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Dorothy Koomson: Making black women visible

THE WRITE STUFF: British author Dorothy Koomson

“AS LONG as you’re not going to kill me, or kidnap me, then it’s fine.”

No – that’s not a snippet from best-selling author Dorothy Koomson’s latest offering, it was actually her response after I felt compelled to disclose the fact that I’m a complete an utter “loopy fan” of hers.

Luckily for me – and any other members of the Dorothy Koomson fan club – the Brighton-based novelist loves that she has a loyal fan base. But she does admit that even with 11 novels under her belt, she still gets nervous when she publishes a new book, as she worries her readers won’t take to it.

“It’s quite exciting but I get quite nervous too because you don’t know how people are going to receive it,” Koomson says. “It is nerve-racking because you hope people like your work. And then you think, if they liked your last book, they might not like your next book, because they’re enamored by the one they read previously.”

It’s difficult not to become enamored by Koomson’s writing. Her novels are loved for their complex themes, from grief and surrogacy to sexual abuse and eating disorders, and their tender and honest portrayal of modern black British life.
Writing such harrowing stories, must take its toll on her though?

“Sometimes it is hard to remove yourself from the hard subjects,” she says.

“All my books, lately, have had hard subjects to think about and write about and research.

“It’s more the research – when you talk to people and hear their stories and hear how difficult their lives have been and they survived and still carried on, you’re humbled by their experiences. It’s very easy to get caught up in stereotypes about certain situations – you have an idea of what something is going to be like because you see it in films, watch it on TV, read about it in the paper and you think that’s how it is.

“Then you speak to people and find out their experiences are very different and they’re very subtle and a lot deeper than what you’re shown a lot of the time,” the writer continues.

“I always feel very responsible in being accurate with people’s stories and telling them truthfully. When they’re taken out of context, I get very upset and feel bad for the people I’ve spoken to.

“It does stay with you, it does affect you,” she adds.

Koomson wrote her first (unpublished) novel when she was 13 – and has been making up stories ever since.
“I’m an unlimited vial of stories,” she jokes.

After finishing her masters degree, Koomson had several tempting jobs before getting her big break in journalism working on small newspaper. In the evenings she continued to write fiction and in 2001 she had the idea for The Cupid Effect. Two years later, it hit the shelves and her exciting career as a published novelist began.

In 2006, the writer’s third novel, My Best Friend’s Girl, was published and was selected for the Richard & Judy Summer Reads Book Club – going on to sell over 500,000 copies.

“I remember talking to my husband a little while ago about how many people I’ve created and how they all have their mini worlds. It’s amazing that I’ve managed to do that over the past 13 years or so.”

Often melding crime and relationship drama to create ‘emotional thrillers,’ Koomson has become one of the best contemporary British writers in the business, achieving sales of more than 1.5 million copies in the UK alone.

But she didn’t start off writing such intense books – some of her earliest work is more light hearted.

“I think my style kind of naturally changed with getting older. And I noticed there were other authors who were taking a chance and writing stories that were difficult but not in a very literary fashion.

“They were accessible stories that I could read and relate to. I thought ‘maybe I should try this,’ and I did. And I’ve developed from there. Dealing with difficult subjects, dealing with characters who aren’t necessarily the normal heroine, and also not necessarily all sweetness and light. All my characters are flawed and can do things that are shocking.”

Koomson, who lives with her husband in Brighton, recently published her 11th novel, When I Was Invisible – a powerful story about friendship and forgiveness with clever twists and unexpected turns that keep the reader eager and enthralled to discover just what happened to two little girls who share more than just the same name.

While the themes in her stories vary hugely, there’s one thing that always remains the same – all her books have leading black female characters.

“All my main characters are black women, and they always will be,” Koomson says frankly. “There’s always a main black character, simply because I am a black woman and I think black women deserve to have their stories told just as much as anybody else. It’s nice to read stories about all types of different people.”

She continues: “There are lots of stereotypes of black women and their lives and I don’t see them in my life or friends’ lives. We deserve to be heroes just as much as anybody else. It’s not just black women, Indian women, Chinese women, Japanese women – everyone deserves to be a hero in their stories.”

N.B – Dorothy Koomson was not harmed in the conducting of this interview.

When I was Invisible by Dorothy Koomson is out now

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