Nikki May, WAHALA

Nikki May, WAHALA

Zibby is joined by author Nikki May to discuss her debut novel, Wahala, which many are calling “Sex and the City with a killer twist.” Nikki shares the meal with friends that inspired her to write this story, how she mapped out her four main characters’ personalities on a spreadsheet that ended up being taller than her, and why she wants all of her novels to feature mixed-race characters with true-to-life experiences. Nikki and Zibby also talk about the upcoming BBC adaptation of the novel and what role Nikki is happily playing in that development.


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

Nikki May: Thanks for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Oh, I love that cover. I still have the galley, but this is one of my favorite colors, so I’m very excited about it.

Nikki: Hot pink.

Zibby: Hot pink, got to love it. Would you mind telling everybody listening what your book is about? Then I want to know what inspired you to write it, why this story.

Nikki: It’s my debut novel. It’s called Wahala. Other people are describing it as Sex and the City with a killer twist. I’ll take that. It’s a modern, subversive take on friendship, family, and culture, but it’s underpinned by this rather epic revenge twist.

Zibby: Excellent. Debut novel, just go back in time first. How did we get right here? Did you always like to write? How did you end up writing your debut novel now?

Nikki: I’ve always written, whether it was angst-ridden terrible poetry as a spotty teenager — then I worked in advertising most of my life, so I was writing technical copy for telecoms clients or books on mindfulness. I’m a writer. I doodle. I’ve always got a pen and pad in my hand even if I don’t ever read back what I’ve written. I’ve always wanted to write a book, but then don’t we all? I put it off and put it off because I always had work to do and much more important things to do until we downsized the business and went more into consultancy. I had more time on my hands. It was after a long and very loud lunch with friends at a Nigerian restaurant — there’s more than a passing resemblance to the restaurant in the book. I got on the train home. I felt myself codeswitch out of Nigerian me into English me. I started thinking about my two cultures. I started sketching out some characters. I’d written the first scene before I got to my stop. Remarkably, the first scene in the book is hardly changed from that very rough draft.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. So you wrote it on your phone or just on the notebook?

Nikki: I always have notepads and pens, always, because I’m a list person. I always have a pad to write the next list.

Zibby: Wow, that’s crazy. Same menu? Same everything?

Nikki: Pretty much.

Zibby: I liked that first scene particularly because you really show what it’s like, even the conversation. The girls were like, this is okay to say in this restaurant, but if you say this outside the restaurant, you’d be in trouble. It was almost like you had this private, little bubble inside that you created.

Nikki: I think friend groups can be like that. I have different friend groups. We have a different private, little bubble in each where certain things become shorthand. Certain things, you get a pass on saying which you wouldn’t say outside. I wanted to recreate that. I think female friendships are just lovely and wonderful and complicated and can be toxic, so what a rich vein to explore.

Zibby: Totally, oh, my gosh. I miss seeing my friends. I feel like I have no time to see my friends. Do you see your friends often? I feel like I never do anymore.

Nikki: Also because I live in the middle of nowhere, so with COVID, it’s been a nightmare seeing friends. Hopefully, soon things will change.

Zibby: Sometimes I Zoom with them. I’m just like, hi. I have to say, I really related to a lot of Boo’s issues here with her husband and her kids, her daughter I should say, and how she had to navigate, even though he was this charming Frenchman, how he would just try to make up for everything with a very charming kiss and then run off and do his things, and even the simple things like, why can he not look at the calendar? It’s on the calendar. Why does his work calendar trump my calendar? What she ends up doing about that ultimately, you understood where she ended up, what the underpinning was for why she made some of her decisions. Tell me about Boo.

