May Digital Cover: Bolu Babalola
“Women, Black women, lovers of love, I love us so much,” Bolu Babalola says towards the end of the interview. It's in this simple avowal that her work culminates. Whether through her two books; Love in Colour, and more recently Honey and Spice, or her work in TV, film and journalism, Babalola is firmly establishing herself as a cornerstone in the pop cultural zeitgeist with love, romance and tenderness at the core of her offering.
Why did you pick university as the setting for Honey and Spice , what is it about that age group or that space do you think fosters romance well?
I think it’s an unattended area of literature. I think we see high school or when you are in your 20s, but we don’t see that capsule of when you are in university. For the things I really wanted to explore in my first definitive rom com novel, and something I wanted to see when I was younger, I thought uni really creates an environment where you can explore emotions in a really heightened and concentrated way. It’s also a really great way to explore themes that in the real world would seem minor because there is so much going on, but in a capsule the stakes are higher. It was really fun for me to play with the politics of the ACS and the elements you find in that world. Also, I think it’s a really interesting developmental age because you are still a teenager and maybe going into young adulthood, but you are not a kid and you're not fully an adult and you are trying to figure out who you are, what you want, and how that coincides. You’re trying to figure out your new family, your new friends, because a lot of the time you are away from home creating this new path for yourself. I just thought it was racked with so much possibility and it was a great way to explore community in that space as well.
A notable thing about Honey and Spice is that Aminah, the protagonist’s best friend is also really fleshed out and interesting. What other best friend characters in literature or film have you enjoyed?
The closest thing I can think of is Queen Latifah in Brown Sugar. She plays Sidney's cousin and she has a cute thing going on with Mos Def’s character, and she has a bit of interiority there. But I think that was why I wanted to create Aminah that way, because in our lives our best friends aren't just side characters with no love interest; We’re not just sitting there telling them about our love lives and they're not giving us anything back. So, it was really important for me to have Aminah as an active participant in Kiki's life and her romance. Women especially, I wouldn't say codependent, but we are very involved in each other's lives, out of a place of care and concern. We are each other's true love in many ways and I wanted to pay homage to that kind of love story. In the sequel, it’s going to be very clear that Malakai is no. 2 in Kiki's life. I also wanted the novel to have a kind of stable romance in comparison to Kiki and Malakai's.
You do a lot of worldbuilding in the novel to an almost visual extent, which makes sense because you write for TV as well. I wonder how the two mediums inform each other?
Novel writing for me is like breathing. I sit down and it flows out of me and that's not to say it's not difficult, I still have to sit down and mould it but it’s very instinctual for me. Script writing is instinctual to me in terms of storytelling but it’s a lot of maths. You're thinking in acts, “this is too much exposition, let's keep it moving,” “show not tell.” But they really lend into each other. So, when I'm writing my novel, I am able to be very descriptive with it and spend time on dialogue. I love dialogue. And when I’m writing my scripts, I am able to convey tone better and I am able to kind of give more directorial notes in my script notes, which helps. But I love both for different reasons and I think that scriptwriting really challenges me in a different way because it’s almost thematic when you think about it. It’s very structured, in a way that's slightly different from writing a novel.
Is there more personal freedom in writing a novel?
100% more personal freedom when writing a novel. It’s really just you and your editor, and I have a personal relationship with my editor, on purpose because I didn't just want to work with anyone that wouldn't understand my vision for the novel or who wouldn't get me as a writer. Even when she is editing or giving me notes, it’s a very fluid relationship wrought with trust. The story is still mine; I get to do what I want; she just challenges me to be a better version of myself. While with scriptwriting, yes you have your vision, but you also have your producers and executive producers, and then you have the broadcast and what the channel wants so you have to ask these questions like "is it going to sell?" How can I mould my story in a way that will sell but also pay homage to its roots? There are so many different factors in play and I think that I have had to work harder in TV and film to stay true to my vision.
Is “is it going to sell?” a question you ever asked yourself with the novel?
No, I feel like literature has the space for almost everything whereas TV is more categorised and you are put into more boxes. Of course, you want your book to sell, but that's not the thing I’m thinking about.
Do you feel like you have leveraged your online following for your career's development?
I don't know if I have. A common misconception is that I got my book deals because I was on twitter, which is far from the case. I got signed to my agent in 2016 when I had few followers, but I was a writer and people knew I was a writer and that's how my journalistic career took off. That’s also how I got signed to my agent; I entered a short story competition and got shortlisted for that.
That was for Netflix And Chill?
Yeah, and I was already scouting an agent before that and then she saw Netflix And Chill and said ok, I want to sign you. That story also got me signed to my tv agent. For me, twitter didn't create my writing career, twitter came from me being a writer, and that for me is almost incidental to my career. The only part it helps with is establishing my voice and so people know who I am and what I like and my tone. But I think it’s very clear that I am a writer and not a twitter personality.
I think a lot about how the internet has made it such that if you put a book out, you are now much privier to a lot of opinions that readers have about your work. How do you feel about that?
I hate it. I think it’s terrible and I don’t think I should be seeing this, it’s awful. And the thing is, people say so many amazing things, but people also say devastating things that will crush your soul and that you'll be really angry about. But it’s so pointless because you can't change their opinion. You can control what you see though. It is a difficult thing with my career now because I now write for TV and books, I really don't need to being seeing "oh, tiktok books are overrated," I don't need to be seeing any of that stuff, it gets into your head as a creator and gets in the way of the creative purity that you have. That’s something that I’m really trying to balance. It’s sad because the communities that I have been able to build online just by talking about TV and being myself are really important to me, but I am at the stage where I need to draw boundaries. I can’t be as accessible as I was before, and I can’t be seeing all these things like I was before.
Have you got a writing routine?
