Ng’ang’a Mbugua may have crossed the ocean on a thin, feeble line, but he surely made it to the other side and occupied the throne
By Caroline Mwendwa
Spending childhood with grandparents would turn Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s interest to a career. The well told folklores and tales never left his mind even when his wit grew into adulthood. He would later become an award winning author of fiction and a harbinger in children literature.
His love for stories made his parents buy him storybook after storybook and when for the first time he heard of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a renowned Kenyan writer he wanted to follow his steps. “I kept this dream alive all through the years, and would script stories that would never see the light of day but still remain clear in my mind.”
When in form two, Mbugua won a poetry competition with Maisha Bora and took home a note of Kshs. 50. This fueled him to showcase his written pieces and in 1991, he wrote the first letter to the editor of ‘Now’ magazine, a publication of The Standard at the time. In 1994, he wrote his first article that was published and from it, he earned kshs. 4, 000.
With the realization that he needed to type his work, Mbugua trained in typewriting, a course that was rarely done by students then. “Thanks to that decision, today I can type as fast as I can think.”
It was not until his third year in high school that he completed his first novel and after form four, he started writing a series of readers. “Back in high school I was a scout and that helped a great deal in instilling in me discipline and focus,” adds Mbugua.
For the undergraduate studies, Mbugua was admitted at Egerton University to pursue English, Literature and Philosophy. Down the road, he dropped English to major in Literature and Philosophy. “My studies in Philosophy have come in handy in helping me develop plots for my stories,” he quips.
Mbugua has held the dream to become a renowned writer all through. Indeed, the many fiction works he has worked on can attest to his passion for writing. He however says that despite his talent and passion in writing, he realized that he could not make a decent living purely from writing books. He had to have a backup plan, and that is how his degree landed him a job as an editor at the Nation Media Group while still being a writer on the side of journalism. “I write my books during my free time, especially at night.
Journalist cum writer
“While being a journalist is not tantamount to being a literary writer, the two roles are complementary,” explains Mbugua. For example, my Wahome Mutahi’s literary prize winner, ‘Terrorists of Aberdare, is a product of a story I was editing about a young man who was attacked and killed by bandits. The news created many other texts within it and that is how I developed the story.”
Mbugua explains how a brief narration of real events at his editorial desk, can spur an entire storyline that would constitute a novel. “In a nutshell, journalism exposes me to so many issues and that way, I can write stories that people can relate to and even while reflecting the society, show possible solutions.”
Mbugua points out that the nerve of a story is how well it is written and its ability to anchor the reader through in a make believe power that makes them wait with bated breath for the next occurrence.
“Journalism is literature in a hurry. You create so many stories from happenings and while at it, perfect the skill of writing.” According to Malcom Gladwell, the author of ‘Outliers’, for one to become a world class writer, he or she has to do ten thousand hours of practice. Mbugua uses his profession as a journalist to achieve that.
It takes a positive mind to see opportunities in challenges. It is common knowledge that publishing a book especially as a beginner can be an uphill task of back and forth with publishers before a manuscript is accepted and actually edited for publication. Mbugua is no greenhorn to these difficulties. In fact, his journey would have been quite different were it not for rejection by publishers.
“I took these hurdles in stride and did not allow them to put off my flame,” he says. When ‘The Terrorrists of Aberdare’ could not be published, he did not just ditch it and change his dream, he had it published. Being an editor, he had done the best to cross the t‘s and dot the i’s , but he still hired a third eye to clean any shade, and later printed the book. “Marketing may have been a tall order, but it’s a tall order for everyone, even the traditional publishers.” The book could well be an icon of the biblical rejected stone that later became the corner stone when it scooped the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize. Since then, Ng’ang’a Mbugua became a hallmark in self –publishing. His idea would later grow into a publishing firm that is still in the offing; Big Books Limited.
One of the major lessons Mbugua learned from lacking capital is that even if he had to seek financing from a bank for the first publication, this need not be the routine every time he is publishing. He has learned that from the sales of the first book, he should be able to cover the costs of the next one and says this is worth noting if someone aspires to be a successful writer especially in self-publishing.
He has published fourteen other books, two of which have been nominated for literary prizes before. He has more in the pipeline and hopes to have them published by end of the year. His book, ‘Different Colours’, is being used by Daystar University and the University of Nairobi to teach literature.
“I say challenges are opportunities in disguise because were it not for the rejection I faced while starting up, I would not be recognized as a writer. It was only after I went out to self-publish and submit my book for competitions that I gained recognition as a writer and even got invitations to speak to university students. And since then, publishers have been requesting me to give them my work.”
Today, through the Big Books company, Mbugua also writes biographies and provides editorial services for writers. He however admits that running a publishing firm requires structures that can outgrow the owner. Putting them in place requires capital and other resources that he has not yet acquired.
His advice to young entrepreneurs is that wealth is what you make when you add value in other people’s lives. To budding writers, Mbugua insists that writing is re-writing. To become a good writer, one has to have persistence, and ensure that the writing is of good quality. In order to achieve that, one needs to read works from the best writers.