An Interview with Tesfahiwet Mekonnen, author of Happyland
My name is Tesfahiwet Mekonnen—I go by the abridged version: Tes Mekonnen. I came to America (1990) at the age of 4. I was born in Sudan, but I am Eritrean (a country on the horn of Africa) because my parents are Eritrean. They fled Eritrea because of the war and trekked to a refugee camp in Sudan and they started a temporary life there. Then we got on an aeroplane in and came to America. I’ve written a couple of things that I am proud of because I put so much into them, particularly Happyland.
What have you written?
I’ve written Blue Ivy Carter: A Little, Big Story. I wrote this story because I read an article where folks were attacking the appearance of a little girl—that little girl happens to be Blue Ivy Carter. What is wrong with folk? Even kids aren’t sacred on the Internet. Leave the kids alone—they don’t deserve your venom. I’ve also written The Book of Teezus: Thus Spoke Me (a book of original quotes that comes in 2 versions), and Happyland: A Fairy Tale in Two Parts—the book I am presenting today.
What is this your own personal favourite project?
There is an ambivalent attachment to Happyland. Before I go into why, I need to explain the genesis of this story. Happyland began as a writing prompt in a creative writing class. This was in 2010. I really didn’t think much of it till I received decent feedback. I allowed my creativity to reign freely. I realized I could take chances with my writing. Happyland was terribly rough, but I had a decent framework for what Happyland would eventually become. Then I started popping pills (Adderall) and my terrible addiction made a straight-up mess of the story. I really took a decent story and destroyed it. It became absolute gobbledygook. This is why I am ambivalent. I got sick, cleaned myself up and chucked Happyland because I couldn’t even look at it without grimacing. I had gained some objectivity and I couldn’t even read the story because it was absolutely nonsensical. It was ramblings of a man gone fuckin’ mad. I dropped out of school for the 2nd fucking time. I was absolutely empty. I had nothing, but my writing. The irony is what destroyed me is what saved me. I had to justify my life somehow and I started scribbling in a cheap journal. I finally completed Happyland. I was able to complete the story with a clean mind. I still wasn’t insecure about my writing, so I hired a credible editor. I received some great constructive criticism and kept tweaking my work. I started gaining more confidence in what type of writer I wanted to be. Frustration started to mount because of the rejection. I don’t mind the rejection, but the waiting was disrupting my progress. I decided to become a bit proactive. I was still in a rut because Happyland needed something more—illustrations. I posted an advertisement that was fraught with hubris to lure the best illustrators I could possibly find on a minor income. Serendipitously, I found a great illustrator, Anthony Resto. The oddity was I posted an ad in Seattle and he was from Indiana. I asked for a quick sketch and as soon as I saw his drawing of Lily Marshmallow, I needed to have him for my book. I am astounded by the fact that we have never even met. We’ve only talked once. The whole collaboration was done via texting. I transferred what was in my head and he captured it beautifully. Happyland is my favorite work because I did everything to create a work that is of high quality. Sorry for the longwinded, roundabout answer. It took awhile to get to this point, but it finally came together.
Some authors are able to pump out a novel a year and still be filled with inspiration. Is this the case for you, or do you like to let an idea percolate for a couple of years in order to get a beautiful novel?
Forget percolate, I let it ferment till I get drunk enough to write. I am just joking. I don’t like forcing anything—I’m lazy that way. I am not really a disciplined writer. I don’t wake up a 9 a.m. and start writing until a certain time. I can’t do that. I wish I were able to that. I get ideas and let it stay in my head. If it is a quality idea, I jot it down. Happyland was frustrating because it was more imaginative and it exhausted me. It strained my mind’s eye. That is poetic of saying…I’m that imaginative. I like working on different projects. I got frustrated with Happyland, so I started The Book of Teezus. Since it is a book of quotes, it didn’t require that much time. I was able to compile quotes. I have a couple half-cooked ideas that I might explore later. I am just all over the place.
I have heard of writers that could only write in one place – then that cafe closed down and they could no longer write! Where do you find yourself writing most often, and on what medium (pen/paper or digital)?
