Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kwame. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kwame Mbalia: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Your latest book, Tristan Strong, part two essentially, Tristan Strong Destroys the Universe, follows the award-winning first book, Tristan Strong Punches the Sky. Did I get that right? Yes? Tell me about this series. Tell me how you started it. Tell me about why this happens in the second book. Just give me the whole backstory of this phenomenal series.

Kwame: The Tristan Strong series, wow, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to create and be a part of, this idea of bringing forward these characters and stories that I listened to and that I read growing up as a child, bringing them forward for a new generation of young readers, but also for older readers who might not have had a chance to be exposed to the same material that I did. I love this idea of contemporary fantasy, this idea of magic existing in the time right now because it’s almost like an escape. We get to imagine. We get to enter this different world, this different realm through the eyes of a middle school student. We all know that the world expands for us when we’re in middle school. What more perfect hero could we have than a middle school student who travels through this fantastic realm and learns of his own magical powers?

Zibby: Totally. I have two middle schoolers. My son in particular, this is right up his alley. He will be happy when I give him this whole series. I read, also, your Last Gate of the Emperor, which is coming out in May of 2021.

Kwame: That it is.

Zibby: I got a sneak peek. I loved how it was described as an Afrofuturist journey to a galaxy far away. This whole theme running through all your books is sort of taking — maybe I should ask you. What do you think the theme is coursing through all your books? before I opine on it myself.

Kwame: I am fascinated and enthralled with this idea of exploring non-Western fantasy and science fiction, building magic system, and imagining scientific innovations for future worlds through the eyes of African and African Americans. It’s a way for me to explore and learn more about my own culture while also sharing it with the greater world, while also just having fun and telling jokes and letting my immature sense of humor shine throughout the tales.

Zibby: I saw in an interview with you did with Rick Riordan Presents, who’s your publisher, that your parents used to tell you these types of stories all the time, which is so nice. Tell me about more of the African folklore that you grew up with.

Kwame: They did a fantastic job in scouring this country, and when they traveled to Africa, scouring bookstores over there, looking for books that centered on the African and the African American character. I always tell this story. One of the reasons why I wanted to include and talk about Anansi, the spider, the trickster god, is that when we were growing up, me and my siblings — there were four of us. We were sharing a bedroom. If you’ve ever had to put multiple children to bed at the same time, it can be chaos. One of the ways they got us to calm down is they would play cassettes of the Anansi tales. We would fall asleep listening to Anansi trick or be tricked in all of his different stories. It holds a special place in my heart and one reason why I wanted to make Anansi be such a central figure in the Tristan tales.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me about growing up more. That sounds interesting, four kids in one room. I have four kids in my house, and I can barely do it. What was it like being so close with your siblings like that, not having any personal space? Did that make you want to turn to books for an outlet that you could have yourself? What was it like?

Kwame: I don’t think you really think too much about it when you’re younger. When you’re younger, it’s just like, hey, I have playmates. They’re here all the time. As you enter middle school and high school, yes, you definitely want your space. For me, one thing special that I can remember is — I’m the second oldest of the four that we shared the room. The younger two, they would fall asleep. It would be me and my older brother. We were a little older. We’re not ready for bed yet. We would play this game called Brothers. Basically, it’s a storytelling game. We would tell the story, but at the beginning of the story you have to choose, what animal friends do you have? What kind of cars do you have? You’re setting up the setting, the world building for this story. It got to the point, that’s how we counted sheep. We never actually got to the point of telling a story. We would just talk to each other about, what is this story about? Who’s in the story? What type of cool moves and stuff will we do? That is one of the most special memories that I have, is falling asleep to this idea of telling a story.

Zibby: Then were you a big reader growing up?

Kwame: Oh, my goodness, I was a voracious reader growing up. My parents heavily encouraged it. My mother, what she would do is every Friday, she would take us to the library. She said you could check out as many books as you want to read. You just have to carry them and be responsible for them. Of course, I’m walking out carrying bundles of books. No matter what, Sunday or Monday, all of the books would be read. I would be anxiously waiting for the next Friday to come around. What’s hilarious is that my parents, they had this little thing that they would do for me and my older brother. I don’t want to call it tricking us, but to encourage us. They would say, “It’s quiet time. It’s nap time. You can either take a nap or read a book, one of the two things.” I’m seven, eight years old. I’m like, I’m going to read a book. I’m not going to take no nap. Now it’s all I can do. I just want to read. I want to read. I want to read.