Nikki: I love Boo. Boo is one of my favorite characters. She gets bit of stick from readers, but I personally think that even the best, most wonderful, most loving mothers, there are times you feel resentful. There are times you feel frustrated. There are times you think, come on, I shouldn’t have to do all this, or I want more. Boo’s life is complicated. She never met her father because he abandoned her mother before she was born. It really didn’t help her. Her mother had to move back with her parents. She was brought up in a white Yorkshire village in a white family with a white mother, a white stepfather, white siblings. She never felt like she belonged. She felt disconnected from herself. This absent father informed all her opinions about Nigeria, about Nigerian men, about black men, and not in a positive way. Then she’s tried to adapt all her life to either blend in or fit in or to be accepted. That sense of not belonging is very common when you’re mixed race. You often feel that you’re not sure where you fit in. You go there, and you’re an outsider. You come here, and you’re an outsider. Sometimes if you adapt and adapt, you can actually get disconnected from who you really are. I think Boo feels that disconnect, which means when scheming, manipulative Isobel comes in, it’s so easy to pull and push buttons and to insinuate and to persuade Boo to do things that maybe Boo wouldn’t have done. Don’t get me wrong, Boo’s mistakes are her own. She’s got to own them. I think being a woman is quite complicated. Sometimes if you’re fragile and somebody knows just what strings to pull, you can be set off the track.

Zibby: It’s so true, especially with encouragement from your peers and all of that. There were a couple lines from Boo I wanted to read just because they’re so funny. This is from one of her first chapters. Can I just read the beginning of the chapter, the first two paragraphs or something?

Nikki: Yeah, please.

Zibby: “Boo was pissed off. She slammed a mug into the dishwasher and kicked it shut. An occasional Saturday lunch with the girls wasn’t too much to ask. Not even the whole of Saturday. God no. She wasn’t a monster, for fuck’s sake.” Sorry for cursing if any kids are listening. “Just a few hours. Enough to get to Buca , catch up with her best friends whose lives revolved around more than cooking, cleaning, and ferrying, eat food she hadn’t made herself, and enjoy a glass of wine, a little time out from being mom, wife, and fucking doormat. But no, how could Didier be expected to remember he’d been booked to look after his daughter for a few hours? How stupid of Boo to assume he might take a cursory glance at the calendar, the one she kept up to date. She’d been ridiculous to expect that much of him. Not when every morning he stood in the exact spot and asked, have you seen my keys? In front of you, moron, she didn’t say.”

Nikki: It sounds so good when you read it. I want to read that book.

Zibby: Thanks. Then there’s so much of this. “Boo was having a shitty day. Another shitty day.” It’s so funny.

Nikki: I think some of these problems are universal. I think all women have these issues or come across these problems.

Zibby: They don’t always say them, right?

Nikki: No. Flawed characters are so much more interesting than wonderful, perfect people. Even with my friends, I like a bit of spice, a bit of flaw. I definitely had to have that in my characters.

Zibby: Totally. You write, “Wednesdays to Fridays, Boo was a stay-at-home mom flattened by resentment and bitterness, unappreciated and bored. What do you want, she asked herself, a fucking medal for doing the school run, a round of applause for sorting out a wash? Getting Sophia and Didier fed and out of the house this morning had been like herding cars.” Then you went on with all the stuff. Oh, my goodness, I just love her. Isobel too, let’s talk about Isobel’s backstory as what happened with Chase and how you talked about this controlling, abusive relationship. Are we supposed to feel more sympathetic towards her? How did this come about? Tell me about developing her character.

Nikki: Isobel is rich and glamorous. There are a bunch of people who have ridiculous amounts of wealth, obnoxious amounts of wealth, and it comes with a lot of entitlement. Certainly in Nigeria, you have these people. Sometimes I think the gains are ill-gotten. I started to realize we have people like that everywhere. She comes in with all these privileges. She’s got a chauffeur. She can pay for anything. She can get anything sorted. She also has to have this vulnerable side so that she can inveigle herself with these characters. She’s got this ex-husband, Chase, who she says treated her terribly, making her a battered wife and a victim. Therefore, we should feel sorry for her, or so the characters feel. Isobel was a really fun character to write. I’d been watching Killing Eve with Villanelle while I was writing. It was such good fun to have unlimited wardrobe budget, to be able to go onto , pick ridiculous clothes, and to have this super confident person who would wear and get away with anything and had access to any restaurants I wanted to go. She was a really fun character to write. Obviously, her reasons for causing all this trouble are what propel the narrative. It’s finding out, why is she doing this? What is her game? is what keeps you turning the pages, hopefully.

