The Rumpus Book Club chats with Julie Iromuanya about her new book Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, writing an unlikeable main character, and worrying about your parents reading your finished book.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I have more of a comment/confession to make. Until I moved to Des Moines 4 years ago, I had no idea that there were as many immigrant communities from African nations in the Midwest as there are. It’s been eye-opening in a good way.
Julie Iromuanya: Actually, that’s something that I had hoped to address with the book.
Amanda: I know people probably ask this all the time, but I’m curious about your personal background and how that informed the story… or if it was more research than personal experience.
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Amanda, I am the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. My family is Igbo. My father earned a scholarship to attend the University of Nebraska and later my mom joined him and also attended UNL. Funnily enough I ended up attending UNL for graduate school. The Nigerian immigrant population has mostly been connected to the university, and as a result many eventually moved on to other places after graduating. When I wrote the book, I was interested in exploring the ways that bonds are created through the kind of isolation that immigrants feel.
Brian S: I saw, thanks to the google, that this was your thesis. Did it change at all between completing your degree and publication?
Julie Iromuanya: The book changed a great deal. One of the biggest changes was the incorporation of Emeka and Gladys who became the counterpoint to Job and Ifi’s relationship. I liked the idea of Emeka and Gladys being their closest friends and greatest competition at the same time.
Amanda: I was captivated by the point of views you used too. You seamlessly transitioned between Job and Ifi and even Victor for a short while without expressly telling the reader with headings who they were going to hear from. I liked that. It was very organic.
Oh wow! I can’t even imagine the story without Emeka and Gladys. Those story lines were so powerful. Good change!
Brian S: One of the things I liked most was the way that Ifi and Job kept the lies going. it was an example of perverse incentives to keep the deception going that was very well done, I thought.
Julie Iromuanya: Thanks, Amanda. I really wanted the book to be about the family and in some instances the characters who had the most to lose or gain in the situations shifted so I needed to shift the point-of-view.
Michelle: Your characters are very well-developed. I’m glad Gladys and Emeka made it into the book!
Amanda: And even Aunty went along with the lies! That was great. I was so nervous about it unraveling when she came to visit. Loved what it said about the situation that she chastised Ifi for thinking of exposing him.
Julie Iromuanya: Brian, yes! This, I think is a really important aspect of the narrative: Job and Ifi both have reasons for sticking with the lie. They both have things that they gain from the deception.
Margo C: I liked Gladys and Emeka too. Can you talk about how you chose the names of the characters? Job is so biblical.
Julie Iromuanya: I liked the idea of doing a kind of flip flop with an Igbo name and an English name so you have Job/Ifi and Emeka/Gladys. Igbos usually have an English (Christian) name and a traditional Igbo name. Job’s name was with me from the start. I liked the idea of a character who has the troubles of the world heaped on his back, but the other characters, their names just sprang up and they seemed to fit. Like a parent, I really sat down and went through the process that Ifi and Job went through to come up with Victor’s name.
Michelle: Have your parents read the book? What was their reaction to the immigrant experience in the book?
Julie Iromuanya: My parents haven’t read the book—although I’ll be reading in Nebraska next week so they’ll have the chance. My parents are avid readers of nonfiction (the newspaper, school books, etc.), but I think in some ways sitting down with a novel would seem like an indulgence to them.
Amanda: Like Ifi with her stack of newspapers contrasted with Cheryl’s stack of novels 🙂
Brian S: I think on the scale from hopeful to terrified, most writers fall on the terrified side when it comes to their parents reading their finished work. Or maybe that’s just me.
Julie Iromuanya: Exactly!
Amanda: How did you decide to construct the timeline of the book—like skipping from Victor’s first birthday all the way to him being 5? I thought that worked well, just wondered how you made that decision and if you tried it differently first.
Elyse: How long did this book take to write? How much of that time was spent thinking and imagining?
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Elyse, I first started writing the book about 15 years ago. It actually started as a character sketch assignment. I ended up doing a character sketch who was basically a composite of a number of bachelor friends of our family. Over the years I continued to return to this character. Eventually Ifi came to me and then I began to see how they could occupy a space together in interesting ways.
Amanda, the timeline was something I played with a bit. I knew that the big milestones were important to cover in the timeline: Victor’s difficult birth and his 5th year the big moments so I had to delve into the action there. I also wanted to represent a shift in the dynamic of Job and Ifi’s relationship. They go from being newlyweds to kind of getting to a stasis in their relationship and that’s when things turn on them once more.
Elyse: Do you have any concerns about your parents potentially reading the book? Do they know it exists?
Julie Iromuanya: I’m a little terrified of my parents reading this book. Especially the opening scene. I’ve given my mom a trigger warning. They might be a little embarrassed. haha!
Elyse: How did you “know” you were finished with the book? Was it difficult to stop or were you just ready to move on as an author?
Brian S: Or are you sure it’s finished even now? 🙂
Amanda: Haha! Yes. Your opening was not meant for parents to read 🙂
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Elyse, I had my beginning and ending fairly early, so I spent a lot of time making the pieces in the middle work. At times it felt like I had pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that I needed to fit together. With a novel you often feel like if you pull the string over here, something will unravel over there.
Elyse: what was your process to locate a publisher? Did you have an agent?
Julie Iromuanya: Elyse, I did have an agent, Lisa Kopel and she was tireless about pitching the book to different publishers. It was a long process that required a couple pauses and some revising, but eventually we landed with Anitra Budd at Coffee House Press and it was perfect. Coffee House is a publisher that is really interested in the story which is something that I value so much of their work.
