The Wolf at Number 4 is Ayo Tamakloe-Garr’s first novel. He was born in Accra and his short stories have been published on the Flash Fiction Ghana and Writers Project Ghana websites.
FFGH: Do you have a conception of who a Ghanaian writer is? Would you accept being categorized as a Ghanaian writer?
AT: I personally do not mind being categorized or labelled a Ghanaian writer.
But I don’t think of myself that way because that feels limiting.
And for a long time, it was limiting for me. I grew up writing what was essentially fan fiction of my favourite novels as a child, so books like The Hardy Boys, The Boxcar Children and Great Expectations. I didn’t read a lot of the African classics because, to be honest, I thought they would be boring.
So then when I started writing, I was writing stories set in the US or the UK.
I felt more comfortable writing a Victorian novel set on the moors of southwestern England than one set in my own backyard because I felt I knew that better, you know? I had the idea that African literature was about colonialism and racism and poverty and suffering. And what did I know about suffering and racism? I spent my childhood reading, building spacecraft with Lego and playing Gran Turismo on my PlayStation 2. That wasn’t what popular culture told me a typical “African” experience was.
So for a long time, I wrote stories that were, in a sense, inauthentic to my personal experience. And so, ironically, it was only after consciously deciding to let go of that tag did I start to write “African” stories.
There are different ways to understand the term anyway. So I don’t mind being called a Ghanaian writer by others. I’m not someone who thinks labels are evil. But I try not to make it my identity.
And as for the question of who a Ghanaian writer is… I dunno. You picked a hard question to start the interview with. I think to give you an idea of what my personal conception of who a Ghanaian writer is, I’d like to argue that someone like Thomas Bowdich can be considered a Ghanaian writer. He was the one who wrote Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, an account of his visit to the Ashanti Kingdom which he published in 1819 I think. He was an Englishman but his account of life in the Ashanti Kingdom is rich and positive. And I think his account is of value to anyone interested in Ghanaian history. My answer has been rather vague but I think the universal set of “Ghanaian writers” could include someone like him. As well as writers who were born here or have Ghanaian heritage.
FFGH: A lot to unpack in there. Do tell us a bit more about your novel, “The Wolf at No. 4”. Where did the inspiration come for the story and what have been some reviews you’ve had about the novel?
AT: After having had my “awakening” and realising that just because my personal experience was different from the typical, pop culture, idea of an African life didn’t mean it was any less African or authentic. I decided to write something close to me and close to home.
So I decided to write a story set in the very neighbourhood I grew up in. So yeah, West End Ridge is a real place. And then the themes and characters grew out of that.
And a lot of the things Wolf thinks about were things that kept me tossing and turning at night myself as a child. So I borrowed a lot of that.
The question of whether we are born or made had always bothered me and I found myself directly or indirectly writing about it all the time.
Desire is an amalgamation of a lot of people I have known. Of course, her name is a nod to Tennessee William’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
And I think it’s the dynamic between the two that gives life to the novel. Desire feels life happens to her and Wolf imagines he happens to life.
That for me is the core of the story, how their environment and their own natures shape them both and the folly in telling ourselves that we are the product of one or the other.
And having been insecure about my “Africanness” for so long. I decided to playfully nod at all the influences that came together in this book. So A Streetcar Named Desire is one obvious influence. So is Frankenstein, The works of Edgar Allan Poe, Things Fall Apart, The Lord of the Flies and so on. So the novel is a little bit of a pastiche as well. Because at the end of the day we are all human, and we all feel the same fundamental emotions regardless of where we happen to find ourselves. It’s the core human experience that matters and that’s what readers will relate to.
When the book was coming out, I had a really bad case of impostor syndrome. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t even tell my friends about it. I felt I had somehow fooled the publishers and I kept imagining they would wake up one day, realise their folly and cancel the contract.
So I’ve been surprised and touched by the positive reviews it has gotten. It seems I may have fooled readers and reviewers too. The head of one book club got my number and called me to tell me the book was the best he had ever read. I don’t know about that but it’s nice to get some appreciation for my baby.
FFGH: Wonderful! There’s a lot more we could ask about Wolf, but we’d like to avoid spoilers so let’s leave that for another time. The book has an international publisher. Was this because it was difficult getting a Ghanaian publisher?
AT: Not really, to be honest. I went straight to Ohio University Press (OUP) with it. They were the first and only publisher I pitched it to. I certainly would have looked at Ghanaian publishers if OUP had rejected it.
But I had had dealings with OUP before and I was impressed and touched by the amount of time and personal attention they gave me. So I went to them first and fortunately, they took a chance with it.
FFGH: What are your general thoughts on the process of writing and publishing a novel in Ghana?
AT: I don’t have any experience publishing in Ghana so I don’t have much to say about that but I think actually writing the novel can be more difficult than it could be. With it being sometimes hard to make a living, especially for young Ghanaians, it can be hard to find the time to devote to a novel.
There are great people like Martin Egbelwogbe with Writers Project Ghana who do a lot to help young writers though. I personally benefited from a lot of the workshops and readings organised by WPG. So there’s a community out there to help writers. It could and should be bigger but it’s there.
FFGH: What has been a major contribution to the development of your writing over the years?
AT: I would say there have been two: letting go of my concept of what African literature is and Ernest Hemingway.
Have you read The Sun Also Rises? It’s masterful. I think it’s a wonderful example of how much can be said with so little words. It’s a style I’ve come to admire. And I’m consciously working on using blank spaces to create nuance and meaning.
The Wolf at Number 4 would have been a very different book if Ernest Hemingway hadn’t existed.
FFGH: Putting “The Sun Also Rises” on our reading list right now! Speaking of reading, what books are you currently reading?
AT: I just finished reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I’ve been studying a number of genre fiction novels too, mostly thrillers and mysteries. And now, I have the autobiographies of Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain lined up. I’m working on a writing project so I’ve cherry-picked these to study. Although The Secret Garden was mostly for the nostalgia.
FFGH: What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
AT: I’m currently a few thousand words into what I hope is my next novel. It’s been marinating in my head for a while. Boy, am I glad I started writing a few weeks before this interview or this question would have been really awkward. I’m a serious writer; don’t judge me.
FFGH: Haha, we don’t judge you. We certainly appreciate the challenges of the writing process and as you know, we deeply appreciate a thousand words! Do you have any advice for writers struggling to complete their projects?
AT: I don’t know, every writer is different so it’s hard to say. But I think outlining is a great way to make sure you finish a project. It doesn’t necessarily have to be detailed. But I think knowing where your story is going helps keep you invested in making sure it gets there.
Also, I think writing something or working on the project every day helps too. It certainly helps keep whatever I am working on at the forefront of my mind.
Love for the project too certainly helps a lot. For me, the love I have for my stories is a big part of what drives me to push them into reality.
Also, not wanting to be hungry and homeless. I think that can be great motivation.
FFGH: Any future collaborations or projects you would like to see in the Ghanaian literary space?
AT: I’d really just love to see what kind of work the younger generation of writers, who also happen to be Ghanaian, (I’m not labelling anyone) put out there. There were a lot of interesting and unique stories in the Kenkey for Ewes anthology. The variety was amazing. And I’m really interested to see what these writers end up creating.