Ore Agbaje-Williams, THE THREE OF US

Ore Agbaje-Williams, THE THREE OF US

Zibby interviews British-Nigerian debut author and book editor Ore Agbaje-Williams about The Three of Us, a mesmerizing, sharp, unputdownable domestic comedy told brilliantly over the course of one day about the long-standing tensions between a husband, his wife, and her best friend that finally come to a breaking point. Ore describes her book-filled childhood, her career in publishing, and her genius agent who guided her through many, many book ideas before The Three of Us came to be. She also reveals how writing a book has changed her as an editor (and vice versa), her next project, and her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ore. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Three of Us. I feel like we should get a third person in on this podcast so we can actually have it be the three of us, but it’s okay. I could loop my daughter in if you want.

Ore Agbaje-Williams: that annoying person who — earlier, I was on the phone to two of my friends. There were three of us. I was like, the three of us…

Zibby: So funny. Let’s start by, tell listeners what your book is about, please.

Ore: The book asks the question, what would you do if your best friend and your partner hated each other? It’s set over the course of one day and one afternoon. It’s told from the perspective of the wife, the husband, and the best friend. They are drinking a lot of wine. Therefore, they are saying a lot of things that they mean. Essentially, chaos ensues. The husband sees the wife one way. The best friend sees the wife another way. These clashing opinions and then a very unclear opinion that the wife has of herself all come to a head under the influence of alcohol.

Zibby: Lovely. Where did this come from? Did you have an afternoon like this? Is this based on people you know?

Ore: I think I would spontaneously combust if that happened to me.

Zibby: Not the whole thing, but just an afternoon with a couple. I don’t know.

Ore: No. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to me. Although, when I was handing out some books to booksellers, I told one of them the premise. She was like, “I don’t get along with my partner’s best friend.” I was like, “Oh, dear. I’m sorry to have triggered you.” I had started seeing somebody, who I’m no longer seeing — I’d started seeing someone. I was telling my best friend Grace, who the book is dedicated to, actually, about him. I was like, “I really like him.” She was like, “Ugh. Now you’re going to get a boyfriend. I’m never going to see you.” I was like, “No, no, no. He has to understand that you come first.” She was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s true.” It just got me thinking. Huh, I wonder what would happen, though, if a woman’s or somebody’s partner and best friend really do not get along. Temi was the first person that I thought of and the first character that came into my head. Then it all just flew from there. I thought of her from the wife’s perspective. Then by the time I got to the end of the wife or the middle of the wife, I was like, I don’t want to be in her head for too long. I want to know what everybody else has to say. It all came from there.

Zibby: Wow. It’s really unique to have such a condensed timeline for a book. How did you think of doing that? That’s such a fun experiment and all that.

Ore: I just thought to myself, like with the wife, I was like, I don’t want to be in anybody’s head for too long. Also, because there are flashbacks and things like that, I thought you get some different elements of time in there as well. I love the idea of time being a pressure cooker. You’ve got the fact that the wife and the best friend were supposed to be on holiday and the fact that the husband and the wife want to have a baby. Temi’s been thinking for a long time that things are off between her and the friend. The husband doesn’t like that Temi is around so much. All these things come to a head on this one day. It’s one of the questions, actually, that Sally, my US editor, asked. She was like, “Why this day?” I was like, “I don’t know.” She’s like, “There has to be something that for everything so it comes to a head on this day.” I was like, “Okay, you’re right. Let me think about it a bit more.” I did. Then that’s how we got to where we are now.

Zibby: I have to say — Temi has a best friend who is always late. Did I get that right? Temi’s best friend is late, or is Temi always late?

Ore: Temi’s always late.

Zibby: Temi’s always late. Her friend is sympathetic towards that and is just like, oh, she’s always forty-five minutes late. This is just how she is. No big deal. I am not tolerant of that at all. I immediately started feeling like, I am clearly not as nice as this character.

Ore: Me and you are exactly the same, honestly. I hate it so much. I particularly hate it when other people make me late. I’m running on time, and then I’m waiting for somebody else.

Zibby: Yes, that too.