Zibby: And her blue fingernails. Didn’t you say she had blue nail polish?

Nikki: Yes, sparkly.

Zibby: I was just imagining, I’m like, was Nikki in the manicure place looking at nail polishes or something? How did this one come about?

Nikki: I’m quite low maintenance, so I very rarely have a manicure. In fact, I’ve only got pink nails today because I’ve been doing book signings, and I want the color to match the book. It was quite fun inventing this high-maintenance life that I really don’t have.

Zibby: I do not have my nails done. I did interview somebody named Ingrid Fetell Lee who wrote a whole book about joy. That was in the beginning of my podcast maybe two or three years ago. She said if you look down at pops of color and have rainbow nail polish, you will automatically feel joyous and happier and have a better day. I experimented with having every nail a different color for a while. I guess it kind of worked. Then I was like, this is too much work.

Nikki: laziness. Nail varnish chips. You have to really be on it.

Zibby: I was surprised here, the way that you, in the book, talk about race. There were some inside things where they say to each other, oh, you can’t say that, you sound racist yourself, and all of that. In Boo’s section, we’re now in chapter eleven, when her daughter says, “Mama, you look like a black woman!” with an exclamation mark, and then, “‘ Belle.’ Didier stopped to kiss her. ‘But who are you and what have you done with my Belle? It’s like cheating on my wife,'” in other words, they’re trying to say she looked so pretty that she looked like a black woman. Tell me about this.

Nikki: I think it was more about the hair. Boo has wavy hair that’s not remotely afro. It could be white hair, if you like. When she puts on this blacksploitation Pam Grier afro, she looks like a transformed character. She looks completely different. What I wanted to do was play with — being mixed race is a complicated thing. I think sometimes it should be almost defined as a race on its own rather than being black or white. Also, I was interested in how three people with exactly the same racial makeup could feel so differently about their race. You can’t have mixed-race characters and not touch on colorism, class, race. I wanted to explore them, but in quite a real way. Black people, brown people, we can have isms too. We can have prejudices just the same way anyone else does. I didn’t set out to solve these problems because if I could, I wouldn’t be writing books. I’d be running the UN. I wanted to actually say it as it is. The truth is, colorism is a real thing. Arguably, I’ve benefited from being light-skinned. I certainly have a totally different experience to a black man or even a black woman. It’s not always a positive thing. There are downsides that come with it too. I do find that, certainly in my experience, mixed-race people often clock each other and form a bond because we’re the only people who have experienced what we’ve experienced. It doesn’t mean we don’t have white friends or black friends. I have both. Often, if I meet someone who’s Anglo-Nigerian, there’s a shared history, a shared connection that only we can understand. I wanted to explore that without making my characters perfect or without solving the problems. Some of the things Boo says are atrocious, but the truth is, we sometimes say atrocious things.

Zibby: I like her lack of filter. It endears her to me in some way.

Nikki: She’s real.

Zibby: Yes. There was this one — actually, I feel like I shouldn’t give it away, but the scene with the — you know what? I’m going to just skip it. Sometimes with fiction, I want to go places that I feel like maybe I shouldn’t bring up. I think I’ll skip it. Let’s go back to character development as a thing. Even with a background of loving to write and all of that, you still made these four women and the other characters — the husbands and the spouses and the bosses and everybody has their own very clear personality on the page. Do you just naturally know how to do that? Did you have to take any classes? I find that very challenging to do. How did you do it?

Nikki: I’ve worked in advertising all my life. I’ve worked in planning and in copy. With advertising, there’s no detail that is too small. When you’ve a thirty-second commercial, everything has to be perfect. There’s so much work that goes into the background. We could do a year’s work to shoot thirty seconds. I’m really about the planning stage. I had this spreadsheet. It was ridiculous. When I printed it out, it was taller than me. It went through, for each character, there were about a hundred questions I had to answer. I had to know everything, their inside-leg measurement, how old they were when they walked, their favorite color of lipstick, the first boy they kissed, their favorite record, things that would never ever make it into the book, how they’d react if X happened or Y happened. I kept building this spreadsheet and also making sure that my girls were different, even little things like, do you drink tea? Do you drink coffee? Are you more of a chai latte type of person? Which meant I got to know these people so well. I probably know them better than I know myself. They became real, living, walking women. It really helped me write the book because I actually knew how they’d all react to any situation. When I threw all this wahala at them, I knew what they’d do.

