An Interview with Tesfahiwet Mekonnen, author of Happyland
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to read and review Happyland: A Modern Fairytale. In doing so, I not only discovered a new favourite read but also got to know the human responsible for it…Tes is here again today to answer some of my questions, and to mark the beginning of a mini blog takeover: this is post one of three coming your way, and you can scroll to the bottom of this post for a rather fabulous giveaway: your chance to win a signed copy of the book, and an original illustration by Anthony Resto.
Hey Tes! Thanks for chatting with me today. I recently read Happyland for myself and found it to be brilliantly eccentric. What was it that initially drove you to write the book?
Thank you again for the review. It really means everything. The bizarre birth of this story was a sentimental conversation with a girl on the phone. I improvised this simple idea of a boy meeting a sad girl and taking her to Happyland. The girl didn’t last, but the story did. I brushed it aside, but it kept reoccurring—fermenting in my head. I jotted notes here and there. I still did not write the story. It was just an unrelenting idea. Mind you, I was such a pretentious tool and thought a little fairy tale was beneath me. Later on…I found Hans Christian Anderson. Sadness and profundity all bundled up in one. I learned you could always raise work to literary fiction. The genre doesn’t matter. Lewis Carroll did it with his masterpiece. I was so corny then. Write anything, but just make it good.
In 2010, I took a creative writing class. The final assignment was a short story. I procrastinated and thoughtlessly wrote the story the night before. Happyland was born via a lazy midwife. I allowed my creativity to reign freely without a care. I was from the Bob Dylan school of thought, but I quickly realized what you could get away with in song—you cannot get away in storytelling. Bob Dylan is a bona fide leg jerker, but he is still my biggest influence. Happyland was terribly rough, but I had a decent framework for what Happyland would eventually become
The story follows the journey of Lily Marshmallow as she encounters some rather…unusual companions. Do you have a process for coming up with such quirky characters?
No. Happyland, I think, is the journey of Prince Gobbledygook. Lily Marshmallow is more of a silent witness. She is Life. Life goes on, right? Initially the book was meant for children and children’s literature is a breeding ground for quirkiness. I just tried to be loose and screwball.
Some of these characters were manifestations of me. Brutus Beaujolais was the pretentious me—ashamed of who I was and trying to overcome myself. Cornelius Wordbook represents me at the height of my bibliophilia. My head was turning into a book. Adolfo Dumfries represented a cautionary tale. I was becoming that type of writer—livin’ in the ivory tower and not participating in life. Some things sprout at random. Let’s take the protagonist. I was, painstakingly, reading Ulysses and had to look up the word gobbledygook. Thus Prince Gobbledygook was born. I don’t really have a process and if I did have a process it would be deemed: all-over-the-fucking-place. Bob Dylan is my favourite artist, so that is kind of the influence of Prince Gobbledygook illustrations.
No process, but I trust the process.
The thing I loved the most about Happyland was the creative use of language, with the repetitive application of linguistic devices making the book, to me, completely stand out as a unique read. Was your use of language in this way a conscious decision on your part, or something that happened naturally over the course of writing?
Thank you so much!!! This is the highest praise that I could receive. Yes, it was conscious decision and a natural occurrence. It is just how I write. I am not a poet. I write prose that tries to mimic poetry. You read with your ears is something I applied. Joycean thought. With age, came coherency and cohesiveness—realizing the story must make sense. I had to scale back and not overwhelm the reader with unnecessary wordplay. I think writers would appreciate Happyland. Some folks my think all of this wordplay is tedious. That is why I decided to make another edition [Happyland: A Fairy Tale in Two Parts – Children’s Edition]. I tried to be as straightforward as possible. Sometimes you need to tell things straight up.
Deciding to include an illustrator posed an insecurity problem. I had to compete with these beautiful illustrations. The removal of the illustrations would not chop off the legs of Happyland. I created this competition for myself. I’ve always envied the ability of artists to draw these beautiful creations. I write because I cannot draw. It was a nice exercise. The goal is for the illustrations and the story to be inseparable. I couldn’t imagine the story without the illustrations and vice versa.
Something we’ve discussed before is how writing Happyland was your way of exploring complex aspects of the world. How has your own background and experience of the world influenced the themes you chose to feature in the story?
I've written something that is relevant to all, happiness, and how one tries to get to that feeling or place. My background and experience shaped crucial parts of the story. Adolfo Dumfries is I at the height of my Adderall addiction. I took a little story that was initially 3,000 words and blew it up to 55-60,000 words of chaotic madness. It was a man writing—scribbling and scribbling fanatically with no end in sight. I was becoming Joe Gould without the recognition. I took Happyland and absolutely morally bankrupted it. I didn’t sleep. I popped pills. I read and tried to write. I was living on the margins and holding this ideal that didn’t exist.