Ore: I’m with you.

Zibby: I’ve had such long conversations with people about this. To me, it’s a sign of disrespect. It’s like saying, my time is worth more than your time. I understand that maybe everybody doesn’t have the most amazing executive functioning skills. Perhaps it’s a disorganized thing in their own brains. I think it’s intentional because if it’s really important, they’ll get there.

Ore: Exactly. Honestly, you are speaking to my soul right now. That’s exactly how I feel. I actually once had a really big argument with said ex-boyfriend about the fact that he was a lot late. He was well over an hour late to a date that we had. I was furious. I said to him, not in a loud way, but kind of publicly because we were in publicly, telling him off. I was just like, “You’re telling me that your time is more important than my time. That is not fair. That shows you don’t respect me.” He was like, “I do.” I was like, “No. If you did, you’d be more conscious of my time.” He’s like, “It’s not a big deal.” I was like, “It is a big deal.”

Zibby: Oh, my god, I literally have had that conversation with multiple ex-people. We could’ve pressed play on a scene in my life saying the exact words with the same intonations and all of that.

Ore: Maybe we just need to find our Facebook group. It’s people who color-coordinate their bookshelves and hate it when people are late.

Zibby: Yes. We probably have other things in common. Those two things are pretty revealing, I would say. Oh, my gosh, so funny. Wait, take me back through your life. How did we get here? Go back and get me to here. Where’d you grow up? How’d you become a writer?

Ore: We need the whistle stop. Otherwise, we’ll be here until seven PM.

Zibby: Whistle stop, yes. We only have half an hour. Whistle stop.

Ore: I think, actually, the genesis of why I’m a storyteller is because Nigerians love to gossip. I’m Nigerian. We just love to tell stories about other people. We don’t know how to mind our own business. I think that’s just always been a thing. Plus, my parents were really vigilant about making us go to the library, my sister and I, and get a new book and then take it home, read it that week, tell them what it was about. We had to actually read it. The blurb was not good enough. They were really good at that. Then English was just my subject. I loved English. Then when I got to secondary school, I kind of fell out of love with reading because we were reading Shakespeare and Of Mice and Men. That period of time could be interesting to some people. When you’re reading it for school, those things just become very boring to you. Then when I was going and looking around universities to go to, I heard that there was publishing. You could work in publishing and be an editor. I was like, that’s cool. I could do that. I had written some short stories and really terrible stuff years before, but I hadn’t written anything, really, since I’d been in school. Then when I was at uni, I think I wrote a little bit then.

Then I got a job in publishing. I met a friend of mine who — she was, at the time, an editor as well. She’s now an agent. I’d written something. I was like, “I’m just going to send it to you. You have good taste.” She read it. She was like, “I think you should send it out to literary agents.” I was like, “I don’t think so. First of all, it’s seven thousand words. Second of all, no.” She was like, “No, I think you should. I think you should send it out to this person specifically as well. Send it out to multiple people, but make sure you send it out to this one person.” That one person ended up being my agent. Hilariously, she signed me to the agency with a completely different book. This book is many, many ideas down the line. Bless her. She has been so patient with me. I sent her some real bombs. This one, thankfully, was the one that worked. She was really good at doing edits with me before we sent it out and submitted it to publishers and everything. Obviously, I’ve just had two of the best publishers ever, Sally Kim in the US and Željka Marošević in the UK, who were really good at sharpening and honing the book and making it what it is now. That is the whistle stop . Otherwise, we’ll be here forever.

Zibby: I love Sally Kim. She’s great.

Ore: She’s so good.

Zibby: I got to know her originally through John Kenney. Do you know who he is? He’s a Putnam author. He’s so funny. He wrote all these poems, Love Poems for Married People, Love Poems for People with Kids. They’re hilarious. He won the Humor Prize and all that. Check it out. You should check him out. Anyway, I went to an event at Books Are Magic for him, and she was there. I met her. Now I’ve probably run into her eight thousand times in New York. She’s great. She is really wonderful. The books that didn’t end up coming out and that you sent your agent, was she just like, no, and then that was it? Did you work on them? Did you try to send them out and they didn’t sell? Why did you keep going?