Zibby: When you were doing your spreadsheet and you were answering those questions, did you think, okay, maybe I’ll have her like tea, or did they come to your head fully formed, like, oh, yeah, obviously, they like tea?

Nikki: Oh, no, it grew and grew. Originally, the spreadsheet was only six questions. Then as I wrote the first draft, I started filling in for them. It almost felt like the girls were telling me what they were like. I was dreaming of them. If I went shopping and I saw a girl with a ponytail, I’d try and walk around to see what she looked like because it could be my Boo. I think one of the things a lot of writers do is we’re exceptionally nosey. We eavesdrop. I was on a train to London yesterday. I was supposed to be working. Instead of working, I was earwigging on these conversations behind me because that’s how you learn how real people talk. You get that real conversation so that your dialogue actually feels real rather than forced.

Zibby: I think that might be the biggest difference between novelists and any other kind of writer.

Nikki: We’re nosey.

Zibby: Just the eavesdropping and what you do with the eavesdropping. I could eavesdrop, but that would be the end of it, versus eavesdropping and then turning it into an entire narrative in your head and then coming home and writing about it and turning somebody into a character. I think it’s awesome. I’m more of, like, I wonder what that person’s doing with that person? Is that a first date? What are they doing together? Maybe they were friends from high school.

Nikki: Oh, I do that as well. The other thing is, you never know when ideas are going to strike. I walk my dogs about ninety minutes every morning. They’re now used to me stopping stock-still and suddenly sending myself a voice message because some thought has popped into my head. They look. Oh, it’s just her doing her thing.

Zibby: Ninety-minute walks?

Nikki: Every morning. It’s a routine. Not very fast. This isn’t a power walk. This is just an amble round.

Zibby: That’s so great. Wow. Poor my dog. I do not walk her far enough for long enough. I’m like, go to the bathroom. Got to get home. I read on your Instagram that it’s going to be a BBC show. Is that right? Oh, my gosh.

Nikki: This is right. I still pinch myself. When anybody says that, I feel a sort of glow. Did I make this up? Yes, before the publishing deal was announced, I’d already signed with a lady called Liz Kilgarriff from Firebird who’s going to produce it. The BBC have commissioned it, so it’s not just an option. It’s going to happen. Six parts, one hour, on telly. It’ll be streamed worldwide, so you’ll get to watch it, Zibby. It’s going to be phenomenal. When I was writing it, I had pictures of actresses for each of my women. They were on a board behind where I write. I’d look up to see. I can’t tell you who they are now, obviously, because they’re not going to be the real people. I can’t wait to see who they cast and see if they match my inner imaginings of what they look like.

Zibby: That’s so cool, by the way. So exciting. Are you involved in the adaptation at all?

Nikki: No. They did ask. Writing a book is really hard. Writing a script play, definitely above my paygrade. I’ve got this amazing script writer. She’s called Theresa Ikoko. She’s an Anglo-Nigerian, so she gets it. She gets all the food references. She was nominated for Rocks. I know she’ll do ten times a better job than I ever could. I think it’s quite nice that it’s not my baby. They’re being very collaborative. They’re telling me what’s going on, but I can sit at a distance. If it’s awful, I can say, nothing to do with me. If it’s wonderful, I’ll say, .

Zibby: It’s perfect. That’s great. That is so exciting. I can’t wait to watch it. Do they even know when it’s going to come out? Probably not yet.

Nikki: They’re going to shoot this year, so hopefully, it’ll be on air early next year. Fingers crossed.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so exciting.

Nikki: I know.

Zibby: You have another book, right? You sold this in a two-book deal?

Nikki: I did.

Zibby: What’s up with the next book?

