This is the second in a series of three posts in which debut authors Leye Adenle, Jowhor Ile and Julie Iromuanya interview each other on their first books. Here Leye Adenle and Julie Iromuanya discuss Julie’s first novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor which asks: what happens when you come to America and don’t make it? For years, Job, a Nigerian immigrant and college dropout, deceives his family with a lie—that he is a doctor.
Leye: I found myself drawn into the dysfunctional worlds of Ifi and Job, even though the journey left me emotionally drained each time I plunged into their lives. Even with the additional cast of Gladys and Emeka, there are no particularly likable characters in this novel, just flawed, troubled, tragic, senile everyday people, yet the story works brilliantly. Was this deliberate?
Julie: Yes, it was deliberate in the sense that I find completely likeable characters to be thoroughly unlikable and, frankly, boring. But also, as a writer I’m much more compelled by what drives characters and what code of ethics they rely on to shape their motivations and actions. What can be redeeming about characters is seeing the broader picture and understanding why they do what they do. To that end, I’m much less inclined to read for the sake of the ways that I identify with characters. As a reader (and as a writer) I’d much rather be in someone else’s head and someone else’s world instead of mine.
Leye: In the acknowledgments you mention the character sketch assignment that led to the creation of Job. This makes me wonder which came first: the character or the story?
Julie: A little bit of both, I suppose. Job came to me and what I knew about him was that he was a man who had convinced everyone back home in Nigeria that he was a successful doctor in America, while he lived in squalor in America. That kind of thorough deception interested me. How could one pull it off? What might be his reasons for such a deliberate ruse? For someone to live that lie so completely there had to be deeper and deeper aspects of his psyche to disentangle.
Leye: You describe the locations so vividly, including the inner workings of a care home and even a meat processing facility. How much research did you have to do for the book? Did the research influence the story?
Julie: I did research here and there for the novel. For scenes like the meat processing facility, I did a close kind of research that focused on the meatpacking industry broadly speaking, and particularly, in Nebraska. I looked at videos, read articles, first-hand accounts, and studies to learn about the tools they worked with, the conditions, and the grueling nature of the work. I also grew up in Nebraska and I know many people who have worked in the industry or are children of workers. The broader research I did, as part of my PhD, was more focused on the ways that the African immigrants who came after the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act were politically and socially oriented. What does it mean for someone to choose not to assimilate? What might be their reasons for doing so? How would that result in conflict? What does that mean broadly in terms of race, literature, and the histories of violence in America.
Leye: Why this story?
Julie: This is the story that came to me. Not right away, though. For a long time, I thought I was working on a short story about Job. But then Ifi came along, and I realized that when I had them in the same room interesting things happened. Even then, I still didn’t know it was a novel until I realized that the questions my early readers had couldn’t be answered without having a bigger picture of who the characters were and how they had come to inhabit the same space.
Leye: I found the ending quite unexpected. When you started writing the book did you know this was how the story would end?
Julie: Yes, and no. I had the ending fairly early on and I wrote toward it, but at the same time, I left myself open to the possibility that it might end differently. However, as I continued to write and as the story continued to grow, I felt more and more certain that the story needed to go there. It is a difficult ending for some readers, but it best represents the truth of Job and Ifi’s journey.
Leye: Job and Ifi, and Gladys and Emeka work as homo fictus, but would they be recognized by Nigerians living in America?
Julie: I would hope so. Most of the Nigerians I know have ambitious dreams like my characters. They do it all. They are raising families while pursuing various degrees, working blue collar or white collar positions, with one hand in Nigeria, through a side business or some such venture. But as I wrote, I thought it would be interesting to explore the “darker” side of this positive trait. What kinds of problems exist when characters are willing to do anything in order to attain their dreams? What happens if their dreams are opposed by their realities?
Leye: Who is the audience you had in mind when you wrote Mr. and Mrs. Doctor?
Julie: Maybe the audience I had in mind was people like me. When I was growing up, there were no African immigrant narratives—I can’t think of a single one (!)—even though I had read wonderful ones by Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, and others. And, as Toni Morrison has famously said, if there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
Leye: Writers talk about missing their characters after the last chapter is done? Which of the characters do you miss the most and why?
Julie: I miss little Victor. I think we all give off a particular kind of energy when we enter any space. Victor possesses an energy that I had the pleasure of harnessing for a short time and so I found such delight in writing his character.
Leye: If you alone could set (or invent) the genre of your book, what would it be?
Julie: My genre occupies the intersection between African and African American literature, between the history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa, between the traditional and the modern.
Leye: What is your writing routine?
Julie: I’m an assistant professor and I teach writing and literature, so I write on my non-teaching days unless I’m completely consumed by a project. I also write intensely during the summers so I can see the whole manuscript draft, and then I spend the academic year revising and editing smaller chunks.
Leye: Are you working on another book?
Julie: Yes, I am. I generally don’t say a lot about projects as I’m developing them.
Leye: What question are you asked the most (about your book) and what is your answer?
Julie: I’m often asked some variation of whether or not the story is autobiographical. My parents are not in an arranged marriage, neither am I. They’re not doctors, neither am I, although I have a PhD. and we have physicians in the extended family. I think reading fiction solely through the lens of autobiography is a lazy and superficial way of reading. It also robs writers of their imagination. That said, I also believe that stories are shaped by our wisdom, our experiences, our worldview, and what we’ve encountered, so I suspect—I know—that my first novel would have been an entirely different one if I had written it today.
Leye: What questions do you wish interviewers would ask?
Julie: I wish interviewers would ask a little bit more about Emeka and Gladys. They have such a complicated kind of love.
Julie Iromuanya is an assistant professor in fiction at the University of Arizona. She was the inaugural Herbert W. Martin Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Dayton, a Jane Tinkham Broughton Fellow in Fiction at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her first novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (published by Coffee House Press) was a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award and the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and longlisted for the 2015 National Book Critics’ Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction.
Leye Adenle is an actor and a writer. Easy Motion Tourist (published by Cassava Republic) is his first novel and won the 2016 Prix Marianne. He will read from and discuss his book at the 2016 Ake Arts & Book Festival on November 17. Follow him on Twitter @LeyeAdenle.
- Read Julie Iromuanya’s interview with Jowhor Ile on his debut novel And After Many Days
- Read Jowhor Ile’s interview with Leye Adenle on his debut novel Easy Motion Tourist