I'm so honored to meet you.
Same here, Kelly--
I'm impressed with your book!
I mean, everybody is. So I wanted to talk about story and storytelling and I wonder if you even know yet, one book in, like what is your animating force? Like what gets you out of bed every morning? What is the story that you really want to tell and explore?
Well, I think for me, is that once I have an inspiration I feel as if I'm haunted by these voices. There's characters in my head, and I think they haunt me, and they follow me and they're always talking and I need to get it all out. And that is what happened with my first novel, Behold The Dreamers. Like once I had this idea of this chauffeur and this upper class family, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
And do you know why you were so interested in this chauffeur and the upper class family? Like what about that dynamic or that, what themes did that point to that were sort of irresistible to you?
I think for my ...
own experience, like I am from that town where the chauffeur comes from, and I moved to New York City, right, so I am, you know, I have lived in such different worlds. You know, the world in which I was born and the world in which I live in today, they're very different. So coming from very different worlds, and being fascinated about people who were so different, and how they get along, I think that pushed me to want to explore that. And maybe explore a bit of myself to see how I fit into the world in which I wasn't born and I moved into. But I don't live in the world, of, you know, the investment banker. That's not my world, but I'm still very fascinated by them and what are their own struggles. So because I am an immigrant and because I'm a New Yorker, and because I'm an American citizen, I'm always, you know, interested in people who have so many different identities and how it comes together.
And there's a lot in your title, Behold The Dreamers. So are you interested in all dreaming, or the American dream, or the way that your two sets of characters have similar dreams? Can you talk about like ambition and--
Um, I think that I am interested in dreams in general, like people will aspire for something and go after it. Now people would think that I'm a dreamer myself, but I wouldn't call myself a dreamer. I just, I'm not. I didn't sit around and say, I'm gonna dream and write a book, and that book is gonna be published. I just don't, I didn't have dreams like that. But I am fascinated by other people's dreams, you know, and the intersection of those dreams with, you know, sociopolitical climates. So what happens to these dreams when someone has something like the financial crisis happens. And people like us are born in different social class, like how does this social and political climate affect their dreams.
But you're not a dreamer?
I wouldn't call myself a dreamer, Kelly, I just, you know, I think I'm very open to where life takes me. You know, that is what I--
So you, so 10 years ago if someone said, are you gonna write a book, what would you have said?
So I've been writing for a long time, before I wrote Behold the Dreamers. That's why I've been writing as a hobby for many years. But I never thought that I wanted to pursue writing at this level. I thought I wanted to become a college professor.
Oh, so did I. (laughter) That was on my list.
Exactly, so I thought it'd be nice to be a college professor and write fiction on the side, you know, as a hobby, maybe someday open a bookstore. But I don't really think about that. But people said to me, "Oh, you know, isn't this a wonderful success story?" And I said, this is a story of failures. Because one thing after another that I tried to do, I failed at it. Like I had so many failures, and the one thing that worked out for me to a significant level, was my writing. You know, so when so many other things in my life failed, I kept on coming on back to my writing, and then my writing ended up working out for me. And it wasn't this, oh, look I have a dream and then I become so successful at it. That is not the reality with me. The reality is that I had failures.
And is your, it is my impression that Americans have a couple of narratives that we really love.
Yes. _ And we really love the immigrant narrative of coming to this country and making it big. And we don't want you to complicate our story--
By saying, I didn't dream of this, and it's a bunch of failures! It doesn't conform to the story that we're so hooked on, which is people from great distances looking into the future and seeing themselves like getting their stamp on their passport and coming onto these shores Were you super aware of the kind of prevailing narratives that existed already as you started to populate this novel?