Ore: That’s a great question.

Zibby: Not in a mean way. You know what I mean.

Ore: The first one, I did actually end up finishing writing that book. Then she sent me editorial notes. I read her editorial notes and read through the book. I was like, “I don’t like this anymore.” She was like, “Huh?” I was like, “I’m not really into this idea anymore.” She was like, “Maybe you’ll come back to it.” She says that every now and again. I’m like, “I’m not coming back to it, so you need to let that dream go.” She was just patient with me. I came up with multiple other ideas. The problem with those ideas that I never finished, one of which I might finish at some point, but the main problem with those is that I was working as an editor at the time. I still was when I wrote this book. During that time, I had my editorial hat on. I said, these are books that sell. These are the kinds of books that sell, so I should try and write this kind of book. Because of that, I wasn’t writing books that I enjoyed writing. I wasn’t writing books that I was emotionally invested in or remotely really that interested in. That reflected in the writing.

The last thing I sent her before I sent her The Three of Us, I think I wrote twenty thousand words. It was a bit One Day-ish, One Day by David Nicholls. It was a bit like that. She read it. She was just like, “I don’t get it.” I was like, “It’s twenty thousand words. Do you want to give it another go?” She was just like, “No, I don’t get it.” I was like, “Okay, fine. Back to the drawing board.” She was like, “I just need a first draft.” I was like, “Me too.” When this idea came — first of all, I had the pressure from her anyway to be like, “Get it done. Get something done.” Then also, when this idea came, I was like, this works. This could be something. Also, I was then doing NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I was like, this is a very specific way for me to get something done. At least, I’ll have something resembling a novel at the end to send to her. It just so happened that it ended up being good enough to send to her, so that was good.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. In your editing work, what types of things are you most proud of that you’ve edited? How did you use all that to help with the writing piece of your brain? I know it’s all related. How did you marry those two things?

Ore: How did I marry those two things? That’s a good question. It was kind of, actually, a rude awakening. There was one thing that I did do that kind of married the two things together. I don’t like to over-describe. I like to leave room for the readers to fill in the gaps and fill in the details that they want to fill in themselves. I don’t like telling them every single detail. In books that I publish and also books I like to read, that was really important, books I like to read and write. I said, this is important to me, that I’m not doing too much over-describing. Sometimes I’d write a sentence, and I’d be like, oh, my god, that’s disgusting. I actually had to delete it because I’m like, I’m saying too much. It doesn’t sound right. The thing that was a real rude awakening for me was actually doing the editing itself. When you’re an editor — I’m sure this is with any job. When you’re on one side of it, that seems like the hardest side to be on. You think to yourself, I’m doing all the work here. I’m doing all the legwork. Not to say that the person who writes the book isn’t doing a lot of the work. You think, I now have to take this book, and I have to be this person that they trust and that they respect and they are entrusting their book baby to. I have to come up with some notes that are constructive but also really make the book a lot better than it currently is. I also have to do it in a nice way. I have to balance my negative comments with my positive comments. I thought I was doing brain science. I thought I was doing brain surgery when I was being an editor.

As it turns out, being an author is harder, at least when it comes to the editorial process. I know that editors don’t just edit. They do so many other things as well. I realized that not only do you get these notes — sometimes they are pages and pages and pages long. You get the notes. Then you have to read them. You have to absorb them and accept them. Sometimes if you don’t like some of them, you’ve got to take the time to get over yourself as well. Then you have to open the book, figure out where to put these notes, add the things that you need to add in, delete the lines that you really love that they’re like, “This line isn’t funny. This line doesn’t work,” and then close it back up, read it, and make sure it makes sense. You have to do that three or four times. That was a lot harder than I realized. I gained a newfound respect for my authors during that process. I was like, this is actually way harder than I realized. I’m so sorry that in my heart, even though not with my mouth, in my heart, I thought that my job was way harder than yours. You do a lot. I respect you guys.

Zibby: I actually wrote a novel myself, which is coming out in March of next year.

