Interview With an Author: Moses Ose Utomi

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Moses Ose Utomi and his latest novel, The Lies of the Ajungo

Moses Ose Utomi is a Nigerian-American fantasy writer and nomad currently based out of Honolulu, Hawaii. He has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and short fiction publications in Fireside Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, and more. He is the author of the YA fantasy novel Daughters of Oduma. When he’s not writing, he’s traveling, training martial arts, or doing karaoke—with or without a backing track. His latest book is the novella The Lies of the Ajungo and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Lies of the Ajungo?

It was the first line: “There is no water in the City of Lies.” Like most inspiration, it probably came out of that mystical ether of current events, childhood upbringing, and idiosyncratic fascinations & insecurities, but I can’t point to any particular source. I was riding the train home from work and the line struck me and just couldn’t be ignored. I kept thinking, Why isn’t there any water? Why would any city call itself the City of Lies? Is any of this even true? So I whipped out my laptop and starting writing.

Are Tutu or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

For me, inspiration is often ethereal. I try to be very deliberate about allowing inspiration to operate as unrestrained as possible from my conscious, organized mind, especially for this book. I genuinely cannot tell you where any of the character names came from. I can after the fact see that most of the names were sonically driven—the word/name Tutu sounds delicate, affectionate, and wholesome; Lami sounds mysterious, blunt, and pretty—but the names came to me before any intention.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I think a short novella is about the most I can hold in my brain as a single, cohesive unit. As a result, most of the cuts in this book happened in my head before I put them on the page. That said, this project was unlike any other for me in that it came almost entirely fully formed into my brain. I had to do a little diagramming on paper to make sure the logic of the world worked in the way I needed it to, but there were no big adds or cuts from the first polished draft to the published version.

The Lies of the Ajungo has a strong sense of folklore or fairytale woven through it. Do you have a favorite folklore or fairytale story?

The American Dream.

I jest (sort of), but one of the main things I hoped to accomplish with this book (and this series) is to show how pervasive folklore is. I think it’s very common for modern people to look at folklore patronizingly—the cute but simple communication and traditions of our less sophisticated ancestors. It’s very easy for us to look back at stories from a thousand years ago and see them as simple tales designed to guide people towards certain culturally-relevant wisdoms. It’s much more difficult to consider the stories we are being told now—about current events, political figures, celebrities, people of other identities, religions, orientations, etc—and see how those too are folklore—simple tales designed to guide us toward behaving in the ways our culture wants.

But I’m a child of Disney and I loved The Sword in the Stone.

Do you have a favorite version/retelling of that story (novels, film or television)? A least favorite? One that is so bad it is fun?

The Once and Future King by TH White is my favorite book and my favorite retelling of the Arthurian legend.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how traditional folklore/fairy tales continue to be a source of inspiration for artists centuries after they were first written down?

I think they are inspiring to authors for the same reason they’re enjoyed by readers—folk tales are stories in their purest form. There’s a lot of beauty in complexity, of course; many of my favorite books growing up were massive, multi-book fantasy series with thousands of characters and dozens of POV characters. There’s enormous value in those works. But there’s also beauty and value in a story delivered in as minimalist a manner as possible. It strips away all the (often very fun and immersive, and meaningful!) bells and whistles.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve been meaning to read it for an embarrassingly long time, so I keep it by my bedside as a mark of shame.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I get a lot of my artistic inspiration from non-literary sources, so if I were to include my top five influences overall, this list would look very different. But my top five influential authors, in no particular order, are: Hajime Isayama, Buchi Emecheta, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rick Remender, TH White.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

There was a book called The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop that I discovered at some point in elementary school and it changed my relationship with books. I was always a fiendish reader, but that was largely because I was a kid whose identity was centered on being smart and reading was something that reinforced that identity. The Castle in the Attic was the first book that made me feel wonder. It was inspiring.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Thankfully, no. My parents created an environment in which reading was never demonized. I’m sure there were some books I read that my parents wouldn’t have chosen for me to read, but they trusted me enough to let me make some of those decisions on my own.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Any author who can honestly answer "no" to this is a better person than I.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Not that I remember. My brain isn’t great with visual aesthetic—I find it very hard to buy outfits because I’m hopeless at seeing what configuration of colors and patterns would look cool. So while I can acknowledge a nice book cover, they don’t compel me to buy books over a trusted recommendation or intriguing description.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Dragons of Autumn Twilight. My brothers bought it for me for my birthday, and it was the first adult fantasy book I’d ever read. I was at an age where I was reading everything constantly, and it was so, so different from the things I was reading at the time; sports books and Little House on the Prairie that I was hooked. It’s very unlikely I would be a fantasy writer today without that book.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The Once and Future King by TH White. It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to crying over a book. It’s devastating and human and imaginative and a dozen other adjectives.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin is chaos at the highest level, and I remember reading through it in complete disbelief that an author would so brazenly unravel their own plot like that. I thought, "How can he ever put this all back together again?" which is a feeling I enjoy so much as a reader but find terrifying as a writer.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

This isn’t the last piece to impact me, but I haven’t had a chance to shout it out in any public venue yet: Andre 3000's verse on the unreleased song "Life of the Party." Every Andre 3000 feature (as rare as they’ve sadly become) ruins me and makes me deeply envious of his creativity, and this was just the latest instance of that.

"Hey Miss Donda / You run into my mama, please tell her I said "Say something" / I’m starting to believe ain’t no such thing as heaven’s trumpets / no after-over, this is it, done / If there’s a heaven, you would think they’d let ya speak to your son"
Ruled my mind for weeks.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Morning: Wake up early, get some writing done, do something risky outdoors (white water rafting, cliff jumping, etc),
Afternoon: Lunch over board games with family/friends, then catch up/argue for hours.
Evening: Kickboxing followed by food and karaoke.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

I don’t think I have such a question anymore, which is weird because I used to conduct interviews with myself in my head for YEARS before I published anything. But all those questions don’t seem as urgent and important now as they did then. But here’s a fun one:
Where does the word "Ajungo" come from? What does it mean?
Nowhere, I made it up :). Its meaning is up to every individual reader, but for me, it means “something made up and insignificant that sounds heavy and important.”

What are you working on now?

On paper, I’m working on sequels—to The Lies of the Ajungo and to my debut YA novel, Daughters of Oduma.
But in the dark recesses of my mind, I have a new project cooking that is so expansive and terrifying and ambitious that just the presence of it stresses me out. And fuels me.

Book cover for The Lies of the Ajungo
The Lies of the Ajungo
Utomi, Moses Ose