Yeah, I mean, I think that is what people would like to see. Because it is a great country, and it does offer opportunities for immigrants like myself. And now, admit it, I am sitting here in America, right, I am not sitting here in my home country. Which is a great country, but the opportunities are not the same. But I think that, to your point, people like the story of the immigrant came here and she wrote a book and voila, here she is. But it is way more complicated than that, you know. And that is the wonderful thing about storytelling. And that's that the story can show you how complicated things are. 'Cause people want to say to me like, "Oh Imbolo, aren't you the American dream come true?" And I just want to laugh, you know, because they don't really want a more nuanced, complicated answer. That, you know, this is not just about some immigrant who came here, worked hard, and had a dream come true. That this is, you know, that I questioned the American dream, even though I wrote about it, that part of me writing this novel was because I came here, and I saw that that dream I had in Cameroon, where if people come to America, and America had a lot of this, that it wasn't really true for many people. And so my writing allowed me to really question my ideas of America, and the count those ideas, and even those who achieve their dream, like the price of getting that dream to come true. So I think for me, I couldn't write a work of nonfiction about this, 'cause it's not what I do, but writing this story allows me to really go into that, and explore not only my story, but all the immigrants' stories, because, you know, I know a lot of immigrants, and they shared with me their struggles in this country. So I wanted to explore that. Like, not this country where you come to and things work out, but this very, very, very complicated and fluid country, which is also a wonderful country.
And then that's really what great storytelling can be, and that's what a 400, 500 page novel can do that almost nothing else can. Which is to say, I know you want, I know you want this ending. But I'm gonna hold your attention anyway, and I'm not gonna give it to you, and you're gonna thank me for it.
Because I'm gonna show you, I'm gonna keep turning this thing 12 different ways until you see that it isn't, that it isn't tidy.
Exactly, exactly, and--
It is what it is.
It is what it is. I mean, I meet a lot of immigrants who have read my novel and they said, this is what my life is like! You know--
That's satisfying, is that a big compliment for you?
It means a lot to me, because this story which I wrote, was based on stories other immigrants told me. You know, people I met on the streets, strangers and friends alike, they told me their stories, and we see them, we talk about these things a lot. And I wanted to write the story, because I knew that it mattered to me that people don't look at us and say, "Oh, you came here and isn't it wonderful now, "that once you're here--"
Right, it's like a box you check.
No, yes! (laughs)
I mean, it's like every day, you have to wake up and live in it.
Yeah, and it's not, and what are you, an immigrant or a citizen, that, you know, life is complicated. And life is messy, and so I cannot give you this nice, beautiful story. People say to me, "Oh, I wish your story had a different ending." You know, I, I--
I'm sure you do, I mean, we all do, right? We all wish that it would work out for everybody, but that's just of course--
I mean, I had to be realistic and say, I have lived with the challenges of being an immigrant in this country, and I wanted to write about that in part because I wanted to tell this story of what it's like. And even American citizens say to me, "I didn't know what it's like, "you know, how ugly it can be trying to get papers." You know, people don't think about it, like how hard it is to be an illegal immigrant in this country, like one of the characters in my novel. So they don't think about it until they see the story, and the story has to be honest and complete. So I am--
That's a huge, huge value of yours.
Was that it's realistic and that it represented real experiences of, that you have been shared, that people have shared with you.
Exactly! And while I wanted to enjoy the novel, or to have a great time within it, I also, I'm not doing, I'm doing a disservice if I sugarcoat anything. You know, and there was part of me that wanted to hold back in certain areas, 'cause I thought, should I go there? But I said--
What's an example?
There's a scene of domestic violence, right? Which is a very common thing in my culture. Not that everybody beats their wife, but there's enough people who are beating their wives when I was growing up that it was, you know, something which, um, I saw. And I said, should I put that there? I mean, it happens in other cultures also. It's not unique to my culture. But at the same time, there was this sense of, I don't know that I want to, like, have women in my culture say, "Imbolo, why did you write about this?"
Right, why did you hang our dirty laundry out?
Exactly, exactly! And, I pushed myself to. Because I have seen it so up close as a child, I've seen enough of it, and it was hard for me to write about it. And when I did, actually I did not get women who said, "Imbolo, why did you write about it?" They said to me, "Imbolo, why didn't you write about it in a different way?" So they thought that I let the character who committed domestic violence, I let him off the hook a lot. I should have shown in the novel what someone should do. Like, I should have punished him in a way, or have his wife leave him, or something. But I said, "This is--"
That's not what usually happens!