Zibby: I thought you were going to say all you want to do is take a nap.

Kwame: That too now. Now I miss those nap times. I really regret not taking advantage of them.

Zibby: Me too. How old are your kids?

Kwame: They are twelve, nine, five, and a four-month-old. Now I’m really regretting not taking advantage of that nap when I had the chance.

Zibby: Are you already reading to them all the time and trying to encourage this in them? How is that going?

Kwame: Absolutely. For us, books have been the one thing where it’s like, it’s not that we don’t say no, but it’s like, all right, you want a book, let’s get you a book. We encourage reading and literacy from a young age. Even my five-year-old who’s learning to read, going through the motions and the act of opening a picture book and telling her own stories as she interprets the pictures, that’s an act of learning to read. That’s an act of reading. It’s something that we’ve always encouraged. My nine-year-old is reading my book, too, right now and telling me what her favorite parts are, which is cool. It’s fun. Seeing her laugh at some of the things that I laughed at while I wrote the book, it’s fun. It’s rewarding in a way.

Zibby: Tell me about how you got into writing books to begin with. You loved to read as a kid. You found your place in the world in middle school realizing what was going on around you. Then what happened?

Kwame: I’ve always also been a writer. The difference is, I didn’t write for others. I wrote for myself. Writing was, for me, an act of sharing and expressing my emotions that I may have not felt comfortable talking about. I would just put them in a little story with a little character who was definitely not me. I’ve always been a writer, but it’s only, I would say, within the past fix, six, or seven years that I’ve thought or dreamed about becoming an author. That’s because I received encouragement. I received feedback from people who said, “Hey, some of this stuff that you write is really good. Have you ever thought about becoming an author or publishing it and sending it out?” I hadn’t until that point. That’s when I really began to think that maybe this could be a career for me. I never dreamed it would be my only career because I’m a scientist. I went to school for biology, chemistry. I worked in the sciences after I graduated. It was always like, this is a hobby. I can make a little money from it. Now it’s a career which just goes to show you that you never know where you’re going to end up in life and to never self-reject, never gatekeep yourself out of trying and doing something.

Zibby: I read you were a pharmaceutical metrologist. What does that even mean?

Kwame: Metrology is just the calibration of instruments. Basically, I would travel around to different people who manufacture drugs, Tylenol, Advil, inhalers, and stuff like that. One of my kids has asthma. I would travel around and I would make sure that the instruments that they use to manufacturer the medicine worked right. The box says you’re taking five hundred milligrams of ibuprofen, and then you’re only taking four hundred and you’re wondering why the pain isn’t going away. It’s because maybe the instruments weren’t working right. That’s what I did. I traveled around. I loved it. It was a great job. I was sad to leave it, but I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of the characters that I met along the way, a lot of the dialogue that I had, the conversation, and a lot of the settings into my own books and stories.

Zibby: Then how did you end up writing the first best-selling Tristan Strong? How did that happen? Then what was it like when you found out that it was such a success?

Kwame: We learned that Rick Riordan and Rick Riordan Presents, the imprint, were looking for African American stories, African American storytellers. It was over the winter break, for five to seven days, I sat down and I wrote the opening three chapters and then a synopsis of what would become Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. They came back immediately. They said they loved it. I had written the now infamous Gum Baby scene where Gum Baby breaks in and tries to steal Tristan’s journal. Gum Baby was a fan favorite. From the very onset, from the very beginning, there was truly something special about these two characters and the way they interacted throughout the story. Disney and Rick Riordan Presents, they loved it. They said, “We want you to be a part of the imprint.” I said, yay!

Zibby: That’s amazing, oh, my gosh. What’s your process like when you’re working? Do you work right there where I’m seeing you? Where do you like to work? How long does each book take and all that good stuff?

Kwame: Just to let you know that I have a four-month-old, so I write in fits and spurts. My wife, she’s gone to back to work. A lot of the times, we’ll pass the baby back and forth. We’ll take care of him. She’s watching him right now. I’ll watch it when she gets on her meetings. It’s really about, right now, taking advantage of time when it becomes available. Sometimes that might mean writing one hundred to two hundred words. Sometimes it’s one AM in the morning and I’m writing two to three chapters. You never know. There is no schedule right now. It’s take advantage of what you have and try to create the final installment in that story and do the best job that I can with it.

