A glimpse into Helon Habila's writing processWriting
Travelers explores the lives of Africans seeking refuge and better lives in Europe. The main character is a graduate student who traverses the lives of several migrants scattered across Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Figuring out how to tell so many unique stories in one singular and coherent narrative was a challenge that took Helon Habila four years to figure out.
Here Habila explains how he wrote Travelers and the choices he made in structure and form. The remarks, which have been edited for length and clarity, were recorded by Shaun Randol, The Mantle’s publisher, while Habila was in New York City for the annual Brooklyn Book Festival.
When we were young, my friend and I went to Lagos to meet a famous critic. We told him we wanted to be writers. And he said: try to be topical. Try not to avoid the dominant issues of the day. That way you’re always topical and always relevant.
He gave us the example of Charles Dickens. He used the most topical subject matters of the day to write his stories, which attracted so many readers.
The hardest thing was in turning nonfiction into fiction. Most of the stories in Travelers are based on true stories. For example, the character in Switzerland who married an African migrant is real. At a literary event in Germany she came up to me and said, “I want to tell you my story.”
As a writer your whole life is your research. You just take important moments and keep them until they are ready to be used in your stories.
I got all these little bits of stories and I decided to put them together. That’s how Travelers came about.
Incidents and Moments
I’m not a very organized writer. I’ve seen writers use flashcards and plot points that they stick to bulletin boards that describe the flow of their stories. Not me. I try to keep everything in my head. I am very comfortable with that. I am able to keep track of my story. I guess it’s more work that way, but it’s my technique.
I don’t force myself to write in a linear fashion. I could start from the ending if I see it. I can write the middle or whatever part that I see clearly. If I have some lines of dialogue from one of my characters, I put it down and I write around that. I write around incidents and moments, flesh them out. And then I piece them together.
I didn’t want this to be a book of short stories. The challenge was to figure out how to make these vignettes into one linear story. That’s why it took me four years to finish the book – that’s what I was grappling with. I wrote all these sections separately, and then I had to find the common link between them. How do I make this continuous, coherent, and have a beginning, middle and end? So I had to make the main character traverse the stories. I came up with that solution much later.
I also wanted to make the novel episodic, like the shape of the characters’ lives. They didn’t know what was going to happen next in their travels, so I wanted to retain that tension. I wanted something between a tightly written novel and something episodic.
Points of View
Some stories call for certain points of view. I had to do many drafts. It didn’t just happen. Take the story about the woman in Italy. I had to write that four or five times. That was the hardest. First I did it through the woman’s point of view. Then I did it through the narrator’s point of view, then I did it through the person that helped her. Then I had to try to find a mix between all of them. It was a trial and error.
My instinct is always to use the close third person, because it’s between the first person and the third person omniscient. So I can do a lot with it. That’s what I try to stay with all the time.
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