You know, I mean, thank you! I said, where I grew up, I did not see women leaving their husband because they beat them once or twice. I saw women who were beaten over and over, and they stayed there. And, it was just part of the culture that okay, my husband beats me, so what, that's it, it's my family, they have to do what they have to do. And, but a lot of women said to me, I wish you'd done it differently in that you could have used this novel to teach people what they should do in that situation. And I said, I, I, I mean, I fought back because I have, you know, like, I wouldn't say I was attacked, but in a way I felt like they were very hard on me, and say that I should have done something different, and taking a stand against domestic violence when I didn't do that in my novel. And they bawled out me because they thought that maybe I condone it? But I don't condone it. I wanted to just tell the story realistic of what a character like that would do.
That's a really interesting question, that all storytellers have to wrestle with, is what is your agenda, to the extent that you have an agenda, what is it? And if your agenda is to show things as they are, that's quite a different agenda than to motivate different behavior.
Right, right, exactly, exactly. And I did not wake up and have, started writing the story with an agenda. I just did not. I was walking down the street one day, and I saw chauffeurs, and the second reason, I thought what is it like? And I became inspired. I wasn't thinking about, you know, what the novel will be about as far as the themes, because now people read the novel, and they're, "So this novel is about class, "and race, and immigration and the American dream." But I never thought about themes. I thought about the people, and their struggles, and their stories, and I said, let me tell this story. And so, you know, when I got the domestic violence scene, I wasn't writing from a place of, you know, this is gonna be a lesson for women who are beaten by their husbands, or a lesson for men not to beat their wives. It wasn't like that. There was no agenda, but to just be honest.
And when you're building out those characters, so that's so funny that you were just walking down the street and saw that. I mean, I have little thoughts that go through my head all the time, like what are those two people doing there--
How do those car rides go, do they talk to each other, do they not talk to each other, like everything, I wanna know like, does the guy floss his teeth in the back seat, do they share food, or do they ignore each other? Um, when you're building a character, do you have a favorite way to go about it? Do you like to hear their voice, do you like to know what they're wearing? Do you like to know who they love or who they hate?
So this story, for example, 'cause this is my only novel.
What a bang-up first job, my god!
(laughs) Thank you, I am, I just came up with them and I said, you know, I just started writing. So it wasn't, I didn't think who is the chauffer? I thought, okay, he's from West Africa, 'cause the men look like they're from West Africa, and I thought oh, this man works somewhere on Wall Street. And then I started writing, and, maybe that is why it took me so long to write it, because I don't know anything about character until I write about it. So it's in the process of writing and rewriting that I discover who these people are. And so, like these characters who had stuff happen to them in their childhood, it's just while I'm writing that I see it, so I always say that when I'm writing, it's as if, you know, I become somewhat that being. Right, so I am, you know, like, I have, I enter this phase and I see things. I see everything clearly. And so I just write what I see and what I hear. I hear dialogue very clearly. I see what the characters are doing very clearly, but I cannot have it before. I don't have that feeling--
Right, you don't abstract it.
No, no, it's just what I see, and then I just start writing.
I think that sometimes, it's a little bit like getting to know a real person. Where you know a little bit after the first time you talk to them. You know a little bit more, and then you have a drink together, and find out something else. And then you go and meet their parents, and then all of a sudden there's a whole nother layer.
Exactly, that is what--
It makes you feel like that.
Yeah, yeah, and then, you know, for the immigrant characters, it was easy for me to develop empathy for them, right, because I knew them and they're from my town, and I used to live in the same neighborhood in Harlem like them, and so, it was easy for me to write about them because I know them. Now, the one person who lives in the Upper East Side, you know, that took a lot of rewriting for me to really--
Yeah, a lot of imagination.
As opposed to like, having one drink, I needed to have 20 drinks with them to understand them and to feel for them, and to be really concerned about their own welfare. And so that was a lot of pushing myself and pushing myself to really hear them, because it's not my world. And that was a challenge in writing a story about people who were not from my world. Is that I really had to really push myself to a whole nother level to really get that.
Did you do anything interesting, did you go up to the Upper East Side and sit in cafes and just watch the world go by?
'Cause you sort of do need these inputs, you know?
Yeah, I do, I did, I spent a lot of time in Central Park talking to nannies and housekeepers, because, you know--
How would you do it? Would you just come and sit down, and?
Yeah, well, you know, 'cause when I'm in the playground, you know, a playground is somewhere I see, you know, like--
With your kids.