My relationship with my father is explained in that book. Every character in that book has a connection to me or represents some part of me. I talk about big themes. It began as a humdrum, almost clichéd love story. On the surface it is a happy ending. Happiness is the one you’re with. But if you remove Happyland and replace it with Heaven, it turns to a dark story. Perhaps, I was overthinking it.
Another personal experience you’ve mentioned in the past is discovering ‘magic pills’ and your subsequent battle with drug addiction. How did this play into the writing process? Do you feel that your writing helped or hindered your recovery?
Adderall. I come from a family wherein everything is not talked about till it explodes in your face. When it explodes, you can only hope the explosion isn’t that bad. Imagine tying up a drug to the thing you loved. Adderall just made me a speed-reader. I felt too behind and I had a lot of ground to make up in books. What killed me was my unquenchable craving for book-knowledge. I always had this fear of dying young.
I found these magic pills, Adderall, and it allowed me to just read and read and read. I got silly and became addicted to these pills and it rattled my mind. The logic is batshit: a man gets addicted to a drug because he was addicted to acquiring knowledge to become a literary giant—or a literary tall person. I thought I would die young and I need to expedite everything. Then it turns it into a run of the mill drug story. The drug riddles you useless and destroys you. Writing in circles and not sleeping, I lost my mind. I was lucky to find it. After leaving the hospital or whilst in the hospital I went back to writing. It gave me a purpose. Man needs a purpose. I was empty and needed to justify my life.
Producing a book is no easy feat, and the writing process can often lead to people feeling insecure about their own abilities, particularly those from minority groups. If you could give one piece of advice to emerging writers feeling this way, what would it be?
This is a great question and I’ve been deliberating on this for a long time. I don’t think I can give any advice. My vantage is a disadvantage point. I did everything incorrectly. You must be conscientious of every decision you make. When you’re a minority everything is within the context of you being a minority. I wish somebody told me that before. You have to make concessions and compromises. When I began writing, I was particularly naïve. I didn’t think of race/color when I created Happyland. I wanted to be critiqued on my writing. I wholeheartedly believe you must separate the artist from the work. I outright decided not to color my characters because I wanted to give it universal appeal. An artist should just create and hope that should suffice. I don’t want to come of as a cranky person. I wrote a story and I just want people to like it or not like it.
One question that I always like to ask is how people deal with criticism. I know you’ve faced a fair amount of rejections during your writing process: how did you learn not to take these to heart, and did they have an impact on your sense of validation as a writer?
The rejections initially hurt because I took it as an attack on me, but that isn’t the case—you will turn into a basket case if that were true. My first reactions were outright nutty. My translation of the initial rejections: they don’t like my work, so they don’t like me. It was highly unprofessional. Frustration started to mount because of the rejections. I was vulnerable, so any rejection was that much upsetting. I found validation through my editor and the passing of time.
You have to take that Winston Churchill quote and replace failure with rejection. You must jump from rejection to rejection without a drop-off in enthusiasm. The rejections helped bring Happyland to this stage. My whole writing career has been a rejection. Who am I kidding? Rejection will only stop hurting when you succeed and since I’m unsuccessful—the rejections continue to irk me. You can only look back at your losses, without grief, if you win. If you keep losing…another loss is just another hurtful loss. Loss, loss, loss, loss, and win. You can accept those losses because you eventually won.
And finally, you’ve successfully published Happyland independently. How have you found the experience of self-publishing, and do you have any tips for those thinking about or going through this process?
Self-publishing has been a regrettable and a rewarding experience. I can physically pick up my book and say I did it by myself. There is a sense of accomplishment. I don’t come from a literary background. I come from a long line of non-readers and I’m self-taught. It took me almost dying for this book to get here.
It is weird, the cards we deal ourselves. I did everything the wrong way. I’m like that family member that says, “Just don’t do what I did and you’ll be successful.” I thought writing would fit my disposition, but self-publishing put a wrench in that. You have to be your own PR person. There is a very fine line between being confident about your work and being annoyingly arrogant. Take it serious! Self-publishing gets a bad rap and that is why it is not taken so seriously. In this age, saying you’re self-published means nothing because the bar is set low. Investing in your book is investing in yourself. How much are you willing to invest in yourself? I invested too much because I felt like writing is all I had. At some point the dream must die and I am hoping to god this dream was not all for naught. If I had it to do over, I would’ve not dropped out the 1st time and stuck with accounting. My life would’ve been better. Don’t bankrupt your life for a dream.
And there we have it! Thanks again for chatting with me, Tes.
Thank you for everything. You have been a godsend.