British Nigerian author Nikki May admits she dreams big.
But not even she could have imagined that the novel that sprang out of a girls’ lunch and sketched out on the train journey home would become a rave debut snapped up for TV by the woman behind hit shows such as Bodyguard, Luther and The Cry.
Wahala – the delicious Nigerian word for “trouble’” – hit bookshops this month and is to become a serial with Firebird Pictures, the BBC Studios-backed drama production company co-founded by Elizabeth Kilgarriff.
With the TV adaptation in the hands of Bafta-nominated screenwriter Theresa Ikoko, May tells P.S: “I dream big and I have a very vivid imagination, but even in my wildest dreams I did not imagine I would be talking to the producer of Bodyguard and Luther and the Cry and that she would love my book and get it as much as me. It’s dream-come-true stuff.
“Wahala is about friendship and is underpinned by an epic revenge plot. But although it has this texture of being mixed race, of two cultures and of Nigeria, it is very relatable. It shows the issues facing women are universal.”
May, who lives in Dorset with her husband Peter – who she says is “head of plot” – confesses her heart also lies in Morayshire where her mum Alison Haggas, 82, lived for 25 years after separating from May’s father, 87-year-old Professor Ayo Oyegunle who lives in Nigeria, where May grew up. Her parents met as students at Bristol University, which also makes its way into the novel.
Cue friends Ronke, Simi, and Boo who met there as students. The women, all of mixed Nigerian and English heritage, are in their mid-30s and living in London. Ronke wants to settle down; Boo has a French husband and a small daughter but is tempted to have a fling; while Simi, who works in fashion, is reluctant to try for the baby her husband craves.
Through it all, they have each other, until Isobel, a lethally glamorous friend from the past comes sashaying into their lives.
May says of the shared lunches at a Nigerian restaurant in London with dear friends: “It’s dusty, the music is too loud and the service is appalling, and we immediately feel at home. We talk about everything from the price of parts for the broken generator at my dad’s home in Nigeria, and hair – because we’re obsessed with it – to focaccia recipes and ski holidays.”
It was after one such lunch, on the train home, that she came up with book. “As my ticket was being taken, I started thinking how wonderful it was to have two cultures; the Three Eagles and the Three Lions, Joloff rice and roast dinner. I sketched out three characters and having lunch in the restaurant,” she recalls.
A six-week creative writing course delivered the first three chapters followed by a finished first draft six months later. The magic ingredient? “It needed a bit of wahala,” she smiles. “It was about finding the right wahala for each character.”
The spice of this sumptuous and darkly comic novel brought six swift publishing offers to the table.
May – who was determined her characters would be flawed but fun – says: “Often other people decide what you are. You’re either too white or too black, or not white or black enough. I thought it would be fun to have a book where mixed race people are front and centre.”
Nikki May – Wahala, Doubleday, £14.99
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