Zibby: I feel like the combination of pandemic plus infant must just be — I don’t know how you get anything done.

Kwame: It’s fine. I love it. It’s a dream. That’s sarcasm.

Zibby: Oh, okay. I’m like, we’re no longer friends here. No, no, no.

Kwame: It’s difficult. There was a definitely a period of time there, a month or so, where I absolutely struggled. I maybe wrote all of a chapter throughout that whole month because it was so difficult. A lot of creative people were dealing with that at the time, quarantine, being restricted, having to adapt to new ways of handling life both professionally and personally. Thankfully, we’re out of — I shouldn’t say we’re out of it, but I’ve become accustomed to it, working around it. We’re going to get this story done. We are going to get it finished one way or another.

Zibby: I heard that you are hard at work on the next book in the series. True? Finished?

Kwame: No, not finished. I’m so close. I’m so close. That last five percent is going to take the most time because you’re wrapping up a series. You’re putting a stamp and concluding a character’s journey and their growth. You want to do it in a way that closes the door on that story arc, but it doesn’t close the door on the world. You can still imagine them having adventures and going off. There’s no finality. It’s the end for now…

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie? You mentioned Disney earlier.

Kwame: Rick Riordan Presents is an imprint of the Disney Books Collection. I don’t think there’s any author out there who doesn’t want their story to become a movie. I’m really, really, really hopeful that it will be. It’s just, hey, we need more readers. We need more fans to shout about it and to draw attention to it. The more you read and share and the more people like you have me on to talk about it, the more the chance there will be that it’ll be a movie.

Zibby: Good. I’m glad I could play a tiny piece in that. When it comes out, I will be like, that’s all me. That was because of my interview right there. What advice do you have to aspiring authors?

Kwame: I mentioned it a little bit in the beginning. What I would say is that as writers, you will meet so many different what we call gatekeepers, the people who will either allow your work through to the next level, to the next rung in publishing, or will reject it and send it back. You will meet so many of those gatekeepers who control access. The very first gatekeeper you will meet will be yourself. You cannot self-reject. You cannot gatekeep yourself. You cannot say, my story isn’t good enough to go here or my writing isn’t great enough to do this. You have to be your own biggest fan, promoter, publicist, and really energize yourself. Don’t self-reject. Submit your work. Submit, submit, submit. You say yes even if you think everyone else will say no. You say yes.

Zibby: Okay, we’re saying yes. Just out of curiosity, what ended up happening to your other three siblings? Are any of them authors? What did they end up doing? Are you guys still close?

Kwame: We’re still close. My sister just recently finished — she got her doctorate. She’s Dr. Mbalia. She’s the third Dr. Mbalia of the family after my parents. It’s really cool. She’s definitely an inspiration. My brother is off doing amazing things. I don’t even know what he does. We look at pharmaceutical metrologist. He worked with the NOAA, the National Oceanography Association of Americas. He’s just off doing wonderful things. Then my other brother is a teacher. Coming from a family of educators — both my parents were professors. My wife started off as a kindergarten teacher. As someone who interacts with teachers on a daily basis as an author, teachers get so little credit for what they’re doing both especially right now during this pandemic and just in general. My siblings are off being awesome. I am out here just writing them into books and making fun of them.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You can write my son’s teacher in, my five-year-old son. We had curriculum night last night. His teacher said that she has now gotten certified in both sky diving and scuba diving. You would never know from looking at her. I felt like that was a James Bond story in the making.

Kwame: So she just teaches — to go from —

Zibby: — I don’t know if it’s the same day, but she does them both now regularly.

Kwame: That’s fantastic. I will live vicariously through your son’s teacher.

Zibby: Thank goodness for summer break for the teachers. Although, not these days. Anyway, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so glad I could help this become a movie. You will be entertaining my son at boarding school very shortly when I send him all this. Have a great day. Thanks so much for coming on.

Kwame: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I really appreciate it. This has been a blast.

Zibby: Good. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Kwame: Bye.