Ore: That’s so great. What’s it called?

Zibby: Thank you. My editor came back with pages of notes. For so long, I just would not open them. I was like, I can’t. I just can’t face it. It’s like I was squinting to read them. I’m like, can I read anymore? Is this going to be a big deal? One of the things, I was just like, no, I totally disagree.

Ore: All the time.

Zibby: I’m going to fight for that one.

Ore: The thing about having to just wait a bit — see how many pages there are, and then step back and be like, I’m going to wait a minute to read these. You need to be in the right frame of mind. If you’re having a bad day and then you open the editorial notes, you’re going to be like, I hate you, and I wish I’d never signed that contract. You need to wait to be in the right frame of mind before you open something up like that and then find all the red and all the things that they’ve deleted or things where they’d be like, can you make this funnier? You’re like, no, I’m going to delete it. They’re like, can you bring out some more of this? Can you add some tension? You’re like, how? Tell me how. I completely get you. What’s the name of your novel that’s coming out?

Zibby: It’s called Blank.

Ore: Nice. It’s immediately intriguing because you’re like, what is blank? Who is blank? Why is blank? I love that.

Zibby: There you go. You’ll have to find out. A ways away. I’m soaking up knowledge from every novelist I’m interviewing. It’s all so helpful to me personally. This is very self-serving, this whole podcast. One thing about your book, too, is it’s not too long. There are books that I have here that are eight hundred pages. This is like, oh, thank god. Do you know how many words your book ended up being?

Ore: 47,000-something. When I sent it first to my agent, it was 37,000. Then when we did some edits and then we sent it out, it was forty-two, maybe. Sally and Željka were like, “You need to bulk it up. You need to add some words.” Cool. I got to fifty. Then the next round of edits, they deleted three thousand words. I was like, what’d you do that for? I just wrote these words for you, and now you’ve deleted them. It was for the better. I love a short novel. I love, love, love short novels. I just think in the age that we’re living in — it’s two things. It’s, one, my laziness. Two, in the age we’re living in, our attention spans are so short. I don’t think I could’ve stretched a whole day on for five hundred or three hundred pages. I think everybody, including myself, would’ve gotten very bored. I was like, this needs to be short and sharp and sweet. That’s what I like to read. I want something that I would like to read for other people to read.

Zibby: I did the same thing, by the way. I handed it in at 45,000. I was like, “It’s done. Here you go. I finished it. I finished it early.” They were like, “No, add some words.” I’m adding words. At one point, I was talking to my kids about it. Finally, one of them — gosh, I wish I remembered which one. I’ll ask them. They were like, “Wait, the acknowledgments. Write the acknowledgments early. Then you can count the words.” I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do that.”

Ore: Did that work?

Zibby: It worked, yeah.

Ore: Nice.

Zibby: Accepted. Then like you said, deleted a bunch. Whatever. I don’t even know how many words. It is funny. I just interviewed Abraham Verghese, whose book is this big. Then I have your book. Thank you very much. I’m holding it up. When I talked to him, I was like, “Hey, long book,” kind of question. He was like, “I love long novels. I don’t like getting into characters’ lives and then having it end. I feel cheated. I want more.” That was an interesting frame of mind, whereas getting in and out…

Ore: It’s funny because I do love some really long books. What’s one that I read? This is ages ago now. Have you read a book or heard of a book called The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle?

Zibby: Mm-mm.

Ore: Do you know what? Now that I’m looking at it, it actually looks quite small. I feel a bit ridiculous.

Zibby: That does not look small.

Ore: When I saw that book, I was like, this is huge. I’m never going to be able to finish this. I read it in one day. When books are really page-turning, it’s so easy. When they’re long ones and you’ve really got to immerse yourself in the world, like a Game of Thrones or something like that — I did not read Game of Thrones in one sitting. I read it in many, many, many sittings, and I’ve only read the first one.

Zibby: I didn’t even read it, so there you go. Are you working on a new book now?

Ore: Yes, I am. I was saying to someone the other day, second-book syndrome is real, particularly second-novel syndrome.

