I had the good fortune of meeting Julie Iromuanya several years ago when we were both teaching at the Cherry Tree Young Writers Conference, hosted by Washington College, in Maryland. I was teaching creative nonfiction; she, fiction. We ate meals together, spoke on craft panels together, and listened as our students read at open mic night. In 2019, we were reunited, pre-pandemic, at the same conference. We got to know each other a little better, and I asked her a few more of my admittedly ubiquitous questions.
Iromuanya’s 2015 novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the runner-up for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, and longlisted for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction. Her long-awaited follow-up novel, A Season of Light, is currently in the works, as we talk about in this interview. In addition to writing, Iromuanya is an assistant professor of English (Creative Writing and Africana Literature) and the director of undergraduate studies for the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. She is also part of the affiliate faculty at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.
Now, in 2021, I’m getting to know Julie even better. We spoke about her coming-of-age as a writer; the evolution of her identity, as novelist and professor; and the ways these twin vocations have shaped the life she lives now.
The Rumpus: When did you first begin to realize that you were a writer? Was there a particular book or experience or assignment that fueled this realization? Did you make early declarations like, “I’m going to be a writer when I grow up?”
Julie Iromuanya: My earliest memories of thinking of myself as a writer begin around age eight. It just occurred to me that it was also the year I got my first pair of glasses. Before that, my dad worried my eyes would grow lazy and dependent on glasses, but that year my mom finally took me in for my first pair. There was no lightning bolt moment or epiphany of my future vocation; I just became a voracious reader. I read children’s books, my parents’ college textbooks; I read Richard Wright’s Native Son and sat in disbelief at the enormity of the world.
I remember a particular time in third grade, when I was so engrossed in a book during quiet reading time, that the whole world completely vanished. When I looked up, everyone was back in their seats. Ms. Cederholm was in the middle of the lesson. I scrambled back to my seat in terror, but I didn’t get in trouble! In fact, she didn’t even mention it. Later, I realized she just decided to leave me alone with my book.
At that age, I also had my own home office in our dining room. With my own typewriter and my father’s dictionary and encyclopedia set surrounding me, I felt like a real writer. So much so that I sent off a manuscript to publishers that year. Since The Baby-Sitters Club series were my favorite books, I used the address on the copyright page for one of the submissions. I remember asking my mom what I should write in my query letter. She encouraged me to tell them about myself. So, I told them my age and that I was in third grade. I told them the name of my school, and I listed off all my siblings and their ages. Then I told them about my story.
Now that I think about it, I don’t even remember what the story was about—probably monsters with lots of slimy green ooze because that was what I was really interested in that year—but I do remember that of the two queries I sent out, only one got a response. It was a perfectly respectable rejection letter, notifying me that they were “not accepting unsolicited submissions at this time.” I couldn’t be sure if my manuscript was really unsolicited, so I had to look it up in the dictionary.
The funny thing is, when I tell this story, people are usually crushed by how it ends. Beyond a fleeting sense of disappointment, I don’t really remember it affecting me. What was written in the letter was probably overshadowed by the fact that I even got a letter—an official-looking one at that—addressed to me, not my parents. Regardless of whatever I felt at that moment, it didn’t stop me from writing.
Rumpus: Did this early experience foreshadow later experiences, possibly sending out your first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor? How did you know when you were ready to begin the querying/submission process for this book?
Iromuanya: I was really lucky with the querying process. An excerpt of my novel was published in the Kenyon Review. Fortunately, that drew the attention of a few literary agencies. I had written a draft of the novel for my creative dissertation, but I was right in the middle of a rewrite, so it was a race to finish revisions as more excerpts were requested by the agencies.
The publication process required some stamina. With the first book, you’re just so impatient to get it out in the world—to be able to have proof that you really are a writer. I haven’t been disappointed by rejection, but I just accept it as part of the process of getting your work out there. I don’t think I’ve ever expected anything meaningful to be easy. I wonder if that’s what I drew from my early query/publishing experience.
I find it helpful to read and listen to writers talk about their writing practice and publishing experiences. Recently, I saw an interview with Isabel Allende, where she talks about the significance of publishing her second novel. She says that with your first book, everything you have and everything you are goes into that book. The second book is the real creative challenge. This idea has stayed with me. It seems fortuitous to have received the message at just this moment because that’s where I am right now with writing my second novel.
Rumpus: What was it that made you want to tell the story of your first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor? How did that book come into being from a creative standpoint? Do you find that completing your first book, even apart from getting it published, primed you in some ways for the contents and/or the formal structures of the second book? What do you see as the relationship between your two novels, the one that lives in the world now and the one that someday will?
