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Ask an Author: Tololwa M. Mollel

Tololwa Mollel is a children’s author, dramatist and storyteller, who has written seventeen internationally published books, and several plays as well as stories that he created or adapted for performance. Mollel's books, which include award winning titles such as Rhinos for Lunch and Elephants for Supper, Big Boy, and My Rows and Piles of Coins have been published in Canada, the U.S., Australia, England and Tanzania, where he was born. His work has been translated into various South African languages, into Korean, Spanish, Serbian, Norwegian, and Finnish, and of course his native Kiswahili, Tanzania’s national language.

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1. What is your process for finding and choosing a good story to tell?

I choose stories that stir up my imagination and stick in my mind long after I've encountered them. I then mull over them at the back of my mind forever, letting them grow in their own unexpected free ways, to become my stories as well, through my artistic vision and images I develop out of my thinking about them consciously or subconsciously.

2. Do you use any outside help to find good ideas?

Walks. Walks help me a lot to come up with ideas. And sleeplessness. When I lose sleep, my mind goes into overdrive discovering ideas, new angles for stories, solutions to problems I've come up against working on stories. I do also get inspired by books, how writers put together ideas. Once in a while, I get inspired by a good movie, but it has to be really good.

Churchgoing, too, helps to provide me with an environment where inspired thoughts on a story come to me in a flood, and I furiously (and rather guiltily) make notes in a notebook I carry to service. It must be the meditative silence of the church. Someone who notices me writing like that may think I’m taking notes about the sermon, but nope; it’s a flood of story ideas burning a hole through my skull onto paper.

3. How do you determine the age of your audience?

I trust that as I work on a story, the process of writing it will determine the audience for it. If it's a story that I perform, the reaction of the various audiences I share it with will let me know over time the appropriate audience age level for the story. I may of course, in performance more than in writing, adapt the same story for different age groups by toning down complexity for younger audiences or adding context to it for older audiences.

4. How do you know when a story is “done”?

The story is never really done, but a time comes when I have to let it go, for practical reasons. When it's time to publish, for instance, or when it is time to move to another writing project (although I may come back to the first story after taking a vacation from it). With a performed story, I have a chance to change it endlessly as I perform it again and again. So that way, also, it is never done, and that's the beauty of a performed story.

6. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself as a brand new writer?

Have patience. Get a regular job that pays the bills and to buy the ease of mind for creative work. Make the writing and artistic work more of a labor of love. Don't try and do everything. Find the kind of writing you can do best that you can sustain, and which can sustain you, and stick with it.

7. What resources would you recommend to a new writer?

8. You’re a shapeshifter now! If you could turn into any animal, what would it be and why?

Perhaps a bird, to fly to all sorts of places.

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