Zibby: That is literally what my book’s about, by the way, about an author trying to write. Anyway, keep going.

Ore: PTSD from reading your book. That explains the blank. Okay, I get it. I like it. It’s been a journey, to say the least, with two book, but you know what? We are over the hump. The hump was about four or five months long, but we’re over the hump now. We just need to really commit to it and get back into the rhythm of writing it. That’s good. I am working on something new, which is exciting. I just need to make it work. I’m playing a bit with form throughout this book as well. I just need to make sure that it makes sense and it flows and it remains interesting. It’s probably going to be another short one, A, because laziness, and B, because attention spans, mostly my own. Yeah, working on something new, which hopefully will be good. My friend, yesterday, was saying, “Second books are always better than first books.” I was like, “I hope that’s true for me. I really do.”

Zibby: Last night, I went to — I don’t know when this comes out — the Aspen Words Literary Prize ceremony. Angie Cruz was answering about following up a book with another. She said that she feels a lot of freedom. Once she has a book that does well or that she feels really proud of, she’s sort of checked it off the list, so she’s free to experiment with something that maybe won’t work.

Ore: That’s true. That’s a good point, actually.

Zibby: I hadn’t thought about things like that.

Ore: No. We always think of it as, you’ve achieved this much, now you have to surpass it. I saw something earlier on — I was scrolling through Instagram. I was like, why is everybody trying to overachieve? What’s wrong with being average? I was like, you know what? That’s true. Sometimes it’s nice to . The effort of being an overachiever or a high achiever is too much to be consistent about. Sometimes we just need to take a breather. With everything going on in the world, sometimes it’s just nice to be average and be normal and just achieve regular things.

Zibby: But I know that’s not how you actually feel.

Ore: No, it’s not. I wish I did. I really wish I did. It would make life so much easier. Unfortunately, I don’t.

Zibby: Where else do you apply perfectionism? Are you really neat? Is it your calendar? Where does perfectionism — aside from the shelves.

Ore: Aside from the shelves.

Zibby: Yes, obviously, the bookshelves. Love our color-coordinated bookshelves.

Ore: Communal spaces. Thankfully, my flatmate I live with, who’s also my friend, she’s very clean and tidy, so that’s fine. Communal spaces are always kept very tidy. I really appreciate that. I hope no one I went to university who knows I’m talking about them listens to this. Some people I went to university with who weren’t female, they were not super clean. Living with people like that, it becomes like, I can’t believe I have to live like this. Then you have people over, and you’re like, oh, my gosh, my house looks so gross, but it’s not my fault. Communal areas in the home. Bookshelves, yes. My room, because it’s not a communal area, I like to keep it clean, but it’s not always tidy. Sometimes you’re in a rush. You’re doing something. I don’t know if you have this chair in your room, if you have one of these chairs in your bedroom that is supposed to be for you to sit and read in or for you to relax in, but what it becomes is a clothes chair. When you’re done with a certain number of clothes — you’re like, I’ve worn it for two hours. I could wear it again. You just chuck it on the chair. You don’t put it away. I had a chair in my room that I hadn’t seen for maybe seven months. Recently, I’ve been on a mission for the last — actually, since the beginning of this year, to keep that chair clean and free of things. I have so far. I’m very proud of that. I’m unsure about how long it will last. For now, it’s going well.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, amazing. You live in London now? Is that right? You’re still in London? What’s your life like when you’re not at your desk or near these beautiful shelves?

Ore: I call myself a professional luncher. I like to go to lunch. I like or going out to lunch. In addition to doing some freelance editing as well, I’m trying to be — my friend recently was saying to me, “What’s a hobby that you do?” I was like, “Writing.” She was like, “Not a hobby that you get paid for.” I was like, “Interesting. I don’t have one of those.” I’m trying to get more into roller skating, which I really enjoy, but it’s very easy to embarrass yourself doing. I’m trying to let go of the embarrassing yourself thing. Again, the perfectionist in me is like, no, we can’t do that. I’m trying to do that and see some more films. I really love watching films. A few friends and I, we do an Oscars ballot every year. We watch the Academy Awards. Then we tick off who’s won. I’ve only won once. It was a very triumphant year for me. The was the year that Parasite won best picture. I felt .

