Femi Kayode trained as a clinical psychologist in Nigeria, before starting a career in advertising. He has created and written several prime-time TV shows. He recently graduated with a distinction from the UEA Creative Writing programme and is currently a PhD candidate at Bath Spa University. Femi won the UEA/Little, Brown Award for Lightseekers when he was still writing the novel. He lives in Namibia with his wife and two sons.
Lightseekers follows Dr Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist by training, as he investigates the murder of three young students in a Nigerian university town. Their killings – and their killers – were caught on social media. The world knows who murdered them; what no one knows is why.
I’m not a crime writer but I’m really interested in the mechanics of crime fiction, how it has its tropes – the sidekick, marital problems, etc – and you’ve incorporated all these things so seamlessly but also built on them to write such an original novel. It would be great to hear about your writing process.
Lightseekers was inspired by an actual incident that happened in Nigeria. It always fascinated me how people would mete out this kind of mob justice, or vigilante justice, especially in a small town. Like do the neighbours wake up the next morning and say, that was a very good job! Yeah, we got that! Or do they just pretend it never happened?
I initially planned to do Lightseekers as a non-fiction novel, but from an academic point of view there were lots of ethical issues. And I’ve always had this issue – looking at Truman Capote’s history after In Cold Blood – with the idea of profiting off misery. That made me step back and say maybe I can approach this as a fiction.
I was in a crime fiction programme, so I knew the things I needed to put in to make it a crime story, but I also wanted to make it literary. I wasn’t interested in writing the next Jack Reacher… You know, that’s not fair to say about Jack Reacher because I love Jack Reacher! But I wanted to write about an everyman’s hero, because the issue that I was talking about is very common in Nigeria, and it needed this hero who is just like you and I, who can effect change without being a superhero.
I had a researcher in Nigeria who is a writer and lawyer. I would research around what actually happened and then I would write alternative versions, and I’d send it to him and say, okay, what do you think, is this working, is this plausible? To control myself I generally would keep along the lines of a PEST analysis, which is the political, environmental, social, and technological dimensions of a crime. It was then easy to add the tropes to it; you know, who’s the bad guy, who’s the sidekick. Each character was really a representation of the dimensions of a PEST analysis of the crime. Does that answer your question?
It really does! So Lightseekers is centred on the real-life incident, the Aluu Four, where four undergraduates at the University of Port Harcourt were tortured and burnt to death by a mob, and I wondered if you would speak about what was it about this specific case that made you want to write about it.
I think if you Google it… you have to be made of rock not to feel something. These were four undergraduates, very popular on campus, good-looking, from middle class homes. That’s not to say that they did not commit the crime that they were accused of – no one really knows – but that’s not the point. The point is that no one deserves to die like that.
But watching the video, what struck me was how a whole community can gang up against undergraduates that are the lifeblood of this community. And that it could have been me – because I also went to school in a close community, I also lived off campus. It could have been me. And I was struck by the reaction of the government. I didn’t feel that there was enough concern; there was a lot of social outreach, but not a lot of systemic outreach. What was it in the system that made this possible? So, for me that spoke to a deeper problem than the act itself, something that needed to be investigated.
I also felt that this tragedy was an opportunity for the country to have a national dialogue, to ask why did this happen, and how did it happen, and how could we have prevented it. Around that time there were a lot of xenophobic attacks happening in Africa, the rise of the alt right in Europe, post-Arab Spring unrest… And then of course in the US, we had the Trump regime that was constantly pushing this anti-immigration rhetoric. Writing Lightseekers offered me an opportunity to show the world, at what’s been a very troubled time, through the lens of a Nigerian.
That actually leads really well onto my next question – you’re talking about seeing through the lens of a Nigerian but you’ve chosen to cast Philip, your detective figure, as a returnee, someone who’s been in America for a really long time. I thought that was such a clever choice and I wanted to ask why you did that.
After that incident (and a lot of similar incidents) I started feeling a certain level of angst towards my country. I live outside of Nigeria, in another African country. I studied in the US and I was doing a postgrad programme in the UK. So, using Philip was a creative choice because he represented me.
The second thing I needed, from a commercial point of view, was somebody that would ask the kind of question that an international audience would want answers to – Philip was asking the kind of questions that my tutors and classmates at UEA were asking. He became a sort of cameraman, and I trained his lens on the issues raised by this crime.