Iromuanya: It took a long time before I recognized that Mr. and Mrs. Doctor was a novel. It really started out as a quirky character sketch about a bachelor family friend I had encountered growing up. This is someone who has a strong sense of his Nigerian identity, even while he inhabits a world that is not Nigeria. Out of this dichotomy, clashes emerge between a sense of pride in the face of the everyday indignities of life as an immigrant, both small and large. For example, when I was growing up, whenever there was an important phone call or meeting, my mom would always drag me along. Not because I, a precocious ten-year-old, knew something she didn’t, but simply because whatever message she had to convey would be received correctly if it came from an unaccented tongue. My mother is practical. Job Ogbonnaya is not. His wife, Ifi, entered the picture later in my drafting process. When she did, it was really a way to create an embodiment of the “real” Nigeria, a face-to-face encounter not colored by Job’s nostalgia.
When I was writing Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, there was one particular scene about Job’s backstory early in the novel that invited this second project. At the root of Job’s deception—that he is a successful doctor in America—is the notion that in inheriting the role of “okpara,” first son, after his older brother’s death during the Nigerian Civil War, Job, in a way, spends his whole life dressed in an ill-fitting costume. In a sense, the war never ended for his family, and he bears the weight of it. When I started working on my current novel manuscript, A Season of Light, the notion that the war never truly ended became the basis of exploring the resultant traumas passed down intergenerationally.
Rumpus: What are some of the creative challenges that arise in writing a second book—a second novel—that distinguish themselves from the challenge of the first book?
I’m also wondering about the novel as long-form fiction and its appeal to you. Have you always favored novels as a reader? How would you characterize your relationship with short stories and flash fiction, even micro-fiction, as a reader, writer, and teacher?
Iromuanya: I really do believe writing every new novel is an education. Each time, you have to learn, all over again, how to write in response to the unique problems that come up in the drafting process. With Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, my main challenges were about faithfully mapping the development of Job and Ifi across the span of the novel and creating moments that force them to make choices, act, and face themselves.
For A Season of Light, the structure and point of view came to me later in the drafting process. I began with a single perspective, but now it alternates between two four points of view—one of each of the family members. Advancing the larger narrative, while also making room for their individual voices and journeys, has been a process.
I’m also experimenting with the aesthetic of the work to create prose that is agile enough to encompass unconventional or speculative formal and thematic techniques. I want to create room for allegorical figures based on Igbo mythology, realism, differing forms of “witnessing” and “testimony,” and divergent narrative planes. What I’m describing isn’t science fiction or futurism, though it does dislodge time and space—it’s musicals!
I’ve always been a fan because there is something delightful and whimsical about a flight of fancy that allows you to step out of one narrative plane and into another to create a different kind of immersive experience. So, in A Season of Light, I’ve been trying to create these “musical” moments that are not only a commentary on character and plot, but also a way to dislodge the space-time continuum, for a brief moment, and enter a different time, space, and perspective to create a unique way of knowing and engaging the past.
Most of my experiments usually happen in shorter forms, like short stories or microfiction—simply because it’s easier to see the big picture, for both reader and writer, and also, frankly, because experiments can feel overwrought or too self-indulgent in longer forms—but in this case, I need the expansive space of the novel to stretch out a rather complex intersection of interests, both thematic and formal.
Rumpus: These “musical moments” feel like lyric essay moments to me—occasions within the novel that texturize and hybridize the form!
Can you talk about your relationship to other genres outside of fiction? In your studies, were there valuable things you learned from poetry and/or creative nonfiction that helped you “cross-train” as a fiction writer? How would you characterize the role of “real people” and “real world(s)” in your own fiction? In what ways does fiction serve your intentions as a storyteller better or more fully than other genres might?
Iromuanya: I admit, I am a terrible poet. I also feel that initial discomfort and confusion that many non-poets feel when a poem is in the midst. Everything is off kilter. The ground isn’t solid. So, maybe that’s why a couple of key verses can sneak up on me and make the world pause for a moment. Those are the moments when poems teach me about language—its texture, weight, its sounds, the way words talk to each other, and the effects of that conversation. I want that kind of relationship with words in my prose.
With nonfiction, I’m an impatient reader. I want to get right to the point: What happened? How did it color your world? Usually, it takes a second or a third read to absorb everything else going on with the craft. I don’t have this kind of impatience with fiction. Maybe because I know that a fiction writer doesn’t have the same fealty to the truth as a nonfiction writer. Yes, I know there are discussions around bending the truth in nonfiction, but in fiction, the “real world” and “real worlds” can do, say, and be whatever I want them to be—as long as they stay within the realm of possibility.