Yes, I see this nanny, and you know, I start a conversation, and I say, "Oh, would you," you know, as we talk about their jobs, and they say, "Yeah, I work for this family, "and the house is like this, and you know, "they have a house in the Hamptons," and I start thinking about their lives. And asking some questions, just in a conversation, I get to things. And also, I have been to weddings where many people appear to be that wealthy. And so when I go there and I meet them, and they say, "Oh, I went to Saint Barts," and I said, "Oh, that's, where is Saint Barts?" And it was like, everything I--
You're like a spy!
Yeah, oh yeah! Now I live on, I don't know, Park and Avenue Two! Oh, that's where they live! It was all little, I'm very, very hyper aware, you know, I'm always listening, I'm always looking, right?
Yeah, your antenna.
Even the way they talk, how they move their hand, like the character, the wife of the Wall Street executive. I don't know women like that, but I have met them, and when I meet them, the tiniest thing about them I keep it in my head. It's very, like, very sensitive, and also having a good memory. I think my memory really helped me, because I remembered, like, a friend would say, "Oh, I went to So-and-So's house "in the Hamptons, and they had the pool in the back." So I remembered that. Like, those people tend to have pools in their house in the Hamptons in the backyard. And I'd never been to the Hamptons when I was writing this novel. And so--
That is so funny to me!
It was the stories other people told me, and I put it together. And when I went to the Hamptons, I said, "Oh my god! "I didn't do so badly!" (laughter)
You pretty much named it, yeah.
Yeah, but it was that. You know, the nannies and housekeepers and meeting the people, and even if they did not appear to be really 1%, if I thought they were, you know, if they were wearing certain outfits, or they would mention, oh I'm traveling, mention having a private jet, I just, I just keep thinking of everything. But that, so that took a lot to come together, 'cause it was a lot of, you know, being sneaky.
You were researching.
Yes, but an African immigrant, you know, I could write about them in my sleep. You know, because it was--
Well, sometimes, it's interesting, if you know something too well and it's too of your nature, you can forget to put it on the page, because it's it's just something you've been aware of your whole life, whereas when you're really actively, consciously observing someone then you remember to note like, the length of your eyelashes and your earrings and the way your shoulders move, and you know, you're kind of turned on in that way, with the nannies when you research. You've got big ears, like, tell me more.
Yeah, exactly, it was! And even with the African immigrant characters, you know, like, I had to remind myself about many things. So when I'm around an African party, I have to remind myself of how people dance at a party, and certain other things, but I mean, that's it, writers just gather things. So maybe that is what I did, because I really don't have any creative writing background. I used to work in a marketing department for a media company, so I just, you know, all of my writing just comes from being very, very, very sensitive and aware, and intrigued and very fascinated, and curious about the world around me.
Is there ever a point with your writing where you haven't quite struck your idea yet, and so you're having to be disciplined about the search for the idea? Or have you just not been writing long enough to have that suffering?
Yeah, I mean, I think what I do in my writing is that I do take away time to not write anything, so I don't think it's a writer's block or anything, I just need time to be away. And so, when I'm away from the story, wherever I'm stuck, everything comes more clearly. I cannot be writing all the time. It just, you know, I need the voices to pile up in my head a lot more and to be much louder, and then after that everything will come out a lot more easily.
Have you ever had a character on the page that you despised, and you thought uh oh, this isn't gonna work! I have to somehow find a way to discover their humanity?
I, yes, I mean, you know, the wife of the Wall Street Executive in my novel, I did not like her in the beginning. I thought she was entitled and condescending. And, but I had to get over that. I mean, I don't know if you have to love all of your characters. Thankfully, in my novel, I do love my characters and I care for them, but I think I could write a novel where I don't like some characters. But this particular character was, I think she made me a better writer. Because I think if I'd liked her in the beginning, it would have been easy for me, but because I had to push myself to really understand her, and her story and her world, and her own particular struggles, it really pushed me to start looking at the world differently.
Right, which is really one of the promises of fiction. Because of course we are meeting people all the time and our first take of them is, blegh. And if you hang around long enough, or you're forced to because you work with them, or they're an in-law or whatever, you discover the thing behind the thing, and then you learn something about their background that softens you and then all of a sudden you have these deeper, more complex, but also less abjectly negative.