I used to prefer writing in journals, but I was just so disorganized. I got accustomed to typing up my ideas. I do everything digitally now because it is just much faster to capture my thoughts. I am not the most disciplined writer. I get a bit inspired and thoughts just flood out and typing the flood is easier and faster. I like getting stuff on the page. I worry about cleaning later. I prefer working by myself and using my computer.
Before going on to hire an editor, most authors use beta-readers. How do you recruit your beta-readers, and choose an editor? Are you lucky enough to have loving family members who can read and comment on your novel?
Happyland was lucky enough to spawn from a writing class. My peers were the beta-readers. As of now, I just utilize an editor and myself. I am not lucky enough to have family members that would read and comment on my novel. They are loving, but not a reading bunch. I wish that was the case because I put so much into this work and the best validation is from close ones. My mother knows I write but doesn’t know what I’ve written. We speak different languages. I came here when I was 4 years old and I speak English. My mother doesn’t speak English. I speak rudimentary Tigrinya (language from the African country of Eritrea.). She speaks Tigrinya fluently. It really does suck that I can’t much speak with my mother outside of unpleasant pleasantries. This is the life. Tigrinya is language that isn’t taught everywhere and Eritrea is such a small country. My mother is very supportive nonetheless.
I walk past bookshops and am drawn in by the smell of the books – ebooks simply don’t have the same attraction for me. Does this happen to you, and do you have a favourite bookshop? Or perhaps you are an e-reader fan… where do you source most of your material from?
My love of writing was birthed out of reading. I started reading and reading and realized I could write. I like the physical feel of books. I don’t own a kindle and I am not a fan of digital reading. Going to secondhand bookstores helps you discover new writers and different editions of books. It is like a scavenger hunt. Whenever I go to Goodwill, I never know what book I will be purchasing. I really don’t know where I source my material. An idea pops into my head and I just go from there. Sometimes it grows into something worthwhile. I am not the best writer, but I try to take fun chances. I am a proponent of fantastic failure rather than mediocrity. It starts with an idea and then I must execute that idea. It is all about the execution of the idea. Since having a reliable illustrator, I just present an idea to him and he draws it up and that inspires me. My words are competing with the illustrations. Whenever I am in a rut, I try to visualize something. If I can’t write that visualization, I commission it to be drawn up. Most of the images from Happyland are ideas that I thought would be fun to look at. I had these images in my head and my writing is to describe those images. I write because I don’t how to paint. I am not the best writer, so I prefer the aid of illustrations.
I used to find myself buying books in only one genre (fantasy) before I started writing this blog. What is your favourite genre, and do you have a favourite author who sticks in your mind from:
Adult. The first books that started this whole love of writing were Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina. I’ve read a lot of folks, but Tolstoy sticks out because of Anna Karenina (the Richard Pevear and Volokhonsky translation). I think that book is perfect and sustains resplendency for 800 pages. He only needed to write that one book and he would be one of the best writers. A work that had the most profound influence on me is The Stranger (Albert Camus), but I don’t know why. Maybe, I have a lot of Meursault in me.
Social media is a big thing, much to my disgust! I never have enough time myself to do what I feel is a good job.
– If you have chosen someone to manage your profile, please tell me why you did this?
I think social media has warranted your disgust. This is the brave new world. I have chosen to manage my own profile because it is a necessary evil and secretary is away on business— for forever. I utilize social media sparingly. I have an Instagram account (@TesMekonnen) because most of my work involves illustrations and I like to display them. I wish I were more active on Twitter and Facebook because that is the way everything is going. If you don’t have an online presence, you practically don’t exist. If I didn’t have something to sell in the form of art, I probably would refrain from using social media. If you’re going to self-publish, you have to take advantage of every cheap promotion. If it is free, it is for me.
Answering interview questions can often take a long time! Tell me, are you ever tempted to recycle your answers from one to the next?
I haven’t had too many interviews, but that seems like a good problem to have—the temptation of recycling. I can recycle certain things if they the questions are too similar.