In fiction, every moment has infinite possibilities. These infinite possibilities shape characters in infinite ways, and each choice creates a different sequence of possibilities, so there are essentially multiple simultaneous existences. In fiction, the characters are living out one such possibility, so my characters and their world are grounded. This is real to me because it could happen here in this trajectory, even though it didn’t. Maybe it’s actually that fiction writers pledge fealty to the lie, whereas nonfiction writers pledge fealty to the truth.
Rumpus: I love that juxtaposition between fiction and nonfiction writers, and I also love the word “fealty,” which I haven’t used recently and now feels like it belongs in a poem.
What advice do you have for writers who are interested in pursuing graduate study? For writers who are interested in becoming teachers or seeking teaching assistantships as part of their graduate school experience? Would you share a bit about how you navigate the complex territory of teaching and writing simultaneously?
Iromuanya: After doing some research, I applied to programs across the board in MA, MFA, and PhD programs. I visited and talked to faculty and students. I would definitely encourage applicants to pay special attention to programs with full-funding packages. We all know what the job market is like these days.
As part of most funding packages, some teaching is usually the expectation, but I don’t think it should be looked at as a chore. Teaching has been invaluable to me. I’ve learned a lot of things that I didn’t learn in the classroom, not just in terms of craft, but also in learning how to speak to an audience and how to connect with different kinds of people.
Teaching and writing simultaneously is not an easy balance. There’s just no way to get around that fact. But some things help. During the pandemic, I found that working with a writing partner, via Zoom, was a great way to keep me accountable. It’s super easy to schedule and put on your calendar like any other meeting. We use the Pomodoro method, which entails writing for an hour, taking a five-minute break, and then writing for another hour. Usually, at the start and at the end of the session, we brief each other on what we’ll be working on, and then we finish by discussing how it went. If you can’t find a writing partner, there’s even a YouTube channel called “Study with Me.” I have a “friend” out there whom I’ve never met or even spoken to, but we’ve spent countless hours working together—she on her med school program and me on my writing, research, and teaching.
Aside from the time crunch, for me, the biggest challenge of writing during the academic year is that my mind is in a lot of places. I might have already exhausted my creative well during the day. So I tend to write longer drafts and rewrites during the summers, and then I do closer work, like refining a manuscript or looking at single chapters or scenes or critical essays, during the academic year.
Also, stay off social media. Or at least be intentional about how you use it. It’s sort of like being in a noisy party hall every day. There’s too much going on. Sometimes you need to step out and take a breather to clear your head or contemplate. Or maybe that’s just the introvert in me.
Rumpus: Is being an author how you thought it would be? Is being a professor? What challenges and joys do you find implicit in these vocations?
Iromuanya: The biggest surprise about this writing/teaching life is that I didn’t realize how it could expose me to so many parts of the world and so many new experiences. I was born and raised in Nebraska in a family that never went on vacations. Not even campgrounds, road trips, or visits to relatives. We just never had the money for that sort of thing.
When I was sixteen, I was messing around online, and I found out about a screenwriting seminar in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California. Indie films had always been my thing, but my latest obsession was Turner Classic Movies. I applied and was awarded a tuition scholarship. Somehow, my mom scraped the money together to pay for the travel expenses and the balance of the fees. I turned seventeen that summer. I learned about writing craft, structure, and style. For the first time, I looked down on the capitol from the sky. I saw the ocean. I made friends with kids from all over the globe, even twins I had seen in a Dominos commercial! There was a whiff in the air that Spike Lee was producing a movie, something about love and basketball. Would I be interested in being an extra? One evening, someone popped an old VHS into the VCR. Stunned, we watched as a group of twenty-somethings battled their way through a forest. There was a rumor that it was actually a movie, but it had been shot to look like an amateur documentary. Not long after, we learned that it was called The Blair Witch Project.
Since then, I’ve traveled to nearly all the continents for research, presentations, readings, ceremonies, artist retreats, festivals, seminars, and teaching. If I hadn’t taken this vocational path, I wonder if the extent of my travel would have been Las Vegas, the destination of choice among my peers.
Still, it is work, not an amusement or distraction. To me, that’s the greatest challenge of the writing life, the gravity of that simple task: taking everything in, deciding, putting pen to paper, or clacking the keys on the keyboard. Doing it again and again until it’s just right, despite the world going on without you.
Photograph of Julie Iromuanya by Logan Conner.