Yeah, yeah! And that doesn't mean that every guy's gonna feel the same way, because while I struggled really hard and I came to a place of liking and caring for this character, and my readers all the time will say, "I cannot stand her, "I don't like her." Oh, why can't you, come on, look at her! She's another human being! But they say, "I just don't like her," and so I--
Well, chemistry's chemistry!
Like they're bringing, that's the kind of reader response moment where the page, there's this thing, and that's only half the equation, the thing you made. The other half of the equation is inside your reader, and whatever the chemical reaction is?
Yeah, and because people say, "What did you want to do with this novel? "What did you want there?" I said, I don't write thinking what I want the reader to get. The reader can get whatever they want to get. I mean, people ask me--
Yeah, people will say, "Is your novel pro-immigration, anti-immigration?" I do not, I do not go in any direction. I think that, you know--
It's a story.
People will decide whether this novel is fair or unfair, as far as it the way it treats immigrants, or the way it treats the idea of the American dream. But I do not want you take anything out of it, because I read books, and I probably take away something completely different from what the author intended. So I do not think it's my place to say I want the reader to feel empathy for this woman, because even though she's wealthy she has her own struggles. If you want to, fine. If you don't want to, fine! And I do hope that you will, as a fellow reader, I hope you will understand--
And for the sake of humanity, I hope that we're all good and like--
Exactly! If we all push ourself to have more empathy, I mean, I did not start writing this novel thinking oh my god, I really feel for a Wall Street executive who works at Lehman Brothers. Oh, how hard his life must be! I just never! But I ended up getting there, because I thought this is not just any man, but it's an executive, this is another human being. And that is what fiction does for us, or what good storytelling does, is it opens up another world, another way of being, and it allows us to become more empathetic human beings. And if I have a hope, it's that people would develop more empathy because that is what I've gotten from literature. Becoming a more empathetic person. But, I do not, I cannot say that I want them. I do not want anything except for me to do my best to be honest and tell the story completely.
And do you feel a certain pressure, to be entertaining in the pages? Like, you have to hold them. When you can't do anything unless it's holding them.
No, no, that's a good point.
If they put it down, you're--
That's a good point. Well, this story I wrote I think is entertaining because you have these characters who are just lots of different things, and so it'll be entertaining, but I, it is because the world I come from, people who are just varied, have a lot of personalities, and they say a lot of things, so the world I come from is quite entertaining. So it was easy for me to write, but that was not my objective. I thought, I mean, I might write my next book, which is gonna be very dark and heavy, and not the least bit entertaining, and so be it. But I will say that I over time learned how to put humor into my writing. Because before, when I started writing--
It was a conscious choice.
Yeah, well, I think I became somebody who also just seems more human in life as I got older. Because before, my writing was all heavy, everything was so heavy, and I started, you know, lightening up a little bit about life, and I started seeing humor in life, even when it's not working out well for me, I kind of have a little laugh. So I think my novel ended up coming out in my writing. And it wasn't so much that I wanted to put humor there for the sake of it, but because I became somebody who saw that life can, you can have a sense of humor even when life is not going the way you want it to go.
You really sound like you're really good at taking the subconsciousness about what you're doing out of the equation, right? Like, you're in, you're just in with these characters doing what these characters do. You're not, you don't have an agenda, you're not trying to force yourself to be funny or entertaining, like you're just in it, and that's so awesome. I mean, that's probably--
Yeah, well, thank you! I mean, because I don't know, maybe if I were to write a memoir it would be different, right, because I'd say this is my story. But Behold the Dreamers is not my story, and I don't know. Maybe because people gave me this story in many ways, and I think that I was a steward of the story. I had to take care of it and present it the way it had to be presented, so I couldn't put my own agenda there, because when I tried to, Kelly, people said to me, "Oh, this is not right." You know, like, you know those readers. They said to you, this doesn't work. I mean, thankfully it was before the book was published! (laughter) But those people said to you, like, you know, my editor, David Ebershoff, very, very intelligent guy, and there was this one chapter I had. And this character, she's an African woman, and she was going, oh, life is so hard for all the black African women, things are so difficult! And David said to me, "That is you talking." You know?
Uh huh, you were coming through!
That is not the chara--
You're coming through, yes.
