Interview by Samantha Watson @peeksawa
HopeRoad Publishing managed to pin down academic and author Ernest Alanki, writer of The Chocolate Shop Perverts, to talk about his life in Cameroon and his journey in writing. He also shared some of his creative writing processes before jetting back to Sweden.
You were born in Cameroon but you now live in Sweden, how did this come about?
Well yes, I was born in Cameroon and grew up there but then I moved from there to Sweden 12 years ago to study Microbiology at PhD level and I ended up staying there. But for a period of time I also moved from Sweden to England where I worked for four years.
Can you tell me more about what it was like for you growing up in Cameroon?
Cameroon to me it’s like a lot of African countries where people are happy even though they do not have a lot. People get up in the morning, people pass by and say hello. I don’t need to call someone before I visit, but those things are different in certain countries and I‘ve learnt to understand these different cultures.
My upbringing in Cameroon didn’t really stay with me because of the circumstances in which I was brought up. I felt a lot like an outsider because my parents were never married. I ended moving to my father at the age of six and staying in house where my father was married to another woman and they had kids and I was always the kid that came from outside of the marriage and for some reason I was isolated so I lost myself reading a lot of books and isolating myself. I think it is now that I have a better perspective because of the period in my life I don’t feel weighed down from the problems of it.
What inspired you to be a writer? What was that moment where you thought “yes” I want to be a writer?
I think one of the reasons why I became really interested in writing is because I started reading very early in my life, I came from a background where I had a cousin and uncle who would tell us lots of stories and so I took up reading, that inspired me really early on.
That ability to realise someone can be influenced from a book got to me and so I started creating stories in my head and even wrote stories from my dreams. At school I just loved writing essays, we would write stories based on just one word, I loved that. But what pushed me towards science in school was not that I understood the value of science but it was the prestige of understanding physics but if I had to choose I would have stuck to literature.
So what was the first short story you had published?
I’ve been writing full stories for a long time but I started writing short stories two years ago. The very first short story I wrote The Time Traveller and The Midget will be published this fall.
The Chocolate Shop Perverts is your first published ebook, where did the idea come from?
At the time I was working at Newcastle University in 2007, some friends and I decided to go to Edinburgh on a winter day, it was very cold. We ended up in this cafe in the evening and it was warm and cosy. There were a lot of young people in there just having a great time drinking a lot of chocolate. But in this crowd there was a young man that was totally left out and you could see his pain, his suffering. I don’t know what it was but you could see he was all alone. He just stood out to me and so I turned to my friends and said you could write a book called the chocolate shop perverts and they said Ernest you’re crazy. So the book came to me then and I just wanted to write a book about a young man growing up in society where he is lost having experienced a lot of personal tragedies and problems.
Are any parts of your personal life portrayed in the book?
I think the idea of growing up in a home where you are not treated as you would like to be treated, being an outsider or the idea of being in a society where you do not belong. The book comes from that part of me where I didn’t feel connected to society. I could see the anger coming out as I wrote it.
Can you tell me about your creative writing process?
I was walking to this place today [South Bank] and walked across the bridge where you can see trains and there were massive iron beams holding these in place. To me, this is magic. We take for granted that people can build these fantastic things, over rivers and for trains, how things they take from the earth to make metals. I see creativity in everything around me. I was sitting upstairs and I saw two men, I looked at them and realised they were identical twins, they looked like they were homeless. They were listening to an audio book about meditation. Their laptops and phones were wrapped up in plastic bags and they just seemed to be homeless. They were just silent and I looked at those two men and I saw a story just there. For me creativity comes because I am able to observe the world and appreciate things that I see around me and not take them for granted to say they are just homeless people. I don’t really have clear stories in my head but I do have pictures which I collect here and there and when I write I connect them to a main theme.
What made you decide to choose the e-publishing route for your ebook?
I had sent stories to literary agents for quite a while. I had a few that requested The Chocolate Shop Perverts but no one to represent it. Some liked it but felt it was just a stream of consciousness or felt that it was too subjective. It is unfortunate because I feel that the stories I write represent culture as well as my identity.
I would post parts of my story on writers’ forums and people, lots of people were thrilled by it. But when one person found that the main character was mixed race she stopped reading it. I see things like this a lot. Within the publishing industry we have to try other ways to share our stories and so I approached HopeRoad Publishing and they loved the book. Digital is the way forward.
What have been some of your challenges as a writer?
I think finding someone to publish your work, someone who believes in you and your work is the most difficult challenge as a writer.
Your book titles are quite controversial, how did you come up with the name The Chocolate Shop Perverts?
When I sat in that Edinburgh cafe there were a lot of young people who were vulnerable and were happy in that vulnerability and I saw a situation here where someone could see this as a place to take advantage of kids, particularly the young man sitting there who was totally lost, the title came at an instant and it never changed.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I think writing is a very personal thing. It is beautiful but it can also be destructive, in the sense that you can become isolated from the world because when you write you sit there on your own. But the good thing is that when you write you observe more, you observe nature, people and you understand the world slightly better. I think I understand life a little better just because I write. So for anyone aspiring to be a writer during the times when you are sitting there languishing and feeling desperate I think one of the important things to understand is that even though you are alone in that process when you are published you are not alone because you are talking to the world. No matter what happens if you give someone your work to read and they say this is rubbish never give up, be persistent, believe in yourself. Look at Hemmingway, not everyone liked his work but there were people who did and still do. Be passionate and write from the heart.
For more information or to buy Ernest Alanki’s book The Chocolate Shop Perverts can be found here.