Helen Oyeyemi on Why Writing is Like ‘Inner Space Travel’

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Photo Credit:Interview Magazine

The ‘Peaces’ author takes us beyond the blank page and into her process.

This is
First Draft
, in which our favorite writers get to the bottom of their own craft. From preferred writing drinks to whether or not you really need to carry a notebook, we find out all the ways they beat writer’s block and do the work. Before curling up with
, Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel about two lovers who embark on a mysterious train voyage, discover all the elements that helped her get it done.
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JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Describe your ideal writing atmosphere. What gets you in the mood?
HELEN OYEYEMI: I tend to write in bed, so lots of pillows are just the thing. I’d also want to get an appropriate playlist going (but played through loudspeakers, not headphones).
UKIOMOGBE: Do you eat or drink while you write?
OYEYEMI: Tea. So much tea! Matcha, mint tea, and kombucha. There’s nothing quite like celebrating chapter completion with kombucha sipped from a champagne glass.
UKIOMOGBE: Do you keep a notebook or journal?
OYEYEMI: I do. It’s full of sentences—sometimes paragraphs—for things I want to write soon. Snippets to be linked later. And when I come across lines in books and articles that I really want to keep thinking about, I add them into the mix. When I look back at the notes from previous years and see when new thoughts were introduced it feels like a more accurate snapshot of what was going on at the time than a diary entry would be.

UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite quote?
OYEYEMI: For now let’s say it’s this, from Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Bai’s
Exile’s Lettter:
…and if you ask how I regret that parting?
It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—
There is no end of things in the heart.
UKIOMOGBE: Whose writing do you always return to?
OYEYEMI: There’s something about the Song of Songs that keeps me coming back for more. And it’s the same story with the Book of Job. For a long time, I thought a person was either inclined Song of Song-wards or Book of Job-wards (temperamentally, I mean). In my teens, I was Team Job, and in my twenties, I was Team Songs; in my thirties, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I go both ways. But of course, the greater question is, who wrote those books?
UKIOMOGBE: What books did you read as a kid/teen? Have your thoughts about the writers changed?
OYEYEMI: I think a few of the books I loved back then, and still love, managed to find their way to me at exactly the right age to grow with me.

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