I find it easiest to build on a simple premise - an interview with Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oyinkan Braithwaite has written an incredibly accomplished debut novel in which voice, tension, and character are fully synthesized. Not to mention one of the best portraits of sisterhood I’ve ever read. I read MY SISTER THE SERIAL KILLER with excitement and baited breath, not just turning the pages trying to find out what happens next, but in sheer admiration of the prose itself. The strength in the voice reminded me of some of my favorite voice-driven novels, like LOVE ME BACK and AFTER BIRTH, while the plot ensnared me in a more sentimental way, reminding me of the mysteries and procedurals I have always loved. Korede and Ayoola are engaged in an exaggerated performance of sisterhood, their co-dependence trailing them like smoke so wispy they can be tricked into thinking it doesn’t exist. I’m reminded of that SNL character Stefan: this novel has it all! Murder! Hating men! Sisterhood! And really damn good writing!
I’m so grateful that Oyin agreed to correspond with me about her novel.
MW: It’s rare that voice and plot are simultaneously executed at the level they are in MY SISTER THE SERIAL KILLER. I wanted to know if you’ve always written with this dichotomy in mind?
OB: Voice is something I have always struggled with and so, for the most part, I steered clear of first person POV when writing long prose. But I wanted to challenge myself and try something different; and now I am finding it difficult to return to third person.
MW: That is so interesting- do you think you benefited from avoiding it for so long? Was it something you admired even as you avoided it?
OB: I did admire first person, but I also believed it would be easy to come off as trite. And I was afraid of sounding like myself. But Korede has very little in common with me and so in the end I wasn’t concerned about overlaps in the way we thought or spoke.
MW: Can you talk a little more about your perception of “trite?” That avoidance feels like an aesthetic boundary, and I’m really curious about it.
OB: I believe that the way events are recalled in a first person POV can come across as pedestrian, that there is that ever present danger of telling instead of showing, and that in order to set your character apart you may be cornered, as a writer, into giving them oral quirks that could quickly become tiresome. I don’t think this is an exhaustive explanation but these were some of the concerns I had. The fear was probably mostly as a result of my inexperience using that POV.
MW: Lately, I’ve been kind of exhausted by the idea of “voice” in fiction, but when I read your book, there was a matter-of-factness that appealed to me so much. I think I understand it better now, whereas when I was reading, it was just so immersive.
You mentioned you’re finding it difficult to return to third person. Can you tell me a little bit about what your experimentation process looks like for ascertaining perspective? Do you ever reorient your work into a new point of view? If so, what does that unlock for you?
OB: When I am writing, I find it easiest to build on a simple premise. I have learnt that how you tell a story is just as important as the story you are telling. So how my story sounds/flows is vital. It is hard to explain the process, but I won’t go too far into the writing until I find a tone, voice, style that works for me. And sometimes that happens straight away. Sometimes, it’ll be the first line that comes. And it’ll be in a particular point of view and it’ll be clear that everything else will flow from that line. But just as often, I’ll hate that I started a line with a name. That’s one of my issues with third person pov - I tend to start with a name, and I am not entirely comfortable doing that. But I did it for a short story recently and it made sense, it was exactly what that story required. But I won’t go too far if I am not comfortable with the pov, or the setting, or the tense etc. I don’t like to give myself work to do.
MW: You put your finger on something here that has been stirring in my brain for quite a while! It feels unnatural and forced to continuously NAME. It’s not how people actually think, I don’t think. When you write, is your goal to get as close to being inside a head, or inside perception, as possible? I’ve been thinking a lot about control lately, and I would love to hear what you think about the relationship between control and the writer and the reader.
OB: It is hard to put a finger on what goes on in my head. Your questions are forcing me to think of my writing decisions in a way that I haven’t really had reason to do. And this is happening quite a bit to me these days! But to attempt to answer, flow is something that I try to achieve. I want my words to flow seamlessly and naming is just one of the things that jolts me out of that rhythm. I have always believed that if I have done a good job with establishing voice, then a good amount of the time, the reader should know who is speaking without me having to nudge them. But it is easier said than done, and I am still not convinced I know how to do what I want to do.
MW: Flow sounds so magical and ephemeral, but I know it doesn’t just happen like that on the page. A lot of brainpower goes into it. I think that’s a really lofty and worthy goal, and I wondered what it’s like when you’re working with an editor. Does that flow feel impeded when other people start to mess around with a book as the editorial process gets started? Was your flow ever interrupted for MY SISTER THE SERIAL KILLER? If so, how did you get it back?
OB: I actually worked with two editors on this book at the same time - Margo of Doubleday and James of Atlantic; and they did their very best to ensure that the process was as smooth as it could be for me, especially as we were all in different time zones. Sometimes I would have to defend why I wanted something to remain or why I did not want to take on a particular suggestion, but I appreciated that this had to happen. It forced me to examine why I had made certain choices. And I didn’t ever feel as though I was being stripped of my creative license. I was open to having conversations and so were they.
MW: When I look back on reading your book, the tense sisterhood between Korede and Ayoola is so memorable. I’m an older sister too, and I think I immediately related to Korede, but then I found Ayoola’s cynicism so compelling, especially nearer to the end. What was it like to write two such extreme characters, who were so different from each other? Is this your experience within your own family? (Obviously in a VERY different way!) How did being an older sister affect you while writing MY SISTER THE SERIAL KILLER? I am fascinated by the way people who come from the same family, same environment, can be so vastly different from each other.
OB: You look at your sister or brother and think, one of us has to have been adopted, because you fail to understand certain motivations or behaviours that they display. As I wrote the story I found myself more and more interested in the nature vs nurture debate - how much of what is happening is happening because of the blood running through their veins, and how much is because of what they went through? Can Ayoola even fight it? Is she at all to blame?
Also, I needed Korede and Ayoola to be opposites because I wanted to explore how two women with different looks would navigate the world, especially if their personality somewhat clashed with the illusion their outward appearance gave. I have found that women are compared a lot. Sisters are compared a lot. What does this do to one’s psyche?
MW: I love how this conversation has helped me understand, a little bit, how you built your novel. This idea of female comparison feels like something I missed when I first read it, but now that you share it, will resonate with me as a fundamental aspect of this book. I like to think about the “ideal version” of certain archetypes sometimes, the ideal victim, the ideal criminal, the ideal family. It feels clear to me that the idea of “opposites” and comparing them fascinates you in the same way the “ideal” interests me. Where does this take you? Why did you feel comparing such different characters would be more effective than a subtler comparison? It resonates on an individual level too, because we begin to compare ourselves to our perceptions of others. Does this feel like a natural progression to you?
OB: A subtle comparison would have worked, but there were many things I took to extremes when writing my novel; which also helped when it came to creating distinct voices. The sisters, they do ridiculous things, but I believe they are archetypes; though perhaps not in any way ideal.