I mean I try to in the beginning. It’s all very sweet; there's candles and coffee shop vibes. But honestly the deeper you get into the writing process the frailer you become, you start wearing pyjamas all day and you have half drunk cups of tea across the room. So, in the beginning I try to wake up early and go to the gym and have a routine because I’m trying to get myself off the ground, but then eventually I give myself freedom to do whatever because then it's just about getting it done. But I do tend to find that I write better at night time; the world is quieter.
Do you read other work while you write?
So, this is the thing, you can't be a good writer without reading other people's work, and it has to be good work. But it does affect me if I’m deep in the motion of things and I have other people's writing voices in my head. So, I try not to and if I do, I won’t read anything new, I'll read something I love and trust. I try to avoid fiction when I’m writing, so I will re-read bell hooks’ all about love or poetry. I love reading poetry when I’m writing because I feel like my writing style is naturally very lyrical, which some people hate apparently, I saw that. I made the huge mistake of going to Goodreads, which I never do.
Oh, they're brutal there.
Oh my God they are, and they were like “there's too many pop cultural references in the book,” “her writing style is too lyrical.” And you know that’s fine, you can think that but it's also how I write so yeah, I like reading poetry because it really just opens my mind up in a way that's conducive to me writing fluidly.
What books do you go back to when you're not writing?
Obviously, Toni Morrison. I love Song of Solomon. The things that she does with sentences are exquisite. I'll go back to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen because for me, she is like the OG rom com writer. That book is very important to me. I read it when I was 12 years old and I was amazed by how I could connect to it even though it was ancient. It’s so warm and romantic, but it’s also about community and friendship and these tiny walls that we build, and I think that's something I’m always trying to do in my work. And then I watch stuff as well. I watch stuff that will create the atmosphere that I am trying to set. So, Black art like Brown Sugar, Love Jones, although that’s not a rom com.
Speaking of community, who do you keep around you to help you stay grounded? And how important is it for you to have other writer friends?
This is the thing; I can never do twitter down because a lot of the writers that I befriended when I was in my early twenties were there. I became friends with Candace Carty Williams and at the time she was actually a part of creating the short story competition that I entered. And Yomi Adegoke. It’s so nice to have people that you have the same experiences with and are not friends with you for any personal gain because you literally grew up and are growing up together. But outside the industry I’ve got friends who have always empowered me. I've got cards from when I was like 18 saying "one day you're going to be a famous writer." To have that kind of belief really empowered me because they never doubted me. My mum always reminds me that there are people who genuinely connect with my work and not to focus on those that don’t. It’s a reminder to stick to the vision. As long as I’m telling the story that I want to tell and try my best, then other people's opinions should really not matter that much. I think that also, when you are very vocal about who you are and who you want to be, you attract supportive people. I've been really fortunate to have people that hold me down.
You once said in an interview that “it’s not that I wanted to be a writer but that I have always written.” What has writing done for you?
I was a very shy kid and it really helped me hone my voice and sense of humour. It gave me confidence because writing was the first time that I thought that I was really good at something. When I was 14/15 I let it leak to my friend that I wrote love stories on my family PC, in size14 comic sans and they were inspired by stuff like Two Can Play That Game and it was so American and the guys were called things like Tré. My friend made me bring them in. She passed them around the class and I began writing stories for the class. That’s when I realised that I loved to entertain people, and I loved that people believed in this world I built as much as I did. Writing really helped me learn who I am. It gives me space to explore my interiority and my mind. Like with Honey and Spice, of course I think that Kiki has parts of me but a situation happened recently just before I met my boyfriend and I was like "this feels so weird, I feel like I’m like Kiki" and my friends were like, "what do you mean, you are Kiki, like are you joking." It’s just funny with that kind of stuff you realise how much writing will allow you to see yourself on the page.
You mentioned how in the beginning, your stories were influenced by American pop culture, can you speak a little about British culture making more space for love stories of their own so that they can see themselves on the page as well. We've recently seen Rye Lane, and before that Who's Loving You and Caleb Azumah's work among many others.
I hope there’s more. The reason why my work was so American focused was because I was looking for representation and so my representation was Moesha, Sister Sister, all these Black shows in America; that's what I knew. I think now with other Black writers doing their thing we will see more space for that and it will hopefully encourage more writers to create their own. And I want it to be lowercase black stories if that makes sense; stories that belong to Black people because our lives are interlinked with race, not because of this heaviness linked to Blackness. We have our own interiority and humanity that I want to be centred on. I’m excited to see the literature that comes with that.
Publishing your first definitive novel is a big feat. How do you preserve your ambition after you’ve achieved a massive goal like that?
I am always ambitious because I always feel like I could do better. I’m always trying to top the last thing I did. I still have so many stories to tell and so many things to do and I’m so excited to do that. And I really really love my community and my audience and for me that’s women and Black women, lovers of love, I love us so much and I really try to create stories that carve out space for us, that carve out hope and joy for us. I’m writing my third book right now, the sequel to Honey and Spice, and I’m like how did I write the last one? Everytime I have to start something new I’m like how did I write that? Writing never gives you space to rest in your laurels. I like proving to myself that I can do better.
Have you been enjoying doing press and marketing for the book? Or is it a little jarring and you just want to go back to writing?
It’s a little bit of both. I love when I get to talk about the book and craft and meet readers- I love my readers, I think I’m blessed with an amazing community of readers and they breathe life into me. Not to be dramatic but it truly is soul affirming. What a dream it is to have people who respond to your work positively and really believe in it the way you believe in it. But after a while you're like, I need to write. I feel angst. I really love writing. So, it’s a balance. I’m really fortunate that my team can detect when I’m getting fatigued so they wont even give something to me. For example, they know that I want to do this. I always want to do Black publications.