how i get it done

How I Get it Done: Writer Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi.
Akwaeke Emezi. Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Akwaeke Emezi, 33, is the author of three books. Their first novel, Freshwater, was published in 2018, and is currently being adapted for TV. Since then, they’ve published Pet, their young-adult debut, and The Death of Vivek Oji, which came out last month and instantly earned a spot on the New York Times best-seller list. In 2018, the National Book Foundation named Emezi a “5 Under 35” honoree. Emezi, who grew up in Nigeria, currently lives in New Orleans with their exceptionally vocal cat. Here’s how they get it done.

On a typical morning:
I didn’t used to have a morning routine, but then I got a cat, and a morning routine became extremely necessary. I usually wake up, stay in bed for a little bit, and unfortunately I check my phone. I read my emails and go through social media, mostly because I’m trying to carve out a space and time where I’m just alone. My cat is an extremely social cat, so the minute I start engaging with him in the morning, all my alone time is done. I also try to get some stretches in — I’ve had a chronic shoulder injury for the last couple of years — and do my whole skin routine. I have to do it silently because if my cat hears my voice, he knows that I’m awake, and he starts screaming outside my door. It’s a very loving hostage situation — I’m grateful for that because he gets me out of bed. I’ve dealt with severe depression and anxiety for most of my life, so being stuck in bed for the whole day is no longer an option. It’s been nice to have the structure imposed of us having breakfast together, and then having playtime scheduled. Then, once he takes his midmorning nap, I’m allowed to start working.

On having two breakfasts:
I do not drink any coffee because caffeine makes me terribly sick. But I do usually have two breakfasts. My first is a bowl of Special K and oat milk, which I make when I can’t really think or cook. And then around midday or afternoon, I have my actual breakfast, which is the same thing every day: two slices of gluten-free toast, olive oil drizzled on top, basil from my herb garden, two eggs that are semi-poached — I fry the bottom, steam the top — and then I season with oregano, pink salt, and black pepper. Sometimes I’ll include vegan cheese or smoked salmon. I recently became a person who has an olive-oil subscription — actually, two olive-oil subscriptions, Fat Gold and Bright Land — so I always have relatively fresh olive oil.

On gardening:
My garden’s name is Emmeline, and I started it when I bought my house in New Orleans last March. I grew up in a bungalow in Nigeria that had a small farm in the back with a garden, and that was my ideal living situation. So, I bought a bungalow and am now quite literally living my dream. I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of heirloom varieties. Currently I’m growing red okra, purple sweet potatoes, and culantro, which I got introduced to when I lived in Trinidad. It’s like cilantro but considerably stronger — it’s my favorite herb. But I’m still trying to figure out how to grow it here because it doesn’t like heat that much. Taking care of the garden has been therapeutic — it’s like having a cat, especially when the plants are seedlings, because if you don’t water them, they will die within a day. You really can’t slack. You have to show up.

On their writing routine:
At this point in my career, because I have more than one book going on, everything is all over the place. Right now, I’m launching one book, I’m in line edits for another book, I’m on deadline for a third book, and I have to do beta-revisions for a fourth book. I’m trying to be gentle with myself, but it’s a bit chaotic. Sometimes I do a word count. I write in the app Scrivener, and they have a project target function, where you can calculate how many days you have left to hit your target goal, and how many days of the week you have to write. It’s nice to watch that tracker, and it alerts you when you’ve hit your word count for the day.

On asking for help:
When Freshwater published, I became suicidal on my debut tour. At that point, I was like, I’m not going to be able to do this, we have to cancel. Because of my mental health struggles, it wasn’t really a choice: It was either you ask for help or you’re probably going to die. My team and I realized for touring to be sustainable, we had to alter how we do things. We figured out what I would need from publishers, what kind of accommodations I would want, and what would be too stressful for me. As a debut author it was scary to say no, especially as a Black, queer, trans author. I would worry, If you say no, are you tanking your own career? Aren’t you supposed to be doing everything you can do to make this work, even if it’s costing you your mental health, even if it’s potentially costing you your life? The hunger of capitalism will eat you up completely, and it doesn’t care. So I learned very early on to trust my agents when they told me I could say no. In this world, we cannot survive on our own. The narrative that you have to push through alone kills people.

On inspiration:
If anything, I have too much inspiration. Oddly, a lot of my ideas come from dreams. I literally feel like I’m downloading from another realm. I’ve woken up several times and written out the plot to an entire book; I also lucid dream, so I can control my dreams quite a bit. Right now, I have a list of about 15 books that I have to write, and I’m only on number eight. And more keep showing up! I’ve been trying to figure out how to adjust my pace accordingly because publishing is rather slow, and I don’t want to end up with a backlog of books that I haven’t been able to write. I always thought I’d slow down after the first year or two, but I’ve actually been ramping up.

On decompressing at the end of the day:
I try to put away screens at a certain time, dim lights, burn incense, and change my immediate environment to calm myself down. Ideally, I like to sleep around ten hours a night. I have a very short day! So when I put the kitten to bed, I put myself to bed. And then, he knows to be good until the next morning, when around 10 or 11 a.m., he comes to my door to say, Hello, you left me alone for 12 hours. Do you mind?

How I Get it Done: Writer Akwaeke Emezi