The Writing Life on the Road: Nayomi Munewera’s Oakland
Visiting Nayomi Munewera to discuss long-time obsessions, writing groups, and the power of social media
Electric Literature’s contributing editor Michael J Seidlinger is on the road as part of his project, #followmebook, visiting writers and exploring the limits of social media. As part of a limited summer series called “The Writing Life on the Road,” he’s sharing his conversations with writers he encounters as he makes his way from New York to California. This week, writer Nayomi Munewera, shares details and insights from her writing life in Oakland, California.
What follows are highlights from Nayomi’s interview with Michael. Her responses have been edited for clarity.
Setting the Scene: Coffee-shop life
We’re at the Arbor Café in Oakland, California. It’s right around the corner from my house. It’s in a neighborhood called Temescal. It’s a big, beautiful café — there’s lots of people here, probably also writing novels. This is like my second home. I almost feel more at home at this café, because this is where I spend more time writing. If I’m home, I’ll just start reading, or doing something else, cleaning up, but here everyone is working, not a lot of people talking. The music is loud today but that’s not usually the case.
The Creative Process: Honing in on Obsessions
I’m not a word count person. I understand word count, but the way that I think about books is page count. So I’m working on a third book — I have two out — and my process has always been generating an idea that I’m really interested in, where I think ‘Okay, I can be obsessed with this for 3–5 years.’
For the third book, I remembered that my dad used to bring True Detective magazines into the house all the time during my adolescence. It was really weird, because we were an immigrant family that had a really nice home in the suburbs in LA and then there were these pictures of victims and bodies that would be on our living room table. This is totally interesting, obsessive in a different reality than what I’m living, and I think that kind of thing filters in and turns into an obsession later. So my process is to find an idea, and then a character, that will intrigue me enough to stay with me for a very long time. Then I’ll try to generate 300–500 pages. And it doesn’t matter what it looks like. It’s just about getting it out.
There’s some planning. A lot of it is intuitive and gut. For the second book, I was writing towards a certain event. The second book is about this woman who commits a terrible crime. That one I was writing towards the culminating scene where she does this horrible thing. I knew where I was going , I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. It’s just a big, ugly, messy thing.
My process has always been generating an idea that I’m really interested in, where I think “Okay, I can be obsessed with this for 3–5 years.”
Finding the Right Time and Place to Write
I think just getting in the chair and being like ‘this is the time.’ There has to be coffee. Black coffee. I’m from Sri Lanka, and there you drink tea with like 5,000 spoons of sugar. I feel like in the past writers have had more rituals and that’s been more important. My writer friends don’t really rely on those things anymore.
I have ear plugs, because this café can be really loud. I really admire these writers who can write anywhere at any time. I heard this interview with Roxanne Gay and she said she writes on the plane. How amazing. I really am so envious of that. I am not a person that can do that. I guess a ritual is being in a place like a café. I can write with other people. I have a couple of other writer friends and we just get together; we don’t talk, just write. There’s something about the community of that. It’s very solitary but we’re in community, and that feels nice.
Online Community: A Network of Endless Support
There are some people who are very anti-Facebook because it doesn’t feel good. I fucking love Facebook because it connects me with so many writers. My feed is pretty carefully curated to have a lot of writers. I don’t really have much of a separation between my personal and public life, but I have a lot of writers on Facebook. So I can say things like ‘What’s the best book out this month?’ and then there will be like 40 or 50 comments, and that’s great because you get to promote a book you love and it’s a tremendous way to get connected with people. I was just telling you about this book, The Fact of a Body, that came out and I posted about it, and then the writer posted on the thread. This was unthinkable 10–15 years ago. Then she and I had a private conversation about how we should write this piece talking about male writers who don’t read women writers. That conversation can happen on social media immediately and within minutes in a way that really connects us. And it’s immediate. You send it out and you don’t know who is going to comment but somebody might, and you might get an article out of it or you might get a novel idea out of it. My third novel, the idea came because a friend of mine posted this short story she wrote based on this place I got intrigued by. I researched it and was like, “shit, this is my novel.” That came from fucking Facebook.
Another thing I love about the online community is seeing people get stuff. People that have been struggling get an essay out, somebody finds a publisher or somebody finds an agent. You see them grow. I’ve been in a community with this person for years and now their book is coming out, and I got to see that in real time. That’s really beautiful, and I feel like almost every week one of my Facebook friends is doing some crazy shit. There are these circles of writer communities — people you actually hang out and write with and are friends with. Then there are the people you know from their book and maybe they blurbed for you or you blurbed for them. Then there are people you meet at writing festivals, residencies, someone you met once. We’re literary citizens. We were probably all those weird, nerdy kids that were in the corner reading a book. I have affection for those people.
We’re literary citizens. We were probably all those weird, nerdy kids that were in the corner reading a book. I have affection for those people.
I have a writing group right now. It’s two South Asian writers, and we hang out at least once a week and write. Again, we try to talk. Sometimes it turns into a gossip session for three hours. We try to just say we’re going to write from this time to this time. It’s great, it keeps us accountable. We don’t share work, which I really appreciate. It’s very liberating. There’s no judgement or weird anxiety around it. (My husband is my first reader, and then it goes to my sister, then to others — they know how to edit me in a way I don’t think other folks do.) The writing group is more about carving out the time and space, more than sharing work. That’s nice, because it’s a lonely life.