Zibby: Wow. I did not see that one coming.

Ore: I was like, I think I’m the smartest person who ever existed. They were like, no, you just guessed. Trying to do things like that and traveling. I love traveling as well. Last year, I traveled a lot. Actually, a friend and I just booked flights to go to Japan and South Korea towards the end of this year.

Zibby: I’m going to Japan.

Ore: Oh, my gosh. When are you going?

Zibby: We’re going in June. When are you going?

Ore: I’m going in November. When you come back, you have to give me all the recommendations that you’ve got, please.

Zibby: My itinerary is led by my eight-year-old, so we’re going to all the Nintendo places and Pokémon cafés. You might want a slightly different itinerary. I’m letting him run the show, which is probably a huge mistake.

Ore: That’s so sweet, though.

Zibby: He’s very excited. He has us doing so many things. I was like, “We should go to Kyoto. We should explore the country.” Then he gave me all the things. I went on all the websites. I was like, oh, my gosh, I don’t know how we’re going to fit this all in, just in Tokyo.

Ore: How long are you going for?

Zibby: We can go for about five days. We’ll be running around like crazy. It will probably be a total nightmare. You’re going to South Korea after?

Ore: Yes.

Zibby: That’s next on his list.

Ore: I’ll come back with recommendations for you. There we go.

Zibby: His latest pastime is — the State Department of the United States has a thing where you put in the country name and it tells you, one through four, how safe it is. Four is, do not go there no matter what. Three is, rethink your decision. Two, proceed with caution. One is, all clear. I was like, let’s just go to “all clear” for a while. If we have all these countries…

Ore: Exactly, especially with young children. Agreed.

Zibby: He’s like, “How about Azerbaijan? Look that up.” I’m like, okay. Travel is so fun. Yes, I will let you know if we go anywhere that is remotely something I would recommend to another grown-up. I will let you know. Any advice for aspiring authors?

Ore: This is the one thing I parrot to anybody who asks. Don’t write to make money. Don’t write because you want to be rich, A, because you cannot predict that, and B, because you’ll be miserable. Write because you love it. Write something that you love because the passion for that and how interested you are in that will be reflected in the book and the quality of the book. Also, you’ll just have a lot more fun. Plus, you’re going to have to talk about that book for at least two years. You should really make sure you write something that you like, you really, really like. Not every single part of writing is enjoyable. Definitely not. To write something that you enjoy and to enjoy part of the process, at least, I think is important, and to make sure that you still have that love for storytelling as well. Also, just be patient with yourself, and gracious. People say this all the time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nothing amazing happens just like that suddenly. There’s loads of work that goes into behind the scenes. Be kind to yourself. Don’t think that you have to write a million-copy best-seller in two months because it’s not possible. Actually, that’s not true. Some people do do that, but they’re very seasoned writers. That’s their whole vibe. Be kind to yourself, and patient. Write because you love it, not because you think you’re going to achieve a certain thing. Just write because you love it, and that will be reflected in the work as well.

Zibby: I love that. So great. I need to just take everyone’s advice and put it in one podcast. Here’s everybody’s advice. If I had the time, I would do that. That is great advice. Ore, thank you so much. I had so much fun chatting with you. I hope I get to meet you in real life at some point. That would be really fun.

Ore: Also, I just wanted to say everything you’re doing is incredible. The bookstore, the publishing house, the podcast, everything is just fantastic. It’s such a rich resource for not only readers and writers, but just for anyone. It’s amazing that you’ve built this whole thing. I really appreciate it. I know that I’m not the only one who does. Thank you so much. I know that it’s not an easy thing to do that many things at once, but you do it really well. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. I appreciate that. That will fuel me through the next time when I’m like, I can’t deal with all this anymore. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Hopefully, to be continued at some point.

Ore: Yes, definitely. Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Ore: Bye.

Ore Agbaje-Williams, THE THREE OF US

THE THREE OF US by Ore Agbaje-Williams

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