In September, I went to the Triskele Literary Festival in London, a writer’s collective of independently published writers who combine their wisdom to assist others. It was full of authors from all over the United Kingdom there to share work and ideas. There, I met Abiola Bello and was instantly drawn to her, partially because we were two of the few people of color there, and partially because she had a warmth and vibrancy that was infectious.
So I had to talk with her. Abiola's singsong British accent was animated as she chatted with me about her YA (Young Adult) fantasy series Emily Knight, I Am. She’s also one of the founders of The Author’s School, which was a finalist for the Great British Entrepreneurship Award this year. More on that in a bit.
First, let me introduce you to her work and her views on publishing.
I left her responses in British English, (uni = university) so please don’t think I’ve gone crazy and lost my ability to spell.
Thanks so much for the interview. It was great to meet you at the lit fest. Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing style.
I’ve been writing since I was eight. I never thought to do it as a career, I just enjoyed it and it relaxed me. I created Emily Knight when I was twelve years old and when I went to uni, my teachers told me to get an agent for it – and a film deal! I never thought of being an author until my English teacher told me to pursue it when I was eleven. My writing style I would say is quite humorous. I love to write about diverse characters with strong female leads.
What inspired you to write your Emily Knight series?
I have an older brother and he made me watch anime and shows like Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, X-Men and WWE. I guess I just wanted to write something that I loved to watch and I couldn’t find anything. Plus, I am obsessed with supernatural powers. I wanted a strong lead female character because there was a serious lack of them.
Emily Knight is far from the stereotype of young Black girls: she is wealthy and trained in martial arts. What’s been the response to your series?
When we met, you mentioned a meeting you had about your book cover that went in a way you didn’t expect. Would you share that story?
Yeah sure! So I was talking to a publishing house and they wanted Emily to look more 'black.' I wasn't offended by the comment, but I found it a bit silly. They wanted her to be darker, with an afro. Whether she has a weave, an afro, dark or light skin–black is black. I had to point out that changing her skin tone, or hair wouldn't make her more black. I wasn't down for the change. That's not the way I see Emily.
How has your work been received so far and what impact has it had? Do you feel your work has been received differently as a Black female author?
It's opened up loads of doors for me. It even got me into the CBBC Drama Development department. I would never have built stuff like The Author School and The Lil' Author Skool if it wasn't for this book. It's been received well and I hope as I keep releasing more books, everything will be more impactful. I'm not sure if me being black has made people receive it differently. A lot of people assume Emily is me! And then I think is it cause she's black? Cause we don't look alike! Maybe for publishers it has been, because there's such a lack of diverse authors on their books, but I don't want to be a ticked box for anyone.
You helped start The Author School in London that offers classes on editing, marketing, literary agents, and more. What needs does the school fill for an author?
Everything! Well, we try too. Helen and I are basically your cheerleaders and we want any author that comes to us to succeed and we go above and beyond to build contacts, create connections and put out as much content as possible to help all authors. We book the best speakers and they always come with such valuable advice. I learn so much from The Author School.
How can artists of color succeed in speculative fiction circles?
I personally don't feel that colour should matter and if you have a strong imagination, it should stand for itself. I think being authentic and true to your vision is what anyone needs to succeed. Yes, for black people there are more challenges, which is silly, but I find if you keep pushing and you’re in your lane, you will always become successful.
What’s your next project?
I am working on way too many things! I AM AWAKENED, which is book two in the Emily Knight series is out next year. I am re-releasing Emily Knight, I Am with a new book cover. I am writing book three and I have finished a YA fiction book. Also, Helen and I are setting up a new publishing house called Hashtag Press.
I also have a blog called lifeofastreetdancer that I made before I released my first book and to get over my fear of sharing my work. I want to write in it more because I get loads of hits. I'm shocked people care to hear my moaning!
A new publishing house? Great! How is Hashtag Press different?
I found that authors are frustrated with publishers, especially with the power lost when you traditionally publish and the lack of visibility with smaller presses. They want someone that really cares about your book.
Hashtag press is collaborative. We help with everything: editing, illustrations, covers, marketing, even entering competitions. We’re a bespoke press that gives the book (and the author) what’s needed. We’re selective though, we want people who are willing to work hard for their book—and not be assholes.
What is Hashtag Press looking for?
We’d love to see kid’s books, YA, chick-lit, thrillers and horror. We’re pretty open right now for novel submissions. We’d like to put out five next year.
What scares you? How do these fears inspire your writing?
My biggest fear is not being successful. To some that may be silly because some people think I am successful, but I don't. There's so much I want to do with my life and I guess I've set such a high standard for myself, I pray I don't fall on my face! The characters I create have my fears and I guess it's a good way for me to talk about it without talking about it, if that makes sense.
What do you like to read? What do you feel is missing in fiction?
I love YA books, chick-lit, thriller and fantasy. My fave authors are Sophie Kinsella, Jane Green, Jackie Collins, Lauren Oliver, Jodi Picoult, and Malorie Blackman to name a few.
I think in fiction, what's missing is just being more real. Like my books have diverse characters because I live in London and there are loads of cultures over here and I don't feel like most books have that. It really isn't hard to make a main character an ethnic person or not to stereotype races. I feel it's just the same issues that never change. Also, we need more mainstream ethnic writers. A lot more.
You have an agent and a PR person. How have they helped your work?
My agent gets my book in front of the big publishers and Helen Lewis, who does my PR, gets me press and reviews. They both get me in through doors that I would find hard to do by myself. Also when they know I have an agent, people think you're more credible. I don't agree but I do find writers look at me differently when I know I have an agent.
How do you spend your free time? (If you have any that is.)
I know, right! I read all the time like in my bag, there is always a book. I write, I go to concerts, movies and dinner with friends. I try to chill as much as I can because I'm such a workaholic. It's about finding balance.
What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?
What was difficult especially when writing Emily Knight, was when other authors would release fantasy books and there would be parts literally identical to mine so then I would have to change my ideas. I'm glad I never read or watched The Hunger Games until years after Emily was released because I remember being in the cinema and thinking this Katniss character is similar to Emily's. Also, I usually mix real experiences with fiction and sometimes it's hard to think about how much should be real.
Thank you for the interview, Abiola.
Thank you, Eden!
Wishing you the best with your new publishing house and with your writing.
Follow Abiola’s work on her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook,
Facebook for Emily Knight, and on Instagram and Instagram for Emily Knight.
Facebook for Emily Knight, and on Instagram and Instagram for Emily Knight.
About The Interviewer
Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root,
a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South
Carolina. She’s been a bridal consultant, reptile handler,
and stockbroker, but now writes dark fiction about the
American South from her home in the English countryside.
She has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dirge
Magazine, and is one of the founders of Colors in Darkness,
a place for dark fiction authors of color to get support for
their projects. Find out more about Eden’s brand of horror at edenroyce.com or follow her on Twitter (@EdenRoyce)