Brian S: They were excellent to work with from the book club side, too, let me tell you. Very responsive and excited. I want to do more books with them.
Julie Iromuanya: Yay! They’re awesome!
Brian S: What’s the early reception to the book been like? The comments this month were very positive here.
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Brian, I think it’s still too soon. Kirkus gave the book a great review and a few other reviewers. I’m still having those first-book jitters though.
Amanda: Were you worried at all about having an (arguably) unlikable protagonist? This has come up in a couple of my books clubs lately. Some people (not me) feel uneasy with a protagonist who is never redeemed.
And yes! I loved the book. Probably my favorite Rumpus book this year.
Elyse: Do you have a new project in mind or underway? Do you find that you need a rest after such a large effort?
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Amanda, Thank you! Job being unlikeable was an area that a lot of initial readers had trouble with, but I didn’t think it would be truthful for me to try to paint him in an overly nice way. He’s a character full of contradictions. He is someone who has a great deal of pride and he believes he can overcome every obstacle, to his detriment at times. But I hope that as you read on you understand that his armor is also what has protected him in an increasingly hostile landscape.
Elyse, I do have a second book under way. I’m actually working on the third revision right now. I tend to work in frantic spurts with breaks where I recharge and rethink the characters and the storyline in major ways. I’m looking forward to spending the summer working on some more revisions.
Amanda: I thought his character was incredible. I wanted to hate him but I just couldn’t. I’m pretty sure that means you did your job in writing him 🙂
Julie Iromuanya: Thanks, Amanda. I wanted to hate him too at times. When I constructed Job I thought it’d be interesting to play his character against some stereotypes of Nigerians. Most Nigerians that I know are very invested in education, very proud, very family oriented, etc. I thought it’d be interesting to make Job a character whose lies are folded into the broader “truths” associated with Nigerians. In some ways it’s what forces him to keep up with the deception.
Brian S: Are you still in Nebraska? I swear, I haven’t figured out Midwest summers yet.
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Brian, I’m in Chicago. I’ll be in Nebraska soon though! And yes, they’ve been getting summer-like weather for weeks, while we keep oscillating between cold rainy days and sunny days.
Michelle: Of all the books I’ve read the last few months your characters had the most depth and were individuals. Unique to themselves. I really thought the writing was excellent. Even though Job was complex and hard to like.
Julie Iromuanya: Thanks, Michelle. I think I had a clear idea of who the characters were and the ways they were similar and unlike one another early on so for me it was often a matter of finding compelling situations where they had to be together. Job and Emeka in particular are two guys who are so different and contrary but because of their circumstances they often need one another.
Brian S: Do you mind giving us a sneak preview of the project you’re working on at present?
Julie Iromuanya: Brian, I’m superstitious so I tend to keep the latest project under wraps. It’s also undergoing a major change right now so it’s too much of a mess to really describe well. I will say that the book is dealing with Nigerian immigrants once more, but I’m trying to incorporate the story of the children of immigrants a bit more.
Brian S: Completely understandable. My wife won’t even mention things she’s working on to me until they’ve reached a certain level of done-ness.
Julie Iromuanya: Exactly! Right now I’m looking at scenes and asking myself, What was I thinking?
Brian: Are there plans for a book tour at all? Readings? Like in Iowa maybe? 🙂
Ryan: Hopefully Colorado!
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Brian, the book tour is coming together in pieces. I’m doing a few readings in Chicago and a reading in Lincoln and Omaha. I also have some plans to read on the East Coast. I’m always eager to visit new places!
Brian S: I mean, Iowa is between Chicago and Nebraska, and Colorado is just a little further.
Julie Iromuanya: I’ll go to Iowa if they’ll have me 🙂
Brian S: We don’t have nearly enough readings in Des Moines. Iowa City gets all the good ones, and that’s a hard trip now with my babies.
Who have you been reading lately? Anyone we should be on the lookout for?
Julie Iromuanya: Right now the writers I talk a lot about are Bernardine Evaristo and Marlon James. I’ve been telling everyone about Evaristo’s Blonde Roots and James’s The Book of Night Women, and now that my friends are finally starting to read those books, both authors have released new novels which I’m looking forward to reading.
Brian S: I’ve not heard of either of those books. I’ll have to check them out. Hopefully I’ll get to read more this summer.
Margo C: To pivot to another topic, how are the political/terrorist events unfolding in Nigeria impacting your writing? Reading your book & Adichie‘s latest, it is possible to relate to the characters and being in the US and at the same time being far from home. What is hard for me is understanding context in Nigeria—can you comment?
Julie Iromuanya: Hi Margo, the events in Nigeria have definitely been on my mind, particularly the missing Chibok girls. I follow the news quite closely hoping to hear about their safe recovering. Being someone born in the diaspora I continue to grapple with my role as a Nigerian American. I’ve begun to think a lot about how the particular critical moments in Nigeria’s history have prepared us for this moment. It’s something I’d like to explore in my writing.
Margo C: Thank you for the book and taking the time to share your insights.
Julie Iromuanya: Thanks for reading it, Margo, and for asking such a great question.
Brian S: Will you be posting book tour info on your website? And are you on social media at all?
Ryan: Beautiful book! Will be spreading the word. Thanks for chatting with us!
Julie Iromuanya: Yes, book tour info is on my website. It will be updated as events are lined up.
Amanda: Thank you so much Julie! I really enjoyed your novel and will keep watch for what you give us next 🙂 I also appreciate how great this discussion was—thank you for indulging us.
Michelle: Yes thank you! Fiction is such a great medium for enlarging my world view!
Brian S: Excellent. Thanks for joining us and for writing such an incredible book!