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On the morning that I speak to Akwaeke Emezi, they’re in Los Angeles handling press for their new novel You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty—their seventh book published in four years. “I hope for a sabbatical,” Emezi jokes over the phone. “I decided not to publish next year because if I was, I’d be in the middle of edits right now. I’ve been doing that nonstop for the last four years. I need to take a break.” And the break is much deserved. Since their 2018 debut Freshwater, Emezi has become a National Book Award finalist, appeared on the cover of Time as a 2021 Next Generation Leader, was a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, and is currently developing two of their books—Freshwater and You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty—for the screen.
Out on May 24, the Nigerian author’s debut romance novel tells the story of Feyi, a young woman who attempts to find herself again after the death of her partner. Over the course of one hot Brooklyn summer, she and her best friend Joy spend their days relaxing on the beach, shaving their heads, eating edibles, and getting new tattoos. As Emezi writes, “There was nothing to stop them from being whatever they wanted.” But in the midst of this path towards self-discovery, Feyi meets a new man and travels to the Caribbean with him to meet his family, and of course, unexpected love ensues. “I’m not sure if it’s because this book is commercial fiction,” Emezi wonders, “but this feels like one of the biggest book launches I’ve ever done.”
Below, Emezi spoke to ELLE.com about Fool of Death’s otherworldly origin story, the role of grief in the novel, and why they write books for themselves.
Can you tell me a little bit about the title of the book? I read that it’s based on a song.
Yes, it’s a lyric from the song “Hunger” by Florence and the Machine. The whole lyric goes: “Oh, and you in all your vibrant youth / How could anything bad ever happen to you? / You make a fool of death with your beauty.” And I really like that because it speaks to being alive and the idea that vibrance and beauty are connected to life, in a life conquers death kind of way. So it felt like a really good fit for a story about someone who’s trying to figure out how to be alive and how to reconnect with all that vibrance after death. I actually thought that it was going to be too long for a title and I tried coming up with alternatives. I think one of the alternate titles was just the word “alive,” but the book didn’t like any of those titles. It kept insisting on this one.
Where did the idea for You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty first originate? What initially brought you to these characters?
Oh, I had a dream about them. I used to dream all the time and it started when I was a kid. My younger sister and I used to tell each other stories before bedtime. We would just lie there and dream up all these worlds. So when I immigrated to the States and I didn’t live with my sister anymore, I started doing it by myself. The period of time right before you fall asleep where the world is a little fuzzy is my favorite time to think about stories. My dreams are very cinematic. They have plot, they have characters, they have entire arcs that are happening. I actually have multiple books that started because I woke up from a dream and I just started writing it out. One time, I had a dream that was so detailed and so complete that when I woke up, I wrote for about 11 hours straight and it was 18,000 words. It took so long. [Laughs] So that’s how Fool of Death happened: I had a dream and that’s what the characters were doing. It’s kind of like receiving downloads. Some of my friends say, “You get these stories downloaded and then you have to transcribe them.”
That’s such a great origin story. Do you keep a notebook on your nightstand for when those moments come?
Sometimes I’ll send a voice note to one of my friends and then I’ll go back and listen to it. But I do try to make sure that there’s an archive of it because it happens so often that if I didn’t store it in some way, I would forget it. And sometimes the thing I’m trying to store isn’t even necessarily just the bare facts of the story, but a certain feeling. There’s a certain ingredient there that’s intangible, but that makes the story real. If I lose that ingredient, then it doesn’t even matter if I have the outline because I don’t have the chemistry to put it all together anymore. That’s happened to me once or twice before where I’ll look at my old notes and there’s an outline of a whole plot, but I can’t write it because I don’t remember what it felt like anymore. And then I’ve just lost the essence of the story.
In Fool of Death, one of the highlights is the friendship between Feyi and Joy. It felt like the heartbeat of the novel. Why was it important to make this book about friendship as much as romance?
That’s just what felt real. That’s what felt true. So much of what we learn about love isn’t necessarily learned from romantic relationships. I think if people use friendships like that, like the barometer for what’s possible in a romantic relationship, then there’s a lot more possibilities that get opened up. There are things that you expect from a friend that, all of a sudden when it comes to romantic relationships, you start settling. People are fully in romantic relationships where they don’t feel as safe as they do with their friends. And I think that friendship like that and the love that is in those relationships can be just as much a template for romance.
Speaking of romance, without giving too much away, Feyi falls for someone who bonds with her over a shared grief. And there are several mentions of ghosts in the book. Can you tell me about why you included this type of imagery in the story?