The biggest challenge I had with Philip was for him not to come across as patronising, so I had a huge collection of Nigerian early readers. Those readers made sure the book wasn’t looking at Nigeria through the ‘white gaze’, or at least, within the context of the creative writing programme at UEA, the European gaze.
You mentioned the perspective of the cameraman, and I notice that you’ve had a lot of experience as a screenwriter – I felt like I could feel that influence on the book, you’re so attentive to characters’ motivations. So, it just felt like that might have influenced you?
Absolutely, absolutely it did. I remember my tutors would be like, why are you writing this in the present tense? and I just answered that it was because that’s what I’m used to. I really wanted to write an immersive story, I was looking for a way to make the reader be a part of the experience – you couldn’t just look away and you couldn’t flip the channel (so to speak), you literally had to be Philip.
Sometimes I’d be writing in the middle of the night and my kids would come and stand behind me, and they would say, that was weird, and I’d be like, what? And, according to them, before I typed I would do something like [Femi makes a camera motion in front of his face] then I would type and then I would do it again [the same gesture] and they said it was very weird watching me from the back because I looked like a film director writing shots down. I think that proves that my screenwriting experience really came to bear on the writing, and I’m happy that people saw it. It was not planned as a subtle thing, it’s deliberate.
In interrogation scenes I just kept being struck by how you had Philip and Chika noticing each other’s motivations, and it felt almost like a Stanislavski exercise – my background’s in theatre so I was like, I see this!
Exactly, so that’s what I was trying to do. I was blocking all the shots.
The initial book was about 140,000 words, so it really helped when I was editing. If you want to write a screenplay-like novel, then you need to balance what is seen and what is not very carefully, or else you will lose the audience. One of the things some of my readers used to say was, now you’re losing me, you’re giving me too much detail, you’re interrupting the action.
That’s a great answer. I think we’ll finish up with a light-hearted question. I’m just wondering what you were reading, watching or listening to while you were working on the book and what inspired you. Also, what’s inspiring you now, because you’re working on the sequel, I understand the film’s already been optioned… it’s mad!
Mad, it’s been mad… Now you have to remember this [showing his lovely office and quiet, sunlit streets outside] is in the middle of the bustling city, can you see how quiet it is?
So, it’s really crazy because I literally have to travel (to Nigeria) in my mind every single time I write.
I’m an avid film-watcher, and while writing Lightseekers I watched a lot of Dexter, season to season. I also watched a lot of Netflix shows, detective series… One of my favourites was Collateral with Carey Mulligan. I particularly liked The Alienist because in a way, Philip reminded me of Dr Kreizler. Those shows really helped me to plan each chapter like an episode of a show. Writing each chapter like this helped to focus me, and I always asked; what’s the key information that needs to come out from this particular episode, what do you need to take away as the reader?
I don’t think I read anything outside of crime during that time. There were a lot of texts that were recommended for the MA programme, so this kept me busy. I truly loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt. But what am I reading now? I’m still reading The Light Between Oceans, and I’m heartbroken, I’m frustrated, and I’m irritated at the same time, so maybe it’s good? I’m almost done, and then I’ve just got my complete collection of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, so I’m starting on that one next week.
I tried to read Lightseekers again when I got my finished copy, and I just couldn’t. The book is never perfect until it’s perfect…I guess. But I’m part of this exercise on a platform called The Pigeonhole; it’s a group of readers, like an online book club, and they are reading Lightseekers now and I was invited to be a part of the discussion – so to be honest at this particular moment I’m reading Lightseekers.
That’s great that you feel able to come back to it.
I wouldn’t have done it without Pigeonhole. It’s so interesting, so exciting. Because you can read the comments on every line or scene or chapter, and you’re like: they got it, they got it! Many times, I’m up in the middle of the night, reading the novel and the comments and I am like YES!
That’s such a good feeling when you get feedback and people are saying what you wanted them to say…
In real time too! Because if you read the comments on Goodreads and Amazon (my agent tells me not to, but I don’t listen!), their feedback is usually after the fact, they’ve finished the whole experience – but with Pigeonhole, they’re commenting literally on every line, and it’s just so lovely to experience. Such a wonderful initiative. I love it.
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