Yes, he said, that is you. That is very clever, because you can tell that this is not Imbolo Mbue. This is a character, but when it's Imbolo Mbue talking, you can tell. And I said, yeah, that was me, because I was going through a phase where I said, it's so hard to be a black woman! You know, obviously I got over that, but it is, you know, that was me putting my agenda, and it did not work out.
And he caught it.
Oh yeah, I mean, he's a very intelligent editor also!
Do you think you would have caught it on another day?
I don't think--
Like you know how when you're hot on something and it starts to show up on the page, and you're blind to it but then seven days later when you're editing, you think, what, did I write that? Like that is so weird and off-tone, and like, it's--
Yeah, maybe you're right, I might have caught it on another day, but I think that--
Once you're settled down.
Yes, yes, because I was writing in a moment where I had, I was just very exhausted and tired, and I thought my challenges had to do with being a woman and being a black woman, and it's, they're common, of course. And I thought I'm gonna put it in, this character is gonna say it for me!
Yes, dammit! (laughs)
But he said, nope, that is you, that is Imbolo Mbue. This character, you know, she doesn't talk like that even. (laughs)
Yeah, yeah, that's interesting.
But, so, and I've had African women say to me, this novel is about how hard it is to be an African woman, which is just their interpretation. And they can see that, but it wasn't because I put in there like Imbolo Mbue speaking, I think that they looked at that and that is what they saw. And of course, other people see differently. But I think that people in my town, they read it and they said, "This novel is about how wonderful our town is!" And, "It's such a beautiful town and this novel proves it!" And so--
I remember my big moment of recognizing the power of reader response. It was, you know, you listen to all the love songs on the radio when you're young and falling in love, and they're all about your boyfriend becomes your husband, and then you become a parent and they all feel like they apply to your child.
And so you can all of a sudden you can only think in these certain terms, and then everything is about whatever's top-of-mind for you. And then you think, wow, these are really thick, giant glasses I have on, because they are coloring everything!
Yeah, you know, it is. I mean, I love the Van Morrison song, Into The Mystic, and so I always think that that song is about death. Right, it's about death, but one day I was having a really hard time, so I'd been rejected, my book had been rejected by an agent who I really wanted to represent me. And I was having--
That there, sorry.
No, no, no, she ended up representing me, she's my agent now! (laughs)
She came to her senses.
She changed her mind after she saw another draft, hi, Susan! (laughs) So, but she had rejected my work, and I was, I mean, it was just like the worst possible day for my career because I had worked so hard, and I thought I was gonna get an agent, and she rejected me. So, the next day I couldn't get out of bed, but I pushed myself out of bed and I went to Whole Foods, and they were singing the Van Morrison song came over the speaker of Whole Foods, and I'm standing there in line at Whole Foods crying, because I'm like, this is about the death of this book, you know, like--
Right, right, exactly! And now it'll always be that day, right?
Yes, and now I always think of whenever I hear Into the Mystic, I always think of like, but now it's gotta mean something else to me, 'cause that--
Your circumstances changes!
Right, right. Okay, we have a little speed round. A reduced speed round for you. What was the last story that made you cry?
Oh, Blood In The Water, Heather Ann Thompson.
Okay, great. If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
Oh, how nice.
She thinks I'm very tough. (laughs)
Um, and then, who can't you live without, creatively speaking?
Um, well I think because I wrote my first book by myself for the most part, and I only showed a couple of people before my agent, or before I sent it out to agents, so I keep a lot of my writing in my head, and at this point I think my agent would definitely need to see it, and so creatively I'm gonna depend on her, but otherwise I don't really talk about it or even show even people close in my life. Like, I don't show them. I just--
You hold it.
Yeah, I need to just not talk about it, and not ask anybody's opinion.
Yeah, to keep it clean.
Yeah, yeah, because once I start getting opinions it becomes something different, and then I start questioning myself. But I think at this, after I've gotten everything out of my system then I can listen to the opinions, and then, you know, maybe it moves on to another stage. But, creatively, I think at this point, I would say my agent because she's very, very, very intelligent.
Yeah. And lastly, if you could get everyone in the world to read just one book, what would it be?
Um, I'm gonna go with The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, because it just really changed my life recently. You know, it's about how your thoughts affect your life.
The Untethered Soul?
Great. Thank you so much, it was such a joy to talk to you.
Thank you, thank you, Kelly, I had a great time.
Yeah, it was great. (cheerful music)