if this can be published, it means I can write whatever I want. And it’s very important that people be allowed to write whatever they want as opposed to thinking as a narrow definition of what can or cannot be viable for publication.
SP: Well, great. Thank you for explaining that. I think it’s super important, and I hope we get to hear more from you. I’m very much looking forward to the next book as well. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. Tade Thompson. I’m have a great day and, um, I look forward to seeing our listener’s reaction to Rosewater.
TT: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
SP: Thanks. Bye Bye.
TT: Alright, bye.