I didn’t want to. [Laughs] It was supposed to be a fluffy romance novel that didn’t have anything complicated in it. It was just going to be about people fucking, a nice little beach read. Then I started writing it and they just ended up being more complex characters than I planned for. So I didn’t really have a choice if I still wanted the book to be good. That’s one of the things that’s frustrating for me when I write. Even if I try to write something that’s fluffy and simple, the characters don’t cooperate. They just keep being complicated. I was telling one of my friends that I didn’t expect this book to be so polarizing. Even just from early reviews, people have very strong feelings. Some say, “I loved the friendship, but hated the romance because I didn’t like the choices that the character made.” But when the characters show me who they are, I can’t ignore it. That would be bad storytelling. I would always be able to tell that there was something missing or that I was ignoring these deeper things that run underneath.
So it definitely wasn’t my intention to write a story that had so much grief and death in it, especially after I had just written The Death of Vivek Oji, but that’s just how it worked out. Even though there’s all this talk about grief and death, it’s still about these two Black girls having a hot girl summer. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I think that it challenges people to understand that even in all that grief, you can be hooking up with strangers at house parties. Grief doesn’t look any certain way. It also just stays with you for so long that at some point you have to continue living. You can’t be all solemn and serious and dressed in black forever. What does it look like when the grief is still there living alongside you? That’s what the book shows.
One of the love interests in the novel is a chef and I loved all of your descriptions of food and the dishes he prepares. Do you cook?
I do cook, but more importantly, I watch a lot of cooking shows. I wanted the love interest to be sexy and I was like, “What’s a sexy career? Oh, a chef.” Food is so visceral and it engages all of your senses. It’s such an immersive experience. That’s what Feyi needed, someone who would be the embodiment of being alive, even through their work. So at first I had created this list of dishes. I made them up based on ingredients I found in fancy cooking shows. But, again, cooking is art. It had to actually pass the standard of that industry. So I commissioned a private chef and had him go over the entire menu. And he was like, “These meals that you’ve written don’t actually make sense.” [Laughs] And I was like, “I don’t do this.” I mean, I can cook but this character has to be Michelin Star and that’s a different level. So the chef wrote a very specific menu for this character based on who he was. Then I incorporated all of that into the book, including what the food smelled like, what it looked like, and even the types of alcohol that went with each dish. I included all the little details. I wanted it to be good art.
You often say that you don’t write for the reader, but that you write for yourself. As an artist, why is that such an important distinction to make?
Well, honestly, I say it because people always ask me: “What are you writing for? Who are you writing for? Who do you want this story to get to? What message do you want the readers to take from it?” And half the time, I never really know what to say. I don’t think you can actually control people’s reactions to your work. So writing to try and get someone to feel something seems like a lot of energy. I have no idea how people are gonna react and that’s part of the fun. It doesn’t make sense to me to center my practice around an unknown variable. It just doesn’t seem logical. So, I center it around what I do know: myself, what I’m trying to say, and what feelings I want to express. With Fool of Death, people talk a lot about how they don’t agree with the choices being made and I like that. It wouldn’t be a conversation if you already knew what the other person was going to say. So I always center my practice around myself because that’s the most reliable point. There are always things that people can take away from the work. I just can’t predict them.
Last year, it was announced that Fool of Death is going to be adapted for the screen by Amazon along with Michael B. Jordan’s production company. Can you say anything about the process so far and how that’s going?
It’s in development. You know, I thought publishing took a long time, and then I started working in film and TV. I was so wrong. The main thing with the screen adaptation is that I’m on as executive producer, which is nice, but I’m not writing the script. I did write for Freshwater and I had to decide if I wanted to keep doing that with this adaptation. It was really tempting because there’s a lot of money in writing for film and TV, but the main thing I don’t like is the fact that I don’t actually have creative freedom. With the draft, and even in outline, every single step of it is supervised by other people. And in a way, people can say it’s collaborative, but it’s not collaborative when one person has the power to shut down the entire project and the other person doesn’t. It’s a brutal industry and I decided I didn’t want to write it and wanted to just keep writing books. No one supervises my books. I write whatever I want and even in the editing process, I have veto power over everything. Then the book exists exactly the way I want it to. I cannot guarantee that that would happen if I was writing for film and TV whatsoever. I would always have to compromise. I was like, “I’ll just executive produce and give it to other people.” I’m handing the world over. It’s not going to be what the book was and that’s the point because it’s shifting form, and in the case of adaptations, it’s shifting mediums. It can be something else and that’s okay with me. I know that the book exists and the book is the truest form of what the work is.
What’s your sign?
I’m a Gemini with a Scorpio rising. I tried it, but I just don’t have that cooperative quality. I would burn everything to the ground.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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