Here at Manchester Libraries we’re working as hard as ever (but from our kitchen tables!) to keep our wonderful book loving borrowers happy and fulfilled. We know how popular author sessions are so we’ve racked our brains about how we can maintain these virtually.

Welcome to the next edition of ‘Library Locals’. An occasional chat with our favourite Manchester based authors about their writing process, which books they have turned to during lockdown and what they love about Manchester!

This week we’ve been chatting to the brilliant Okechukwu Nzelu, author of the bestselling debut novel ‘The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney’.

Okechukwu Nzelu is a writer and teacher. He was born in Manchester in 1988 and read English at Girton College, Cambridge. In 2015 he was the recipient of a New Writing North Award. In 2020 his debut novel, ‘The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney’, won a Betty Trask Award, was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize and was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. He lives in Manchester.

Library Locals – An interview with Okechukwu Nzelu

Hi Okey, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2020! We all loved your first novel and can’t wait to hear what you are writing now and whether you are thriving or just surviving in these strange times!

So, what challenges (or indeed opportunities) has lockdown presented to your writing process?

In theory, lockdown could mean lots of quiet time alone to write, because all the things we might have spent time doing (seeing friends, going to the cinema, leaving the house) don’t exist for the moment. And I have enjoyed a slower pace of life, it’s true. Thankfully, I’ve got a draft of my second novel and I’m enjoying spending time away from it so that I can return to it with fresh eyes for editing.

But lockdown definitely has its challenges, too. Writing is a very solitary thing, and it’s nice to balance that out with being more sociable. Writing is also very emotionally demanding, with real highs and lows, and lockdown has magnified that. I definitely miss the things in my life that distract me from writing when I’m not doing it. And then of course, while the added visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement gives me a kind of hope I’ve never felt before, the increased visibility of the racism that BLM aims to fight is an added burden. It’s not an easy time to be alive.

But, like all of us, I’m just doing the best I can: exercising, seeing friends on Zoom and so on, trying to maintain my peace. And being able to go on socially-distant walks now is a godsend.

How has Greater Manchester influenced your writing?

I’ve lived here almost all my life: I grew up here and I came straight back after university, so I know the city well and it will always be home for me. My first novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, was partly set here and it was partly a love letter to the city: its people, its architecture, and even the Peak District that sits just outside it.

I’ve lived and worked in lots of different parts of Greater Manchester, though, so it was impossible for me not to write about some of the less brilliant things about the city, like the social inequality and the racism that I’ve seen and experienced. At the same time, though, I wanted to try and give a hopeful picture of the future: Nnenna, a teenager who’s full of potential and determined to realise it; the queer people in her social circle who are pushing past boundaries that held back older generations. I think Manchester is a city that’s full of possibility and I hope that I reflected that in my writing.

What are you reading during lockdown….any recommendations?

I’m a big fan of audiobooks and I’m currently listening to The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré, who’s also on the Desmond Elliott shortlist with me. The book is read brilliantly by Adjoah Andoh. I tend to read several things at once, so I’m also reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and a history of Nigeria, and I’m re-reading Persuasion by Jane Austen, who’s one of my favourite authors.

What can our readers look forward to from you?

My second novel will have a slightly different focus, in that the book puts more queer Black men at the heart of the narrative, but my writing is still trying to do the same things: to make people laugh, to shine a light on the pain of individuals within groups, to force us to look at vulnerable people, to demonstrate the interconnectedness of people, to show how much we need each other. I’m excited for the book to come out in a couple of years.

What do libraries mean to you?

Growing up, libraries were invaluable to me. As kids we used to go to the library every week and I used to always look forward to it because there’s a kind of freedom you get in reading that can be hard to find elsewhere. That’s stuck with me ever since. As a teenager, I could explore identities and expressions that I might not have been able to elsewhere in such depth.

In fact a book which influenced me hugely, Purple Hibiscus, was one I found on a Black History Month display at the Manchester Central Library one day. I just walked in to the foyer and saw it on a stand, and as corny as this sounds, the book just called out to me. I devoured it in two days, which is very fast for me (I’m a very slow reader) and I was never the same again. From then on I felt empowered to write about Black people’s lives in a way I never had before. It was like I had been given a kind of permission.

Any pearls of lockdown wisdom to share with our borrowers?

I’m no expert but here’s what works for me: staying hydrated, prioritising sleep and exercising regularly.

What’s your preference – eBook or paperback?

I love both, for different reasons. I tend to read eBooks faster, maybe because you can change the font and text size of an eBook. I find fonts without serifs much easier to read.

But I love holding a book in my hands, too. There’s nothing like it. I can’t choose!

Most importantly! Lockdown hair! Are you growing, colouring or cropping?

I dyed my hair blonde for the summer, a few years ago – never again! It really dried out my hair so badly, I couldn’t believe it.

I’ve cut my own hair a few times before, to save some money, so I felt reasonably confident doing it again. I cut my own hair very short towards the start of lockdown, thinking that by the time we were allowed out again, any uneven bits would have grown out. I didn’t dare to try and style it or do a fade, but it still took a good couple of hours to get it done. But it’s grown back pretty quickly, so it might be time to get the clippers out again…

Many thanks to wonderful Okechukwu Nzelu for taking the time to answer our questions and share his lockdown tips with us!

Look out for more ‘Library Locals’ chats with Manchester authors very soon.