Interview: Chris Abani, author of The Secret History of Las Vegas

I absolutely loved Chris Abani’s latest, THE SECRET HISTORY OF LAS VEGAS, and I asked him if he’d answer a few questions about the book, and more, and he kindly obliged. Please welcome Chris to the blog!

chrisabaniYou’re the author of several novels and numerous works of poetry. Have you always wanted to be an author? Will you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?
I have always wanted to write. I was one of those annoying people who knew early on where their passion lay. I think the first inkling of writing began when at 10 I snuck into my elder brother’s room and found a notebook with a novel my brother wrote. I read it voraciously and only later did I learn that he had copied out Things Fall Apart by hand to impress girls. But it made an impression on me. And by the time I read James Baldwin’s Another Country a few months later I was sold on the idea. I wrote a short story, which got published in the local still at 10 and then my first novel at 16.

Your new novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas is, on the surface, a mystery, but so much more at the core. What inspired you to write it?
My very first novel was a thriller set in Nigeria where a Nigerian James Bond-like character has to thwart neo-Nazis from blowing up the country. When I finished the Virgin of Flames, I realized that I had been writing a quartet of novels without knowing it – Graceland, Becoming Abigail, Song for Night and then the Virgin of Flames. So I thought it was time to break into new territory so I thought I’d try my hand at an unconventional murder mystery.

The Secret History of Las Vegas delves into the horrors of Apartheid era South Africa, and in particular, takes Sunil Singh, a complicated man with a difficult past, to some very dark places. What kind of research did you do for the novel, and what was one of the most surprising things you learned?
secrethistoryoflasvegasI have spent a considerable amount of time in South Africa and continue to do so. It has become like a second home to me. I talked to people who lived under apartheid, and those who were working for the apartheid government. But the emotional tones come from living in different countries, including America, and realizing that injustice exists everywhere. In many ways the apartheid in the book mirrors race relations in the US. The most surprising thing I’ve learned, about South Africans, and humans in general, is how forgiving and loving the human race really is. There is hope for us still.

Did you do any specific research in order to help shape the characters of Fire and Water, the conjoined twins in the novel?
Yes, I did a lot of medical research. Read a lot of doctors reports and case studies, particularly from the early 20th and late 19th century, but in the end, I realized that they are both just aspects of my own I don’t know what that says about me and my mental state.

What is your writing process like?
Slow. Long. Laborious. Lots of rewrites. Lots of cutting and rewriting. The same I guess as almost anybody else’s.

What, or who, has influenced you the most in your writing, and in your life?
My mother had the most influence on me as a writer. She taught me to read and write at 2 or 3. She never limited what I could read, never tried to protect me from all the depth that literature offers. She typed my early work. So my mother followed by writers like Baldwin and so forth, comic books, TV and movies. The usual.

If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

What are you reading now?
Mostly student work. I don’t have as much time to read for pleasure. Saving up for a vacation.

What’s next for you?
A long drink and a soak in the bath. Just kidding. I think some essays are calling. We’ll see.

Keep up with Chris: Website | Twitter

Before he can retire, Las Vegas detective Salazar is determined to solve a recent spate of murders. When he encounters a pair of conjoined twins with a container of blood near their car, he’s sure he has apprehended the killers, and enlists the help of Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in the study of psychopaths. As Sunil tries to crack the twins, the implications of his research grow darker. Haunted by his betrayal of loved ones back home during apartheid, he seeks solace in the love of Asia, a prostitute with hopes of escaping that life. But Sunil’s own troubled past is fast on his heels in the form of a would-be assassin.

Suspenseful through the last page, The Secret History of Las Vegas is Chris Abani’s most accomplished work to date, with his trademark visionary prose and a striking compassion for the inner lives of outsiders.

About Chris Abani:
Chris Abani is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter and playwright. Born in Nigeria to an Igbo father and English mother, he grew up in Afikpo, Nigeria, received a BA in English from Imo State University, Nigeria, an MA in English, Gender and Culture from Birkbeck College, University of London and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. He has resided in the United States since 2001.

He is the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the PEN Hemingway Book Prize and a Guggenheim Award.

His fiction includes The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin 2014), Song For Night *(Akashic, 2007), *The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006), GraceLand (FSG, 2004), and Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985).

His poetry collections are Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), There Are No Names for Red (Red Hen Press, 2010), Feed Me The Sun – Collected Long Poems *(Peepal Tree Press, 2010) *Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen, 2003) and *Kalakuta Republic *(Saqi, 2001).

His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Romanian, Hebrew, Macedonian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Dutch, Bosnian and Serbian.

Through his TED Talks, public speaking and essays Abani is known as an international voice on humanitarianism, art, ethics, and our shared political responsibility. His critical and personal essays have been featured in books on art and photography, as well as Witness, Parkett, The New York Times, O Magazine, and Bomb.

His many research interests include African Poetics, World Literature, 20th Century Anglophone Literature, African Presences in Medieval and Renaissance Culture, The Living Architecture of Cities, West African Music, Postcolonial and Transnational Theory, Robotics and Consciousness, Yoruba and Igbo Philosophy and Religion.

He is Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.

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