Nikki: Book two is so hard, Zibby. If they told me what I knew now, it’d have been a one-book deal. When you’re writing your first book, you’re just you and your book and your words. No expectation. You don’t even know that much about writing. I didn’t think about genre or point of view. You’re just writing from the heart. Then suddenly, you’ve got a deadline, a clock going ticktock, ticktock, which obviously makes you freeze and do nothing. You’ve got expectation. You’ve got people saying things about your book, which are mostly lovely, but you haven’t really imbued your book with all of this. Suddenly, there’s the, oh, my god, will I be good enough? I am writing book two. I’ve got ninety thousand not-very-great words which I’m pulling into shape. I do love my story. It’s loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. It’s got a mixed-race girl in it. I think all my books will have some — I want to reflect myself in literature. I want to read about people like me. She’s growing up in Nigeria. A tragedy strikes. When she’s ten, she’s moved to an English family at a house called The Ring, so Brown Girl in the Ring. It’s going to touch on thorny areas of race and prejudice and class. At its heart, it’s a love story and a coming-of-age story. Because I quite like an epic twist, I think there might be one of those in there.

Zibby: Excellent. Wow. If it makes you feel any better, basically everybody I interview says at the start of any book they feel the same way. I don’t know how I do it. It’s not going to work. A lot of people feel the same way even twenty books in.

Nikki: I think self-doubt is one of the character traits that you need to be a writer.

Zibby: I guess so, yes. If you are too secure a person, run the other way. I don’t know what you should be, but not this. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Nikki: Read. Read widely. Read in your genre. Read out of your genre. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read really good books so that you’re inspired and so that you have this something to aim for. Read really rubbish books so that when you read your work back you feel good about yourself.

Zibby: Are there any books you read recently — if you don’t have any on top of mind, no worries — that you have just loved or books that you’ve always loved or anything like that?

Nikki: Oh, yes. My favorite, ever, book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It is just book perfection. The woman is a superstar, a legend. I’ve already preordered Sea of Tranquility. I would read her shopping lists. I would read anything that woman writes. The last book I read is called The Maid by Nita Prose, which only came out two weeks ago and is shooting up The New York Times best-seller list. That is a really good book. It’s really sweet. The protagonist, Molly Maid, is just such a lovely character.

Zibby: I haven’t read it yet. It’s the Good Morning America pick this month.

Nikki: Ah, yes, it is.

Zibby: I’ve been meaning to read it and everything. The stacks just tower.

Nikki: So many books, so little time.

Zibby: Amazing. What’s your life like now? What are you going to go off and do?

Nikki: My life is really simple. I have my two dogs and my husband. I live in Dorset, which is in the middle of nowhere. I look at my window, and it’s rolling hills. Because this is England, it’s usually raining and muddy, so I live in wellies. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of going to London, having manicures. I’m actually quite looking forward to getting back to my normal, nothing-happening life apart from the occasional Nigerian lunch with my girls, which might just spark another idea. This is dream-come-true stuff. It really is. Being a published author is the dream. The fact that soon, hopefully in less than a year, I’ll be watching a series on telly that will say “Based on a novel by Nikki May,” it’s pinch-me stuff.

Zibby: I feel like you should write a mass email to every client you had in advertising, ever, and just be like, remember me? You probably didn’t even know me. I worked on this campaign, and look what I’m doing now.

Nikki: Remember those changes you made to my copy? Well, you shouldn’t have.

Zibby: Exactly. That’s awesome. I love it. Nikki, thank you so much. This has been really fun. I can’t wait to watch your movie and read your next book.

Nikki: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’m now going to go to my bookshelves. I’m inspired. I’m going to rip every book out and rearrange them by color.

Zibby: Really?

Nikki: It’s so beautiful.

Zibby: It took me a while, I have to say. I did this whole room at once. It took me like two days. Oh, my gosh, send me a picture when you’re done. I want to see.

Nikki: I don’t have kids to help. I don’t think the dogs will be much use. I’m going to have to do it.

Zibby: Yeah, do it. Oh, my gosh, send me a picture.

Nikki: Thank you for having me. Bye.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Buh-bye.

Nikki May, WAHALA

WAHALA by Nikki May

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